PANGOLA, Heredia – The north-central Costa Rican canton of Sarapiquí has always been one of my favorite regions of the country. I don’t mind the sweltering tropical heat, or the challenging roads to get to the area’s remote locations.
What appealed to me about Sarapiquí the first time I visited more than a decade ago was the constant interplay between local poverty, agriculture and efforts to protect and replenish the tropical, mountainous rain forest. While large-scale agriculture continues to expand in the area, others are trying to grow a sustainable local economy based on environmental protection and eco-friendly, small-scale tourism.
There is a pitched battle going on here, and nowhere else in the country is the duality of Costa Rica’s eco-friendly image and its agricultural export sector so strikingly clear.
With Costa Rica striving to become a carbon-neutral country by 2021, the tropical mountains of Costa Rica are extremely important, as these mountains, simply put, are oxygen producers. Yet as the fruit industry expands – particularly pineapple – trees are being cut down.
It was in this region where I first learned about the habitats of the scarlet and green macaws, gazed at Costa Rica’s famous red-eyed and poison dart frogs, nearly stepped on my first terciopelo (the ultimate pit viper), and saw my favorite tree, the majestic ceiba.
On a recent trip back, I visited a private rain forest reserve called Cinco Ceibas, which falls in the camp of those trying to protect the region’s diminishing forests. Currently a city dweller, I’m always on the lookout for one-day trips, and Cinco Ceibas Rainforest Reserve and Adventure Park is well within traveling distance from San José.
As its name suggests, there are five great ceiba trees located on more than 1,100 hectares of land that Dutch-born, U.S. native Henk Morelisse bought nearly two decades ago. Back then, the land was mostly potreros, or pastureland, and pineapple plantations.
During the two-hour, early-morning drive from San José, I was dismayed to see that the sprawling pineapple plantations had nearly taken over most of the countryside, and a new highway under construction would ensure the export trade would continue to grow. Ominous signs posted outside barren, fenced-in plots warned, “Do Not Enter – Dangerous Chemicals.”
This is unquestionably the land of pineapple, where much of the exported fruit is produced. Costa Rican pineapple exports have jumped from $573 million in 2008 to a whopping $791 million last year. Their top destination is the United States, which consumed 923 million kilograms of the fruit last year. (The U.S. also sends the most tourists to Costa Rica every year.) Pineapple farmers annually plant some 5,800 hectares in Sarapiquí alone.
That’s why private initiatives like Cinco Ceibas are so important – they help create a sustainable micro-economy based on environmental protection and they provide jobs to poor local workers who would otherwise turn to environmentally disruptive practices.
“Unfortunately, [pineapple producers] use chemicals night and day, and all those chemicals are filtered into local watersheds and rivers,” Cinco Ceibas’ administrative manager Augustín Pieters pointed out during a recent chat. “That affects the ecosystem, and the other effect is that they cut down all the trees to farm, as it’s the only efficient way to grow pineapples.”
The result, Pieters said, is that local wildlife, including the threatened green macaw, is migrating farther north, near Costa Rica’s border with Nicaragua.
Protecting and promoting forests
Nearly 20 years ago, Henk Morelisse was walking his Costa Rican property when he came across several massive trees – ceibas, almendros (almond trees) and guácimos (Guazuma ulmifolia). He spotted a giant ceiba that is about 500 years old – which means it sprouted roots about the same time that Christopher Columbus first anchored off Costa Rica’s shoreline.
That ceiba and four others like it gave Morelisse, a self-described environmentalist, the idea to plant 500,000 – yes, half a million – more trees on his 1,100-hectare property.
Later, he teamed up with Costa Rica’s Environment Ministry to obtain private reserve status from the National System of Conservation Areas. Cinco Ceibas receives Environmental Services Payments through FONAFIFO, and it is a member of the Nature Reserves Network of Costa Rica.
Morelisse also planted several hectares of teak, which is the backdrop for a horseback-riding tour he offers visitors.
After he decided to protect the existing forest and replenish open pasturelands, Morelisse’s next focus was creating a sustainable tourism business that would draw visitors to the forest, help educate guests about rain forest ecosystems, provide jobs for local workers and educate local school children about environmentalism.
Cinco Ceibas is no small undertaking, and the work that was put into building a network of elevated wooden sidewalks through the rain forest is impressive. All of the materials that went into building Cinco Ceibas, which includes a large open-air restaurant and an arts and crafts gift shop, came from natural resources, most of them found on-site.
Pangola is a poor town, and more than 100 workers who helped build Cinco Ceibas earned much-needed income for up to a year for their families. Long-term, the project provides 18 direct jobs and 12 indirect ones. Without those jobs, and without environmental awareness efforts, local residents are left with few options other than cutting down trees and selling the wood or working on the pineapple plantations.
The wooden pathway through the reserve took three years to build and spans 1.4 kilometers of nearly untouched rain forest. The walkway was made using reforested pine from Honduras that was treated without harmful chemicals in the United States. It was a big investment, but it’s indicative of Cinco Ceibas’ commitment to conservation.
As naturalists know, the rain forest constantly changes – it evolves, it moves, it grows. To help amateur nature-lovers like me, Cinco Ceibas installed several informative stations along the walk to explain local trees, ecosystems and wildlife. Guides are available as part of the tour.
During Costa Rica’s rainy season, or invierno, the rain forest becomes a concert hall of natural sound, as thousands of frogs lay their eggs, and howlers call out in the early morning.
In addition to the rain forest walk, Cinco Ceibas offers three other tours: a kayaking trip down the calm Río Cuarto, which winds through the property; a horseback riding tour through a teak farm; and an old-fashioned oxcart tour that pays reverential regard to Costa Rica’s gloriously humble past. Guests choose two tours per day, and a buffet-style lunch is served in an open-air restaurant between tours.
I opted for the horse tour and a walk through the jungle, but after listening to Pieters describe the kayak tour and seeing the tranquil Río Cuarto, I’ll certainly be kayaking on my next visit.
“It’s like a safari,” Pieters said, and howlers, spider monkeys, green macaws and other animals are never far away.
The oxcart tour takes guests to the local greenhouse and gardens used by Cinco Ceibas to reforest its land, and the oxcarts, naturally, are hand-painted.
Cinco Ceibas offers round-trip transportation from San José for groups of two or more. Kids are always welcome and can participate in any tour when accompanied by an adult.
Morelisse’s wife, Jackie, also is a conservationist and an artist, and her creative influence and fondness of vivid Costa Rican colors resonate throughout the project. She designed many of the items in Cinco Ceibas’ gift shop, including arts, crafts and clothing that is made entirely by local workers using local materials (nothing is imported from China!).
But the best part of the trip was that giant, 500-year-old ceiba tree. Standing next to it, imagining the odds of surviving five centuries of lightning strikes, deforestation and other threats, made me feel pretty insignificant – just what I needed.
Cinco Ceibas is located 30 minutes from La Virgen de Sarapiquí, Heredia, and two hours from San José by car. See a map and find other information here.