After a Tragedy, Making the Case for Costa Rica

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A travel piece by Lucas Peterson for the New York Times.

I remember my first night in Costa Rica, and the color of the sunset. I had an entire beach nearly to myself, and swatted the occasional sandfly as I watched bruised grays and yellows stretching across the horizon, pinks popping vividly, in part thanks to the lack of any visible electric light from the shore. I would spend those next few days in late March snorkeling in limpid, blue waters, hiking in Corcovado National Park, and riding around on the back of a motorbike in one of the more splendid, unspoiled places I’d ever visited.

The airport in Drake Bay, on the southwestern coast, consisted of a small shack next to a long strip of asphalt. I had arrived by small aircraft, a single-propeller Cessna operated by Sansa Airlines. It was the same type of plane that crashed this past New Year’s Eve outside of Punta Islita Airport, killing 10 Americans. Air fatalities, while rare, are always sobering. And the tragedy of this crash is particularly difficult to reconcile with the remarkable beauty of Costa Rica — a place American tourists have embraced as one of the world’s top eco-travel destinations, and one that I wouldn’t hesitate to return to.

Of the roughly 2.7 million tourists who visit Costa Rica annually, 40 percent are from the United States. This is largely because of the country’s extraordinary wildlife, rain forests, and cloud forests, but also its stability within a historically volatile area. Costa Rica has been an uninterrupted democracy since the late 1940s in a region marred by political and economic turmoil. Its G.D.P. has grown at an average of nearly 5 percent since 1992, well ahead of other countries in the region. And the country is now practically synonymous with sustainable tourismand eco-tourism, having abolished its standing military following the Costa Rican Civil War in 1948 and funneled some of that money into developing social and environmental conservation programs.

That success manifests itself in great national pride — a calm assurance that I witnessed throughout my visit. “You’re in Costa Rica now, relax!” my snorkeling guide, Gustavo, advised a seasick German woman in our group. The immediate friendliness and warmth of Ticos, as Costa Ricans call themselves, allow visitors to easily get back to nature and experience the Costa Rican concept of “pura vida,” or pure life, that is the unofficial national motto and a phrase you’ll hear daily while in the country.

“It’s no problem — pura vida,” said my host, Edu, when his car had a flat tire and he plopped me on the back of a motorbike to rush me to my tour of the national park. From Rio Drake Farm, where I stayed for $54 per night, to the Drake Bay Getaway Resort, where there are $700 per night bungalows, there are price points and levels of luxury for every traveler.

Protected parks and reserves comprise over 25 percent of the country’s territory, and practically all of its coastline (Pacific and Caribbean) is protected and earmarked as public property where no development is allowed. That and its variety of landscapes, fauna and flora (while only 0.03 percent of the earth’s surface, Costa Rica has about 6 percent of the world’s biodiversity) make it a particularly attractive destination for adventure-seeking tourists.

Capuchin monkeys on the beach near Drake Bay.

In addition to the magnificent forests, volcanoes, and biodiversity (22,000 species of butterfly alone, according to my park guide), Costa Rica is one of the easiest and most fun places in the world to get exercise, even for people like me who weren’t exactly athletes growing up. I found myself going on hikes, snorkeling, swimming, and traversing rickety bridges in the rain forest without thinking much about it — it’s just what you do when you’re in Costa Rica. And there’s even more I didn’t take advantage of. There’s fishing, white water rafting, zip-lining — almost anything you could want to do — affordably priced and condensed into a compact, spark plug of a country.

To reach some of the country’s more out-of-the-way regions, like Drake Bay or Punta Islita, smaller, turboprop aircraft are used for their versatility and ability to access places large jets can’t. (Driving is also an option, but has its own dangers. It can also add significant time to a trip: To reach Drake Bay from San José would take about six hours.) Whereas the main runway at the country’s main airport, Juan Santamaría, exceeds 9,800 feet, runways at the smaller regional airstrips are commonly under 330 feet in length.

And are small aircraft more dangerous than commercial jets? Yes. But not, I would argue, to the point that you should pass on the chance to see what Costa Rica has to offer. Statistics from the National Transportation Safety Board state that in 2015, there were zero U.S. fatalities involving air carriers — large, commercial aircraft carrying cargo or passengers. There were 28 fatalities involving small (fewer than 10 seats) commuter and on-demand carriers. Finally, there were 378 fatalities classified under general aviation — an umbrella term that encompasses everything from light-sport aircraft and turboprops to hot air balloons.

There was no safer time to travel by plane than 2017, according to To70, a Dutch consulting firm. There were no fatalities involving commercial jets and 13 that resulted from crashes of turboprop planes. (President Trump even managed to take unwarranted credit for the extraordinary statistic.) Not included in the survey, however, because they did not make the weight threshold, were two New Year’s Eve crashes involving small planes: A seaplane crash near Sydney that killed six, and the crash outside Punta Islita that killed 12.

World travel involves a constant internal risk-reward mental calculus: Is it safe to visit this country? Do I approach this friendly-looking stranger? Should I explore down this street? The answer, most of the time, is yes. But the calculus can get thrown out of whack when there’s a fatal air crash in Costa Rica, a mosque attack in Egypt or a shooting at a Parisian concert hall.

No traveler, no matter how experienced, is immune to fear. Reading about the recent accident made me reflect on my time in Costa Rica and, specifically, that flight by Cessna to Drake Bay. I particularly remember my boarding pass: a numbered, laminated card that the airline reused. After we’d all been seated, the pilots said hello and crawled over us to reach their seats in the front of the plane. The low-altitude flight was brief, noisy and uneventful.

But I also remember views — of the beaches near Dominical, Uvita and Ojochal, and of the lush, green canopy of Corcovado National Park as we approached by boat. I remember the kindness of my hosts in Drake Bay, Edu and Sabrina, as well as the friendly locals who cooked me a fish dinner one night at a small cantina down the road. And, of course, the spider monkeys, puffer fish, coatis and caracara birds that manage to, in relative harmony, tolerate the imposition of millions of tourists each year. Experiencing the “pure life” of Costa Rica is a unique experience — it teems with an energy and spirit both infectious and memorable, and I hope to experience it again soon.

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