Lulled by calm waters reflecting an imposing active volcano, Juan Larry Sostheim decided to end his days of wanderlust and build a home in a verdant valley connecting the Monteverde cloud forest and LakeArenal, in north-central Costa Rica. What began as a modest plan to build a home and bed-and-breakfast and to live off of the land has mushroomed into a colossal sustainability project.
Located 35 kilometers from the tourist hub of La Fortuna, in Pueblo Nuevo near the small town of El Castillo, the 152-hectare Rancho Margot is off the grid. Hydroelectric power provides electricity for the communal area, 10 (soon to be 18) bungalows and bunkhouse, with its 20 two-bed rooms. A reforestation project with 15 different kinds of trees aims to protect the natural springs on the property, while a well-organized compost system gives organic gardens the fuel to produce enough fruits and vegetables for guests and for livestock. An animal rescue and reintegration center receives injured and previously captive wildlife.
By the end of the year, a germ-free building will produce cheese and yogurt for consumption and for sale. An on-site slaughterhouse, also in the final construction stages, will supply meat products.
All of this will be run in part by students working toward a fully recognized diploma within the tourism industry, if discussions with the National Training Institute (INA) pan out.
The list goes on. An added step in the composting process feeds a biodigestor with 110 cubic meters of liquid storage capacity, which will be used to heat stoves and volcanic water pools, complete with a wet bar.
Before or after soaking in the methane-heated tubs, visitors will be able to loosen their limbs at one of the yoga classes given twice daily, or peruse the library sitting above the terraced pools.
“I really did not think in terms of what you see today, although I did want to start something along these lines,” Sostheim says. At the ranch’s La Fortuna offices, a wooden sign stretching across the building’s façade reads: “Rancho Margot, a self-sufficient dude ranch.” Since breaking ground four years ago, Sostheim’s vision of green development and self-sufficiency has evolved.
“A dude ranch is a place where city slickers go to have a cowboy experience, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” Sostheim says. “A dude ranch also has a well-defined business model, and this isn’t well defined.
This is a work in progress. This is more than a dude ranch.”
Turning left at the ranch’s entrance, you pull up to a small cluster of one-story, white buildings with wood trim and clay tile roofs.
You hear the roar of the CañoNegroRiver – the largest river feeding LakeArenal – which traverses the property. The temperature is mild, benefiting from a unique microclimate influenced by the cool Monteverde cloud forest, the warmer LakeArenal and the protection offered by Arenal Volcano to the east. Almost swaying above the ranch is a mountain so lush with primary forest that you swear it is shape shifting.
A short walkway through landscaped gardens leads to a large patio with tables on one side. Opposite this, a sunken lounge area is surrounded by booths and a wellstocked bar.
A main attraction for both day-trippers and those staying multiple days is the two-hour ranch tour.
Our group is made up of North American students and faculty in their 40s to 60s exploring Costa Rica as part of a MerrittCollege course about the natural history of Costa Rica. Richard Felzer, emeritus instructor in environmental science, biology and forestry, added Rancho Margot to the itinerary after a visit to Costa Rica in the course’s planning stages.
“I was immediately impressed with both (Sostheim’s) vision and his ability to actually act on it and bring it to fruition,” Felzer says.
The group asks sophisticated questions, yet our guide fields them skillfully.
“Unless he’s been a guide in Monteverde, he’s picked up a lot in three years,” says one group member.
We find out later that our guide, 26-year-old Carlos Cuadra, has worked on the ranch for just 10 months. He studied for two years to be a naturalist guide before dropping out. After a few unrelated jobs, he is back to what he loves: learning from books and from people he meets.
Apart from the two-hour tour, visitors can go rappelling at nearby waterfalls, kayaking on LakeArenal, or hiking and horseback riding to a secluded 15-meter waterfall while crisscrossing the river.
If the river is too high to cross, or if you have time to do more than one activity, don’t miss the horseback ride or two-hour hike to “El Mirador.” From this panoramic viewpoint, you can see Arenal Volcano, LakeArenal and the entire valley of the CañoNegroRiver. On a clear day, you might spot Miravalles and Tenorio volcanoes. Covered tables offer spots to enjoy lunch or a late afternoon snack.
During your visit, you are bound to meet Sostheim. Like all ranch employees and volunteers, he will be wearing a canary-yellow shirt and khaki pants. Charming, gregarious and fluent in four languages, Sostheim makes the rounds chatting with visitors while responding to calls on his walkie-talkie and attending to staff needs.
Sostheim was born in Chile, after his parents moved there from Europe in the late 1930s. He is a citizen of Chile and Germany and a resident of Costa Rica. In his “past life,” as he describes it, he helped spread fast food culture across Berlin in the 1970s as a general manager for Burger King. He later owned a chemical company that exported detergents and pool cleaners.
After suffering a small heart attack, Sostheim, 56, sold his chemical company and made Rancho Margot his new home.
“I came here looking at all the things I did in my past life,” Sostheim says. “I used to ask myself, ‘How can I squeeze the last penny out of something dangerous, but not call it dangerous?’ At my age, I decided to look at things a little more responsibly.”
Sostheim’s vision is spreading beyond his property lines. The hydroelectric turbine that keeps Rancho Margot off the grid has piqued the interest of nearby hoteliers seeking solutions to their high energy bills.
“To make a sustainable business, the best thing that can happen is if a lot of people copy it,” Sostheim says.
Rancho Margot’s conservation efforts are as much about human beings as they are about forestry and alternative energy. After finding out that local children didn’t have the option to study past the sixth grade without taking public transportation to La Fortuna, Sostheim hired a van to take them.
Three years ago, he bought school buses that now provide free public transportation back and forth from the ranch to Rancho Margot’s offices in La Fortuna.
Rancho Margot also began sponsoring a program with the National Community Development Office to teach environmental education in the El Castillo elementary school this year.
Education will play a big part on the ranch. The degree program with INA strives to give employees something tangible while managing turnover. Visitors will also be able to participate in learning activities, from making cheese to gardening.
“I can see an orchid guild come from England and decide to do something here as a group,” Sostheim says. “There are a lot of opportunities for specialized tourism.”
With so much going on, there is still plenty of time for relaxation. Yoga classes are offered daily at 7:30 a.m. and 4 p.m., either in a covered studio perched above the river or on a wide deck spreading out over a lilycovered fishpond.
Spacious bungalows tucked into the hillside offer plenty of alone time. The inviting indoor and outdoor areas are perfect for reading and socializing. Adding to the self-sufficient feeling, the armoires, bed frames and even the reading lamps are made in the ranch’s woodshop from plantation teak and laurel.
On the more economical side, bunkhouse rooms with spotless, shared, hot-water showers offer a comfortable night’s sleep and are joined by a large deck with tables.
Whatever accommodation you choose, you will be able to indulge in the simple yet delicious culinary delights at Rancho Margot.
Those who scoff at the thought of eating buffet food, which always seems to be overcooked, will reevaluate that sentiment here.
Freshly picked organic vegetables prepared al dente, grilled free-range chicken, savory potato dishes and homemade brownies will draw you back for more. For dinner, there is the option to eat at the buffet or to order à la carte.
So, where is this green center of innovation leading? Wherever it is going, Rancho Margot is certainly in the realm of dreamers and true believers. People drawn here rely on their ability to create through responsible tourism what so many other developments don’t: education, protection for fragile ecologies and hope.
Getting There, Rates, Info
From San José, take theInter-American Highway
and turn off at San Ramón. Follow the volcanoimage signs to ArenalVolcanoNational Park (89 km). Rancho Margot is 12 km past the park entrance heading toward El Castillo. You will see signs for Rancho Margot on an information board as you drive on the dirt road, and as you turn left toward the national park.
Free transportation is available to and from La Fortuna, departing Rancho Margot’s offices at the corner of the park. In low season, the bus leaves La Fortuna at 7 a.m., noon and 5:45 p.m., and departs from the ranch at 5:45 a.m., 9 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. daily. In high season, a fourth bus is added to the schedule.
Per-person rates are $100 in the bungalows, plus $30 for each additional person, and $30 per person for a shared room in the bunkhouse ($40 without a bunkmate). Rates include breakfast, yoga classes, Internet access, the ranch tour and taxes.
For reservations and information, call 2479-7259 or visit www.ranchomargot.org.