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New café helps rural tourism

Ticos and tourists alike can now experience the Costa Rican countryside without leaving San José. Opened in January, the Regiones Café in the western neighborhood of Rohrmoser brings flavors and artisanal products from rural communities in every corner of the country.

The café is a new project from the Costa Rican Association for Rural Community Tourism (ACTUAR in Spanish), a nonprofit organization that promotes alternative vacations in the country’s lesser-known regions.

Buoyed by a booming tourism industry, ACTUAR was founded in 2004 to open up small communities to vacationers seeking a more authentic Costa Rican experience. Soon the association’s travel desk had added Caribbean cooking classes, guided mollusk picking and dance lessons to the long list of touring options in the country.

“We began to talk more about a café project when the recession hit in 2008, realizing that ACTUAR had increased dependency on tourism in some of the rural areas,” said Kyra Cruz, the organization’s director. “A lot of the people who made it through without a problem were people who worked in agriculture.”

Agriculture, particularly bananas, coffee and pineapples, was surpassed by tourism as top income generator in 1999. Many of the rural communities who participate in ACTUAR have strong agricultural roots that became less attractive as more tourism opportunities presented themselves.

“We want to promote a more sustainable model,” Cruz said. “The idea is to prepare these communities for crisis, and that means continuing to produce what they were known for.”

At the Regiones Café the walls are decorated with photos and art from ACTUAR’s 37 rural communities. In addition to using traditional recipes from throughout Costa Rica, the café also sells agricultural products, like coffee and chocolate, from the communities. Approximately 80 percent of the purchase price from each sale goes directly back into the community it came from. 

The entire back room at Regiones is filled with hand-made art, and each piece demonstrates a connection with the community’s original trade.

“We have been forced to find a solution in order to continue our tradition of maintaining the environment in our lands,” said Marcony Lacayo Elizondo, a member of the indigenous Maleku community of Guatuso, in north-central Costa Rica. “We have continued growing our trees for food and medicine, but now we also grow trees for their seeds and wood to make art.”

The Maleku’s painted seeds and famous wooden masks can be found in many gift shops, but, while these communities have traditionally been associated with art, ACTUAR is providing training in other areas in order to bolster an artistic culture. Fishing towns, for example, are beginning to make jewelry from spare nets and hooks.

“We want to improve the channels of distribution,” Cruz said. “We want the rest of the country to promote these products and promote these communities.”

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