By carefully controlling tourism and involving supportive neighboring communities, park officials in Costa Rica are protecting beautiful and much-visited Chirripó National Park, which features the country’s highest mountain, at 12,533 feet; the largest paramo ecosystem in Central America; and glacial lakes that date back 25,000 years.
In order to minimize visitor impact — some 6000 to 6500 people climb Chirripó each year – park managers in Costa Rica recently began allowing no more than 5,100 people to visit the highest peak, an 8.6-mile trek. The new restriction is based on carrying-capacity studies. At the same time, to make up for any lost income and improve the not always cordial relationships between neighboring towns and popular protected areas, investments are being made in tourist services and attractions both in the park and in nearby communities.
According to park director and biologist Adrián Arias, since tourism results in the second most damaging impacts to the park after forest fires, other restrictions include limiting to 40 the number of people who can spend the night on Chirripó’s mountain top; prohibiting the use of horses to carry tourists’ belongings, since hooves cause erosion and damage vegetation; and closing the park at least once a year for maintenance work and so that wildlife can roam freely. Chirripó’s spectacular fauna includes endangered species such as the collared peccary (Tayassu pecari), jaguar (Felis onca), tapir (Tapirus bairdii), and the resplendent quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno).
Arias says that in spite of the new limits on visitation, he still expects the 1,500 residents of three nearby towns to benefit, due to plans to develop additional tourist services and attractions. While villagers traditionally made their living from crop and dairy farming, more have gotten involved in tourism in recent years, thanks to Chirripó’s growing popularity.
The United Nations Development Programme’s Small Grants Program in Costa Rica recently gave $20,000 to the Friends of Chirripó Ecological Association (ASEACHI) to support renovations to a lodge located in Llano Bonito, which is half-way to the mountain peak. The funds will also pay for improvements to the main trail and building of a new, interpretive trail called “The Sounds of Nature” in Llano Bonito. In addition, training and official licenses will be offered to members of a community association of park guides and porters, who lead hikers and carry their belongings to the top of Chirripó. Founded in 1998, ASEACHI is a nonprofit group dedicated to providing information and logistical support to Chirripó visitors. Members also encourage their neighbors to get involved in projects that will benefit them as well as the park’s impressive biodiversity.
According to Arias, the lodge at Llano Bonito is now just a place to rest, with minimal services available. “The idea is to have interpretive information that will attract visitors with special interests, such as ornithologists, because a large number of bird species are found in the area,” he explains. “We will also promote day-visits, so that tourists will use lodging in the local communities.” Arias hopes that those hardy hikers who climb to the top will be “tourists who are interested in helping out, not those that do not care about supporting conservation.”
Working with ASEACHI, local residents plan to promote such attractions as sparkling rivers and waterfalls, therapeutic hot springs, museums displaying archeological relics, and activities like horseback rides and cultural traditions such as sugar cane milling. The local cabins and inns are likely to be in higher demand, thanks to the promotional efforts.
Rafael Elizondo, president of the San Gerardo de Rivas community development association, applauds the Llano Bonito initiative because, “it will allow visitors to remain in the park setting, enjoying the quetzals and all the wildlife there.”
Elizondo emphasizes the importance of diversification in response to the new carrying-capacity restrictions. “Tourism is the main livelihood and the future of this area, which has long been abandoned by the government and hit hard by the falling prices of agricultural products.”
National tourists are the most coveted, as they come to the park for family or business outings and have high purchasing power. Elizondo, whose children own a lodge in nearby San Gerardo de Rivas, believes that “the national tourist is becoming aware that Costa Rica is a paradise.” Unlike most other parks in the country, Chirripó has no high or low tourism seasons – visitors arrive year-round, making the need to regulate their numbers plus offer a variety of attractions even more important.
Even though the improvements in Llano Bonito are not quite finished, residents are already benefiting economically from the new restrictions. Since horses are no longer permitted to carry the tourists’ belongings up the mountain, there’s an increase in the demand for porters. According to Arias, porters made more than 200 trips just in January 2005, earning an average of $23 per trip.
To fight the number-one threat to the park – forest fires — local residents are also trained as volunteer fire fighters. Arias notes that this is one way they can compensate the protected area for the income it provides them. Villagers also help remove trash from the park.
Studies show that Costa Ricans can indeed profit from having a national park in their backyards. The International Economic Policy Center of Costa Rica’s National University and the National Biodiversity Institute have done research on how the country’s parks and reserves contribute to economic and social development. According to their data, during 2002 Chirripó’s neighboring communities earned about $22,000 from the national park.
In San Gerardo de Rivas, for example, at least nine enterprises generate profits from tourism: food markets, variety stores, trout fishing, hot springs, porters, guides, catering service, equipment rental to those staying over night in the park, and a race to the summit of Chirripó, an annual competition.
Contacts in Costa Rica: Adrián Arias, director, Chirripó National Park, tel 506/770-9136, 397-1567. Rafael Elizondo, president, Asociación de Desarrollo de San Gerardo de Rivas, tel 506-390-4194.
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