The story of Ecocentro Danaus has something of a biblical ring to it. Where once there was nothing but an empty clearing for cattle now stands a beautiful jungle. And though it may seem miraculous to make a rain forest grow out of basically nothing, it has taken 15 years to allow this island of conservation in north-central Costa Rica to become a fully sustainable project.
Today, besides the tall green forest, Danaus has its own butterfly farm, trees crowned with myriad bird species, a dark lagoon with caimans, a frog observatory and much more. Here, the grandeur of some of Costa Rica’s most important national parks is packed into a three-hectare reserve.
“Our goal was to become a model project in La Fortuna, and we feel we are closely getting to what we first imagined 15 years ago,” said Xinia Vargas, one of the three owners and founders of the ecological garden.
The three associates and friends started sharing their love for nature as members of a conservation association in northern Costa Rica. They decided to buy a piece of land in La Fortuna to plant their own tropical rain forest, amid the large resorts and tourism projects built around nearby Arenal Volcano, one of the country’s most popular tourist attractions.
“We felt that La Fortuna was very business-focused and few projects were protecting the natural resources of the area. It was our responsibility to do something about it, and we are happy to be showing the way to others,” Vargas said.
Ecocentro Danaus is a small-scale project. Tourists are invited to walk around and explore the forest on a scant 600 meters of trails, but the walk can take up to two hours and the photos are well worth it. With more than 150 species of birds, Ecocentro Danaus is a bird-watcher’s paradise, home to toucans, boat-billed herons and several endangered species. The trails surround a dark lagoon inhabited by three caimans.
“The caimans arrived on their own. We built a reservoir for a natural source of water in the reserve, and one day we had three caimans swimming in it,” Vargas said. And the ecosystem has kept on growing to include other species of reptiles, amphibians, mammals and insects that have made their way to the nature reserve.
Within its three hectares, Ecocentro Danaus preserves a natural regenerating secondary forest.
“Our long-term goal is to buy more adjacent land and plant more trees; the rest all happens naturally,” Vargas said.
In the meantime, Ecocentro Danaus also aims to establish itself as a learning center. This goal has been achieved in part with the creation of a small butterfly farm, a frog observatory and a native tree nursery.
With more than 30 species of butterflies, including the beautiful blue Morpho menelaus, the farm offers a great opportunity for tourists to take a close look at these insects.
“I was amazed to be able to see them from so close. Now I understand better how they feed,” said one 6-year-old tourist who couldn’t hide her excitement.
Also popular with visitors is the frog observatory, which showcases two of the best-known and rarest species in Costa Rica: the strawberry poison dart frog and the red-eyed tree frog. Tadpoles of both species may also be observed here.
Meanwhile, the tree nursery has become one of the conservation center’s most important projects.
“We encourage people in La Fortuna to plant trees that are native to the area. All of the trees in the reserve are native species, like the 45-meter-tall surá tree,” Vargas explained.
Every year, the nursery produces about 10,000 seedlings from 30 endangered species, such as cenízaro, cocobolo and ojoche. To promote the planting of these species, the center has donated trees to hotels, farmers and area residents. Tourists can also participate in an “Adopt a Tree” program that has planted more than 100 trees within the nature park.
These conservation efforts have earned Ecocentro Danaus the Ecological Blue Flag award. “For the past four years, we have been the main drivers of the Ecological Blue Flag Committee in La Fortuna, and we received this certification with two stars as a protected natural area,” Vargas said.
The center’s educational activities and programs also were a big part of the award. Every month, more than 200 students from area elementary and secondary schools visit the reserve with their teachers. The center also organizes workshops for local farmers, tour guides and housewives on environmental issues like recycling, hydroponics and sustainable crops.
To broaden its educational efforts, Ecocentro Danaus welcomed the Maleku indigenous group into the nature park three years ago. While the Maleku reserve is some 45 kilometers from La Fortuna, at Ecocentro Danaus, in a small cabin in the middle of the forest, Maleku shaman Alex Elizondo, or Chayu-Chayu as he is called in his native language, explains to tourists the history and life of his people.
On a small piece of land in front of the cabin, Elizondo has planted more than 60 labeled medicinal plants that he is happy to show to visitors. The cabin is beautifully decorated with traditional masks and rain sticks carved and painted by the Maleku people. Selling their handcrafted souvenirs at Ecocentro Danaus has become a big part of their income.
“Being in Ecocentro Danaus allows us to show national and international tourists who we are and what our culture is like,” Elizondo said. “We need to be able to educate people about our culture if we want to remain a part of the Costa Rican heritage.”
From the center of La Fortuna, take the unpaved road to Agua Azul community (from the southeast side of the church) for 1 km. Turn right and go about 500 meters, until you cross a bridge. The entrance to Ecocentro Danaus is on the left.
The reserve is open 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.; a night guided tour is offered at 6 p.m. with prior reservations. Admission costs $10 to $15 for international visitors and ₡1,000 to ₡3,000 ($2 to $6) for nationals. Customized tour prices are available.