Updated: Dec 2, 2022
Introduction: How does a successful private reserve look and feel like?
A few months ago in July, I had the opportunity to visit the town of Monteverde for the first time in my life. This in itself doesn’t sound very impressive, but growing up in Costa Rica I had heard of this town and of Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve for most of my life, and everyone spoke to me of the place with high regard. So, while I was exploring the town and enjoying the scenery, the same question kept popping into my head: why did it take so long for me to come here?
There really is no single answer to that question. I am an avid mountaineer and this passion has led me to remote areas of Costa Rica that most Ticos (Costa Ricans) won’t ever visit. I have also done volunteering in many secluded places and communities in my country, but neither of these interests ever took me to this amazing place. Once there, something about Monteverde made me feel a little sad about not visiting the place earlier, like I had not taken full advantage of my opportunity as a Tico.
What was it about that place that felt so different, so special to me? Working as an administrative manager for an environmental NGO (The Nature Fund for Costa Rica), I was naturally curious about a community so well known for its close relationship with nature. After talking to many people from the community and doing a little reading into its history, I feel it has to do with the integration of the human community and the natural ecosystems Monteverde is embedded in. The community is located in the Tilarán Mountain Range near the continental divide, which marks the separation of the Atlantic and Pacific slopes in Costa Rica. This, among other characteristics, makes the area a hotspot for biological diversity and a melting pot of different species of flora, fauna and other organisms.
In the first few decades of the 20th century, the area was settled initially by a few Ticos who either worked at nearby mining operations or provided services to those who worked at the mines. Some of these early settlers cleared land in order to undertake agricultural endeavors and live the simple and humble Costa Rican country lifestyle.
In the 1950s many Quakers and a few other pacifists and conscientious objectors from Alabama decided to move to Costa Rica, escaping the US draft for the Korean war. Costa Rica had abolished its army just a few years before, so living here aligned perfectly with their pacifist ideology. They chose Monteverde for its cool climate, its peaceful agrarian setting and the general welcoming culture of the local inhabitants.
According to what I was told by the people in Monteverde, it was these immigrants who gave the name Monteverde (Green Mountain) to the area, due to its lush and ever-green scenery. It was actually these settlers who first set apart some of their farmland for conservation. During the following decades the area came to the attention of scientists, and word of the area’s biological riches spread. George and Harriet Powell would be some of the leading figures among these scientists, conducting research and investing their own time and money into acquiring land in order to establish a biological preserve.
Some of the researchers who visited the area worked with, or were in some way affiliated with, the Tropical Science Center, a Costa Rican environmental and scientific NGO founded in 1962. This organization has a long track record of working both with the Costa Rican government and with the private sector in order to further environmental and research initiatives, and they have brought together many actors in various fields to achieve their goals. As a result of the collaboration between Monteverde’s settlers, scientists, and the Tropical Science Center, the Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve was founded in 1972.
Half a century later, I was walking the streets of Monteverde, having no idea of the actual impact the creation of that preserve had on the community and surrounding area. The preserve started out as a protected area of approximately 328 hectares (810 acres), with little to no installations for research or lodging. However, the sheer value of its biological resources attracted more and more researchers and lovers of nature to visit the preserve. This also activated the town’s economy and created an opportunity for further diversification of economic ventures.
This process continued throughout the decades and now the community of Monteverde has become its own administrative unit (canton) within the province of Puntarenas, and will soon have its own municipality and mayor. The town is now visited by approximately 250,000 tourists annually, 70,000 of whom visit the preserve. Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve has grown to harbor a protected area of 10,500 hectares (25,946 acres) and additional private preserves and wildlife refuges have been established, further expanding the land now destined for conservation and preservation.
Monteverde is clearly an example of how private nature preserves can have a positive impact, not only on the natural ecosystems they seek to protect and restore, but also on the human communities that interact with them. It is no question that this case serves as an inspiration for other conservation initiatives taking place in Costa Rica. We, at The Nature Fund for Costa Rica, are thrilled to emulate and adapt successful models like this one in our own efforts to bring about impactful change.
Introducing Jim Damalas: the inspiring mind behind Los Mayos
Boasting beautiful scenery and plentiful wildlife, Manuel Antonio National Park is Costa Rica’s most visited national park. It’s one of those magical places, where the jungle meets the ocean and visitors get to experience the lush beauty of Costa Rica’s central pacific coastline. The town of Manuel Antonio and neighboring Quepos have both been impacted by the park’s extensive influx of visitors. What used to be a small coastal town, now is a bustling urban development with abundant businesses focused on supplying visiting tourists with anything they might need in their stay.
One of the businesses with a long history in the town and known by all the locals and remembered by all those who visit it, is Sí Como No Resort, Spa & Wildlife Refuge. A reference in sustainable tourism both in the national and international tourism industry, Sí Como No captures the best the area has to offer in terms of facilities and hospitality, but also in regards to admiring and respecting the area’s natural beauty and resources. Jim Damalas, a pioneer in the sustainable hospitality industry, was responsible for instilling these values into Sí Como No’s culture. He was one of the first people in the hospitality industry to put his ideas and philosophies into practice at Sí Como No. These values are evident not only in Sí Como No’s devotion to sustainable practices, but also in its dedication to the local community.
Jim arrived on the Manuel Antonio scene long enough ago to see the positive impact that tourism had on the neighboring towns and communities. Yet he has also been witness to what happens when there is rapid population growth without proper land use planning and an urban development plan. What used to be a small town is now an urban development, but there has been little to no control over the many homes and constructions that have come up during these past 30 years. Many neighborhoods face issues such as overpopulation, unemployment, a proliferating illicit drug market and other social problems. These urban areas were developed with scarce regard to environmental impact and issues like flooding during the rainy seasons affect hundreds of local inhabitants. Witnessing this is something that would stay with Jim, and also affect the project that would serendipitously fall into his lap.
Most successful environmental initiatives entail the work and coordination of many people from different backgrounds. It is also true that the vision and actions of certain individuals, coupled together with some luck and serendipity, bring about change and new opportunities for development. This, I feel, is the case with Jim; as it also was the case with individuals like George and Harriet Powell in establishing Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve. A few miles northeast from Manuel Antonio, hidden among the green hills that overlook Manuel Antonio, lay a hidden treasure that Jim would soon discover — the village of Santa Juana.
Santa Juana: A hidden gem in rural Costa Rica
Santa Juana is the place where it all begins for Los Mayos Mountain Nature Reserve, and the next step in Jim’s ecotourism and conservation journey. Almost 20 years ago, Jim found himself driving with his close friend and venture partner, Hugo Arias, from Quepos up into the mountains towards the famous coffee plantations of the area known as Los Santos. Jim was on the lookout for a property where he could build a home for his retirement, and was searching far from the busy streets of Manuel Antonio and Quepos. He was looking for a place that reminded him of the simple and rural feel that is characteristic of the remote areas of Costa Rica.
While on this drive they came upon a sign that announced the availability of “cervezas frías” (cold beer). Intrigued by the possibility of finding cold beers in a town with no access to electricity, they stopped by the little shop and, against all odds, they found the “cervezas” were actually cold. Whilst enjoying his beverage, Jim noticed a secluded hilltop in the distance that mesmerized him and lit up a spark inside him. It was this unplanned detour, this serendipitous cold beer, that led Jim into his next phase of diving deeper into the concept of rural tourism and conservation.
The rural town of Santa Juana is located in the foothills of the Talamanca Mountain Range, hidden from the usual path of accelerated development along Costa Rica’s Pacific coast. The town belongs to the district of Naranjito, which in totality is home to approximately 4239 inhabitants, although 52 people call Santa Juana home. Most of these people have historically depended on subsistence agriculture and logging for their livelihood, and throughout the generations, many have experienced the need to leave their homes in search of employment. This is the reality of many rural communities in Costa Rica and throughout the world, a reality that is often overlooked by many. Jim came to understand it from conversations with his new neighbors (Jim did purchase his dream hilltop lot and built his dream retirement “casita”).
I visited Santa Juana for the first time, just a couple of months ago (September 2022), as part of a field expedition with the Nature Fund for Costa Rica’s Board of Directors. We were getting to know projects and communities that we would like to support. Again, as with Monteverde, I was mesmerized by the scenery. The green slopes, the hidden valleys issuing the faint but constant rumbling of waterfalls, and the beautiful views of the coastline and Manuel Antonio National Park. All of this paired with the deliciously unequivocal fragrance of a rural Costa Rican kitchen and the quiet, peaceful setting of a genuinely simple town, like so many beautifully unique villages in my country. I wondered to myself, yet again; what was it about this place that felt so different, so special to me? Why did it take so long for me to come here?
In that visit I had the opportunity to acquaint myself with Jim, Hugo Arias and many other members of the Santa Juana community. We talked to senior members of the community, to young adults and we also visited the local elementary school and got to meet the lovely children of Santa Juana. It was eye opening to see just how much of an empowering impact a responsible approach to rural tourism could have in a community. Since he had purchased the land for his home, Jim came to know the reality of lack of employment opportunities within the community. The fact that only one child was enrolled in the elementary school at that time, signaled a desperate situation in which many people were opting to leave their homes in search of better opportunities.
Tourism in Santa Juana did not start with an outsider building and imposing a large touristic development with no regards to its social and cultural context. It started with Jim and Hugo becoming members of this community and taking notice of seemingly contradictory dynamics; in a place of breathtaking natural beauty, the local residents who had inhabited the area were poor and had little hope for change. Yet, as is the case with many communities with similar conditions, its residents were active and engaged with community development and improvement, limited as it were by its remoteness and lack of access to basic services. In a village of around 39 people at the time, there were four active local community development committees that focused on the issues of water supply, street improvement, church activities, and school and education.
The solution was born through the expansion of economic opportunities, making use of the surrounding natural bounty and beauty - and preserving it, and the community members taking charge. The initial idea was set up by Santa Juana community members and their new neighbor, Jim, and Hugo Arias. They worked together on building a trail that runs through Santa Juana’s beautiful forested areas. The guided tour would be operated by locals and they would also provide a locally prepared meal that reflected the rural gastronomy of their village. Jim, on the other hand, would offer the tour of Santa Juana to his guests at Sí Como No.
The tour turned out to be a success. More and more guests started showing up and enjoying the secluded nature and waterfalls of Santa Juana’s trails, the warmness of its people, the unmatched panoramic views and, of course, the delicious homemade meals from Santa Juana’s rural kitchen. The community as well became more and more engaged as they perceived the economic benefit of steady employment in their home village and all the socialized benefits offered by Costa Rica’s government.
The tourists that got to experience the early stages of Santa Juana’s ecotourism venture, just couldn’t get enough of the place. Many of them commented that they would love to spend the night there, instead of just doing a day tour. Those involved with Santa Juana’s new tourism initiative began discussing the idea of establishing a lodge that would be run by members of the community. Having prior experience and knowledge about the impact an endeavor like this could have on a community, Jim incorporated a sociologist to ensure these discussions were done right and to offer group workshops. This ensured that Santa Juana’s community members were the ones with the brush in their hands, and they would be the ones to paint the picture of how a rural community lodge would look and feel like. Together they all determined how things would be run and therefore had a clear idea of the challenges ahead.
The lodge was named Santa Juana Rural Mountain Adventure Lodge and Nature Reserve, after the village’s patron saint Joan of Arc. As the project expanded at a steady pace, the reserve part of the venture became more and more relevant. The Lodge purchased forested areas to ensure they were kept as they were and also, they purchased and reforested abandoned farms adding to the growing protected areas in the vicinity. These protected areas came to be known as the Cloudmaker Nature Reserve.
Many years later, as I viewed the coast and Manuel Antonio far away on the horizon, I could only marvel at all the work that had been done to get the lodge running. The lodge’s restaurant was running at full steam near me, preparing delicious local recipes like tamales, casados (a typical Costa Rican lunch), picadillos and some sweet dessert I was sure to enjoy. They were getting everything ready to showcase their amazing rural gastronomy, served at a restaurant the locals had decided to call “Aquí No Más”, an expression that I would translate as “just around the corner”.
The occasion was a working lunch, where we were going to present The Nature Fund for Costa Rica to the locals who had done such an incredible job of transforming this little hilltop into a lodge that was very impressive, yet completely integrated into its rural setting. They were eager to get to know us and we were eager to get to know them, and hopefully we could start building the next stage of environmentally conscious initiatives in their lovely home. On our agenda was to discuss a new idea, the next step in this community’s constructive engagement with the rich natural environment that surrounds their homes. We were going to begin discussions around establishing a new nature reserve, the Los Mayos Mountain Nature Reserve.
Everything felt like it was in its rightful place and that, I believe, is the beauty of Santa Juana.