If you’re looking for luxury and privacy, you’re better off at a conventional resort hotel. But if you are ready to roll up your sleeves,muddy your boots and participate in a slice of life with an extraordinary Tico family, El Progreso Farm may be just what you’ve been searching for.
From a distance, Finca El Progreso in Las Colinas, in the Caribbean province of Limón, seems like any other idyllic Caribbean farm: a small country house perched amid rain forest and rolling green hills, regal ceiba trees shading a handful of grazing cows, rows of crops nodding gently in the breeze. As we rumble up the gravel road, the glint of solar panels alerts us that our visit will be anything but ordinary.
A 45-minute drive off the beaten path, 25 kilometers northwest of the Caribbean-slope town of Cariari, El Progreso opens its doors and arms to visitors seeking sustainability in action. More like a homestay than a hotel, a visit to the farm is an opportunity to take part in the daily activities of the Alpízar-Chaves family. El Progreso offers personalized farm and rain-forest tours, horseback riding, hiking, bird-watching, wicker handicraft workshops and educational talks about alternative energy and sustainable agriculture. Guests can help milk cows, gather eggs, feed livestock, harvest honey and tend organic crops.
El Progreso is one of a growing network of northwestern Caribbean “integral farms” promoting sustainable agrotourism with the aid of national and international nongovernmental organizations. Ten years ago, the Alpízar-Chaves family farm embarked on a transition from conventional farming to sustainable development, preserving more than 30 hectares of tropical rain forest and halting the use of agrochemicals.
“The idea of agrotourism is based on food security, community and harmony between humans and the environment,” says Danilo Rangel, whose nearby farm also gives tours.
The home itself is a model of sustainable living. Completely off the grid, solar panels provide limited electricity at night, which means no fridge, TV or Internet. Tanks capture up to 1,100 liters of rainwater to complement a nearby well.With the aid of a small-scale biodigestor, the family converts livestock excrement into natural biogas to cook meals.
“This is how we will convince people that (sustainability) is possible, by showing them our success,” says Carlos Alberto Alpízar, patriarch of the Alpízar-Chaves family.
After a refreshing glass of guanabana juice, we slide into rubber boots and take off on a walking tour through the 88-hectare property.Dodging potholes and cow pies, we make our way through lush pastures, past bleating goats and squealing pigs. Innocuous stingless bees guard a four-story ceiba tree, its limbs loaded with epiphytes. Our voices hush as we approach a hollowed-out trunk inhabited by hundreds of snoozing fruit bats. In a soft-spoken yet sparklingly confident voice, Nuria Chaves, Carlos Alberto’s wife, guides us through primary and secondary tropical rain-forest trails littered with eye-catching poison dart frogs.
Pushing aside palm fronds and dangling fruits, Nuria leads us back to the farmhouse where her husband is waiting for us with fresh agua de pipa (green coconut water).
Here, we meet a group of 10 U.S. students from the Center for Sustainable Development Studies of Atenas, northwest of San José. Led by tropical ecology professor Gerardo Avalos, the students are completing a study about Euterpe precatoria, a rain-forest palm species found on many a Costa Rican plate as palmito, or heart of palm. They are back to check on the progress of 60 palms they planted on their last visit.
Almost a decade ago, the Alpízar-Chaves family helped launch a program researching, reproducing and exporting 30 species of tropical palm seeds. This sustainable utilization of rain-forest resources may help prevent poaching and deforestation on sensitive lands. In addition to using and conserving plant species, the family also strives to protect the area’s animals.
Nuria’s son Vernny guides us to a pen that we are told holds a pair of tepezcuintle (agouti), wild, edible rodents. All we can see at first is a grunting, barking log. Vernny finally succeeds in coaxing the female out with a plantain. At $10 a kilo, it’s no surprise these creatures are hunted aggressively in the rain forest for their nutritious meat. The Alpízar-Chaves family breeds them in captivity in hopes of allowing the wild population to survive on its own.
Meals at El Progreso are abundant, organic and delicious. Depending on the season, the farm’s 12 acres of crops produce organic grains, tubers, vegetables and tropical fruit, including squash, corn, beans, rice, sweet potato, cilantro and papaya. Contented cows, pigs and chickens provide sumptuous hormone-free meat, milk and eggs. El Progreso sells its produce in the organic section of the Saturday morning market in the town of Guápiles, an hour northeast of San José on the highway to Limón. After a delicious dinner of tender pork, mashed potatoes, heart-of-palm salad and mango juice, we head to bed exhausted and satisfied.
“Don’t expect a hotel,” Nuria says. “This is simple, rustic living in a family environment – a place where you can enjoy peace and nature.”
Her sons distribute candles and lighters for us to take to our rooms. The only other light comes from the stars and a single, solarpowered fluorescent bulb in the open-air dining area. El Progreso’s accommodations are simple and comfortable. Two guest rooms with bunks adjoining the family home sleep up to eight people, with extra mats and camping space available for larger groups.We fall asleep to the sounds of crickets, cicadas and bovine conversations.
El Progreso is a perfect place for backpackers looking for a hands-on sustainable farming experience, environmental educational groups, active retirees and those looking for an outdoor experience they can share with the whole family.
“It’s a place for people who love natural resources,” Nuria says, “those who want to experience life in harmony with nature.”
Nuria Chaves, Sustainable Pioneer
Sincere and charismatic, Nuria Chaves is a visionary in her community and a leader in the national movement for sustainable agriculture. Born into an agricultural family from Turrubares, west of San José, where she lived until she was 17, Nuria grew up farming alongside her father and five siblings.
“At that time, agrochemicals weren’t accessible,” Nuria says. “It wasn’t until the so-called ‘green revolution’ in the ‘80s and ‘90s that the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides spread across Costa Rica.”
Nuria married Carlos Alberto Alpízar in 1981. Soon after, the two started a family and the Alpízar-Chaves farm. She learned about alternative agriculture through national and international sustainable development programs.
Today, the couple and their four sons strive to make their farm as sustainable as possible.
“It has been a process,” Nuria says, “a change of consciousness.”
Nuria serves as president of the Association of Agricultural Producers and Artisans of El Zota (AMPALEC). The organization promotes scientific agrotourism, in-vitro plant cultivation for ornamental plants and organic production. She is also secretary of the Association of Organic Producers of the Caribbean (APOC), a regional division of the Costa Rican movement of organic agricultural producers.
To Nuria, progress is “when you can grow in a balanced way – personal, economic, social and environmental development.” She has traveled throughout the country for conferences, forums and workshops promoting sustainable development and organic agriculture, and holds dozens of certificates in natural resource management, organic production, administration and management.
An outspoken opponent of the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA), Nuria says, “We believe (CAFTA) will make money without regard to the consequences for the smallest producers. For those with education and resources, it can be a way out … but not everyone has those conditions.”
An advocate of small Tico farmers, she says the next steps are threefold: to increase consciousness among farmers to produce in harmony with nature, to ensure food security for families and to improve access to markets. Nuria is a respected leader in her Caribbean community.
Her farm serves as a living classroom for fellow agricultural producers, tourists and students from Costa Rica and abroad. APOC is set to launch its “Green Classroom” program to educate 88 Tico students from EARTHUniversity in Guácimo, east of Guápiles, at a network of local farms. The program, set to start in July, will cover issues such as food security, biodiversity and organic agriculture.
“We are in a process of learning and change,” Nuria says. “Our intention is that all farms can become model farms and serve as classrooms for many.”
Getting There, Rates, Info
Driving from San José, take theBraulio Carrillo Highway
to Guápiles to the Santa Clara gas station (Estación de Servicio Santa Clara) and turn left (north) toward Cariari. From there, take the road to Puerto Lindo to Las Colinas School and soccer field. The farm is 4 km northwest from there.
By bus, from San José’s Caribbean bus terminal, take the Cariari bus (two hours). From Cariari, take a taxi (767-7474) for the 45-minute drive to the farm. From the Cariari station, drive 25 km northwest to Las Colinas. The farm is 4 km west of the Las Colinas School.
A one-day visit including a morning snack, lunch and guided rain-forest and farm tour is $25 per person.
A one-night, two-day package including three meals a day, rustic accommodations and farm and rain-forest tours costs $50-70 per person. Visits are by reservation only; e-mail [email protected]. For info, visit www.ampalec.com.