Lead NY is for committed leaders in the food, agriculture and natural resource sectors who wish to step up and make a difference in their community. Lisa Ford (LeadNY's class 11), reflects on a recent alumni trip to Costa Rica where leaders from across NYS could learn from Costa Rican practices in environmental protection, ecotourism and sustainable agriculture.
As Covid-19 continued to disrupt and wreak havoc across the country, a small group of LeadNY alumni and friends kept their travel plans, which seemed like a great idea 6 months ago. But when the trip finally arrived, we were all apprehensive about traveling internationally as the United States requires testing before one is allowed back into the country. Nevertheless, even with the Omicron surge, the world isn’t fully shutting down and no travel plans were canceled or restricted, so we forged ahead with Lead’s third alumni trip.
Visiting Costa Rica was dreamlike. “Pura Vida” is the mantra of the country and encompasses the sentiment of enjoying life to the fullest. It is the first thing our tour guide taught us as it can be a greeting, a goodbye, a thank you or a filler.
The country is responding well to the pandemic. There are hand wash stations everywhere, the people wear masks when appropriate without complaint, and many in their population (especially those in the tourism industry) are vaccinated. We traveled for our 10 days as safely as we could in our ‘bubble’. It almost seems as though the health crisis was not politicized at all - talk of the virus hardly came up and just about never with host country nationals. That may have been the true vacation. We were able to travel to 3 of the areas of Costa Rica including the rain forest, cloud forest and Pacific coast guided by a fabulous and talented person, Jose Martinez. Our driver was also named Jose and was equally as talented driving on sometime treacherous Costa Rican roads. Sloths, toucans, and howler monkeys are everyday sightings for the locals, but we were enthralled.
The first day was spent at an agricultural research center, CATIE, in Turrialba. A portion of the group was able to see tropical dairy cattle production, coffee production and the seed bank while the rest of us got to spend some more time with United Airlines. After some flight delays, we were all able to make it down.
Incredibly, Costa Rica is essentially self-sufficient for its electricity needs producing 78% of the country’s needs with hydroelectric and the rest from geothermal at the volcanos, wind, and small amount of solar.
The country is committed to sustainability in a real way. Sustainability is certainly a theme in the ecotourism sector. Waste separation and recycling were available at every location we visited. There was very little garbage on the ground, and we observed rural towns with garbage pickup. Compared to other Central American countries, this was a stark difference.
We next traveled to Sarapique and visited a private farm that gave cultural banana tours. Francini was our host and told us the story of her farm and banana production. They inherited a small parcel of land from her grandmother, and they are trying their hand at agritourism which has been hard through the pandemic. Bananas are the number one product of Costa Rica and its growth in production went hand in hand with the coffee production and rail development to feed workers and keep the rail in use after coffee harvest. A million boxes of bananas are exported from Costa Rica annually. The commercial farms in Costa Rica employ Nicaraguans that have crossed the border without ‘working papers’. Many feel that this is a drain on their healthcare system, but Costa Ricans prefer non-agricultural jobs leaving those positions for immigrants. This was brought up at a few of our visits and we could relate to the phenomenon. Many of the small, subsistence level farms we visited had very diversified crop production, including bananas, plantains, other tree fruits, vegetables, and meat production. We learned how to make tacones or patacones (smashed and fried green plantain) with our own egg chef, Jeanette Kreher!
We stayed at La Quinta Sarapique that is an integrated farm to table restaurant and hotel and were also able to tour their farm facility that is in development. Andres, our guide, manager of the farm and son of the resort owner, graduated from EARTH Institute and is now following his dreams of producing cattle and other products using regenerative agriculture practices. His family bought some more acreage for the cattle farming and land is at a premium costing upwards of $10,000/acre most places we asked. Regenerative agriculture is based on soil health, and he uses an intensive grazing system for the cattle as well as being very specific with his breeding program to develop a herd that is adapted to his conditions. His passion and knowledge were impressive and encouraging.
The chocolate tour that followed might have been everyone’s favorite! We were able to see cacao trees and learn about the production from flower to chocolate bar. Chocolate originated in the Americas. There were many of us that went up for at least ‘4ths’ at the chocolate tasting.
Costa Rica is the number one pineapple exporter in the world. Our visit would not have been complete without a tour of a pineapple farm. We toured an organic farm with a very charismatic guide. Danny shared with us the secrets of picking out the best pineapple in the grocery store since everything we have learned about this in the past is wrong. Make sure to pick a pineapple that is between yellow and green but a little more green than yellow. The leaves should be healthy and if you want to pull on one, pull on one near the base and make sure it doesn’t pull out easily. It should not smell like pineapple, and it should be firm. Pineapples are ripe when picked and from that moment start to ferment. Most of what we have been told to pick a good pineapple speeds up the fermentation process.
Our next stop was Rancho Margot established in 2004 as an integrated hotel and farm. They are quite self-sufficient with energy (hydroelectric), water (rainforest), meat (pigs and chickens), dairy and eggs. Everything is organic and they make their own soap. The secret ingredient here is ‘Mountain Microbes’ (i.e., fungus) harvested from the leaf litter in the forest and cultivated to make sprays and fertilizer. They have brought 1200 interns to the location over the years to learn about the forest and agriculture and tourism. The spot is near the Arenal volcano. It is lush and diverse. The Arenal National Park is very close, and we had a 3-mile hike to see a 400-year-old ceiba tree as well as the volcano that last erupted in 1993. On our return, horses were waiting to take us across a river to see more gorgeous views of Lake Arenal and the volcano.
We then headed to the coast by way of boat across Lake Arenal and stopped at Selvatura Park in Monteverde to cross their 8 suspension bridges allowing us an amazing view of the cloud forest. We did not see any quetzales, but the views were amazing and the diversity in flora breathtaking. Some found the suspension bridges quite breathtaking as well.
The road to the coast may be the most unforgettable experience for some as they twisted and turned around incredible inclines.
It didn’t help we were in a huge 50 passenger bus on roads built for motorcycles. China is investing in Costa Rica’s infrastructure, and they are widening roads around the country which will speed up travel and perhaps give us some interesting international relationships to study in the future.
Larry gave the group an unusual free day to enjoy the coast. I think it was only because he wanted to go deep sea fishing and knew that wouldn’t have been a good group activity! It was a great move as he caught a huge Blue Marlin. It had to be released so check out the video on Facebook. Most of the rest of us spent a relaxing day at the beach and Dale Hemminger got the bar to put the Bills game on 4 TVs that night alongside the live music that entertained the non-Bills fans. It was a fun way to wind down our trip.
On the way back to San Jose for covid testing, we stopped at beautiful National Park Carara to add to our flora and fauna list. Jose can spot birds and other wildlife with uncanny ability. Our last activity was an extra excursion on the Carcoles River named for the American Crocodile that peppers the shores. Our guide was incredible and could call hawks and other birds to him with pieces of chicken while our Jose knew the name of every bird we came across. The boat captain could maneuver our lumbering tour boat as if it was an extension of himself. He even got onto the shore and lured a 14-foot, 70+ year old crocodile out of the water to eat a chicken leg. Although we appreciated that he put his life on the line for our meager entrance fee, we declined the show when we reached the largest croc on the river! The wildlife and diversity were again breathtaking.
It was quite a relief to be able to travel and feel safe as I’m sure for many of us wondered if we would be able to travel anytime soon. The opportunity to pump a little money into the tourism industry was also great as Costa Rica’s main industry is tourism so it has been difficult for many. Costa Rica has a minimum wage of about $550-$600 per month depending on the type of work that is done and about 9% income tax to support a public health system and pension plan. We did not observe stark poverty, and they have NO military (just a national police force). I think we all would like to understand a bit better why Costa Rica seems to be such an oasis surrounded by violence, corruption, and political strife (Panama and Colombia to the south, Nicaragua and Guatemala to the north). Costa Rica has mandatory, free education for everyone up to 17 years old.
The country’s apparent focus on diversity and the environment sets them apart and reminds us that we can learn from other countries. Pura Vida, Costa Rica!
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