San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Stirrings of Change in ‘Old Costa Rica’

EL GAVILÁN – There’s a joke in El Gavilán that if you look on a map of Costa Rica, you won’t find the town.

The joke carries some truth. It’s absent from some of the most intricate maps of the country, and even the trusted Google search engine can’t seem to locate El Gavilán.

But that could soon change.

A little over two years ago, U.S. businessman and Israel native Daniel Apelboim chose El Gavilán as the spot for his “dream” development. Apelboim, who says he was looking to create a project to benefit the local community, traveled arround Costa Rica for two years looking for the right location. The first time he saw his future property in El Gavilán, Apelboim said he knew he’d found the place to carry out his vision.

“As I drove closer I just knew. I could feel it. The farther we drove down the road, the more I fell in love with this place,” Apelboim said. “The people were good and loyal, the place was beautiful and there was the opportunity to make the sort of place I wanted. …So many developments are based on money, money, money. But that’s not what I wanted. I wanted something more than that.”

At the core of Apelboim’s project are a hotel, the Blue River Resort, and the neighboring Blue River Estate, 75-acre plot of wooded land and waterfalls that will soon be converted to a development containing 37 single-story homes. But aside from these tangible elements of his vision, the development appears to have created a sense of hope for area residents.

Located west of Upala, a remote town in the northwestern corner of AlajuelaProvince, El Gavilán is one in a chain of several small pueblos sprinkled among a vast stretch of green rolling hills on the northeastern slope of the Guanacaste Mountain Range. Along the narrow road that connects the towns, pavement turns to rocky, dusty gravel and horseback riders outnumber automobiles.

According to members of the area communities – Dos Ríos, Nueva Zelandia, El Gavilán and Buenos Aires – somewhere between 600-800 people live along the 35-kilometer stretch between the turnoff from the Inter-American highway north of Liberia and the hamlet of El Gavilán.

Despite the area’s simple, quaint beauty, the lack of economic development here is riddled with hardship. Farms that produce milk, cheese and heart of palm create some employment, but most residents in the towns are short on finances and shorter on job options. Some make the hour-long trek to Liberia for work, while others, without the financial means to commute, have never held formal jobs.

With little tourism in the area and limited opportunity for employment or development, basic infrastructure such as bridges, school bathrooms and electricity have been neglected.

“It has been an intense fight for five or six years to get improvements made to the central road,” said Rosa Claudia, whose family runs the Curubanda Lodge, a small hotel in Nueva Zelandia. “Because the roads were so bad, buses, delivery trucks and milk trucks had a very difficult time getting here.

All bridges were made of wood and not many people wanted to risk traveling in this area.”

When Apelboim moved to town with the intention of building his resort, and, he says, to help stimulate wider development in the area, he contacted Juan Bosco Acevedo, then the mayor of Upala, whose jurisdiction includes El Gavilán. Apelboim said Acevedo was wary of the newcomer’s intentions and made him prove that his words would be supported by actions.

“He told me the school in Dos Ríos only had one bathroom, so I got some guys together and we built them another one,” Apelboim said. “Then he tells me, ‘The school in El Gavilán needs a new kitchen’. So we went there and built the school a new kitchen. I think he wanted to make sure I wasn’t just some guy looking to come in here and build and neglect the community, so I showed him I wasn’t.”

After the initial community projects, Apelboim and Alfredo Chacón, the project’s general manager, started building the resort on a 25-acre plot of land, located about a kilometer east of the town center. The first task was to install electricity, which benefited not only the resort, but also its neighbors.

“Before construction started on the resort, I didn’t have electricity in my house and had to live in another part of town,” said Raquel Cascante, who has a home nearby. “It was very difficult to live away from my own home and raise my daughter. When construction started on the hotel, I moved back into my home and had electricity (there) for the first time.”

Progress has since continued. To build the resort, Apelboim hired almost all his workers from the nearby communities. Having had little work in years, enthusiastic workers have pushed the development along at a fast clip. In just over two years, workers have constructed several sleek wooden chalets, a bar and restaurant, four thermal pools, a pool with a slide, a botanical garden, a butterfly farm, and a spa area with a sauna, weight and exercise room, and massage area.

The development is not stopping there. In the next few months, Apelboim hopes that the resort will have 52 chalets completed, as well as a small zoo, an iguana and frog farm, and a canopy tour.

“The amount of work here has brought such an economic benefit to these people and the community,” said Gerardo Quesada, a community leader who serves as the liaison between nearby towns and the municipality. “Before this, there were almost no opportunities for jobs or money. Now we have work six or seven days a week and the money is getting put back in the community.”

As work at the resort has been constant, so too has work in the community.

With only one central road running through town, Apelboim has contributed funding for the construction of several local bridges, many of which were completed in the past few weeks. Prior to their construction, cars and horses had to cross rivers by navigating rock beds or by walking a narrow log that served as a makeshift bridge.

In the next few months, construction will begin on the Blue River Estate, a few kilometers east of the resort. Last week, the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE) lined the area will electricity poles, and power is expected to begin circulating this week.

Construction on the first model home is expected to begin in July, and when completed, 37 homes with 5,000 square meter lots will occupy the 75-acre property, which is bisected by a river with whitewater and waterfalls. Apelboim says no roadways will be built on the property and that the homes will be “one-story homes with all the modern amenities.” The houses are expected to sell for between $150,000 and $200,000.

“The estate will provide sustained work for the people of the region,” Acevedo, who now serves as a legislator for the National Liberation Party (PLN), told The Tico Times. “The construction will provide jobs, maintenance of the area will provide jobs, and residents of the resort will look to local people to provide food and resources. I hope this will be the first of many developments for the people of Upala.”

The people of El Gavilán refer to the region as “old Costa Rica,” But, whatever the label attached to the region, for many locals here, the arrival of a little bit of the “new Costa Rica” is a very welcome thing.

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