The idea for Leave a Trace was hatched two years ago while traveling. I took two months off work to live in Nosara, Costa Rica and (try to) learn to surf. I was living a 20 minute walk from the beach, and after making the walk several times, I decided I wanted to rent a bike from the shop in town. After some negotiation with Tom, the shop owner, we settled on a price and I rode off with instructions to bring the bike back weekly for checkups.
During those checkups, Tom and I chatted. I learned that he was from Arizona, where he had previously been a bike mechanic, and that he lived there most of the year. The bike shop he opened in Costa Rica was now his sole source of income and supported him year round.
While that was no doubt fantastic for Tom, it struck me as odd that my bike rental fee was paying for his costs of living in Phoenix, and largely not flowing back into Nosara, or anywhere else in Costa Rica. The feeling wasn’t helped by the fact that Costa Ricans, on average, earn a fifth of what Americans do, and Nosara is in Costa Rica’s poorest province.
As I learned, similar models were pervasive: most of the surf shops were owned by people from the US, as was the restaurant I ate breakfast at and the house I was renting. The employees at many of these places were locals, but they shared in none of the profits that came from charging American prices in an area with significantly lower labor costs. And this was in a town that, on the face of it, was not overwhelmingly touristy. I realized it would be completely possible for me to stay my two months, spending money on a wide array of services, and leave none of the locals much better off.
This reminded me of what I’d been taught while camping as a kid. As part of instructions not to litter, I remembered being told that the goal was always to “leave no trace”. It made sense that the forest was not likely to be better off for having hosted me, so I should aim to leave it no worse. But this trip seemed different. I was capable of leaving the town at least slightly better off, but could, unwittingly, leave no trace at all.
I did what I could to make sure that didn’t happen. I took lessons and rented my board from the only surf shop owned by Costa Ricans (who were fantastic surfers and really friendly guys–check out Agua Tibia if you’re ever there!) and tried to tip well when I ate at local restaurants. It wasn’t much, but I hope it helped.
I gained so much from that trip, as I have from so many others around the world, and hoped that I could return the favor. I was lucky, though, that I had the time to learn where to shop. I left Costa Rica with the feeling that so many trips, both mine and others, don’t leave any impact at all.
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About the author
Luc is an enthusiastic traveler who loves to surf, ski and play golf. Chasing those pursuits has taken him all around the world, most recently to Japan. Despite a love for activities, Luc thinks the best way to see a new place is just to wander on foot. He went to Williams College before working as a consultant at Bain & Company. He’s now working on a variety of projects, first and foremost, trying to make everyone’s adventures just a little bit more charitable. Reach him at email@example.com.