With images of wooden jungle cabins, untouched beaches and wild animals roaming free, the word “eco-tourism” resonates with my memories of Costa Rica like no other. Never before have I traveled a place where ENVIRONMENTAL SUSTAINABILITY was written across nearly everything: car rental companies, back country lodges, traditional restaurants, tour agencies and yes, even luxurious beach resorts. Costa Rica is a popular holiday destination for thousands of tourists and explorers each year – they flock to the little Central American country to marvel at rare animals or plants populating secluded patches of rain forest or tropical beaches; they indulge on the local fruit and fish; and with all that leave a significant footprint behind.
To minimize the ecological impact of the streams of travelers, national politics were adjusted and strongly support the goal of environmental sustainability. One of the main purposes of educational tourism nationwide is the importance and methods of protecting the Earth’s green lungs. Being “ecologically sustainable” to the Costa Rican tourism industry is like a pair of high heels to a Travelette – absolutely necessary!
The Green South: Osa Peninsula
According to National Geographic the Osa Peninsula is “the most biologically intense place on earth”. It is home to one of the last lowland tropical rainforests and part of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, which stretches from Mexico through most of Central America and connects national parks, nature refugees and wild lands. Areas of ecological interest on the Osa Peninsula are the Corcovado National Park, the blue waters of Golfo Dulce, the Piedras Blancas National Park and the Golfito Wildlife Refuge.
Up until the 1980s big parts of the peninsula were owned by the agricultural empire United Fruit Company and the port of Golfito center of the banana export industry. After the sudden end of the banana industry the area was rearranged and is today made up partly of palm oil plantation and partly of protected National Park areas.
The Rainforest of the Austrians
To reduce the former and increase the latter is the personal mission of Viennese musician Michael Schnitzler. Over 20 years ago he founded the NGO „Rainforest of the Austrians“ in order to safe the Esquinas rainforest at the border of Piedras Blancas National Park. Over the years the organization fund-raised enough money to purchase land and by now ~72% of the Esquinas rainforest were incorporated into the National Park.
Driven by the big success in saving the rainforest the aims of the NGO have widened. Schnitzler’s organization also runs a community development project for the neighboring village La Gamba, a wildcat conservation program and an eco-lodge for its visitors.
In addition to land and property for its lodge the Rainforest of the Austrians purchased an old farmhouse to install a research center for biologists from the University of Vienna. The La Gamba Biological Research Station is an internationally rewarded research station and is open to students, scientists and amateur biologists from all over the world. Since 2011 it is an official field station of the University of Vienna and welcomes mainly study groups from Austria and Germany. Its central project is the reforestation of purchased former plantation land – ironically part-financed by the Austrian energy giant OMV. Students and volunteers alike can take part in this project and help to bring the Esquinas rainforest back to its former size.
The Esquinas Rainforest Lodge
The Esquinas Rainforest Lodge was built and opened in 1993-94 in order to provide a sustainable source of income to the village of La Gamba, as an alternative to the palm oil plantations. It is the largest employer in the community – most the employees come from La Gamba. It has 14 rooms located in wooden cabins around the property. An exclusive and private jungle villa was a later addition to the facilities. The central meeting point of the lodge is the spacious community house with the dining area, a bar and lounge area. Wooden steps lead upstairs to the library and TV room which holds literature and other material on the peninsula and the NGO.
Visiting in green season, our stay at the lodge felt almost like a family visit. The lodge is absolutely secluded from other touristic amenities, so we spent most of our time exploring the surrounding grounds. The manager Catalina (more about her later) welcomed us warmly and made us feel at home. She organised a tour to the neighboring biological station, where we got a glimpse of the research that is being done and talked to one of the volunteers. The nights we spent chit-chatting about Catalina’s life, the rainforest project and life in La Gamba over glasses of delicious red wine. Upon our departure, we were lying in her arms and being kissed goodbye like friends. This is tourism on a different level.
The Costa Rica Tourism Board ICT rewarded the lodge’s priorities with a three-leaf Certificate of Sustainable Tourism (CST) and due to the reforestation project the lodge is one of the few places in Costa Rica to be 100% carbon-neutral.
This „eco-policy“ shows itself all over the lodge: the served meals are based on traditional Costa Rican cuisine and ingredients come from local farmers or are harvested at the lodge’s grounds; no chemicals are added to the freshwater pool, guests and employees alike take part in the recycling program, the cabins and common areas are furnished with natural materials and local products – the beautiful curtains, for example, are handmade by local native women.
Even though this is one of the hottest and most humid areas of Costa Rica (almost 100% humidity) the lodge does not use air conditioning, but rather builds on natural ventilation. Like in many other jungle lodges the windows lack glass panels – air can easily flow through and the best thing for me: falling asleep and waking up to the sounds of the jungle.
The lodge and the research station are great places to meet interesting and inspirational people. One of them is Catalina, the general manager of Esquinas Rainforest Lodge. Originally from San Jose area she got married and accompanied her husband to the south of the country. He worked as a hotel manager and was soon offered the job as the general manager of the Esquinas Rainforest Lodge. Their relationship failed and Catalina returned to the capital – but she had not anticipated what happened next. Soon Schnitzler was looking for a new general manager and offered her the job. The highly educated single mother of one hesitated – but just for a moment – and accepted the offer.
„Michael gave me this great opportunity, but also pointed out the things I had to consider.“ As mentioned, the Osa Peninsula has a very special climate and the extreme humidity can make little things in life much harder – try air-drying your laundry for example, all my attempts failed… Another factor worth keeping in mind is the machismo of the Costa Rican men. In the mid 90ies it was still a big, almost unimaginable step for a woman to rock the men-dominated world of management. However Catalina has done a perfect job in that and manages to give the lodge a personal touch. She welcomes her guests as if to her home and is a true inspiration for any Travelette out there!
The Osa Pensinsula is all about wildlife watching. To get the most out of Corcovado National Park plan at least to spend three nights in the park, as it already takes 8 hours by foot to reach the first ranger station that offers a campground. Camping is the only way and proper equipment is crucial. You see, hiking this park requires good organization and preparation, there are however plenty tourist agencies offering guided tours or private nature guides.
Even though Corcovado National Park is superior in wildlife density – even rare sightings of jaguars and tapirs are possible – the smaller Piedras Blancas National Park and Esquinas rainforest are suitable alternatives for those with less time or expertise. Whether you decide to explore the short trails of the lodge or choose a longer route, this forest promises interesting wildlife and isolated areas. The lodge also offers a variety of organized tours to discover lands and waters surrounding it, e.g. night hikes with a local guide, to spot a variety of tropical frogs and insects. If you decide to walk on your own remember the 1×1 of Wildlife Watching: walk slowly and quietly to hide your presence as good as possible, always look twice as a leaf might actually be an animal, and (most important of all) bring a well filled pot of luck!
Thank you to Catalina from Esquinas Rainforest Lodge to host us for a couple of nights and helped us organizing tours and interviews. Ever since our biology teacher showed us a video about the Rainforest of the Austrians I have dreamed about visiting myself. In the original imagination I was a biology student at the University of Vienna rather than a travel blogger for Travelettes, but it’s the end result that counts, right? And to be honest – I think I did quite well!
All photos by Brian Shaw, except portrait of Catalina by Kathi Kamleitner