Visiting Costa Rica’s cloud forests is like stepping into a biosphere, where a menagerie of amphibians, birds, insects, reptiles and mammals intertwine with each other. And staying at an eco-friendly property in the Central Highlands – with its own wildlife research station – is an experience unto itself.
Near San Ramón de Alajuela in Los Angeles Norte, the Villa Blanca Cloud Forest Hotel & Nature Reserve is said to be the first hotel property in Costa Rica to have a research facility in operation on its grounds. Opened in June 2008 by the National Institute of Biodiversity (INBio), the facility was first named the InBio Research Station and occupied by the institute’s scientists who conducted research there until April 2012.
“The station was built in order to investigate extensively diurnal and nocturnal butterflies from the cloud forest,” explained Roy Valverde, its manager. According to Valverde, during that time, InBio’s scientists worked an extensive project involving the measurement of the biological diversity of fruit-feeding butterflies.
Now called the José Miguel Alfaro Research Station, the fact finding mission keeps going. According to Valverde, the research station now collaborates with the National Institute of Meteorology, biology students from the University of Costa Rica, and nonprofits that are developing programs relating to climate change, biodiversity, and education within local communities.
The current project at the research station is a joint project with the university to categorize and publish an inventory of plant and animal species.
Researchers also don’t have to go very far to conduct their studies. They can walk right into the neighboring 2,000-acre Los Angeles Cloud Forest Biological Private Reserve, filled with Costa Rica wildlife. This reserve features five kilometers (or just over three miles) of nature trails maintained by Villa Blanca staff members.
Visiting The Research Station
Access to the José Miguel Alfaro Research Station is not just limited to students or scientists. Guests at Villa Blanca can pay a visit and learn more about its work.
Trained guides from Greentique Hotels (which owns Villa Blanca) lead orientations on how the station operates and what’s been happening there lately. So do research students, who volunteer their time to give tours.
“We wanted to offer our Greentique licensed nature guides the opportunity to work with the [then] expertise of INBio,” explained Jim Damalas, general manager of Greentique Hotels, “so they would have more knowledge to share with our guests and other guides at our three other properties.”
Inside the research station, there are flora and fauna displays holding preserved specimens such as delicate butterflies to moths and beetles in a spectrum of sizes. Visitors can watch video recordings shot with infrared cameras that were placed on various parts of the natural trails within the reserve and hotel property. Some of the creatures that might be seen in the videos include more nocturnal ones.
Along with seeing the station, guests can also go on three different guided nature walks, including through the Los Angeles Cloud Forest Biological Private Reserve. One is conducted at night, the other focuses on bird watching, and the third takes guests on a hike in El Silencio de Los Angeles Cloud Forest Reserve. While en route, the guides will point out various inhabitants – some which might not even be noticed at first – like the red-eye tree frog.
Guests can also help in funding the research center’s work through their hotel bill. A voluntary $2 per night donation can be included on their final invoice.
An Eco-Friendly Property
Originally built by former Costa Rican President Rodrigo Carazo Odio and his wife, First Lady Estrella Zeledon de Carazo, Villa Blanca was acquired by the Greentique Hotels in December 2003 and underwent many changes the following year to fit with the company’s sustainability standards.
Modifications were also done to comply with requirements by the Certification of Sustainable Tourism (C.S.T.), a program started by the Costa Rican Tourism Board to give hotels guidelines on reducing their carbon footprint and lessening potential environmental impact.
“We virtually rebuilt [Villa Blanca] from the foundations up to the colonial roof tiles of recycled plastic,” said Damalas. The property now encompasses a main hacienda with a restaurant, lounge area, and movie theater, and 35 different casitas that replicate traditional adobe farmhouses, along with a greenhouse, a chapel that was an anniversary gift from Carazo Odio to his wife, and an adjacent dairy farm.
Environmental measures at this four-star, mountainside boutique hotel have gone far beyond reconstruction. Villa Blanca’s sustainability program involves recycling about 85 percent of hotel waste and works with a center in San Ramon to do so, producing its own compost from kitchen rubbish, and using organic pesticides.
A gray water laundry system recycles water for developing natural gardens and tilapia ponds. Human waste can also be disposed of, as enzymes are produced to handle its natural breakdown.
“We also converted the entire housekeeping department to [use] biodegradable cleaning products,” said Dalamas.
These practices have paid off in many ways. In January 2007, Villa Blanca obtained C.S.T.’s highest ranking, Five Green Leaves. It can also be said that the work of the research station is also doing its part to keep sustainability and hospitality well-balanced.
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