Turning the community green

santa juana, costa rica, rural tour, costa rican heritage

Turning the community green

  |   12 Comments

This is the website of travel writer, Michael Turtle. After working in broadcast journalism for a decade in Australia, Michael left Sydney to travel the world indefinitely and write about his discoveries.

Santa Juana, Costa Rica

There was a time when the main industries in Costa Rica revolved around agriculture. Bananas, coffee and pineapples from the lush green grounds of the Central American paradise lined the pockets of the locals and the foreign companies investing in them. But, with big money and big business, these weren’t sustainable and environmentally-friendly enterprises. Agriculture needs land, it sucks water and, on a commercial scale, it uses toxic chemicals.

As the Costa Rican economy moved more towards tourism in the 1980s – particularly ecotourism – there needed to be a shift in attitude from people on the ground. An expansion of agriculture was going to be harder as more land became protected. But what do you do if you’re a local farmer who only knows how to farm and needs more space to plant crops to feed a growing community?

santa juana, costa rica, rural tour, costa rican heritage

Well, to answer that question, lets look to the settlement of Santa Juana, about an hour’s drive into the hills above the Pacific town of Quepos.

To get there you drive along gravel roads, through rivers and past farm animals staring with a mix of nonchalance and annoyance. This is rural Costa Rica, where agriculture meets the wilderness. A toucan is likely to flap its way over the top of a cow.

santa juana, costa rica, rural tour, costa rican heritage

At Santa Juana itself, the local people have been forced to embrace both of these sides of their environment. For many years they illegally cut down the natural jungle around them to increase their farmland and they hunted local animals for food.

santa juana, costa rica, rural tour, costa rican heritage

santa juana, costa rica, rural tour, costa rican heritage

The Santa Juana residents were not doing this because they wanted to break the rules, but for survival – because it was the only way they could see to keep their community together. Even then it wasn’t working well enough. Young men were being forced to leave the settlement and live in bigger towns and cities to get jobs. Even older men were having to leave their families behind to go and search for employment. Santa Juana was destroying the surrounding environment and still tearing itself apart.

santa juana, costa rica, rural tour, costa rican heritage

This is the point in the story where tourism steps in.

Several years ago, ecofriendly businessman Jim Damalas had an idea to preserve the rural heritage at Santa Juana and use that to also benefit the community. He developed a daytrip that tourists could take to see the area and get a glimpse into the lifestyles of locals in this part of Costa Rica. The tour is run through his Si Como No hotel and he invited me to experience it for myself.

santa juana, costa rica, rural tour, costa rican heritage

Santa Juana Rural Heritage Tour

Sitting on the terrace of a small wooden building in Santa Juana, I can see out across forests and palm plantations all the way to the sea. Behind me in the kitchen, Roxanna Vindas is preparing lunch. She’s one of nine people from the settlement who works directly on the tours. The others do maintenance, lead horseriding, or do demonstrations.

santa juana, costa rica, rural tour, costa rican heritage

Roxanna is happy to chat and I ask how things were here before they started bringing tourists in.

“When the family gets bigger and need more crops, we cut down forests,” she explains. “That is why we need to continue to chop down the forest for agriculture. But now we have more money to support the families.”

“We did that because we needed to. Probably we know it was wrong but we had a need.”

santa juana, costa rica, rural tour, costa rican heritage

I ask what’s changed.

“The families stay together,” she says. “The members of the community don’t need to go to other places to work.”

“And we have stability. We have payments every fifteen days.”

What about the tourists? What do they get out of it?

santa juana, costa rica, rural tour, costa rican heritage

Well, the tour has several parts. Firstly you have some breakfast and coffee with Roxanna on the terrace, then another one of the community members will give you a demonstration of how oxen used to be used to make sugar cane juice. After that, the guide from the hotel who has accompanied you from Manuel Antonio will take you through the jungle for an hour or so and point out the flora and fauna. Then there’s time for a swim at a waterfall, a demonstration of local fishing, about thirty minutes of horseriding and then lunch made by Roxanna.

santa juana, costa rica, rural tour, costa rican heritage

santa juana, costa rica, rural tour, costa rican heritage

All in all, it’s a busy day full of activities. From my perspective, the jungle trek was the most interesting with some excellent little details and background about the local ecosystem. I was a bit disappointed there weren’t more opportunities to see a slice of real life in Santa Juana – the demonstrations felt staged (as they were) and it wasn’t clear what the other members of the community were doing that day. Then again, nobody likes to feel as if they’re living in a zoo. There’s a fine line between natural interaction and strangers poking their head in through the door of the school every day.

santa juana, costa rica, rural tour, costa rican heritage

What is clear is that this shift from a reliance on agriculture to a supplementation with tourism is working for communities like Santa Juana. It’s sustainable and it benefits everyone. Ecotourism is about much more than protecting the environment around us… it’s about making a responsible difference to communities like this as well.

You can find out more information here about the Rural Heritage Tour from Manuel Antonio

Time Travel Turtle was a guest of Visit Costa Rica but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.

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12 Comments
  • Jim O'Donnell | Dec 17, 2013 at 3:00 am

    Very nicely done. I found much the same as I traveled around Costa Rica two weeks ago. The economy is relatively stable as is employment. Most of it thanks to the policy of education, universal health care and ecotourism.

    • Michael Turtle | Jan 20, 2014 at 7:23 pm

      It’s interesting how different Costa Rica is to its Central American neighbours. When it comes to the politics and economy of the country, there’s a stability that is probably the envy of everyone in the region!

  • Marc d'Entremont | Dec 17, 2013 at 3:50 am

    A well balanced article providing an insight into how seemingly 2 contrasting economic models can work together for a common good.

    • Michael Turtle | Jan 20, 2014 at 7:28 pm

      Thank you. I tried to present it in a balanced way. It’s hard not to think that this approach is better than destroying the local environment, though! :)

  • Gaelyn | Dec 17, 2013 at 8:18 am

    Nice to see this working. Could be used as a model for other places in the world.

    • Michael Turtle | Jan 20, 2014 at 7:34 pm

      I think there are a lot of places where a model like this would be very effective. There are lots of travellers who want to get away from the resorts and tourists centres – this is a great way to do it and help local communities in the process.

  • Devlin @ Marginal Boundaries | Dec 19, 2013 at 7:05 am

    Amazing to read how ecotourism can really turn a place around. Although as you say it was a bit staged, I wonder what the other people in the town that aren’t a part of the tour get out of it?

    • Michael Turtle | Jan 20, 2014 at 7:59 pm

      I think everyone is part of it, in a sense. You wouldn’t be able to run something like that unless the whole place was supportive. It’s just that some people get their direct employment from the tours. The others have different jobs that help the community.

  • Laura @Travelocafe | Dec 30, 2013 at 3:37 am

    Thank you very much. Very inspiring. Hopefully we’ll see similar situations in other parts of the world too.

  • Anni | Feb 9, 2014 at 9:41 am

    A great article on the balancing of one economy. Now if only we could make that happen in America. It is, actually. People are going to travel anyway. If we create opportunities for people to learn about the culture and farming in America (the old farming ways, not the conventional ones) I think things would help the pendulum swing back toward better, more sustainable farming methods.
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    • Michael Turtle | Feb 10, 2014 at 5:17 pm

      Such a great point! I think the average person is interested in how other people live and what makes particular communities unique. If locals (particularly in areas that are struggling) offer these kinds of opportunities or homestays, everyone would benefit. There must be some fascinating people and places in the US that you could explore through real heritage tours like this.

  • Mary @ Green Global Travel | Jul 28, 2014 at 12:45 am

    That’s awesome to see this work out so well! Great that Jim Demalas got this going! Thanks for sharing!
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