Ecotourism Destinations: Central and South America (Part 1)

Outdoors & Animals

Coral Garden with Starfish and Colourful Tropical Fish, Caribbean Sea, Costa Rica

It would probably take volumes to write about all the ecotourism destinations in Central and South America, so let’s just look at a selection of countries where ecotourism is deemed important. Also let’s consider a few interesting facts about this part of the world to try to put it into perspective in relation to ecotourism.

  • There are 12 countries in South America and 7 in Central America
  • South America has around 25% of the world’s renewable sources of fresh water
  • More than 20% of the earth’s oxygen is produced in South America
  • South America contains more than 40% of the world’s plants and animal species
  • The driest place on Earth is the Atacama Desert in Chile
  • The highest waterfall in the world is Angel Falls in Venezuela
  • There are over 70 active volcanoes in Central America (Guatemala 22, Costa Rica 11, Nicaragua 19, and El Salvador 22)

The Amazing Amazon Region
When speaking of South America, you just can’t ignore the Amazon. The Amazon rainforest, the largest rainforest on earth, is one of the wonders of the world due to its size, extremely rich natural life, and biodiversity. The rainforest, located in the Amazon basin, is home to over 2 million different species of insects, more than 40,000 varieties of plants, and 1500 species of birds. It spans 9 countries: Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana. Did you know that much of our food comes from the rainforests of the Amazon, such as bananas, black pepper, chocolate, coffee, corn, pineapple, rice, and tomatoes? One last but fascinating fact – an estimated fifty tribes native to the Amazon rainforest have never had any contact with the rest of the world.

Rainforest Trees of the Amazon, South America
Rainforest trees of the Amazon

COSTA RICA
“21st century tourism must be sustainable or it will no longer survive.”(Courtesy of the Costa Rica Tourism Board)

Costa Rica was a pioneer in ecotourism, and the country is recognized as one of the few with true ecotourism qualities. In the early 1990s, it was one of the first countries in Central America to start the development of tourism and encouraged the use of ecotourism goods produced in the community. Costa Rica’s progressive policies on environmental protection and sustainable ecotourism in its national parks system have been lauded as a model for other countries. Its rainforests, tropical forests, marine areas, and wetlands have been the subject of many university and scientific organizational studies.

There are currently 26 national parks in Costa Rica which are managed by a department of Costa Rica’s Ministry of Environment and Energy. The country’s protected areas encompass more than 25% of the country’s total landmass.

Considered one of the most bio-diverse regions in the world, Costa Rica is divided in 20 natural parks, 8 biological reserves and a series of protected areas that are all enjoyed by ecotourism lovers. Let’s look at 4 of the major national parks in Costa Rica.

Costa Rica Forest
Costa Rica forest

Arenal Volcano National Park
The Arenal Volcano National Park was the most active in the country. It had previously been believed to be dormant until a major eruption in 1968. The park contains a volcano, Chato, whose crater contains a lagoon and has been inactive for around 3500 years. In and around the park are various lodges and hotels, some with their own hot springs and others focused on the wildlife of the area. The park is popular with birders as most of the 850 species identified in Costa Rica can be found within its borders. Animal species living within the park include white-faced capuchin monkeys, jaguar, deer, coati, and snakes.

Activities to consider undertaking include visiting hot springs, hiking, river rafting, kayaking, taking a Sky Tram ride, and horseback riding. You can even attend a chocolate cooking class!

Arenal Volcano, Costa Rica
Arenal Volcano

Tortuguero National Park
Despite its remote location, Tortuguero National Park is the third-most visited park in Costa Rica, reached only by airplane or boat. The park has a large variety of biological diversity including rainforests, mangrove forests, swamps, beaches, and lagoons. Set in a natural wetland on the Caribbean coast, the park contains both marine and land areas. It was created to protect the green turtle, since this nesting area is the most important in the Western Caribbean. One of the major attractions is the laying of sea turtle eggs, including those of the giant leatherback turtle, the green turtle, the loggerhead, and the hawksbill. All of these are endangered species. Activities here include turtle watching tours and visiting the Sea Turtle Conservancy Museum, bird watching, guided jungle walks, kayaking, fishing, and swimming in the Caribbean Sea.

Two Leatherback Turtles Sunbathing, Tortuguero National Park, Costa Rica
Two leatherback turtles sunbathing in Tortuguero National Park

Manuel Antonio National Park
Manuel Antonio National Park is listed as among the world’s 12 most beautiful national parks. Located on the Pacific Ocean, it is the smallest of all the Costa Rican national parks, but is well known for its beautiful beaches and hiking trails. This park has one of the most impressive landscapes in the world, including white sand beaches and lush foliage amid large mountains and forests that reach right down to the beaches. It has a large land and marine biodiversity with beautiful coral reefs, as well as 109 species of mammals and 184 species of birds. Dolphins can be seen here as well as the occasional migrating whale. Scuba diving, snorkeling, sea kayaking, mountain biking, and hiking all combine well to allow you to experience the tropical wildlife that enriches the Manuel Antonio National Park.

Beach in Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica
Beach in Manuel Antonio National Park

Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve
The cloud forests around Monteverde and nearby Santa Elena are among Costa Rica’s premier destinations for everyone – from budget backpackers to affluent retirees. It was recently voted one of the “7 Wonders of Costa Rica” by the Costa Rican newspaper, La Nacion. It is a private nature reserve and in its midst, you will find an orchid garden, a butterfly garden, a bat jungle, and a coffee farm and cheese factory – both of which you can visit. You might like to join a guided walk through this unique tropical ecosystem. A wide range of animals lives within the reserve including sloths, agouti, jaguars, and several types of monkeys. There are over 2500 plant species and tens of thousands of insect species which reside here. Other activities include bird watching, horseback riding, boat rides, zip-lining, and enjoying a Sky Tram ride.

Howler Monkey in tree, Costa Rica
Howler monkey

BELIZE
With its lush tropical sites, impressive mountains, caves, and intriguing ancient Mayan ruins, Belize is a haven for ecotourism and exploration. It is so well suited to ecotourism, that it has become the country’s largest industry. A big attraction which draws visitors to Belize is its coral reefs, and subsequently, scuba diving and snorkeling in the Western Hemisphere’s largest barrier reef, 300 kilometres/190 miles long. It is actually the second largest coral reef system in the World after the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. A large portion of the reef is protected by the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System which includes 7 marine reserves, 450 cays, and 3 atolls. The reef also includes the Great Blue Hole, the most famous dive destination in Belize.

Great Blue Hole Aerial View, Belize
Aerial view of the Great Blue Hole

Once you’ve spent some time underwater, why not head into the tropical rainforests Belize is famous for. Visitors come to Belize to experience the rainforests with their magnificent waterfalls, limestone caves, and collection of unique birds and wildlife. An example of this is the Mayflower Bocawina National Park, which offers jungle, mountains, waterfalls, walking trails, swimming holes, and even small Mayan sites.

Then there is the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, also known as the Jaguar Reserve – one of the largest protected destinations in Belize. Although roughly 60 of Belize’s 700 jaguars are believed to live in the sanctuary, the chances of seeing one could be slim. However, it is ideal for spotting exotic plants, bird viewing, or seeking out other wildlife. The trail system here is the best developed in any of Belize’s protected areas.

So, in Belize, nature, history, and active pursuits all come together perfectly in one destination.

Keel-Billed Toucan in the Rainforest of Belize
Keel-billed toucan in the Belize rainforest

Next:
Ecotourism Destinations: Central and South America (Part 2)
Ecotourism Destinations: Central and South America (Part 3)

Our Ecotourism Series:
Ecotourism – An Important Trend in Travel
Ecotourism Destinations: East Africa
Ecotourism Destinations: Southern Africa
Ecotourism Destinations: Central and South America (Part 1)
Ecotourism Destinations: Central and South America (Part 2)
Ecotourism Destinations: Central and South America (Part 3)
Ecotourism Destinations: Asia (Part 1)
Ecotourism Destinations: Asia (Part 2)
Ecotourism Destinations: Australia
Ecotourism Destinations: New Zealand
Ecotourism Destinations: Europe