Part two in our April series on rural community tourism in Costa Rica. Read Part One here.
Birdsong and warm mountain sunlight flood the small rural home in San Vicente de La Suiza,Turrialba, where we await a typical breakfast before our day’s adventure. The outside patio is neat and clean, with exquisite and oddly shaped orchids poking in from a small adjacent greenhouse. We sip dark, aromatic coffee, grown within hundreds of yards of our small wooden table, and take in the glorious morning.
This is what small-scale rural tourism is all about. But the experience surrounding us this morning isn’t just a classic community-based tourism experience. It’s also part of an ambitious cross-country trail that’s unlike any other experience in Costa Rica today—one that allows the visitor to see not only the country, but also the challenges facing its rural tourism sector, in a uniquely intimate way.
Rita Quirós Paniagua, the owner of Comidas Rita, is diligently bringing out an incredible spread of hand-made tortillas, locally made cheese, gallo pinto, eggs, and ripe plantains. Our mugs are also frequently replenished with hot coffee. She does all this with visible pride and affection. As we dive into breakfast, doña Rita reflects on her history.
“I’m a widow with six children,” she explains. “My husband died 20 years ago, so I had to find a way to stay afloat. Three different times, I rented sodas [small restaurants] at different locations in the middle of Pacayitas to generate some income for my household, always with the goal of someday having something in my own house.”
That dream of hosting visitors in her own home only came true when the Camino de Costa Rica, a coast-to-coast hiking trail designed to unite a network of rural microentrepreneurs, happened to make its way past her door. She started by offering lunch to hikers, and gradually expanded this to renting out two rooms in her house to weary walkers.
“For me, [el turismo] has been a great blessing,” she tells us. “It has motivated me so much to think about other ways to get ahead. Not just for myself, but also for many others in the community. The Camino de Costa Rica has generated jobs in food service, lodging, transportation for luggage, even massage services.”
Similar stories of micro-businesses working together to overcome the challenges of rural subsistence living resonate across almost every part of the Camino de Costa Rica, which starts on the Caribbean coast and ends on the Pacific. While COVID-19 made 2020 an exceptionally difficult year for these intrepid entrepreneurs and Costa Rica’s entire tourism sector, the hope I heard expressed along the way—hope that rural tourism will bring economic resilience and positive change—is a common thread across all of the communities touched by the trail.
Modeled loosely after Spain’s Camino de Santiago, known in English as the Way of St. James, the Camino de Costa Rica is a 280 km (175 mile) walking route connecting the country’s coastlines while also providing economic means to the many small communities through which the trail weaves. The trail takes an average of about two weeks to complete; participants can experience it either all at once or broken down into stages that they mark off in a specially designed “passport” booklet. With a total gain of around 9,500 meters (31,000 feet) this is no small undertaking for even the most seasoned trekker, but the mental and physical accomplishment is enriched by the warm smiles and generous exchanges one has with local people who benefit immensely from this newly emerging rural tourism establishment.
The Camino de Costa Rica is an immense cooperative effort between some 100+ micro-businesses, various non-profit organizations and development associations, schools, and individuals working together to make this dream a reality. The organization leading the charge that brought all these businesses together is Asociación Mar a Mar, a nonprofit dedicated to rural development. Mar a Mar’s goal was to create a trail full of adventure and picturesque Costa Rican villages, crossing from the Atlantic to the Pacific, which would attract large numbers of national and international tourists, developing tourism in areas that have traditionally been left behind the country’s coasts and Central Valley. By experiencing the trail and meeting the many hard-working rural tourism fledglings that make up this newly formed product, we are shown some broader truths about this sector and how it can survive in the future.
The president of Mar a Mar, Gaby Saborio, says that the Camino de Costa Rica has positively changed the way rural communities see the future. She told me that while the community-based nature of the project has allowed community members to find value in the beauty of their everyday lives, the most important effect of the project is that it has reunited families separated when young people had to leave home to seek work elsewhere. “These are kids who simply head off to San José to see what kind of work they could get, because [in their communities] they were sitting on the unemployment list,” she said. “Now we see them coming back to their families because they’re seeing opportunities that didn’t exist before. That fills us with satisfaction.”
“The Camino, more than just a trail or a sporting experience, is a project that seeks to carry out sustainable rural development for all those families who had marginalized within the tourism industry, the country’s largest source of income,” Gaby added.
Rural tourism combined with an extended multi-day trek changes the way one experiences a place. The change is both physical and mental as hikers start to fall into the cadence of such a challenge. During my limited yet glorious days on the trail, which took me through key sectors of the Camino de Costa Rica, including the Caribbean coast, the Cabécar indigenous territory, Turrialba, Tarrazú, and finally the plunge back down into the Pacific, I came to believe that those who walk it experience not one, but many different kinds of transformations.
The first transformation requires participants to slow down. Coming from busy lives in faraway cities and towns, hikers immediately enter into a new pace dictated by only one thing: the speed at which you can take one step after another. Sights, smells, sounds, and emotions linger as one begins to settle into this new rhythm. Gently and gradually, thoughts of our sometimes-hectic lives, jobs, and even our families start to fade away.
The trail begins on the Caribbean coast. Laguna Madre de Dios is a peaceful little outpost tucked between the rainforest and the ocean. Small-scale shrimpers harvest freshwater shrimps for visiting fishermen to use as bait, and volunteers patrol the beach of the Pacuare Reserve to count nesting loggerhead and leatherback sea turtles (March-May).
Julio Knight, his wife Maritza Urbina Luna, and their children have been able to adapt their business, Centro Turístico Pacuare, to take advantage of the Camino de Costa Rica by providing hikers with a charming Afro Caribbean-inspired meal and comfortable cabinas before setting off for what Camino hikers usually do before starting their journey: touching the Caribbean Sea.
This is effectively kilometer or mile marker zero, and as hikers turn around to face west with saltwater dripping from their fingers, the journey across a continent begins, one step at a time.
“For us, [el Camino de Costa Rica] has been important because we now have an income stream from tourism,” Julio told me. “The business has started to change. We’re hoping that it will increase more and more so that we can make a decision to build some new cabinas, fix problems we have with the water supply, with the rancho, with the dock. That’s what we dream about: more tourists so we can get ahead.”
Vast plains and banana plantations make way to towering verdant mountains as hikers approach Barbilla National Park and the indigenous territory of the Cabécar. This is where the trail begins to climb, and slippery rainforest soils rich in clay make this part challenging for some. The reward, however, is learning about the traditions and cultures of the Cabécar in a Casa Cosmogónicas (Cosmogonic House) established with the Tsiobata Tourism Committee and the Asociación Mar a Mar in October 2020. This small museum allows hikers to delve deep into the Cabécar way of life, making every careful step worthwhile.
Leo Martinez, a young Cabécar leader focused on ethno-tourism in the community, is responsible for preserving and sharing this rich heritage with hikers on the trail. As we sit on a traditional bench carved in the shape of a crocodile, Leo reflects on how the Camino de Costa Rica has affected his community.
“My grandparents, my parents, they were farmers. Most of the elders here grew plants for their own consumption and some sold part of it, such as beans or corn,” he says. “Tourism has benefitted us enormously. Many of the families do artisan work, and they want to sell their wares, made with fibers and other materials from the community. We also want to have a space where we can sell artisan work [and other products]… That would be a huge help to us, so families can have some income.”
Of course, turning occasional visits and purchases into reliable income streams is a massive challenge. As I continue along the trail, I meet more and more entrepreneurs full of Leo’s enthusiasm but also trying to figure out how to make ends meet. Every time we stop to chat, we’re brought into the aspirations and struggles of a new family or community; every time we turn away, we’re left to our own aspiration, which is simply to scale the next hill.
Minutes turn into hours, and hours turn into days. Slowly, the trail takes on a life of its own.
Instead of worrying about emails, social media, and traffic, hikers start to focus on a reality that is much simpler. The present becomes what is really important, step after step, and the rich experience that accompanies this form of slow tourism allows participants to have a more lasting mental change than they would have on a more adrenaline or fast-paced holiday that is much more common in today’s tourism world. My work takes me to rural parts of the world every month, but somehow the scale and simplicity of the Camino affected me in a different way. Even riding on a bike on a country road or trail suddenly seemed like racing, and I enjoyed the way my entire presence slowed to soak in even the smallest details of my experience.
Breathing deep across mountains and farms
The second transformation hikers experience is the sheer physical and mental challenge of hiking across a country as mountainous as Costa Rica. The steep interior requires hikers to dig deep and breath in every climb and descent. For many, this is what a long trek is all about. Dripping sweat, huffing and puffing, digging down to one’s core—whatever you choose to call it, the endorphin rush accompanying strenuous physical exertion is what for many makes such an experience so rewarding.
But what makes the Camino de Costa Rica so distinctive is the constant interaction with local people. Their generosity is beyond compare, and oftentimes what starts as a friendly greeting turns into an invitation into someone’s home. Before long, differences of language and culture become a moot point, and folks part ways with a sense of newly found camaraderie with a total stranger.
As climate regions change along the trail, so does the agriculture that local communities depend on. Climbing out of the indigenous Cabécar territory, characterized by rich rainforest and towering trees, hikers start to encounter a mosaic of farmland made up of mostly small-scale livestock and sugarcane plantations. Some of these farms are large, but most are humble enterprises owned by a single family. The remarkable scenery and bird life are beyond comparison as we crisscross this mixed farmland, with babbling brooks dividing the landscape and perfectly shaded nooks providing superb stops for a quick snack before marching onwards.
Along the way we meet Ligia Jiménez Núñez, who operates a small-scale butterfly breeding facility for wholesale export, Finca ViaLig, as well as a tourism business. Her son Fabián is also a guide for the Camino de Costa Rica. She says that while the pandemic has made it impossible for the community to harvest significant gains from the Camino so far, her family and town are trying to find ways to diversify their income.
“We’re starting to come back to it now,” she says. “I think we’re moving forward a little. We have a butterfly nursery where we sell pupa for export. That brings in a little something for the family and the community as well… Before, the people here worked in sugarcane and coffee, but now there are more opportunities for everyone.”
As mountains and hikers steadily gain elevation, the trail climbs through cloud forest before finally summiting the continental divide. Stepping across this geographic division is immensely symbolic in the journey across Costa Rica. To celebrate, we stopped to relish a granola bar and some water, with one foot in the Caribbean and the other in the Pacific. Upon reaching the Pacific drainage, hikers start to descend into one of the world’s most famous gourmet coffee regions: Tarrazú.
Felicia Echeverria moved to the highland region in 2010 to start a bio intensive organic farm called La Finca El Casquillo. Her farm grows blackberries, mustard seed, and a variety of other produce, but the difficult soil conditions and harsh mountain climate has forced her to look to tourism for economic support. Felicia and various other local micro-entrepreneurs work together so that, as a collaborative, they can offer a diverse rural tourism experience to hikers and outsiders alike.
“We have a community-level alliance in San Pablo de León Cortés, [where] we have developed a tour to take people in one or two days through visits to the organic farm, El Casquillo, the sustainable coffee micro-mill, La Cabaña, and Ecomiel, where they get to see the whole honey production process,” Felicia explains. “We opened up the doors of our businesses so people can come to get to know us, to share, to have the experience of doing what we do.”
The problem for this alliance before the Camino, she says, was publicizing their efforts.
“We don’t have time or resources to promote the tours, so the Camino de Costa Rica has played a really important role for us,” she says. “We’re part of a national tourism network. That has really helped us to bring people in, which is what we need: that visibility, that promotion.”
What works in one community doesn’t always work in others, and some businesses are miles ahead of the pack regarding previous tourism experience or other means of income generation. Therein lies the challenge. However, many of the entrepreneurs who make up the Camino de Costa Rica have dealt with comparable adversity in the past. With a thrifty approach and a positive attitude, challenges are attacked head on, communities look after themselves and others, and slowly the collective bar is raised for all.
Coffee plantations become a constant companion as one journeys through this part of the Camino de Costa Rica, and the campesinos who scratch out a living in these steeply terraced farmscapes provide an ever-present warmth that compliments the bustling birdlife and crisp mountain air.
The finish line
As with all great accomplishments, there must be an end. The Camino de Costa Rica culminates as one starts to drop out of the high mountains towards the Pacific coast. From roughly 1300 meters (4300 feet), we are met with the first striking views of the blue ocean meeting the emerald coast. The immense vista showcases our final stop on the Camino still several days away— Quepos/Manuel Antonio—as a tiny peninsula in an otherwise straight coastline. Costa Rica’s most-visited national park, seen from this height, looks utterly serene. However, the luxury hotels near the park would seem a world away from the rich, authentic rural tourism experiences we have been immersed in.
We continue onwards one step at a time with renewed energy to charge to the finish line. One of the last communities we encounter as we descend to the Pacific is Naranjillo. This small community, home to just a few dozen families, is so remote that its very geography has been a challenge to the prosperity of local families. In fact, in November 2020, the community was cut off completely for several months by a landslide caused by the heavy rains Hurricane Eta dumped on the region. Depending on a variety of subsistence farming practices to make ends meet, Naranjillo’s citizens say they have high hopes for rural tourism to provide much needed economic support.
One of several local people intimately involved in a new camping area next to the local soccer field is Ana Luz Fonseca. She describes how little by little, tourism is providing economic benefits not only to the community as a whole, but also to the women of the community, who previously had minimal opportunities to generate income for their households. Tourism, unlike other industries that have come through the town, benefit a wider swath of people, she says.
“Before, it was really hard to survive as a housewife. It was pure cattle… and from coffee, only a few people actually earned money,” she says. “But now we women, the ones who cook these meals, we pay ourselves a little… so we can get by.”
Along the way, one is met by ever-changing flora and fauna as high elevation cloud forest turns to lowland rainforest once more. We share the trail with monkeys, toucans, and morpho butterflies, amongst many other incredible creatures. The final night’s accommodation even allows hikers to strike out at night with a flashlight (and an experienced guide, of course) to search for frogs and other nocturnal rainforest critters.
Cristian Bonilla and his brothers Michael and Carlos host us for our last night before completing our coast-to-coast journey. Their rural tourism project, Esquipulas Rainforest Lodge, is an example of how adversity can sometimes lead to new ways of thinking and opportunities for the future.
“This was a cattle farm, with 80% dedicated to cattle,” Cristián says. “Climate change has affected the cattle industry significantly. We’re high-country coffee growers and we saw the potential for tourism and reforesting the farm.”
By carefully using profits from their family-owned coffee farms, the brothers reforested a whopping 106 hectares and added trails, horses and coffee tours. But the pandemic threatened their operations. Linking up with the Camino is allowing them to put their coffee and reforestation efforts in front of a new audience.
“The Camino de Costa Rica gave us a new opportunity,” he says. “It’s the chance to show people what this is all about, what you can achieve when you reforest land.”
Early on our last morning, I find myself sitting on a rock in front of Esquipulas Rainforest Lodge lacing up my shoes for the last time. Parrots squawk by in their typical rowdy way. I hear the rumble of howler monkeys in the distance set off by an old farm truck bouncing down the gravel road, and a gentle wind carries the fragrant scent of a rainforest in bloom. My awareness of my cohabitants on this journey has become heightened by turning off the buzz of life, slowing down my pace, and opening myself to listen. This includes not only the natural world but the many wonderful people who made this experience so very special. The Camino has changed me, and while I am excited to finish I don’t know if I am ready to leave quite yet.
The release from this arduous cross-continental journey is met with the rewarding prize of being able to finish exactly how one started: dipping one’s feet into the ocean. This time, though, we have crossed to the other side of Costa Rica, and the water we dip our feet into is the mighty Pacific.
Juan Antonio Chavarría, known as Oso (Bear) or Juancho, is one of the Camino’s most seasoned guides. He was one of the original group that painstakingly mapped out the trail, oftentimes walking huge distances, connecting communities, families, and microbusiness into what is today the Camino de Costa Rica. Since those pioneering days, his company Urritrek has led walking groups across Costa Rica. Juancho has completed the Camino 17 times, and in 2021 alone he has already walked 1285 km (800 miles) and destroyed three pairs of shoes. With that much time on the trail, he gave us a heartfelt summary (there may have been a small tear in his eye) of what the Camino de Costa Rica means to its microentrepreneurs.
“I worked as an accountant for many years,” says Juancho. “My last job was as a financial manager, but I’ve always felt the call of the mountains… the organizer of the Camino de Costa Rica posted on Facebook that they were looking for people to try” the trail.
It was a rough landing.
“There were 50-kilometer days, really complicated days… one of the people dropped out halfway, with no toenails and tons of blisters. But I fell in love with the project,” he recalls. “I remember the day that we finished for the first time. I ended up crying and calling my mom and it was like I’d just climbed Everest… I realized that it’s worth doing more of this kind of tourism.
“You take three, four hikers across the country, and that changes the economic life of a lot of people. Entrepreneurial ladies who’ve found their niche on the Camino. Businesses that decide to invest a little more… it’s so nice to change from being a person sitting in chair, waiting to die someday, to be here today, the way we enjoy it, sitting there, looking at the lake and knowing that we’ve helped given a few people a job, even if it’s just for a couple of days. That’s priceless.”
Hearing Juancho’s words, I came to realize that the majesty of what I had just experienced by crossing Costa Rica from coast to coast hung in a very delicate balance. These people and businesses are not well-established tourism enterprises; they are small-scale, “mom-and-pop” style creations, from the heart. An old child’s room turned into lodging for hikers. A patio made into a small al fresco restaurant. Some organic produce from the farm transformed into an artisanal treat.
Like most of us, in the past year they have suffered through a pandemic—plus hurricanes, a body blow to their industry, and a variety of personal challenges—but, at least in our interactions, they remain positive to a fault. The future of these businesses depend on tourists who take the leap of faith and sign up for the Camino de Costa Rica. When they do, they’ll be using their tourism dollars to subsidize the delicate livelihoods of rural people whose very subsistence is a master class in resilience and strength.
Read more about El Camino de Costa Rica and how to hike all or part of the trail, as well as about the Asociación Mar a Mar and how to support it through Amigos of Costa Rica, which receives U.S. tax-deductible donations on behalf of Costa Rican nonprofits. Next week: our deep dive into rural community tourism continues.