I. The Guide
Augusto Rodriguez is a supple, talkative, graying man who walks with unaffected grace; he wears rubber boots and a small hat and carries a long stick as he leads us under the canopy of the rain forest, on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. We four gringos, guests at the Lapa Rios resort, follow him along a narrow trail that winds through the gloom down a hill toward a stream hustling noisily in our near future. Augusto comes to a stop and seems to sniff the air. “There is an animal nearby,” he announces in his strongly accented English. He inches across the slope, wary and alert, and points to something we cannot see.
“Curasao,” I think he says, and then he begins shuffling forward, stooped and chanting as he creeps toward the “animal,” which we are soon able to make out as a dingy bird, roughly the size and shape of a guinea fowl, standing motionless on the ground beneath a massive strangler fig tree.
Augusto chants as though he were a priest, in a singsong that might be part of a black mass in an abandoned chapel. The “curasao,” which Birds of Costa Rica will later identify as a “gallina de monte” (Tinamus major), has been entirely disarmed. We approach, and it doesn’t stir. Augusto has hypnotized it. Immobile, it stares at its watchers without affect, a remote and ineffectual bird. How long will it stay like this? Half an hour, Augusto says firmly, and he leads us onward.
We descend to a waterfall we have been hearing in the background, and climb past it up another slope. “White-winged dove,” Augusto says solemnly, handing us a feather he has picked up from the ground; he moves on, and then stops and points to a “quinine tree.” A little later he points out another tree, which “produces milk you use to keep from getting acid in the stomach.” Next he hands us some berries, asking us to smell them. “Citronella lemon. It opens the breathing tubes, opens the valves of the heart.”
Augusto has already told us that his father was English and his mother was Indian, and that he is a shaman. We fork off the narrow trail, and he stops, as he has done at each junction, to place his hands together and, with bowed head, murmur a prayer for safety on the next leg. Furry gray fragments fall from the balsa trees above. Another tree has spines growing up its trunk. Augusto points out a procession of leaf-cutting ants crossing our path, and a black spider in a huge web. A sudden crash, and a crested eagle flaps hugely away under the trees, to disappear at length into the forest canopy.
Augusto bids us look for motion in the leaves overhead and listen for a high whistle as a troop of spider monkeys approaches. We pause by a camphor tree, and the monkeys catch up with us, swinging from branch to branch far above our heads. A languid, cinnamon-colored monkey, feet clenched in one tree and hands in the next, stretches overhead in sunshine, like a suspension bridge, across which two other monkeys now casually stroll. “They’re waiting for the baby,” Augusto says. The baby appears and leaps aboard the hanging monkey as though climbing into a taxi, which whisks it away.
Later, as we are wading down a stream bed, Augusto gestures in the air with his stick. “Be careful,” he says. “Walk on the left side; keep away from the right.” We wade on about fifty feet. “Stop,” he says. “Look,” and he points with his stick to the shallows by the edge of the stream. The eternal half-light of the rain forest’s understory keeps the colors muted; the air is thick with moisture and with the scent of decaying leaves. Where he is pointing, coiled in loopy layers upon itself, lies an immobile serpent, “mute as a mouse in a / corner,” its wedge-shaped head and crisscross markings proclaiming it a pit viper, the dreaded fer-de-lance. “Just stay still,” Augusto says. “It might jump on you if you fall down.” None of us falls down. We are grateful for our guide, and grateful that we did not try to walk alone.
II. The Owners
It is before breakfast. I am talking with John Lewis under the canopy at the entrance to Lapa Rios. Lewis, a spare, trim, bristly man with a capacity for crisp utterance, says, “We came here and fell in love with the people, the country, the geography, the climate. A country without violence, no standing army, democracy. I was sitting on the balcony of the hotel at Quepos after about five beers, and I suddenly thought, How about if we do a resort for birders in Costa Rica?” John and Karen Lewis were in the Peace Corps in Africa in the 1960s. John for twenty years conducted a very successful law practice in Minneapolis, and Karen taught music, but neither of them ever forgot those far-off years. “Though we didn’t know it at the time, they were the best two years of our lives,” John says. When they took their young children back to Kenya in 1988, the whole memory of their dedicated youth came back. Then John’s father died. The result was a reappraisal.
They decided to quit their jobs and settle in a tropical climate, near the sea, and engage in something involved with tourism. They polled travel agents and were told that they would do best to establish an inn in the wilderness that could offer high-quality accommodations and service. Where? In 1990 they narrowed the search to Costa Rica’s Pacific coast, and made six trips there. John wandered down to the Osa Peninsula, which boasted only one road and whose principal town, Puerto Jimenez, had once been a Panamanian prison camp. At the far end of the road John found himself overlooking the Pacific Ocean from a hilltop clearing where there was land for sale: a thousand acres, with five rivers, forty waterfalls, and a view to eternity–a perfect place for a small hotel. “This is the place,” he radioed Karen, “but it’s four times our budget.” “Buy it,” she replied. “We’ll figure out how to pay for it.” They cashed in everything: their house, his law practice, their retirement fund, and their savings. A Minneapolis architect helped the Lewises design a simple and beautiful system of thatched buildings, each with a magnificent exposure to views, air, ocean, and forest. By early 1993 Lapa Rios (“Rivers of the Scarlet Macaw”) had been designed and built and was in operation, with Karen as building superintendent, interior designer, and ambiance controller, and John as financial manager, personnel manager, marketing director, and supervisor of supply, transportation, and legal services.
Lapa Rios is no ordinary hotel. It can serve about thirty guests at a time and has a staff of thirty-three. In less than three years it has made a reputation for itself among aficionados of ecotourism. But John and Karen Lewis have goals other than merely running a successful luxury hotel: to raise capital for the acquisition and preservation of endangered land; to disseminate information about deforestation, reforestation, and rain-forest preservation; and to work with the local community to help demonstrate that a rain forest left standing is worth more than the wood or the next best use if the forest were cut down.
III. The place
We arrive in Puerto Jimenez, approaching in a thirty-passenger plane across the waters of Golfo Dulce to touch down at a dirt airstrip next to a cemetery, a faintly sinister spot reminiscent of the opening pages of Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory. John Lewis is there to deliver a few departing guests to the same loop flight that has brought us from San Jose, the capital, in a little over an hour. Once they have boarded the plane, he escorts us and our bags to an open truck. We bounce happily on wooden seats in the back for about forty-five minutes along a dirt road that leads between pastures where Brahma cattle lie in the shade of large trees, and across several shallow fords whose waters gurgle around our wheels. Cattle egrets stand everywhere, on the backs of the cattle, on the ground at their sides. The roadside is splashed with bright heliconia blossoms of red and yellow, with the scarlet blooms of wild ginger and banana trees.
The truck stops to shift into four-wheel drive, and a large bird with a long, dark, thick neck that in this late-morning light looks yellow in the front flaps a few strokes and lands by a stream, examining us out of one orange eye; it is a bare-throated tiger-heron (Tigrisoma mexicanum). The air is quite hot and getting hotter, and we are glad when the truck starts up again and the breeze can cool our sweat. The woods are growing deeper, but most of the land on both sides is fenced off by posts formed by slender living trees. Now and then we see a thatched or tin-roofed building–a house? a school? A fenced-in plantation of trees carries a sign that says STON FORESTAL. (This refers to the Stone Container Corporation, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of corrugated paper products. Those trees are being grown on land rented from local farmers. It will take just under twenty years to grow three crops of pulpwood here. After Stone’s lease expires, the owners may use the spent land as they will.)
After a particularly splashy ford, we zag to the left up a steep slope, and then zig to the right, still more steeply, while a vast expanse of Pacific Ocean opens up below us. We pass through an entrance gate and whine still more steeply to a level parking place beyond which rises, perhaps fifty feet into the air, a peaked thatched roof. Smiling, Karen Lewis comes forward to welcome us to Lapa Rios. A young man, in halting English, begins to offer us a drink, but he is interrupted by a thunderous huffing-groaning sound: uh uh uh UH UH UH. “Can you hear the howler monkeys?” Karen asks, enthusiastically but unnecessarily, for they seem to be at our shoulder. The young man now brings my wife and me tall, cool glasses of fruit punch, each adorned with a butter-yellow blossom. Under the high straw roof containing a lookout above our heads we walk forward, sipping, to a breathtaking verandah lookout, which faces south on the open Pacific, southeast on Golfo Dulce. To the southwest and west a 270-degree view of the coastal rain forest spreads out and up. There is not a boat to be seen on the water, but overhead wheel white hawks and black vultures. The hot sky is brilliantly blue. Soon we are escorted to our bungalow, down 146 steps. On a dazzling white wall a gecko lizard is perched upside down next to the doorknob that opens a locked door into a high thatched room, deeply shaded now at midmorning, with its own terrace, indoor-and-outdoor shower, closets and tables, chairs and overhead fan, two huge firm beds, mosquito netting, and screen walls with bamboo blinds to keep out the heat of the day. We look at each other and sigh. Eternal honeymooners.
When we climb back up the steps past the swimming pool for lunch (gazpacho, a tomato stuffed with tuna, tropical fruit), we are further persuaded that we have gone to heaven. Dinner by candlelight (fish ceviche, fresh grilled tuna, fresh vegetables, flan, white Chilean wine), with Glenn Gould’s Bach Partitas in the background, confirms that belief. The moon rises full over the Pacific. As we descend to our bungalow, the huge red eyes of common pauraques, or nighthawks, stare at our approach and then flit away. We fall asleep under our mosquito nets (though there are no mosquitos) to the mewing of tiny birds, the rustle of palm leaves, the occasional cry of nocturnal animals hunting one another in the rain forest.
IV. The dream
Karen Lewis says, “Someone told us about a movie that came out when we were down here, called Field of Dreams: ‘If you build it, they will come.’ So we came and we did what we said we would do, and surprised the community in the Osa, because they kept waiting for a two-hundred-room hotel to be built here. We came here to be a model of how to do something. Tourism has grown too quickly in Costa Rica for the quality of service to grow. ‘Good’ is not enough.”
Lapa Rios has been built, and they have come: the traffic in the dry season (December to April) is all that the Lewises can handle, but they have no intention of expanding. “That’s no solution,” Karen says. John and Karen were both hoping for a higher achievement. Karen says, “There is something almost spiritual here–looking at the ocean; feeling the breeze out of the rain forest; listening to the howler monkeys, the insects that are always humming, the cicadas and crickets and whatnot; watching the moon come up and just spill its light.” John says, “This isn’t only a piece of land; it’s an organism. . . . When we bought it, we thought it was beautiful, but now people have come from everywhere, and we know it’s a very special forest.”
Eighty-five percent of the guests at Lapa Rios are from the United States. The rest are for the most part German, Swiss, and Canadian. The tourists who come must, of course, be fairly affluent, though the rates are not unreasonable: $120 per day per person, all meals and local transport included, with drinks and tours extra. (For more information about Lapa Rios, send a fax to 011-506-735-5179; there is no direct phone service to the hotel.) Guests ought to be hale and hearty to enjoy the occasional rigors of outdoor rain-forest life. Children under five are not encouraged to come, because metropolitan safety standards cannot apply to an inn built on a hilltop with precipitous slopes falling away to a rain forest inhabited by boa constrictors and tarantulas.
The Lewises wish–and not only for economic reasons–that more tourists would come in what Karen calls the “green season”: May to November. John says, “It’s cooler. It’s greener. It’s the mud season. It’s quieter. The people who live here like it better than the dry season. It rains in the afternoons and the evenings primarily. Our guests are as happy here in the rainy season as in the dry. We do the tours: it’s more exciting. A couple of times we’ve had to hire a farm tractor to get them to their flights. You can’t believe the intensity of rain.”
The Lewises have other wishes as well. Karen says, “Our prime focus coming here was to preserve the forest–our first reason. Now we’re being pushed by our staff: ‘Why don’t you build me a house for my family? Let me bring my wife, and I’ll stay.’ There is all this pressure on us to build a company town, but we came here to preserve the forest.”
They had hoped to create a model for ecotourism. And what is ecotourism? That’s not quite clear as yet–not in practice. Does the emphasis fall on ecology or on economics? The Lewises have certainly felt the conflict. “Four years ago,” John says, “there was very little traffic on the road–a vehicle once every two days. Now everyone wants to be in the wilderness but wants to be near someplace that is established, near the ‘private nature reserve.’ Since the building of Lapa Rios, land values on the Osa Peninsula have gone up between five hundred and a thousand percent.” John, with deep regret, expects to see a lot of building by people who say they are conservationists but who will in practice be chipping away at the rain forest.
As John makes this doleful prediction, sitting in the shaded entrance to Lapa Rios at 7:00 A.M., he suddenly freezes. “A white hawk just came and landed in the trees not more than forty feet away!” My tape records a skrawk of birdcall, a skitter of feet, hushed exclamations in the background. The hawk (Leucopternis albicollis) crouches on a low branch, at eye level, blinking, weaving, and glaring at us, Marine to Marine. Who owns this forest anyhow?
The hawk flies away. John goes on: “My idea was that we could be an outpost in the wilderness for years and years, and that things around us would stay pretty much the same. People would enjoy our wilderness and our food and our accommodations and go back. Being a model demonstration unit means that we have motivated a lot of people to come and move next to us and eliminate the buffer of wilderness right next to our preserve. On the other hand, there are people who have bought fifteen hundred acres right next to us, and they are going to preserve those pieces. They are doing that on the assurance that we will be here. In terms of acreage we have probably accounted for a large increase in the preservation of forest that had been slated for potential destruction.
“We thought we were going to motivate conservationists; but the real outcome is that we have motivated visitors to take a serious look at their lives. Yes, the forest needs to be dedicated. It’s a private nature reserve because we say it is.” That bold statement raises nagging questions that make a tourist uneasy as he watches for toucans and howler monkeys in the green forest canopy outside Lapa Rios. The sea and the jungle belong to no one, not to the awed visitor, not to the innkeeper, not to the dedicated shaman, not even to the “Rich Coast” of Central America.