Costa Rica 2: Las Alturas

Birding Las Alturas
Wandering around Las Alturas and spotting one of the 169 NEW birds we identified in Costa Rica

Original title: Las Alturas del Bosque Verde

This past autumn, our neighbors Robert & Paula Laporte hosted a potluck and shared photos of their wattle & daub construction project last year in Las Alturas, a small ranch located in the southern-most section of Costa Rica.

“You would really love the birds there,” Robert gushed with his contagious enthusiasm. Paula later asked us, “How would you like to join us for a week down there the end of January? We’re returning to Las Alturas to teach a workshop on constructing principally with bamboo.” Costa Rica? Las Alturas? Building project? We discussed it briefly and that’s about how far it went. Winter would soon be upon us, our skis were tuned, season tickets were purchased, and their proposal gently slipped away.

Mid-December arrived, and our expectations of a cold, snowy winter panned out. Mt. Ashland was sadly barren of snow and suddenly the idea of a 3-week holiday in Central America became  compelling. The opportunity to bird in 4 areas featuring different bio-regions was the clincher and we signed on with a month left to plan for our adventure.

Click the map to view greater detail.

While the capitol city, San José, had its highlights (check out my previous post), we focused our visit on a few choice locations located in four different geographical regions of Costa Rica. The lure of a few established biological research stations around the country were our beacon, and Las Alturas served as our introduction to the spirit of Pura Vida (the “good life”). Bordering the highland region and located at 3,500′ in the Talamanca range (illustrated in light brown on the map), Las Alturas is an hour away from San Vito, the last major town on the Pan-American Highway before entering Panama. To get there, we traveled 6 hours on a beautiful mountain road that reached 11,000′ at one point. In fact, there are several spots in the mountain range dividing the country north to south where one can see both the Pacific Ocean to the west and Caribbean sea in the other direction.

Las Alturas is essentially a large ranch owned by an American businessman interested in conservation and sustainable farming. He bought the land from a logging company that forested about 1/3 of the property and dabbled unsuccessfully in coffee production. With new ownership, the remaining primary forest now grows protected from further cutting and the ranch is methodically being resurrected from the effects of one poor decision after another. There are fifty or so families living & working there, and nearly all of their housing, social and nutritional needs are provided by the farm and its thoughtful administration. The owner’s passions for preserving the ranch’s 25,000 acres and establishing an ethic for sustainable organic farming has created a legacy that should pave the way for future generations. From what we observed during our 7-day visit, the carefully selected staff is doing a remarkable job to fulfill that passion.

Fernando is the manager of the ranch and will remain in our thoughts well beyond our returning home. A gentle giant, both physically and figuratively, he is a visionary Costa Rican who has traveled the world pursuing adventure—climbing, motor cycling, whitewater rafting, helicopter piloting, he’s mastered them all. He met the ranch’s owner during the property search by flying him around to different locations in Costa Rica. The relationship developed and Fernando was hired to oversee the transition of the property from logging to sustainable agriculture. His booming voice, flawless English, and gregarious laugh transcends his role of benevolent leader, while simultaneously maintaining unquestioned loyalty from staff and community. Under his watch the failing logging operation has morphed into a fully functioning farm with shops and trained employees maintaining all the equipment, a K-8 school for the children, gardens and orchards that provide every need except rice, and kitchen facilities for the occasional guests.They raise cattle, swine, and plant acres of cane, plantain, coffee and yucca as food staples. For crop pollination, bee hives are maintained and produce the finest honey imaginable. Very little is exported, so they harvest only what’s needed for day-to-day consumption. That eliminates the need for power since refrigerator/freezers remain efficient throughout the night when the power is shut off.

Interestingly, it’s power that persists as his most challenging dilemma. Several alternative solutions have been explored and dismissed. Located off the grid, Las Alturas relies on diesel generators to provide its energy. While acknowledging their dependence on fossil fuels, Fernando explained his rationale for sticking with the noisy machines that run from dawn to dusk night, every day—when the lights go out, that’s it.

I considered solar but simply can’t accept the impact the industry has had on the Chinese communities where it’s all produced. Whole towns are polluted, their water undrinkable, their populations sickened, and all in exchange for satiating the world’s demand for solar panels.

I also considered installing a hydroelectric generator. Let’s face it, the Rio Cotón (the healthy river flowing through Las Alturas) has a dependable flow because of its artesian headwaters. Unfortunately, I fear the consequences of providing power to this community 24/7. When people wonder why we don’t switch over to hydro, I explain that the infrastructure is too expensive for our needs, both quantitatively and qualitatively.

Click to view a larger image.
Click to view a larger image.

What really concerns me is how unlimited (hydro) power would impact the families in this community. You’d find kids glued to the TV and the housewives watching the stupid soap operas. Once, during a rewiring project that included a temporary direct line to one house, power was available for 24 hours. When I happened to walk by that house, there were 15 kids watching silly cartoons.

I don’t want these children to lose their appreciation for the remarkable environment they have at their fingertips. Kids in cities have lost the amazement of nature; someone will notice something breathtaking right there in front of them and the kids will shrug and return to their cell phones. Kids around here have access to the same natural world in which I was raised, and I don’t want them to miss out on the value of that. They don’t need more electricity—what they’ve got here is entertainment enough.

Throughout our week in Las Alturas, we shared our photos and adventures nightly with our construction colleagues. Highlights included hiking and birding the myriad trails and roads throughout the ranch, rediscovering my dormant Spanish while helping the kitchen staff prepare meals, and celebrating the 12th birthday of a local child at the Wilson Botanical Garden in San Vito.

Wattle and daub construction.

Meanwhile, back on the farm, the small building the Laportes built last year exceeded their expectations for durability and functionality in Las Alturas’s 3,500′ elevation. Phase 2 resulted in the creation of this workshop where 9 participants received training from one of Costa Rica’s premiere bamboo artisans, Martín Coto. Combining the EcoNest tradition of bio-sensitive construction with locally-grown and/or available materials, the result was a companion structure, twice the size of the original, and nearly completed in a single week under the expert mentoring of Robert Laporte. While our motive for joining the team wasn’t to expand our familiarity with bamboo construction, we participated in a meaningful way and departed with the assurance that our contributions were appreciated. More importantly, there was a bonding among the workshop participants that assures our friendships will extend well beyond this wonderful visit.

Click the Speckled Tanager to see a gallery of birds.

On this leg of the journey, we’ve added quite a few new birds to our growing life list.

Las Alturas:
Rufous-tailed hummingbird, Lineated Woodpecker, Black & white Warbler, House Wren, Cherrie’s Tanager, Black Phoebe, Yellow-faced Grassquit, Thick-billed Euphonia, Sulphur-winged Parakeet, Chestnut-headed Oropendola, Blue & white Swallow, White-crowned Parrot, Tennessee Warbler, Chestnut-mandibled Toucan, Torrent Tyrannulet, Cedar Waxwing, Silver-throated Tanager, Wilson’s Warbler, Slate-colored Red-Start, White-collared Swift, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Olivaceous Woodcreeper, Golden-hooded Tanager, Bay-headed Tanager,  Smokey Brown Woodpecker, Red-crowned Woodpecker, White-naped Brush-Finch, Crested Guan, Fiery-billed Aracari, Baltimore Oriole, Squirrel Cuckoo, Rufous-collared Sparrow, Golden-crowned Warbler, White-breasted Wood Wren, Black-faced Antthrush, Flame-throated Warbler, Scale-crested Pygmy Tyrant, Wrenthrush, Streak-breasted Treehunter, Acorn Woodpecker, White-throated Mountain-gem Hummingbird, Ornate-Hawk Eagle, Merlin, Green Kingfisher, Spotted Wood Quail, Thick-billed Euphonia, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Kentucky Warbler, Tropical Parula, Social Flycatcher, Black-crowned Tityra, Masked Tityra, Lesser Goldfinch, Philadelphia Warbler, Buff-throated Saltator, Streaked Saltator, White-crested Coquette, Variable Seedeater, White-winged Tanager, Summer Tanager, Mourning Warbler, Yellow-bellied Elaenia, Tropical Gnatcatcher, Tawny-crowned Greenlet, Smooth-billed Ani, Canada Warbler, Black-thighed Grosbeak, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Palm Tanager, Golden-winged Warbler, Broad-winged Hawk, Rufous-breasted Wren, Flame-colored Tanager

Wilson’s Biological Research Station, San Vito:
Blue-crowned Motmot, Boat-billed Flycatcher, Palm Tanager, Speckled Tanager, White Ruffed Manakin, Red-crowned Ant Tanager, Crested Guan, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Scissor-tailed Kite, Plain-capped Starthroat, Bananaquit