Roatan in a Pill
The air is filled with the sweet smell from the white flowers of Spiral Ginger. Pale pink brats of Mussaenda Philippica -Lady Flowers surround the tree’s miniscule yellow flowers. Overhead a pair of soaring Scarlet Macaws land in the branches of a 300-year old La Ceiba tree. This is Gumbalimba, the biggest of the “Bay Islands in a pill” parks which has been marketed and likely, according to most definitions, has become an eco-tourist park.
Located on the western slopes of West Bay’s Cohoon Ridge, the park’s main attractions are the free flying birds and free roaming monkeys that interact with the visitors. Still, the reptiles are the quiet kings of the park: Green Iguanas, Spiny-Tailed Iguanas and Whiptail lizards bask in the sun amongst the thorns of cactus and in the foliage of trumpet trees.
A major element of the park is water conservation, water recycling and responsible water usage that contributes to recharging of the aquifers. “One thing I knew is that you can’t have a park without water,” said Marco Galindo, Gumalimba’s founder, who drilled five deep water wells, then dammed a gully and created a three acre pond for thousands of tilapias and painted turtles. Each year the water pond reservoir serves as a resting place for migrating birds.
The entire idea of a nature reserve and park began for Galindo over 20 years ago. A National Geographic team working on Roatan mentioned how funds could be brought in to support a wildlife habitat on the island. This planted an idea in Galindo’s mind, but he didn’t act on it until 2003. “I regret not starting this 20 years ago,” says Galindo, who purchased the 50 acres from Edrick Smith. The park, set in a 50 percent old-growth forest, has created several completely new habitats: a pond, a river creek and a cactus garden. A mature 300-year-old and 150 feet tall La Ceiba tree is its own habitat for hundreds of creatures. “We need to take advantage of what nature offers us on the island,” says Galindo.
While for independent tourists the best times to visit are the quiet non-cruise ship days, on some cruise ship days the park’s employee ranks swell from 100 to 150, making Gumbalimba the biggest tourist attraction in the Bay Islands. Most of the guides work on a Lps. 2,000 monthly retainer and, depending on the day, make $50 to $150 in tips.
The guides are constantly updating their knowledge of the island and environment, listening to lectures by visiting nature specialists or to old islanders reminiscing of days gone by. “We are here to teach locals how to appreciate nature,” says Galindo. “They are starting to find out about and understand the animals and trees … humans tend to kill something that they don’t understand.”
The park’s guides often end up showing not only birds and monkeys but sometimes things that most islanders take for granted, things that many tourists have never seen, such as cutting ants, termite or wee-wee nests and a banana plantation.
“People have heard about Jamaica and Caymans but not about Roatan. We need to maintain our edge, maintain our natural resources,” said Galindo, who along with his six sons and daughters look after different elements of running the park.
While the park has grown based on the growth of Roatan as a cruise ship destination, it adds diversity to its attractions. The park’s guided tour offers the opportunity to experience a vast variety of Roatan flora and fauna. Its 50 acre park site is home to over 200 species of orchids, 20 species of heliconias, dozens of different ferns and tropical flowers. There is a cactus garden and a palm tree nursery. The cable bridge overlooks a pond and a man-made 50 foot waterfall.
“Its great to have such an intimate contact with monkeys,” said April Larow, a tourist from New York who took a half day break from diving at a West Bay resort to come to the park. She poses for photographs with a spider monkey resting comfortably on her shoulders. While the couple decided to visit the park based on tripadvisor.com reviews, Gumbalimba has also received some great reviews in the American press, from mentions in New York Times to CNN.
The park serves as an animal refuge accepting animals that can still lead lives without being caged or endangering other animals. The “no caging” philosophy created a small “Noah’s Ark” phenomenon where visitors constantly notice free-roaming animals living in fair harmony. “We are much more than a tourist attraction; we are a sanctuary trying to preserve species native to the island for future generations,” said Galindo.
The island’s biggest snakes, boas, live on and around the park but don’t attack the birds and monkeys as often as they used to a few years ago. The introduction and proliferation of iguanas and agoutis to the park have likely created a better, more ample food source for the boas.
“People stealing the animals is my biggest problem,” admits Galindo who only this year lost three macaws, three monkeys and a sloth to the poachers. “They also come and steal iguanas, shoot the agoutis and deer. […] I let my animals loose and their friendliness becomes their biggest enemy.”
Every year Galindo likes to add a new attraction to the park. In 2008 it was “monkey town” and “monkey island”-habitats created exclusively for the Black Howlers, White Faced Cappuccino and Spider monkeys. The majority of these primates were brought to Gumbalimba as rescued animals. They roam freely, jump on shoulders of caretakers and visitors and spend nights high in the branches of oaks and magic-cow trees.
The plan for 2009 is to create thermal pools and mud baths. Galindo plans on bringing in Costa Rican volcanic mud and creating an environment where visitors could en masse cover themselves in mud, then soak in pools overlooking the entire park.
Coral Cay, Gumbalimba and Yubu Garifuna Experience all offer a way of spending an entire day learning about Bay Islands and taking part in more active tours.
The Yubu Garifuna Village was an idea of Susan Jensen, a South African business woman who has lived on Utila, Cayos Cochinos and Roatan since 1994. Inspired by Zulu theme villages in South Africa, Jensen envisioned Yubu as a living museum where Garifuna culture could be promoted and kept alive. “It’s original, but not authentic,” says Jensen.
With three partners: Averyl Morris, Barbara Perillo and Mike Sheppard, Jensen opened Yubu in October 2004 and focused on attracting the growing the cruise ship clientele. Three years later Yubu is in the black and tries to give back to the Garifuna community. Yubu has begun to give 10% of the business’s profits [around $500] to the Punta Gorda’s patronato. “We wanted to help the Garifuna to promote themselves,” said Jensen who explained that around 20 Garifuna are able to support themselves from working at Yubu. According to Jensen the initial criticism about the project being outside of Punta Gorda and foreign owned has subsided. Jensen hopes that down the road more resorts will book the Garifuna Experience tours at the park, providing a more varied type of tourist visitor and better
Yubu has begun to give 10% of the businesses profits [around $500] to the Punta Gorda’s patronato. “We wanted to help the Garifuna to promote themselves,” said Jensen who explained that around 20 Garifuna are able to support themselves from working at Yubu. According to Jensen the initial criticism about the project being outside of Punta Gorda and foreign owned has subsided. Jensen hopes that down the road more resorts will book the Garifuna Experience tours, providing a more varied and informed type of tourist visitor.
While Gumbalimba struggled to fill its craftsman center, the Yubu was successful at attracting authentic Garifuna artisans: a jeweler, carver, basket weaver, a cassava bread cook and bracelet maker. The key is the proximity to Punta Gorda and the fact that Yubu doesn’t charge them rent to display their craft. [/private]