A town in Costa Rica faces an eco-tourism crisis

With its famed Cloud Forest closed, Monteverde fights for its life.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020,
By Reena Shah
Photographs By Mauricio Valverde Arce
The rainforests of Monteverde, in Costa Rica, attract thousands of nature lovers hoping to glimpse species ...

The rainforests of Monteverde, in Costa Rica, attract thousands of nature lovers hoping to glimpse species unique to the area. But this year, the coronavirus pandemic has kept them away.

Photograph by Gaile Juknyte, EyeEm/ Getty Images

In early March, the sunset lookouts in Monteverde, Costa Rica, were packed with tourists. This community of roughly 6,000 residents is an ecotourism hot spot, and by most accounts, 2020 was set to be a record year.

Now police tape wraps the newly installed wooden benches, and every attraction, including the famed Cloud Forest Biological Preserve, is shuttered. Restaurants are folding and accommodations, from backpacker hostels to homestays and Airbnbs, are empty. A silence has descended, cut only by birdsong. It’s both tranquil and ominous—the sound of indefinite absence.

Santa Elena, the village serving the area around Monteverde, normally hums with visitors hopping from backpacker hostels to restaurants and attractions, such as the Serpentario snake zoo (right). Now the streets are empty.

Photograph by Mauricio Valverde Arce

While Monteverde has no confirmed coronavirus cases, the hardship brought on by the pandemic has been swift and startling. Tourism is a major economic driver in Costa Rica, accounting for roughly 8–9 percent of the country’s GDP in 2019, according to Luis Jara, a spokesperson for Costa Rica’s Tourism Board. In places like Monteverde, it’s the only engine.

In 2019 the region, a three-hour drive from the capital, drew close to 250,000 visitors, mostly from the United States, Canada, and Europe. Avid birders, eco-adventure thrill-seekers (locals claim that ziplining was invented here), and study abroad students come to experience what the New York Times once called a “pilgrimage to nature.”

In this otherworldly mountaintop rainforest, visitors find one of the most biodiverse places on the planet and one of the few remaining ecosystems of its kind. Its misty canopy is home to over 400 bird species—roughly half of all species in Costa Rica—as well as the most species of orchids found anywhere and a dizzying variety of trees. Nature lovers come to see plants and animals not found anywhere else in the world.

David Rodriguez, 34, is a bird-watching guide and biologist who was expecting a busy high season in March and April. Because of the pandemic, all of his tours have been cancelled. He doesn’t know when he’ll be working again.

Photograph by Mauricio Valverde Arce

(Related: Here’s how travelers can help protect frogs in Costa Rica.)

The abrupt departure of visitors has left most households without a steady income. “This is nothing like low season,” says David Rodriguez, a wildlife guide and biologist who returned from leading a bird-watching tour on March 18, the day Costa Rica closed its borders. All his future bookings have been canceled. “During low season, you know high season is coming. This is a complete stop with no end in sight.”

As of May 5, Costa Rica, with a population of five million, had a total of 739 confirmed cases and six deaths, with active cases trending downward. Many express cautious approval of the government’s quick response. President Carlos Alvarado Quesada declared a state of emergency on March 16, closing schools, beaches, national parks, and borders while virus cases were still in the double digits.

But even after these measures lift, businesses will likely feel economic pain for some time. “Tourism will only return drop by drop,” says Heidy Perez Bravo, the director of Monteverde’s Chamber of Tourism. “We have too much tourism infrastructure now. Nothing will be full again for a while.”

Garbage bags cover a sign for the Catarata de Murciélagos, the Bat Waterfall, indicating that the reserve, opened in 2018, is now closed.

Photograph by Mauricio Valverde Arce

It’s a difficult reality to accept, since the last few years marked a much anticipated boom after tourism took a hard dive during the 2008 recession. The sector rose 4 percent last year and projections for 2020 were expected to surpass that. “Tourism was the most dynamic segment of the economy until a month ago. The road to recovery will be even longer than what we experienced after 2008,” says Gerardo Corrales, an economic expert and professor at Lead University of Costa Rica.

The crisis is a double-edged sword for locals, including Laura Mora, the cook at La Cuchara de la Abuela, a popular soda or diner. “I’m scared of the tourists not returning, and I’m also scared of them coming back and bringing the virus here,” she says. An outbreak in Monteverde would be disastrous for the community’s basic healthcare facilities, which for the majority of denizens who can’t afford private doctors consists of a small state-run clinic with no intensive care unit.

Related: How hard is coronavirus hitting the travel industry?

To help relieve some of the economic pressure, on April 10 the central government launched Bono Proteger, a program that provides up to £177 each month (for three months) to people who have lost income due to the pandemic; the funding equates to roughly a third to a half of average salaries in Monteverde. In a week, more than 400,000 people across the country submitted applications. But “in places like Monteverde, where tourism is the economy, three months of aid won’t be enough. It will be just the beginning [of what people will need],” says David Landergren Castro, a financial consultant who specializes in the country’s small and medium-size businesses.

“Eventually, the aid will run out and we’ll still be struggling,” predicts Shannon Smith, who owns Taco Taco, an eatery usually bursting with customers at this time of year. “When we can move around again, we’ll need to hyper focus on buying local and on sharing resources.”

Keeping it local

Some of these efforts are already underway. Locally made products and produce are flooding WhatsApp groups, as small-scale agriculture, once a way of life, becomes a survival tool. Just before the Easter lockdown, Las Chutas, the hardware shop, sold out of all seeds except beans and cilantro as residents rushed to build their own huertas or vegetable gardens.

At the Belmar Hotel, a 35-year-old family-run business and the most upscale accommodation on the mountain, only the organic garden remains open. The management has had to lay off many of the hotel’s 75 employees and hopes to generate some income by expanding the garden to sell produce to the community.

The Red Cross in Santa Elena is a small outpost that supports Monteverde’s state-run clinic with basic medical care and emergencies.

Photograph by Mauricio Valverde Arce

“We have a few months of reserve to pay for essential employees like maintenance and security, which makes us fortunate. But we have never before found ourselves at zero income,” says Pedro Belmar, the hotel’s general manager.

Like the Belmar, farms are looking for places to sell their products. In the last two weeks, community leaders launched Econexiones, an online platform dedicated to organising and promoting goods hecho en Monteverde, or made in Monteverde. It’s an effort to ensure that the little money people spend circulates on the mountain, and that there aren’t multiple different farms each offering basil and lettuce. “We’re helping local producers, who were supplying to restaurants and hotels, to meet the needs of the community,” says Selena Avendaño, supervisor of community initiatives at the Monteverde Institute, a local nonprofit that promotes sustainability, and a coordinator of the effort. “We’re trying to move the part of the economy that should still be moving—food.”

Starting over, again

Many say that the current crisis highlights what has become an excessive dependence on tourism. “Thirty years ago, Monteverde was mostly dairy farms started by the Quakers,” explains José Luis Vargas, a Monteverde native and co-founder of Life Monteverde, a sustainable coffee cooperative. “Back then, a group of us worked on a project called Monteverde 2020 to diversify the economy with a focus on conservation and ecotourism.” The idea was for tourism to offer an alternative to dairy farming. Now a collapse of the industry is forcing another reinvention.

A hanging bridge at Selvatura Adventure Park in 2012. Normally the park, which is currently closed, offers canopy zip line tours, including a kilometer-long Superman cable, popular with tourists.

Photograph by Mauricio Valverde Arce

Starting from scratch is a familiar refrain to some. Oscar Chacón and Angela Acuña moved to Monteverde from Venezuela to escape economic and political turmoil there. Over the past 20 years, they’ve restarted their lives a half dozen times. Chacón arrived in Costa Rica in 2018 with £55 in his pocket, and last December, he and Acuña opened Zucarro Café.

When the country locked everything down, the couple adapted quickly, reducing the café’s output by 80 percent and distributing bread to grocery stores. “My experience in Venezuela prepared me for this crisis. I can put on my gloves and fight,” says Acuña. “Still, we are taking it day by day.”

For now, they’re staying open. “We have only a little product but it’s fresh. We are not just a tourist café,” says Chacón, scrubbing his hands with sanitiser. “If we can provide for the community, the community will provide for us.”

Reena Shah is a Costa Rica-based writer and editor, who has written for The American Prospect, Third Coast, Writer’s Digest, and Chalkbeat, among others.
Mauricio Valverde Arce is a photographer born and raised in Costa Rica. His work documents cultural anthropology and the natural world, with an expertise in macrophotography. Find him on Instagram and on Facebook.
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