Animal Farm

Animal Farm

Costa Rica’s Hacienda Baru transformed from a cattle ranch into a popular ecotourism destination.


5 - 12


Earth Science, Experiential Learning, Geography, Human Geography

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Before becoming a lodge and ecotourism destination, Costa Rica’s 330-hectare (815-acre) Hacienda Baru was a working cattle ranch. In 1976, however, property manager Jack Ewing started to think differently about the operation. A cowboy had just killed an ocelot, a wild cat native to Central and South America. “I thought, what a shame to kill such a beautiful animal,” Ewing says. “And that incident provoked a lot of thought. A few months later, I prohibited hunting on Hacienda Baru. That is what got me started on the environmental path.” Ewing initially viewed the land as ideal for raising cattle. By the time he began working with the ranch in 1972 (he moved there in 1976), half of Hacienda Baru’s acreage was cleared for pastures and rice fields. “As I lived here, my vision of it changed,” Ewing says. “I started seeing it more and more as a natural environment. I fell in love with the rain forest, is what happened.” In addition to the rain forest, Hacienda Baru is home to wetlands, lowlands, and three kilometers of beaches on Costa Rica’s southern Pacific coast. Ewing became a part owner of Hacienda Baru in 1978, and in 1990, the ranch sold all its cattle. In 1995, Costa Rica declared Hacienda Baru a national wildlife refuge. “There is a lot of land here,” Ewing says. “It takes a lot of expense just to maintain it. It doesn’t seem like maintaining a rain forest is a lot of work, but it is! There are a lot of things that have to be done, and it is expensive. So in order to maintain it, we needed some source of income. The obvious source of income was ecological tourism.” Hacienda Baru offers cabins and lodge rooms, as well as 11 different tours of the grounds. Two of the more popular tours are bird-watching hikes and a zip line through the rain forest canopy. The land at Hacienda Baru has been transformed back to its natural state—except for a 6-hectare (15-acre) forest, parcels of land around the hotel, and a scientific research center. “We want to maintain as much of Hacienda Baru as we can as natural forest and as natural habitat,” Ewing says. “We want to educate people about what we are doing here.” Customized School Tours Part of Hacienda Baru’s education mission is giving local elementary school students free, customized tours. “We generally design a special tour for them according to what their professors want,” Ewing says. “We want the students to go away from Hacienda Baru with a little different attitude toward nature than when they came.” Some students get to participate in a turtle recovery project. Sea turtles lay eggs on the beach at Hacienda Baru, but poachers frequently take the eggs to sell in local bars. The employees of Hacienda Baru try to gather as many of the eggs as they can and then care for them in a protected nursery. When the eggs are ready to hatch, Hacienda Baru offers local schools the opportunity to have students release the baby turtles on the beach. “It’s a very emotional experience for a child, and they’ll never eat turtle eggs after they do this,” Ewing says. Wildlife Corridor Since Hacienda Baru quit operating as a ranch, other animals have returned to the region. Local bird species include rufous-necked wrens, roseate spoonbills, and scarlet macaws. Those aren’t the reserve’s most popular birds, however. “Your average tourist really wants to see a toucan, and we have two different species of toucan here,” Ewing says. “They [visitors] also really like to see the king vulture,” Ewing says. “I think that gets people really excited. The king vulture is white. Most vultures are black.” Spider monkeys, squirrel monkeys, and larger animals roam the area. “We now have five species of cats, but the most spectacular is the puma,” Ewing says. Ewing hopes to add one more species of cat to that list—the jaguar. “Jaguars only live in very well-functioning ecosystems, ecosystems that are so healthy and functioning so well that it will produce food for a major predator like that,” Ewing says. Hacienda Baru is also part of the Path of the Tapir Biological Corridor. (Despite the corridor’s name, tapirs themselves have not been spotted in Hacienda Baru.) A wildlife corridor connects animal populations. When a new highway was constructed through Hacienda Baru National Wildlife Refuge in 2010, Ewing and his team negotiated for the highway department to construct 21 tunnels under the two-lane road—and monkey bridges above it. The bridges and tunnels allow animals to bypass the dangerous highway. Ecotourism benefits more than local wildlife populations. Ewing says the lodge and grounds employ about 40 people. “We are very sincere about what we are doing, and our main objective is not necessarily just making lots and lots of money,” he says. “We want to do it correctly, and we want to benefit Hacienda Baru but at least make a decent living and provide a decent living for local communities.”

Fast Fact

Roads for ResearchThe construction of a highway through Hacienda Baru led to Costa Rica’s highway department claiming about 10 hectares (25 acres) of the Hacienda Baru National Wildlife Refuge. In return, the refuge received money and constructed a biological research center with dormitories, a kitchen, a laboratory, and meeting rooms.

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Stuart Thornton
Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
Kara West
National Geographic Society
Last Updated

September 27, 2022

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