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Don Lulo's Cataratas Nauyaca |
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Now I know don Lulo's address -- from a business card he gave me. The card says he lives in "Libano de Perez Zeledon." Perez Zeledon is the canton, but Libano? No map of Costa Rica I have seen shows it. In reality don Lulo lives several miles off the single paved road that runs from San Isidro, the only city in the canton, to the Pacific coast near the village of Dominical. The closest village to don Lulo's place is Platanillo. I've been through this region several times, riding buses and giving rides to hitchhikers, but I've never heard of Libano. But there it is, his address on his business card printed in three colors, giving telephone number and post office box. Don Lulo is a campesino.
To get to Lulo's place, you leave the paved road west of Platanillo, on foot or horse, and follow a dirt road that descends rapidily to the Baru river. This road fords the river before turning west. In 1996, fed by Hurricane Cesar, the Baru ripped out enough bridges and embankments to shut down the paved road for weeks. While some of Lulo's land lies near this ford, his house is another couple of miles up the other slope by a smaller track. Where you ford the river is a wooden sign that announces in English "BARU RIVER."
The home of one of don Lulo and doña Ruth's daughters, Alexandra, doubles as an office for people taking Lulo's waterfall tour since Alexandra's house is on the San Isidro-Dominical road. There you see a sign announcing "Don Lulo's Cataratas Nauyaca." As with rivers and beaches, Costa Rican waterfalls are in the public domain. So Lulo doesn't own the waterfall and no longer is the only guide taking tourists there.
Several family members participate in this ecotourism project, including Alexandra's husband who, when I visited them, was taking elementary English at night school in San Isidro to perform better as a guide. It was Giovani who had handcrafted the Baru River sign in English for the tourists' enlightenment. A few more signs as well, some pointing out places of interest, others asking tourists not to litter.
Braulio Jimenez Rojas (don Lulo) came to the valley as a homesteader with his bride, doña Ruth, some forty-odd years ago when the region was first being colonized by campesinos from the north. Lulo is the fourth of five children. He was six when his father was murdered while off sellling pork. All the children helped their mother farm. Lulo had three years of schooling. All that took place near Puntarenas, in the dry, cleaved landscape where the Costa Rican meseta central drops down to meet the Pacific.
Lulo now is fifty-eight. He must have been in his late teens when with Ruth he migrated here. There must have been few people in the region then, for travel down the coast was made difficult by the many rivers to cross. When the Pan-American Highway was built after World War Two, it took another route to reach Perez Zeledon. Crossing the mountains southeast of San Jose, the highway followed the route ox-carts has used, a route that at its peak earned the name "Cerro de la Muerte."
Since he was among the first to settle here, and is a shrewd entrepreneur from all that I could see, Lulo has accumulated a few hundred acres, one block of which has been set aside as a formal "association" for his sons. Lulo believes he now has enough land that conflicts won't arise among his children when he's gone. Unless forced by circumstances, he won't cut the many trees they have planted together, even though trees planted just eight years ago are approaching marketable size. Lulo loves trees.
Concerns about there being enough land for the next generation are linked to the ability to mount the ecotourist project which, if all goes well, will mean that few trees need be cut. Both the concern and the response are connected to an influx of foreigners in recent years. As the toucan flies, Lulo's land is five miles from the beach at Dominical. Foreigners who came initially as tourists have returned to buy not just ocean frontage but "view lots" on the ridges behind. As a result land prices have risen. So the availability of land for the next campesino generation in a region homesteaded by this one is the downside of this story, the availability of customers for eco-tourism the upside.
Part of what attracts don Lulo to ecotourism is that it brings in money without a tree being cut. But Lulo also likes the waterfall tour because it's a family project involving Ruth, several of their children and in-laws, grandchildren and cousins. As far as I could tell, the tour is not anyone's sole source of income yet offers all a lucrative sideline during the "high season" when more labor is needed to staff the project. Partially a spinoff of "Cararatas Nauyaca," Ruth's sister has opened a little hotel across the paved road called "Paradise."
Substitute "crop" for "tour" and what is traditional about this activity becomes apparent. Tourists provide a market for a "crop" that uses family labor on a need-driven basis, a crop sold fresh locally, a crop that complements other income streams. No one in the family has all their eggs in this basket. This crop capitalizes on traditional campesino skills and lore: horseback riding, country cooking, story telling. Giovani, the son-in-law who works as a guide and made the signs in English, tells me how much his six-year-old son has learned working alongside his grandfather, including which horse to give which tourist.
So I ask Lulo: Why did you get into the tourism business? [Obviously this is a conversation in Spanish which I now translate.]
Lulo: Everything started when some foreigners started coming to this section I had reforested because it was beautiful to see. I had planted trees there six years before. We started to see that people liked it, because, as you can see [Lulo's now showing me his brochure], there's one waterfall that is 45 meters high and another that is 20 meters with a pool that's 1,000 square meters. And around it we have this plantation of teak and pochote. This [pointing] is the ranchito where we receive people and give them refreshments and lunch -- that's part of the tour -- and we provide good horses for them to ride.
Since we wanted to continue planting trees [Lulo continues], we thought that there had to be a better way to finance that project. Some people were helping us by sending us people, foreigners, so we could sustain these plantations and go on planting trees. Really this has gone well. The initiative comes from everyone in my family. All of us help run it: the children and in-laws, the grandchildren and cousins. And we keep everything natural, trying to respect nature. The trails are natural. We avoid cutting plants wherever possible. I believe it's important that people see this.
I ask: Do you yourself like this contact with foreign tourists?
Lulo: Very much. It's one of the things I most enjoy because I feel as if I've been to all these countries. For me the difficulty is the language, but when I get someone to translate for me all goes well. It's English I lack, but the guides know a little [Giovanni] and when the visitors are here I tell my stories, my adventures, and jokes if possible. I've been lucky because while I've never gone to school, the tourists seem to like the jokes and adventures I tell. So it works out well for everyone.
Me again: Is it true that Selva Mar [an umbrella nature tour agency in San Isidro] helps with the publicity?
Lulo: We help each other. We have a tourism bureau, of which Selva Mar is the travel agency. We help each other, those of us who have these small projects. I am a member of the national Bureau of Tourism and High Tour. Here in Perez Zeledon our local bureau is going on the internet. I don't really understand it, but it's important. Each of us has a page on the internet and right now there are 17 of us. A woman from Canada came and put us on the internet. That makes it easier to attract foreign tourists. We advertise at national expositions and at Expo-Tur, in the Tico-Times [Costa Rica's English-language newspaper], in German newspapers, in other countries . . . in Italy. When someone visits us we give them this brochure and we also have a brochure promoting all 17 small projects in this area. This Brunca region is really beautiful. [Lulo is beaming.]
I probe: So, does the waterfall business pays better than the tree nursery did?
Lulo: Really, I created the nursery more to repair a little of the damage that all of us campesinos had done [en realidad el vivero yo lo hacia por reponer un poco el daño que habiamos hecho todos los campesinos]. Although I was selling bags of fertilizer along with the seedlings, everything was becoming more expensive. It is difficult to get the seeds because you have to climb trees. You need well-formed seeds to make good trees. Right now the waterfall is more profitable, but I still have some trees to sell. Every day there is more tourism because a friend invites a friend and each day it goes better for us. Since it's a family business there are times in the winter [the rainy season] when it doesn't pay enough but during the more profitable times we put a little aside. Since it's just among us, we charge a bit more in the high season and less in the winter.
Readers can reach Lulo's homepage by going to http://www.ecotourism.co.cr/ and then choosing "tropical forest" under "Do you want a trip?"
The author was a professor at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. He died unexpectedly in March, 1998. A contributor to the Eco Travels website, Bud was also responsible for the Responsible Coffee Campaign.
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