Exploring Rainforest &
Around La Laguna del Lagarto Lodge
Host: Oscar Enrique Artavia Munguia
When: Year round
Length of tour: Three days are proposed, but guests can stay at the lodge as long as they wish
Fee charged: The price of staying 3 days and 2 nights at the lodge is US$231.00 ($214.00 low season from May 1 - Oct. 31 ) per person. This includes 2 nights lodging, 2 breakfasts, 2 lunchs, 2 dinners, 1 boat tour on the river San Carlos, 1 horseback riding tour, birding with Oscar, transfers from San José-Lodge and return, and all taxes.
Oscar does not have direct access to e-mail, so one of the lodge's family owners, Kurt Schmack, serves as our Host Helper. The following describes a proposed three-day stay, in Kurt's own words:
A three-day/two-night tour with something of a birdwatching emphasis might look like this:
Travelers with Special Needs: Vinzenz Schmack writes: "we are perfectly prepared to accept and handle handicapped visitors.The rooms are even-leveled and just from the terrace and the open dinning room you are likly to see up to 60 species of birds. We are also prepared to drive the handicapped visitors along the rain forest and other good birding spots very close to the Lodge. We would charge $15.- extra per tour(2 hours) attending them.The handicapped must however be prepared for a 4 hour car drive from San José to the Lodge.
History of "LA LAGUNA DEL LAGARTO LODGE"
I came to Costa Rica in 1974 as an International Bank Executive and never in my wildest dreams thought that this would become my permanent home and less that I will wind up as owner of a Jungle Lodge in the northern zone in the most remote and most underdeveloped part of the country.
This is how it all began. It all goes back to my family who owned a farm in East Germany (now Poland), where I grew up and due to the World War II, we had to leave it behind, but I always dreamt of having a large piece of land that I could call my very own. This dream materialized in 1981, when I was no longer a banker, but financial consultant. I had the opportunity to buy from a foreclosure 110 Ha. of prime rainforest in the northern part of Costa Rica near a small hamlet called Boca Tapada, about 12 Kms. south of the San Juan River, on the border of Nicaragua and 2 Km. east of the San Carlos River.
For quite some time I did not know what to do with the newly acquired land. The only way to reach it from the village of Boca Tapada (7 Kms. away), during the dry season, was with a 4W drive vehicle and, during the rainy season, on horseback. It came to my mind to convert this rainforest into agricultural productive land, by cutting the trees down and planting either pineapple, pepper, cacao or heart of palms. At that time the word "ecology" was not yet heard in Costa Rica and there were hardly any restrictions for deforestation, there was no problem to turn a rainforest into farmland. However, this process was rather expensive and a financial risky business, at least for a still conservative banker. At the edge of my rainforest, there was about 2 Ha. of secondary growth, which I cleared and started experimenting with the production of pineapple and pepper. These 2 Ha. were on a hill surrounded by a swamp that you have to cross on fallen trees in order to reach the hill. We built a bridge over the swamp and at the same time we dammed its overflow by raising the water level and thus, the swamp became a lake (lagoon), surrounding the hill, and turning it into a semi-island.
I was not sure what to do with this land and many ideas went through my head to make it productive and at the same time resisting the pressure from the loggers and sawmills to sell them the wood, so I did nothing and enjoyed for a while the good feeling of being a land owner and waiting for a right idea, which happened at a cocktail party in San Jose, while discussing with a friend what to do : to cut down the rainforest and to plant cacao or pineapple, both crops that were just developing into attractive business opportunities. It was fortunate the ecological movement had already reached my friend, and he advised not to deforest this beautiful land, but instead to keep it prime and only mark some trails and build a small lodge. I was ready to go into Ecotourism, a brand new word in Costa Rica. So I started first in 1989 with one unit consisting of four rooms, two rooms sharing one bathroom and a spacious balcony with view to one of the lagoons.
At that time there was no electricity in the place and , not liking the noise of a generator, I installed solar panels. After two years of favorable comments from visitors, I decided to convert it into an economically self-sustaining lodge of 20 rooms and formally opened up for business in November 1992. I was very lucky that a large German travel agency took the lodge into their program and sent me each week for a two-night stay, groups of about 25 tourists which covered from opening day the operating expenses. The beginning was nevertheless, very difficult. The buses with the first groups could not get right to the lodge. The loggers had destroyed the road in such a way, that people had to walk the last 1 1/2 Km. and we had to haul the suitcases up to the hotel by jeep. The tourist did not mind because they enjoyed the lush tropical surroundings and the quietness only interrupted by the sounds of the jungle and the songs of the "early morning birds".
Slowly, in addition to the regular German groups, other travel agencies discovered the place and took us into their itinerary. We struggled on to improve the road and after two years of lobbying with the villagers of Boca Tapada and the nearby hamlet of Santa Rita, we were connected with the public electricity. We are now about to get our own telephone line at the lodge.
Why do we consider this story so special ? First, if I had not have bought this land, the loggers would have cut down the rainforest. Second, if I had not built the hotel, I probably would not have resisted the pressure to sell the wood to the sawmills.
In addition to the 110 hectares of Rainforest I bought opposite of it another 180 Ha. of pasture land and secondary forestland and after experimenting several years as cattle farmer, I realized that this was an expensive hobby and reforested 40 Ha. left 82 Ha. as natural re-growth under a Government supervised forest protection plan, made two more lakes of about 6 Ha. left about 30 Ha. as pasture for the horses the tourists use. Then planted 22 Ha. with "Heart of Palms" in order to satisfy my agricultural instinct.
The economic success of the Lodge is demonstrated by the over 1000 tourists who visit us each year and the trend is rising. They come from all over the world, most of them though from Europe (Germany and Switzerland) but also from Japan, China and as far as from Australia.
However, what really makes this story a special one is the economic impact the Lodge has made on the area, the modern development of the region, its people and the awareness of what "ecology really means".
The Lodge employs six people all, but the manager, who is German and speaks three languages, come from the nearby village and at the adjoin farm we give employment to an additional five workers. During the high tourist season, two part time cleaning women are hired. This makes the Lodge and farm the largest employer in an area plagued with unemployment.
The Lodge has not only created direct employment, but also indirect income to new small enterprises. A local fellow bought himself two river motor boats, with our financial assistance and we contract him for the boat tours offered to our guests on the San Carlos and San Juan rivers. Presently, he has repaid us the loan and operates a prosperous business, giving service not only to us, but also to other people. The small restaurant at the border post at the confluence of the San Carlos and San Juan rivers, practically lives from the guests the Lodge brings to this place on the boat trips. All the other small stores and bars also benefit, since the guests go quite often to the village to have a drink or to buy souvenirs.
The Lodge has not only opened the door for the tourist to see the new world of a rainforest, but has offered its employees the opportunity to see the world outside. Our cook, Adolfo, a refugee from Nicaragua, started as a simple farm worker. By shear accident we discovered his talent for cooking, sent him to the next town to a restaurant for training and he developed into an excelent cook. All guests praise his culinary art, to the extent that a German tourist liked it so much that he invited him for three months to Germany, all expenses paid, to bring the "Costarican Cuisine" to the Old World. It was an incredible experience for Adolfo who never had seen an airplane from inside and had barely visited San Jose and least dreamed to fly to Europe.
Another example is our young Assistant Manager and local tourist guide, Oscar, who comes from a nearby small farm family. We sent him to San Jose to take English lessons, then, through my Rotary connections, he was invited for two months by a Rotary family in the United States to improve his English and now he speaks it fluently and has turned into an excellent tourist and birdwatchers' guide.
As already indicated, I am member of the San Jose Rotary Club and through our connections with the Clubs in the U.S.A., we are sponsoring five schools in this area, all of them rather remote and very poor, lacking the most basic supplies. We brought two years in a row a group of four Rotarian Dentists from the U.S.A. to Boca Tapada with all their equipment to give for three and a half days free dental service to the people in the area.
The example of the Hotel has convinced our neighbor to maintain 400 Ha. of rainforest, so that our Lodge is actually surrounded by 500 Ha. of prime privately owned rainforest.
As already mentioned, due to the presence of the Hotel, we could convince the State-owned Electricity Company to connect the village and the Hotel with the public electricity net. The Hotel was also instrumental in improving the road, and last but not least, our example brought a new sense of self-confidence to the people. At the beginning, when I built the Hotel, they were very skeptical, and thought it a crazy idea, no tourist will come to this Godforsaken place, but when they saw the success, the village people now come to us for advice on all kinds of new projects they want to implement to create new employment. They are proud, that Boca Tapada shows now on all the maps and in most of the international tourist guides and that it even appears on international T.V. programs.
We, the owners of "La Laguna del Lagarto Lodge", are likewise very proud to have proven how tourism can contribute to the development of a poor isolated area, how we value the richness of the rainforest and how we, in some way, have contributed to the awareness, that to maintain and preserve the rainforest for future generations, can be more profitable than cutting it down and, thus, destroying its beauty with all its exuberant flora and fauna.
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