“That’s wild sage, isn’t it Dad?” Minor Cascante asks his father, Javier, while they cross La Gloria Ranch and recite the names of dozens of trees and plants, like two botanists making sure they don’t miss a single one.
Minor and Javier are part of the twelve families that form part of the agro-tourism project Loma Larga, an organization that seeks to return to prominence the Ortega and Bolson communities in Santa Cruz through rural tourism.
A shanty in the middle of La Gloria Ranch surrounded by vegetable gardens, smoking stoves and oranges is the reception where tourists sign the guest book for their visit to the Loma Larga project.
Until the middle of the 1960s, this is where the province’s two main ports were (Ballena and Bolsón), where boats departed toward the central plateau via the Tempisque River. After the construction of the Inter-American Highway, trade routes changed and these towns got stuck in economic stagnation, sentenced to lives of unemployment, droughts, and floods…Until now.
“The members of La Gloria want to recover the history of what happened at Puerto Ballena and Bolsón. The entire economy of Guanacaste passed through here until 1965,” says Javier Cascante.
Blurry Photos, Better Times
At La Gloria, a property of 64 hectares (158 acres) there is a photomural with photocopied images of better times, at least for this district. Blurry pictures of vessels belonging to ex-presidents Alfredo González Flores and Ricardo Jimenez that used to pass through Ballena Port and Bolson Port attempt to convince visitors that despite what little is seen when they arrive at Ortega this was, at one point, a very important place for Guanacaste.
I still get in the carts but now it scares me, which is why I’m teaching my grandson (Juan Andrés, 20 years old) how to be an oxherd so he can work with the oxen and the cart at La Gloria.” Mr. Donaldo Villegas 85 years old says.
“When Hurricane Mitch ruined us in 1998 we had to pull ourselves up with a new idea, which is what we are putting together now,” says Mr. José Villegas, president of the project.
The disaster that tore up 40 hectares (100 acres) of sugarcane and killed 250 heads of livestock forced them to think of a new business model.
To get to the corral where they milk cows you have to cross a clearing where they are building the restaurant and a secondary forest at La Gloria Ranch, a property that forms part of the agro-tourism project Loma Larga.
They knew that, in order to get by, they couldn’t only depend on temporary jobs that they found on melon farms or in sugarcane fields and that they also couldn’t “put all our eggs in the tourism basket” because that revenue comes only one season per year.
“Before, a sugarcane cutter used to be able to be a farmer, but now he only cuts the sugarcane” says Mr. José.
That’s why they developed the idea of sustainable tourism with a plan that lets visitors get to know indigenous food, rural Guanacaste life in all its tinges and even learn how to milk a cow.
Tourism With History
Enilda Cascante Ruíz (71 years old) got bronchitis a month ago and can’t work the stove, but she helps with other tasks on the ranch because she says it makes her feel much better being here than at home cleaning.
Loma Larga is a project that focuses on not stopping what these families know how to do best: agriculture and ranching. These 12 families produce peanut butter for the Calaluna Hotel, recycled paper from natural fibers and are also seeking to migrate toward sustainable organic agriculture. At the same time, its members want to rescue the historic part of the district and convert it into a place for tourists.
The tour consists of a motorboat trip up the Tempisque River departing from the Cipanci Refuge and is full of biodiversity and birds native to the wetlands. Afterwards, visitors return to La Gloria Ranch, hike trails, see a historical summary of Ortega and Bolson at the photomural and visit the farm and the garden where you can pick food when there is production. Finally, they take you to a parcel where tourists plant a tree and become an environmental member of the Loma Larga project.
On both sides of the path to the Cipanci Refuge you can see several species of aquatic birds such as white and pink spoonbill heron.
Better than tour guides, at the ranch you’ll find people committed to and in love with their roots, willing to explain with patience and pride who they are, where they come from and how they plan to rebuild their glorious past.
Mr. Javier Cascante stops next to the trees that tourists plant when they visit Loma Larga. Some of these trees are endangered species. “Many of us are already older in age and we want more young people to get involved because this is theirs too. We want there to be a source of work so they don’t have to go to other places,” Javier says.