Rara Avis – an experience of extremes.

We “landed” at Playa Zancudo yesterday afternoon, after 3 weeks of full on, and at times exhausting, adventure here in Costa Rica.  We are spending the week at Peterborough friends Kris & Jim’s house … right on the beach.  It is wonderful. Virtually deserted on the beach, and not a “resort” in sight.  Never away from the sound of the surf.  House is soooo comfortable after moving along almost every night and camping some nights.  Jake calculated that before arriving, we’d been up before 5AM for 5 mornings in a row, for various reasons.  Now … we relax.  We’ve lots to share via blog updates.  And we’ll use the time to do some planning for our next phase in South America.  We have a land line at the house that will accept incoming international calls – 011-506-2776-0133.  And we’re always happy to connect via skype too … we have a good wifi connection here.  My skype ID is cam.douglas3
I went for a 5km run on Zancudo beach this morning.  I saw 1 person, 2 whales, and hundreds of birds.  Kaia and Jake have a new friend Yively (pronounce “Yabelly”) who is 11 – they’ve been playing on the beach and riding bikes, and this aft. saw 3 dolphins jumping just off of where they were boogie boarding an hour ago.  We’re good.

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Zancudo beach, in front of Kris & Jim's house

In 1988 I was in Costa Rica with my mom for 2 weeks.  Among other adventures, we travelled to the one-of-a-kind lodge destination of Rara Avis (“Rare Bird”).  In the early1980s, a group of tropical ecology grad students were studying in an area adjacent to Brauilo Carrillo national park in Costa Rica.  Many of them were adamant that the CR government needed to lock much more of the land base away in National Parks in order to protect CR’s amazing biodiversity, water and carbon sinks.  But one grad student, Amos Bien from the US, saw this as unrealistic politically because locals strongly resented losing access to traditional activities or worse, being forcefully relocated following the creation of a new park.  Amos instead wanted to protect rain and cloud forest by demonstrating that a standing forest was worth more than one cut down.  Money would come from very selective and carefully planned tourism and from the small scale but high value harvesting of medicinal and ornamental plants and animals.  He spent the next 6 months searching all over CR to find the right site for his project, and in 1983 settled finally on a location close to where the original grad studies had taken place.  A very rough road 11km long to a formal penal building (“el plastico“) would take visitors to the edge of the rainforest.  This old building was spruced up and used as a research facility and a staging area to build the eco lodge a further 4km into the jungle. 

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El Plastico. hard to picture this as a prison! (till mid 1960s)

A very rough cuorderoy road (logs layed across the mud) took guests a further 4km into the rainforest to the lodge site – adjacent to a magnificent two-tiered waterfall.  Mom and I were some of the very first clients to the waterfall lodge that had been hewn with a chainsaw mill out of trees cut in the lodge clearing.  Our 1988 ride in with Amos was epic … in his old jeep with wife, baby and little poodle.  We did the last 4km in pitch black, and I recall having to get out of the jeep to help Amos put a chain back on the rear wheel – in 1 ft of very loose mud.  Mom and I were woken up by parrots, macaws and other birds at 5AM, and had fantastic hikes with local guides.  The lodge experience clearly left an impression on me because I recommended the experience to our Peterborough friends the Storeys 5 years ago (more on that later!) and took my family back there 10 days ago.
We arrived in the Rara Avis base of Horquetas after leaving the Arenal area 5 hrs earlier on public bus.  We put some clothes into 1 and a half packs and were ready to go.  Most guests travel to the lodge via a tractor-pulled cart, but it was not being used that day so we went via horseback.  A jeep can no longer make the journey.  And honestly, I have no idea how the tractor and cart get past the ruts and rocks and mud.  Our friends the Storeys took the tractor ride.  It was bad enough that mom and daughter Daisy (Kaia’s friend) opted for the horseback out.  Dad and two sons braved the cart ride out … only to have the tractor blow a tire, and they ended up walking with their gear.  I can imagine some of the words that were put beside my name for recommending that journey!

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I believe it is the same cart that was in use 26 yrs back when mom and I were there!
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The handrails are a critical part of the cart.

Our travel by horse was actually really enjoyable.  None of us have any real experience on horses.  I’ve never been on a horse that did anything other than exactly what it wanted.  But these ladies were really well behaved.  We all marvelled at their agility – walking at times with two feet on different boulders and two feet in deep mud.  I often expected to tumble, but never did.  We left from town and arrived in El Plastico 3.5hrs later … just as dusk was falling.

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Horse wrangler Diego has all our gear and the food loaded onto pack horse
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journey starts with two river crossing on suspension bridges with "1 ton limit" because bridge in bad shape. Jake did some quick math and figured our 7 horses were over the limit!
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Most of our horse journey was through ranch land. It is this land use conversion that threatens the primary (old growth) forest of Costa Rica.
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Jake on "Pina" (that's Pinya) Our Rara Avis guide Juan follows with the pack horse
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Yvonne on "Maria"
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Kaia's "Rosita" was quite happy walking 50m behind us the entire way.
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I got my "Prima" galloping a few times
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after a few hours we started hitting patches of regrown ("secondary") forest
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this photo gives some idea of the rough road but does not do it justice. truth is, the worst sections were so rough that I could not even snap a photo from horseback 🙂

So we headed off into the jungle on a little muddy hiking trail in the last gasps of light.  As you can see in the photo below, we were still reasonably fresh and in good spirits.  3 to 4km … no problem!  After about 45 minutes when we expected to be about there, our guide informed us that we had only about another 45 minutes left.  We were slogging through mud, hopping from muddy bank to another, with only 3 headlamps and hadn’t eaten a thing for 5 hours.  My very very game family started seriously considering that dad had gone too far on this one.  Our guide Juan was intent to find us some cool wildlife along the way, but Yvonne politely suggested that we would be quite happy to just keep moving.  The Rara Avis welcome sign was indeed a welcome sight … you can see that Kaia was still in pretty good spirits.  The cook had met us at El Plastico to receive the incoming food then scampered ahead of us to start dinner.  He put very generous portions of spaghetti, rice and salad in front of us … not a crumb left 20 minutes later.

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yep ... all looking forward to our little jungle walk ... HA!
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Juan spotting frogs, toads and snakes enroute.
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a beautiful little tree frog that Juan had somehow spotted on a leaf

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can you see the fatigue in her smile? we made it!

It was pretty special for me to be back here 26 yrs later.  Mostly it was exactly like I remember it.  But the lodge was a bit more tired looking.  And the kitchen/eating area was much much larger.  We were the only guests there, as September/October are the slow (“green”) season.  Michael cooked.  His partner Carla cleaned the rooms and did the laundry.  And very cute daughter Sophia charmed the guests.  We slept brilliantly after the day’s workout …with the only sounds of crickets and faint roar of the waterfalls.

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Rara Avis waterfall lodge. 8 rooms, all with balconies, double beds, bunks and tiled washrooms. Toilets, tiles and everything else not wood had to be hauled in on the tractor cart ... somehow!
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Kaia birdwatching with Sophia
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Carla with Sophia. After some encouragement from Yvonne and partner Michael, Carla agreed to talk in front of our camera for the ecotourism video I'm making. I'd been acutely aware that all guides/managers to this point had been men, so wanted to hear from some women in this line of work.

Following breakfast the next day Carla pointed out the resident tarantula next to the eating area (wow!) and Juan caught a cricket to feed to another enormous spider.

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Juan then led us on the “cataract” trail.  I was pretty excited because I knew what was coming next, and loved watching and listening to my family’s reaction as they came out onto the waterfall lookout platform.

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15km from the nearest road. Now you know why Amos chose this site.

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On the way back along the trail, Juan explained to us that one of Rara Avis’s first guests (he was really a partner in Rara Avis) was a very adventurous Canadian biologist Donald Perry.  Perry realized how limited he was in studying the rainforest from ground level, when so much of the biodiversity is in the canopy.  So while studying at Rara Avis he built himself a platform about 25m into the canopy and would study/work there for a week or more at a time without coming to the ground.  Perry also built horizontal cables from tree to tree so he could explore in that manner too.  Other guests asked Perry if they could check out his setup, and he then started taking people up for $50.  From what we understand, this was the very beginnings of “canopy tours” that are now pervasive throughout Costa Rica and all over the world.

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look up. waaaay up. and you can see the remnants of Donald Perry's canopy platform
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a wall remains from Perry's platform
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Juan had a great sense of humour and an uncanny ability to spot or sense things to tell us about

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This tree evolved to prevent its climbing and ultimate demise from a 6m tall giant sloth that lived 5 million years ago
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the call this the "marimba" palm because it sounds like a marimba when you run a stick past the very rigid spikes on the bottom of the leaves
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master of camouflage

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this stained glass palm is very popular in Costa Rica and was one of the high value items harvested in Rara Avis. But they were afraid that when the source became known, locals would sneek into the reserve to find the ferne and overcut it so they stopped harvesting
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this "walking palm" will slowly migrate itself towards a better sun location!

We didn’t miss a minute upon arriving back at the lodge to grab a towel and head for the falls.  You had to carefully make your way down the side, then across slippery rocks.  But what a feeling to jump into the very cool water and let the falls pound on your head and shoulders.

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the upper falls

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Jake at brink of lower falls
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Our own "infinity" pool
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having fun with the GoPro camera at the base of the lower falls

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a fine family moment!
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Juan warned us before we headed to the falls to be careful around flash floods - the rains are intense upstream and catch you by surprise in the pools of the falls. While swimming at bottom of the lower falls we heard an alarm go off... but a bit faintly. Faint enough that we chose to ignore ... we would watch the falls carefully and after all ... who wanted to leave this! Next day walking with Juan far from lodge, we heard the "alarm" again. Special cricket that blasts every 2 seconds he tells us. We told Juan about the swimming "alarm" and he howled with laughter.
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post-swim lunch

After the previous days hard work and our great swim, we were ready to relax.  The lodge is high enough in the mountains to pick up “one bar” of mobile service.  I typed the monteverde climate rally blog from my porch lookout.  And you can see that my family took it upon themselves to relax,.

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We spent the hour before dinner doing some work on our video, with Kaia and Jake taking turns explaining how Rara Avis was the really the pioneer and has in many ways become the benchmark for the “eco” in ecotourism.  The International Ecotourism Society defines ecotourism as:
“responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.” (TIES, 1990)
“Ecotourism is about uniting conservation, communities, and sustainable travel. This means that those who implement and participate in ecotourism activities should follow the following ecotourism principles:
Minimise impact.
Build environmental and cultural awareness and respect.
Provide positive experiences for both visitors and hosts.
Provide direct financial benefits for conservation.
Provide financial benefits and empowerment for local people.
Raise sensitivity to host countries’ political, environmental, and social climate.”

Access to the lodge is intentionally difficult.  This extends people’s stays, involving less transport.  Horses … no carbon.  Hot water for showers is “on demand”.  The lodge was built for natural ventilation and illumination – there are no lights or heating/AC. They run a small generator for 4 hrs/day for lights in the kitchen – and use less than 1kWhr/day (average Canadian home uses 25/day) and they plan to install a micro-hydro generator at the falls (I’d love to help with that!).  This tiny lodge deep in the jungle even has waste diversion that would put most Canadian institutions to shame.  Where possible, packaging is returned to the supplier.  I could go on …
The guides to/from and at the lodge and all the documentation at the lodge certainly provide awareness … of all sorts of wildlife, but perhaps more importantly of the plight of tropical rain/cloud forests and the different strategies being employed to protect them and reduce tourism impacts.
The very modest number of guests that Rara Avis can accomodate and the fact that they walk the last 4km in helps make sure that the guests are the sorts that the hosts will enjoy.  Or maybe they arrive hopping mad!?
Past guests responded to a fund raising campaign by Rara Avis (logging was encroaching) to purchase a larger block of land around the lodge, so the reserve is now quite substantial – it directly protects 1200 acres and has indirectly conserved a further 2500 acres.  95% is primary forest with many endemic species – this is very high value biodiversity.  The reserve has resulted in 337000 less tons of CO2 being emitted, because the protected areas were slated for cutting.
All employees (including management) are from the local community of Horquetas, are well paid and receive medical insurance.  Further, they receive extensive training in the context of often very little formal schooling.  Long term employees receive stock in the company.  The majority of management positions are held by women. Food is sourced from Horquetas.  Rara Avis has contributed to the local school, the roads, bridge maintenance and the local community development fund.
Amos is still regularly involved with Rara Avis but teaches at the U. of San Jose and is on staff at the Global Sustainable Tourism Council.  He has been a leader in sustainable tourism first in Costa Rica and now globally.  We tried to track him down in San Jose for an interview, but learned that he was actually in Toronto at a tourism conference!

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darkness falls so fast in the tropics

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With dinner finished, Juan offered to take us on a night hike.  Jake stayed back with a sore tummy, but the three of us really enjoyed more of Juan’s discoveries.

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OK .. really! How the heck did he spot this 6" chameleon 15ft up a tree in the pitch black?
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This guy was very poisonous (I'm zoomed in!). We did not argue with Juan when he suggested he'd lead the way.

We were up in good time the next morning to start our hike out.  We loved the horse riding on the way in, but this was rather expensive so opted for the full hike out.  The 1st 4km through the jungle were much more enjoyable with some light!  We gave Juan much more time to explain things than on the way in … and appreciated his spotting these two tracks.

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very elusive Jaguar had passed along this trail just hours before
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ocelot track - a smaller relative of the jaguar
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I just love this sign. Just 4km ahead!

Juan then offered us the “scenic” route where we would get to some lookouts, have more time in shaded forest and avoid walking along the “road” we came in on.  Sounded good – let’s go.  He led with his machete swinging at all the growth across the trail, then commented that he hadn’t actually been this way in quite a while.  Neither had anyone else, apparently.  So the adventure continued! After about 4 hours of very steady hiking/bushwakcing through the mud/forest we arrived to the open pasture land.  Sorry Amos … but for the first time, open pasture looked pretty good to all of us.  Another 90 minutes later we arrived at a rather unique resort perched high above the valley (“Mirador Prendas”) where we guzzled cold drinks and waited for a guy to drive us the remaining 5km back to Horquetas.

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this is the "road" through the final 4km to the lodge. It has sunk about 8ft since I was there 26 yrs ago.

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enjoying the view and lack of bushwacking ... but really tired
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cold drinks at Mirador Prendas. Ahhhhh....
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a good ending to a great adventure

Rara Avis leaves me inspired but with some questions.  At so many levels, it appears a model for ecotourism.  But it is so difficult to get there, and such a challenge to maintain … it caters to relatively few, so where do all the “other” tourists go?.  On the other hand, the project has protected a very large swath of primary rainforest otherwise vulnerable to cutting – just as Amos set out to do.  Many university and local school children have studied there and fell in love with tropical forests.  26 years of guests have walked the trails and swam in the pools.  The dedication of all those involved is quite breath-taking.  The horse wrangler started back down the mountain for the return 10km to Horquetas with 7 horses, over crazy potholed road.. in the pitch black.  Cook Michael had to hike the 4km out to El Plastico to get the food that came in by horse, then carry in his pack back to the lodge .. in the dark.  I learned that numbers are down in the past few years.  Rara Avis is struggling financially.  We couldn’t actually afford to stay at Rara Avis – it is very expensive.  But after an email exchange a week before, their manager granted us a complimentary stay (we paid only for horses and food) because I’m a return customer and we will feature them in the film doc. we’re creating.  They need publicity.  They are also competing in an increasingly crowded field of ecotourism in Costa Rica.  So ironic … as Amos and many others involved at Rara Avis have worked so hard to make sure this market develops, and develops properly.  Having said that though, their offer was so generousand appreciated.  It was very meaningful to be back with my family while in the midst of exploring our Costa Rica theme of ecotourism.
So if you find yourself near Horquetas in north-central Costa Rica with some time, money and a bunch of energy and curiosity … rara-avis.com  !
Cam

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