PRESERVATION EFFORT NETS ONE OF 10 BEST ECO-LODGES IN THE WORLD

Rudi Stein's children knew they had to come up with an alternative. The pristine rainforest that had been in their family for decades was in jeopardy.

Their father, a German expatriate who began homesteading 2,000 acres in a remote area of Costa Rica in the 1970s, renewed his logging permit every year. That meant he could cut down trees on 2/3 of the property that today is conserved as the Selva Bananito Preserve.

"My sisters and I saw the urgency to convince our father not to make use of the logging permit," says Jurgen Stein, who owns Selva Bananito Lodge with his sisters, Karin and Sofia. "We came up with the idea of building an eco-lodge as an instrument to help reduce the economic pressure on our father."

It was important to Jurgen and his sisters to preserve the beauty of the land, to harvest it without destroying it, to be true to the love and respect of nature that their parents instilled in them.

The property, which is located near Porto Limon and borders La Amistad International Park on Costa Rica's eastern coast, gained increasing environmental importance after a devastating earthquake in April of 1991. The Bananito River, which runs through the Steins' property, became the most important water supplier to the area because it was the first watershed to become clear after landslides from the earthquake severely impacted area rivers.

"Roughly at the same time we started our operation, the Costa Rican government decided to use the Bananito River as the source of 85 percent of the potable water supplied to the harbor city of Limon and countless adjacent communities," Stein says. "Our reserve was the most important direct water catchment area for the Bananito River, so it rendered our tourism effort of great importance."

 

UNFORESEEN CHALLENGES

The Steins' first efforts at ecotourism met unanticipated challenges. They initially targeted German-speaking markets in Europe as their potential guests. Unfortunately, a German tourist was kidnapped from a lodge near the Nicaraguan border on January 1, 1996, and that temporarily dashed hopes for attracting Germans to the country. "It was not until two years later that we were able to recuperate from this unforeseen situation by targeting the North American market," Stein says.

Building an eco-lodge and getting the word out about their commitment to rainforest conservation through tourism has taken hard work, sacrifice and perseverance. "In order to become known, one needs to market and spend resources, something that we were really not able to do during our first years of existence," Stein says.

But their passion and optimism and patience have paid off. Outside magazine recently declared the Selva Bananito Lodge one of the "top 10 eco-lodges in the world." Their conservation efforts clearly impressed the magazine editors. The 11 cabins on their property are made of abandoned mahogany logs that they dragged out of the forest with the help of water buffaloes. They use candle light in the cabins but plan to provide some of the units with electricity from solar energy in the future. In addition, they heat their water with solar energy and use photovoltaic panels to supply electricity for batteries that provide light in the kitchen and power for their communication systems.

Selva Bananito was also considered a top eco-lodge because it specializes in nature and adventure-oriented activities. Guests can hike into a rainforest inhabited by more than 300 bird species; tour or rappel waterfalls; climb into the crown of a gigantic ceiba tree; and take canopy walks where they can see epiphytes at eye-level.

"We are located in a natural cathedral which offers an indescribable tranquility and peace," Stein says. "There's no better place to experience this sensation than being immersed in the jungle - or from the comfort of your own hammock on your veranda. Actually, the latter is our best activity: hammocking."

Guests typically come from the United States, Canada and Western Europe. The Steins host guests of all ages, from the just-married to the retired traveler and even high-school and university students.

"We often hear that the experience of our guests became the highlight of their trip to Costa Rica," he says. "We feel rewarded when guests confirm the importance of our concept, and we are particularly rewarded when we achieve through our educational programs a heightened awareness of the environment in students who visit us."

 

THREAT OF OVER-DEVELOPMENT

Stein is keenly aware that Costa Rica is a worldwide leader in ecotourism. He is concerned, however, that official authorities may be more interested in larger scale investments over true eco-projects. "I personally believe that the noticeable over-development of three major traditional eco-destinations, like Manuel Antonio, Tortuguero and Monteverde, not only point to the expansion of eco-tourism, but also to the lack of apparent and coherent coordination of this activity," he says. "It may be a great threat to our reputation as an eco-destination."

He and his sisters will continue their mission of rain forest conservation through tourism in spite of possible over-development in other areas. Their goal is eventually to have 15 cabins. But, just as importantly, they want to induce area poachers to become park rangers. "In that way, they would become the hunters of the hunters, ensuring that there will be no more poaching or illegal logging in areas adjacent to Selva Bananito Preserve and the bordering La Amistad International Park," Stein says.

The Steins will also continue their practice of donating 10 percent of their income to a watershed conservation foundation that is dedicated to rainforest preservation and community education and development.

While Stein believes that Selva Bananito Lodge is still a well kept secret, Outside magazine's designation is bringing more attention to the eco-lodge. "At first I didn't fully grasp the magnitude or the weight of this distinction," he says. "Eventually I was overwhelmed with the great responsibility implicit in this statement."

"It is very rewarding to have been chosen one of the 10 best but also very motivating to keep up the good work to ensure that we are on the correct path by contributing our little grain of sand to a better world."

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