Escape to Costa Rica

This Sunday at 7pm on Channel 4 (British TV) is the first of my 3-part series exploring my incredible journey around this stunning Central American country.

Why Costa Rica? This little country – the size of Denmark – is gorgeous. It has tropical rainforests, cloud forests, the deep and wild Pacific, the warm Caribbean, exhilarating rivers, violent volcanoes, indigenous people, Latino culture, surfers, cowboys…. and it’s the happiest place on Earth.

I am interested in how humans are changing our planet through our culture and technologies, and the effects of those changes on us. We’re living at an exceptional time. The changes we humans have made in recent decades have altered our world beyond anything it’s experienced in it’s 4.5-billion-year history. As a result, our planet is entering a new geological age that scientists are calling the Anthropocene, the age of humans. What will the Anthropocene be like? Will it be good or bad? I travelled around the world to explore this, and wrote a book about my Adventures In The Anthropocene.

Costa Rica offers us an window into a rather appealing version of our Anthropocene. This is a developing country that got rid of its military to instead fund a universal healthcare and education programme; that is growing its economy rapidly whilst also protecting its environment; and that consistently ranks top in the global happiness index. Pretty remarkable.

But what’s most remarkable is that a few decades ago, Costa Rica was a very different country. Poor, struggling with violence and caught in international drugs wars, this was once one of the most deforested nations in the region. A visionary president with courage and ambition helped turn it around. Now, an emphasis on nature and conservation means that Costa Rica protects more than 25% of its land and half of its coastline, it runs its national grid almost entirely (99%) on renewables, and vast tree-planting make it the only tropical country to have reversed deforestation. By 2021, the President tells me, the country will be carbon neutral.

This is a country that chose what sort of Anthropocene it wanted and set out to deliver it. An extraordinary and inspiring story obviously made for television!

Making a television series was not so obvious.

I teamed up with producers Brian Hill and Katie Bailiff at Century Films in London, who make beautiful documentaries about social and environmental issues – a perfect fit. We worked on an idea and presented it to Channel 4, where Ralph Lee shared our vision and enthusiasm and commissioned it to become part of a manmade planet season. So exciting!

Making TV documentaries takes a team of people doing long hours of hard graft to produce something that is effortless to view. Key to this magic is the director, and I lucked out with the formidable Irish bear that is Eoin O’Shea, who had the talent and creative ambition to take a rough idea (and rougher presenter) and produce a coherent 3-part narrative. The talented producer Holly Moy and veteran Bristolian Si Wagen, master of exquisite camerawork, also travelled out from London to San José with us. The rest of the team – soundman Erick Vargas Williams, production assistant Ana Lucia Arias and data manager Saul Garcia – were locals, helping keep the series a more authentic portrayal of the country.

It was hard work at times, especially as I travelled out with Nick and our 1-year-old and 3-year-old. There were plenty of sleepless nights (she’s only recently started sleeping through the night – hallelujah!), and times when I had to leave them for several days. Filming days were long and hard and stressful. I’m used to being in control of my work and my schedule, and it was difficult to relinquish that. But it was never boring, and it was never meaningless. It was often exciting, and a chance to explore an amazing country and people, and some truly fascinating stories with a team of brilliant fun people that have become my friends.

I hope you enjoy watching it.

22 thoughts

  1. I loved your programme about Costa Rica.
    There was no mention about the population growth (population has quadrupled in 60 years).
    If the President has 6 children, it’s probably not easy to broach; but it needs to be spoken about!
    The ripple affects of overpopulation on the environment has been well documented.

  2. Was absolutely enthralled by your programme. Your enthusiasm is infectious. Thank you. Lots of positivity!

  3. I have lived in Costa Rica for 27 years and have also been involved in conservation. Costa Rica was more environmentally friendly 27 years ago then it is today. There were no plastic bottles, metal cans, people reused rice bags for shopping. Costa Rica uses more pesticides and herbicides then almost any other country in the world. Public transportation has dropped considerably to use of private cars. They have some good laws but lack enforcement of many of them. What are called protected forests is a misnomer. Their rivers are highly polluted. i could go on and on but won’t. The truth needs to be out there instead of the falsehoods.

  4. It was also mentioned that a few decades ago Costa Rica had a drug and violence problem. That couldn’t be further from the truth. There were almost no drugs in Costa Rica at that time. Drugs are prevalent everywhere now. Crime almost never included violence. Years ago they may come in and steal your toaster but would do it when you were not in the house. Now they come in with automatic weapons, while you are in the house and rob you of anything valuable and your life is at risk too.
    The skies now have smog during the dry season, they didn’t 20 years ago. The amount of cars has risen exponentially and the gasoline is not carbon neutral and all imported. Costa Rica use to be the safest country in Central America. It is no longer.
    Planting mono-cultures of trees are considered new forest and they are not. They are tree farms.
    Shark finning is out of control still in Costa Rica. Illegal fishing is common place. I have witnessed 190 sea turtles wash up on shore in one month, dead from being caught in shrimp nets and having their fins cut off or death by drowning.
    Also the eating habits of Costa Ricans have changed so much over the years. Obesity has become as common place as in the United States because of the change to a more U.S. diet including so many fast food chains that are all over Costa Rica now.
    If you are going to report on Costa Rica, look at both sides of the coin.

  5. i don’t enjoy posting negative information regarding Costa Rica but I think it is necessary since only positive information is always given about this country by people who haven’t lived there.
    The health care system was also mentioned as being so wonderful. It use to be but is not that great anymore. The main reason is the population has increased so much that the hospitals are no longer capable of handling the over abundance of health issues like they use to. There are often months of waiting to get urgent operations. Another problem with the health care system is, as i mentioned earlier, the change of eating habits to a more U.S. diet of processed food and fast food.
    The decline in nesting of sea turtles is another story not told along with the amount of eggs still being poached. Although that is less harmful then the gill nets and shrimp boats catching adult sea turtles and killing them.
    Sorry for the negativity but it is needed to balance the real picture of Costa Rica.
    My background was curator of Zoo Ave. in Alajuela C.R.. for several years in the 90’s. It is the largest breeding, rehab and release center of endangered birds and other wildlife in all of Latin America. I have also been an interpretive naturalist for over 20 Costa Rica. i have also worked on a couple of sea turtle projects relocating the eggs, tagging the sea turtles and measuring them.

    1. Costa Rica isn’t perfect, of course, no country is. In these brief 3 films, we couldn’t cover everything, but tried to give an overview of what I think is an inspiring national agenda at a time of globalisation, increasing population and economic development. Costa Rica has plenty of challenges, but I saw a lot to give me hope.

      1. Gaia I am sorry to say like Henry states, If you could have seen CR 30 years ago you would not have “A lot of hope” but instead a great sadness. A lot I could say but won’t. Pura Vida!

  6. Hi Gaia, I guess my comment was moderated out, although I cannot think why.

    You see we have no TV and I keep an ancient laptop going using a Linux Operating system which does not play nicely with All 4 so we are unable to catch up with your series of programmes,(still working on it).

    So my query was whether it is likely that the series would be released on DVD in the future as I would very much like to see it, (heard a review on radio 4’s Loose Ends and visited your website).

    My oldest daughter worked on permaculture projects in Nepal and latterly in Brighton and other family members have visited Costa Rica. I think your documentary is important in showing an alternative future to the one the one percenters seem to have mapped out for us. Hope in a dark world.

    I am enjoying exploring this site and am sending links to as many folk as possible

  7. Loving your programme. Sweet that you included Kip asking how you made him in your tummy – they are a delight. If you ever decide to become the head of the Green Party here I will vote for you. Wonderful tv. Thanks.

  8. In today’s programme Escape To Costa Rica, Gala Vince conservationist extraordinare, explains how the mass exploitation of turtle eggs is helping to protect the species.

    I guess you can justify almost anything by using some carefully selective words and saying how great it all is. It matters not of course about what the reality of it all might be.

    But anyway, the turtles cannot speak for themselves but we can surely speak for them.

  9. Hi Gaia, really enjoying your excellent programme as I gives hope to see what a small nation can achieve in tackling environmental issues. Aiming to become carbon neutral within a few years, and reforesting is amazing. Its also saddening that the majority of the world are not prepared to make meaningful change in view of unquestionable climatic damage. Lets hope that programmes like yours continue to inspire people, and show them that there are alternatives – and that individuals can make a difference. Every journey starts with a first step, lets hope this race hasn’t already been run.

  10. I hate to be that person… but please ask an actual Tic@ how to correctly pronounce “Costa Rica.” You (and most of the UK) are mispronouncing it, and this repeated error undermines your platform as host, guide and narrator. It is not pronounced like the chain coffee shop. The ‘o’ in Costa is a long sound – so it’s ‘coh-stah’ not ‘cas-tah’

  11. Stumbling across “Escape to Costa Rica” at 5.00 this morning triggered the question as to how, walking in the tropical forest in shorts and strappy tops, did you manage not to be eaten alive by insects?
    Interest piqued, I found the insight into Costa Rica absolutely fascinating. Clearly from some of the comments below there are a range of issues, but the predominant picture of peace, love, and social and environmental conscience are what make me want to know a lot more.
    I’ll be watching the rest of the series soon

  12. Just enjoying your fascinating programmes – recorded earlier but only just started watching. I was interested in your discussion on public transport and the problem of pollution. You (and the president) seem to put your faith entirely in electric vehicles. No mention was made of walking and cycling, the greenest ways of getting around cities. Visit Amsterdam and Copenhagen for examples of best practice. Electric cars continue the myth that American style sprawling cities are possible, instead of focusing on city design that encourages work, shopping, jobs and so on to be easilly accessible on foot or by bike.

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