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Perry Garfinkel

Perry Garfinkel

Posted: June 5, 2009 05:55 PM

Costa Rica Green Report Card: Arenal Volcano Region

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La Fortuna, Costa Rica - This country's modern-day Big Bang came in 1968 when its only constantly active volcano, Arenal, woke up from a 400-year geologic nap with a huge eruption that not only displaced thousands of villagers circling the mountain but also disrupted the lives of countless species of flora and fauna. Both Man and all other living things were probably already well adapted to the mobile lifestyle.


There is anthropological evidence that Man inhabited the Arenal area as early as 10,000 years before the Common Era. The population never grew large enough to require extensive agriculture. After an eruption, the people would move 15 or so miles away, returning once crops began to grow again. This resiliency was probably a direct result of the Arenal people's simplicity; a small society in balance with the tropical ecology could bounce back more easily than a civilization as complex as the Maya.

It's a sign of my own -- our own -- complexity and lack of resilience that when I saw Arenal's foreboding steam last week and then heard boulders, vomited out of its tubular top, ominously rumbling down its hard-sloping side, my initial instinct was to run, tormented by images of Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks in "Joe and the Volcano."

Arenal continues a ridge of volcanic activity that eventually gave rise to the mountainous spine traversing the entire length of the Western Hemisphere, cutting across Costa Rica from northwest to southeast.

Not far from Arenal, at the northwest corner of Costa Rica on the Pacific coast, geologists believe volcanoes spat out the first masses of earth that eventually created the isthmus bridging the Americas. This is Central America's oldest land.

I mention this way-back-in-the-day long view to suggest that life forms here have experienced, endured and survived environmental shifts of unimaginable magnitude. Surely, they can survive the more contemporary eruption of tourism development.

Spiraling up small windy roads on the three-hour drive from the Liberia airport toward Tabacón Grand Spa Thermal Resort, the award-winning five-star near Arenal's base and reputed to be one of Costa Rica's most pristinely kept eco-resorts, I was heartened to see that development along the way was not what I'd seen on Guanacaste's Gold Coast a couple of months ago, on assignment for The New York Times. There were many small hotels dotting the hillsides, but none of the high-rise condos or sprawling resort-cum-residential developments spreading up and down Costa Rica's Pacific side. But I worried it could go that way without tight protections and intelligent development (the very phrase sounds oxymoronic when I think of moronic developers I've met in other tourism destinations).

Luckily -- for the area's 18 species of mammals, 20 of birds (including the endangered great green macaw), 15 of amphibians and reptiles; for the 20 species of medicinal plants and especially for four species of trees in danger of extinction; for the great anteaters, sloth, jaguars, howler monkeys, kinkajous or honey bears (endangered by either name), pumas and a hopefully growing species called the eco-sensitive homo sapiens - the Arenal Volcano National Park belongs to a National Parks Service conservation program that guarantees protection for flora and fauna threatened with extinction, as well as for areas of historical, archeological and scenic interest.

Ironically, the Arenal park includes an artificial ecosystem, which turns out to be a good thing (if you ignore the fact that it probably displaced a natural pre-existing ecosystem). Next to the volcano is a dam, built in 1983, which created Lake Arenal, covering an area of almost 90 square kilometers. The hydraulic energy harnessed from the lake and its surrounding rivers accounts for almost 40 percent of Costa Rica's energy production. While the dam flooded what was previously the town of Arenal, it also created new life: there are more than 35 species of zooplankton, 14 species of macrophytes and 37 species of fish, predominantly cichlids and livebearers.

At nearby Arenal Observatory Lodge, scientists come from the Smithsonian Institute, the Earthwatch Institute, the Organization of Tropical Studies, the University of California and other institutions to take advantage of the lodge's unique observatory location very close to the live volcano. They study details of the '68 eruption, species regeneration in volcanically affected areas and other effects of volcanic activity on local biology. The cynic in me thinks such studies are motivated by the desire to make sure that the tourism infrastructure is not disrupted by the next big one. I would like to see them also examine the environmental effect of increased traffic flow (the increased flow of everything) generated by the influx of tourists.

But in the end, the true custodianship of this primitive land remains in the hands of individuals, whether it's you and me trespassing lightly and respectfully in these parts, or the owners and managers of the growing number of hotels and tour operators here.

This is why I give Tabacón my own Green Pura Vida Seal of Approval and why I give most of that credit to Uwe Wagner, the German-born general manager passionately committed to responsible and sustainable tourism.

Look, it's nearly impossible for a 114-room upscale hotel nestled into 750 acres of rainforest - which includes several eating establishments, pools, shuttle vans, many tons of waste water, all across the street from natural mineral hot springs also owned and managed by the hotel - not to leave some footprint, not create some environmental domino effect that alters the lives of local people, local plants and local ecology. Pulling off such a miracle would defy the laws of physics, at the very least defying quantum physics' observer-and-the-observed theory that the act of observation changes the phenomenon being observed.

But, under Wagner's guidance since 2006, not only has the hotel raised its luxury bar and won a handful of awards and stars but it also has tightened up on its various eco-programs. To wit:

• To eliminate toxic pesticides maintaining its extensive botanical gardens, the resort produces its own organic fertilizers.
• It has implemented an ongoing tree-planting program (3,000 so far) to minimize the carbon footprint of guests arriving by car or bus.
• All recyclables go to local schools, where students classify and sell them to recycling industries, generating income for the schools.
• In May 2008, Tabacón committed to becoming carbon neutral by the end of this year, ahead of Costa Rica's goal of becoming the first C-neutral country by 2021.
• The resort has implemented energy-saving practices. Sensors in outdoor lighting and guest rooms reduced electricity consumption by approximately 35 percent over the past three years.
• Water is heated by the nearby Arenal Volcano so no artificial heating systems are required; in fact, the hotel uses only mineral water from the volcano and natural springs. Your hotel shower is hydrotherapy.

That last almost makes it moot to cross the street from the hotel to the spa and hot springs (which are open to the public). Almost. Why would anyone pass up the chance to let cascading hot mineral waterfalls massage your back the natural way? Or take a water slide down into a pool, and float on over to the pool bar for herbal juice, or something stronger? Or get a Volcanic Mud Wrap in one of the 11 outdoor treatment bungalows, with private jacuzzi? To do otherwise would be to miss the meaning of Pura Vida.

Next week Perry will ford a river in a Jimmy SUV to visit the southern reaches of Costa Rica's Nicoya Peninsula and the beach at Punta Islita.


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