What would the world be like if we all pulled together?

What would the future look like if all of our cities and towns used the global pandemic as a chance to pull together? How would the world change if we truly understood that we’ll all succeed, or we’ll all fail?

The community of Bijagua, Costa Rica, is showing us part of the answer. Its families have spent decades building an ecotourism industry that protects rainforest and wildlife in a critical biological corridor. Their latest effort, a new fundraising campaign, seeks to help those families keep food on their tables during the worst crisis Costa Rica’s tourism industry has ever faced. And it’s pursuing that goal with a relentless fairness, making sure each community member has a chance to chip in with whatever skills or resources they’ve got.

“The thing is, this crisis is like a river,” rural tourism entrepreneur Donald Varela told me a few months back. “Everyone in this town is standing on one side of it. And if we’re going to get to the other side, we’re going to have to cross that river together.”

As an old friend of Donald’s and his family’s, and in my role as an impromptu emergency fundraiser during the pandemic, I’d been proposing that Donald get some support for his extraordinary rainforest conservation project, Tapir Valley. His response, in effect, was: “Not without my whole community.” As president of the Río Celeste Chamber of Tourism (CATURI), he wanted to make sure that any emergency fundraising in Bijagua was shared equally, across the board.

This was, of course, the right approach. But given the intense strain every single rural entrepreneur has been under in Costa Rica since the total suspension of its tourism industry in March, I find that kind of solidarity rather breathtaking. “Solidario” is an essential adjective in Costa Rica, and one without an exact English translation; maybe there’s a reason for that. At any rate, it’s the adjective that describes every aspect of the campaign that the community launched this past week through the U.S. nonprofit Amigos of Costa Rica: Río Celeste Forest Stewards.

CATURI’s board and affiliates worked carefully for months to come up with a campaign that would benefit as many community members as possible. You might be familiar with the concept of payments for environmental services, where, for example, landowners who protect forest are paid by the acre. CATURI sought to do something similar in terms of rewarding local families for forest conservation, but without excluding anyone – without leaving anyone behind on the side of that river.

Large landowners receive the same amount as a family protecting a few acres of forest. That family receives the same support as a naturalist guide who’s helping monitor species (and essential activity to help sound early alarms on poaching or logging). If you don’t own any forest, and can’t do species monitoring, you can receive support for working to create a tribute to conservation at the heart of town. They’ve made sure there’s something for everyone.

To provide all this urgently needed support, they’re asking for U.S. tax-deductible donations on the Amigos of Costa Rica site. This support will keep a town afloat. It will send them a message that their hard work and sacrifices – their choice to protect their forests rather than turning a profit through logging, hunting or development – have been worth it. And it will help them continue to protect their ecosystems until the rest of us can visit them in person to enjoy them once more.

Throughout this terrible year, we’ve witnessed terrible acts of selfishness, recklessness, hatred, and divison. If we’re lucky, we have witnessed extraordinary acts of selflessness and teamwork. To me, the Río Celeste community’s approach to emergency fundraising is right at the top of that list. Despite each family’s individual suffering, they’ve kept their eye on the big picture. They’ve remembered that they must all cross this river together. That’s not just smart, and right, and realistic. It’s also the foundation for a whole new world, don’t you think?

I hope you’ll check out what they’re up to, here. Not just because they need and deserve our help – but also because the rest of us need and deserve this kind of inspiration.

What would the future look like if we all pulled together like Bijagua?

Let’s find out.

I run the virtual volunteer community Costa Rica Corps and am the co-founder of the new, bilingual media organization El Colectivo 506. I also work as a freelance grantwriter, fundraiser, and communications coach, and write essays, articles and books. I live in San José with my husband and daughter. Sign up at top right to receive an essay in your inbox each Sunday morning: a chance to dominguear together (a lovely word that literally means, “to Sunday,” and describes a leisurely trip or ramble). We’ll explore a project, changemaker, community, or idea I’ve come across, or just watch the world go by. See you next Sunday!

Independence and interdependence

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!


Virtual Costa Rica: Invest in a future trip, or #dontcancelpostpone

Two main messages have emerged from Costa Rica’s hard-hit tourism industry, particularly its rural tourism industry, for international travelers who care about the country.

The first is: Please postpone, rather than cancel, any trips you had planned to Costa Rica. The hotels where you had reservations will likely be thrilled to work with you to make your reservation super flexible. The second is, if you were planning a trip anytime in the next two years and have any possibility of investing in that trip now, you could help save a rural tourism business.

I’ve heard from rural tourism businesses that are benefitting from both, and when I say “benefitting,” I mean crying tears of joy, seeing a small light at the end of the tunnel, being able to give some hope to employees who have no other way of feeding their families. It’s intense here, as it is everywhere.

Here’s an amazing video explaining the first idea:

And here’s what my dear friend Pip Kelly and her family at Casitas Tenorio B&B in the small town of Bijagua, in northern Costa Rica, pictured above, had to say about the second:

The COVID-19 crisis is affecting communities around the world, and the impact on Costa Rica’s tourism industry has left rural communities like ours, Bijagua, absolutely devastated. Since the beginning of the crisis in Costa Rica, we have spent our days working with guests to change or cancel their plans, following updates from the government, making sacrifices to keep our staff in their jobs as long as possible, and sharing food from our farm with members of our community. We’re lucky to be together in our little slice of paradise, although it has also been devastating to watch our projects and community face the worst economic threat in their history.

One of our greatest sources of comfort during this time has been the way that so many of our friends and family have reached out to offer words of hope, or to ask how they can help. Our guests and supporters are wonderful people, and we are lucky to know you. Some of you have gone to great lengths to postpone instead of cancelling your planned Casitas visit, and others who did not have reservations with us have asked what they could do.

You inspired us to create a gift card system so that, if you’d like, you can treat yourself or someone you love to the knowledge that a vacation in Costa Rica and a stay at Costa Rica is waiting ahead. You can buy a gift card for $100 or a custom amount, and you or your recipient will have 24 months to redeem it.

You’ll be providing our business, whose income has dropped to zero in a matter of days, with crucial support when it matters most. Your purchase will allow us to have access to some cash flow to continue to operate and to support local families in the community by providing employment.

Consider a Casitas Tenorio B&B Gift Card as a way to treat yourself or someone you love with the knowledge that a Costa Rican vacation is waiting ahead – and support our family-run business and our community!

Your support during a difficult time for everyone around the world has been a constant source of hope for us. Our family sends yours our very best wishes for health and peace of mind at this very difficult time. PURA VIDA from Costa Rica.

Have you been able to postpone, rather than cancel, a Costa Rican trip? Or have you bought a gift card or a future reservation for yourself or someone else? I’d love to hear your stories, and I wish health and calm for you and your families.

I’m a writer in San José, Costa Rica, on a year-long quest to share daily posts on inspiring people, places and ideas from my adopted home as a kind of tonic during a rough time in the world. Sign up (top right of this page) to receive a little dose of inspiration every weekday in your mailbox; tell a friend; check out past posts; and please connect with me on Instagram or FacebookIf you want to learn more about how to support Costa Rica during the crisis, visit my COVID-19 section, updated regularly – or for ways to enjoy Costa Rica from afar, visit Virtual Costa Rica.