IN the hills above the burgeoning town of Escazú, where new U.S. restaurant franchises are sprouting up nearly as fast as high-rise apartments, a man known as don Torino runs a team of two oxen in a circle in the large, open shed next to his home. The beasts are tethered to the huge overhead crank of a 115-year-old machine called a trapiche that slowly crushes the juice from sugarcane harvested from nearby fields.
As curious eyes look on and photos are snapped, don Torino explains the slow process of extracting the liquid, then cooking it and pouring it into molds to make brown-sugar loaves called tapa dulce.
Don Torino receives groups of visitors regularly, as part of the tours conducted by the Association for the Conservation and Sustainable Development of the Hills of Escazú (CODECE). These tours, which focus on the people, the land and the traditional culture of the area, represent a relatively new and growing type of tourism in Costa Rica called rural community tourism, which organizers and community leaders see as perhaps the most sustainable and equitable type of tourism yet.
Rural community tourism is made up of organizations or cooperatives. They are neighbors who develop a tourism initiative as a tool for local development and the conservation of local natural resources and local culture, says Kyra Cruz, Executive Director of the Costa Rican Association for Rural Community Tourism (ACTUAR).
It s not about attracting foreign investment and making an authentic Costa Rica show. It is sharing the way of life with people from the countryside, managed by the people from the countryside, and the money goes to the local people.
AS demonstrated at the Fourth Rural Community Tourism Fair, held recently at the Museum of Costa Rican Art in San José, the grassroots-style of tourism is growing, and bringing a wide variety of benefits to the communities it involves, including the conservation of natural resources, the rejuvenation and preservation of local traditions and culture and even the promotion of gender equality. The Costa Rican Tourism Institute (ICT) recently announced that it is launching rural community tourism as its fourth tourism macro-project, along with categories it s dubbed Nature, Adventure, and Sun and Beach.
Cruz, a young and energetic woman, has been working with ACTUAR since its inception in 2001 as a way to help publicize and market the growing rural community tourism projects, many of which were funded by the United Nations Development Program (PNUD).
Sitting behind the Museum of Costa Rican Art, Cruz points to the rows of booths making up the Rural Community Tourism Fair as evidence of the sector s growth. In 2002, the first fair brought out 30 businesses. This year the festive three-day event which featured cultural presentations, games for kids and musical performances by Costa Rican greats Malpaís and Cantoamérica attracted 75 participating businesses.
A sampling of the participants gives a taste of what makes up the sector. Organic coffee growers and coffee-grower cooperatives sell bags of their beans and offer tours and stays on their farms; rural farmers groups talk about their organization efforts and offer guided tours of nearby natural reserves; women s groups share their stories and promote their local tourism projects.
Many of these projects offer travelers homestays, rather than luxurious hotel rooms, and promote close interactions between the visitors and the communities they are exploring, the end product being an educational experience for both the hosts and the guests.
The Enchantment of Piedra Blanca, the tour of which don Torino and his ox-driven trapiche are a part, has a booth at the rural tourism fair where two of its three women organizers hand out brochures and explain the activities.
The tour takes foreign or Costa Rican tourists, as well as groups of children and students, on a minibus tour through the windy streets in the hills of Escazú, stopping off to see an organic farmer, a local mask-maker, and of course don Torino.
The tour also includes a scenic hike through the hills, revealing an expansive view of the Central Valley, and a picturesque lunch.
THE day is laced with teachings and commentary about the importance of con serving the local natural resources. A stop at Victorino Fernández s organic farm, for example, is a long lesson on the dangers of chemical fertilizers which gave don Victorino stomach cancer and the benefits and joys of organic agriculture.
The visits to don Torino and to the mask-maker highlight the importance of conserving local traditions as well, as the men display their two distinct crafts, both handed down through generations. Though not highly profitable ventures, the added income from the tours allows both men to continue to do what they do. The tours also give a level of importance to what the men are doing, organizers say, which translates to more motivation to keep the traditions alive.
According to the ACTUAR director, the idea is that projects provide extra income to communities without becoming too successful and causing people to abandon their traditional way of life.
We don t want people, because of tourism, to leave their (primary activities), because right now tourism is growing, but in a crisis or war, tourism could drop, Cruz says.
IN addition to additional funds, rural community tourism has other, perhaps more profound, effects on the communities and people involved.
Gladys Pérez, one of the three organizers of the Escazú tour, married at 18 without finishing her schooling. She says she once thought, Me, with my four children and no profession, I m never going to do anything with my life. But with this project, I realized that I had a lot of abilities.
All of a sudden I realized how much beauty was all around us, and that I cooked very well. From receiving workshops, I realized I was very good at organizing.
Not far away, Lilliana Martínez sits in another rural tourism booth decorated with seashells and fishing nets, and attests to the same sort of empowerment she, and other women, experienced through their involvement with their tourism project.
We women didn t think that we had so many ideas, so many abilities, but now we ve realized that we do, she says.
MARTÍNEZ represents a tourism project from the island of Isla Chira, in the Gulf of Nicoya, where a group of women fishers, with funding from the United Nations Small Donations Committee, built a cabin to attract tourism to help offset the depressed local economy (TT, June 18, 2004). With the help of ACTUAR, Martínez says, the women have been able to promote and better manage their business, which brings an increasing amount of tourists to a place they d previously overlooked.
According to Martínez, visits to the project have increased from 400 people in 2003 to 2,000 visits in the first ten months of this year.
At first, it was very difficult for the community. They didn t understand what tourism and visitors to the island really meant. They were very protective of their community and not used to having people arrive here from other places, and much less people who didn t speak the same language, Martínez explains. We see people from other places differently now. We thought that foreigners were very different from us, but sharing with them we have realized we are all people, we want to conserve nature, and we don t want this all to end.
Programs like these number at least 100 in Costa Rica, says Cruz, whose organization publishes a guide to rural community tourism in Costa Rica. And while conventional hotels overfill during tourism high seasons, rural tourism projects offer at least 750 more beds to the nation s offerings, she adds.
For more information, call ACTUAR at 248-9470, see their Web site at www.actuarcostarica.com, or visit the organization s Rural Community Tourism Pulpería, a corner store of tourist information located 70 meters west from the National Institute for Housing and Urban Development, on Ave. 8 between Calle 3 and 5, in Barrio Amón, San José.