Remote RESERVA RARA AVIS, 17km south of Puerto Viejo and about 80km northeast of San José, offers one of the most thrilling and authentic ecotourism experiences in Costa Rica. Bordering the northeastern tip of pristine Parque Nacional Braulio Carrillo, the reserve features both primary rainforest and some secondary cover dating from about 35 years ago and boasts an incredibly diverse rainforest flora. The area is home to a number of unique palm species, including the stained-glass palm tree, a rare specimen much in demand for its ornamental beauty, and the walking palm, whose tentacle-like roots can propel it over a metre of ground in its lifetime as it “walks” in search of sunlight. Orchids are also numerous, as are non-flowering bromeliads, heliconias, huge ancient hardwood trees smothered by lianas, primitive ferns and other plants typically associated with dense rainforest cover.
Established in 1983 by American Amos Bien (a former administrator of the Estación Biológica La Selva), forest ranger Robert Villalobos and biologist Carlos Gómez, Rara Avis combines the functions of a tourist lodge and a private rainforest reserve, and is dedicated to both the conservation and farming of the area. A pioneer in the country’s ecotourism movement, its ultimate objective is to show that the rainforest can be profitable, giving local smallholders a viable alternative to clearing the land for cattle. Rara Avis supports a number of endemic plants that have considerable economic potential, including geonoma epetiolata, or the stained-glass palm, which was until recently believed to be extinct. Another significant part of the reserve’s mandate is to provide alternative sources of employment in nearby Las Horquetas, where most people work for the big fruit companies or as day-labourers on local farms.
Rara Avis also functions as a research station, accommodating student groups and volunteers whose aims include development of rainforest products – orchids, palms and so forth – as crops, as well as the silk of the golden orb spider.