74. Chilamate, Costa Rica - Chilamate Rainforest Eco-Retreat

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July 25, 2007

Vancouver, Canada native Meghan Casey has long desired to have a self-sustainable lifestyle.

With her dream project - building an eco retreat in the middle of the Costa Rican rainforest - coming close to completion, she is on the cusp of achieving this goal.

Meghan and her Costa Rican husband, Davis Azofeifa, have set Summer 2008 as the opening date for the "Chilamate Rainforest Eco-Retreat".

Chilamate is a blink-and-you-will-miss-it village in the Sarapiqui region of Costa Rica. It is about a one hour and 45 minute drive from San Jose, Costa Rica´s capital and the location of the nearest international airport.

With the rolling hills of southern Nicaragua lying just 30 kilometers to the north, Sarapiqui has, until recently, been one of Costa Rica’s overlooked outposts, better known for cattle ranching and pineapple production than for tourism.

Visitors to the area have tended to be serious-minded birders, scientists and educators who have come to visit the world-renowned Estacion Biologica La Selva (La Selva Biological Station), a tropical ecology research centre and rainforest reserve about 20 minutes from Chilamate.

But Meghan and Davis are hoping to be part of the broader based ecotourism industry that has more recently been attracting visitors looking for adventure and relaxation.

For the adventure seekers there is white water rafting on the fast-rushing but warm-watered Saripiqui River which runs along the border of the retreat’s property. We did a two hour rafting tour. Another day we went for a horseback tour of their expansive property.

Those more interested in relaxation will be regaled by the wildlife in the 20 hectares of this pristine rainforest: howler monkeys, multiple species of toucans, and sloths, to mention a few.

During our stay, we witnessed a pair of elusive green macaws fly over the property on three different mornings.

While completing a degree in Latin American Studies and Communications at Simon Fraser University, Meghan, 29, spent a semester on exchange at La Universid Catolica in Quito, Ecuador. Shortly after, in 2004, this self-confessed coffee addict first went to Costa Rica to do a fair-trade coffee internship.

These experiences gave the politically-minded Meghan insight into the living conditions in Latin America and an understanding of the inequality of the relationship between North America and Latin America. They also allowed her to master the Spanish language and meet Davis.

Shortly after marrying, the couple moved to Chilamate, his home town. With the injection of some Canadian capital, they closed the deal on their parcel of rainforest in December 2006.

As initially conceived, the retreat will have four compact cabins, each with room for two or three people. The accommodations are comfortable but not extravagant, and will likely not appeal to the tour-bus crowd.

The jewel of the retreat is a large open-walled restaurant that has a bar/lounge area. While we were there, Davis and his crew were busy hauling rocks from the riverbed which they used to build the walls and the bar. The craftsmanship displayed in the exposed rock structures could rival that found in Whistler´s most exclusive residences.

(Robbing the riverbed of its rocks seemed a tad “un-eco”, but Davis assured me that there were enough rocks remaining in the river, and that we would not cause erosion problems).

In Meghan`s way of thinking, eco-tourism means “more than setting up a hotel near the forest". While she wants her guests to be comfortable and to enjoy themselves, she also wants them to see what life is really like for people in Latin American countries, the people who produce many of products we like to consume in North America.

In addition to elevating her guests’ political consciousness, Meghan’s brand of eco-tourism means incorporating sustainable practices into the retreat as much as possible. To this end, the couple have installed a composting toilet in their house and are aiming to rely on solar power for their lighting and other energy needs.

The restaurant menu will feature fruits and vegetables grown on their property: coconuts, bananas, avocados, pineapples, limes, lemons, oranges, star fruit and cashews - and the more exotic pipas, cas, yuca and nonis.

It hasn’t always been easy for Meghan being far from her friends and family in Vancouver, and there is still a lot of work to do before the eco-retreat is fully operational, but on most afternoons she finds time to sit on her deck, slowly nurse a cup of fresh-brewed Costa Rican coffee and admire the lush beauty of her rainforest surroundings.

As she summed it up to us, “I find it easier to be myself here. I don’t feel the constraints that are present in Canada. I am happy.”