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Costa Rica's Community-based Ecolodges

CostaRicaQuetzalCerroSavegre Quetzel in Costa Rica

January to April marks a great exodus of Canadians to Southern destinations, and the popularity of Costa Rica among tropical travellers is not surprising. You are never more than one hour from a National Park or private reserve teeming with plants and wildlife. 

A few hours more takes you to a beautiful coastal retreat. Couple this with a well-educated and peaceful host population and you have the makings for an ideal trip.

Costa Rica covers a mere 0.03 percent of the planet’s surface, and yet is home to 5% of all living organisms on earth. It seems to have it all; active volcanoes, lush cloud forests, lowland jungles, rolling savannas, black and coral beaches, and some of the finest forest-lined rivers. Such spectacular settings amplify the interaction with the country’s exotic flora and fauna.

The Nation had the foresight to protect nearly 30% of its land in a remarkable series of park systems while maintaining community development and measured economic growth. The result made them a pioneer and global leader in eco-tourism.

My first visit to the small Central American destination was a 14-day natural history exploration from coast to coast. Within thirty minutes from the capital San Jose, I found myself in Braulio Carrillo National Park. It is hard to imagine that such a large expanse of pristine wilderness lies so close to the city. The park was protected in 1978 after conservationists and developers worked together on a plan to open a road route to the Atlantic Ocean through the low-lying forest mass between two volcanoes - Barva and Irazu - with an overall aim of protecting bio-diversity. A multitude of distinct geographical zones are found in the park along with some 6000 plant types, dozens of mammal varieties and more than 300 bird species.

CatarataLodgeIt would be incomprehensible to visit such a place without an expert and so I was led along the trails by Federico Munoz, one of Costa Rica’s well-trained naturalists. He had been taking groups of scientists and nature lovers around Costa Rica for some 20 years. His extensive knowledge of birds, reptiles, mammals, insects and plants was to come in handy throughout the trip. Medicinal plants, camouflaged insects, colourful birds and butterflies and a pit viper were the exciting discoveries made on the first morning. The next day was equally rewarding during a visit to Cahuita, a small national Park that combines coastal rainforest with spectacular white sand beaches and offshore coral reefs. At dawn we set off for the forest zone where we found sloth, white-faced and howler monkeys, three lizard species and an array of new birds to add to our growing list. We ate a field lunch and spent the afternoon snorkeling among the corals before walking along a seven-mile beach trail created by the ebbing tide. Each day brought an abundance of sightings in the various parks and reserves.

The exhilaration of that first journey led to more adventures in Costa Rica, none so exciting as my journey to work with World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and several local NGO’s in three local communities; Arenal, Santa Elena and Bijagua. First was an effort to bring awareness to the need for wildlife corridors and a reduction of agricultural expansion into the green zones. As each region possessed a number of unique attractors and attributes, the aim of this community based development project was to assist in efforts to shift from deforestation and intense agriculture towards more environmentally-sound economic activities that include ecolodges, organic farming, medical plant nurseries, butterfly farms, and cottage industry development – all towards an environmentally sustainable future.

I have been back more than once to visit Catarata Ecolodge, one of three community ecolodges originally assisted by the WWF collaborative project. Its success continues today particularly in the areas of orchid rehabilitation, paca breeding, organic farming and butterfly nurseries. The famous Arenal Volcano is visible from the lodge on a clear day. An evening visit to the local hot springs is a delight, always keeping an eye for glimpses of the giant flow of incandescent red lava running down its slopes. The lodge also serves as a base for exploring the nearby forests, visiting the waterfalls (cataratas) and rafting the Sarapique River.

The drive to Santa Elena in the Monteverde region could take three hours but there are far too many scenic stops enroute that usually stretch the journey into five. Ecoverde Lodge blossomed from the community-based development project. It is a peaceful small lodge set by a large pond and surrounded by forest. A recommended stay of three nights will allow ample time to search for birds, monkeys and other wildlife in the cloud forest and dry forests that are protected in national and private reserves. Look for one of the most famous inhabitants, the Resplendent Quetzal. The Monteverde forest is home for many other interesting species such as the Emerald Toucanet, Black Guan, Purple Throated Mountain Gem (hummingbird), and the Blue Crowned Motmot, just to mention a few of the many birds found here.

From Central Costa Rica one can drive to the Northwest to the tiny community of Bijagua where Las Heliconias Ecolodge, the third of the community ecolodges is located. This basic accommodation sits on the edge of the pristine Tenorio National Park where a series of hanging bridges allows incredible canopy views of the flora and birds. Walking with the lodge owners, we hiked to the pristine Rio Celeste in Tenorio National Park. The azure waters of celestial blue were so beautiful and magical that I knew at that moment I would name my soon-to-be-born daughter, Celeste, after this beautiful place. Some day soon I hope to return to the ecologes with her.

Throughout Costa Rica are National Parks, Regional parks and private reserves and a host of community based ecolodges that support conservation and a sustainable economic future.

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