The past year has not been the easiest of times to start a business. It nevertheless has been a good year for the Veragua Rainforest Research and Adventure Park, a Verde Ventures-supported project that will celebrate its first anniversary in July.
Despite the global economic downturn and challenging initial months, the park near the port of Limón, Costa Rica, hit its monthly targets for visitors coming from cruises, who are projected to make up about two-thirds of its revenue. Traffic to the park from other types of visitors was slower than projected, but the numbers are growing steadily, according to Martí Jiménez, president of Veragua.
“What has us the happiest are the reviews we are getting,” he said. “The reviews have been so good; it’s a matter of time while word gets around.”
The 77-hectare private park’s attractions include the largest indoor nocturnal frog exhibit in the world, a butterfly garden, a reptile vivarium, a hummingbird garden, a tram ride through the rainforest canopy, and walking trails through the primary rainforest. The Veragua team expects that by July or August the park will hit the 10,000 paying visitors mark.
“We’re very enthusiastic about what’s to come,” he said.
Located on the site of a former logging operation, Veragua serves as a buffer zone for La Amistad National Park (Friendship National Park). La Amistad is the largest virgin rainforest park in Central America and a Natural World Heritage Site that provides about half of Costa Rica’s fresh water and as well as habitat for dozens of globally threatened species, including Central American tapir (Tapirus bairdii), Central American squirrel monkey (Saimiri oerstedii), and three-wattled bellbird (Procnias tricarunculatus).
Veragua’s owners took care to make sure the project’s footprint was as small as possible, Jiménez said, building its facilities on existing remnants of logging operations.
Limón Province is one of the poorest in Costa Rica, and Jiménez said Veragua has made a point of hiring as many residents of the area as possible. Local people working at the park number in the teens, he said, while another 12 people who live in the Limón Province have been hired. These are good, value-added jobs, Jiménez said, because of opportunities for training and skill development as well as promotion.
Marco Cascante is a resident of the nearby town of Las Brisas de Veragua who is working for Veragua. The former veterinary equipment salesman went through training provided by INBio—a private biodiversity research center working with Veragua—and now serves as a park guide.
“It’s great. I love my job,” said Cascante, adding that his life has changed a lot since starting with Veragua. He enjoyed the wildlife biology training he received, and has since become a bird watching enthusiast.
The park has already had an impact on his town, he said.
“I can say that the people are really proud about the park,” Cascante said.
He is optimistic that the park will have a positive long-term effect on the community, noting that there have been rumors of other tourism-related businesses planned for the area. “I think Veragua was only the first stage. A lot of improvement will come for this small town,” he said.
A combination of scientists and INBio-trained parataxonomists also work at the park, conducting biodiversity surveys in the area. INBio is in charge of the research operations, with Veragua paying the staff. From May 2008 to January 2009, more than 4,700 specimens of insects were collected from the Veragua property, and those specimens are housed in INBio arthropods collections. Among the finds was a specimen of the moth Tetrisia florigera found in January, marking the first time the species had been detected in Costa Rica in nearly 100 years.
The partnership between Veragua and INBio was a first for INBio, which has been operating since 1989. “In the past we were promoting biological research stations in the protected areas,” said Natalia Zamora Bregstein, entrepreneurial development director for INBio. “We’re still doing that, but we also understand that biological diversity is not just in protected areas.” INBio has since initiated similar partnership with a hotel property.
The idea for Veragua was developed by three 30-something Costa Ricans. Initially they had a smaller project in mind, but their plans grew, as did the project leadership when a fourth partner joined up. Verde Ventures invested $500,000 in the start-up in 2007 to finance infrastructure development, site construction and the purchase of a gondola and aerial tram system. Other investors include the BCT Bank and The Nature Conservancy EcoEnterprises Fund for a total investment of around $7 million.
Veragua also has been involved in local conservation efforts, having successfully advocated for protection of forested land across from the park that was being logged illegally. Jiménez said Veragua is now monitoring that area. The park’s community involvement has also included clothing and food drives for local victims of flooding in November and January.
Jiménez expects that next cruise season will be a big one for Limón, where the number of cruises coming through has been growing steadily. “Our potential market continues to grow,” he said. He also anticipates that Veragua will grow over the next few years, providing more direct and indirect employment opportunities for area residents.
Veragua’s leadership plans to eventually provide programs in schools, as well as start a foundation through which they will funnel profits to carefully screened community projects.
Project summary: Veragua Rainforest (http://web.conservation.org/xp/verdeventures/portfolio/veragua_rainforest.xml)
See also: Veragua Rainforest Web site (http://www.veraguarainforest.com/)