In Costa Rica, The Search For National Geographic’s Soul

It must be down there, buried deep. The still-beating heart of National Geographic. The spirit that once inspired every traveler’s soul.

In recent years, National Geographic has seemed off:

Eight years ago, 21st Century Fox rocked the travel world by announcing a $725 million deal that made Fox a controlling owner of National Geographic, transforming the world’s most famous nonprofit organization into a for-profit enterprise. The move was followed swiftly by a round of layoffs and a $52 billion snatch-and-grab of Fox assets by Disney that put the revered golden rectangle under the same banner as Star Wars, Pixar and Marvel.

These are some of the most iconic brands in modern storytelling. Their maps guide audiences to Tatooine, Asgard and Radiator Springs. But Earth is not fantasy. The real world is not science fiction.

As the eyes of the globe focus on the greatest threat in the history of human civilization, climate change, fervent fans of National Geographic find themselves wondering if Disney is the right caretaker for a brand that is supposed to be funding explorers in the field and shining a spotlight on the frontlines of science.

On June 29, the head honchos at Disney oversaw more layoffs at National Geographic. This time, the jobs of every staff writer and podcaster hit the chopping block alongside newsstand copies of the print magazine. Non-subscribers will no longer have access to the most decorated magazine on the planet starting in 2024. Online stories and those that do reach the magazine’s 1.7 million paying subscribers, seemingly, will be penned by the skeleton crew of overworked editors left behind at headquarters in Washington, D.C., along with vetted but often beleaguered freelancers.

At a time when humanity desperately needs inspirational, science-based journalism, National Geographic is hemorrhaging hands. Simultaneously, its logo is festooned on fashion products and polar cruise vessels.

The optics are horrendous. And the dividing lines between mouse and microscope are blurry.

While the Disney arm of National Geographic, called National Geographic Partners, is its most visible appendage, the National Geographic Society functions as an independent nonprofit entity still dedicated to its more than 130-year-old scientific mission. Functionally, the National Geographic Society has little to do with the bank account of Bob Iger, the galaxy of George Lucas, Steve Jobs’s side hustle or the spirit of Stan Lee.

Though the nonprofit society’s work brought the National Geographic name to prominence, its work is usually undertaken in the shadow of its glitzy spin-off.

In the tangled maze of jungle and pumice pathways beneath Costa Rica’s Arenal Volcano, Jose Pablo Castillo unfurls a green, brown and blue flag that catches an updraft, wafting forward through a blanket of mist. To the uninitiated, the white letters sprawling across its width appear out of place, bootleg even. They read, “National Geographic Society;” and the letters are emblazoned on a copy of the nonprofit’s historic tricolor ensign dating to a 1903 polar expedition funded by industrialist William Ziegler. Alongside the banner of The Explorers Club, the National Geographic Society flag—with not a hint of gold in sight—has accompanied explorers on scientific expeditions to both poles, to the summit of Mount Everest and onboard Apollo missions to the moon.

To wield it is an honor.

Castillo is on his third day as the leading guide of a National Geographic Expeditions tour of his home country. And though the unveiling occurs atop a small peak on a less than two-mile hiking trail, the Costa Rican naturalist appears to beam with pride as he wrangles the flag into position for a photo-op.

An assembled crew of tourists stand befuddled nearby, negotiating selfies with the shrouded peak at Castillo’s back and distant Lake Arenal to his nose. Castillo’s crew crowds in for a shot taken with a Nikon in front of the flag. This is another line where mouse and microscope blur.

In 2023, National Geographic Expeditions launched a Wildlife and Conservation trip to Costa Rica, joining more than 250 similar trips around the globe. The itinerary pitches encounters with basilisk lizards, sloths, toucans, caiman and butterflies. It includes a grand tour of Costa Rica’s famous cloud forests crossing hanging bridges and a deep dive into ecological work in the rainforest at La Selva Biological Station & Reserve, a legitimate 3,820-acre research facility home to the country’s Organization for Tropical Studies.

The nine-day trip is lead by Castillo but headlined by National Geographic Explorer Jen Guyton, a Fulbright Scholar and PhD ecologist whose work stretches from Mozambique to the Florida Everglades. Castillo is an expert photographer. Guyton is a bonafide scientific explorer. Both are the kind of individuals that have been the bread and butter of the National Geographic Society for more than a century. And yet, National Geographic Expeditions—the host of the trip—is owned by Disney.

The rumble of a 50-person tour bus parked near the trail head reveals that this is not a scientific expedition. The trip is a tour designed by the meticulous, expert planners at Disney Signature Experiences to immerse fans of the National Geographic brand into a world adjacent to exploration that still features creature comforts like luxury hotels, three square meals per day and an air conditioned coach. Think Indiana Jones with an unlimited supply of American Express points or a nine-day visit to Disney World’s Animal Kingdom without the lines.

Disney Signature Experiences scouts are pros that also build itineraries for Disney Cruise Line, Disney Vacation Club and Adventures by Disney. They know their brands, know their travelers and claim to know what travelers want.

The bus bounces to Hotel Kiori Arenal, a five-star resort with in-room jacuzzis, lush gardens brimming with species Castillo expertly notes as invasive and handcrafted hot springs at the base of the 5,437-foot volcano. The hotel is thrillingly located within the blast zone. In the unlikely event of an explosion, the party could be asphyxiated by pyroclastic gas currents topping 1,800-degrees Fahrenheit moving at more than 400 miles per hour.

This experience may be curated, but Costa Rica is still perched on the Pacific Rim.

Not to worry. Arenal has been dormant since 2010. Adventure.

Inside a lodge reminiscent of the dining room set of “Jurassic Park,” sans velociraptors, Guyton begins a presentation on her research in Mozambique. Tree frogs stick to the glass as she slides through a gallery of afternoons spent climbing fever trees to plant cameras, and sleepless nights lying on a custom built platform in the savannah surrounded by hyenas. Guyton is excited to announce that the results of this work, including some of the most intimate nocturnal images of spotted hyenas ever captured, are scheduled to be showcased in National Geographic Magazine.

It will be one of the last issues to reach newsstands.

“All of the work in Mozambique was funded in part by the National Geographic Society,” Guyton explains. “Each of you here is contributing to work like this by being on this trip, because a portion of what you paid to be here goes back to the National Geographic Society to distribute grants, to fund science, exploration and storytelling. Thank you.”

Since 1888, the National Geographic Society has awarded more than 15,000 grants for scientific research and storytelling. Recipients earn the title “National Geographic Explorer” alongside funding and opportunities to host tourism trips with National Geographic Expeditions. The society’s roster of explorers contains a captivating cast including Guyton, oceanographer Bob Ballard, primate researcher Jane Goodall, marine conservationist Sylvia Earle and who’s who of lesser-known but incredibly well-respected colleagues.

It’s an elite list of a few hundred humans at any given time.

According to National Geographic Expeditions, explorers are the draw. While luxury tour providers abound, Disney has the power to summon real-life explorers connected to projects funded by the society onto tours. Guests eager to learn more about the planet’s plants, animals and cultures not only benefit from the unique chance to interact personally with an explorer, but also help fund further field work through the nonprofit branch of National Geographic.

At some point in the pipeline, Disney cuts the National Geographic Society a check for each guest on a National Geographic Expeditions itinerary and research continues to move forward. Itineraries range from $1,500 to $10,000 per guest. Grants for National Geographic Explorers can range up to $20,000 for early career projects and $100,000 for more proven candidates.

The official dollar figure kicked back from tours to field research has not been made publicly available.

A sloth emerges from the jungle canopy the day after Guyton’s presentation. Moving surprisingly quickly past a band of howler monkeys beside the Nicaraguan border at Caño Negro National Wildlife Refuge, the sloth dips behind dense branches as if to evade the flock of cameras and smartphones pointed its way. The diversity of Caño Negro’s wildlife surpasses most African safaris, and as Castillo leans towards the bow of a tour boat with a smile spread over his face, its apparent how joyful he is to see his country showing off for its guests.

Costa Rica has long been regarded as one of the most conservation-minded nations on the planet. Today on the Caño Negro, the rewards of two decades of subsidized afforestation work are being reaped. Howler monkeys are joined by capuchin cousins swaying from vines. Basilisk lizards skitter bow-legged across the water past sunbathing caimans. Iguanas cling securely to brambles, munching flora beside swaying palm trees. And a kaleidoscope of herons—green, blue, boat billed and tiger—loft into the sky.

The morning cruise is a high water mark for the trip’s wildlife photographers. But like most of the planet’s ecosystems, all is not well in Costa Rica. The country that built its ecotourism economy on the promise of vibrant cloud forests is watching them disappear. As global temperatures rise, the clouds rise with them leaving the low-slung peaks of Central America—where plants and animals have evolved to live in a misty, wet environment—out to dry.

Cloud forests represent just one percent of the world’s biome, down from an estimated 11% in the 1970s. In Costa Rica, they represent the last strongholds for delicate species like miniature orchids, charismatic cats like pumas and breathtaking birds like the resplendent quetzal.

National Geographic Expeditions attempts to introduce guests to this dilemma and give them a chance to lend elbow grease to the equation to help out. At the Monteverde Institute, guests have the opportunity to help nurture and plant trees that can help areas like the nearby Children’s Eternal Rain Forest Bajo del Tigre or the Montevedre Wildlife Refuge combat habitat loss and climate change.

The tour group pontificates politics while depressing dense, doughy soil into makeshift pots for seedlings. “My grandmother used to tell me that the trees will cry everyday,” says biologist Daniella Quesada Cruz, checking the pots for composition. “Now, we have many days where there are no tears at all.”

Since the 1990s, Costa Ricans in Monteverde, a mountain community located about two hours from airports in either San Jose or Liberia, have been working to transform grasslands created by logging and ranching back into forests. So far, they’ve counted more than 70 species of resurgent endemic trees in reforested areas, and they continue to plant between 15,000 and 20,000 trees per year.

All of them are planted by hand.

That work, Quesada Cruz says, is subsidized by ecotourists like those on National Geographic Expeditions trips who lend free labor to the cause. With thousands of seedlings to plant, every dirty fingernail helps.

The trees have made a difference. About 200,000 tourists per year now venture to Monteverde. And while their presence produces a logistical nightmare for sanitation, roadways and restaurants, tourism has also created an economy that does not rely on logging. The whir of zip lines has replaced the buzz of chainsaws in some areas. The clap of a camera shutter has sublated the crash of falling timber.

“There’s a very obvious benefit to nature,” adds Quesada Cruz. “Tourism has given us an alternative income that doesn’t rely on cutting down the trees. People are willing to pay to come here to see monkeys, to go on coffee tours and to go on night hikes to spot animals.”

By mid-afternoon the group has made its way to winding path of suspension bridges atop the peaks Sky Adventures. The park is home to the promised zip-lines, built into a dense forest at a higher altitude where the clouds should be most dense. There are no clouds in sight when Castillo comes bounding down the trail towards his group. “Get your cameras ready,” he shouts. “You’re about to see the most beautiful bird in the world!”

The group silently swarms a section of trail about 15 yards from a hollow stump in the undergrowth. A glowing, electric green quiver of feathers pokes out. It’s a resplendent quetzal—one of the Costa Rica’s rarest gifts. Castillo was not exaggerating. But as the flock of smartphones and camera lenses reemerges to document the bird, it vanishes. Guyton alone has beaten the tour group to the punch. Her photo is destined for the social media stream at National Geographic.

Everyone else will have to reach back into their memory banks to replay the dazzling, fleeting wonder behind the vines.

Much has changed at National Geographic since the creation of its magazine in 1888. Many articles published then seem as cringeworthy today as business decisions in the recent past might tomorrow. Condemnation of the brand’s direction under corporate leadership seems fair. But not all hope for National Geographic seems lost.

If National Geographic does still have a soul, it’s not likely to be found in a cost cutting boardroom. The soul of National Geographic is inside of explorers like Guyton, naturalists like Castillo, and conservationists like Quesada Cruz. It’s a floundering blood cell in the capillaries of travelers waiting for a rapid pulse to resurrect its course.

For the disenchanted, the itineraries at National Geographic Expeditions can provide a kickstart.

Though the magazine the world grew to love seems gone, programs connecting explorers to the public in another way still have the power to ignite inspiration in us all.

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