Costa Rica is pretty much the pioneer of “rural tourism,” and today the country has as much five star tourism as it does rugged, rural tour and travel offerings. The tough thing with rural tourism is that some is owned and operated by local Ticos (Costa Ricans) and some is run by enterprising foreigners.
Heart of Gold
Vancouver Island University has been working with a group of driven Ticos in San Marcos to develop a sustainable rural tourism project called Heart of Gold (or Corazon de Oro). The term “sustainable” is especially slippery in the context of locally owned and operated rural tourism. Many Latin Americans see tourism as the ultimate super-solution: “We just get foreign people who have lots of money to come spend some of it here and then we’re good!” This might work for a season or two, but sustaining infrastructure, marketing and outreach- and just making sure the people at the top don’t become greedy/corrupt when they have some money to their names for the first time in their lives- is no easy task. Developing rural tourism businesses that create long term employment for locals rather than generating a bunch of money for a short amount of time and then folding is the real challenge. Heart of Gold doesn’t yet have everything up and running to the point of signing on guests, but supporting their work makes sure that that possibility makes it from the future to the present.
Las Alturas de Puriscal is in fact owned by a Canadian couple, but it is probably the one and only foreigner owned business in all of Central America that I wholeheartedly endorse. Bob and Patsy built an absolutely stunning house in the hills outside of Puriscal. The accommodations walk the perfect line between comfortable and luxurious, and the buildings on the property are single story and therefore don’t dominate the landscape. Patsy is trained in Pereli Natural Horsemanship, as are the many horses she has on her property. She holds Pereli workshops, and Las Alturas is the perfect horse riding getaway.
Bob doesn’t do horses, but he does coffee. He is a member of the Coopeatenas coffee coop, and employs local men and women to pick the coffee. All the coffee he drinks himself and serves to guests at Las Alturas he depulps, dries, and roasts himself on a funky roaster his son-in-law built him from a retrofitted barbecue grill. Every day of the harvest Bob is out in the cafetals picking, still avidly trying to match the number of cajuelas the locals can pick in a day.
There is a lovely little pool and patio area on the property next to a duck pond. Any time it isn’t raining, Bob and Patsy rent out the pool to locals for birthday and graduation parties at the totally fair price of $1 a head. Rather than build gates and fences to “protect themselves” from the curious neighborhood kids, they found ways to make themselves a part of their community. I rode horses and helped roast coffee at Las Alturas. Las Alturas is run by foreigners and therefore caters to foreign guests– and has many more amenities than anything that could be considered rural tourism– but the soul of the place is the exact kind of personal and family oriented that characterizes Costa Rica. Bob and Patsy will probably pick you up at the airport themselves, and will eat every meal with you if you want. This is a good place to get to know coffee and Costa Rica without totally removing yourself from the comforts of clean sheets and people who speak perfect English.