El Silencio, Costa Rica
We like to think we’re each environmentally-friendly. We recycle, we walk instead of using the car, we take our own bags to the supermarket. These small things all add up, don’t they?
Well, they do. But some people’s actions seem to eclipse the sum of all of mine. That’s what strikes me as I hike through the protected wilderness of El Silencio.
In most countries, national parks are designated by the government. Here in Costa Rica there are plenty of them (26 to be exact). This includes the Manuel Antonio National Park which I wrote about earlier this week. But what makes Costa Rica so interesting is that about 5 per cent of the country’s landmass is also protected privately by individuals or companies.
El Silencio is one of those places. It’s about 200 hectares of jungle, mountains, rivers and waterfalls. It sits high on the stretch of mountain peaks that divides the country vertically.
“This river flows down to the Atlantic Ocean,” local guide Andrey explains. “And the one at the top of that ridge flows down to the Pacific.” That’s how in the centre of Costa Rica I am.
Andrey is taking me for a hike up to a collection of three waterfalls at the top of the property. We’ve set out from the El Silencio ecolodge at the bottom of the property where he works and I’m staying. This is the only development allowed on the whole property. The rest is protected.
It’s an intriguing thought when you start to delve into it a bit deeper. The land is owned and the lodge designed by the Costa Rican Zurcher family, who also own other properties across the country. They bought this bit of paradise high in the green jungle mountains and then, by protecting it, immediately prevented themselves by law from doing any kind of development or commercial activity on it, other than the lodge. Think about most millionaire businessmen in wealthy countries and ask yourself what they would do if they bought 200 hectares of prime real estate.
Hiking through El Silencio
“Look at all the plants on the branch!” Andrey is pointing out a fallen bit of wood about a metre long that can barely be seen because of all the things growing on it.
“There’s a lot of plants – orchids, ferns, moss. Here you can find easily twenty or twenty-five different species. Just orchids there’s one, two, three…,” he counts to six.
One of the activities El Silencio offers to guests who stay here is this morning hiking tour of the property. The destination may be the waterfalls but the sights along the journey elicit plenty of free-flowing conversation themselves. Andrey points out a small beetle and then goes on to tell a story about how it would be the fastest animal on the planet if you calculated speed based on bodyweight.
We haven’t spotted any large animals along the way, though. No monkeys or, god forbid, jaguars. I ask Andrey about that and he explains that El Silencio is in between two national parks so it’s an important natural corridor for the animals but they generally prefer to stay away from the humans, however limited we are.
There are some signs of animals along the way, though, including the little pig-like animals known as peccaries.
“See these, these are the elephant ears,” Andrey explains as he points at a large green fern.
“The roots of the elephant ears are like a potato but they have sap that burns the mouth. And the peccaries know about the sap so they dig at the base of the plant and they take the roots but they don’t eat it. They leave it near the plant, they cover it with some dry leaves and they leave it there. Then they come back after three or four days and by then the roots drain all the sap and they are ok to eat.”
It’s these little things – the details of the jungle and how the ecosystem fits together – that fascinate me the most.
At the top of the hike I sit silently for a while and watch the pure cascading waters of the highest waterfall. There’s something hypnotic about the flow and my mind wanders. I think about the world and what we as humans are doing about it. I think about how I recycle, I think about how I walk instead of using the car… and then I think about how I actually normally get new plastic bags at the supermarket because I always forget my own ones.
For every good intention, there is a mistake. For every polluting company, there is a wealthy family willing to use their fortune to save the jungle. Hopefully these all balance each other out or we’re in big trouble.
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Time Travel Turtle was a guest of Visit Costa Rica but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.