What is the stereotypical depiction of Costa Rica? Probably something close to a hot, buggy, humid rainforest full of monkeys, snakes, jaguars and other things from the jungle book. Definitely not trout farms, 45 degree temperatures or oak forests, right? Well Cuerici biological station, you can see all of these unlikely characteristics in the highlands of Costa Rica.
About a week ago when we arrived at the station 2,600 meters above sea level, none of us knew what we were in for. We had traveled high enough into the highlands that the clouds were nearly at eye level. It was definitely a surprise and ended up being my favorite site of the trip so far. The site manager, Don Carlos, greeted us with a warm smile and unwavering hospitality. Nighttime was chilly, but that was combatted with the best hot chocolate this world has to offer and the coziest wood stove imaginable.
Our first day, we were supposed to head into the oak forest but were delayed due to a storm which posed a danger of falling branches. We did, however, get to walk with Don Carlos and see his trout farming operation as our teaching assistant, Jose-Antonio, translated. Don Carlos raises the trout to harvest for his family and also sells individuals and eggs to other farms. Prior to this encounter, I had no idea that rainbow trout could possibly survive anywhere in Central America; as it turns out, with higher elevation comes lower temperatures and the necessary dissolved oxygen that the delicate trout need. I was blown away by this sustainable system that provided income for the station and also food for Don Carlos and his family.
The following day, the winds calmed down, allowing us to ascend on a hike with Don Carlos so he could show us how amazing the rest of the property was. We walked along a skinny little trail that progressed from newer secondary forest into primary forest, which looked like a place that Tarzan would call home. The view from the top was nothing short of exceptional. The clouds blocked our view of the pacific but provided us with a vibrant double rainbow cascading in front of the mountains.
On the way down we encountered a tropical oak forest. Don Carlos estimated that some of these towering oaks pushed 1000 years of age. He talked about how important it is that we preserve trees like this from loggers, who salivate at the site of the towering straight trunks. He explained that he was once a logger and now feels adamant about fighting against the practice after seeing the extent of damage first-hand. He explained that regulations for selective logging are not strict enough to be sustainable, and that changes must be put in place to prevent irreparable damage.
Later that night we had a fireside chat with Don Carlos and he went into further detail about his opinions regarding conservation and government involvement. He and some associates were able to found the Cuerici station with the goal of conserving the land that at one point served as a cattle pasture for Don Carlos’ Grandfather. The station is an extremely interesting case from a conservation-policy standpoint because it is entirely devoid of government involvement. The Cuerici association has the goal of creating a sustainable preserve of forest, allowing research groups to come and stay but avoiding tourist activity. This rare case proposes a system that I had never heard of before, and I wonder if it could be replicated in other areas. A frequent problem with government incentives to preserve and conserve private land in Costa Rica is that they do not provide enough income for the landowners, where other less environmentally friendly practices would. Here, Don Carlos is breaking the mold and creating a system built around sustainability from within the property while preserving the land.