Rivers and creeks cascade down hills, the hue of the rocks coloring the clear, fresh water green, making it look like liquid jade. Ceiba trees tower over hiking trails. Brush and trees pack the dense virgin forest. Water crashes more than 260 feet down a towering falls.
These are some of the natural wonders found in the Karen Mogensen Reserve, on the NicoyaPeninsula, inland from the town of Jicaral on the Gulf of Nicoya.
In this 2,224-acre reserve, a small group of employees and volunteers from the Ecological Associations of Paquera, Lepanto and Cóbano (ASEPALECO) work hard to maintain their slice of nature.
But as development spreads on the NicoyaPeninsula, time is of the essence to expand the reserve, said Patricia Slump, a member of ASEPALECO’s executive board.
The keepers of the reserve want to create a protected biological corridor 50 kilometers long between this reserve and Cabo Blanco, a reserve on the southern tip of the peninsula.
Their ambitions also include increasing the size of the reserve to more than 9,000 acres.
However, ASEPALECO does not have the funds to buy additional land, and has lost income through the years after grants from international organizations ran out. Enough revenue has disappeared that staff has already been reduced, programs might be cut, and plans to expand the reserve remain on hold.
“We have to act now,” said Slump, a native of Holland who has lived on the NicoyaPeninsula for more than 30 years.
Land around the reserve is still affordable, Slump said. She and her counterparts are worried the increasing development in the region might gobble up land they believe should be protected.
It’s not the first time the forest has come under threat in the area.
In the 1950s and ’60s, as cattle ranching spread throughout the NicoyaPeninsula, thousands of acres were cleared in a slash-and burn frenzy. The peninsula was almost completely deforested, said Luis Mena, a Ministry of Environment and Energy (MINAE) biologist and a member of ASEPALECO.
Then, the cattle industry receded, and many fields were abandoned. Slowly, the forest began to reclaim the land.
“This is one of the largest areas (in the country) with reforested land,”Mena said.
This corridor now has connected the reserve with Cabo Blanco.Mena said species previously contained in one of the areas have begun migrating back and forth.
Slump, who owns two hotels in the nearby beach town of Montezuma, is spearheading an effort to bring more revenue to the organization.
She envisions hotels in the region pitching in to help.
At her hotels, El Sano Banano Village Hotel and Ylang Ylang Beach Resort, Slump has begun adding a $1 per day optional charge to her customers’ bills, with the proceeds going straight to the reserve.
A couple of customers went a lot further, she said, donating close to $1,000 each.
For Slump, helping ASEPALECO is a labor of love for the forest and of duty to an old friend – Karen Mogensen.
Credited with helping start conservation in Costa Rica, Mogensen and her husband Nicolas Wessberg established Cabo Blanco, the country’s first nature reserve, in 1963.
Mogensen, a native of Denmark, moved to the peninsula in 1955. Soon after, she became alarmed at the rate of deforestation and began fundraising efforts to protect the forest. The funds obtained were used to buy the land that would become Cabo Blanco Nature Reserve.
The couple then donated Cabo Blanco to the national park system, Slump said.
Mogensen and Slump were neighbors and friends until Mogensen died in 1994. Slump’s efforts with ASEPALECO honor her late friend and her commitment to conservation.
“Economic welfare depends on nature; hotels and tourist-related businesses all depend on the natural beauty of the peninsula,” Slump said. “We have been taking and taking. It’s time to start giving something back, and the dollar-a-day program is one of the ways to help preserve Costa Rica’s natural beauty.”
Long dirt roads are the infrastructure here. Dirt bikes rumble around, a vital mode of transportation in the area’s rugged terrain.
A 16-year-old girl washes a muddy bike in a river. Farmers and oxcarts are still seen.
The drive into the reserve passes through a string of small towns that are still by and large tourist free. It’s rural Costa Rica, a far cry from noisy San José and the developed beaches of Guanacaste to the north.
A few miles from the reserve is the town of San Ramón, home to Arnulfo Quirós and his family. For the most part, however, Quirós doesn’t live there. As keeper, guide and maintenance man, Quirós, 53, lives fulltime on the reserve. His wife, Luz Mary Berrocal, and his daughter Natalia, 9, join him to help out when the cabins are occupied with guests.
For the past six years, Quirós’ job has been to make sure the trails are clear and that people don’t enter the reserve to hunt or fish.
After living his entire life in the area, Quirós’ eyes are sharp enough to spot small and rare white bats resting underneath palm leaves; shards of pottery left behind by the indigenous who used to inhabit the forest; or a snake resting inside a hollow in a tree.
Quirós knows which plants are medicinal.
He stops by trees that catch his eye and tells their stories.He knows how to get leaf-cutter ants to come out of their mound (light foot taps around it).
He knows all the routes to take around the reserve and to which animal a footprint belongs. One of his favorite activities is planting trees, something he likes to do around the reserve with his daughter.
This is his backyard. And he likes it here. “I like being by myself,” Quirós said.
Indeed, the promise of solitude and being next to nature is one of the reserve’s main attractions.
Visitors can get here two ways: a four-hour horseback ride ($15) starting at the town of Montaña Grande, which takes a person through beautiful country, Quirós said; or by car or taxi (about $20 from Jicaral).
Both ways finish at the property of Fabio Rojas, a former hunter who is now part of ASEPALECO. He volunteers his time, sometimes patrolling the area.
Just before the ascent to the cabins in the reserve, a trail leads to Velo de Novia (Bridal Veil) Waterfall, a 260-foot-high cascade nestled among towering trees. It’s an impressive sight, preceded by dozens of little cascades.
Quirós leads visitors along a trail to the top of the waterfalls.
Three rivers are born in these hills and provide water to surrounding communities, adding to the importance of protecting the forest here, Slump said.
From Rojas’ property, it’s a two-kilometer hike, rising half a kilometer in elevation, to Cerro Escondido Lodge, which offers two cabins housing four dormitories that can sleep five to six people each, an open-air dining area, a classroom and the abandoned house of the family that used to own this land.
The dormitories each have their own bathroom, and one cabin has a deck overlooking the forest.
The price to stay at the cabins is $45 per person, including meals and hiking tours of the reserve. It’s an ideal place for groups, Quirós said. Visitors must make reservations in advance with ASEPALECO, so that Quirós and his wife can plan to hike in food and supplies.
On a recent tour, Natalia accompanied her dad. She shared her knowledge of plants and animals with the visitors, looking to her dad for assurance that what she was saying was right.
She ran around barefoot or in flimsy sandals, jumping in river eddies created by the boulders. Near the end of the tour, she stated her feelings: “Papi, no me quiero ir.Me quiero quedar aquí.”
“Daddy, I don’t want to go. I want to stay here.”
Getting There, Information
ASEPALECO asks that people call in advance to coordinate visits: 650-0607 (Jicaral office) or 811-7629 (English).
To get to Jicaral by bus, ARSA Buses (650-0179) has a direct route that leaves daily at 6 a.m. and 3:30 p.m.
from the “antigua parada de Puntarenas” (the former Puntarenas bus stop) near the Coca-Cola station in downtown San José. The fare is ¢3,850 ($7.70). From Jicaral, ASEPALECO can arrange a horseback or taxi ride to the reserve.
By car, take the Inter-American Highway from San José west to Puntarenas, then take the ferry to Playa Naranjo (661-1069), which leaves Puntarenas at 6:30 a.m., 10 a.m., 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. From Playa Naranjo, drive about 10 kilometers up the coast to Jicaral. From Jicaral, take the road toward Playa Coyote, then turn on the road to San Ramón de Río Blanco and arrive at Fabio Rojas’ property. All roads are clearly marked.
Donations to ASEPALECO’s land purchase program can be made to Banco Nacional account number 100-02-069-600025-9; for more information, call Patricia Slump at 811-7629.