SAN GERARDO DE DOTA – Efraín Chacón came to this mountain village in southern Costa Rica in 1954 by foot, the only way you could get here back then, cutting every step forward out of the thick forest with a machete.
The valley, yet to be named, was dense with oak and aguacatillo (wild avocado) trees, magnolias and other high-elevation flora. Along the base of the valley ran the SavegreRiver, fed with the crystalline waters that stream down the sides of Costa Rica’s tallest mountain, Chirripó, and its surrounding foothills.
In search of wild peccary, a boar-like beast called chancho de monte, or mountain pig, Chacón, his brother and their small hunting party had not expected to come stumbling across paradise. Nor did the valley seem like paradise at first.
The men tied up their dogs and went to look around, feeling much like explorers.
It was good land, arable and bountiful and fed by pure mountain water. The newlywed Chacón, who was living with his wife in his uncle’s home, was in search of a place to call his own, and he had found it.
“We had nothing, we were people with no economic resources,” Chacón recalls, more than 54 years later.
He sits in his restaurant, attached to the reception area of his lodge, the Savegre Mountain Hotel, encircled by cabinas, homes and orchards, all spread along the Savegre River at the base of the San Gerardo de Dota valley.
The gray clouds that have been building above the mountains have made good on their threat and opened up, the rain blanketing the verdant hillsides and thundering down on the roof of the restaurant.
Chacón, 82, watches through the window as the rain lets up for a few moments and hummingbirds zip like crossfire between two feeders outside. Lost in thought and memories, don Efraín, as most people call him, sits surrounded by the fruit of a lifetime of labor.
Most of his 11 children have homes nearby and work in some part of the family business – running the hotel or the restaurant, heading up housekeeping or tending the fruit orchards. Many of his 30 grandchildren also have stayed in the area and work at the hotel.
A few of his five great-grandchildren can be found tromping around in rubber boots, exuding Chacón family charisma.
The charming hotel is regularly booked with tourists, families and groups drawn to the valley’s tranquility, virgin forests and magnificent variety of birds. The resplendent quetzal – the vibrantly colored bird that has launched its own micro-sector of tourism in Costa Rica (TT, June 6) – can be easily found in the surrounding forests with the right guide or a little luck.
The Chacón family has set aside 400 hectares of surrounding forest as a biological reserve, 80 percent of which is old growth; other areas are thickening thanks to reforestation programs using native species.
Researchers arrive regularly, and National Geographic paid a recent visit. The U.S. state of Oklahoma’s Southern Nazarene University has a permanent research station just a few minutes’ walk from Chacón’s home.
Building a Dynasty
Chacón has come a long way from the impoverished hunter of the 1950s, having drawn every ounce of success from the valley with sweat and perseverance.
“In those days, if you worked a piece of land successfully for 10 years, you could apply for the property title,” he says.
So he and his brother settled and began clearing space for crops and livestock. The two found a large boulder lodged in the side of a hill with an overhang that afforded just enough shelter to start a small fire and lie down. For two years, that was their bed when they were in the valley.
Chacón would regularly make the trip between the valley and his wife and growing family, who lived in Santa María de Dota, a small town in the Los Santos region a 12- to 14-hour walk away. It was eight years until he brought his wife and by then six children, the youngest 6 months old, to live with him in the valley.
Caridad Zúñiga, who married Chacón when she was 21, says she came bearing hope, and was prepared for a challenge.
“I knew it would be ambitious,” she says.
It was Zúñiga who gave the valley its name, in honor of San Gerardo, or Saint Gerard, the patron saint of motherhood who looks after mothers and their children.
When the family arrived, the only way in and out of the valley was the path Chacón had carved by walking his pigs and harvests up the side of the mountain. It would be another 12 years before that was replaced in 1969 with a small dirt road passable only by four-wheel-drive trucks. Electricity came in 1989, but by then Chacón had already built himself a small hydroelectric plant on the river.
The family survived on their crops, pigs and dairy cows. They covered their own needs and sold the rest at market. The growing ranks of their offspring helped tend the farm.
“We used to joke that 11 children were not enough,” Zúñiga says. “And that there was so much work to do around here that more children could only help.”
Chacón jokes that they kept having children so they could have enough students for the government to build a school in the valley, which it eventually did.
Chacón added fruit orchards to the property after legendary former President José Figueres, known affectionately as “don Pepe,” brought him a strain of apples he had picked up in Israel.
Chacón fought alongside don Pepe in the civil war of 1948. The former president, who abolished Costa Rica’s military in 1949, took to fishing trout in the Savegre and was an occasional visitor to the Chacón family farm.
As the years progressed, the trout brought more anglers.
“I would tell my wife to go prepare them a gallo or a cup of coffee or something,” he recalls.
The Chacóns would put up visitors who arrived by foot for a night or two, and eventually decided to build and rent out a few cabinas. Costa Rica’s National Fishing Club soon discovered the area, word spread and the valley became a popular destination.
Soon, the diplomatic staff of various embassies were coming through, and recommended the place to friends back in their home countries. The rest is history.
“I feel proud of what I have done here. When we arrived, there was nothing,” Chacón says, dressed in a plaid button-up shirt, slacks and black Range Rover work boots. “I believe we have worked hard here, and people have accepted what we have done.”
And the work, it seems, is never done. Earlier in the week, Chacón hiked up the hillside to assess the damage to some crops from torrential rains during the previous week.
The next morning, he was up at dawn, and by 6 a.m. he had a telescope over one shoulder and was off helping two visitors find a quetzal.