Conscientious Tourism: Costa Rican vanilla crop failure opens a window of opportunity

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    Costa Rica has been living through an unprecedented tourism boom that is rapidly transforming the small Central American country. More than two million tourists a year pour into Costa Rica, and developers are building vast resort and condominium complexes along the Pacific coast. Real-estate sales are surging among North Americans and Europeans looking for a piece of retirement paradise.

    If you’re wondering whether the country can preserve its extraordinary natural beauty and reputation for eco-tourism in the face of racing development, you’re not alone.

    Fortunately, there are still many ways to step off the beaten track and experience Costa Rica from a different perspective.

    We discovered at Reserva Los Campesinos, a rural tourism co-operative in the small village of Quebrada Arroyo, not far from the popular resort destination of Manuel Antonio. The project, including several rustic cabins and a chalet with kitchen and dining area overlooking a lushly forested gorge, is run by the local community.

    It’s tourism with a difference. You know that your money is not going into the pockets of a foreign-owned hotel chain, but will instead provide badly needed income to the people who live here.

    When we arrived at Quebrada Arroyo and unloaded our packs, we were met with a nearly deafening serenade from the cicadas in the bushes and trees. It was a sound of incredible intensity, but remarkably peaceful.

    Our guide Victor Perez Mora led us down a path to our cabin, which overlooked a waterfall. Next door was the handsomely constructed open-air chalet where our meals would be prepared on a wood-fired stove.

    Perez Mora then told us the story behind Quebrada Arroyo.

    The area had been settled about 50 years ago by a small group of pioneering families who struggled to earn a living from logging and subsistence crops like sugar, rice, corn, and beans. Then came the good times.

    The villagers began to plant vanilla and soon prospered as the market price for vanilla beans soared to over $800 US a kilogram. Some families were earning as much as $20,000 US a year — a princely sum for rural Costa Rica.

    It didn’t last long. A pest struck the vanilla plants and they died from disease. Hard times returned and some families began to move away. A core group of villagers looked for ways to stay on the land and preserve their way of life. They decided on a tourism project that would emphasize sustainable development and forest protection.

    With the help of the United Nations Development Program, the community bought 33 hectares of land, built the cabins and lodge, cleared hiking trails and constructed a hair-raising suspension bridge that spans the gorge below them.

    We crossed the bridge on our first afternoon (definitely not for the faint of heart) and made our way to a series of waterfalls and a lovely natural swimming pool where the water was fine.

    The cabins were basic but comfortable. Meals were tasty, with dishes put out in a self-serve format and plenty of food for hungry appetites (although Costa Rican fare is quite simple).

    More than half the families in the village now earn income from the tourism project as guides, cooks or maids. And business is picking up, with more than 1,000 visits a year.

    Socially responsible tourism? Our two nights at Quebrada Arroyo made us feel good about spending our money here.

    – ACTUAR says the price for Los Campesinos has gone up this year, due to the rising cost of fuel. Current rates are: $133.50 U.S. per person for a two-day, one-night package including round trip transportation from Quepos, Manuel Antonio or Londres. Each additional night, with meals, costs $47 per person. The cost for a translator for two days is $112.50.

    – More information on Los Campesinos or on other community-owned tourism ventures represented by ACTUAR can be found online at

    – A visit to Los Campesinos can be combined with a trip to Costa Rica’s west coast where you can stop at popular resort towns like Jaco and Manuel Antonio or at the surfing mecca of Dominical. The best time to visit is during Costa Rican “summer” — the dry season that runs from December to March, when temperatures are comfortable and humidity is low.

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