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Meet the eco-warrior championing regenerative tourism in Costa Rica

At the edge of La Amistad International Park, which spills over Costa Rica’s southern border into Panama, one man has transformed a logging operation into one of the nation’s most authentic ecotourism getaways.

Scarlet macaw in flight in Costa Rica.

Photograph by AWL Images
Published 12 Feb 2022, 06:00 GMT, Updated 14 Feb 2022, 09:51 GMT

“It’s been so long since we had any rain,” complains Jurgen Stein, standing in what I’m quite certain is precipitation. I turn my palm skywards and let droplets hit my hand. “Oh, this?” the owner of Selva Bananito Ecolodge — on the Caribbean coast in southern Costa Rica — asks, with what sounds like faint derision. “This isn’t real rain. When it rains here, you can’t hear each other talk.”

Jurgen should know. Born in Colombia to German parents, he’s lived in Costa Rica for decades. Although he doesn’t use the phrase himself, it’s also clear he’s something of an eco warrior, entrenched on the front line of a battle for the future of the region.

The country is often marketed as a green utopia, perhaps the one nation in Latin America — if not the entire world — that’s taking serious action on the climate crisis. As Jurgen leads me around his property in the foothills of the Talamanca Mountains, he explains that things aren’t as simple as that. “We often travel to events like COP26 and say that we’re 50% forested,” he says. “But not all of that is protected as national parks or conservancies. Half of it is in private hands, so the picture isn’t so clear.”

For its part, Selva Bananito’s approach is regenerative tourism, and rustic in the extreme. There’s no meaningful power in the cabins and certainly no air-conditioning. For the duration of my three-day stay, the fragile internet connection doesn’t work. Untethered from the rest of the world and growing attuned to the sounds and smells of the jungle, I start to dread the moment reception kicks back in.

The lodge offers plenty of activities, from horse rides around the property to lengthy jungle treks and simply listening to the rhythms of the forest. In the evenings, Jurgen offers lectures on environmentalism. “Recycling is good, but it’s like when I hear about the environmental ministry confiscating illegally cut wood,” he says one evening. “Wouldn’t it be better if the trees were never removed from the forest in the first place?”

A misty morning at the Selva Bananito Ecolodge.

Photograph by Jamie Lafferty

The lodge’s water is filtered with activated carbon and, by banning any industry on its local rivers, the lodge is, in turn, helping to keep the water supply to the city of Limón clean. Plastic bottles have been banned for decades — welcome drinks are served in coconuts, the fresh machete strikes still visible near the top. With these measures and more, Jurgen believes his lodge’s carbon output is less per year than that of the average US citizen. 

There’s an important caveat to this remarkable statistic: Jurgen also personally flies guests over the region in a petrol-fuelled gyrocopter. While this offering is technically distinct from Selva Bananito and registered as a separate company, it would certainly skew the figures if counted as one of the lodge’s vehicles. Nonetheless, the garrulous owner insists it’s for the greater good. 

“I took the former environment minister up and we spotted some illegal logging,” Jurgen tells me in the lodge’s rudimentary bar. “When we got back down, arrests were being made within hours.”

The following morning, I join him for a flight: half an hour in the sky that is, by turns, thrilling and educational. Not that I could miss them, but Jurgen points out vast banana plantations: regimented squares of monoculture farming sitting next to the eclectic wilderness. 

Jurgen’s land, and that stretching south to La Amistad, is chaotic by comparison, but it could easily have been very different. “My father had a logging concession covering 1,730 acres,” he says. “In 1985, my sisters and I asked him to think about what he was doing, to stop logging. To protect this land.”

Ever since, Jurgen has worked at the lodge. He claims that during that time, its dedication to ecotourism has come at a cost. He’s had threats from those who want to exploit his land. Yet, in his own way, Jurgen takes this as a sort of endorsement. “The people doing the logging and poaching don’t like what we’re doing here, so I think we’re on the right track.”

Adventure Life offers its seven-night Turtles & Rainforest itinerary, with three nights at Selva Bananito Lodge, from $1,996 (£1,474) per person, excluding flights.

Published in the March 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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