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Rural Tourism: A Different Kind of Adventure

Nils Dammann stepped ankle-deep into a small mud pit – pschttt! You could imagine he was a bit bothered, but you wouldn’t know it. He didn’t make a peep; you couldn’t have seen him blushing even if he were. You couldn’t have seen much of anything that night on a pitchblack hike into a place in the woods to which no road leads.

It was the last leg of the trip for which Dammann’s group of 23 Germans had taken a ride up the YorkínRiver, along the Panama-Costa Rica border, in ancient canoes with chipping paint and motors strapped on the back. When the river was too low for the motor to catch the water, a dark, skinny Bribrí indigenous man would stand up and thrust the 25-meter-long boat with six passengers upstream by jabbing a 10-foot pole into the river bottom.

The only way to get where they were is the boat ride, or a three-hour hike in. Where they were going, there’s no electricity, and the nearest Internet connection is about three hours away. But there’s a whole lot of silence. Tumbling waterfalls, homemade chocolate and Van Gogh-esque starry nights, too.

On his three-day trip to Yorkín, a small Bribrí community hidden in the woods and known as Costa Rica’s most isolated indigenous community, Dammann would learn to hunt tapir with a bow and arrow made of sugarcane, ascend a cascading waterfall for a morning dip, and help the community make signs to be put up on their trails and in their lodge.

“I’ve never been on an adventure like this before,” he said.

This is rural tourism. The Costa Rican Association for Community-based Rural Tourism (ACTUAR), which coordinates trips to Yorkín, is one of a handful of organizations that puts on trips to Costa Rica’s back country, helps local communities make investments so they can benefit from tourism, and trains people in largely agricultural communities who have for centuries lived off of subsistence farming.

Growing Industry

The industry has been growing in the past four years, offering an alternative to trips to five-star beach resorts, according to Diana Roja, general coordinator of the Association for the Conservation and Sustainable Development of the Escazú Mountains (CODECE).

The community-managed, nonprofit organization runs tours in the mountains of Escazú, west of San José.

Rural tourism “is a two-way street, not only to bring visitors to Costa Rica’s beaches and forests, but also to bring income to these communities … the people are united thinking about their tourism project,” Roja said.

Rural tourism makes sure tourists who come to this tiny Central American country get a genuine experience, interacting with local people and tasting the local flavor. In return, the groups see to it that tourism bucks end up in the pockets of local people, and in some cases even lend a helping hand to the community.

“We involve them in our lives,” said Roy Meza. “It’s a tour, but more real, more authentic.”

Meza is manager of a small ACTUAR funded ecotourism project in Nacientes Palmichal, south of San José. His cabin is at the entrance of a nature trail that flutters with the weightless wings of thousands of butterflies. The trail runs along the bottom of a creek-anchored valley in which row upon row of terraced coffee plantations ascend into the sky.

In many cases, rural tourism groups also promote conservation of an area, with reforestation projects, biofuel development or conservation projects.

At El Yue, an ACTUAR project five kilometers north of Puerto Viejo, on the southern Caribbean coast, Rosa Emilia Cruz runs a small hotel project with four cabins and an organic banana farm on the property, which is part of a biological corridor that has been reforested after the area was stripped by the local forestry industry. Cruz uses pig droppings  to produce biogas, which she uses tofuel her stove on which she cooks gallo pinto, that quintessential Costa Rican rice and-beans dish, and other Tico specialties for visitors.

The year-old Santa Fe de Guatuso project, managed by a group of 19 women in the small Northern Zone community of Santa Fe, has a similar biogas project, as well as a tree nursery for reforestation projects, according to the group’s president, Xinia Montero.

“It’s more Costa Rica. A beach can be anywhere in the world, but Costa Rica is its people, its culture,” said Judith Ribbe, a guide for tour operator Amadeus, which coordinates tours with ACTUAR. Ribbe added that the group of 23 Germans is the largest group her company has taken on a rural tourism trip.

The six-year-old ACTUAR was established during the first Ecotourism Gathering organized by the United Nations’ Small Grants Program, which has since funded more than 50 community-based rural tourism initiatives around the world. In Yorkín, for instance, U.N. grants helped pay for the motors on the long canoes.

Keeping a Culture Alive

The next day, Dammann and his fellow, pale-skinned Europeans hiked up to a hidden cascade in rubber boots, led by a few barefoot indigenous people across the Sixaola River.

After galumphing their way across the river, they were informed they had just set foot in Panama.

“Passport?” joked the only Yorkín who spoke any English, César Morales, as he leaned against a tree and flashed his plump gums at passers-by.

Morales has no title for this land, but his family has harvested this tract of territory extending through the easternmost tip of Costa Rica into Panama for nearly 200 years.

His family is one of 15 who once lived off of subsistence farming, but whose income now comes mostly from tourism.

His mother Bernarda, who now makes twice as much income from tourism as she does on agriculture, said tourism has changed Yorkín for the better.

She explained that two decades ago, Yorkín began growing fast. People started to leave the community to work in the banana industry based in nearby Sixaola, on the Panamanian border. Banana workers started bringing in manufactured food from outside, harming the community’s only livelihood – agriculture. Pride in local culture fell off as people left to work on the plantations.

That was about when Bernarda Morales and a handful of other women organized to start the Stibrawpa Women’s Lodge, also known as Casa de las Mujeres, 13 years ago.

Floating along the Yorkín River in a long canoe, Morales explained that, like about half the Yorkín community, the majority of her income comes from tourism, selling chocolate and handicrafts to visitors, as well as the pay she makes as an ACTUAR guide.

Along with an initiative to infuse Bribrí culture into education in Yorkín by having teachers teach their native language, which has been almost eradicated after centuries of Spanish-centric education, Morales said tourism in Yorkín has actually enhanced the indigenous community’s pride in its native culture and identity.

“People from the world over come to Yorkín. With cultural exchange, you know your own culture more. If people didn’t come, we would only know ourselves,” she said.

Rural Tourism Offerings

A group of women from Santa Fe de Guatuso, in the Northern Zone, offers a number of different rural tourism projects and activities in the area, as well as biogas and reforestation projects. For info, call 479-7062 or e-mail

Simbiosis Tours claims to be Costa Rica’s first rural tourism operator, run by COOPRENA, a San José based network specializing in community-based tourism. For info, call 290-8646, e-mail or visit

The Association for the Conservation and Sustainable Development of the Escazú Mountains (CODECE) is a nonprofit, community-managed organization that supports conservation and sustainable development of the suburb west of San José. The 22-year-old organization offers full- and half-day tours as well as Noches Mágicas (Magic Nights) including a Tico-style dinner in San Antonio de Escazú with traditional marimba music and dancing. For information, call 228-0183 or go to

The Costa Rican Association for Community-based Rural Tourism (ACTUAR) comprises more than 20 rural tourism enterprises in Costa Rica. The network of community associations has developed local tourism businesses to generate alternative income sources for the communities, and develops environmental conservation initiatives throughout the country. For info, call 248-9470, e-mail or visit

The Talamanca Association of Ecotourism and Conservation (ATEC) offers community tourism trips along the Caribbean and into indigenous communities.

For info, call 750-0191 or go to

Cultourica arranges multi-day packages with bilingual guides to reserves and projects, as well as stays in community-run lodges. For info, call 249-1271 or visit

The Costa Rican Tourism Institute (ICT) has a Sustainable Tourism Certification program that grants tourism business certification on a one-to-five scale based on how sustainable the project is environmentally, as well as how much the project involves the local community. For more information, visit

Another good source is Beatrice Blake’s “The New Key to Costa Rica,” a guidebook that focuses on tourism that benefits the environment as well as local communities. For info, see www.


Reporter’s Notebook: Journey into the Night

I never thought my salvation would come in the form of a rickety bus teeming with Germans.

I had been waiting in the one-pulpería town of Bambú on the Sixaola River, near the Panamanian border, for four hours in the punishing heat.

So when the bus jangled into the barren dirt parking lot and the Germans spilled out into the middle of tropical nowhere, I was tempted to drop to my knees and kiss their pale feet.

But it was really hot, and instead I sat there with the Bribrí locals, sucking on my frozen strawberry Popsicle and observing how the German tourists behaved like one large organism – like a flock of birds in the sky or a school of fish.

Then, as I noticed that the group had a leader – multilingual guide Judith Ribbe – I began to think it behaved more like a bee colony. Ribbe, the queen, engaged in diplomacy with the locals as her sunburned colony buzzed aimlessly about the parking lot, changing clothes and exchanging brief looks with the locals.

Fast and efficient, she led her group to the river, where a fleet of antique canoes with hard, wooden seats awaited their sore bottoms, aching from a day’s trip along bumpy roads.

Heading up the Sixaola, then up the Yorkín, my jovial, mustached guide Luis Segura taught me a few Bribrí words and phrases that might come in handy.

“Is beskena” was the most important – the Bribrí equivalent of “How are you?

The sky grew dark on the hour-long canoe ride. By the time we made it to the shore it was nighttime, and I was suddenly arriving in a foreign land with nearly two dozen German strangers, led by a barefoot indigenous woman who was also a stranger, in the dark, my backside raw from the canoe ride. The group’s leader, Bernarda Morales, began pulling rubber boots out of a shed. It was going to be a good hike into the community of Yorkín, and she said I should wear boots “for the mud and the insects that could bite you.” They were short on boots, so another German man and I had to walk in our shoes.

As a man on a horse trotted by, we headed deeper into the tropical forest, along a path that was more mud than dirt. I stepped into a mud pit and didn’t really care, since my red Converse All Stars already had a giant hole in the heel. My foot was now warm and heavy.

About a half-hour into our pitch-black hike, in which the man behind me had his boot sucked off his leg by the thick mud, we stopped. There were no lights. We were told we had arrived.

After a candlelit dinner of rice and beans, yuca (cassava) and other vegetables I didn’t recognize, I lay down in my bed in a cabin with no door and a window open to the night.

A downpour soon came, and gravity hurled raindrops onto my tin roof, replacing the humming music of the forest with a thunderous metallic rumble. The mosquito net draped about my bed gave me the warm feeling that I was hiding from the world. I fell asleep wondering what adventures the morning might bring.


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