Field Study and Service-Learning MediaBlog

05 April, 2014

La Catarata Ecolodge: The Role of Ecolodges Within Ecotourism

Entrance to La Catarata
As students with a shared interest in environmental sustainability, it was a great experience to stay at La Catarata Ecolodge during our time in La Fortuna. Ecolodges are an ideal way for an environmentally conscious traveler to comfortably travel; ecolodges encourage responsible travel through various on-site conservation practices and by supporting local communities. In addition to promoting sustainable living and development within their site, ecolodges also promote sustainable development within the communities they reside economically, culturally, and environmentally. La Catarata has a prime location within La Fortuna, a reasonable distance away from the bustle of the main road, and set underneath the spectacular backdrop of the appreciable Arenal Volcano. The ambiance of La Catarata is rather unassuming, with an intimate rustic, tranquil, family-style feel, very reminiscent of what I can imagine were the simpler days in the countryside of Costa Rica. The “family feel,” of La Catarata is not just an impression, but a reality. As it turns out, the owner of La Catarata is the daughter of Cristina, who actually operates a medicinal farm, (that we also visited), only a few minutes away. Without a doubt, La Catarata is not for the tourist looking for the contrived trimmings of a grander, luxury eco-resort, but for someone wanting a rougher, more untouched experience of what is Costa Rica in its purity.

Entryway to a room at La Catarata. Labor and
construction materials were locally sourced.
For over ten years, the owners of La Catarata have been committed to the nearby community, knowing that no true conservation can be done without taking the local community into consideration; the key element in providing sustainable development is through utilizing the resources found within the local community. Using local resources promotes self-reliance not only through bolstering the local economy, but by also eliminating the need for external outputs. Ecolodges believe in buying local and hiring local; they promote community development through providing local jobs, buying local food, promoting local Tico-owned tours, and purchasing local materials for use in on-site construction. Hiring staff from the local or outlying communities not only improves the wellbeing of the community and environment, but also gives the establishment a more authentic feel. In addition, providing locals with the opportunity to make an income through working in their establishment is beneficial to local residents that may otherwise feel the need to resort to environmentally damaging activities to earn a living. The staff at La Catarata are all local residents and are paid more than the local minimum wage. In addition, the ingredients used in the food served at La Catarata, which is typical Costa Rican fare, all comes from local farms and markets.

The owner of La Fortuna discussing the
history and goals of La Fortuna to us in
her restaurant. Behind her is a wall of brochures
advertising local tours.
Ecolodges promote guest exploration of the natural area in order to promote a greater appreciation of the land and the biodiversity that it houses. Being located within the rich and fertile volcanic soil of the Arenal Volcano, as well as lush jungles of La Fortuna, gives La Catarata the privilege of being a wildlife corridor for the vast array of species endemic within the region. This gives guests the unique experience and opportunity to explore an abundance of local Costa Rican biodiversity. Forming direct or indirect relations with local ecolodges promotes both establishments and is helpful to guests that may have little to no knowledge of the local region; creates an alternative income stream for many that start up or work for an eco-tour establishment. In addition, La Catarata helps advertises and schedules booking for guests that want to explore some of the local attractions. The most sought after recreational pursuits for tourists are the hanging bridges tour, taking a boat safari on the River Penas Blancas, kayaking down Arenal Lake, and of course, getting a closer view of the Arenal Volcano. La Catarata has a few animals that they have rescued habituated on-site, though in rather small corridors. And of course, for the more adventurous tourist, independent exploration is also an option!

Bins for the recycling of "paper"
and "plastic," placed in the restaurant.
Ecolodges strive to have as little environmental impact as possible, both in the building and in the operating of the lodge. The design of the ecolodge is very important; the design should flow, not compete, with natural surroundings in order to not disturb the local species. We saw that instead of building a fence to surround La Catarata, they planted native trees that accomplished the same purpose, did not disrupt the local habitat, and served as a resting area for birds. In terms of site construction, usage of wood should be avoided as much as possible. In addition, various environmental practices are followed onsite. In terms of energy, many lodges try to take advantage of long-term cost savings and environmental benefits that alternative energy sources provide. La Catarata has a solar cooker that is used to heat food. There is also a water heater tank installed on top of one the lodges. In addition, ecolodges promote the proper handling and disposal of solid waste. Although very minimal amounts of paper and plastic are used on site, waste is recycled and there are large, attractive bins placed in convenient locations around the site so that guests can partake in this initiative.

La Catarata's vision statement.
As an environmental science student, I believe in the transforming power of education, as a lack of encouraging and providing education on conservation and sustainability can cause sustainable tourism within Costa Rica to falter in future generations.  Even the most rudimentary environmental education can convert an ordinary citizen into a global citizen, one with the desire to lead a more environmentally conscious and passionate lifestyle. Without a doubt, environmental education, whether formal or informal, basic or thorough, provides individuals with the knowledge and desire to make decisions that improve lives and encourage respect for the natural world along with its resources. Along with on-site conservation, providing environmental education to children is another important aspect of La Catarata’s commitment to sustainability. Over the years, La Catarata has supported environmental education in local elementary schools. However, La Catarata promotes environmental education within their establishment as well. They are very open with the tourists about the different ways that they try to operate sustainably, which can perhaps inspire guests to make more environmentally conscious decisions within their own lives. The placement of the solar cooker within the cabinas, as well as the attractive composting and garbage bins sparks curiousity amongst La Catarata guests who ask about their purpose.
La Catarata's mission statement to offer
personalized service to people of all

As a whole, ecotourism is one of the most dynamic segments of the international travel industry. Ecotourism not only conserves the environment but it also improves the well-being of the local people. Ecolodges reflect some of the main principles of ecotourism as they generate a variety of social and economic impacts within the communities that they reside. La Catarata displayed many of the aspects of a functioning ecolodge by: using environmentally-friendly energy, water, and waste systems, purchasing food from local farmers, offering a natural setting that respects that habitats that it is residing within, and offering opportunities for open interaction within owners, guests, and the local area. From the moment I arrived I was impressed. Modest cabinas resided within indigenous foliage. The building materials derived from local and recyclable components. Upon entering my room I was gently reminded to use water responsibly. Overall, La Catarata, like similar ecolodges in its wake, strives to ensure that every guest is left with a delightful memory of the charming atmosphere of the lodge as well as warm hospitality and seamless service. Ecolodges prove that you do not have to sacrifice your standards of environmental consciousness while traveling, which is increasingly more important as the rate of tourism is steadily rising. Being a more responsible traveler can help ensure that Costa Rica’s rich biodiversity is preserved in perpetuity.

AUTHOR: Heather Haj