I'm now back in Quepos, excitedly awaiting my lunch of sauteed local grouper, and this seems an opportune moment to reflect on my last two days at Rancho Margot. I originally intended to go to the Arenal area to see the volcano, and with the hope of finally glimpsing some lava at the third volcano of my trip. Instead, I got completely taken in by the incredible world that is Rancho Margot, in tiny Pueblo Nuevo, west of Arenal.
As I mentioned in my last post, Rancho Margot is a sustainable organic farm and ecotourism operation. What I did not realize at the time, however, is the extent to which Rancho Margot surpasses the high expectations with which I approached it. The farm tour was a truly remarkable experience. My initial instinct would be to describe the farm as something of a circular chain, in which every point has some sort of output biproduct that is used elsewhere as another input. A circle, however, is not complex enough, and I'm thinking it is a bit more like a web.
Part of a tributary of the nearby Rio Cano is diverted to two turbines that provide hydroelectric power to the entire site, inluding the bungalows, which in turn provide the funding that pays the workers who operate the farm, which contains chickens for meat and eggs, cattle for milk (and meat, I think, though it wasn't on the menu when I was there), and pigs for meat. They're not fully self-sustained in terms of the chicken or beef yet, but they expect to be soon. Animal waste is separated into liquids and solid. The solids are placed in bins with thousands of worms, who over the course of a few months digest it and turn it into soil. The liquid is diverted to a pipe system that harnesses the methane gas for use in the kitchen, and the remaining liquid is used as fertilizer. Fertilizer and soil is also combined with compost piles housed in two enormous containers, which, perhaps most impressively, have seemingly endless coils of pipe running through them, so as to use the naturally heat-producing biodegrading process of the compost to provide hot water for the rest of the complex--meaning not just hot showers but a hot pool in which to swim and relax. The compost and fertilizer are used to grow a massive range of plants, trees, herbs, fruits and vegetables, all which are used to feed both people and animals, and ultimately generate compost. Uneaten people food goes back to the animals, and uneaten animal food goes to the compost pile. Excess grease from the kitchen is converted into soap for the bathrooms. Pesticides are all natural, and produced on site, ranging from microbes originally harnessed from nearby mountains and cultivated in vats to pungent basil plants meant to draw the attention of insects away from more important plants nearby. To keep insects from developing any immunity, the farmers constantly rotate through the various pesticides (which, it's worth noting, keep insects away, rather than killing them). Even the drinking water flows from a nearby spring. For more detail on the farm side of things, check out this recent article from triplepundit.com.
In addition to all that, the ranch has an animal rescue program, which works to train animals rescued from black market trade, and ultimately release them back into the wild. There's also a reforestation program, which is designed to restore nearby patches of razed rainforest to their former glory. I am certain that I've forgotten something, because their accomplishments are pretty numerous. They have earned four of five leafs from a sustainable tourism rating program. According to Tom, Juan's childhood friend who runs a lot of the day to day operations of the ranch, the only thing keeping them from the fifth leaf is adequate handicap accessibility, something they are working on, and are hoping to have accomplished before the next inspection.
Lest that last statement sound like this is some blind chase of accolades, it is clear from walking the grounds and talking to the people that Rancho Margot is a labor of love. Juan seems to be one of those rare people Malcom Gladwell might write a book about, who possesses a unique combination of brilliance, creativity, charisma, and funding. He opened the first Burger King ever in Europe, which remains, according to Tom, the most successful Burger King in the world today. So, it is worth noting that even the funding flows directly from Juan's own ingenuity. In Rancho Margot, Juan has managed to follow through on his lifelong dream, teaming and working closely with a number of scientists and engineers from Costa Rica's EARTH University to figure out all of the incredibly complex details involved in setting up the infrastructure for this operation.
Almost as remarkable as the farm itself is that they have done all of this in less than six years. If that sounds impressive in writing, a tour around the facility reveals it to be nothing short of staggering. Last night I mentioned to Juan's son, Freddy, who runs the volunteer program, that I was amazed that they had gotten all of these things up and running in such a short period of time. His response, to his and all of their credit, was, "well, it's up, I don't know about running." He was still feeling the heat from the 90 distance runners who camped out last night on the facility's soccer field. The small paid and volunteer staff had to deal with serving what seemed to be the longest buffet line the area (and probably any of us) had ever seen. Although Tom was a bit concerned that they might appear overwhelmed, the truth is that from my perspective, they really seemed to take it all in stride, and handle it quite well, with everyone chipping in to help out wherever it was needed. Though, I should add, I certainly do feel for the kitchen staff, who had to stay late serving food last night, and who started making breakfast around 3 this morning so that the runners could eat at 4 before running 38 miles.
I guess the thing that impresses me the most is the attention to detail by the people at the top. Juan and Tom clearly have tabs on everything, and their presence is felt to a very reassuring degree. Both of them make a point of talking to all the guests, and getting to know people a bit. Yesterday at breakfast, Tom informed me that he enjoyed my last blog post, which showed up in his Google Alerts. Rigo, who runs the website among other things, did the same. I know they'll end up reading this one too, so I'll take this moment to say: hi guys, thanks for making my brief stay an excellent one. Hopefully I'll see you again soon (I'll get to that in a bit). The hands-on approach, it's worth noting, extends far beyond simple appearances and image concerns. Yesterday, during the tour, I noticed Juan climbing down a rock wall to personally inspect a water pump by the hot pool.
So, needless to say, I came away incredibly impressed by Rancho Margot. For as much as I have seen parts of this country's tourim industry moving too fast or thoughtlessly, Juan, Tom, and team provide a striking counterexample of the good that can be done. It is very clear that they are constantly re-assessing and seeking ways to cut down the incredibly limited amount of waste that is produced at the ranch. On the "moving too fast" side of the ledger, I will admit that their plans to add condos and hotel space in the near future are the kind of thing that generally would have me concerned, but I remain confident that the area is in highly qualified hands. The staff is entirely comprised of buena gente (Spanish for "good people"). The volunteers I met were all really smart and interesting, and great company, not to mention that Ian, the bartender, whipped up a pretty stellar mango concoction out of the blue, so that I could have something tropical to sip while swimming in the hot pool.
I'd also like to take a moment to discuss the food, which is quite simply unreal. Saturday's pig made two encore appearances yesterday, with another leg for lunch, and then the other two legs and the ribs for dinner (90 distance runners can go through a lot of pork). The vegetables were as good as any I've eaten, having come out of the ground as recently as that day in some cases. I was actually discussing with one of the volunteers, an American named Matt, that it seemed like an ideal place for a high end restaurant with farm fresh ingredients. Were I the type of person to meddle in the lives of others, I would point out that my friend John Adler, who loves both slow food and Costa Rica, would be a perfect fit for something like that. But I'm really not that type of person, so I won't point out that my friend John Adler, who is a truly remarkable chef with a preponderence of relevant experience and a very sophisticated palate, would really be a perfect fit for something like that. Granted, I don't really want John to leave Brooklyn, where I get to hang out with him and occasionally eat his food, but that's another issue entirely.
I suppose I should also just briefly touch on something that is more relevant to my own travels, and say that yesterday I went horseback-riding for the first time in my life, with my guide Jimmy. My horse was a bit ornery, and clearly not thrilled to have a beginner astride him, but he took me for a nice ride. I learned that galloping is, in addition to being totally fun, less painful than trotting, which involves more bouncing than one generally likes. Anyway, there are some pictures of me in a very handsome yellow helmet sitting on a big animal. Jimmy was also a really nice guy and a super interesting kid. We enjoyed some good conversation about psychology, politics, and other things. I also take this as a sign that my Spanish is progressing very well, because although he often responded to me in English (everyone wants to practice what they're learning), I managed to convey my relevant points in Spanish.
So, all told, the Rancho Margot experience was phenomenal. I completely skipped my plans to go to the butterfly garden, volcano observatory, and hot springs, and I am thrilled with that decision. I'm very seriously considering trying to work a two-or-more-week volunteer stay there into the back end of my trip. I'm hoping they could use someone with computer, analytic, or organizational skills. And I'm hoping I can find a way to squeeze it in among the many other fascinating places and countries I'm trying to visit before I return to my normal life. At the very least, amid the fun crazyness of the last few weeks, Rancho Margot provided a perfect vacation from my vacation.
And with that, I've finished my meal and I'm off to get some strawberry-vanilla-lime swirl ice cream to help me handle this high eighties heat (sorry NYC).