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Costa Rican trail opens a path to cash for nature and people
Indigenous guide Osvaldo Martinez prepares to cross a stream in the Nairi-Awari territory, Costa Rica, November 6, 2022. The territory straddles on the 174-mile Camino de Costa Rica footpath, that starts in Barra de Pacuare and finishes in Quepos, on the Pacific. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Tim Gaynor
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The Camino de Costa Rica coast-to-coast route provides rural people with an income - and a stake in protecting nature
TSIOBATA, Costa Rica - A clatter of bird call erupts and a few berries fall from the forest canopy high overhead, dislodged by toucans.
Indigenous guide Osvaldo Martinez stoops to pick them up and presses them in his hand to release a pungent scent like cinnamon.
“We use these to flavor a rice pudding that we make,” he explains.
A member of the Nairi-Awari indigenous community, Martinez is a guide leading intrepid hikers across one of the most remote and inaccessible tracts of rainforest in Costa Rica, in the Cordillera de Talamanca mountain range, miles from the nearest road.
Striding in rubber boots between tangled tree roots on a steep muddy trail, he points out a tree whose ground bark is used to treat stomach upsets, and identifies the shrieks of parrots that frequent the primary forests.
“Most of the clients who come are grateful to us,” he says of his work guiding on a section of the Camino de Costa Rica, a 174-mile (280 km) foot trail linking the Central American country’s Caribbean and Pacific coasts.
“We treat them well, we show them the beauty of nature, we tell them a bit about our culture, medicinal plants, and the animals,” he added.
Nature-rich Costa Rica, which has nearly 6% of the world’s animal and plant species, is the most visited country in Central America, although most tourist development has remained around towns and parks on the coasts.
The Camino, founded by a rural development nonprofit, instead takes adventurous hikers over backcountry trails through rainforests, cloud forests, farmland and indigenous territory, seeking to bring economic benefits to the remote communities that live there.
“It was a no-brainer, as the tourist money goes to very specific coastal areas and most of those places are owned by foreigners,” said Conchita Espino, executive director of Mar a Mar, the association that designed and built the trail.
“We planned out a Camino through villages that really needed a new source of income,” she added.
With nature losses accelerating globally, almost 200 countries agreed an ambitious goal at a landmark biodiversity protection conference in December: to try to preserve 30% of the planet's land and oceans by 2030.
One key to turning that pledge into a reality is ensuring communities that live in and near natural areas find ways to benefit from them, giving new incentives for their protection, conservation experts say.
That is a priority in Costa Rica, which already has about a quarter of its land in protected parks and reserves and which led a successful national reforestation push that has left more than half its land forested.
Costa Rica's Camino was inspired by its namesake Camino de Santiago pilgrimmage route in northern Spain – which Espino hiked in 2011 – and the Ravenber Way, a long distance coast-to-coast path across northern England.
While Costa Rica's trail has been open since 2018, Mar a Mar is using funding from foundations and private individuals to further develop infrastructure along the path, designed to take about 16 days to complete.
The association works with residents of indigenous territory, private reserves, farms and out-of-the-way villages to help them develop small, sustainable businesses that offer guiding, meals and lodging in small hotels and homestays.
The added income is paying off for local people in a country where around 20% of the population lives in poverty, with the poor concentrated in rural areas.
Martinez now earns about C80,000 ($138) to guide each group of hikers across his indigenous community's land, earning about $250 a month in total.
With the added income he is saving to buy a laptop and he plans to finish high school, with hopes to study economics at university.
“Before the Camino, we grew crops for our own consumption,” he said. The added work has not only boosted incomes but also helped "people get to study and to learn. It's helping a lot of young people."
Across steep forest-covered mountains in the small town of Turrialba, 22-year-old Alejandro Montoya also makes a living from the trail, earning about $1,700 a month, plus tips, in a region where many people survive at much lower wages picking coffee or cleaning houses.
He worked with his tour-operator stepfather Fabian to search out places for hikers to eat and sleep as the trail developed, and now, working with the family tour firm ViaLig Journeys, helps visitors sort out logistics and guides them along a trail that tops out at over 7,100 feet in dense cloud forest.
“This isn’t sun and sand tourism. It's a very different concept, and it's why I fell in love with the Camino de Costa Rica," he said.
"I like the fact that you (take people) through communities that have been little touched by tourism and contribute to them, either economically or by bringing a little happiness – because not everything is money,” he said.
Local families "start to feel involved, and start to feel that the Camino is theirs too."
An avid birder, Montoya is skilled at spotting toucans, flycatchers, honeycreepers, cuckoos, owls, hawks and elusive resplendent quetzals that haunt the high cloud forests.
He saved to buy binoculars to better show off the birds and is studying for a tourism diploma.
“I feel that I’m doing what I really enjoy,” he said. “I can walk, spot birds, share, meet new people. It's what I like to do and it makes me very, very happy.”
At present, most of the hikers on the Camino are Costa Rican, around 400 of whom set out each month to trek short sections, many from the capital San Jose.
But after two years of disruption from the COVID-19 pandemic, the footpath is also now attracting 40-50 foreigners a month – a number that Mar a Mar hopes to increase tenfold over the next three years.
The association estimates that foreign hikers spend $65 to $150 per day, depending on the degree of logistical support that they need, such as guiding and luggage transport.
To improve the experience for hikers, Mar a Mar is working closely with municipalities and local communities to improve the trail, adding signage and providing training and seed money to residents along it to develop sustainable microbusinesses.
It also hopes to work with the Nairi-Awari to add three suspension bridges and make the trek across the rugged territory more manageable.
But "we want to keep it very authentic and very local. We do not want hotels being built along the Camino. We want it to be local families improving their cabins so that they’re receiving 10 hikers a day instead of three," she said.
As the footpath turns five this year, the changes are already underway.
In the small, highland coffee-growing community of Napoles, some 140 miles into the trek, several women from the local community are improving their offering for hikers.
They welcomed their first visitors from the United States and Denmark early in 2021, and since then have been hosting and cooking meals for a growing number of trekkers.
Footsore visitors used to sleep overnight in the local church hall but now stay in a snug cabin with long views down the cloud-wreathed mountainside toward the Pacific Ocean.
“We’re looking at identifying other ways we can attend to tourists. We could learn English, sell them products, offer them local tours. We’ll see what we can come up with,” said Marianela Fallas Cordero, who, with her two sisters, is buzzing with ideas.
“It’s a dream we want to achieve," she said.
(Reporting by Tim Gaynor; editing by Laurie Goering)
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