Confessions of an Ecotourism Pioneer in Costa Rica

At night, from the hilly headlands of Costa Rica‘s Central Valley — a mountain-flanked plateau home to nearly three quarters of the country’s population — the view down to the horizon-speckling lights of San José, the capital and most populous city, is mesmerizing. Just as astounding is the quiet calm of the area around Santa Bárbara de Heredia, some 20 kilometers to the city’s northwest. In fact, the contrast between the imagined urban cacophony below and the tranquil urban removal is part of what makes the latter so glorious. That and a sensory-rich flight-of-fancy boutique hotel called Finca Rosa Blanca, owned and managed by Glenn and Teri Jampol.

Glenn Jampol, owner of Finca Rosa Blanca, speaks at the inauguration of the 2013 International Conference on Sustainable Tourism: Planet, People, Peace in San José, Costa Rica. Photo courtesy of Lex van den Bosch

A Family Undertaking
It was Glenn’s mother, Sylvia X. Jampol, who purchased eight acres of muddy motocross terrain and, in 1987, oversaw the beginning of construction on it. Although she passed away in 1993, she had embarked on a journey. And the current results have palpably taken to heart her vision of a house that, as described in hotel literature, would be “built with a minimal impact on the surrounding nature and that would display her fantastically eclectic collection of art and objects, and would inspire others to enjoy her idiosyncratic lifestyle.”

Of particular importance — and not something any of the Jampols took lightly, even back in the 1980s — was Sylvia’s attention to earth-conscious practices. Inextricably wrapped up in Finca Rosa Blanca’s identity is its pioneering attention to the nexus of sustainability and luxury comfort. When it opened its doors in 1989, it was the first boutique hotel in Costa Rica, and, later, the first hotel to earn five “green leaves” from its 100 percent score on the country’s famous Certification for Sustainable Tourism, a standard endorsed by the Costa Rican government that awards one to five green leaves (like stars) after assessing a business’s sustainable practices against four criteria: biological and physical factors, services and infrastructure, the broader socio-economic environment and influence on clients.

Award-winning Finca Rosa Blanca is a pioneering sustainable boutique hotel and coffee farm located in the headlands of Costa Rica’s Central Valley not far from San José. Photo courtesy of Ethan Gelber

Finca Rosa Blanca is also part of the Cayuga Collection of sustainable luxury hotels and lodges. Cayuga Sustainable Hospitality is a Costa Rican company “dedicated to the management and development of small hotels, and resorts in Latin America and the Caribbean that have an ecological, conservationist or sustainable aspect to it.”

Harder Than It Looks
Glenn is tall man with a tendency to slouch, perhaps as a physical manifestation of his humility, even when talking about a crowning achievement like Finca Rosa Blanca. It’s not that he devalues the intensity of effort put into its creation, but that he couches it in terms of even grander plans and sweeping visions, and unleashed forces he spends more time taming than anything else.

At Finca Rosa Blanca, this artfully designed waste station – note the different bins for recycling – is placed in front of one of 10 or so giant fig trees, called higuerónes, found on the property when purchased in 1985 but now surrounded by thick vegetation. Photo courtesy of Ethan Gelber

In fact, listening to Glenn tell his story, one can be forgiven for thinking that all he and his family did was build a home, drop a few seeds into the earth and then watch things grow. As it happens, they planted and cultivated thousands of seeds and saplings — more than 50 varieties of native trees, fruit and tropical flora, and on 20 acres purchased adjacent to the hotel, a whole lot of coffee that they’ve fastidiously developed into one of Costa Rica’s most coveted organic brands. Today, because of Glenn’s and Teri’s unwavering ecological leanings, the hotel grounds and abutting coffee plantation are, among other things, a protected private reserve home to many indigenous and migrant birds — woodpeckers, oropendolas, tanagers, parrots, mott-motts and more — as well as other flora and fauna.

The Jampols have also poured their passion for creative expression into the manmade elements of the hotel, given unique character to every detail. The architecture has been described as Gaudi meets Alice in Jungleland. The paintings, vividly colored murals and sculpted works of local artists, as well as the handicrafts of local artisans, complement the Jampols’ own output (Glenn is established artist). Everywhere you look, there’s something to see: colored tile, shaped railings, one-of-a-kind furniture and furnishings.

Like this mural in the pool house, art is found everywhere you look at Finca Rosa Blanca, Costa Rica. Photo courtesy of Ethan Gelber

It’s a labor of love, an eternal work in progress. And it seems to be paying off too. More than just a guiding light in sustainable hospitality in Costa Rica, Finca Rosa Blanca was recently voted the top hotel in the Central American region by Condé Nast Traveler‘s readers.

Grano de Oro
In Costa Rica, coffee is called the grano de oro, or “grain of gold,” because while the bean is small, it has been one of the country’s economic mainstays. Admittedly, the size of the coffee sector has decreased in recent years in terms of export revenue (3.6 percent of the total in 2012), and production is expected to decline even further in 2013 due to a strong attack of coffee rust believed to be affecting 65 percent of the area planted; however, coffee remains a powerful foreign exchange earner. Exports were $479.8 million during the 2011/2012 crop year, which puts coffee in third place behind bananas and pineapples in terms of the export value of agricultural products in Costa Rica.

As they rely on natural processes, organic shade-grown coffee farms are necessarily messy, like the one at Finca Rosa Blanca. Photo courtesy of Ethan Gelber

While Glenn and Teri no doubt keep a watchful eye on such statistics, they also strongly believe that the approach taken with their plantation accounts for the increased interest in it. Their shade-grown coffee plants are free of toxic pesticides, agrochemicals and herbicides, relying instead on natural counter-erosion and water-retention techniques, like reliance on banana plants that can hold 30 to 40 liters (8 to 10.5 gallons) of water for natural slow-release use during dry seasons. Reforestation with nitrogen-fixing endemic species, such as fast-growing poró, banana and plantain trees, is also important as fallen leaves and plants create a nutrient mulch far more fecund and protective than anything manufactured.

As Glenn describes in an article making the case for organic coffee, “An organic shade grown coffee plantation is a natural agar dish for a robust ecology where the factors for sustainability are taken into consideration as much as the quality of the product that would result from this kind of farming.” So while the Jampols’ plants and single-origin, estate-coffee beans are certainly not immune to disease or the vagaries of international markets, they just might be buffered by best practices and a devotion to quality over quantity. And health and beauty too.

Finca Rosa Blanca uses natural water-retention techniques on its coffee farm, like reliance on banana plants that can hold 30 to 40 liters (8 to 10.5 gallons) of water in their pseudostems for natural slow-release use during dry seasons. Photo courtesy of Ethan Gelber

Planet, People, Peace
In addition to his work on the hotel and coffee plantation, Glenn is a 26-year veteran of developing incentives for sustainable practices in tourism. An outspoken force for sustainability in hospitality, he has not only practiced what he preaches through the conception, development and administration of two award-winning “five-green-leaf” sustainable hotels in Costa Rica — Finca Rosa Blanca, as well as Arenas Del Mar Beachfront and Nature Resort, Costa Rica’s only five-star and five-green-leaves property, also part of the Cayuga Collection – he has recently concluded a four-year term as President of the National Chamber of Ecotourism (CANAECO) in Costa Rica, and sits on the advisory board of The International Ecotourism Society (TIES).

Glenn is also the creator of the International Conference on Sustainable Tourism: Planet, People, Peace, which just a month ago held its fourth gathering, in San José, of some of the world’s most knowledgeable advocates for sustainability solutions in tourism.

Glenn Jampol, founder of the International Conference on Sustainable Tourism: Planet, People, Peace, speaks to attendees in San José, Costa Rica. Photo courtesy of Lex van den Bosch

“Our goal is not to create an academic report,” commented Glenn during an informal gathering and echoing comments he made in opening remarks at the conference. “It’s about bringing together world thinkers so that they can talk, create a community of people who can get to know each other and then learn and help and motivate each other. To me it’s akin to a poetry jam session.”

Truth be told, for Glenn, life should and does have a touch of poetry in it. And art and magic. It’s evident in everything he undertakes — the whimsical architecture in Finca Rosa Blanca’s structures, the dedication to artisanal and organic coffee production, the discovery and rediscovery (and protection) of nature’s articulations. How fitting too that, at Glenn’s invitation, John Densmore, drummer of The Doors, took the stage on the last day of the sustainable tourism conference to play percussion and read sage words of wisdom, translated on the spot by Glenn himself.

Glenn Jampol translates poetry spoken by John Densmore, drummer for The Doors, on the final day of the 2013 International Conference on Sustainable Tourism: Planet, People, Peace in San José, Costa Rica. Photo courtesy of Lex van den Bosch

Glenn was alive and proud in that moment — standing taller, exuding the same compassionate confidence that I had seen when he discussed the fine points of sustainability in his hotel, or eulogized his coffee, or rallied conference attendees to think both big and small. In those moments and a great many others, there was no better personification than Glenn of Costa Rica’s… pura vida!

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