Petaluma Couple Opens Eco-Lodge
in Costa Rica to Save Avian Wildlife
By Sara Duncan Widness
The reduction, and in some cases, absence of avian wildlife, became
apparent to me 12 years ago. I didn’t understand or appreciate that it was a
— Vance Benté
Three years ago Jodi and Vance Benté, who over many years have harbored many pet birds, went bird watching in Belize on their honeymoon.
As often happens to folks who find themselves in exotic places, their honeymoon spawned another love affair, this time with Belize, which after Costa Rica, is home to more birds than anywhere else in the region.
“We went there and just fell in love with the place,” muses Jodi, CEO of Lotus General Contractors Inc. of Emeryville, CA, a small construction firm she owns focusing on concrete restoration. Vance is a principal archaeologist and vice president at URS, an environmental and engineering design firm.
Within only four months they had traveled from their Petaluma, CA home back to Belize, this time for the birds and in search of property. They found an abandoned 23-acre ranchito situated on a hillside overlooking the Mopan River Valley, near the village of San Ignacio. From the footprint of a former hacienda, they have created Casa del Caballo Blanco, 9.5 miles from the Guatemalan border and nearby significant Maya ruins, such as the World Heritage site of Tikal.
Says Jodi: “Things have just evolved to what we envisioned as our dream -- to help the birds that we believe symbolize what it means to really have balance with the environment.”
Habitat destruction, global warming and the illegal poaching and capture of exotic fauna are world problems that affect everyone, and especially birds. Jodi cites E.O. Wilson, a noted wildlife biologist and former Harvard University professor, who observes that destruction of rainforests in the Americas is, within this century, setting the stage for “the inevitable loss of 12% of 704 bird species in the Amazon Basin and 15% of the plant species in South and Central America.”
The Bentés’ recently-opened eco-lodge is designed to be a funding source, through visiting guests, assisting the on-premise, not-for-profit Casa Avian Support Alliance, a work in process that incorporated in Belize on January 3, 2006, and certified as a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) in February of that same year. Its purpose is to understand and support the biodiversity of Belize that attracts and sustains over 530 species of migratory and resident birds. The Alliance motto is: “Birds are the farmers of the world — help us to help them continue sowing their seeds.” Their work has been undertaken in cooperation with the Government of Belize’s efforts to protect critical habitat, the loss of which threatens the avian population.
On-site facilities provide a haven for avian wildlife recently freed from captivity or treated for injury or illness. Here birds can heal, rehabilitate and eventually be released back into their natural habitat. The facility is dynamic and will evolve annually with the guidance and cooperation of the Forest Department, Belize Audubon Society, Friends for Conservation and Development, Aves Sin Fronteras, and other organizations and experts from the avian community. Visit www.casaavian.org for more information.
Part of the challenge was to return the property to its
natural state. The habitat restoration consists of approximately 15 acres
under periodic cultivation until June of 2004.
As Vance explains, “During the last two years we have allowed it to rebound naturally (with the exception of planting cypress and mahogany in one area).”
A 900+meter trail has been cut linking eight observation points established by visiting biologists. “On a morning in mid-April we walked the trail and observed 34 species of birds in the bush or in flight overhead,” he says. “The In-Country Director of CASA commented on the number of nesting birds, a bit late in the season, but he has seen a Great Kiskadee, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Common Paraque, and White-fronted Parrots. In April Jodi and I actually observed a pair of woodpeckers nesting in a hollow of a palm abandoned by the local developers.”
“The folks who will most appreciate Casa del Caballo Blanco and the work we are doing,” says Jodi, “are the environmentally-conscious and, like us, looking for opportunities to make vacation time meaningful.” Volunteers assist on-site with nest-box building, maintenance and feeding as well as habitat restoration, trail building and signage.
Guests are accommodated in the six thatch-roofed, fully-screened cabanas around the hacienda-style Main House that celebrates the region’s Hispanic culture. High-beamed ceilings, tile floors, hand-made furniture and interior design features hand-crafted by local artisans evoke the footprint of a spiritual world of centuries ago. Its location provides a stunning view of the Mer de Verde, the “Green Ocean,” a site that could have been used in a similar manner by the Mayans. Each guest accommodation, sleeping up to four, has an en-suite bathroom, refrigerator, hand-crafted furniture and Mayan-inspired fabrics.
Meals that are served in an airy, thatch-roofed dining room include Mayan food prepared in centuries-old Quiché, Mopan and Yucatecan traditions. Creole foods combine exotic Hispanic and Caribbean flavors. All produce is fresh from the Casa’s own gardens and local markets and prepared locally by Belizeans. With advance notice most dietary restrictions can be accommodated.
Jodi says the best way to experience the region and their work is to spend time with the resident team that assists the avian project, and also some time visiting the region’s archaeological sites and such attractions as the numerous caves, revered by the Mayans as Xibalba, the sacred underworld, that can be explored on inner tubes and by canoes.
There are multiple-day programs that help visiting guests organize their time in a meaningful but relaxed way, including pre-dinner conversations on the patio with a cold beer or glass of wine.
Such special-interest groups as educators and scientists can also arrange to
reserve the entire facility and establish their own curriculum assisted by the
For information on year-round educational programs and vacation packages, please visit www.casacaballoblanco.com or call (707) 974-4942.
For information on the avian support program please see www.casaavian.org
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