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Nowhere to go for Isla del Caño visitors

From the print edition

DRAKE BAY, Puntarenas – Even in the most pristine and beautiful places, (human) nature calls. And finding an acceptable place to dispose of sewage is what led to the temporary and controversial closure of Isla del Caño biological reserve, the popular travel destination off the Pacific coast of Drake Bay, on the Osa Peninsula.

Although snorkelers and scuba divers are still permitted in the reserve, hikers, picnickers, beachgoers and bathroom-seekers have been shut out since mid-February, when regional Health Ministry officials determined that the three outhouse-style stalls serving the island weren’t adequate to handle the volume of visitors. 

Now, two months into the three-month closure, with no solution in sight and high-season revenue on the line, local tourism operators are demanding answers from the government and dishing out criticism of the reserve’s management. And despite closing the island under the pretext of addressing the bathroom problem, the ranger station on the island has been painted, but no work has been done on the latrines. One guide, Arnoldo Samudio, expressed his frustration. “There isn’t any progress,” he said. “They’re only painting and repairing the ranger station, and now it’s almost the rainy season.”

Hotel administrator Olman Brenes, of the Águila de Osa Inn, said instead of prohibiting visitors from the island, the government should be asking for help and resources to implement a bathroom system that can handle the influx of tourists.

“There is not anything we can do about what has happened,” Brenes said. “Now we need to look at how we can reopen the island with bathrooms and showers.”

Brenes said some clients arrive only for the walking tour of the island and to see the mysterious stone spheres on the bluffs, and when they find it closed, they become upset. He said people who find out beforehand cancel their reservations, which have dropped off by up to 15 percent in the past two months. He attributed that to the island’s closure.

Other tourism operators said that not only the bathrooms need to be upgraded, but also some sort of emergency services installed on the island, such as a defibrillator. In the past six months, two people died from heart attacks while visiting the island. Many operators said they would be willing to contribute to the cause.

Meanwhile, rumors are swirling in the community of Drake Bay that the move to temporarily close the island to visitors is the first step toward a complete exclusion of tourists and a new adherence to the island’s status as reserve, which permits certain scientific research and no general admission.

 At a town hall meeting of local tourism industry representatives on April 15, many expressed concern they were in the dark in regards to the decision-making process, saying notices of the island closure were sent out two days prior, leaving operators no time to inform clients. Also, many feared that confronting the problem head on and being too critical of decision makers could further prompt a full-scale closure.

Director of the Osa Conservation Area, Etilma Morales, said the island is scheduled to remain closed to foot traffic for at least another month while capacity studies are conducted. She said that claims of permanent closure or kicking water recreationalists off the reefs are not on the agenda. She said the temporary closure was necessary. 

“It’s not that we closed it because we wanted to close it,” Morales said. “It’s because it’s threatening natural resources. This is the reality that we face.”

Figures from the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications Ministry show that in 2011, the 330-hectare island saw nearly 20,000 visitors, compared to the nearby 46,000-hectare Corcovado National Park, which has five entrances and receives only a third more visitors.

A majority of visitors to the island were there to snorkel and scuba dive at the world-famous reefs surrounding it. Bathrooms on the island are the closest available, apart from a 45-minute one-way trip to the mainland. 

But Morales said the ministry has no interest in expanding the reserve’s current bathrooms, or implementing a different system to handle the volume of visitors. She said all the fecal matter left by visitors must be hauled off the island and deposited on the mainland, and there is no room on the tiny island for expansion of bathroom services. 

Instead of expansion, Morales said island administration might never permit the same traffic of visitors it did in years past. She said when the island reopens it may be up to the responsibility of tour operators to put their own bathrooms on boats for clients. She said outfitting boats with bathrooms is a topic to be addressed by tourism agencies and not the park’s problem.

However, local guides have expressed frustration that not only does the current closure cause a problem for people who need to use the bathroom, if one person on a 10-person boat trip to the island becomes seasick, the whole outing needs to return to the mainland, whereas before a person could be left to recover on the beach.

President of the local guide association, Rebeca Quirós, said that telling people they can’t use bathrooms doesn’t stop people from needing to go.

“Now everyone is peeing and pooping in the water,” Quirós said. “It’s bad for the coral.”

Quirós said when the current latrine-style bathrooms were being implemented to replace the two flush-style ones that were used previously, the guide association spoke up and sent a signed letter to the park administration saying the system would not be adequate and that further research should be conducted.

Another hotel owner, Larry Hustler, said Morales needs to consult engineers before determining that there is no system adequate enough. He said a quick search on the Internet shows many different solutions used around the world for providing sanitary services in restrictive situations. 

“[Morales] doesn’t know,” Hustler said. “She needs to bring in an engineer to tell her how to do it. She’s not qualified to make that decision. She’s just dragging her feet.”

Hustler said he met April 17 with lawmaker Adonay Enrique Guevara, who represents Drake Bay clients, in an attempt to find a speedy solution. The meeting prompted a letter on behalf of Guevara in support of the community and his promise to attend the next town hall meeting Saturday.

“If Etilma [Morales] can’t find a solution and work with the people of Drake Bay, it’s time for her to go,” Hustler said.


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