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Monday, May 29, 2023

Southern Finca Offers New Ecotourism Experience

FOURTEEN years ago, Roberto Montero pioneered organic coffee production on his family’s century-old estate high above San Vito de Coto Brus, near the Panamanian border in southern Costa Rica. Now, he’s pioneering a new kind of ecotourism experience.Most of his Hacienda La Amistad estate is covered in primary forest, riddled with rivers and splashed with spectacular waterfalls. About 15 kilometers of the 10,000-hectare property borders the vast but hard-to-access La Amistad International Park, bursting with flora and fauna.With 57 km of forest trails running through this private preserve, Montero hit on the idea of “Feel Green,” a hiking tour that moves hikers among three rustic camps (with a fourth one in the works), so that visitors can camp overnight in some comfort and never need to backtrack.“Our forest is just too big to hike in one day,” Montero says. “If people come all the way down here, we want to show them as much as possible.”THE main selling point of “Feel Green” is that you never need to carry more than a light daypack with you. Personal gear, food and your personal cook go ahead in a truck. This is overnight hiking for folks who want to be in the wild but don’t relish being burdened by camp stoves and tents.In July, a hardened hiking friend and I sampled La Amistad’s camp life. After a night in the comfortable main lodge (see box with map), we set off in a strippeddown, roofless Range Rover to drive up to the first trailhead at Las Tablas. With us were Spanish-speaking local guide Walter Sandí, his uncle Gerardo Sandí, our intrepid driver, and Zoleida Vargas, an excellent cook and keen budding naturalist.This first trail follows the Río Cotón, the main water supply for San Vito. The wide, well-maintained trail wends through a naturalist’s dream of primary forest. For four hours or so, you hear nothing but the river gurgling, quetzals calling and congo monkeys howling. Smells abound, some of them sharp and pungent from saíno (wild pigs) lurking nearby. You may spot delicate brocket deer, but the rarely seen tapirs are mostly evidenced by hoof tracks along the trail. The trees are magnificent, including one mighty higuerón (strangler fig) estimated to be 400 years old.THE Cotoncito camp edges a horse pasture overlooking a lovely river that must be forded. The camp is rustic, as advertised, with one dining rancho and six tiny, bamboo-sided cabins, each containing two narrow wooden pallets and nothing else. There’s a flush toilet and a cold-water shower, but at 1,500 meters altitude, you have to be tough to take a cold shower. Cozy it is not, but from this camp you can follow four trails of varying difficulty, from easy to challenging, to find freshwater springs and pre-Columbian petroglyphs.After a hearty lunch of chicken, rice and beans, cooked on a wood stove, we set off in the vintage Range Rover for the next camp where we would spend the night, just as the afternoon deluge started. This ride certainly qualified as one of the wildest of my life, with four of us trying to hold a puddling plastic tarp over the car so that our driver could see the road and negotiate mud, rocks, steep grades and river crossings – not recommended for the squeamish or the prone-to-get-carsick.We finally arrived at Coto Brus Station, set in a cow pasture at 2,000 meters altitude. One cow had kindly left its calling card on the bottom step of the dining rancho. After changing into dry clothes, we huddled around the wood stove to warm up. While we waited for Vargas to make supper, a resplendent quetzal swooped across the pasture, two crested guans took up a perch nearby, and a double-toothed kite glared down at us from a tree.Hot garbanzo-bean soup was a welcome warm-up, followed by a stir-fry of beef, vegetables and the requisite rice and beans. There’s not much to do after nightfall except stay near the warmth of the fire, talking and counting fireflies and watching the lights of the town of Sabalito sparkle below.WE shivered through the night, as the temperature dipped to the low 50s. It didn’t help that we were wrapped in thin sleeping bags (borrowed, since we hadn’t been warned to bring our own). The thin foam mattresses between us and the hard wooden pallet didn’t make the night much more comfortable, but it was marginally better than sleeping on the ground. A nighttime visit to the bathroom entailed sidestepping fresh cow patties. We were happy to greet the dawn and down a huge breakfast of fruit, gallo pinto, scrambled eggs, and whole-wheat toast made in a frying pan.After breakfast, Sandí led us uphill through the pasture and into the forest, where bellbirds were bonking away and monkeys – howler, spider and white-faced – abounded. The trails here are very rough, with lots of demanding detours around downed trees and a lot of scrabbling along sharply angled hillside tracks. Keeping a close watch on your footing, however, you can reap the reward of spotting an amazing variety of fungi, from bright-red ball mushrooms to cool-blue toadstools. I distinguished myself at one of the many shoes-off river crossings by throwing a boot that ricocheted off an overhanging branch and landed in the fast-moving river. Sandí rushed to the rescue and got himself soaking wet for his gallantry.THE Range Rover was waiting for us when we emerged from the trail four hours later. It was a slow, half-hour grind uphill to Punta Mira Station, so steep that we had to hoof it up the last grade. It was quite a surprise to come upon a four-story, green metal tower in a clearing, with a caged-in kitchen and bathroom on the ground floor and pie-shaped, tiny rooms above, topped by an observation platform on the roof.From the rooftop, we enjoyed views over the Coto Brus Valley. Surprisingly, though, not many birds were around. The birds that did show up were interesting, however, including crested guans, yellow-eared toucanets and blue and gold tanagers.After a hearty ham supper and a very quick cold shower, there was nothing to do but try to go to sleep. (There are solar panels on the roof but they are not yet connected to lights.) In the space of 16 hours here, I again distinguished myself as inept by locking myself in the toilet, not once but twice, thanks to a faulty doorknob that automatically locks and requires a key to open from the outside.OUR last day was a sampler of the variety of forest and landscape encompassed by La Amistad. After breakfast, we set off in sunshine to visit two magnificent waterfalls. The first required a precipitous 15-minute downhill hike to the Río Coto Brus. The picture-perfect, wide waterfall has cool swimming holes surrounded by huge boulders. On the bumpy ride back to Las Tablas, in the absence of rain, the roofless Rover became a wonderful touring car, with sunbeams filtering through sky-high trees lining the track. A constant chorus of bellbirds, wild turkeys and congo monkeys provided the soundtrack.Near Las Tablas, we alighted with Sandí and Vargas and bushwhacked our way along a steep overgrown trail to the Río Negro falls. At about 60 meters high, this is a splendid waterfall backed by dramatic basalt columns.The long trail that leads back to the hacienda entails lots of steep ups and downs. It’s aptly named the Higuerón Trail, with a fabulous array of strangely shaped strangler figs. Finally, after three hours, we reached the finca boundaries and then followed a flat, idyllic, wind-in-the willows trail along a canal that brings fresh water – and hydroelectric power – to the coffee plantation.We were glad to reenter civilization. After a hot shower, we sat down to a feast of fried trout from the finca’s pond and a cup of the best cappuccino in Coto Brus, made with a state-of-the-art, imported Italian espresso machine.“FEEL Green” is a great concept, but the execution could use some fine-tuning. Hiking these forests, far from any sounds of civilization, is an unrivalled experience. But some of the trails need work – and bridges. Sandí, the local guide, has a good eye for wildlife, but he is not a trained naturalist and doesn’t know the English names of birds or animals. The food is hearty and varied, but the camps themselves need a few more finishing touches – lanterns and lantern hooks in the cabins, towels, pillows, softer mattresses, battery-powered lights, storage shelves – to make them habitable. It would be wonderful, too, to pasture the horses and cattle elsewhere, so that guests don’t have to lie down with chiggers and get up with itchy bites.


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