Laguna del Lagarto Lodge
I came to Costa Rica in 1974 as an International Bank Executive and never in my wildest dreams thought that this would become my permanent home and less that I will wind up as owner of a Jungle Lodge.
It all goes back to my family who owned a farm in East Germany, where I grew up. Due to the World War II we had to leave it behind, but I always dreamt of having a large piece of land that I could call my very own. This dream materialized in 1981. I had the opportunity to buy 110 hectares of prime rainforest in the northern part of Costa Rica, near a small hamlet called Boca Tapada, about 12 km. south of the San Juan River on the border to Nicaragua and 2 km. east of the San Carlos River.
For quite some time I did not know what to do with the newly acquired land. It came to my mind to convert this rainforest into agricultural productive land, by cutting the trees down and planting either pineapple, pepper, cacao or heart of palms. At that time the word “ecology” was not yet heard in Costa Rica and there were hardly any restrictions for deforestation.
At a cocktail party in San José, while discussing with a friend what to do he advised not to deforest this beautiful land, but instead to keep it prime and only mark some trails and build a small lodge. I was ready to go into Ecotourism, a brand new word in Costa Rica. So I started first in 1989 with one unit consisting of four rooms, two rooms sharing one bathroom and a spacious balcony with view to one of the lagoons.
At that time there was no electricity in the place and, not liking the noise of a generator, I installed solar panels. After two years of favorable comments from visitors, I decided to convert it into an economically self-sustaining lodge of 20 rooms and formally opened up for business in November 1992. I was very lucky that a large German travel agency took the lodge into their program and sent me each week groups of about 25 tourists for a two-night stay, which covered from opening day the operating expenses. The beginning was nevertheless, very difficult. The buses with the first groups could not get right to the lodge. The loggers had destroyed the road in such a way, that people had to walk the last 1 1/2 Km. and we had to haul the suitcases up to the hotel by jeep. The tourist did not mind, because they enjoyed the lush tropical surroundings and the quietness, only interrupted by the sounds of the jungle and the songs of the “early morning birds”.
In addition to the 110 hectare of rainforest, I bought another 180 hectare of pasture land and secondary forestland. I reforested 40 hectare left 82 hectare as natural re-growth under a Government supervised forest protection plan, made two more lakes and left about 30 hectare as pasture for the horses the tourists use. Then planted 22 hectare with “Heart of Palms” in order to satisfy my agricultural instinct. The example has convinced our neighbor to maintain 400 hectare of rainforest, so that our lodge is actually surrounded by 640 hectare of prime privately owned rainforest.
What really makes this story a special one is the economic impact the Lodge has made on the area, the modern development of the region, its people and the awareness of what ecology really means.
The Lodge has not only created direct employment, but also indirect income to new small enterprises. A local fellow bought himself two river motor boats, with our financial assistance and we contract him for the boat tours offered to our guests on the San Carlos and San Juan rivers. Presently, he has repaid us the loan and operates a prosperous business, giving service not only to us, but also to other people. The small restaurant at the border post at the confluence of the San Carlos and San Juan rivers, practically lives from the guests the Lodge brings to this place on the boat trips.
The Lodge has not only opened the door for the tourist to see the New World, but has offered its employees the opportunity to see the world outside. Our cook, Adolfo, a refugee from Nicaragua, started as a simple farm worker. By shear accident we discovered his talent for cooking, sent him to the next town to a restaurant for training and he developed into an excellent cook. All guests praise his culinary art, to the extent that a German tourist invited him for three months to Germany, all expenses paid, to bring the “Costarican Cuisine” to the Old World.
Another example is our young Assistant Manager and local tourist guide, Oscar, who comes from a nearby small farm family. We sent him to San José to take English lessons, then, through my Rotary connections, he was invited for two months by a Rotary family in the United States to improve his English and now he speaks it fluently and has turned into an excellent tourist and birdwatchers guide.
As already indicated, I am member of the San José Rotary Club and through our connections with the Clubs in the U.S.A., we are sponsoring five schools in this area, all of them rather remote and very poor, lacking the most basic supplies. We brought two years in a row a group of four Rotarian dentists from the U.S.A. to Boca Tapada with all their equipment to give three and a half days free dental service to the people in the area.
Due to the presence of the hotel, we could convince the state-owned Electricity Company to connect the village and the hotel with the public electricity net. Our example brought a new sense of self-confidence to the people. At the beginning, when I built the hotel, they were very skeptical, and thought it a crazy idea, no tourist will come to this godforsaken place. But when they saw the success, the village people now come to us for advice on all kinds of new projects they want to implement to create new employment. They are proud that Boca Tapada shows now on all the maps and in most of the international tourist guides and that it even appears on international TV programs.
We are very proud to have proven how tourism can contribute to the development of a poor isolated area. How we value the richness of the rainforest and how we, in some way, have contributed to the awareness, that to maintain and preserve the rainforest for future generations, can be more profitable than cutting it down.
Written by: Vinzenz A. Schmack, La Laguna del Lagarto Lodge, Boca Tapada