Costa Rica is living, breathing proof that sustainable living makes us happier

This article was created for The Travel Project by Seth Maxwell, a Forbes 30 under 30 social entrepreneur and founder and CEO of The Thirst Project.

I hate stereotypes- especially ones that aren’t true. A 2013 cover article for Time Magazine called Millennials the “Me, Me, Me Generation.” The article described present-day young people as lazy narcissists who still live at home with their parents.

In my job at The Thirst Project, I lead an army of 400,000 student activists between the ages of 12 and 25. In the last decade, these young people have volunteered and raised funds to build clean water projects around the world, giving more than 320,000 people safe, clean drinking water for the rest of their lives

So, to Time Magazine, we say, “you’ve got it all wrong.”

When most people think about young travelers in Costa Rica around Spring Break time, they imagine twenty-somethings on sun kissed beaches in bikinis and boardies with subtle notes of alcohol coursing through their veins. Sure, you can find those things in Costa Rica. But the young travelers here are doing so much more than partying and laying on the beach.

Costa Rica is known as a global leader in sustainability, and is often hailed as the birthplace of eco-tourism, so when I was offered the opportunity to travel there myself to experience just how Costa Rica earns this position as a global leader in these areas, I jumped at the chance.

Tourism generally tends to get a pretty bad rap, and it’s true that travelers can have a negative impact on the sustainability of a country, but tourism can ALSO have a lot of POSITIVE impact on the world.

Upon arrival and Check-In to my first hotel in the beach town of Tamarindo, the first thing I noticed was that I received a full verbal briefing from the manager on the hotel’s sustainability practices AND I was asked to do my part to join their efforts:

“We sort through all trash and recycling by hand and have separate bins for paper, plastics, and organics IN your room. Please make sure to hang your towels so you can reuse them and turn off the air conditioning and lights when you leave so that we can do our part to stay green.”

I was struck. At first I thought he MUST have known that I was visiting Costa Rica with the mission to discover how they led the way in sustainability, so he did that just for me. Our tour company must have alerted him, I thought.

Not only were there multiple sorting bins IN my room; not only was there clever signage posted in my bathroom showing me how to do my part; not only did the bellman REITERATE these appeals to me on the way to my room, but this happened at EVERY one of the three different hotels that our group checked into for the next week as we explored the country.

Every hotel manager greeted me individually, our group as a whole, or anyone checking in with a similar briefing on both the hotel’s sustainability practices as well as a plea to join them in their efforts.

No matter what age you are or what your position on conservationism is, you can’t check into a hotel in Costa Rica without a similar experience.

What’s coolest about this is that the employees delivering the briefing don’t do so heavy-handedly or with guilt, and they don’t seem like they are checking an item off of their ‘To Do’ List. They are happy and PASSIONATE about preserving their country. It totally changes the experience.

Costa Rica is a nature-lover’s paradise. From Day 1, I was thrust into nature with a full day of scuba diving. On the boat ride out to our dive location, our tour operator talked about their company’s commitment to bringing people face-to-face with the underwater world and the benefits they’ve seen as advocates for the preservation of Costa Rica’s oceans. The water was warm and we saw HUGE schools of tropical fish, the cool volcanic rock formations Costa Rica is made of, and even some of the huge manta rays that Costa Rica is known to play home to.

“Not everyone scuba dives, but the more we can bring people into this world to encounter the rays and see the beauty that lies beneath the surface of the water, the more people fall in love with it and want to protect it.”

My Contiki Tour Manager, Gustavo, was also an independently-certified naturalist, because Costa Rica requires ALL of their tour guides to be, no matter the company they work for. Gustavo and I talked about the history of Costa Rica’s move toward conservationism and eco-tourism.

Costa Rica is currently on track to be one of the most sustainable countries in the world – it’s working to become the first carbon-neutral country by 2020 – but it hasn’t always been this way.

In 1940, 75 percent of Costa Rica was covered in forests, but by 1987 that number had dropped to just 21 percent. People needed money and the short-term gain of timber sales or farming on once-forested land seemed to overshadow the long-term benefit of preserving these forests.

But by the early 1990s, the people began to realize that this means for generating income wasn’t sufficient to meet their needs. Once the trees were gone, they were gone, and so the people’s source of money was gone. Farmers struggled to make ends meet when the soil was over-farmed and became infertile. The natural resources and wildlife weren’t the only thing suffering; the people and the economy were.

The Costa Rican government spent a great deal of time investing in research to structure policies that support and encourage economic development through conservation and eco-tourism.

The support of the relationship between the environment and the economy by the government at the highest level put the country on track to become one of the most sustainable in the world.

Over the next few days, we left the beaches of Tamarindo for the breathtaking mountains and cloud forests of Monte Verde. The country may be small, but it holds FIVE percent of the planet’s total biodiversity. You can FEEL the life pulsating through the forests as you walk past every kind of flora imaginable, insects, snakes, spiders and more.

The more I learned about the incredible progress Costa Rica has made over the last few decades, I couldn’t help but be both inspired and hopeful.

They KNOW conclusively that working towards sustainability doesn’t just make sense for the environment or future generations; it makes good business sense. I found myself wishing we could see this lived out in America.

The temperatures cooled as we climbed higher into the mountains, so we stopped to warm up with some liquid caffeine at the Don Juan Coffee Farm. We learned not only how coffee is grown and produced, but how this delicious export has become a cash cow for the country AND fits perfectly into Costa Rica’s sustainability strategy. At every turn, I was constantly met by people who were deeply connected to their land and environment in the strongest ways imaginable. They don’t use pesticides or herbicides and work to ensure that the integrity of their growing process is truly green from start to finish.

Later that afternoon, we were scheduled for one of the activities I was most excited about: walking the suspension bridges through the Santa Elena Cloud Forest. But, as happens often in Monte Verde, the forecast called for heavy rain, and the sky looked dark. I was exhausted from so many early mornings and so many hectic travel days, and as the drops began to fall, I thought I might sit this one out. One of the friends I made on tour grabbed my hand and rightly said: “you’ll regret not doing this.”

I threw a jacket over my head (which later proved futile) and set out. I was in heaven as we spent the next hour-and-a-half in a torrential downpour, walking through the rain while suspended on bridges high above the forest canopy. The forest seemed alive in a way that it didn’t when it was dry. It was one of those experiences that you carry with you forever.

Everyone I knew back home was working in offices while I was playing on suspension bridges with cool beads of water dripping down every part of my body. I was soaked, and couldn’t have been happier. I was alive. And so was the forest.

As I spent my last day in Costa Rica in Manuel Antonio, back in the warmer weather and riding horses through rivers and forests, I couldn’t help but be grateful.

The mentality of Costa Ricans, ‘Pura Vida’, isn’t just the country’s slogan, it is truly a way of life. Literally translated it means ‘simple life’ or ‘pure life’, and it means no worries, no stress, just happiness, because you are always better off than someone else, so you need to be thankful for what you have.

I’m thankful.

I’m thankful that Costa Rica has preserved this paradise for all of us to enjoy. I’m thankful that they are leading the way and proving that not only is it possible to make such incredible strides in sustainability, but that it makes good economic sense for your family and your people.

I’m thankful that the world is taking notice and I’m hopeful that one day, all of us will live Pura Vida.

Seth Maxwell travelled to Costa Rica in partnership with The Travel Project, on Contiki’s Canopies & Cabanas trip. If you would like to join The Travel Project and be in with a chance of earning travel with Contiki, head here.