In My Opinion

Fabiola Santiago: Florida should follow Costa Rica’s eco-friendly playbook

 

fsantiago@MiamiHerald.com

Murky beach waters, sinkholes, lake levels too high or too low, natural springs and rivers in danger, apocalyptic predictions that East Coast Florida cities — from over-developed Miami to greener but also-growing Jacksonville — are headed the way of mythical Atlantis.

What are we doing to our ecologically fragile state?

I asked myself this question over and over as my summer sojourns took me to disparate locations — familiar Florida beaches on two coasts, historic Connecticut riverside towns dating to the 1800s but charmingly preserved — and, the most revelatory of my travels, my first foray into Costa Rica’s spectacular rainforest.

The tiny Central American nation is home to 4.5 percent of the planet’s biodiversity and to 4.5 million people, a little less than the Miami-Fort Lauderdale metropolitan area’s population.

Unlike Florida, where there’s no sense of urgency to clean up our unique Everglades, and so the murky overflow from Lake Okeechobee has ended up in our rivers and beaches this summer, Costa Ricans take seriously the need to preserve their environment.

They do so not only through the maintenance of a wide network of national parks and reserve areas but by fostering a culture of tourism that’s focused on genuine, Earth-friendly practices and on the conservation of native landscapes and communities.

And that’s why I, more accustomed to city-focused travels than ecological adventures, chose this year to visit one of the world’s top eco-lodges, Pacuare Lodge, a haven of 19 bungalows and suites on 25,000 acres of protected rainforest in the Talamanca Mountains.

No electricity, no locked doors, no vehicles.

Nothing but screened-in teak wood and the thatched-roof over our riverfront bungalow stood between us and the lush jungle of sky-reaching kapok trees and abundant fauna. Warm showers, in-doors and out, powered by sunlight. Magical dinners by candlelight on starry nights. For rest, a hammock on the porch and a big, comfortable canopy bed with soft, white linens and a mosquito net gracefully draped around it.

The rhythms of the river, waters rushing over rocks, lulled us to sleep every night.

It wasn’t easy to get there — but that was half the fun.

After a 2 ½- hour drive from the capital city of San José along winding mountainous roads — at the end of the trek, some of them so muddy and narrow we closed our eyes and prayed we weren’t going down the ravine — we arrived at the launch point of our rainforest adventure on a Pacuare River cove.

BAPTISM

We river-rafted into the lodge, baptized into the sport on level one and two rapids, stopping for an unforgettable plunge into the Pacuare from a slippery boulder and a swim by a waterfall before arriving at the lodge a wet couple of hours later.

And we river-rafted out, graduating into thrilling level three and four rapids with guides who also served our meals at the lodge, led us on hiking tours and taught us not only rafting technique but about the wildlife, the land,and its people, the indigenous cabécares.

We traveled to Pacuare to experience what was billed as a place of adventure and romance — and it was that, but we also came away with a valuable environmental education. We didn’t miss any of the creature comforts of modern life.

I returned to Miami inspired, with a renewed appreciation and respect for our planet and its wondrous mysteries.

SAND FLEA INVASION

Imagine my disappointment when a few weeks later we set out on our annual family trek to Southwest Florida’s beaches and found nothing but brown, stinky waters and sand fleas galore in our treasured Sanibel Island and beyond.

I fled horrified and discouraged by what has become of the beaches where I spent scores of lovely summers in decades past.

If I took anything away from this season of travel, it’s the conviction that unless we shift our priorities and develop a deeper love — and respect — for our state’s natural treasures, there’s not going to be a single swath of Florida that our inheritors can call paradise.

Read more Fabiola Santiago stories from the Miami Herald

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