Friday, February 29, 2008
Ecotourists in Costa Rica
Celebrating our thirty-fifth anniversary, Geeta and I just spent three glorious weeks in Costa Rica. It contains the most biodiversity of any place in the Americas, and after decades of struggling to build an economy in more conventional ways (coffee, bananas and pineapples, cattle), it has embraced ecotourism, taking advantage of its greatest resource of all. Not only does Costa Rica host a tremendous diversity of wildlife and flora, the people are unabashedly friendly. This combination, enhanced by a sensibly designed tourist infrastructure, makes a visit to Costa Rica a unique, unforgettable adventure.
We organized our trip around visits to forest reserves, both tropical rain forests and cloud forests. We traveled for the most part by bus, though we did take one private taxi, some boat launches, as well as a short plane ride in a tiny plane utilizing a gravel airstrip. Costa Rican buses are modern, on time, clean, and have mostly middle class riders, plus a sprinkling of tourists. The meal stops are also clean, with good food – local diners with cafeteria-style service. They put Greyhound to shame.
We are Quaker, and visiting the Quaker community at Monteverde in the northwestern highlands was a high priority. The core settlers were farmers from Fairhope Alabama, who arrived in 1952 during one of the government’s periods of agricultural expansion, giving land away in remote forested areas to squatters who were willing to improve it. The Quakers paid off the squatters, who were happy to squat again as neighbor. These “pioneers,” as the locals call them, took the patchwork of holdings, divided it amongst themselves, and proceeded to do what they knew best - clear most it for cattle.
In the early seventies, a series of visiting biologists persuaded the Monteverde Community that what they were doing was a huge mistake. One young man in particular, who had come to research his doctoral project, was so alarmed that he dropped out of his doctoral program and stayed to educate the Monteverde community. The Quakers renounced clearing more land, and supported the young biologist in his efforts to establish a forest research reserve, the Tropical Science Center, now 3500 hectares.
So the settlers who had modeled the government’s efforts at expanding the cattle industry now were chastened into the forefront of the preservationist movement, and a second wave of homesteading deeds became the last, superceded by a remarkable national effort to preserve as much rain forest as possible (now over 25%). In the Monteverde area, there are now three forest reserves; we stayed at a bed and breakfast between two of them. The Monteverdeans also took the lead in developing ecotourism.
Before our day in the Monteverde cloud forest reserve, we spent a morning on ziplines and canopy walks in a nearby park. It was exhilarating, and from canopy bridges we looked down on the scene we would explore on forest trails the next day. One quickly learns within these forests the immense importance of preserving them. Not only is there plant life in virtually every available patch of earth, but the trees themselves are covered with epiphytes, vines that root in the canopy and grow down towards the earth. Plants grow upon plants who grow upon other plants, a riot of symbiosis. One researcher found that a mature tree in the Monteverde forest hosted a ton or more biomass – dry weight! All of this is a carbon sink, the exact opposite of raising cattle, which when done conventionally is the most destructive agricultural practice on the planet, emitting vast amounts of CO2.
At the Monteverde Tropical Science Center, we went in a group of eight (the maximum countrywide) on a guided walk with a well-educated guide with a fancy scope for spying birds in the tall canopy. He confessed to us that as a boy, he used to come into the forest with a slingshot, but that attitudes had changed in twenty-first century Costa Rica. He helped us see that the mass of plant life also hosts a huge array of creatures: mammals, birds, snakes and butterflies. Geeta became an overnight birder, and we saw over 50 different species between us in our various walks, including a handful of the heralded quetzals and an amazing array of hummingbirds of all colors and sizes.
Our final stay was in the Osa peninsula in the country’s southwest corner, at a delightful but funky (“faded elegance” Geeta called it) ecotourist lodge. Marenco Lodge excelled in genuine hospitality and superbly trained guides. On an unaccompanied hike to see the “Giant Tree,” I saw a large herd of peccaries, who diverted from our path as we approached them. For the next fifty yards, I smelled their strong, distinct odor.
In the Corcovado Rainforest Reserve, which, like everything else on the peninsula we accessed by boat, our guide helped us see sloths, foraging coatis (raccoon-like creatures), a huge variety of birds, including many scarlet macaws, a Jesus Christ lizard (who walks on water), a crocodile, a tent-bat, and several monkeys. Jose had just been written up in the Tico Times as the “guide of guides,” and he was indeed marvelous, including detailed interlocking evolutionary history of much of the plant life, not just providing a pair of trained eyes and a lexicon. At one juncture, he pointed out a hummingbird nest that thrummed to the rapid heartbeat of the chicks it contained. While I was looking at a baby howler monkey, the infant woke up, and I suddenly found these piercingly alert eyes looking back through the scope at me. When we spied some spider monkeys, the most spectacular, with prehensile tails featuring a patch that is sensitive like our finger tips, Geeta had the unforgettable sight through her binoculars of a newborn, still glistening with an amniotic slick.
Being plunged in the midst of all this biodiversity was pure glory. Looking up at gigantic trees, some of them a thousand years old, trying to absorb the acres of biomass, and feeling surprisingly marginalized by the assured way in which the animals traversed their territory, I began to realize the primal truth that modern life has led us to disbelieve: we are guests in this place. Indeed I was a careful guest, not yet even a participant observer.
We need far more areas like this, places that can heal, serve as laboratories for future evolution, and remind us that we can be guests, not always masters. This is the approach strenuously argued by EO Wilson, the Nobel laureate entomologist and ecologist, founder of sociobiology. NEXT, second in a series of three: E.O. Wilson, Hotspots, and Global Warming.
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