After a week in Monteverde, where we stayed in small, locally owned hotels, our group spent Thursday night at Barceló Langosta Beach, an all-inclusive resort off the Pacific Ocean. Many of the people we have spoken to have given us their thoughts about big tourism operations like our beach resort, so it was interesting for us to experience one for ourselves. Each of us came away from our stay with a lot to think about.
A Tico identifies sprawling trees and colorful birds like he’s been waiting his entire life to share his knowledge with visitors.
A woman in the kitchen at a small tilapia farm and restaurant looks on with a humble smile and a hint of pride as her guests lick their chops.
A program coordinator acts more like a friend than a scheduler for a group of journalism study abroad students.
That’s what makes Costa Rica Costa Rica: the people.
Until our stay at Barceló Langosta Beach, I was feeling more like a guest than a tourist in my Costa Rican adventures. We had been dining in families’ kitchens, sleeping in rooms representing their life’s work, shaking their hands and playing with their dogs.
But when I sat at Barceló’s buffet dinner without knowing the faces behind the meal, I felt like I could have been anywhere in the world.
Barceló is beautiful. Its pool is big, its beds are fluffy and its showers are hot. But it’s not Costa Rica.
Costa Rica is special. Barceló is generic.
Barceló aims to please a certain clientele: people who have the money and just want a little beachside R&R.
But if Costa Rica is what you seek, dive into more than a pool. Dive into the culture. Get to know the people.
Get to know Costa Rica.
— Courtney McBay
Shortly after we arrived at the Barceló, I ventured into the Pacific Ocean behind it. For the first time, I faced powerful waves taller than I was, tasting the salt in the water each time one hit me in the face. With a luxury hotel yards away from me, I stood in the ocean, which has been providing people free entertainment for centuries, and thought, “Why would anyone need more than this?”
The Barceló is a great hotel, make no mistake. I enjoyed having a bed with four pillows and a buffet dinner with endless choices. I could tell all the people there were having a good time, from small children to older adults, enjoying the pool and the snacks and everything else the all-inclusive resort had to offer.
But I kept thinking of the ocean, and the cloud forests of Monteverde, and the smaller, privately-owned hotels we have stayed in, where the owner greets you in the evening and the cooks bring out your breakfast. Those places were more simple, but they were also more personal, more environmentally-friendly and more authentically Costa Rican. I enjoyed our night at the Barceló, but I’m glad that I’ve had the opportunity to see cloud forests, rivers, mangroves and more — the free, natural treasures Costa Rica has to offer.
— Margaux Henquinet
Staying in Costa Rica has been a mix of extremes so far. We’ve stayed in mountains and dry forest, all-inclusive resorts and national parks. The Wi-Fi has been spotty in nearly every place we’ve stayed, and the food has been about the same — rice, beans, salad and meat — except for the resort we stayed at three nights ago.
It was a nice place if your definition of paradise is every comfort of home without the hardships tossed in. It felt familiar, besides the enormous ocean I had never stepped foot in before.
With a lot of these resorts, we’ve been lectured on the effects on the environment, how developers may not have gathered all of the necessary documents before building and the opposition from local people. It’s led me, and I think a few of us, to believe that these places are inherently bad, that there are no benefits.
But then my journalistic ambivalence kicks in. I spoke to the people who had jobs at the the resort, although one woman has to catch a 3 a.m. bus to her home 45 minutes away every night. And for the people who visit these resorts, I can’t hold anything against them.
I trust that most of them work most of the year and that this is their time off. They’ve earned a break. When they see a pool, an ocean and a buffet in a brochure, maybe the last thing they think is whether there was once a mangrove where the hotel sits.
But then, that’s why we report on it, isn’t it?
My first and strongest reflection on the Tamarindo resort experience was realizing how deep of a reaction I had initially.
Our group sat on our bus, gazing out the windows as our driver drove us down a densely-populated tourism oasis filled with signs in English, surf shops and bustling beaches. First, I felt overcome by the contradictions of this nation. Even in Monteverde, a widely visited tourist destination, I felt a sense of community, identification and an importance of the environment.
In Monteverde, I swung through the mountains on Extremo ziplines and felt like I was part of the forest. I understand the role structures like those play in deforestation, but it paled in comparison to Tamarindo.
The only thing I could say driving through Tamarindo was, “This doesn’t even feel like Costa Rica.”
I had already molded my view of Costa Rica by the terms of environmental leaders, the Monteverde Institute and the other passionate people we met during our time in the mountains. Sure, I enjoyed the pool and the beach, which are a far cry from the blizzard occurring in my hometown of St. Louis. But I just couldn’t enjoy it the way I would have previously because I can’t “unknow” what I know.
And I just wonder what the land and its animal inhabitants would have to say about Tamarindo.
A Tale of Two Tourists
Costa Rica attracts many types of tourists. Tourism is Costa Rica’s main economic source. From experiencing Monteverde and Barceló Langosta Beach, I have discovered two kinds of tourists: nature and vacationing ones.
The culture in Costa Rica has a different view on each. Tourists who visit for nature are what keep the establishments running. It takes a lot of money to run a place like the cloud forest. Not only are you paying for upkeep, but also for protection from harm such as poaching.
Vacationing tourists are seen as uneducated about what is happening to nature. People we interviewed said they didn’t know what happened to the existing area before hotels moved in. For example, locals explained how mangroves were destroyed to put in the Barceló hotel. Though, I don’t believe you can put much blame on tourists who stay there. It is a nice hotel with many niceties. They are there for a good time and want their fun all in one place.
I believe Costa Rica is going to have to decide what form of tourism it desires more. Hotels and resorts make a lot of money from people all over the world looking for a vacation. They make money quickly, but usually aren’t very sustainable. The environmental side also finds a diverse crowd. The passionate people we talked to believe it is more than just presenting this gem of nature to others. It is something they want to pass on and preserve for future generations.
In my opinion, they should work at all costs to protect nature. Nature is the very aspect that makes Costa Rica unique. They can always have hotels, but nature is something worth more than just money.
— Josh Booth
Images are never pure and never honest, argues Plato. At the Barceló, an all-inclusive resort, his “Allegory of the Cave” was alive and well.
In Barceló’s reception area, a frame encases two sustainability certificates. There are a number of “We respect nature. Please don’t litter.” signs, a small, organic garden and signs reading “Protect our national park.”
These are shadows of true sustainability, and Barceló is merely a shadow of Costa Rica.
If I had only seen Barceló, I would not know the true version of Costa Rica. Costa Rica is not just a rich coast. It is a rich country of at least 10 different life zones and thousands of species.
It is clear from the places we have stayed (Monteverde, Tamarindo, Rincon de la Vieja, Santa Rosa) that the environment, or lack thereof, shapes the people and the culture.
There is a difficult balance to be achieved among sustainability, conservation and economics. Vacationing is not wrong. All-inclusive resorts may not be, either. It is the way the in which resources are managed that is wrong.
Not every tourist wishes to go hiking. But if every tourist is presented with Costa Rica, not a shadow of it, then they will have a better understanding of why this country is “rica.”
— Daniela Vidal
The brief one-night stay at the Barceló resort made a striking contradiction to the other smaller, often family-owned hotels that we have stayed at in Costa Rica. I do have to admit the beds were comfy and the shower was practically perfect, but the connection and care from the other places we have stayed was severely lacking.
Before the Barceló, I had stayed in three different hotels. One was part of a best Western chain, another was family-owned, and the third was locally owned. At each of those hotels, I felt like the people at the front desk recognized me when I walked by, while the front desk at the Barceló was all about getting people checked in and out as quickly as possible.
The other hotels also put much more care into their establishments. While the Barceló had more upscale furniture, it was lacking the warmth of handpicked décor and the care of the person preparing the room for the coming guests.
Finally, I feel like the atmosphere and approach at the Barceló made it so much easier to be wasteful. You don’t have to finish your food when more is always so easily available at the buffet line or the evening snack bar. I also probably didn’t ration everything as well there because the atmosphere just encourages you to spend, whether it be money or resources, while you are staying there.
Overall, the Barceló did provide a nice chance to recharge in an atmosphere I am more used to back home, and the beach was great, but the time there also pointed out the flaws in so many of society’s structures. I was perfectly happy in the other hotels we stayed at before the Barceló, so it brings to mind the question as to whether we actually need all the fancy things (coupled with more waste) or if having a caring host is even better.
— Stephanie Sidoti
I was so excited to be staying at an all-inclusive resort that was on the beach in Costa Rica. Looking back, I was more excited than I should have been.
Don’t get me wrong, all-inclusive resorts are nice. They are attractive. They do a great job of bringing tourists in.
But they all fail at doing one thing. They fail at showing people the Costa Rica I’ve fallen in love with over the past week.
Being at the resort, I realized that I was in love with Monteverde, the way I felt when I stayed at family-owned hotels, the Ticos and Ticas I met along the way, the stories I heard, the values I forgot living in such a materialistic country, and the lessons that I would carry with me forever. That was what I came to love. That is what I came to know as Costa Rica.
The resort offered none of the above except a nice pool and breathtaking view of the ocean, but honestly, I could go to any resort in the world and get the same thing and have the same feeling.
Ultimately, the resort is watered-down Costa Rica, and I didn’t travel thousands of miles to experience watered-down Costa Rica.
Others shouldn’t, either.
— Kearston Winrow
I will be reflecting on our Costa Rican hotel experiences based on three criteria that make a difference to the American tourist: language barriers, freedom of choice and safety.
If you do not know Spanish, Barceló Langosta Beach is a very comfortable accommodation. For a traveler looking for immersion into Costa Rican culture and who is equipped with some basic conversational Spanish, I would recommend the Pensión Manakín hotel in Monteverde. Language did pose an issue at the Manakín when one member of our group lost her key. She was told to come back later because the staff member could not speak English.
At the Barceló, an all-you-can-eat buffet gave plenty of choices for picky to adventurous diners. The Manakín had one or two options at mealtime, all with rice and beans. The Barceló won freedom of choice, when it comes to food.
I have felt safe at all of the places our group has stayed. The Barceló ensured that everyone who was a guest was wearing a bracelet. However, so many people in one place kept us on our toes because theft is more common in crowded areas. The small atmosphere of the Manakín leaves visitors feeling safe, but if an emergency were to occur, the language barrier might make it difficult to get help from hotel staff.
If you are looking to kick back and take it easy while not worrying about communication, the Barceló might be your ideal getaway. However, if you are willing to try out your Spanish and dive into a Costa Rican paradise, an authentic stay in Monteverde would be very rewarding.
— Kelly Koch