Huff, puff. My sister and I are climbing steep steps dug into a dry hillside, on the heels of our guide, Pedro Porras. He signals us to stop, sets up his scope and aims at the trees behind us. Bingo! We see it: a common potoo, aka “stick bird,” sitting absolutely still in what is known as its “cryptic” pose. It does indeed look like an extension of the dead tree it’s nesting in. But wait – in front of the adult potoo, there’s a wide-eyed, white chick wedged between parent and stump, pink mouth gaping wide as it surveys the brand-new world.
This sighting of parent and chick was the icing on the cake of a recent sevenhour nature and birding hike at Hacienda Barú National Wildlife Refuge, a 330-hectare reserve near the mouth of the Río Barú, north of Dominical on the southern Pacific coast.
It’s the kind of unique wildlife experience that has given this refuge a worldwide reputation.
It’s so popular, in fact, that Hacienda Barú Lodge owner Jack Ewing says he’s had to turn away more guests in the last few years than he has been able to accommodate.
The six cabins Ewing built back in the early 1990s were especially suited to families and couples. But a lot of visitors come here in groups – of students, bird-watchers or naturalists. So last year, Ewing set to work building six new spacious guest rooms, facing a brand-new swimming pool. In February the rooms made their debut, and they’re already in high demand.
Strung together on a slight slope behind the original cabins, the new rooms are airy, fresh, comfortable and, above all, flexible.
Each can accommodate up to four, with lots of room to spare. There’s a king-size bed that can be separated into two twins, plus one or two other twin beds as needed, each topped with an orthopedic mattress. Each new room has a huge bathroom with good lighting, lots of thick towels and a high-ceilinged shower fed by plentiful solar-heated hot water.
Ewing built with a keen eye to sustainable practices – not surprising in a man who was an early convert from cattle ranching to conservation (see box on Page W4). All the wood used in the construction is plantation pine and teak, and all the furniture is made from plantation cypress.
“Not a stick of natural-forest wood was used,” Ewing says.
From the recycled plastic in the roof to the microorganisms at work below in the septic tank, Ewing has designed the cabins to be as eco-friendly as possible. Guests might not be interested in how their wastewater is being treated, but they will definitely appreciate how cool and comfortable these new cabins are. High ceilings with screened windows for cross-ventilation and ceiling fans work wonderfully to keep you cool day and night. Even when the temperature soared to 38 C during my visit, the room was comfortable during the day and cool enough for sleeping at night, even without the fans.
The swimming pool was a long time coming, Ewing says. Although the reserve fronts Playa Barú – a wide sweep of beach boasting the Ecological Blue Flag award – the three-kilometer-long expanse is also notorious for its riptides. Ewing learned this the hard way when his wife, Diane, was swept away years ago and had to be rescued.
“The determining factor to make me do the swimming pool was to have a safe place to swim,” Ewing says.
The new pool was an instant success.
It has become the social hub of the lodge, especially at the end of the day, when almost every guest arrives at the “watering hole” to bob, chat and cool off. Although a swimming pool of any kind hardly qualifies as ecological, this one at least uses an ozonegenerator system, rather than chemicals, to kill bacteria and algae.
Another welcome change at Hacienda Barú is the revamped El Ceibo restaurant. Along with the airy dining rancho bordered with lush foliage, there are private tables in the garden, each under its own thatch roof, perfect for romantic candlelit dinners. A new menu offers healthy choices such as brown rice – a welcome change from the ubiquitous mound of plain white rice – along with fresh and varied salads and vegetarian options.
Chef Rodney Mora from nearby Hatillo knows how to cook fish perfectly. It’s always fresh, and you can have it grilled, fried, breaded or sauced with garlic, lemon or tomato (about $10). The lemon sauce is a standout, tart and salty, as are the interesting sides: a homemade picadillo of corn, squash, peppers and potatoes; a vegetable medley cooked just al dente; and mountains of real mashed potatoes.
Breakfasts, included in the room rate, are hearty and wholesome, with a choice of gallo pinto, huevos rancheros, pancakes, granola or fresh fruit. The coffee and naturales fruit drinks here are excellent.
What hasn’t changed at Hacienda Barú is what has always made it the premier ecodestination along this part of the coast: seven kilometers of well-marked trails wending through an incredibly varied landscape that includes primary rain forest and secondary forest, mangrove, swamp forest, wetlands, seashore, river bank and estuary, an old cacao plantation and open pastures.
With so many habitats in a relatively small space, this refuge is a treasure trove of wildlife, including more than 350 recorded species of birds, plus crocodiles and spectacled caimans, coatis, monkeys, sea turtles and more than 25 species of snakes. You can walk the trails on your own, following a map and stopping at waypoints with interesting information plaques. But you’ll get so much more out of a visit here if you take advantage of the excellent, bilingual naturalist guides.
You can also swing through the treetops on the Flight of the Toucan zipline, climb a tree with ropes, or overnight in a platform perched high in the canopy or in a campsite down on the beach. You can take part in the refuge’s turtle-nesting project, learn about butterflies in the small and lovely mariposario, visit the orchids in the orchid garden, or just swing on a hammock chair in the shaded El Hangout.
When Ewing and partner Steve Stroud, who owns the refuge, first envisioned an ecotourism project here, they assumed most visitors would be attracted by the beach.
“But people kept showing up at the gate, saying, ‘We just want to take a walk in the park,’” Ewing says. So they switched their focus from beach to nature refuge. And a walk in this fascinating, flora-and-fauna-filled “park” is still the main attraction.
Hacienda Barú National Wildlife Refuge and Lodge is three kilometers north of the Dominical bridge. Double-occupancy rates for the new rooms are $50 in low season (April 16 to Dec. 15) and $70 in high season (Dec. 16 to April 15), including breakfast but not taxes. Cabins are $40 in low season and $60 in high season. Admission to the park for a self-guided walk costs $6; guided walks start at $20 per person. For information, call 2787-0003, e-mail email@example.com or visit www.haciendabaru.com.
Making Peace With the Paved Road
Even after 21 years of careful conservation and regeneration, Hacienda Barú still isn’t out of the woods. The most recent threat to wildlife and habitat here is the planned paving of the rough road between Quepos and Dominical. Trucks, cars and buses barreling along a wider, smoothed-out road will have an enormous impact on habitat and wildlife.
Along with other area conservationists who support the Paso de la Danta (Path of the Tapir) biological corridor, Jack Ewing has worked hard to negotiate a compromise with the road builders. After commissioning an environmental impact study, the Public Works and Transport Ministry (MOPT), in a laudable, newfound spirit of environmentalism, agreed to build tunnels under the road and bridges above, to reduce the anticipated increase in roadkill. MOPT will also limit its tree-cutting along the sides of the widened road to 20 meters instead of the usual 50 meters, making it easier for animals to scoot across.
“We worked with MOPT on where to place the tunnels and bridges. We focused on spots identified by a university researcher from ColoradoState as places where animals are already used to crossing,” Ewing says. Along the two kilometers of road that border Hacienda Barú, there will be an animal crossing built almost every 100 meters. Interestingly, most of the tunnels will be square, Ewing says, based on research in the U.S. state of Florida showing that animals – in particular, the Florida panther – won’t enter round tunnels.
It remains to be seen whether monkeys will cross the bridges or animals will actually use the tunnels. But it also remains to be seen when this section of road will actually get paved.
“The first promise of a paved road was made to me by President Daniel Oduber – that was in 1974,” Ewing says. “So I tend to be skeptical. I think the road will eventually get paved. It just may not be in my lifetime.”