As on most days, biology student Katherine Díaz, 23, crosses the longest suspension bridge in Central America to get to her “office.” Underneath the bridge, the white waters of the Sarapiquí River whisper of adrenaline and adventure, and all the way across the 262-meter-long “hammock,” the Tirimbina forest beckons tourists and researchers like Díaz to enter the lush jungle.
Home to more than 350 hectares of tropical rain forest in northern Costa Rica, the Tirimbina Biological Reserve in La Virgen de Sarapiquí has become one of the most sustainable environments in the country, combining ecotourism, community involvement and high-quality research. Last month, Tirimbina announced that one of its many research projects led to a massive contribution to Costa Rican biodiversity: Eight new species of butterflies were recorded for the country, and one of these, Cunizza sp. nov., is new to science. Such a discovery is the perfect example of what the Tirimbina model is capable of achieving.
Its mission started back in the 1960s, when Robert Hunter came to Costa Rica from his native United States to work for the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture. Hunter decided to purchase the Tirimbina property. Since then, a lot of water has run under the bridge, yet Tirimbina remains a place of absolute conservation. Today a Costa Rican nonprofit organization, the refuge contributes to academic research, and is locally promoted as an ecology learning center for the villagers of La Virgen de Sarapiquí.
“We currently have six international Ph.D. students doing their theses in the refuge and many other foreign and national college students doing other sorts of research,” says Bernal Rodríguez, head of Tirimbina’s academic department.
The complex provides basic accommodations and services to researchers for very low, subsidized fees. Besides enjoying access to one of Sarapiquí’s richest ecosystems, students have the chance to work side by side with renowned national and international experts in tropical biodiversity.
“I was lucky to meet Bernal Rodríguez, as he was my professor at the University of Costa Rica,” Díaz says. “He got me involved with a couple of projects at Tirimbina, and ever since, I have been able to gain invaluable experience, even before graduating.” Díaz has also had the opportunity to work with Isidro Chacón, one of the country’s leading entomologists.
The same story goes for Simon Ripperger, a Ph.D. student from Ulm University in Germany. “I met Bernal at the University of Costa Rica, and a couple of years later I came to Tirimbina to work on my thesis,” says “Bambo,” as Ripperger is called by everyone in the complex.
Tirimbina’s commitment to nature has called for the organization to fully engage with research; besides hosting students at the reserve, it also finances its own line of research.
“We currently have the most important butterfly-related research in all of Central America, and in 2007 Costa Rica was represented for the first time at the International Bat Research Conference in Mérida (Mexico), and we have been in most of the conferences ever since,” Rodríguez says. All of this is made possible with Tirimbina’s financial support, he adds.
To keep this biological treasure going, the reserve relies solely on ecotourism and donations. With over nine kilometers of trails and several suspension bridges, including the longest one in Central America, tourists can find in Tirimbina a place to connect with nature while supporting research and local education. Nature lovers are offered the chance to take part in guided short courses in the middle of the rain forest. Birds of Costa Rica, Ecology and Diversity, Rainforest Plants, and Water Quality are only a few of the course options from which visitors can choose. The refuge also offers tourists the opportunity to discover the dense forest on their own through self-guided walks.
“At this point in time we are financially stable; 98 percent of our income is derived from the 20,000 people who visit us every year. But this does not mean that we are in no need of supplementary funds,” says Carlos Chavarría, Tirimbina’s executive director.
The Tirimbina Rainforest Lodge, with its 20 double rooms, has been awarded four out of five possible “green leaves” by the Costa Rican Tourism Board’s Certification for Sustainable Tourism program. The lodge also obtained the Ecological Blue Flag for Natural Protected Spaces with three stars for three consecutive years.
“We know that in Costa Rica the ecotourism industry is very competitive and therefore it is important to make big conservation efforts to remain on top and keep tourists coming to the reserve,” Chavarría says.
With education a big focus for Tirimbina, its conservation efforts during the past 10 years have been extended to the people of Sarapiquí. The staff has been working closely with several local schools and has been teaching children from fourth, fifth and sixth grades about the importance of sustainability in the area.
“We also give courses to the local adults. We hope they will become more and more involved with our conservation efforts,” Rodríguez says.
Locals have free access to the Tirimbina reserve. Rodríguez says the ideal situation would be for locals to start seeing the rain forest as their own extended garden. To this effect, Eugenia Cordero and the team in charge of Tirimbina’s Local Education Program are in the process of composing educational books for children who visit the reserve. Every year, Tirimbina opens its doors to all locals during its Casa Abierta, an open-house celebration in which the people of Sarapiquí get to experience the tours visitors pay for throughout the year.
Take Route 32 from San José toward Limón, going through Braulio Carrillo National Park (about 1 hour). Turn left at the Río Frío intersection. Continue on this road for 30 km to the Puerto Viejo/La Virgen intersection. Turn left and continue 17 km until you see the Tirimbina sign on the right side of the road. Total drive time is about two hours. Buses to Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí (not to be confused with Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, on the southern Caribbean coast) leave several times a day from the Caribbean bus terminal at Calle Central, Avenida 11 (about three hours).
Tirimbina Rainforest Lodge offers 13 “Coquette” rooms and five “Ectopylia” rooms, all with air conditioning, private bathroom, hot water, Wi-Fi and telephone, for $63 per night plus tax, single or double occupancy. Three economical “Ficus” rooms with bunk beds and ceiling fan are available for $45 plus tax, single or double. Amenities include a library, conference room, restaurant, souvenir shop, laundry service, guarded parking and relaxation area with hammocks. All rates include breakfast and self-guided entrance to the reserve. Special rates are available for researchers and volunteers.
Prices for guided walks and bird, chocolate, frog and bat tours range from $20 to $24, with discounts offered for children and students. Lunch or dinner in the restaurant costs $11 per person.