Welcome To The Jungle: Teaching Kids the Value of Environmental Conservation in Costa Rica

By Bret Love for GreenGlobalTravel.com

We’re speeding down a river in Tortuguero National Park, a pristine 77,000-acre protected area at the heart of efforts to conserve the remarkable biodiversity in Costa Rica’s northeastern Limón Province. We’re far from anything you’d call “civilization,” over 2 hours by boat from the nearest road, in remote rainforests that receive up to 250 inches of rain a year. My eyes scan the dense thicket of trees that line the river, scoping for signs of movement amidst the verdant green, and I crane my ears to listen for the unmistakable call of howler monkeys. I see nothing. I hear nothing.

Suddenly the boat stops, reverses and heads straight for the forest to our left. As we get closer I spot a brown lump camouflaged by the brush right at eye level, but only when we’re within 20 yards do I realize it’s a three-toed sloth. We’re within 10 yards before we notice the furry lump on top of the sloth, and everyone lets out a collective gasp as we realize it’s a mother and baby. The boat inches closer and closer until my daughter could reach out and touch the sloth– she doesn’t– but the mother seems unconcerned by our presence. She checks us out briefly, then goes back to munching her leaves. Five minutes later, we’re close enough to an 8-foot crocodile that my daughter could jump off the boat and onto its back. She doesn’t.

To an 8-year-old, phrases such as “deforestation” and “endangered species” seem like abstract concepts. Our educational system ensures that third graders know the terms well enough to define them on a multiple-choice test. But when even grown-ups can’t agree on simple scientific principles such as evolution and global warming, how can we expect our children to fully understand the role their generation will play as stewards responsible for the Earth’s ecological and environmental future?

That’s why I’ve brought my family to Mwamba Lodge (www.grupomawamba.com), an ecotourism haven situated on a sand bar dividing the canals of Tortuguero from the Caribbean Sea. The remote lodge is rustic and luxurious, offering spacious rooms surrounded by a rainforest teeming with birds, butterflies, lizards and frogs. A swim in their freshwater pool provides plenty of wildlife-watching opportunities, as colorful kiskadees and hummingbirds flit about in search of an evening meal, and gaudy leaf frogs sing songs at sunset, their big red eyes and bulging throats making them a comical presence on the pool’s “Frog Island.”

This is a nature lover’s paradise, with nighttime tours in search of turtles coming on the beach to nest producing spectacular views of star-lit skies. In the mornings we explore the canals, getting up close and personal with baby caimans, camera-shy river otters, toucans, tiger herons and roseate spoonbills. Afternoon walks in the dense Tortuguero woods feel like stepping into scenes from Jurassic Park, with howler monkeys feeding in the treetops and sending out haunting calls. It’s a taste of nature as primitive and unspoiled by human intervention as anything I’ve even experienced, and the sight of wonder in my child’s eyes tells me she gets it, even if only on a subconscious level: THIS is what we must fight to preserve.

Departing Mwamba, we make the 6-hour journey to Hotel La Quinta de Sarapiqui (www.hotellaquintasarapiqui.com), a nationally certified eco-lodge and our base of operations for the second leg of our trek. Their 10-acre property isn’t quite as rustic or remote as Mwamba, but is equally full of wildlife and offers the welcome blast of A/C after days of high heat and humidity.

From there we explore nearby Tirimbina Biological Reserve (www.tirimbina.org), which offers educational and research opportunities for scientists and tourists alike. Their guided walks through 9km of hiking trails offer a wealth of information about the remarkably diverse flora and fauna, subtly emphasizing conservation and sustainability. Their massive suspension bridge, which takes you over raging rapids and through the forest canopy, reinforces the message beautifully, offering exceptional views of howlers moving through the treetops, sloths taking afternoon naps, and myriad birds and insects.

After a week in Costa Rica, it seemed almost impossible for any of us to sum up our wild, wonderful experiences there. How do you describe the feeling of petting an alcoholic boar on Tortuga Island, riding in an aerial tram 200 feet above the rainforest floor during a torrential downpour, or breathlessly watching spider monkeys leap from tree to tree?

I’m not sure how much of an impact the trip will have on my daughter in the long run. But I do know that only through encouraging kids to protect our planet’s precious natural resources, and by giving them hands-on exposure to what they’re protecting, do we have a chance of planting the seeds of environmental conservation that will hopefully continue to blossom for generations to come.

By Alexandra Love

Tortuguero was very hard to get to: You have to go two hours by highway, two hours by gravel road and two hours by boat. You’re not allowed in the river or ocean because the river has crocodiles and the ocean has sharks and barracudas. Mwamba Lodge has a butterfly farm and a frog farm: A red-eyed tree frog jumped on my leg once and at first I was so surprised I screamed. But I didn’t want to scare him off, so I stayed quiet and he got so comfortable he curled up and went to sleep. My favorite part about Costa Rica was when we got to the see howler monkeys, coatimundi (which looks like a raccoon) and a mama and baby sloth. We got so close I could touch it, but I didn’t because I didn’t want to scare them. I also loved going on the big boat to Tortuga Island (www.bayislandcruises.com), where we got to snorkel, ride on a Banana Boat and pet a wild boar. Costa Rica was an awesome trip: It was so cool to experience nature and learn about wildlife. I’ll never forget it!

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Comment by Eileen Ludwig on September 7, 2010 at 1:57pm
questions on formatting
how are you getting space around the pictures
Are you able to bring in this post from elsewhere as a feed?
Or do you have to post the html?
What formatting tools do you use here on this site?
Comment by GreenGlobalTravel.com on September 1, 2010 at 12:27am
Thanks, this was actually her third published story in a major magazine!
Comment by What Boundaries? Live Your Dream on August 29, 2010 at 10:40am
Great article! Now I'm inspired to put Costa Rica on my bucket list. Love that your daughter is such an awesome traveler! Kudos to her writing as well ;-)
Comment by GreenGlobalTravel.com on August 13, 2010 at 1:33am
Thanks for the compliments, Bryan. I find that, in the act of trying to expose her to the world outside our family's bubble, I'm learning to see it with new eyes myself.
Comment by Bryan Whitney Akers on August 12, 2010 at 8:10pm
It's wonderful reading your post. Having spent a fair amount of time on the West and South coasts of Costa Rica you guided my reliving of all those fantastic moments. One in particular was the days spent in the Manuel Antonio National Park where we snorkled, hiked, heard howler monkeys, and got to see a family of sloths. Your section of the Tirimbina Biological Reserve jarred that memory. Thank you for that!
Also, reading your daughter's experience was for lack of a better term - palate cleansing. She made me feel rejuvenated and eager to return to Costa Rica at the first available opportunity.
I can't wait to see more.
Comment by GreenGlobalTravel.com on August 11, 2010 at 9:19pm
Thanks, DeMarco! This was my daughter's third time getting to help me write a travel feature, and it means the world to me to see her falling in love with nature and wildlife in the same way I have. I'm trying to teach her to practice what we preach, too: Today when we visited the lake we picked up a whole bag's worth of garbage people had strewn on the shore...
Comment by DeMarco Williams on August 11, 2010 at 2:13pm
This is a great story, Bret. Your storytelling is top-notch and it's simply awesome how Alexandra was able to add in some of her perspective. So often adults only think about the beach or the pool as fun options for their kids. Little do they realize that the little ones get a kick out of sloth watching and boar petting just as much. All the best to you and Green Global's future efforts to help the next generation become environmentally-conscious grown folks.
Comment by GreenGlobalTravel.com on August 10, 2010 at 8:10pm
Thank you, Amanda. We feel a responsibility as travel writers and photographers to help foster a greater appreciation for the people, places and cultures we are honored to visit. Our goal is to have some sort of positive impact on every place we travel and every person we come in contact with. We don't always achieve that goal, but we always try.
Comment by Amanda Terlesky on August 10, 2010 at 7:19pm
Very insightful piece of writing. I especially admire the emphasis on exposing children to nature early to foster a lifelong respect and affinity for natural resources. The article excels at highlighting the importance of linking a message of conservation with positive, hands-on experience to ensure a sense of responsibility and care for the environment in years to come. Fantastic!
Comment by GreenGlobalTravel.com on August 10, 2010 at 12:47pm
Thanks, Denny! You can also see some pictures from our trip in our photo gallery on Tripatini and on our Facebook page, www.Facebook.com/GreenGlobalTravel.

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