Tourists walk out of Juan Santamaría International Airport outside San José every day for a number of reasons: to take a look at their first active volcano, surf Costa Rican waves, or learn Spanish.
Some also visit Costa Rica hoping to step off the beaten path through projects like the Women’s Association of Guaitil de Acosta, south of San José, which are emerging around the country to offer something more than just a nice massage or an organic fruit cocktail: the chance to help a Costa Rican community.
Guaitil, a pueblito along a winding road that extends from the larger town of Acosta, is a beautiful hour-and-a-half drive through mountains south of San José.
The lives of the 15 members of the Guaitil association took 180-degree turns when they got together to manufacture organic products.
Before joining the association and receiving training that went beyond the skills needed for their dayto- day work, these women described themselves as housewives who did not know they could be of service to their communities.
Many Costa Rican women in rural areas are in similar situations. They see few opportunities and often spend their days taking care of children and doing household chores, confined to their homes and limited to a budget dependent on their husbands’ work.
After receiving self-esteem workshops, the Acosta women have asserted themselves as leaders, who, in the case of Grupo Giras, the Guaitil women’s mother association, which has been operating for more than 20 years, draw large numbers of national and foreign clients to town for a visit and the simple luxury of their healing therapies.
Projects like these, which give rural women a chance to exert more control over their lives and economically support their families, exist around the country. On Chira Island, in the Gulf of Nicoya, women who watched their husbands’ traditional fishing bring less and less home started a tourism project that includes a lodge, tours and souvenirs, and it has benefited the entire community. In the small agriculture-based community of San Luis, just below the world-famous Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve, in the province of Puntarenas, the women of Eco-Bambú work together every day turning waste paper into recycled cards, bags, booklets and other artistic paper projects for gifts and souvenirs.
In many cases, a spark is necessary – perhaps funding from an embassy or an international agency such as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), or training from experts from national universities. Then, with the women’s hard work and the support of clients, the fire will hopefully grow on its own.
These women are defining the face of sustainable tourism in Costa Rica. Their projects can bring enough resources into their community to improve the quality of life, but do not disrupt rural beauty. They are not working behind a desk or as hotel maids, employees of some large, generic international tourism corporation.
Visiting them offers a glimpse of the real Costa Rica and supports communities that truly require economic opportunities.