Interview by Melissa Krenke, Rainforest Alliance
“Tourists go on a trip expecting to be provided structured events. Ecotourists travel to be a part of the experience. The objective of Lapa Rios is to make the guest experience one that includes both the local community and its natural environment.”
Lapa Rios Ecolodge is nestled within a 1,000 acre private nature preserve in Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula, home to one of Central America’s last primary coastal lowland rainforests. Lapa Rios features 16 bungalows lofted on a forested ridge, offering sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean. Certified by the Certification for Sustainable Tourism (CST) program in Costa Rica, Lapa Rios only employs and trains local community members, and built and maintains a primary school for local children. Lapa Rios uses sustainable construction practices and honors local architectural design by building with renewable materials; demonstrates water and energy conservation; and reduces, reuses or recycles waste, using its organic waste to make biogas and compost. Lapa Rios strives to give its guests the highest level of service and comfort possible in its remote location, and has been repeatedly recognized by international travel publications for its excellent service standards and from conservation organizations for being a model of sustainable tourism.
Karen Lewis, co-owner and founder of Lapa Rios, discusses how the lodge evolved from an idea to become one of Costa Rica’s first ecotourism lodges; the challenges of operating a business in a remote area; and how Lapa Rios functions as a school for both its staff and guests.
Question: How did Lapa Rios start?
Lewis: In the late 60s, John Lewis and I were Peace Corp Volunteer secondary school teachers in Kenya. We returned to East Africa in 1988 to visit our students and colleagues and found that many former students had left their villages seeking work in Nairobi. We returned to the States wanting to improve the benefits generated from education, and eliminate the need to leave rural communities. We believed there was a long-term empowerment tool that could sustain isolated, wilderness regions.
In early 1990, we spent two weeks on a birding trip in Costa Rica and decided to invest the next part of our lives in this country dedicated to the environment. Armed with our passion for bird watching along with that minimum work experience with a rural community, we wanted to figure out how to conserve land with locals in combination with tourism, the financing mechanism.
So in June 1990, we proposed this idea to the directors at CINDE, the Costa Rican-USAID development agency. They could not be involved with any tourism project that had less than 150 rooms — we believed that size would create too large of an environmental impact. They shook their heads throughout our three-hour meeting and we began to realize conserving biodiversity with local communities and tourism was unknown. But, because that type of tourism had never been done, it was the perfect reason to try. At that time, ecotourism had no definition — it was a business concept that was unfolding.
Q: How did you come to choose the Osa Peninsula as the project’s location?
Lewis: We headed southwest to the Osa Peninsula because we knew that its forests were still pristine and that large tracts of land, contiguous to other primary growth, could be protected. In December of 1991, we purchased almost 1,100 acres, mostly old growth forest, from the top of the Osa Peninsula down to the Golfo Dulce.
Q: What were some of the initial challenges in starting a project in such a remote area?
Lewis: We needed to find architects, engineers, and people with expertise who were interested in working in this very remote area for more than one year. Realizing our goals and CINDE’s did not match, we were on our own from the start and the local community had to hear our dream. Having experienced the Peace Corps and seeing the good and the bad that that kind of assistance can bring to communities and volunteers, we knew that unless the people who were to be involved wanted the same goal, success would be fleeting.
Those first years required a willingness to live in risk-believing that what we were doing was good, trusting that the human condition recognizes goodness and confident that eventually the word would spread. We were told in 1990 that no one would go to the Osa because it was too far away, too dangerous, and in those days almost impossible to access. During the first few years’ guests had to fly to Golfito and then take a taxi-boat to the only dock in the Osa, in Puerto Jiménez. But with growing success we approached the air services, TravelAir and Sansa, and they began daily flights to the Osa in December 1994.
Q: How did you begin to involve the local community?
Lewis: After we purchased the land, we traveled by horseback to search for neighbors to invite to a get-to-know-us picnic. We needed a casual, social activity to introduce the Lapa Rios dream and ourselves. Most all neighbors came, many whom had not seen each other for years — some had never left the Peninsula’s forested hills. These were the people who helped us begin Lapa Rios.
Q: What kinds of activities Lapa Rios do to support the community?
Lewis: From that picnic came another goal: having been a teacher, the community asked our help to build a school. In 1992, when we were designing and building Lapa Rios, we also created a Foundation to support the construction of the area’s first primary school. I went with local women-mothers-to meet the Supervisor de Educación in the Osa. He explained we must construct the school from a ‘kit,’ a prefabricated two-classroom building, a dining hall, a lavatory building with flush toilets, and a teacher’s house. To do this we needed to raise $45,000. We had promised the families we would help educate their children beginning in March 1992, but since we were still gathering building funds we hired a taxi-truck to take the children everyday to the primary school in Puerto Jiménez.
By 1993 the classrooms were finished with help from the US National Guard Corps of Engineers. We happened to be in Puerto Jiménez at the time they were scouting bridge projects, and we overheard them talk about building classrooms further north. So, we shared our community’s school goal and they were shocked, having been told that there were no children living south of Puerto Jiménez! The Carbonera School classrooms were constructed in nine days; the Guard finished their yearly required commitment and we had two classrooms.
Q: How did you train community members to become staff at Lapa Rios?
Lewis: Community education has multiple layers because it involves basic education, such as reading and writing, along with teaching concepts like ‘live into the future’ and ‘sustain what we have before it is too late.’ We’ve tried to assist our staff with concepts like sustainable development and ecotourism. Equally important, rural community development requires building self-esteem, conveying new ideals and offering tools, like think independently rather than believing what people tell you. Those who helped us construct Lapa Rios were the first invited to remain as staff, to face the challenges to speak English, the travelers’ language, to gather job skills and learn to share local knowledge of the rainforest with guests. Lapa Rios is a school for everyone.
Q: How do you apply that model to educating your guests?
Lewis: Education is the hook for ecotourism. Even during construction we realized the Lapa Rios guests would have to be people who were curious not only about animals and plants but also about our local community. Local people were going to be with the guests so we had to learn how to bridge those two worlds.
When guests first arrive, we outline the experience they should expect, and address fears of the surrounding environment while inviting their cooperation to learn about the environment from the locals. After this initial contact our staff and guests meld as a community, each sharing their lives with the other.
Q: How do you encourage interaction between staff and guests?
Lewis: We now have on staff a sustainable development director whose job is to create interaction between the guests, community, staff, and even our school children. Our forest and interpretation tours list has been augmented to include guests’ visits to the local school and a staff member’s farm, crafts workshops, making tortillas, and our in-house sustainable best practices tour — biogas production, recycling efforts, and more. Local artists visit the site weekly. Proceeds of these community-based offerings go directly to the guide or family.
We give departing guests a handout about how they can take sustainable environmental practices home. At every meal we highlight an endemic fruit or vegetable, explaining how it is used locally and how we prepare it.
Our staff understands how much fun interaction and sharing is — they realize that the guests visit this pristine area because they want to learn about the forest from them. Clearly a relationship is created between staff and guests when, for example, our gardener stops his work to identify a native plant, butterfly, or frog with a guest. An added benefit to having staff, community, and guests interact is the greater ease to request guests’ time and talent for community development projects. Guests create relationships with our staff and this results in return visits. And return guests bring their friends and family, along with personal gifts and school supplies to share, expanding these relationships.
Tourists go on a trip expecting to be provided structured events. Ecotourists travel to be a part of the experience. The objective of Lapa Rios is to make the guest experience one that includes both the local community and its natural environment.
Q: Have you seen a change in the environmental consciousness of your staff?
Lewis: In 2001, illegally cut logs started moving off the Peninsula on the only road coming from nearby Corcovado National Park. One of our guests remarked to a staff member that he had been coming to Lapa Rios for years but was having hard time believing the Costa Rican government when it proclaimed support for conservation yet did nothing to stop illegal logging on the Osa. Our staff wrote and signed a letter to the Costa Rican President, the Minister of the Environment and the media, stating that for the government to talk out of both sides of its mouth was a disservice to ecotourism. They wrote “We can’t explain to our guests why there is unchecked illegal logging on the Osa,” and “Our guests are saying that they won’t be coming back.” We never heard a logging truck go down that road again.
Q: What is the future of Lapa Rios?
Lewis: I trust Lapa Rios will continue to challenge and improve its standards to the environment, its guests, staff and community, and that it will always act as a model for others interested in sustainable development. In 1999 we hosted a conference: “The Ecolodge Owners’ Dilemma: Designing toward the next generation.” This conference gathered 35 people from around the globe interested in designing an ecolodge owner’s exit strategy, with a solution that had to include protection to what already was in place. We concluded that it is important to design protection plans along with a means to continue ecotourism. We attempted to answer the questions “How do you empower ecolodge owners to resist selling to developers or mass tourism buyers?” and “How do you insure that ecotourism-protected land remains undeveloped?”
Since that conference, we have worked together with CEDERENA [the Costa Rican Environmental and Natural Resources Law Center] and The Nature Conservancy to create a conservation easement whereby 930 acres of the original growth forest will be protected in perpetuity, stipulating that the next owners can use the Lapa Rios Reserve only for educational purposes. It is a unique business agreement and a good model for ecotourism. We are assured that the land will be conserved regardless who owns the business.