The eco-tourist is both a celebrated and condemned character. While rain forest communities benefit from economic incentives to conserve, it is increasingly hard to dodge eco-resorts that accumulate waste and disrupt wildlife. Can conscious consumers truly have a close yet innocent look at nature's finest gems? At Costa Rica's exquisite Selva Bananito ecolodge
, the answer is a resounding "yes."
Costa Rica's eco-tourism industry is highly sophisticated yet innately fragile. Selva Bananito recognizes much is at stake in a country containing five percent of the world's biodiversity within the size of West Virginia. In result, the lodge's dedication to eco-tourism with integrity makes for a rejuvenating retreat and a rare learning opportunity.
An ecological sanctuary
The tour bus makes a pit stop in the remote agrarian village of Bananito, located in Costa Rica's serene Caribbean region. From there, visitors switch to a 4X4 for the remaining 40-minute ride deep into the rain forest. The 4X4 trudges through rivers and towering thickets before a clearing reveals an unspeakably beautiful mountain range. Nestled atop a hillside are scattered cabins, with no solid walls between them and the misty expanse of rain forest ahead. The ensuing itinerary is a thrilling one: scenic horseback riding, historical rain forest hikes, majestic ziplining, waterfall repelling, tree climbing and, of course, lounging in cabin hammocks with a coconut-shell cocktail in hand.
This breathtaking back yard is part of the 2,000 acres purchased by the German Stein family in 1974 for conservation purposes. As the story goes, United Fruit first cleared some of this land for banana plantations during its blundering expansion some decades ago, destroying the homes of indigenous Costa Ricans. These Indians warned United Fruit that Mother Nature would soon punish them. Sure enough, a great flood arrived to wash away the company's crop and make it abandon the land.
Along came the Stein family
, who purchased the surrounding forest to shield it from further invasion. They left primary forest untouched while converting cleared land and secondary forest into pastures for livestock, as well as palm oil fields for developing biodiesel. Their Selva Bananito eco-lodge now guards a passageway into Costa Rica's La Amistad national park, where the narrow country's funnel effect squeezes vast biodiversity into a concentrated area.
Solidarity among conservationists
The keeper of this lodge is son Yurgen Stien, the exuberant German conservationist who built Selva Bananito 15 years ago as his monument to the rain forest. An environmentalist by vocation and adventurer by heart, he will engage guests in sincere discussions on watershed management just as soon as he will show his footage of diving with sharks.
Perhaps just as fascinating as the biodiversity witnessed at Selva Bananito is the diversity of people Yurgen draws into this ecological sanctuary. Nature lovers and activists alike gather here from around the world to find adventure, solace and common ground. At any given time, one hears Spanish, English, German, French or Swiss dialects flow fluidly across the dinner table. No electricity is used at the lodge, and intimate group dinners are held in the glow of candlelight amid a symphony of nighttime wildlife. In this enchanting atmosphere, a tight-knit community soon forms among these unique guests.
Conservation in action
Selva Bananito's responsible consumption efforts are highly comprehensive. The cabins were built in areas of forest already altered by prior farming, and much of the wood for construction was recycled or discarded form other projects. Cabin lights and showers use solar energy exclusively, and the only electricity used goes to wi-fi service in the lodge's office. The lodge composts its biodegradable waste, purifies its waste water and adheres to rigid recycling.
A large part of Selva Bananito's food shopping is done locally, and some of its produce is grown on the lodge's grounds. For three meals a day, guests enjoy hearty communal meals comprised of a variety of local foods of the tropics. Each meal is as creative as it is healthy.
The Stein family also founded the Fundación Cuencas de Limon, a nonprofit foundation funded largely by Selva Bananito guests. This initiative protects the local watershed and educates community members and schools on the fragility of this resource.
From eco-tourist to activist
In an age proliferated with eco-attractions, the conscious consumer is wise to select outlets like Selva Bananito that not only maintain the rain forest as it is, but improve the communities dependent on it. Selva Bananito turns all guests into fellow conservationists by educating them and by donating much of the lodge's proceeds to the Stein family's foundation for watershed protection.
Yet despite the allure of exotic adventures at Selva Bananito, the owners also know their fight to conserve is both costly and dangerous amid so many greedy opponents of this ideal. By pressing on despite these pressures, however, the lodge can remind eco-tourists of all that they have worth fighting for. This, above all, marks the value of responsible eco-tourism; guests from around the globe arrive as tourists and leave as activists, carrying a message to extend across borders and across lifetimes. When it comes to such evangelism via eco-tourism, Selva Bananito
gracefully sets the bar.
Photos: Michelle Hardy