La Paz Falls Into Chaos

January 16, 2009

Hundreds of foreign tourists were trapped at the La PazWaterfallGardens and Peace Lodge hotel after the earthquake.

“It was terrible. The ground was shaking and there was all this noise,” said French tourist Roberto Margarithe, minutes after climbing out of a helicopter at the Tobias Bolaños airport, west of San José.

Margarithe said he spent the night on the highway leading to the falls with a plastic garbage bag to keep the rain off, and a single banana to eat. The popular falls are outside the town of Vara Blanca, not far from the quake’s epicenter.

Approximately 400 people were trapped in and around the hotel that night, said Franklin Carmiol, general manager of the luxurious Peace Lodge hotel, which was at about 70 percent of its 60-guest capacity. Another 60 staff members were on site as well.

“In terms of food and supplies, the hotel provided everything it could,” Carmiol said, noting that nearly 200 more people ended up stranded at the hotel.

Amazingly, the worst injury Carmiol reported from the hotel and gardens was a broken ankle. However, rescue workers have recovered at least three bodies from near the waterfalls.

So far, no tourists are among the dead or missing.

The hotel itself was damaged but not destroyed, Carmiol said. “The idea is to rebuild and open again.”

According to witnesses, the first help to arrive were privately contracted helicopters that charged $300 to $700 per person for a ride out.

Many others walked out. A group of about 14 Dutch tourists spent nearly three hours hiking, and several hours more hitching rides, to make it to a tour van coordinated by their guide, who hiked alongside.

“It was a miracle there were not more who were injured,” said Richard de Schmit, as he passed heavy machinery clearing a landslide, his tour van just coming into sight on the road ahead.

 

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