Into the Peñas Blancas Valley

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I’m usually morally opposed to taking pictures of my feet. My dad railed against this when I was growing up. “Another foot picture?” he’d exclaim to my younger sister, leafing through the photos on the family camera. Feet simply do not carry the same sentimental value as a face, or the same scope of a landscape.

On this occasion, though, I made an exception. My pruny, ghastly feet seemed all too representative of the journey I’d undertaken with this motley crew. Three Ticos, a flying Dutchman, and a miscellaneous gringa walk into the untamed Costa Rican frontier. It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke.

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I pictured the settlers of the Peñas Blancas Valley as the mountainous tropical version of Little House on the Prarie. The way settlers started moving into the valley – in search of their own homesteads and economic opportunity – reminded me of the U.S.’s westward migration and manifest destiny. Mining, though not for gold, even plays a role in the development of the valley. But you can forget taking conestoga wagons on these trails. Everything from sacks of flour to canisters of gas were brought into the valley by foot or hoof.

Development and migration into the Peñas Blancas Valley increased in the mid-20th century, as deforestation in Costa Rica reached its peak in the 1970-80s. In 1977, though, the government halted development on the land as part of an effort to protect the watershed of the newly dammed Lake Arenal – but they were slow to buy land from those in this zone who’d already settled it. This left the landowners in a quandary: unable to legally develop their land, but unable to sell it for the same reason.

Over a decade later, thanks to grassroots fundraising efforts abroad, the Monteverde Conservation League began to buy many of the landowners out, effectively halting much of the deforestation that threatened the biological diversity of the region. The result is the large swath of protected land called the Children’s Eternal Rainforest, which is Costa Rica’s largest private reserve at roughly 23,000 hectares. Together with neighboring reserves in the Monteverde-Arenal region, the amount of contiguous protected land comes to 60,000 hectares.


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I couldn’t really tell you the purpose of this trip, because to this day I don’t know it. But it was no casual foray into the wilderness for any Bob on the street. Access to the protected lands of Peñas Blancas Valley in the Children’s Eternal Rainforest is a privilege open to few – principally park rangers and chaperoned students or researchers. Whatever the reason for our trip, I’m not in the habit of asking too many questions when it comes to an opportunity to explore a new place – especially a place as mythical as Peñas Blancas.

The journey began in the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, where Lucas, the Dutchman & I met up with Juan & Alvaro, two rangers with the Centro Científico Tropical (the organization that manages the Monteverde Reserve). They came loaded with provisions and a sturdy horse to carry them. Their shoe of choice? The unforgiving, utilitarian rubber boot – perfect for fording rivers, but also perfect on for rubbing your feet into tatters. As we crossed through the Monteverde Reserve and descended into the portal of Peñas Blancas, the flying Dutchman was grounded before the journey even started. But start the journey did.

 

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Refugio El Aleman, about 1.5 – 2 hours’ descent from the Monteverde Reserve into the Penas Blancas Valley. Though it’s nothing fancy to look at, the cabin’s dry wooden floors and sparsely equipped kitchen feel like a goldmine when you’re in need of a respite.

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Café chorreado is a magical remedy for soggy feet.

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“Pico de mono.” That’s not the scientific name…heh heh.

 

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“Refugio Eladio,” our final destination and lodging for the first night. The cabin is that of Eladio Cruz, who was the first Tico to sell his land to the Monteverde Conservation League and, in doing so, set an example for scores of landowners to follow.

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Rice and beans will never taste as good as they do on the porch of Eladio’s.

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The question of access

Through the years, admission to the valley has been slowly restricted, now excluding tourists and even a number of educational groups as well. In the present day, only a few recurring student groups and researchers are admitted to the valley – and these are accompanied by park personnel.

This restricted access is understandable, as this part of the Peñas Blancas territory is remote, wild, and unpredictable at times. Terciopelos are commonplace. Regular deluges make the already narrow, muddy trails unstable; the region is practically impassible during the rainy season. Combine the unpredictable terrain with the vast expanse of unpopulated territory, and you’ve guaranteed yourself a quagmire of liability if you allow just anyone in. If you are managing an enormous tract of land, with limited financial resources and limited personnel, why would you make the investment and undertake the risk of liability to open this area to the public?

This is a fine line, particularly when it comes to the land’s relationship with the local community. Some tico friends with whom I discussed this trip expressed discontent with the principle of having to (in their eyes) be chaperoned into this territory. Even old residents of the area – who have grown up foraying into the valley, either as park guards or as hunters in times past – are required to be accompanied by forest guards when they go into the area, which can generate feelings of distrust.

This raises an important question in conservation: how do you convince people of the need to protect a land if they are not allowed to see it or appreciate it firsthand? One of the most important purposes a reserve can serve is to educate. This is something that the reserves of the Monteverde area (the Monteverde Reserve, Children’s Eternal Rainforest, Santa Elena Reserve, etc.) do very well, and are continuing to improve on. By providing educational programming for members of local communities, residents take ownership and become allies, not antagonizers, of the conservation effort. It is a delicate balance deciding how much land to open for educational purposes, and how much should be left untouched so that it can, over time, be restored to its natural condition.


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There is something so special about this valley. If it had a mouth, oh the stories it would tell. As we trekked back through the valley, from Eladio’s to El Aleman to the Monteverde Reserve, we passed through a clearing where a house had once stood. Now, perhaps 40 years later, there was barely a trace of where the foundation had been. Fern fronds, cecropia saplings, and other flora advanced steadily into the clearing, staking out their shares of unclaimed sunlight. As we walked, we passed through two rows of citrus trees, striking because of the even spacing between each pair. Among so much chaos, they seemed to be the only part of the clearing that had maintained their order. It was a powerful image – and a powerful reminder – to see “civilization” reclaimed by nature.


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