VARA BLANCA, Heredia – High above the luminous Magia Blanca waterfall, on a platform looking out across the La Paz River Valley, one can admire the expanse of the Poás region. Gigantic leaves of a plant dubbed “poor man’s umbrella” encompass a lookout point inside the La Paz Waterfall Gardens. Coatis, a relative of raccoons, stroll around the tract. Here prevails a magnificent perspective of hazy sky and jungle.
The view also exposes the scars: ugly splotches left behind after an earthquake ravaged the area, earthen streaks that appeared when the hillside collapsed, killing more than a half-dozen vendors and construction workers below.
On Jan. 8, 2009, a magnitude-6.2 earthquake devastated the sites around the popular Poás Volcano, northwest of San José. In total, 25 people were killed and eight more disappeared. Businesses and homes were demolished, and thousands of people were displaced. Some 500 tourists and employees at the gardens were flown out of the wreckage in helicopters.
“You cannot imagine an earthquake like this,” says Leonardo Escalante, manager at the Peace Lodge at La Paz Waterfall Gardens. “It wasn’t just rocking back and forth; it was above, it was underneath you. You [couldn’t] walk, [couldn’t] take a step or [you’d] fall. It was incredibly strong.”
Escalante says that on days when there’s no fog, from the lookout point guests can see Cinchona, the village most heavily damaged by the quake. Above the platform, he affirms, higher up the hillside is the location of the helicopter landing pad.
On the three-year anniversary of the disaster, the Costa Rican Tourism Board (ICT) sponsored a tour of the Poás region – including the villages of Poasito, Fraijanes and Vara Blanca – to showcase the restoration. Poás Volcano National Park, located a short drive from the Juan Santamaría International Airport outside San José, used to be called the most popular destination in the country. However, the one element lacking from the recovery effort are tourists. Visitors are coming, but not in droves like before.
“There was the situation here with the earthquake, and those involved in tourism allied and tried to have tourism return to this zone,” says Luis Jara, an ICT spokesman. “And so one of the ICT’s goals is to promote new tourism destinations and to support these places.”
Other than tourism figures, most everything appears back to normal. The renowned strawberries from the region’s farms accompany many meals. Farmers produce plenty of organic crops as part of an agreement with the Agriculture and Livestock Ministry, which helped cover the cost of reviving the farms.
Locals have started garnishing 70 kilometers of roadsides with hydrangeas as a way to unite residents affected by the earthquake.
Most of the major streets have been repaired, although a portion of highway in Vara Blanca near La Paz Waterfall Gardens awaits more work.
Banco de Costa Rica provided financing to rebuild homes for earthquake victims with low income in Cinchona. Those houses were completed last month in a community called Nueva Cinchona.
Escalante says the 17 rooms at the Peace Lodge are almost always full. But the park and zoo, the parts of La Paz Waterfall Gardens that bring in the most revenue, receive 35 percent fewer visitors than before the catastrophe.
Manuel Ardón, vice president of the Poás region’s tourism chamber, relates similar numbers for the zone as a whole. He notes that in the past year, tourism is about 30 percent below expectations.
Local tourists have returned, but international visitors are scarcer. Ardón believes pinning the low international tourist numbers on the earthquake would be inaccurate. The global financial crisis and economic downturn also contributed to the smaller number of vacationers, he says.
“It’s been three years since the phenomenon of the earthquake. We do not believe that we need to talk about the earthquake anymore,” Ardón says. “It’s something forgettable because we began the recovery the same day or the day after that first tremor hit.”
Ardón, who owns the restaurant Jaulares in Fraijanes, acknowledges improvements in infrastructure have increased greatly in the past year alone. He says the tourism board plans to implement changes that will make the Poás region more eco-friendly than it was before 2009.
That community sees opportunities in supplying scores of organic food products, building routes for mountain bikers and advertising a wider range of options for stays.
One hotel, the Poás Volcano Lodge, serves as one of the best examples of how the town can recuperate. The upscale lodge suffered such extensive damage during the earthquake that it wasn’t clear if it would ever reopen. The roof caved in, and many of the rooms were ruined. Electricity and water were cut off.
Owner Michael Cannon and his four sons decided to rebuild the hotel and the surrounding area. They helped save the lodge and constructed homes for local workers.
“The first task was to salvage and recycle all the usable wood and stone we still had,” Cannon told The Tico Times in March 2011.
Cannon reused oak trees felled by government workers during rescue efforts. Wood dominates the redesign of the hotel once acclaimed for its stone architecture.
The Cannon family, along with efforts from the British Embassy and local businesses, donated $20,000 to build houses for families left homeless in Vara Blanca. The funds also repaired a damaged elementary school. Vara Blanca became the main evacuation route for those trying to leave the earthquake-ravaged area, and Cannon led the movement to clean up the access.
La Paz Waterfall Gardens, where tourists had huddled in the cold until choppers lifted them away from the destruction, also is on the mend. The Peace Lodge is bustling.
Escalante makes the outlandish statement to new guests that “each room comes with its own waterfall.” He raves about the beautiful views available from each hotel room and alludes to an extensive buffet lunch.
The damage caused by the earthquake continues to dissipate. Escalante believes it will not be long before more visitors to Costa Rica will want to see the land again.
“Step by step, we’re improving,” Escalante says. “We already reopened all the attractions. It’s better than before, and we’re moving forward well.”