Heeding The Call Of Nature
As the waves splashed and receded, I dipped my hands into the bowl that held a dozen fragile, small, hard-backed reptiles and scooped one of the creatures into my palms. It instinctively flapped its paddle-like fins, and I set it on the sepia-colored sand of El Salvador's Barra de Santiago, watching as it slowly followed the sunset and made its way into the Pacific. The only footprints on the sand were turtle tracks.
This sea turtle and its 11 bowl-mates had been born and raised in La Cocotera Resort & Ecolodge, the first true ecoresort effort in El Salvador, and one of the few in Central America that carries the idea of being environmentally conscious through every aspect of its operation. "Part of being 'eco' is to not leave such a big footprint on the land," says Joseph Bruderer-Schwab, founder of the resort. "I feel really proud and good inside, that I [created the resort] that way, with the environment in mind."
The little-known Barra de Santiago lies in the southwestern tip of El Salvador, almost on the border with Guatemala. This flat coastal plain flanked from afar by the iconic Salvadoran mountains and volcanoes is composed of barrier islands and mangrove-rich channels. What makes this region a unique getaway spot for nature lovers is the ecological diversity. Within a small expanse of land there are a number of habitats, including ocean, river estuaries, marshes and forests, and consequently there is an abundance of wildlife to be seen and experienced.
It was just a few years ago that Bruderer-Schwab, a business owner from San Diego, Calif., discovered that some vision problems he was experiencing were being caused by a brain tumor pushing on the optical nerve. Following a delicate surgery, Bruderer-Schwab accepted an invitation from his college friend, Dr. Daniel Guttfreund, to recover at his beachfront home in Barra de Santiago. He instantly fell in love with the area and its people. "It's unique with the two sides of water, the ocean and the estuary," he says. Upon seeing an empty lot for sale, he acted upon an impulse to purchase it, not quite knowing what he would do with it. "I just felt I needed to buy the land because I felt something special and thought, 'Something will come.'"
After a year-and-a-half, the idea for an environmentally and socially conscious hotel was born. La Cocotera Resort & Ecolodge sprang out of the need to not only share this natural mélange with the world, but to preserve it for generations to come—and even reverse the human impact it has endured. With the help of Guttfreund and a million-dollar investment, Bruderer-Schwab developed a boutique resort that puts guests as in touch with nature as possible with as little damage as possible, but still providing what can only be described as a private luxury villa experience. "We offer comfort, but with an 'eco' consciousness," says Guttfreund.
Six elegant bungalows are housed in three two-story buildings boasting traditional Salvadoran architecture, with thatched roofs and a design that conceals water pipes and electric wiring within bamboo trunks. Each bungalow is equipped with a large flat-screen TV with DVD player, air conditioning and a rainfall shower in a stone garden setting, and all guests enjoy the comfort of memory-foam mattresses. While enjoying these first-class amenities, guests rest assured that: the shampoo, conditioner and cucumber soap provided are biodegradable; the excellent water heating is harnessed from solar energy; and the resort has a state-of-the-art waste-water recycling system.
In addition to these efforts, the oasis-like pool in the center of the complex is maintained by a saltwater chlorinator, which creates chlorine to treat the pool's water from ordinary granite salt. Instead of continuously adding chemicals, the natural chlorination process keeps the water clean, the environment around it safer, and it even makes swimming a much more pleasant experience. Akin to a soft-water shower, this type of saltwater pool leaves the skin smooth, soft and refreshed.
Elsewhere on the grounds, two elegant ranchos—large pavilions—serve as dining and lounge areas. Gourmet meals, such as paella with freshly caught shellfish, are served for lunch and dinner, and prepared by a local yet experienced chef. A fresh Continental breakfast buffet is available every morning.
All services at La Cocotera are complemented by the attentive and friendly staff, who treat each guest as if they were the only person there. Recreational activities include water-skiing, kayaking, boat tours through the mangroves and even sportfishing. Even these, however, are kept as "green" as possible; low-emission Evinrude E-Tec engines are used in resort boats, which burn less fuel and create a cleaner boating environment.
Privacy and escapism are key at La Cocotera. Although the bungalows have TVs, there is no cable or satellite signal; generous DVD and book collections are available for guests. But business travelers can still stay in touch with the outside world via impeccable cellular coverage and the resort's Wi-Fi system.
Having studied many top ecoresorts in Central America, Bruderer-Schwab and Guttfreund saw the need to take the idea one step further by engaging guests in ecological activities.
The turtles I released are part of La Cocotera's effort to increase the population of the olive ridley sea turtle, which nest in the Barra de Santiago—but which also fall prey to both animals and humans. La Cocotera buys eggs poached by locals and reburies them in an enclosed area; once they hatch, they are cared for in a specially built tank, after which they are released by staff, local schoolchildren and resort guests.
The program was developed with the help of Dr. Carlos Hasbún, a marine biologist who specializes in sea turtle studies and who previously was director of FUNZEL, Fundación Zoológica de El Salvador (Zoological Foundation of El Salvador). The most important aspect is the "imprinting" process, which is the instinctual branding a turtle experiences when it walks across the sand and into the water; decades later, this action is recalled, and the turtle makes its way back to the beach where it was born to mate and lay eggs. "In the imprinting process they will know how to defend themselves," says Guttfreund. This project effectively raises the turtles' chances of survival by 10 percent. In about 10 years, it is hoped that the first of the La Cocotera turtles return to this very beach.
La Cocotera is also involved in a project to reintroduce the scarlet macaw to El Salvador, spearheaded by Dr. Robin Bjork, who has worked with the Wildlife Conservation Society and several universities in the study of different bird species.
Education is another way La Cocotera helps the environment, by involving the children from the local municipalities in learning excursions that awaken a sensitivity toward the the environment and the duty to protect it. "We have to begin with the children," says Héctor Morales Jiménez, director of nearby Centro Escolar Cantón El Zapote, a school that has earned several top honors in El Salvador for its environmental awareness program. The resort has also made significant donations to the school, the latest of which has been a new computer lab.
"The next step is to use the solar energy for the electricity," says Bruderer-Schwab about the future of the resort. The work at La Cocotera has only begun, but his goal is to leave guests of La Cocotera with a new vision of the world. "You come away thinking more about your own life and how you live day to day," he says. "That's an added benefit. You're kind of contributing."
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