San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Ranching School Opens Doors to Day Trippers

IT’S 7 a.m. on a Saturday, and a largecrowd has gathered inside the Pacific trainstation in downtown San José. As rousingmusic begins to play, those who had beenseated jump to their feet, and shouts areheard throughout the mass. No, it’s notanother Costa Rican protest – it’s the startof a new one-day country tour to the smalltown of Balsa de Atenas, west of San José.America Travel’s Tren y Faenas a laTica (Tico Train and Rodeos) takes visitorson a day trip to the Central AmericanSchool of Animal Husbandry (ECAG).Juan Paniagua, the enthusiastic generalmanager of America Travel, said, “Withthis tour to Balsa, we are able to takeadvantage of the agro-ecotourism activitiescurrently offered by the school, and helpthem by bringing more visitors.”So far, response has been excellent. Ononly the second tour (the one we took),four passenger cars carried a full complementof 275 people, and 400 had reservationsfor the next tour that Sunday.AS the train leaves the station, it passesthrough the western suburbs of SanJosé, then Alajuela and Atenas, arriving inBalsa at approximately 9 a.m. Breakfastsnacks and juice boxes are included onboard, with coffee and soft drinks availablefor purchase. A strolling guitar playermakes his way through the passengercars, singing traditional Costa Ricansongs. During a brief stop in Río Grandede Atenas, local women board the train tohawk their homemade gallos and cheesetortillas.Upon arriving in Balsa, a bus awaits toferry the elderly and those with small childrento the ECAG fairgrounds; others takea 700-meter walk. The rodeo – featuringevents such as calf roping and “musicaltires” – is the highlight of the tour. Run byfaculty, the rodeo showcases the skills ofthe young cowboys (and cowgirls) attendingthe school, as well as some of the staffmembers themselves.One of the more unusual displays is anevent called carrera de cintas, in which arider on horseback attempts to catch a verysmall ring with a stick the size of a drinkingstraw. It looks as difficult as it probablyis, and if a cowboy manages to spear one ofthe rings, he is rewarded with the audience’sappreciation.AFTER the rodeo, passengers head tothe dining area for a typical casado (plateof the day) or a homemade corn tortillatopped with the school’s own sour creamor cheese – delicious! Later, visitors canopt to take one of three short tours around the school grounds, by tractor, oxcart orhorseback, for ¢500 ($1) per tour. Visitorsmay also choose to explore the grounds onfoot; trails meander throughout theschool’s 527 hectares.The school’s crocodile farm is a must visit.An ECAG student docent relayedthe story of the smaller male croc who hadthe misfortune to be put in the pond withthe very large dominant male; half of thepoor fellow’s tail was on the losing end ofthe deal. Very lucky visitors might evenget to pet one of the baby crocodiles,which, according to the student, “don’tbite very hard.”Passengers headed back to board thetrain at 3 p.m., narrowly missing the rain.After a busy day, children (and manyadults) fell asleep to the gentle sway of thetrain. But the fun wasn’t over yet – justbefore arriving at the San Antonio de Belénstation, the train’s staff, dressed in wigsand tropical shirts, took to the aisles for arather silly “carnival,” encouraging travelersto dance and sing along with them asthey passed.“ONCE the train tracks have beenrepaired in October, we will resume ourPuntarenas train,” Paniagua said, referringto the trip to Caldera, just south of thePacific port city. “Then travelers will havetheir choice of the beach or the country.”Both trains will be running Saturdaysand Sundays during the dry season (roughlyNovember through May), the first toCaldera/Puntarenas at 7 a.m. and the otherto Balsa at 8 a.m.“We are also offering a rail-bike tour,”Paniagua said, “where travelers disembarkat Cebadilla and ride 7.2 kilometers toECAG on specially designed bicycles thattravel right on the train tracks.”A unique activity in the Americas, thetour even allows cyclists to cross the310-foot tall Río Grande bridge. Rail bikereservations must be made inadvance by calling Michael Rhoade atAmerica Travel, 233-3300.The cost for the trip to Balsa is $22 forforeigners (including a casado lunch), and$9 for residents and nationals (withoutlunch). Guests may choose to be picked upand dropped off in Belén, northwest of SanJosé, but this option must be confirmed inadvance. For more information or to makereservations, call America Travel at 233-3300 or e-mail information about ECAG,

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