Los Mayos Mountain Nature Reserve, overlooking the Manuel Antonio National Park, will go beyond protecting a key watershed and wildlife habitat – to cultivating sustainable economic prosperity for local communities. We invite you to join us.
Jim Damalas has been involved in conservation initiatives for over 30 years with his own family of Greentique Hotels and Nature Tours. He’s an active board member of the Corcovado Foundation and founder of Mayo Mountain Nature Fund, part of the Nature Fund for Costa Rica. Inga Gusarova, Hunter Johnston, and Tom Barefoot, also from NFCR, have been instrumental for setting up the Los Mayo’s project. Jim’s partner with the Santa Juana Rural Mountain Adventure Lodge and Nature Reserve is Hugo Arias, a native of Quepos, and respected community leader in Rural Tourism. The Santa Juana community itself is represented by 4 active committees that have together endorsed both the Mayo Reserve and the missions supported by the fund.
The Story: How did this project come to be?
Jim Damalas made his first purchase in Santa Juana by pure accident. Along with Hugo Arias, his partner and close friend, they were driving from Quepos towards the coffee plantations of Los Santos, when they noticed a sign reading “cervezas frias”, or cold beers. Intrigued by the claim, in a rural area with no electricity, they stopped to confirm there were actually cold beverages on ice at the tiny Pulperia named El Toucan. While taking in the tranquil atmosphere, Jim was mesmerized by a secluded hilltop, off in the distance, that appeared to be connected by a natural ridge over a castle-like mote of lush tropical forests overlooking the distant coastline of Manuel Antonio.
Jim had been looking for a property to build his retreat “casita”, away from the popular tourist destination he had helped to create. Somewhere that still had the magical atmosphere that lured him to Manuel Antonio some 30 years ago from the States. The owner of El Toucan invited them to see that secluded hilltop. It turned out to be his in-law’s property that by chance was for sale. Learning more about this village, Jim realized his search had brought him to this unexpected road stop to discover a new way of life and purpose. What started as an excursion into the mountain range of Fila Chonta, turned into the most amazing journey of nearly two decades supporting and enhancing the concept of Rural Tourism in Costa Rica!
The Village Iceman
Jim built his tiny octagon house, on about an acre of land, purposely the smallest casita in the village, without walls or doors, comfortably situated on his secluded forest hilltop. He then started to protect the forest around him, and re-planted fruit orchards that began to attract dozens of toucans, monkeys, and other species while discouraging hunting in the area. With no electricity and just 300 watts of solar, and a propane refrigerator for his cold beverages, Jim became a welcomed neighbor to functions as the official Village Iceman.
He found himself leading two lives, one as a local neighbor on more and more extended weekends and holidays, and the other role as a hotelier who had created the Si Como No Resort & Wildlife Refuge and the family of Greentique Hotels. Fortunately, he had gradually dispelled the image of a foreigner looking to exploit the area with condos or house rentals. However, there were no jobs, except the ones to build his house and one to care for his finca, and so villagers left to find employment elsewhere. It is a common fate of rural communities, evidenced by only one child remaining in the local public school that had a teacher provided by the Ministry of Education.
The Early Days
The concept for Santa Juana evolving into a recognized example for Rural Tourism was not yet on the horizon. It started to reveal itself when Jim and Hugo began to realize the value of creating employment by appreciating the assets of valuable biodiversity, with authentic hospitality, and the strategic village location overlooking the highly praised National Park and beaches of Manuel Antonio. The local residents were well-aware of systemic unemployment and justifiably suspicious of empty campaign promises. Yet when these same residents became active and engaged, with their 4 pre-existing local committees (water, road, church, and school committees), they discovered they could utilize their natural surrounding and cultural heritage to showcase a destination for the new trend of Rural Tourism. They started by creating user-friendly nature trails to natural waterfall pools and botanical gardens, and by hosting guests for an original Campesino lunch in a restored farmhouse. These attractions just needed polish to create an exceptional Costa Rican experience that was to become a popular tour and eventually a highly rated village lodge.
The Lodge and Beyond.
Many tourists kept commenting on how wonderful it would be to stay in Santa Juana, rather than just come for a tour. Because of this, Jim and Hugo began to explore the idea for a lodge run by community members. To ensure these discussions were done right, Jim brought in a sociologist to conduct workshops with the community discussing what they themselves wanted and to identify the challenges of first building and then operating a lodge to international standards.
Once they came onboard, they all agreed the lodge was to be named for their patron saint, Joan of Arc, the Santa Juana Rural Mountain Adventure Lodge & Nature Reserve. As the project continued to purchase and protect more of the regions forest and reforest abandoned farms, they added the name, Cloudmaker Nature Reserve. Among countless natural springs, two rivers, El Rodeo and Cotos, are born here and reach the Pacific mangroves of Isla Damas., It offers an amazing backdrop of protected rainforest for the guests and locals together to enjoy.
Once opened, they named the lodge restaurant a positive local expression, “Aqui no Mas”. After 4 original casitas were built and opened, 2 more neighboring houses were renovated to add accommodations for larger families. With other improvements to the village, job security also came with socialized benefits and improved community utilities. As a result, the village population increased from 39 to 52, including 2 more families and one more baby on the way. A kindergarten was added, and the school was equipped with donated computers and WIFI monitored by their teacher. The teacher also maintains a “Wish List” for school supplies that continue to be donated by guests at the lodge. The number of students went from the one, that first year when Jim built his house, to10 students today.
Los Mayos Mountain Nature Reserve Fund
Currently, as a result of the success of Cloudmaker Nature Reserve, and its value to the village lodge and local attractions, the creation of Los Mayos Mountain Nature Reserve (MMNR) has become one of the first projects to be funded on behalf of the Nature Fund for Costa Rica (NFCR), a 501c3 registered foundation. The nature reserve was inspired by the annual blossoms, each May, of fragrant yellow flowered cover canopies with the common name, the Mayo Tree or Vochysia guatemalensis. These trees form carpet-like flowered canopies throughout the tropical forests marking the start of Costa Rica’s Green Season every year. With the alliance of their sister foundation in Costa Rica, the Corcovado Foundation (CF), the project found its mission shared with the NFCR and the goals set forth in the 3 mission statements supported by the new fund scheduled to launch in August of 2022.
You have shared this story many times with guests and friends. What stands out now?
“What stands out is a sense of pride that community members have developed. With their guests – some who have traveled the world, who come to visit the lodge, to experience the hospitality, and to come away with a unique and memorable experience, authentically shared between guests and hosts, about their beautiful village location and lifestyle – that’s the constant feedback that stands out and encourages pride among community members. They speak about it and often with each other and with me, and that’s priceless.”
What would you have changed and what would you have kept the same?
“The one significant change would have been to have already built and opened the first School of Rural Gastronomy, and a fully equipped research station for students with a dormitory, to identify endangered species of flora and fauna in the region. Yet the steps of building the business together with the community, the way these steps have fortunately evolved, trusting both instinct and lessons learned, -- that I would not have changed. The new concepts, strategy, and collaborative mission goals, are more chapters to explore and achieve, to finally add those chapters with the success of the Mayo Mountain Nature Reserve.”
What do you want people to know the most?
“To me, the Santa Juana community proves that when people are engaged and passionate, they will become the most effective caretakers of the social and natural environment too. The key is to invest in existing raw materials, and in doing so appreciate the gradual process, trusting that community members will discuss, change, and eventually own the idea. You just need to first plant the right seeds, and the concept will grow.”