The upper portion of Hacienda Barú was first homesteaded by Rafael Cespedes in the mid 1940’s and, in 1951, was sold to Rafael Cruz. Don Rafael also purchased the lower portions from Tobias Rojas and Ramon “Moncho” Sandoval combining the three sections into what is considered to be Hacienda Barú to this day. He used it mainly to run cattle for both beef and milk. When he purchased the property most of the lowland was still forested, but during the time of his ownership, much of that jungle was cleared and the land planted to pasture. Bits and pieces of the old cooling system that he brought to handle the milk can still be found there today. He installed the water storage tank that is still in use at the old hacienda house and constructed the original water system that has since been completely rebuilt to supply water to the area around the cabins. He had a house and corral which no longer exist.
The last time a jaguar was reported on the hacienda was in the late 1950’s during Rafael Cruz’ ownership. The large cat reportedly killed a dog belonging to Manuel Angel Sanchez, the foreman of the farm at the time.
It was during the early 1960’s that the government improved the jeep trail that is now the road to Quepos. The pond that is found on the Hacienda Barú lowland between the old hacienda home, La Casona, and the Barú River was excavated by the road construction crew to acquire the rock and gravel to form the base for part of the road. Afterward the hole filled up with water and now is home for caimans, as well as many frogs, toads, water birds and insects.
After Rafael Cruz the next owner was Ishmael Mata, who stayed for only a short period of time. He felled more forest, mainly on the hillside above the present day hacienda house, between there and the river, in order to plant pasture. He later sold the farm to a lady known only as Doña Rosalia who never lived here and didn’t make any changes during the short time she was the owner.
The next owner was a LACSA pilot, Theorico Zamora who purchased it in the late 1960’s. “Toco” Zamora, as he was known, also ran cattle on the property until his death. His widow, Ana Maria Acosta then offered the hacienda for sale. La Casona was built during the time of “Don Toco” in the same location where it is found today. No more forest was cut during this period and only the pasture that was already in existence was utilized for cattle. The part of the hacienda where teak is planted today was planted to soursop fruit trees (guanabana in Spanish) and to this day is refered to as the “guanabana” lot by the old timers.
Jack Ewing first visited Hacienda Barú in February 1972 at the request of a group of investors from Tennessee. On his recommendation, they purchased the property and leased it to Jack’s employer for the fattening of beef cattle. They kept about 150 head of cattle there until 1976 and put Jack in charge of their care, obligating him to visit at least once per month. In January 1976, Jack left his previous employment and began working directly with the owners of the hacienda. Two years after that he became a partner in the ownership of the property. Since 1976, when he became a direct employee of Hacienda Barú, hunting has been prohibited.
At the time of the purchase, a squatter was present on the upper portion of the property. Jack made an agreement with him and he left peacefully after having slashed and burned nearly 30 acres of primary forest. That land has regenerated into a secondary forest and includes the present day jungle campsite. The area around the campsite has been kept relatively open to facilitate the observation of birds, but parts of the area have regenerated into very impressive secondary forest. The observation of the regeneration process over the years has been quite interesting and continues to be so.
In 1976 about 50% of the rain forest was selectively logged. Although some of the larger trees were removed, the jungle was not cut down and the logging was restricted to about one tree for every 2 acres. The oldest trees, ecologically important as nesting sites, weren’t cut because most of them were hollow and had no commercial value. Traces of some of the roads that were rough cut into the forest to remove the logs can still be observed today. Almost none of the trunks are still visible and, in most places, the selectively logged forest is indistinguishable from primary forest. It is interesting to see how resilient the rain forest can be when it must recover from such a shock. Fortunately, Costa Rica’s soils are of nutrient rich volcanic origin permitting the rapid regeneration of foliage in most areas.
From the time of Ishmael Mata until the year 1979 the hillside between the entrance to the old hacienda house and the Barú River was pasture for cattle. In that year Jack decided to let it return to jungle, and quit chopping the weeds and pasturing the cattle there. The vast seed bank in the rest of the tropical rain forest of the reserve, contributed to the rapid regeneration of the vegetation on the hillside. It has been an area that many biologists find fascinating as the transition unfolds the secrets of renascence of the rain forest. Being closer to the ground and thicker than more mature forest this section harbors a great diversity of flora and fauna much of which can even be observed from the main road. There is also a self-guided trail passing through it where visitors to Hacienda Barú may see for themselves.
In 1978 Jack’s wife, Diane and their two children, Natalie and Chris, moved to the hacienda to live. They remodeled the house to make it a little more comfortable for family living. Electricity didn’t come to the area until 1986 and they used butane gas and kerosene for their refrigeration and lighting needs. Flashlight batteries were always a big item on the shopping list. The kids were educated at the local public schools with supplementary education from correspondence courses. Later they went to the US to complete high school.
Between 1978 and 1982, Jack experimented with growing rice, soybeans, and sorghum on the farm, but none of these activities turned out to be very profitable. About 20 acres of cacao were planted between 1980 and 1983. Cacao, a crop which requires almost no chemicals, is used to produce chocolate. It was quite profitable, but in 1986 the price dropped so low that the plantations had to be abandoned. Today, they belong to the monkeys, squirrels, coatis, and agouties.
In the early 1980’s the Hacienda was prepared for development. A land-use study was done on the lower portion of the property and a regulatory plan was approved by all of the competent authorities. The zoning of Hacienda Barú, which was ecologically oriented, was used as a model for other plans in other places. Canals were cut near the ocean to complement the natural drainage for the hotel zone. Once everything was in place to begin development in the late 1980’s, the Ewing’s former partners decided to sell out and all operations were put on hold.
During this time Jack and Diane began to offer tours in the lowlands and jungle and to rent out first one and later two cabins. They even built a tent camp in the jungle for overnight tours. In 1992, Steve Stroud came to Costa Rica and purchased the shares of the Ewing’s partners on the condition that the Ewing’s stay and that Hacienda Barú would change operations over to Ecotourism. Shortly after Steve’s arrival, tree climbing, a Canopy Observation Platform, and four new cabins were added to the two already in use on Hacienda Barú.
Today, Jack and Steve have worked successfully to have Hacienda Barú declared a National Wildlife Refuge by the President of Costa Rica on the recommendation of the Ministry of the Environment. A corridor of approximately 40 hectares (100 acres) is being reforested to connect all the pieces of forest in the lowlands and the large wet forest of the higher portions. An agreement has been reached with the highway department to create a bridge and tunnel system allowing the unrestricted crossing of animals above and below the coastal highway.
On another front work is being done to join Hacienda Barú and neighboring forests to a larger ecological corridor that will run along the coastal mountain range connecting the forests on the Osa Peninsula with Manuel Antonio Park near Quepos. This project is called The Path of the Tapir Biological Corridor after the largest land mammals in Central America that once roamed here but are no longer found in this area. The dream is that Baird’s Tapirs may some day return to this zone by way of the corridor that bears their name. Another corridor that passes up the Savegre River basin will then connect the Path of the Tapir to the large Los Santos Forest Reserve and the immense Amistad International Park thus creating an interoceanic ecological corridor. All of these corridors are links in an international corridor called the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor.
Hacienda Barú is dedicated to local conservation and education. Most of the staff is local and guide training seminars are frequently held for the hacienda’s guides and those other interested tour businesses. Talks on the operations and philosophy at the Hacienda and free trips into the jungle for nearby school groups are part of the program for environmental education. The future of conservation depends on the school children who will be the leaders of the next generation, and it is imperative to reach them at this young age.
The Hacienda Barú National Wildlife Refuge is financed primarily by ecological tourism which includes trail fees, guided tours, lodgings, food and souvenir sales. Donations are directed to a local non-profit conservation association, ASANA, which is in charge of the Path of the Tapir Biological Corridor and is authorized to receive donations and government assistance.