QUIMBAYA, Colombia – A horse, lips quivering, enjoys his morning hay. A cow patty hits the cement floor of a farm stall with a “plop.” A man with a machete walks alone down a shady jungle trail.
These are the sights and sounds, idyllic and otherwise, of the Colombian countryside, and of Parque Nacional de la Cultura Agropecuaria (PANACA), a new twist on theme parks that has taken Colombia by storm during the past 10 years.
No rides, no junk food, no video games and no soda can be found here. The “all natural” park, which features more than 400 species of domestic and agricultural animals – 2,000 animals in all and the largest such collection in the world – is meant to be “everyman’s farm,” explains founder and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Jorge Ballen.
“It’s entertainment, but with a goal – to learn,” he said.
The concept is unique, but the setting, amid mist-covered hills, farm fields and coffee plantations, could just as easily be Costa Rica. Soon it will be.
The company plans to open its newest park, and the first outside Colombia, in San Mateo, just shy of Orotina, on the mountainous route from San José to the central Pacific port of Puntarenas, Nov. 27.
In Costa Rica, the park will continue with its agricultural theme including just as many animals to pet and play with and shows that exhibit the talents and skills of local farmers and artisans.
The difference, however, will be the traditions. “This is not PANACA Colombia in Costa Rica. This is Costa Rica’s PANACA,” Ballen said. In fact the park’s full name in Costa Rica will be changed to Parque Natural de la Cultura Agropecuaria to differentiate PANACA from the national park system. Ballen added, “The food, the architecture, the people, all of it will reflect Costa Rica’s rich agricultural traditions.”
Costa Rica Bound
The park will be enormous: the largest such attraction in Costa Rica, and the first of its kind in Central America.
According to Costa Rica’s PANACA marketing director, William Rodríguez, it will span 283 hectares near the town of San Mateo and employ upwards of 275 full-time employees, plus provide an anticipated 1,500 indirect jobs.
Inside the park, a two-kilometer path will take visitors from station to station, where they will see different animal exhibits and shows, all reflecting the country’s rural culture.
The focus will shift from Colombian lingo (Hermano!) to Tico (Pura vida!), she said.
Instead of arepas, the typical Colombian food, they’ll serve gallo pinto, the traditional rice-and-bean Costa Rican breakfast dish.
The surrounding fields will also be planted with crops typical of Costa Rica, all managed sustainably – from fruit trees to sugar cane and coffee. Every species of Costa Rican cow, horse, goat and chicken will be available for viewing, as well as dozens of species of dogs, rabbits and other small game animals.
The idea, Ballen said, is that Ticos, and especially families, enjoy the park, not just foreign tourists.
“Costa Rica has an incredible tourist infrastructure. But traditionally, it has been oriented toward foreigners,” Ballen said. “We want this to be the farm for all the Ticos who don’t have one.”
After five years of market research, Costa Rica emerged as an obvious choice for the first installment of the park outside Colombia.
“The two locations are very similar. In tradition, in climate, even the look of the countryside,” explains Natalia Ballen, daughter of the president and brand-marketing manager.
This new park will seek to attract schools, community groups and people throughout the country – anyone, they say, with an interest in learning about Costa Rica’s agricultural traditions.
“The word ‘no’ should never cross anyone’s lips here,” Ballen said of the interactive park, in which guests can milk cows, ride horses, pet bulls, watch pigs race and goats walk tightropes.
A Business Opportunity
San Mateo Mayor Erwen Masís says the arrival of PANACA will be a long overdue “shot in the arm” for the small community of San Mateo, which now registers as little more than a blur on the tourist route to Jacó, on the central Pacific coast, and the beaches of Guanacaste, to the north.
“We were desperately in need of some kind of investment, something to put us on the tourist map. This is the answer,” said Masís, adding that most of the employees will come directly from San Mateo and the surrounding towns.
PANACA, CEO Ballen explains, doesn’t end at the park gates.
In Colombia, he says investors have sunk millions into the surrounding areas, including the recent arrival of a luxury Decameron all-inclusive hotel.
Condos, with amenities such as pools, countryside views and yearly park passes, sit on the park border.
“In the nine years since the park opened in Quimbaya, we’ve seen more than 600 hotels and homestays open up in the countryside around it, where before there were none,” he said. “This is what we hope to see in San Mateo, Orotina, Esparza.”
The Ballen family, which hails from Medellín, a city perhaps best known for having housed the infamous Pablo Escobar drug mafia, is painfully aware of Colombia’s violent history, and its effects in limiting the arrival of tourists from outside Colombia.
Last year, PANACA Quimbaya and the second location in Colombia, just outside Bogotá, saw more than 650,000 visitors, Ballen explains, the vast majority from within the country.
According to Costa Rican Tourism Institute (ICT) statistics, Costa Rica receives 1.6 million foreign visitors per year – compared to around 1 million in Colombia, a country many times its size, in both land area and population.
The fact is not lost on Ballen, who hopes for a more even mix of Ticos and foreigners in Costa Rica.
Tourism Minister Carlos Benavides, who will attend the grand opening of the park Nov. 27, alongside President Oscar Arias and his Colombian counterpart, Alvaro Uribe, said the park will highlight a part of Costa Rica often missed in the hustle to get to the country’s rainforests and beaches.
“This park will do much to round out this country’s offerings to the world, and to Costa Ricans themselves,” he said.
A Learning Experience
After a long day outdoors, feeding goats, sidestepping cow patties and singing along to traditional Colombian folk music, visitors to Panaca Quimbaya leave exhausted, dirty and sunburned.
Simple pleasures mark the day.
“My favorite part? Milking the cows,” says Vanesa Morena, a 41-year-old mother of two who’d brought her children from the city of Calí, nearly four hours away by car.
That’s the goal, Ballen explains.
“Our motto is ‘without the countryside, there is no city,’” he explains.
He hopes visitors from San José, and other quickly urbanizing parts of Costa Rica, will flock to the park to learn, and to return to the country’s agricultural roots.
“This is entertainment that will have a value. To help Costa Ricans who no longer live on farms remember, and preserve, their heritage,” he said.