My favorite night of the year in Costa Rica is upon us. It will look very different in 2020, to be sure. No festive parades of children holding lanterns, although I’m sure many families will recreate the tradition alone or gather in spaced-out groups. No crowds following the path of the symbolic torch as alternating athletes carry it south from Guatemala. No impromptu choirs standing shoulder-to-shoulder to sing our anthems at 6 pm.
My faroles on this Independence Day weekend were the fireflies at Tapir Valley in the hills of Bijagua. My antorcha was the powerful flashlight that owner and guide Donald Varela Soto used to showcase the animals he spots in the dark as if by magic, drawing on his knowledge of every inch of the vast terrain. Instead of feeling a rush of excitement as a runner streaks by en route to Cartago, leaving a blaze of firelight behind, my thrill this year came when I got to see a tapir in the wild for the very first time.
I walked the paths that night alongside a group of visitors, masked and distanced, cautious and excited. We were led by Donald and his family, who have preserved and reforested Tapir Valley through their hard work and grit. They made sure we were in the right place under the fruit trees deep in the reserve when a female danta came snuffling along for a snack. It was breathtaking, quite literally.
Famously calm, the tapir ate her meal just down the path, as naturally as if she were a cow and we her farmhands. But we weren’t. We were awed humans in the presence of an animal who maintains the biodiversity of the forest by spreading fruit seeds. An animal that has been hunted and endangered by development, but who, thanks to the respect and protection of people such as the Familia Varela Kelly, have slowly, carefully begun to venture further down the mountains.
Later in the evening, Donald told us how decades of environmental education and the slow growth of ecotourism in this northern Costa Rican community have had a visible, positive impact on the wildlife in the area. Seeing a tapir, he explained, used to be a rare experience. Today, hardly a day passes when a farmer or guide doesn’t spot one. This doesn’t mean the challenges are over: this majestic animal draws more tourism, requiring local leaders to maintain the right balance between growth and conservation. But the prevalance of the tapir in Bijagua today is a marker of what a community can achieve.
Donald didn’t mention the pandemic that closed down Costa Rica’s tourism industry in March. However, it was a presence in the conversation, lurking just outside the circle of light cast by our headlamps. While the country is now reopening, the crisis cut off the income of hard-working ecotourism leaders on whom we depend to preserve places like Tapir Valley. Next month, I’ll post a story here about an effort to support the efforts of Northern Zone environmental champions.
Costa Rica is beloved around the world for both its people and its wildlife. I can’t think of a better way to celebrate the start of our bicentennial year than by honoring the connection between the two. Amidst the fireflies and the frog songs of the Costa Rican night, they stand watch. Against the odds, they live their lives among the interdependence that, perhaps, we will not now forget so quickly.
Featured image by Mónica Quesada Cordero. Read more about Tapir Valley Nature Reserve here. And stay tuned for the big announcement tomorrow of a new project – inspired, in part, by the hard work and leadership of rural tourism entrepreneurs!