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Laguna del Lagarto Lodge: Sharing Successes with the Local Community
By Vinzenz Schmack
Vinzenz Schmack, Owner, Laguna del Lagarto Lodge
In 1974, I moved to Costa Rica as a bank manager in San José. At the time, the tourism industry hardly existed and nobody imagined that it would play, as today, such a dominant role in the local economy as a major generator of foreign exchange and employment. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would become the owner of a jungle lodge in one of the most remote and most underdeveloped parts of the country and would contribute to the development of this poor region. In 1981, I had the opportunity to buy 275 acres of primary rain forest in Costa Rica’s northern zone near a small hamlet called Boca Tapada, about 12 km south of the San Juan River.
For a while I was unsure about how to make the land productive, but a few years later I was given the idea of creating an eco-lodge by a friend who suggested that instead of cutting down the rain forest for agricultural development, I should convert the area into a reserve accessible to tourists interested in nature. I was about to invest in one of the first ecotourism developments in the country.
In 1989, Laguna del Lagarto lodge opened without electricity; we made do with solar panels, a wood stove, and gas refrigerators for a number of years. For many years, the local community joined efforts with the lodge, and pushed hard to acquire electricity. After substantial lobbying, an electricity line was brought to the lodge in 1994. Then, after four more years of community efforts, the lodge acquired telephone service.
Today the lodge's telephone provides services for everyone in the community, free of charge, so our neighbors don't have to go all the way to the nearest town, 3.5 miles away, to use a phone. This has been useful many times in emergency situations. Since its humble inception, the lodge has made significant contributions to ecotourism in Costa Rica, and to the local community.
Economic Opportunities for the Community
The Lodge currently employs 10 people, including 4 women, all of whom are from the local community. The local people had no prior experience in hospitality, so all were provided with the appropriate training and professional development opportunities. In addition to employment and training opportunities, Laguna del Lagarto has been actively involved in various efforts to provide a community members with assistance and support.
A Platform for Success
Laguna del Lagarto provides employees with training courses on the subjects of first-aid, food handling, English language, botany, and the identification of species, helping them to acquire a wide-range of valuable knowledge and expertise. In addition to opportunities for personal growth and specialized training, the lodge offers its employees assistance through personal loans and incentives. Adolfo, the cook at Laguna del Lagarto, was a refugee from Nicaragua who started out as an untrained worker doing part-time jobs. By sheer coincidence, however, one day we discovered Adolfo’s natural talent for cooking.
We then sent him to a restaurant in nearby Pital for training where he developed his skills and became an excellent cook. Guests constantly praise his cooking. A German guest was once so impressed with Adolfo's talents that he invited him to Germany, all expenses paid, to be an instructor in Costa Rican cuisine. For this special opportunity, Adolfo took a leave-of-absence, and had an incredible experience traveling all around the country for three months while learning the language, and much about German culture, food and people.
A similar story involves a young man named Oscar. Oscar began working on the farm at the Lodge. We sent him to San José (and later to the U.S.) to learn English. Thanks to this educational opportunity and Oscar's hard work, he quickly became an excellent guide with a superior knowledge of the birds, plants and trees of the area. One guest, a tour operator for a canoeing company in Vermont, was so impressed with Oscar's skills that he invited him to work in the U.S. with him.
After two years of working with this company in the U.S., Oscar returned to Costa Rica and formed his own canoeing company, CANOA AVENTURA, in La Fortuna. He is doing very well with this venture, and in July 2010 he expanded his success by opening a hotel, Maquenque Eco Lodge, which is about a mile and a half from Laguna del Lagartoin. After Oscar left us, we hired his brother, Faubricio and offered him a similar training experience.
Laguna del Lagarto Volunteer Programs: Helping Hands for the Community's Future
Laguna del Lagarto operates a volunteer program, in which participants stay at the Lodge while assisting with local community development projects. Over the years the lodge has hosted 14 volunteers, mostly from the U.S., who participated for at least three months. Volunteers teach English to the employees and help them develop other marketable skills. The Lodge also coordinates assistance and donations from many Rotary Clubs across the U.S., thanks to our connections with these charitable groups. Some examples of contributions and community projects sponsored by the Lodge include:
- School supply donations, including two computers and scholarship opportunities for local children.
- Repairs, painting, and construction of community buildings (especially local schools).
- Free medical and dental services/clinics for members of the community.
- Donations of important medical supplies.
In addition, the Lodge has participated jointly with the Rotary Club of San Jose in a nationwide program called “Books for All”, by supplying necessary schoolbooks to primary schools in Costa Rica. So far we have supplied books for the 190 children of the four primary schools in the area, a total of 760 books and the equivalent of US $2,300. Presently we are working with other groups to finance four large Water Reserve Tanks and clarification equipment for the village of Boca Tapada, which will greatly improve the local water system and health of the community. The water here is not presently apt for human consumption, meaning that during the dry season many families have to go without water during the day.
The lodge continues to actively participate in local fundraising activities, offering our constant support for infrastructure development and the social needs of the community. We also encourage our guests to participate in community projects whenever appropriate. Several guests have made generous contributions to the local schools. With these projects and others that are sure to come, Laguna del Lagarto has established a strong, mutually beneficial relationship with the residents of Boca Tapada, and will continue to foster ongoing community cooperation through such contributions.