Only a few years ago, the western San José suburb of Escazú was a picturesque village, where josefinos would spend their weekends hiking and horseback riding in the country. Indeed, the name Escazú derives from the indigenous word itzkatzu, meaning “stone of rest.” Only 12 kilometers from the center of San José, Escazú’s 7,000 hectares of forests have served as the “lungs” of the spreading city.
However, the development boom of recent years has turned the suburb into a shopping and entertainment mecca, where typical casitas have given way to elegant restaurants, gated communities and shopping malls lining the streets.
Just a stone’s throw from commercial centers, the mountains face the risk of uncontrolled urbanization, which has already caused damage to the ecosystem – landslides and water shortages are not that unusual in the Escazú hills. Virgin mountains covered with primary and secondary forests are under threat of deforestation, and rivers are being seriously contaminated.
That is why, in 1985, the community got together and developed programs aimed at raising environmental awareness in the area.
“We started off with the help of the United Nations Development Programme, Fundecooperación and the German aid agency Bread for the World, but nowadays our ecotourism projects are 100% sustainable,” said Diana Rojas, coordinator of the Association for the Conservation and Development of the Escazú Mountains (CODECE), which aims to promote sustainable tourism and preserve the cultural and natural richness of San Antonio de Escazú, a traditional mountain village famous for its oxcart festival.
The following are a few of the tours CODECE offers in the mountains of Escazú.
Part of the income generated by tourism goes toward conservation of the mountains and creating new sources of income for the communities. Pickup from downtown hotels can be arranged for an additional fee. All programs must be booked at least eight days in advance. Discounts are offered for national residents and children.
El Encanto de Piedra Blanca (The Charm of Piedra Blanca), one of CODECE’s pioneering projects in responsible and sustainable tourism, involves 20 local families and offers several programs for visitors to the area. Price: Call for program details and prices.
El Encanto de San Antonio de Escazú (The Charm of San Antonio de Escazú) takes you on a half-day tour of San Antonio de Escazú, starting at the traditional trapiche (sugar mill), where don Torino explains the process of extracting sugarcane juice and turning it into tapas de dulce (brown-sugar loaves), and proudly presents you his compañeros – the oxen pulling the sugar press. Known as “the horse whisperer” of the animals, he is one of the few sugarcane farmers left in the area.
The next stop is Gerardo Montoya’s colorful mask workshop. Montoya is a grandson of Pedro Arias, one of the developers of the mascaradas in the Central Valley, in which large papier-mâché heads on stick frames make up part of many parades and festivals in the country. Dedicated to his family tradition, Montoya will entertain you with spooky stories of clowns and the family secrets of his unusual craft.
The tour finishes at an organic farm where don Victorio, one of the oldest organic farmers in the country, proudly takes you on a tour of his vegetable and herb plantations.
Price: $26 per person for a group of eight or more.
Una Noche Mágica en Escazú (A Magical Night in Escazú) invites visitors to taste the local culture in the traditional white-and blue (colors said to scare the witches of Escazú folklore) mud-brick house, where visitors enjoy a candlelight meal watching traditional dancing or a mascarada and listen to marimba musicians. An overnight stay with a local family or a scenic and bumpy ride in a hand-painted oxcart can be arranged by request. Price: $23 per person for a group of 15.
Un Día Completo de Encanto (A Full Day of Charm) is a full-day tour starting with a 3.5- hour hike in the Escazú mountains with a local guide, followed by a traditional lunch and a visit to the mask workshop, sugar mill and organic farm. Price: $34 per person for a group of eight or more.
Hiking Programs. For avid hikers, CODECE offers guided walks of different difficulty levels through the Escazú hills. You can try a simple three-hour walk with a guide or a more strenuous eight-hour walk to the Zárate waterfall (medium difficulty). If you are a really experienced hiker, you can venture out on a two-day hike to Palmichal de Acosta. Price: Call for options and prices.
Sunday Walks. Individual hikers and families can sign up for guided walks on pre-scheduled Sundays. Groups leave from the CODECE office in San Antonio de Escazú for varying destinations. Upcoming dates include April 2, April 23 and May 14; reservations are a must. Price: ¢2,000 ($4) for adults, ¢1,200 ($2.40) for kids under 12.
Educational Trips. As part of its commitment to promote environmental awareness, CODECE cooperates with local schools and various companies offering reforestation trips for groups of students or employees.
Volunteering. CODECE offers a number of options for those interested in spending a week in a rural area and taking part in local conservation projects. From working on recycling and reforestation in Escazú and brushing up on Spanish while living with a local family, to shopping in San José’s Central Market or hiking Poás Volcano, unique opportunities are available to immerse oneself in the local culture and leave a green mark in Costa Rica.
Phone: 228-0183 | Fax: 228-5695 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Web site: www.codece.org