Sustainable tourism takes flight in the tiny coastal village of Punta Islita.
“Have you heard the macaws yet?” asks a man standing in the open-air lobby of the Hotel Punta Islita while I am checking into the luxury eco-resort that perches on a hillside overlooking a crescent-shaped beach on the Pacific Ocean.
Shaking my head no in disappointment, a few other people around him begin to squawk, heartily imitating the boisterous, throaty calls of the far-more-visually-appealing scarlet macaws that are once again flying the friendly skies of Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula.
“Trust me,” the front office manager, Marvin Seas, assures me. “You’ll hear them.”
I get my inauguration while cooling off in the hotel’s adults-only infinity pool. The brilliantly hued members of the parrot family loudly announce their presence well before I spot their flashes of red, yellow and blue streaking through the air beyond the hotel’s giant palm-covered palapa.
There are many types of tropical birds that call Islita home, but the scarlet macaws are a welcome sight for both area residents and guests of the secluded getaway. Once found in 85 percent of Costa Rica, the scarlet macaw population had reached alarmingly low numbers by the 1950s due to habitat destruction, hunting and a lucrative pet trade.
“The people who lived around here didn’t have jobs, so they would poach macaws for money,” says 28-year-old Vanesa Quirós, who was born and reared in the small village just down the hill from the hotel. “By the time I was born, there were no macaws flying around here.”
No longer on the list of endangered species as of 2008, the remaining colonies of scarlet macaws are small and scattered throughout Central and South America. In Costa Rica, the largest populations are found in the Osa and Central Pacific conservation areas. However, in 2011, the Ara Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to the conservation of macaws, began releasing the birds around Islita through a partnership with the hotel, which has a 20-year history of socially responsible practices aimed at protecting and restoring the area’s natural and cultural environment.
“That was the first time I saw them,” says Quirós, who works for Islita Art Museum. “Since then, people in the village have planted almond trees in their yards to attract them. I like them because you don’t need a clock to wake up in the morning any more.”
A little more than a year ago, the Ara Project moved its breeding and rehabilitation center to Islita. Previously headquartered near San José, the macaws were evicted when the land underneath them was sold to developers planning to build a shopping center. When Hotel Punta Islita’s owner, , caught wind of it, he donated a corner of the 300-acre property to house the operations.
Every day at 3 o’clock, the Ara Project opens its gates to a handful of visitors in exchange for donations that help keep the program going. The aviary houses more than 100 juvenile scarlet and great green macaws. The latter type of macaws will eventually be released into native habitats on the Caribbean Coast.
Our visit coincides with the once-daily feeding that brings 34 now-released macaws back to their home base for a supplemental feeding of seeds, nuts and fruits. As interim director Sam Williams replenishes one of the large bird feeders, he has to dodge batting wings, powerful beaks, and sharp talons as macaws swoop in for a snack.
“We do a soft release with a built-in safety net of the daily feeding,” explains Williams after he finishes his task. “But, it’s a lot like chocolate for the macaws. Ideally, we need to make their feedings more like salad, so they go out and look for food on their own.”
It has taken some time for the released macaws to spread their wings and expand their range. In fact, it took two years before they ever came close to the hotel.
“Everyone was expecting them from the first moment they were released,” says Seas back at the hotel. “But it took awhile and eventually some landed on a tree here at the restaurant. Now, every once and awhile you’ll see them. We love it. The guests love it.”
Indeed, it was a serendipitous moment when a pair of macaws landed in a nearby tree during breakfast on the last day of my too-short trip. At that moment, several people leapt from their seats to snap pictures. One woman had tears in her eyes.
“I don’t know why I’m crying,” she told me. “The macaws are just so beautiful.”
About the hotel:
Ranked among the top 100 best hotels in the world by Travel + Leisure, most recently in 2013, Hotel Punta Islita has 57 guest rooms, including suites, casitas, villas and private homes with their own private plunge pools or Jacuzzis. Other amenities include a nine-hole golf course, ziplines, a gym, a spa, free Wi-Fi and a full breakfast. Prices start at $280 per night. Marriott Rewards members will earn points for the stay now that the hotel has joined the Autograph Collection of independent properties.
Founded in 1984, the hotel is owned by Harry Zürcher, considered one of the pioneers of sustainable tourism in Costa Rica, who originally came to Islita to create a teak plantation. However, the long growth cycle and short harvest season did little to stimulate the economy in Islita whose residents were moving away to find jobs. Building a hotel created jobs, which could bring people back again.
“Now 43 percent of the revenue generated here, stays here,” says Seas. “It’s a big amount of money that stays and is being reinvested in art and education. It wouldn’t be possible without the hotel tuning into the needs of the community.”
Over the years, the hotel helped establish Islita’s recycling program that services the hotel, not to mention supporting the Ara Project and Latin America’s first open-air art museum. Almost every building in the village, from the grocery store to the daycare center, have been painted by distinguished national artists, who also teach valuable art skills to the residents. In turn, villagers created artwork to sell in the resident gift shop.
Best time to visit: Average temperatures in the Guanacaste region of Costa Rica hover around 90 degrees year-round, but most visitors come during Guanacaste’s dry season, which runs from December to April. When the rains come between late May to November, the countryside is green and lush, but the dirt roads turn to mud, making travel more challenging.
How to get there: Nature Air (natureair.com) has daily flights to Punta Islita from San José starting at $78 one way. The hotel has a free shuttle service for guests. Otherwise, it takes about five hours by car from San José or three and a half hours from Liberia. If you plan on renting a vehicle, an SUV is recommended.
What else to do: When you stay at the Hotel Punta Islita, the toughest decision you’ll have to make is perhaps choosing between the two pools. The adults-only infinity pool lies just beyond the hotel restaurant and there’s another at the ocean-side beach club, which can be reached by hotel shuttle or a short 10-minute walk down the hill. If you do want to venture out, the concierge can arrange tours, including diving, fishing and dolphin-watching trips. On land, there are birdwatching, yoga and cultural tours.
For more information about the Ara Project, visit thearaproject.org.