Part of the appeal of living in Costa Rica for many foreigners is the chance to downsize and simplify. But you haven’t seen the simple life until you visit the folks at the Dúrika Foundation and Biological Reserve, 18 kilometers north –most of it uphill – of Buenos Aires, in southern Costa Rica.
A showcase of earth-friendly sustainability, this community has spent the past 15 years building a healthy and harmonious, if austere, world apart. It’s not a religion or a cult, and it’s not a Utopia or Shangri-la – just a determined group of former teachers, professionals and scientists who wanted to find a simpler, exemplary way to live in harmony with nature.
For many years, the community was remote, both in geography and philosophy.
Now, says member Vilma Rodríguez, the members “want to share our experience of living” with ecotourists. The goal is to not only show people what can be done with a lot of ingenuity, commitment and hard work, but also to earn funds to extend their 8,500-hectare biological reserve.
Visiting means being prepared to rough it, starting with getting here. The last three kilometers of rock-strewn road – named one of the 10 worst roads in the country by The Lonely Planet guidebook – have a terrifyingly steep grade, gaining 600 meters. But at least there is a road. When the community began in 1989, there was only a track for horses and hikers.
“The road is a natural filter,” says Eugenio García, community member and a professional birding guide, referring to the fact that only truly interested visitors will attempt it. But once at the top, the view is worth it, overlooking a vast valley bordered by two indigenous reserves: Salitre, home to Bribrí, and Ujarrás, home to Cabécar. To the west is DúrikaMountain, named for the Bribrí word for “eagle’s beak,” and covered by one of the last undisturbed stretches of scrubby, highland forest in the country.
Digs and Eats
The community itself is a collection of unpainted wood cabins climbing a hillside, edged with organic-garden terraces, peppered with herb gardens and colored by wildflowers. There’s the unmistakable but not unpleasant aroma of goats in the air (think: mild goat cheese), emanating from a large, well-kept goat shed. These docile animals are raised strictly for their milk, and judging by the care they receive, they must be among the happiest goats in the world (see sidebar).
Guest cabins are rustic, made of rough planks. My tiny cabin for two had unscreened windows with wooden shutters, two single beds, a few shelves and a miniscule, cold-water bathroom. But it also had a tiny porch with a front-row-center view of the valley.
The blustery day my companion and I arrived, a howling wind shook the cabin to its foundations. The wind had knocked a tree down and taken out both the main waterline and the community’s impressive hydroelectric system, a reminder of how exposed the community is to the forces of nature. Most of the members were out repairing the waterline and power system all day – but both were up and running by nightfall. That’s one of the advantages of building your own systems: when they break, you know how to fix them.
Happily, there was enough reserve water to prepare lunch, and we climbed the stone path to the restaurant, doffing our shoes at the bottom of the cabin’s stairway – no shoes are allowed indoors. The low-ceilinged room has long communal tables and smaller tables for two or four. Community members eat in their own homes, so you don’t share meals with them, but the kitchen staff and servers are all from the community.
In true campesino tradition, lunch is the main event. In line with the community’s sustainable philosophy, it’s strictly vegetarian, partly to set an example to locals (and hunters) that you can live without killing animals, and partly to show non-vegetarians you can eat quite well.
Vegetable-stock soups were savory and satisfying; salads had home-grown-herb dressings. Rice is inevitable, but at least it was “beefed up” with lentils one day and a homemade hot sauce another day.
Desserts are heavy on the semolina and junket pudding. A raisin loaf for dessert at one meal gave a hint of the community’s bakery, renowned for its dessert breads and cookies that are sold commercially. Unfortunately for my sweet tooth, the bakery was under reconstruction.
Breakfast is hearty, too, with delicious goat’s-milk yogurt mixed with fresh fruit and the community’s own granola. Accompanying the usual scrambled eggs and gallo pinto is a divine chunk of freshly made goat cheese. Coffee is made from organic beans grown here, then sun-dried and roasted. It’s slightly acidic, but warmed-up goat’s milk smooths it out. A homemade herbal tea, spicy with ginger, allspice and pineapple, is delightful. Dinner is a much lighter meal: perhaps a bowl of Asian-style noodles with vegetables and a salad.
My only dining quibble was that dinner is served promptly at 5 p.m. and you are asked to be out of the restaurant by 6, so that members serving in the restaurant can get on with their other activities. With no lounge to gather in, that makes for a very long night of lying in a narrow bed with the wind howling outside. But it’s a good excuse on a clear night to sit on the porch and watch the stars come out.
Things to Do
When you arrive at Dúrika, you are welcomed by a friendly community guide who helps you decide which of the free guided hikes around the property you’d like to take.
The hikes range from easy to difficult, from a two-hour hike to a waterfall and the community’s impressive hydroelectric project, to a challenging three-day hike to La Amistad International Park and the continental divide, spending the night in a mountain hut (extra charge).
There’s also a de rigueur but fascinating, half-day tour of the community itself, showcasing its projects: raising goats, enriching soil, organic farming, growing heritage seeds and medicinal herbs, planting trees and a holistic health center. The tour also gives you the opportunity to meet community members, most of whom are bilingual or trilingual, and come from Europe and North America as well as Costa Rica.
For birders, a variety of habitats and altitudes exist here. Up in the community itself, highland species such as golden-browed chlorophonias flit around, and brilliant flame-colored tanagers forage for food.
Lower down, in the forest edging the Río Ceibo, you may be lucky enough to find the rare rosy thrush tanager. This area is one of the few places in the country the species has been reliably spotted.
When all the hiking and neck-stretching get to you, take advantage of the community’s eco-health services – offered in two new, whitewashed buildings – including whirlpool baths, therapeutic and reflexology massages (very reasonably priced at $18-37), dry sauna, mud wraps and facials using herbal creams produced here. For more serious aches and pains, a qualified acupuncture therapist is on hand. A dental clinic is also in the works.
Most visitors come to Dúrika to see how a sustainable community works, and many come in student groups or as volunteers, exchanging work for room and board. But individual visitors are also welcome. Members are friendly and very knowledgeable. But there is a slight wariness and other worldliness in their demeanor, not surprising given that they have set themselves apart and eschew most aspects of the material world.
During your stay, you can attend a slide presentation and lecture that details the community’s history, hardships, successes and future plans. Even if you’re not a committed back-to-nature proponent, you may find yourself inspired – or disturbed – by the presentation’s parting question: “What are you doing – in the way you eat, talk and live – to protect the planet?”
The Making of Great Goat Cheese
The Dúrika goat project is certainly entertaining for visitors, and a perfect example of how the community’s projects interact.
The community has about 70 goats, docile white Saanens and coffee-colored Toggenburgs from the Swiss Alps. Because of the tropical heat (even up here), the goats are put out to graze at 6:30 p.m. and brought back to their open-sided, roofed barn around 11 a.m. They’re milked twice a day, an event that’s fun to watch or participate in, especially the bottle-feeding of the kids.
It’s surprisingly not too smelly in the goat barn. Built on stilts, it has a slatted wooden floor that allows the goat droppings to fall onto the ground below. Members rake them up and haul them over to the pits where soil is enriched for the community’s organic gardens.
The goat’s milk – low in fat and nutritious – is for the members’ use, and the surplus goes to the restaurant in the form of yogurt (mild and delicious) and cheese. A small chunk of delicate, creamy, fresh goat cheese is served at breakfast. The community also makes aged goat cheese, flavored with homegrown herbs – the chile picante and black peppercorn explode in your mouth, while milder versions are flavored with cumin, thyme or oregano.
You can sample the cheeses at a tasting following a visit to the cheese-making kitchen. It’s an amazingly simple process – just heat the milk, add a curdling agent, then squeeze the solids through cheesecloth and put them in a turn-screw press to remove moisture. Et voilà: goat cheese worthy of a French fromagerie.
Location and Information
Dúrika Foundation and Biological Reserve is 18 kilometers north of the Southern Zone town of Buenos Aires; four-wheel drive is required, or take a taxi from town ($30). The community can accommodate up to 30 people in nine cabins.
The $38-per-person rate includes lodging, meals, guided hikes and tours. Call 730-0657 or e-mail [email protected] well in advance to reserve. For more information, visit www.durika.org.