image of Alvaro Ugalde climbing hill

In Alvaro’s Words



Alvaro Ugalde

This book represents my personal recollections of 38 years in the design and management of the National Parks of Costa Rica. It does not pretend to be an all inclusive text document, but rather the experience “as I remember it”.

I consider that, what has happened during almost four decades, may be of great interest to the world, and very specially to Costa Ricans of today and their descendants. My main hope, is that this writings will inspire many others, and will point out some of the most important lessons learned in this incredible saga. In view of climate change events, I consider that the planet needs stories like this to be repeated over and over and over…

Table of Contents.

Quotations from my Father’s Biography.

Motivation, persistence, and saving the planet: the three main elements of success.

Since the beginning of our conservation saga, the main element of strength, was the motivation inspired to the staff who were responsible for applying the law and the policies in real life…in the field. The rangers and the park administrators. Why do rangers constantly risk their life? Because it was understood by all, including me, that our mission was a sacred mission, worth risking one’s life, our mission was to save the planet from total destruction of the web of life.

I have no doubt that this feeling, along with their courage, was the most powerful resource which made it possible to accomplish our goals. During the most critical moments of my experience, I was always sure that my field staff was going to perform their duties, in spite of all odds, and that gave me the strength and persistence I needed. People generally have the tendency to attribute the success of the park system to me. But they are wrong, the success belongs to all, but very specially to the rangers, the stewards of life in the front lines.

The 1960’s

Nicholas and Karen: messengers from the future.

Oloff Wesberg, from Sweeden and Karen Mogensen, from Denmark, a happy couple, were very special human beings. I call them “our messengers from the future”, because they came to Costa Rica in search of their dreams, and taught us the concept of managed natural preserves or, as they called them.

Their journey took them first to several countries until they ran out of places to go. What are we going to do now Olof? Karen said. Lets see if we have dreams tonight and we will decide tomorrow.

Did you have any dreams? Karen told Oloff that she had dreamed with a place which had two peninsulas and they ran to the map, Costa Rica had only two very conspicuous ones on the Pacific ocean. So, they came to their final home. They settled in Montezuma, in the province of Puntarenas and acquired a property of around 40 hectares. They were vegetarians and tried to watch the monkeys to eat the same leaves and fruits they ate. And, they carried out in their property the first restoration project in the country. As they looked for wild seeds, they came in contact with the last piece of forest remaining in their region, Cabo Blanco Absolute Biological Reserve.

Their incursion into Cabo Blanco, made them realize that even this patch of forest was being destroyed, unless they do something about it. They went to speak with President of the country don Francisco Orlich, they raised funds and they wrote letters to conservation organizations in England and the USA. With the help of the President, they were able to enroll the agrarian reform government program, then called Institute of Agrarian Reform.

With the funds they raised and the government assistance the occupants of the forest were relocated to other farms and the Reserve was born. Oloff and Karen became the voluntary administrators of the reserve from 1963 to 1970, when the Park Service was created, and took over their management responsibilities.

For them, Cabo Blanco was a truly sacred place, never to be disturbed by other than researchers. That’s why they asked the government to call an absolute reserve. And every time the issue of name change came up, they threatened us with an international campaign against any change of category. Absolute was both, their wish and their resolve to keep it that way, at least until their departure from the planet.

Oloff was killed within what is today Corcovado National Park, by a man who robed him of the few belongings he was carrying. The incident hit the media and several days or weeks passed. Finally, Karen decided to recur to the help of the dreams and took off to Osa, and she quickly found his bones.

When I die, said Oloff to Karen, I want to be buried with my bones clean white under this tree within our property; an impossible dream. But, as life always surprises us, there was nothing left of his body when she found him, nothing but white and clean bones, which were buried under his tree.

Years, later, Karen…

A Biology student in the Mountaineering Club.

Nidia Abarca, my Biology teacher.

Pedro León, part one.

Dan Janzen, part one.


The Round table on the Media and Natural Resources: the equivalent of “big ban” for conservation in Costa Rica.

Mario Boza: a man with determination and a clear vision.

Archie Carr and his family, an inspiration and a big push..

Journey with 30 pioneers of national parks, from around the world.

Three months in the biggest crack on the face of the Earth: The Grand Canyon.

Bill Wendt: a strong and forceful teacher.

One month in Tortuguero with a future President of the country.

1970: Don José Figueres becomes President for the 3rd time.

Karen Olsen Figueres: the First Lady and a Fairy Godmother for the Parks.

Tex Hawkings: an inspirator.

As a volunteer, in Santa Rosa National Park.

Three years as Director of Santa Rosa.

Lupo, Misael and their families.

A significant precedent: conversations and agreements with 40 families who were living inside the Park: a strategic financial and social move.

Lesson learned: “there can be no conservation without justice”.

The Role of the US Peace Corp.

President of Congress Daniel Oduber, part one.

Nancite beach: a sacred place for thousands of marine turtles and the people who study them.

The role of the Movimiento Nacional de Juventudes (National Youth Movement)

Joaquín Alvarado: the kid who stayed the course until his departure from this planet, and became a very special protagonist.

March 20th, 1971: Official declaration of the Park: a magnificent celebration in the dry forest.

Santa Rosa and the role of the citizens, local government and institutions of Liberia.

Fire: the biggest threat for nature in the Park.

Two other threats to Santa Rosa, which became an empowering lesson for the next 4 decades.

A memorable trip to New York with Mario.

One year as Director of Poas Volcano National Park.

1973: one year as a student at the University of Michigan

1974: Daniel is the new President, we are in trouble: a telephone call from Mario Boza.

A sad moment for Mario, and my career as director general of the Park System began.

A great celebration in the Rose Garden of the White House.

Cahuita National Park: a clash between two cultures.

Manuel Antonio National Park: a the request of the Quepos community.

Tortuguero: the product of intense negotiations in Congress.

President Daniel Oduber, part two.

The President´s Comission on Natural Resources.

Osa, Osa…

My First Encounter with the Osa Peninsula.

It was the year 1965. I was returning to Costa Rica from the United States, on a flight of the famous and now defunct Pan American Airlines. The plane stopped in every capital city of Central America and, because of severe thunderstorms, we shuttled back and forth in the area, until we finally arrived in San José; as I recall, almost completely drunk... The crew had offered us unlimited complimentary drinks in order to calm our fears and most of us, especially by seat neighbors, had taken advantage of it.

Sitting next to me, was an American couple in their fifties, who were moving from Texas to Costa Rica in search, they said, of paradise and lots of gold. He was an old gold-miner and she a retired teacher. They met in a bar and had fallen in love. As I learned later, both were definitely alcoholics. He had talked her into marrying him and selling her home and possessions, in order to settle in Costa Rica to look for the source of gold in the Osa. To be specific, in the high watershed of the Madrigal River.

Nineteen years old and very naive, I set out to help them as much as I could, not because I believed in their crazy ideas, but because I liked them. The first crisis came that very same day. For reasons that I don’t remember, their dog could not be taken out of the airport upon arrival. The animal tried to escape during the night, hurting itself so badly, that it died in their hotel bed a couple of days later. It was a real and great tragedy for them, much to my disbelief.

The amount of gear to be purchased in San José in preparation for our jungle trip to the Río Madrigal, was unbelievable — food, gold-mining pans, metal detectors, tents, other camping and mining utensils, etc…ah, and a revolver, which I bought under my name and never saw again in my life. Finally, we chartered a small airplane which took us to our final destination, Río Oro de Osa. The wife stayed behind in San José.

We landed uneventfully on a small grass strip near the ocean in the middle of nowhere, and were met by excited local residents. The property was owned by a man named don Felix Avellán. Neither Felix nor I imagined that we would meet again and again in the future.

Years later, in 1976, as I was working in the process to establish Corcovado National Park, I had to deal intensively with don Felix, since he owned another large property inside the newly created national park, which contained another landing field, a grocery store and hundreds of cattle and pigs.

As I recall, from the air Osa was then as impressive as it is today. The area which is now Corcovado National Park, was absolutely pristine, but there were several settlers trying make farms, 160 to be precise, as well as a lot more pasture-lands outside of the park, toward the point of the Peninsula. Cattle ranching to export beef to the US swept the country in the 60's and 70's, and parts of Osa were not the exception. Over the years, especially in the last 20, several foreigners have purchased and restored many of these cattle ranches outside the Park, in order to make way to young forests and ecotourism enterprises.

The day after our arrival, we set out to rent horses from don Felix and rode for a couple of hours to the mouth of the Madrigal, where we found a house owned by don Antonio and doña Rosa who in very friendly terms, allowed us to camp in their yard.

I wish somebody had taken photographs of us with all our gold-mining gear. We must have looked like Don Quijote and his assistant Sancho Panza. I think our physical appearance also resembled this famous couple.. The gold-miners looked at us with kind of a hidden smile, which forewarned me about our foolishness and predicament. Antonio’s and Rosa’s house was full of the same kind of gear and utensils we were carrying ourselves, only that ours were shining new, while the old utensils were rusted and half buried in the sand. It was obvious that hundreds or thousands of fools like us had gone through there over the decades, and gone back still poor…

But a series of tragedies were to begin in our gold-mining saga..

After dismounting the horses, my American friend was in agony. The two-hour horse-ride had produced blisters in the very lower end of his back and, where the back looses its honest name…and, as he got off the horse, he could hardly walk. All his gold mining spirits had kind of transformed into painful gestures, although the pain would briefly disappear when he tried to find gold. We panned for gold by washing sand in the river mouth. As is the case every time we tried it, tiny specs of gold were visible in the bottom of the pan. On these occasions, his face was transformed into a kind of a glorious moment, with his eyes bulging out. For the first time, I thought he was really crazy. Only much later in 1985, as I was immersed in solving the gold-mining problems of the park, did I realize that he was possessed by “gold fever”.

The same first night, Toño’s pigs and chicken were trying to eat our tent, our food and all our belongings and that infuriated my friend. The mosquitoes didn’t help either.

The next day we finally set out to conquer our goal. We hired 3 or 4 gold-miners as guides. They were very happy to get a paid day, but were obviously thinking how foolish we were. They new knew better.

We walked for about two hours, climbing the Rio Madrigal in the direction of its origins where, according to my friend, was the big source of all the gold in the Osa. He had purchased a map of the area, and had drawn a line from the mouth of the river to our destination; actually he had shown that map to me in the plane. Since there were no trails, we walked following the river bed. It was full of rocks, pebbles, sand, mud and water. I do not remember what kind of shoes we were wearing, but soon after, my friend began to complain about his feet hurting too much. Little did I know that the gold-mining side of our expedition was soon to take an abrupt turn.

Suddenly, my friend announced an unexpected decision to me and the others. In spite of all the expectations, money spent in utensils, flights, etc., suddenly he uttered the following words:” I can’t go on, forget gold-mining, let’s go fishing.” This, of course was the best moment for me. We hiked back to the house, threw all utensils on top of the pile build up over the years by people like us. He pulled out his fishing rod and fishing he went.

After that moment, we were the happiest men on earth. The fishing was absolutely great, so he was fully enjoying it, and I went about watching the scarlet macaws and the magnificent wildlife of Osa for the first time. I was, of course, very unaware that, years later as director of the Park System, I was to lead the battles to create Corcovado National Park, to save it from hunting, logging and mining. When the park was established in 1975, the Madrigal River was not part of it, but my colleagues and I made sure it was included in a park extension Decree in 1982.

In the meantime, back in San Jose, the wife had gone crazy. For three or four days she had not heard from us and considered us lost in the jungle. She went about calling the authorities and the US Embassy and started begging for help. I do not remember exactly how many days went by, not many, but the entire fuss ended when we showed up in San Jose in one piece, but much poorer than when we started.

They lived in Costa Rica for another several months. And as the time went by, my family and I realized how serious were their alcoholism and mental problems. Costa Rica was no longer the paradise they called it at the beginning. One day, they left for their next heaven, Canada, and were never to be heard from until the present. I sure hope he never use my gun…

So, this was my first encounter with Osa, as a gold-miner for a few hours – an encounter that was to be imprinted in my mind forever. Osa is considered one of the most magnificent places on the planet – a place that later, through my actions and those of many others, would become Corcovado National Park, a place for which I am still fighting for, almost 40 years later.

The establishment of Corcovado National Park

President of the Country Daniel Oduber, looked at me with a strange smile, and asked the following question: what, in your opinion, would be the value of Corcovado 50 years from now? I felt like falling and falling into a black hole…This was the year 1976.

Sometime during 1974, I received a call from him, in which he asked my opinion about a letter received from an Italian who had recently come back from Osa. In brief, the letter exalted the biological and scenic values of the Osa Península, and pleaded to the President for its protection. My mind lit up like a candle and my heart was pumping hard. Here was I thought, “a heck of a new opportunity for the protection of the Osa”

In 1972, I had flown over the Osa with the then Director of the Forest Service, the branch of the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock, to which the National Parks Department belonged then. At that moment, we were able to spot around 15 squatters, or settlers in the area recommended to become national park. He said it was -too much of a problem- and no decisions were made. But now, being the Director of the Park Service, and with full access to the don Daniel, a President with great capacity and authority, maybe the creation of Corcovado National Park had this time, a real chance.

The only big problem, and the reason for the President´s question was, that there were not just 15 squatters inside the area to be declared park, there were more than 160; some in the land owned by a large American corporation, the Osa Productos Forestales, and some in government land, or rather, land not legally claimed by anybody -a staggering and unprecedented challenge for the newly born National Parks Department.

The President´s question was subtle but loaded with philosophy. This day I had gone to see him in order to break, in my opinion, some real bad news. The cost of establishing Corcovado was not the 1.5 million colones I had estimated initially, but 12 million, the equivalent to $2 million dollars in those days. If he did not fire me this time, I would probably survive forever…

As I went into a survival mode, I decided that his question was really a joke, and that what he really meant was, “lets do it” I answered him with a smile and said: thank you boss, where do I go for the money?

He instructed me to go the Instituto de Tierras y Colonización, ITCO, the government institution in charge of helping landless farmers to get property. It was a brilliant decision. Buy putting together these two policies: conservation and agrarian reform, we were able to make headway into both. ITCO came in strong, visited the newly created park, appraised the situation of each and everyone there, purchased a property in the same Osa Peninsula to give it to those who really needed it and, within two years, Corcovado was beginning its recovery process undisturbed by humans.

This may sound simple, but it was the biggest enterprise I have ever gone through until the present. The main challenge after the Presidential Decree establishing the Park, was how to get to know everybody affected without having to go house by house. This issue was resolved by the occupants themselves. They organized by sectors, formed committees and called their friends, the communist party members in Congress.

At the time, the Communist Party in Costa Rica was much stronger and cohesive than today. There were around 6 party congressmen, out of 57, and they appointed one of them to deal with this burning issue of Corcovado National Park. To me, that was the best possible scenario. Now, I had somebody to talk to and to start negotiations. He in turn, had the ability to call large community meetings right in the Park and talk to rest of the members of Congress.

My real challenge then, was to convince this Congressman, diputado as we call them, that Corcovado was a special place on Earth, and that it must be saved as a protected area. But this was not difficult, back then and still today, Corcovado defended itself by showing its grandeur and its uniqueness. In general terms, the Communist Party position was: “yes we approve the creation of the Park, but we also want full compensation to all affected”. I informed the President and his answer was: It’s a deal, and Corcovado got its chance this time.

The occupants demanded full valuation and payment of everything they had in “their” properties (plants of all kinds, cattle, pigs, chickens, houses, etc, etc.), food for several months, transportation to their new destination and land to move to.

The government could not give land to everyone. In cases like this law required that people who already owned properties, did and still does not, qualify to government´s land programs. These were compensated for all they owned and were given transportation to their homes. But several of them, I would say the majority, did have the legal right to get a new piece of land. For this purpose, ITCO acquired a large property on the Gulf side of the Península called Cañasa, and were given construction material to put up their new homes. The village that formed from this re-location has the name of Cañasa until this day.

The golden years. Getting resources wherever they were..

The President gets two prestigious awards.

Michael Wright: the first emissary from The Nature Conservancy.

A debacle at the Zoo.

Presidential elections heat up.

May 1978: Don Rodrigo Carazo is the new President.

The Nicaragua war against Somoza: in deep in trouble with the Administration.

William Laird, an Angel from the Dupont family.

Mario becomes the President´s advisor and gets Cocos Island, Palo Verde and Amistad National Parks created.

Two years in “exile” again, at the University of Michigan.

My advisor, Kenton Miller: Godfather of the National Parks in Latin America.

The role of CATIE, Gerardo Budowski Roger Morales, Craig Macfarland and Jim Barborak.

The First Central American Meeting on Conservation of Natural and Cultural Resources.

Lesson learned: working with Congress: an inevitable necessity.

Financial crisis hits the country and the government.

1979: the birth of the National Parks Foundation.

1982: Don Luis Alberto Monge becomes President.

A telephone conversation with Kenton Miller: “you have done your homework, now you can call upon your friends..”

A very though meeting with the Washington conservation community.

The beginning of fundraising, a new experience.

Putting together a fundraising campaign: a coalition is borne..

Geff Barnard, a new teacher and mentor and a source of inspiration.

My years in airplanes, based in Washington D.C.

The Nature Conservancy international program blooms.

Meeting very famous, very wealthy and very generous people and organizations.

1984: The gold-mining crisis explodes in Corcovado: the most serious threat which has needed persistence, courage and braveness.

Dan Janzen and Winnie, part two.

1985: an election year charged with almost impossible challenges for Corcovado and the System.

Minister Rodolfo Navas: what can I do for the national parks in five months, Alvaro?

A one time opportunity.

A big hug in Sirena.

A strategic move: go to the Court System.

The Wheels of the Lord move slowly but surely….

The miners camp in San José, for months.

April 1986: I resign as director of the Park System and become a tourist guide.

May 1986: Don Oscar Arias Sánchez becomes the new President.

The move out of the Ministry of Agriculture, to the new Ministry of Natural Resources Energy and Mines (MIRENEM).

Debt for Nature swaps begin.

Rodrigo Gámez becomes a Ministerial and Presidential Advisor.

The creation of the National Institute of Biodiversity (INBio).

1990: Don Rafael Angel Calderón becomes President.

Mario Boza as Vice-Minister of Environment.

1991: My return as director of the National Parks Service.

A memorable trip to Cocos Island National Park.

Cocos became a national park during the first year of the Carazo administration in 1978 ?Due to the distance from the mainland, usually 40 hours by ship, and to the lack of resources in the National Park Service, this World Heritage Site, had been “protected”, or rather miss-protected by the Ministry of National Security, which had a couple of ships able to make the trip and get back to land safely.

Their custom was to put a man there, and come back a month or two later to see if he was alive. The patrol boat usually came back with lots of fish they received from fishermen, most commonly illegal, and with several pieces of coral reef taken from the Park.

When I returned as director of the NPS, the situation of illegal fishing in Cocos was so bad, that it was published repeatedly by the national and the international media.

Also, by that time there were two companies taking tourists for deep sea diving in the extraordinary waters of the island.

I made up my mind about the situation and decided to ask the Ministry of Security to give the park back to where it belonged, the Park Service. The feeling of despair was probably mutual, since the director of the naval section readily agreed to get rid of it.

He organized the trip to take me, one ranger and a host of journalists, to the change over “ceremony” at the Island itself. It was my first and only trip there, but an experience never to forget. We arrived and performed kind of a formal event, basically for the media and for his ego. The next morning, on Saturday, they went away leaving me and my companion there by ourselves. I was supposed to get back to mainland the following Wednesday in one of the tourists ships.

On Sunday morning, I ask the ranger to please help me tear down a horrible shack which served as a bodega. I was desperate to do something in order to improve the looks and general state of the site, but had nothing to do, except tear ugly things down. My desire was so frantic, or maybe I was so stupid, that we began taking boards and doors from the base up…When I saw that some construction still bars were stuck close to the roof, I asked him to go outside and pull them, while I pushed them from the inside. One push, and suddenly the entire structure was crushing me. One of my shoulders was hit hard against the edge of a metal barrel and I completely broke my collar bone. Lucky that there were no open wounds, but it hurt like nothing before. After he was able to pull me out, I went to take a bath and cried as a baby. It was a truly scary and sad moment for me. We went out in our little outboard motor boat in search of some help from the ship.

Luckily, one of the passengers was a doctor, but my happiness didn’t last long. He said: oh I see. Your collar bone is broken in two, but there is nothing we can do here. Let me put a handkerchief on your arm, don’t take off, and leave as soon as you can.

A couple of days before, the entire fleet of illegal fishermen came to shore to ask the director of the Park Service what they were supposed to do. They claimed and it was true, that they had spend a lot of money in preparing for the long, long fishing trip, and told me they were not ready, nor willing to leave simply at my request. I saw the look in their eyes and had no doubt that I was in serious trouble. As I had done in Cahuita National Park, my mind worked fast in order to survive without giving the park up to the fishermen.

I asked them, why do you come all the way here, risking your life in those tiny boats? Can you fish in other places and not in the Park? “No sir, we have extinguished the fisheries along the mainland and we have to come here, and even to Galapagos to fish” My mind was working fast to keep safe, and I asked them: can you please explain to me in detail, not only your story of depleted places, but also, why do you fish within the park borders? They were pleased.. “of course they said, lets go to the ocean on a boat that has the proper equipment and we will show you. Great.

During the time I gained in those explorations and explanations, I also took to explain to them to purpose of the national parks, and the worldwide importance of Cocos. I also asked them to please consider my situation as an authority, a practically naked authority, but non the less an authority. I also did my best to let them know I wasn’t against them, but thinking more on their children and other generations.

This was probably one of the best spent-time of my life. They understood I was sincere and simply a human being trying to do my job, and I understood their very sad predicament. We finally agreed that, for this time, they could go ahead with their fishing, as long as they stayed just at the borders of the Park or farther away, that from now on, they knew exactly what the law said, and also of my firm decision to do everything in my power to protect this unique place of the of the planet. From then on, not only they came back to visit me while at the Island, but also, it marked the beginning of a new era for the Park. But the story doesn’t end here..

Upon our return from the tourist ship with my broken collar-bone, one of those “tiny boats” crossed our path and, upon seeing my situation they said “we are going to Puntarenas right now, do you want to come with us? Of course I said, after all, it isn’t such a long trip..

1993: A change of Minister and Mario Boza and I have to go.

My years at the United Nations Environment Program.

The gestation of the Campaign for Osa: I leave UNDP and go the NP Foundation to coordinate the Campaign.

1994: Don Miguel Angel Rodríguez becomes President.

1995: a hell of a year… and I leave the campaign.

My years with the Costa Rica-USA Foundation for Cooperation (CR-USA).

The hunters take over Corcovado National Park.

Dr. Eduardo Carrillo cries for better protection of Corcovado.

2003-06: My return to the Park Service as Regional Director of the Osa Conservation Area.

Coalitions to save the biodiversity of Osa.

Park neighbors and the Moore Foundation come to help: 60 new rangers for 3 years. Austrian connection begins: Michael Schnitzler.

University of Vienna, December 2006…We are celebrating here today, the encounter of don Alvaro and a dedicated Austrian conservationist, a re-known musician and a music professor, my friend “don Michael el Austriaco”, as some of us call him.

Back then in the early 90’s, some ranger told me that a violinist, or something like that, from a place far away called Austria, was saying that he wanted to help us save our biological diversity. That was music to my ears my friends. A music that has lasted for 15 years, and has become a beautiful symphony.

I celebrate that meeting because to me, it represents the moment when two distant cultures decide to unite efforts on behalf of a global cause, but focused on a very important and specific place. That first meeting, lit the sparkle that later became a long lasting flame on behalf of Piedras Blancas National Park and all the Forest of the Austrians projects, both within the park and within the surrounding communities.

Costa Rica is a hard country to find on a map of the planet. You actually need an arrow or a pointer to be able to see it. It is simply a point between the two large American sub-continents. 51.000 square kilometers that emerged from the oceans only a few million years ago. A piece of the planet which became a bridge for life and for cultures to travel across.