It wasn’t until just three months ago that the Municipality of Bagaces figured out that the famous Llanos del Cortes waterfall, one of the canton’s main tourist attractions, is not located on municipal property, but rather on land belonging to an anonymous society that is selling it for about $1.3 million.
As recorded in the minutes of several City council sessions, the council has affirmed that buying this land is imperative for building the Llanos del Cortes Waterfall Eco-Tourist complex, a municipal project valued at about $830,000 that aims to attract more visitors and generate more income for the community.
The Voice Fact Checking verified in the National Registry that the property where the waterfall is located belongs to the anonymous society Asociación Pecuaria Burro Blanco. American Stewart is the representative negotiating with the municipality, according to council documents and minutes.
The municipality owns the land adjacent to the river, but the waterfall, the hidden pool and the beach are on private property. This was revealed by a topographical report presented at municipal council sessions on January 15 and 17.
Rivers are public use territories and people can enjoy them without any restriction, according to the Water Law. However, no one can enter private property to use them, unless they have permission from the owner.
The current owner has always allowed access to the falls through his property (which is the entrance currently used by tourists and neighbors to reach the waterfall), but he has the authority to deny access at any time. In that case, the municipality, local residents and tourists could only get to the waterfall through the river bed.
In other words, if any future owner forbids access to their land, it would force visitors to wade through the river’s current. Otherwise, they would have to cross private lands illegally to reach the falls.
Even if the municipality builds the tourist complex on lands that do belong to it, the site’s main attraction could end up limited or exploited by someone else with much more direct access.
Council member Jose Alfredo Jimenez commented that this generates enough uncertainty to not develop the project. “If this purchase falls through and tomorrow the owner does not allow access, we would be left empty-handed,” stated Jimenez.
Mayor William Quijano disagrees and thinks that the project has to be done even if the municipality does not buy those lands. Quijano believes that the current access is sufficient, because no owner can limit direct access to the river.
He also thinks that, as an institution, they must be open to competition. “We are going to have to find a way to provide better services and make the project sustainable over time,” the mayor added.
A Breaking Point for Bagaces
The mayor’s office and the municipal council indicated that the institution collected more than $300,000 in 11 months (February to December 2018) just for entry fees to the falls. These earnings will be used to finance construction of the tourist complex.
Some 80,000 people visit Llanos del Cortes every year, according to estimates by the municipality, an average of 220 people a day, even though currently a maximum of 300 people can enter the falls at the same time and there are no other attractions.
The property that the municipality wants to buy encompasses 60 hectares (148 acres) and the sale price is $21,000 per hectare. This offer was presented by council member Edgardo Aragon in October, according to the council’s minutes. He has been responsible for mediating the dialogue between the municipality and Stewart.
During the municipal session on February 28, Aragon reported that the owner has shown a special interest in having the municipality administer the falls and that the profits go to the community.
The Voice Fact Checking tried to reach out to Stewart via email but as of the day this newspaper went to print, he had not answered.
Aragon believes that the municipality has been very late in realizing the potential of the project and the danger of it falling into private hands.
The current administrator of the falls, Rosbin Rojas, thinks the importance of acquiring the land goes beyond the economic factor, since the safety of visitors and environmental conservation come into play.
“It is having the ability to take care of the upper part of the waterfall, that it does not get dirty, that it does not run out. If another person comes and gets ahold of it, he can probably act without any environmental awareness,” he added.
Editor’s note: This article was modified on Saturday, April 4 after the person named as the representative in the negotiations with the municipality in the original version of this story, clarified that the property does not belong to him, but to a society of which his brother is president and he is the treasurer. Its version contradicts the version of the aldermen of the council, which are recorded in minutes.