Eight years ago, I came to Las Alturas with the OTS Tropical Biology graduate course. For many reasons, the 8-week field course altered my perspective on life, science, and my sense of self and while every site we visit in this Global Change course gives me pause for reflection, walking up to Las Alturas was particularly nostalgic.
The site doesn't seem like much - essentially, a one-story shack at the edge between a farm and the Amistad Biosphere Preserve - the trans-border park that straddles the Costa Rican and Panamanian border. Many things make this place astounding - the sense of remoteness, the vast expanse of forest stretching to one side, the beauty of the tree ferns scattered along the trails or the kites flying overhead. But when I walked to the station, I was flooded by memories: my first bat netting experience (we found a wrinkle-faced bat - though they're not supposed to be this far south), sleeping outside on the porch, learning how to key plant families and bat species, climbing up the inside of strangler fig trees (that was before I discovered just how many insects live in the tropics, and how many of them bite), and searching the streams for Begoniaceae plants for a field project.
This was my introduction to tropical biology, and my realization that I could be passionate about these forests for the rest of my life. It was special to return to this place - as a course coordinator, and with Deedra, who was one of the coordinators 8 years ago. Las Alturas has changed a lot: a wind storm swept through and blew off the tin roof, smashing flatware and breaking windows. Much of the damage has been fixed, but the site hasn't been used in months? years? There were dead lizards in the sink.
The cows are still near-by, though the grass has grown taller. The trails were too over-grown to walk on, so we took the road. But the mist still floats in the canopy, and when you turn around and look up, the blue mountains still stretch to Panama with white clouds connecting them.
Perhaps the most interesting part of Las Alturas, though, is its story: originally a large farm and logging operation, a wealthy software developer from California bought up the thousands of hectares a few years ago, to create his own preserve. It's a little like a real-life version of Sim-City: he has a town, runs the farms (he's turning them organic, no mean feat in the tropics), created an apiary, and has taken a militant stand against hunting, logging and artifact removal. OTS courses stopped visiting the field station for a while in there, but the owner has recently decided that research is a worthwhile investment, and is now partnering with OTS to rebuild and maintain the field station.
Most interesting to me was the pride taken by the property manager, Francisco. In a story taken from a movie, Francisco was the helicopter pilot who flew this wealthy American (who's name remains elusive, but was apparently scared of flying in the helpicopter at first) over the land when the sale was being considered. Francisco is a true Tico with a love of nature and the old way of life. He described the difficulties with poachers, the attempts to reduce cattle grazing while maintaining the local way of life, and the interest in maintaining vast patches of untouchable forest.
Fernando is one of the last real cowboys - a true frontiersman. And Las Alturas/Amistad is perhaps the last of the untouched frontiers in Central America. I wish him luck.