Zip Lines in Costa Rica: A Sustainable Alternative to Deforestation

  • Ethan Gelber
  • 3 February 2014

This is the next in a series of portraits, long and short, of some of the people I met and places I visited during a recent trip to Costa Rica. The subjects were chosen as noteworthy examples of Costa Rica’s distinct pura vida. Return to the main page for more background information.

Rainforests deserve all the positive notice they can get, even including when seen from zip lines in Costa Rica suspended between towering first-growth trees.

A zip line in Costa Rica at the Rainforest Adventures Atlantic park spans the Corinto River

At the Rainforest Adventures Atlantic park, one zip line spans the Corinto River, Costa Rica. The nearer platform is anchored to a large campano tree (Ilex skutchii). Photo courtesy of Rainforest Adventures

That might seem like an odd logical leap, but at a time when global discussions about climate change are shifting (at last) away from whether we are speeding toward an imminent dangerous planetary tipping point to when we might no longer be able to undo the damage done, all efforts to conserve existing forests, regenerate degraded lands and develop sustainable agro-forestry systems merit a closer look.

This is especially true in places like Costa Rica, where a welcome combination of business innovation and prescient government policy has allowed eco-minded adventure enterprises to take root and flourish.

Searching for Alternatives

In Costa Rica’s protected forests, a trained eye can direct attention to the magic of the surrounding nature – camouflaged insects and reptiles, concealed birds, hidden primates and other mammals, and even the dazzling but overlooked display of flowers and plants right in front of one’s face. Mind-opening exposure to this complex and exquisite diversity is just one small part of the significance of a conserved environment.

Even in woodlands that are still under threat – from timber harvesting, land clearing for agriculture and urban development – the investigation of biological beauty is what can (and does!) sometimes inspire a desire to preserve it. That may help to explain why approximately 5% of protected land in Costa Rica is on privately owned preserves.

But in this age of economic frenzy, the decision not to exploit virgin jungle for its lumber can be a costly one in the short term, especially when measured in standard economic terms, like those that ignore long-term environmental impacts.

It takes creative and visionary entrepreneurs, plus conservation-minded government policy, to develop a business climate that allows for experimentation with alternative land-use practices – those that do not spoil the earth – and, ultimately, demonstrates their economic viability.

A tree platform between zip lines at Pozo Azul in Costa Rica

A tree platform at Pozo Azul in Costa Rica serves as a station between zip lines on a canopy tour. Photo courtesy of Ethan Gelber

A Zip Line Lifeline

One notable alternative land-use practice in Costa Rica is adventure parks. The best of them place a huge priority on a well-preserved environment so that visitors can experience and learn about tropical ecosystems in their full glory. Wrapped in nature’s rich embrace, a wide variety of activities go on in some parks, such as river rafting, horseback riding, hiking, mountain biking, rappelling/abseiling, birdwatching and even waterfall climbing. There may even be butterfly or snake exhibitions, and specialized gardens showcasing interesting endemic plant species, like heliconias and bromelias. But one of the most popular new diversions is zip lines, usually as part of a canopy tour.

A zip line is a suspended cable, set at an incline, along which harnessed people or supplies can slide using the force of gravity alone. While zip lines have been used for a long time as transport for to and from remote locations and over difficult terrain, they now also have found purpose in adventurous adrenaline activity.

A series of interconnected recreational zip lines running through a forest form what is now called a “canopy tour,” propelling people from one elevated position to another and allowing for thrilling close contact with treetop nature, where 70% of tropical forest life takes place, even when the whoops and hollers of thrilled participants frighten away most creatures.

Costa Rica is particularly well known for its canopy tours. There are dozens of operators, including one company that claims to have invented the sport, and courses that vault across beaches, rivers and canyons, and breeze through the heights of rain forests. The longest tours can take up to three hours to complete, allowing plenty of time for an introduction to some of Costa Rica’s most ubiquitous scream-resistant flora and fauna, like butterflies, giant iguanas, tree frogs and a wide selection of orchids.

Zip line at the Rainforest Adventures Atlantic Park in Costa Rica

The zip line at the Rainforest Adventures Atlantic Park in Costa Rica includes many safety features, including a double cable, chest harness and proprietary braking system that eliminates the need to moderate speed by holding on to the cable. Photo courtesy of Rainforest Adventures

A Powerful Government Crutch

The development of canopy tours and other outdoor activities in Costa Rica has been helped enormously by the country’s more than a decade-old program of Payments for Environmental Services (PES). Established in the 1990s, this carbon-offset credit program started supporting reforestation and other forms of forest and biodiversity protections with a view to safeguarding 18% of the country in national parks and another 13% in privately owned preserves. Government-managed funding incentives for private landholders were paid for in part by the sale of carbon certificates to industrialized countries looking to offset their carbon emissions. As a function of this priority placed on tree planting, forest cover in Costa Rica increased from a low of 21% in 1987 to 52% by 2005, according to the UN Environment Program.

Given the success of PES, the government of Costa Rica very recently (September 2013) committed itself to negotiating a new Emission Reductions Payment Agreement (ERPA) worth up to US$63 million that will make Costa Rica the first country in the world to pursue large-scale performance-based payments for conserving its forests, regenerating degraded lands and scaling up agro-forestry systems for sustainable landscapes and livelihoods. These proposed carbon credits will help meet established demand for an additional 850,000 acres (1,300 square miles) of privately owned land to participate in the PES program.

Importantly, 10% of the target area under consideration as part of ERPA is in indigenous people’s territories, marking the first time the country’s native populations, like the Bribri, will have access to program information and practices in their own languages and according to their world views.

Rainforest Adventures

Of course, not all tour operations are created equal; some have truly taken long-term sustainability to heart. One of the most ecologically enlightened of Costa Rica’s adventure parks is Rainforest Adventures, which owns two areas in the country. The first serves as a buffer zone adjacent to Braulio Carrillo National Park. Its 1,200-acre (475-hectare) reserve lies 28 miles (45 kilometers) from San José on the Atlantic side of the country. The second is a smaller 222-acre (90-hectare) ecotourism project near coastal Jaco, about 70 miles (110 kilometers) west of San José, with small waterfalls and views of the Pacific coast.

Gondolas of the aerial tram at the Rainforest Adventures Pacific park in Costa Rica

The gondolas of the aerial tram at the Rainforest Adventures Pacific park in Costa Rica hold eight people and a naturalist guide. Photo courtesy of Rainforest Adventures

Both locations boast zip-line tours in addition to other activities designed to deliver a closeup taste of nature. Of special note are the 164-foot climb up a waterfall in the Pacific park and the aerial trams in both parks, the latter put in place – tram towers and cable – using helicopters so as not to cut down a single tree. The Atlantic park’s tram lasts an hour and 20 minutes and flies a distance of 1.6 miles (2.6 kilometers). In its open-air gondola, a naturalist guide accompanies up to six people through primary-forest canopy at a slow 1¼ miles per hour (2 kph), perfect for educating guests about the importance of environmental awareness. Beyond that, numerous initiatives favor buying from and hiring locals, and proactively protecting the environment in accordance with a park-wide environmental management system.

In fact, as an acknowledged model for best practices in sustainable development and operations, Rainforest Adventures could arguably claim to oversee a couple of the world’s most sustainable parks. Those in Costa Rica have been verified with the highest possible rating by Rainforest Alliance, as well as an Ecological Flag, a Blue Flag, and a Decree of National Interest from the Costa Rican government, all in addition to top (five-leaf) ratings by Costa Rica’s Certification for Sustainable Tourism. The Atlantic park is also Costa Rica’s first tour operation to have been certified as 100% carbon neutral by EARTH University.

“Sustainability is the cornerstone of what we do at Rainforest Adventures,” commented Nicolas Staton, the company’s general manager for Costa Rica. “It’s there in every breath we take, every guest we load onto the tram, zip line, nature walk, etc. Or every bird or animal guests see sitting in our trees eating from the fruits of the forests we are conserving. This is what we live for and is a key element to every decision we make in regards to our operation.”

Pozo Azul

Pozo Azul Adventures is another adventure destination that showcases eco adventures on a 2,000-acre (810-hectare) working ranch in the Sarapiquí valley, 45 miles (70 kilometers) north of San Jose. Today most visitors only see the extensive center for rafting, hiking, horseback riding and zip-lining; however, farming has always been an important part of Pozo Azul.

Tent suites at the Hacienda Poco Azul , Costa Rica

What separates you from the jungle surrounding the tent suites at the Hacienda Poco Azul , Costa Rica, are canvas walls, zipper doors and mesh window screens. Photo courtesy of Ethan Gelber

For 25 years, Pozo Azul operated primarily as a cattle operation – both milk and meat production. While the breeding of beef cattle continues, the dairy has been discontinued and new attention given to the adventure camp, as well as two accommodations: a cluster of luxury tent suites that, both rugged and modern, combine quality comfort in large private tents with solid-walled en-suite facilities (and has received a five-leaf Certification for Sustainable Tourism); and Magsasay Jungle Lodge, a remodeled hardwood home with 10 rooms bordering the La Selva Biological Station at the entrance to Braulio Carrillo National Park.

The farm, called Rio Peje, remains a critical part of Pozo Azul’s sustainability activities too. “We hold 3 main farming activities: cattle breading, black pepper production and reforestation,” reads the Pozo Azul website. “Nevertheless our vision is to be a sustainable, ecologically balanced operation, where eco tourism will play an important role, as the underlining and principal activity in 5 more years. In view of our stated vision, it is very important to recuperate grazing areas and its progressive transformation into forested areas; we hope visitors will supply the short term cash flow to accomplish the change.”

Needless to say, the cash flow comes primarily from the appeal of the eco tours and adventure activities, which studiously weave education in wherever possible. The Experience Rainforest environmental education tours even devote half of the time (one hour) to an information session about a selected topic, such as habitat, reproduction, behavior or conservation, before heading out into the forest for the ground activity.

Pozo Azul’s canopy tour consists of as many as 12 cables and 17 platforms, seven of which are perched between 60 and 90 feet above the ground in towering trees. Depending on the tour, the full trip crisscrosses a canyon several times over the course of 1¾ to 2½ hours.

Zip-line safety review and practices in Pozo Azul, Costa Rica

Before embarking on a canopy tour at Pozo Azul, Costa Rica, a trained guide carefully leads everyone through a review of the zip-line safety equipment and practices to make certain that everyone is comfortable. Photo courtesy of Ethan Gelber

It’s Not All Positive

No adventure activity is risk-free and zip lines are no different. They may well be part of an effort to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, but they still require proper safety practices and equipment.

There is no central organization monitoring zip-line operators or recording zip-line injuries, but, while existing reports of accidents are uncommon, some of them are very serious. That being said, according to an article from 2012, “most zip line injuries, say zip line operators, take place on lines built by amateurs who ignored safety requirements.” It pays to check credentials.

Another serious environmental consideration is noise. It can be hard to contain one’s enthusiasm when speeding through the trees at high speeds. Most of the large wildlife is therefore likely to stay far away.
Ethan Gelber was in Costa Rica as a guest of Visit Costa Rica and as part of EcoAdventure Media‘s #EcoCostaRica campaign, but we made absolutely sure that his opinions in this post are decidedly his own. Learn more…

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Ethan Gelber

In addition to his freelance travel writing (Lonely Planet author, ex-AFAR Ambassador, Huffington Post Travel blogger and more), Ethan has agitated tirelessly for responsible/sustainable travel practices, family travel, keeping things local, and quality and relevance in publishing and destination marketing. Among many other things, Ethan is editorial director of the Family Travel Association, a co-founder of OutBounding, and tackles content projects for HomeExchange.com and RW Social, which produces the NY Trav Fest. Previously, Ethan was Chief Communications Officer of the WHL Group, for which he founded and edited The Travel Word (this now-independent blog); publications manager of the French government tourist office (Atout France) in NYC; and helped manage a Paris-based bicycle tour operator.
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adventure travel, Central America, Costa Rica, ecotours, forests & jungles, North America, outdoors,

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