The country of Sarapiquí lies just off of the highway to Lion, and shares its name with the scenic river that has helped catapult the region into the national tourism spotlight. Just over an hour from the capital, mom-and-pop businesses, rushing rivers, rainforests and a plethora of adventure- and nature-based activities set Sarapiqui apart as a tourist destination.
Part of Sarapiqui intrigue is its complex social history. The capital of the district, Puerto Viejo lies a mere 30 kilometers south of Nicaragua. Historically, Puerto Viejo was a rowdy port town for boats bringing supplies from the Atlantic, via the San Juan and Sarapiquí rivers. Now that trucks can speed along highways extending to the Atlantic coast, the port is used more for tours and water taxis that provide transport to 40 small local communities which are still without road access.
Puerto Viejo has seen a 300% population growth in the past 20 years, most of which is due to an influx of workers coming to labor on banana and pineapple plantations. The majority of the population either arrived as refugees from Nicaragua or squatters that traveled from San Carlos after word spread that the banana companies were hiring and most of the land in the area was in the hands of absentee land owners. The families arrived and built houses, churches, schools and soccer fields, though the majority is still waiting to receive title to the land they are residing on. Although official social services are improvising this is not the utopian Costa Rica of which guide books sing praises. Open unemployment in the area is 6.9% but the economically inactive population is an estimed 53%, and 25% of children are born to teenage parents. The illiteracy rate is 18% and less than 50% of adults have completed elementary school.
The population increase taxed the environment, resulting in deforestation. However, local landowners have realized that capitalizing off the existing natural wealth held by the area’s remaining forests and river could prove economically, socially and environmentally profitable. Carlos Roberto Chavarria, executive director of Tirimbina Rainforest Center, and president of the Sarapiquí Tourism Chamber explained that Sarapiquí is working with the local municipality on an urban development plan that holds sustainable tourism principles at its core. Nearly 12350 acres of Sarapiquí is protected through private reserves, owned mostly by businesses involved in tourism, and only an estimated 10% of than land is used for tourism activities.
Rafting in Sarapiqui
The rest is solely for conversation, which helps to protect the region’s diverse species, including over 500 types of birds, 121 of mammals, and a myriad of amphibians, reptiles and insects. With a current annual visitor rate of 200000 – up from just 30000 in 1996 – the development plan is also pushing to pass a policy prohibiting hotels with more than 60 rooms. As Chavarria explains, “We would like for the local population to understand that the local population to understand that the local economy as a whole can benefit from well-managed tourism,” such as tourists who purchase from local stores and local suppliers who sell to tourism based businesses to buy certified wood from a local sawmill, a decision which will directly benefit some 500 small responsible producers of wood, according to Sarapiquí mayor Pedro Rojas.
Upriver, the Centro Neotropico SarapiquíS in the town of La Virgen, which is also much more than just a hotel. I addition to the 36 pre-Columbian-style rooms complete with traditional Palenque-style thatched roofs, the Centro Neotropico boasts a museum featuring the eight remaining indigenous tribes in Costa Rica. Jimenez led me through the Alma Ata Archaeological Park where we saw several of the 70 existing 600-year-old tombs. The excavation of the site began in 2000, and the majority of the ceramic pieces and other artifacts are now part of the National quite small statue from the Voto tribe – one of the 22 tribes that existed in pre-Columbian Costa Rica. The Votos, Jimenez explained, were peculiar in that they were a matriarchal tribe, with women chiefs, female shmans and that polygamy was allowed for women, though not for men. This traveler would give her voto to go back to those good old days.
We also visited the “Etnho-botanic” garden, which features native plant species used by the indigenous people in the area, for food, medicine and construction. The Centro Neotropico uses solar panels to heat water in guests’ rooms and a bio water treatment pool that uses a combination of volcanic rocks and plant roots to clean wastewater enough to return it the natural environment, verified on a regular basis through third party monitoring.
Next door, the Tirimbina Rainforest Center offers an 890-acre reserve, research and environmental education center. Founded in 1995, the TRC is run by the Pura Vida Foundation, a US-based non-profit with board members in both countries. The reserve is worth a visit for the entrance alone, as an 860 – foot suspension bridge takes you across the Sarapiquí, across an island and into the heart of the forest. Tirimbina offers day hikes, overnights at either the guest house or in the reserve’s field station, a new twilight walk and a night walk featuring our favorite furry flying mammals.
La Paz Waterfall in Sarapiqui
Tirimbina has outreach programs that raise awareness of the rainforests. Students and local residents participate, helping dispel myths of perceived dangers lurking in the shadows. “Local people know that Tirimbina is the community’s reserve,” states Chavarría, and they have responded positively to the TRC’s efforts in the community.
Signs along the road proclaimed that “Pozo Azul is… Adventure.” For many visitors, Sarapiquí is rafting, and under the water-wise guidance of Barbara, our spunky captain, my Argentinean inflatable boat crewmates and I spent a thoroughly enjoyable two hours navigating rapids with names like “Superman,” “Confusion,” and, the one that struck fear into my heart: “the Gringo Eater.”
After returning to shore, we journeyed horseback out to Pozo Azul’s tent camp, where large four-person tents on wooden platforms complete with mattresses and pillows allow visitors to enjoy the sounds and smells of sleeping in the jungle without leaving behind comforts of home. Most of the 2000-acre property is untouched reserve, but still holds the first working commercial and ecologically friendly dairy farm in the country. There, cow manure – a resource often foolishly left to sit as untouched cow pies in a field – is a gathered in a giant plastic dome.
The large quantities of methane gas that are produced then are converted into energy for the mechanics of the dairy farm via a generator, one of which is a special air conditioning system to make the non-endemic dairy cows more comfortable in their tropical home. Tourism activities have been added in the last a butterfly garden, hiking in the reserve, rappel, and mountain biking, to name a few. Guests can also take advantage of combo packages that include discounted rates and a excellent lunch in the hacienda’s restaurant.
It was time to go home. I recently left the real jungle for the urban, but knowing that by spending my mind to the culture and nature of Sarapiquí, I had helped support a community that is doing tourism in the right way.