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A passion for place: John Tresemer’s personal story of sustainability and conservation at Costa Rica’s La Cusinga Lodge | CROSSING TIME ZONES

It’s hard to beat the view from La Cusinga Lodge. Nestled on a hillside on Costa Rica’s still-wild southwest coast, the lodge occupies its own private nature reserve just south of the village of Uvita. Seen from the lodge buildings, the vista takes in a dense expanse of verdant rainforest spreading over the slopes, contrasting with the blue backdrop of the Pacific Ocean below. It’s the best of both worlds, a rich terrestrial ecosystem meeting one of Costa Rica’s most biodiverse marine environments. Around the lodge, trails lead through primary and secondary forest. Howler monkeys take up their strange and startling cry as tropical birds and butterflies flit by. At the base of the hill the trail emerges onto a secluded beach, while offshore, whales and dolphins visit regularly, and seabirds congregate on rocky islets.

With its comfortable rooms, delicious cuisine, and stunning location, La Cusinga is a wonderful place to get away from it all. Yet there’s more to this place than meets the eye. A deep environmental ethic underlies life at La Cusinga, where recycling, composting, organic farming, and sustainable construction are integral parts of daily operations. Committed to hiring local staff, the lodge also works closely with the community in other ways, supporting environmental education in local schools and promoting best practices among local tourism operators. The waters off Uvita are protected as Ballena Marina National Park, thanks in large part to the efforts of La Cusinga founder John Tresemer. The lodge also collaborates with local nongovernmental organizations, including ASANA (Asociación Amigos de la Naturaleza del Pacífico Central y Sur / the Association of Friends of Nature of the Central and South Pacific), which is working to establish a regional terrestrial wildlife corridor, the Tapir Path, to protect a variety of species.

I had the pleasure of visiting La Cusinga last year together with a documentary team from the Green Living Project. During our visit, we spoke with many of La Cusinga’s staff and partners, but one of our most interesting conversations was with founder John Tresemer. Born and raised in the United States, John first came to Costa Rica on a college study program. It was an experience that changed his life. Here John shares his story and his vision for La Cusinga.

What brought you to this part of Costa Rica?

John Tresemer: I was a college student at Colorado College , and there was a project in Costa Rica that included monitoring this particular site here, which was going to be devastated by Alcoa Aluminum. It was going to be totally strip mined because there’s a lot of aluminum ore in the soil, and they were going to make a deepwater port at [nearby] Punta Uvita. So it’s pretty interesting that instead of becoming an ecological disaster area it’s now an example for ecological stability. I fell in love with the place so I finished the course, but then I kind of got stuck here. And I’ve been here ever since and that’s over 30 years.

When I came here they were cutting down the forest at a very quick pace using the slash-and-burn method where they cut down forest which is over a thousand years old. There was no road. You had to come in by single-engine Cessna and land on a pasture in Uvita. It was a lot of fun. And the reefs around here were totally unspoiled and nobody was scuba diving or anything, so I had the whole place to myself. People were afraid of the tiger sharks that used to be here in prolific numbers but no longer are because there was a shark fishing industry that kind of wiped them out. So it was wonderful for snorkeling and the reefs were thriving with all kinds of biodiversity, and that was one of the reasons that I got involved in marine conservation, because the same thing was happening all along the coast, onshore and offshore as well.

To purchase the land I had a lot of help from my parents. Of course, I was only 20 years old. I didn’t have a lot of money. But my parents got interested in this project here and they wanted to save these thousand-year-old trees which we have all over the property, and they didn’t want any more to cut down. And they’d never owned any property. In the United States, to buy similar acreage on the ocean, where are you going to do that? So they made it happen, and so we protected all the forests that were still intact, and we haven’t touched them. And the areas that had already been cut down and compromised were left to recover. You have to protect habitat if you want to protect species.

How have you been involved in marine conservation in Costa Rica?

JT: I was lucky enough to befriend Alvaro Ugalde and Mario Bozo, who are considered the fathers of the national parks of Costa Rica. And I had a big challenge in convincing them of the value of the biodiversity of marine environments. They were mostly terrestrially biased,  as most conservation organizations are, although that’s changed quite a bit now. From a taxonomical viewpoint, on the land, there are 11 major phyla represented. In the ocean there are 23. So there’s a lot more biodiversity according to taxonomy. So it was wonderful to be part of this national park [Ballena Marine National Park], and of Caño Island Biological Reserve, and Cocos Island National Park, which is considered one of the seven wonders of the world now. And it’s a Biosphere Reserve, protected by the United Nations, at least in theory.

But in making this a national park we kicked out the shrimp trawlers who were totally devastating with their methods, which are totally indiscriminate and kill a lot of creatures that they don’t need to kill, and upset the equilibrium of the marine ecology. We were able to make this a national park – Costa Rica’s first national marine park – because we convinced the government that it was going to be an economic advantage for the local people. Any national park needs to rely on the local community for it to work. The trick was to convince local fishermen with a totally exploitive attitude to instead convert into tourism operators, taking people out to see the dolphins, the whales, and to snorkel on the reefs. That was not easy, but it worked. The tricky thing was, and is now, that it worked a little too well, because now there’s this booming industry of whale watching and dolphin watching, and they’re spooking some of the whales away. So here at La Cusinga Lodge we hold seminars and invite the skiff drivers to come, and we bring in experts. If they hear us telling them how to do it, they might not think it’s so professional, but we invite professional experts that explain to them how not to spook the whales. Even though the tourists are saying, “Closer, closer, closer,” that’s not in their best interest, because if a humpback whale comes here and has a calf here, and then they spook it, the whales are smart, and they don’t forget. So next year, when they come, they’ll go somewhere else, and that’s not good for the tourist operators.

Why did you decide to go into ecotourism at La Cusinga?

JT: We attempted several different ways of making money and surviving here economically, and we did very well with chocolate until the monkeys got addicted to it. Then we had the choice of either eliminating the monkeys or forgetting about our financial gains. The reason I’m here in the first place is because I’m a nature lover, so I’m not going to start killing the monkeys. So chocolate was not on our financial list anymore.

We got into reforestation and lumber making and furniture making and we got into ecotourism, and these are all win-win situations because we can do it at a sustainable level and we keep the number of tourists down, in spite of a lot of tourist agencies who plead with us. They want more cabins so they can bring busloads of tourists in, but that would defeat the whole place. Places have their certain magic, you know, and they have their certain carrying capacity of humans. When you exceed that, the magic goes away, the animals aren’t happy, and the people aren’t so impressed either.

Do you see La Cusinga as a model for responsible, sustainable tourism around the world?

JT: It’s very exciting for us when people come and get turned on by what they see here and how it’s working. We’re mostly proud of being able to show how we can do sustainable reforestation, because that’s the problem in the tropics: finding an activity that is sustainable without damaging the local ecology. In that way we have been instrumental in spreading environmental education to other places, because they can study the species that we’ve used, because we’ve experimented with a lot of different native species of trees, for example, and some are fantastic, and they really work and make sense.

For pure ecotourism, they can see that it works, and they can apply it in other places as well, and that’s good, but we’re still far from our goals. We still have a lot to do. We haven’t been very good with solar energy or with photovoltaic energy, or with hydroelectric energy. We are sometimes, but then, like one time, a couple of years ago, we got hit by lightning, and it just fried all our digital equipment, and there’s no one in Costa Rica that can help you. To bring in help from the United States is ridiculous, so that’s something the world needs to figure out. They need to help people like us who want to look for alternative energy solutions but aren’t that skilled at it or aren’t educated in it. So we have a ways to go there.

What are your goals for the future?

JT: We’re mostly interested in preserving what’s here: the culture, the wildlife, the habitat. Preserving habitat is preserving a lot of species that you’ll never see in your life. We’ve had a lot of guests here come and see stuff that I’ve never seen, and that really thrills me. On a daily basis I’m seeing new insects and new species, sometimes new birds, and I’ve been here over 30 years. It’s really exciting to know there’s so much biodiversity.

I want to be able to improve on what we’re doing, because we have a lot more ambitious goals than what we’re achieving now. As I mentioned, in alternative energies we want to go a lot farther there, be a lot more self-sufficient, and we can; we just need the expert assessment.

Another goal is not to give in to the travel agencies who say, “More and more cabins! You need more capacity. Build a road, a bigger parking lot.”  We do want to make money. We’re glad to be able to pay well our employees, who are 95-percent Costa Rican and local, but we don’t want to make a killing. A lot of people say, “You could charge twice as much and get it.” Yeah, but then we’re excluding a lot of other people. These other ecolodges that are much more famous than us, they’re charging twice as much. To me, that’s not ecological. That’s not taking in the human ecology, the human need, and that’s not sharing with people who can’t spend 300 bucks a night. So that’s one of our goals, to keep the price down and keep the number of visitors down, because the visitors who do come really appreciate that. They love the space; they love not seeing a cabin right next to our buildings or noisy swimming pools, things like that. It’s a temptation to expand, but we have to be very careful about that. We’re very consistent about not exceeding the carrying capacity of the place.

In the end, why do you do what you do?

JT: At first, it was purely selfish, because I loved the place, I loved the people. It was so easy to live here. I was a student here, and I was living off of maybe two dollars a day and doing great. And the people were really nice; the Costa Rican people are wonderful. The real Costa Rican people, especially the rural people, they’re fantastic.

This land was so cheap because it wasn’t very good for agriculture. It’s too hilly, too slopy, and no good bottom land, no deep topsoil. So we were able to purchase this property very reasonably, and that was a huge opportunity right there. And to stay, it was just too much fun. There was so much exploring to do here, and Costa Rica’s a comparatively healthy place in the tropics to be. I’ve never gotten a serious disease here, nor my children. I’ve raised children here, and nothing really bad has ever happened to them. And it’s just mostly been a joy here.

But before we got into tourism we had to make the decision – and by we I’m referring to my wife, mostly, and I – do we want to share this with the world? We thought we had almost a moral imperative to share it, because it would have been too selfish to just stay here and try to be isolated from the world. The place was too beautiful, and people who did visit it loved it. So we thought, “Well, it would be kind of cool to share it, and maybe that would help pay expenses for us.” And it worked. It was a symbiotic relationship with ecotourists and us. And so that’s how it grew, little by little. We’ve made one cabin at a time. If you wanted to study how we learned architectural design, you could see the first cabins and then see the last ones, and there’s a huge difference. We’ve had a lot of fun, playing around.

For more information: www.lacusingalodge.com

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5 Responses to A passion for place: John Tresemer’s personal story of sustainability and conservation at Costa Rica’s La Cusinga Lodge

  1. Travis Bays says:

    Great article! Very nice to hear the story coming from JT himself. Keep up the fantastic work.

  2. Megan Coatley says:

    Thank you for sharing La Cusinga’s story! It is so inspiring to hear about someone living out their dream, caring enough to keep it authentic and yet still finding a way to share it with others. :)

  3. Richard Whitehurst says:

    I stayed here for a month and the impressions this astounding place made on me were immense and unforgetable. Here are some of the elements: huge diversity of wildlife including howler monkies,ocelots,countless birds, leafcutter ants, whales, dolphin,etc … and also pristine primary rainforest, warm and caring staff, unique eco-friendly architecture, amazing food, views to die for, mind-blowing sunsets,etc etc. Visit La Cusinga at least once in your life!

  4. Annika says:

    Thanks for all the great comments. La Cusinga certainly seems to be a place that inspires people and lingers in the memories of its guests. I hope to have the opportunity to go back sometime for a longer visit and explore the area further. Lucky you, Richard, to have been able to stay there for a whole month.

  5. Sheila says:

    My week at La Cusinga was the trip of a lifetime. The amazing biodiversity, the facility itself, the hospitality, the food – literally everything I encountered was fabulous. I can’t thank John enough for providing such a unique opportunity. If you want to know the whole story get John’s book The Gringo’s Hawk (Amazon.com).

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