Costa RicaCosta Rica

Healing Plants, Baby Kinkajous and Egg-Loving Pigs

Destination: Arenal

This morning Christina and Suresh Krishnan, the friendly owners of Desafio Adventure Company, greeted me with big smiles. A well-known and respected tour operator, Desafio is renowned in Arenal for its Class III to V whitewater tours on rivers that Suresh helped pioneer some fifteen years ago.

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Today I was being treated to a personalized Community, Culture and Conservation Tour, a brand new excursion that Desafio offers, which allows visitors the opportunity to connect with the local community and learn about promising projects in the area. I was excited to partake in such a unique tour, one that was much needed in the adventure-driven region of Arenal.

Our first stop of the day was the Luna Nueva organic farm, located 30 minutes outside of La Fortuna. Started in 1994, its 208 acres encompass a medicinal plant farm, organic fruit and veggie garden, as well as a working ranch where pigs, goats, chickens, water buffalo and cattle are raised.

As explained by uber-naturalist Steven, one of Luna Nueva's partners, the farm's main purpose is to connect people to their food. I really liked this concept, especially in an era of frenzied work schedules and fast-food consumption. The farm cultivates and exports over 50 tons of turmeric and ginger each year. Extolled for their anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, these spices along with other healing plants are used in conjunction with conventional methods to treat everything from cancer to Alzheimer's.

Our tour began with a savory breakfast of fresh fruits, turmeric-seasoned brown rice and beans, natural juice and coffee, almost all of which was grown on the farm. Then began the real sensory explosion: a hands-on exploration of the medicinal plant farm. We ambled for over two hours through a maze of earthy patchouli plants, sweet lemongrass and spicy wasabi, constantly stopping to smell, taste and touch.

Steven was a walking encyclopedia on such nutrient-dense plants as chaya, which contains ten times more calcium than spinach, and the healing but foul-tasting noni fruit. Galangal, bush mint, bay rum and holy basil all conspired to overload my senses of taste and smell. Among the sixty varieties of fruit trees, the farm also grew jatropha, a new source of biofuel.

Guests have the option to spend more time at Luna Nueva (half-day or a full day), and may focus on anything from homemade cheese making, to composting or animal husbandry.

Filled-up on tasty herbs, we ate a light lunch before driving to the Proyecto Asis Animal Rescue Shelter, a privately-run wildlife rehabilitation center that rescues and cares for up to 40 animals at any given time. Named "Asis" for the patron saint of nature, the shelter was founded by a locally-famous veterinarian to house the many orphaned and injured animals brought to his practice.

I quickly fell in love with Perla, a white-lipped peccary (native wild pig) with more personality than a lot of people I know. Perla was brought to Proyecto Asis by a forest ranger after her mother was killed by poachers near the Nicaraguan border.

Supposedly the more aggressive of the two peccary species, Perla snorted away, vying for scratches on the back and her favorite treat, a raw chicken egg. The shelter director explained that peccaries are social animals and would likely ostracize Perla in the wild, making her survival as a wild pig a challenging one.If it hadn't been for her overpowering musky scent, I would have considered pignapping her.

The shelter's eight acres of primary and secondary forest included swampy areas that attracted local species like alligator snapping turtles, caiman, boat-billed herons and black-billed whistling ducks. Proyecto Asis also rescues animals, like Hercules the spider monkey that had been chained up as tourist attraction at a hotel.

I was able to feed Benjamin, a curious one-year-old kinkajou that fell from his nest in a tree. A nocturnal creature, he woke long enough to gobble a banana. Every evening the shelter staff takes Benjamin on a hike to get him used to being in the forest. They leave his cage door open at night in hopes that one day he will be ready to be a wild kinkajou once again.

One of the main goals of Proyecto Asis is to re-introduce all of the animals back into their natural habitat. It is easier with birds and reptiles than mammals since they are easily imprinted upon by humans and often need to be accepted by social groups in the wild.

In an effort to help generate funds, Proyecto Asis runs a cultural immersion program that includes a homestay with local families, volunteering at the shelter and Spanish classes. Volunteers are always welcome to help feed the animals, clean and build cages and plant trees. The opportunity is an excellent one to get hands-on experience in wildlife rehabilitation while helping a great cause.

We rounded out the day with a visit to AMURECI (Associacion de Mujeres de Reciclaje), a women's arts and crafts cooperative in the tiny town of Santa Clara. Formed by ten women, the center makes and sells recycled paper products and offers "paper adventure" workshops where visitors are walked through the paper making process, which is surprisingly simple.

Their beautiful paper is made using banana fiber, shredded paper donated by the local hospital, some flowers and a press. I bought six large sheets of delicate flower paper for less than $5, a real bargain and a great souvenir. The women strive to teach the community to re-use, recycle and reduce, and make everything from picture frames to notebooks, all hand-painted with colorful Costa Rican motifs.

I thoroughly enjoyed every bit of Desafio's new tour, as it offered a little something for everyone and a chance to connect with the community. I thanked my new friends Christina and Suresh before making my way to Hotel Jardines Arenal for some relaxation.

Less than a five-minute drive from Fortuna's center, Hotel Jardines Arenal is just off the main road, before the town of El Tanque. I continued my cultural connection in chats with gracious Tico owner, Hernan. We dined on some delicious chicken curry as he told me about his work as a dairy farmer. Long before tourists were coming to Arenal, Hernan subsisted by raising cattle for milk and cheese production. As more tourists rolled in, the family built the hotel, with both inexpensive dorms and well-equipped, air-conditioned rooms.

The hotel had free wireless internet throughout as well as an onsite restaurant and kitchen access. A great option for the budget traveler, Hotel Jardines Arenal had friendly staff and bright, clean rooms. Hernan offered me some homemade dessert, but I declined. I was ready for bed and had another exciting day ahead of me.

Healing Plants, Baby Kinkajous and Egg-Loving Pigs in Pictures

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