Research Paper


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Assessment of the Rancho Mastatal Community



In the recent decade Costa Rica has enjoyed a booming ecotourism economy. Rancho Mastatal is an ecotourism accommodation that stands apart from others. Unlike the word economy would suggest, Rancho Mastatal is less a business than a welcoming community. This paper provides a brief overview of Costa Rican ecotourism, defines community, ask what qualities are key to the Rancho Mastatal community, and determines the community’s strength in relation to the established key qualities.



Located in Central America, Costa Rica boast beautiful tropical rain forest home to a wide diversity of plants and animals. “With less than five-hundredths of a percent of the world’s landmass, Costa Rica contains about 4 percent of known biodiversity: 205 species of mammals, 850 of birds, 160 of amphibians, 218 of reptiles, and 130 of fresh water fish” (Gombos et al, 1999). Inhabitants of tropical surroundings and beautiful biodiversity, Costa Ricans partake in a strong commitment to nature protection. In addition to the environment Costa Rica enjoys a reputation as a serene, democratic, and equitable Central American country. Since abolishing the national army in 1948, Costa Rica has enjoyed a peaceful democracy. Focusing on health care, education, and protecting its environment, the country has developed into a stable and eco-friendly first rate vacation destination, attracting a multitude of tourist from around the world (Silva, 2003).

Starting in the mid 1980s Costa Rica was one of the first countries to realize the possibilities of ecotourism. In the early1990s Costa Rica jumped ahead of older nature travel destinations such as the Galapagos Islands, Kenya and Nepal as the “number one ecotourism destination in the world” (Honey, 2003). In contrast to massive tourism in Mexico and the Caribbean, Costa Rica encourages construction of small, locally-owned hotels, and links tourism with environmental protection (Honey, 2003).

An ally of environmental protection, ecotourism encompasses minimizing of ecological and cultural consequences as well as contributes to conservation, environmental education, and advancing political consciousness. Rancho Mastatal, located in the town of Mastatal in Central Costa Rica, is an excellent example of the aforementioned tourism that provides true ecotourism as defined by the Ecotourism Society. Coined in 1991 the Society’s definition reads, “Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well being of local people” (Honey, 1998).

Rancho Mastatal

Rancho Mastatal is a sustainable living center offering lodging, environmental learning and volunteer opportunities. Surrounded by heavily forested undeveloped property the lodging and learning facilities of Rancho Mastatal are an exceptional destination for the conscientious traveler. “[The Ranch] encompasses 300 plus acres of picture perfect waterfalls, crystal clear rivers, and impressive trees in one of Costa Rica’s most undiscovered regions” (Rancho Mastatal, 2005). Welcoming to volunteers, students, interns and travelers the Ranch is host to memorable experiences grounded in a unique strength of community. Guest work and live among likeminded compassionate people while participating in a manner of living that respects, enhances and protects nature.

As an ecotourism facility, Rancho Mastatal is more then a vacation destination or hotel; it is a welcoming community. This paper will discuss what qualities make Rancho Mastatal a community versus merely an ecotourism accommodation. Additionally the communal qualities of the Ranch will be used as determinants to measure the strength of the community. Lastly appreciating Rancho Mastatal as uniquely special, this paper attempts to identify and credit what and who, compose what is a truly kindred community.


Before attempting to analyze the community of Rancho Mastatal I have first defined the community. The concept of community can be as simple as whom and what surrounds us – that is, the environment we inhabit. Merriam Webster defines community as, “unified body of individuals, people with common interest living in a particular area; broadly: the area itself” (Webster’s Dictionary, 2005). However, once we see community as simply what and who surround us, we make a profound division between it and ourselves. We give up the understanding that we and our environment create one another, depend on one another, and are literally part of one another. Our land passes in and out of our bodies just as our bodies pass in and out of our land. We and our land are part of one another. Community encompasses all who are living as a part of one another which includes humans, plants and animals. Community cannot possibly flourish alone; therefore I define the Rancho Mastatal community as locale interactions of diverse populations and various species.




In effort to understand Rancho Mastatal’s community I have read guest book entries looking for common language which describe qualities of the Ranch. I found four repeated key viewpoints – hospitality, a desire to return to Rancho Mastatal in the future, personal growth and/or change, and feeling a connection of community. I read through 258 guest book entries noting the frequency of these key qualities. The 258 entries are from two different books. The first book has 69 entries, the second has 189 entries. In total I found 253 expressions of any one of these four qualities. A numerical breakdown of their frequency is detailed below in Graph I, labeled Key Word Entries.

To analyze the community of Rancho Mastatal I compare the key qualities, as defined by the guest books, to Table I taken from Kibel and Stein-Seroussi’s Effective community mobilization: Lessons from experience. Table I exhibits five indicators of both strong and week communities. Table II places Rancho Mastatal where it best coincides within Table I. Evaluating the placement of Rancho Mastatal’s communal qualities within Table I (Table II), I define the Ranch’s strength of community according to Kibel and Stein-Seroussi’s classification.


For Graph I, Key Word Entries, I used Microsoft Excel to compute and create the graph. The numerical data was pulled in July of 2005 from guest books provided by the Ranch owners; Tim O’Hara and Robin Nunes.

Table I, is from the book Effective community mobilization: Lessons from experience credited in the literature cited section of this paper.



Graph I


Qualities Contributing to the Strength of Community at Rancho Mastatal



Series 1 is the first guest book with 69 entries. Series 2 is the second guest book with 189 entries. Column 1 is hospitality. Column 2 is a desire to return to Rancho Mastatal in the future. Column 3 is personal growth and/or change. Column 4 is feeling a connection of community. Of the total 258 entries 98% had some mention of any one of the four key qualities. 26 % express hospitality. 33% express a desire to return. 27% express personal growth and/or change. 14% express feeling a connection of community. The range of distribution of the four qualities is 20, all are within the curve of normal distribution; there is no significant outlier. In light of the four qualities having similar substantial frequency of occurrences in the guest books, I accept all four as contributing to the strength of community at Rancho Mastatal. These qualities are now then compared with So and So’s table.


Table I (Kibel et al, 1997)


Community Strength





Sense of Membership


The active participants proudly
display symbols of membership
in the community.

The active participants do not view themselves as a community.

Mutual Importance


The active participants recognize, cherish, and support the contributions of each other.

Participants are active only because one or few powerful persons are involved.

Shared World Views


The active participants hold common beliefs and promote shared values important to them.

The active participants hold fundamental different values and cannot reconcile their difference.



The active participants enjoy one another and look forward to time spent together.

The active participants have not affinity for another, and relationships are formal or superficial.

Mutual Responsibility

For Community

The survival and health of the community is a primary concern of all its active participants.

One or only a few persons struggle to keep the group together.


Below in bold I place the four key qualities of the Rancho Mastatal community into Kibel and Stein-Seroussi’s table (Table I). Excerpts from guest book entries accompany the key qualities as supportive data.


Table II


Table I Adapted to Appropriate Community Qualities of Rancho Mastatal





Sense of Membership


Feeling a connection of community

“I enjoyed your company and the company of all the guests ~ like one big happy family.” – Robin Beck

“I’ve really enjoyed the relationships that have been created between us all in the past few days.” – Dee Durek


Mutual Importance


Personal Growth and/or Change

“Thank you for the meaningful experience that will no doubt influence the rest of my life.” – Noelle Dames

 “It’s amazing to find a large gathering of great people.” – Derik M. Benton


Shared World Views


“Your vision and spirits bring together people from around the world, but they all share the desire for community, a hope for a better, more peaceful world.” – Matt Heck

“It is not the place or things that it holds that make being here worthwhile, it is the people. Both of you are magnets, drawing these wonderful types to a magical place called Rancho Mastatal.” – Ethan Kimmett




Desire to Return to Rancho Mastatal in the Future

“I have enjoyed myself thoroughly and hope to return one day. Until then please sign me up for the monthly news letters. Your friend” – Rachael Adams

“Thanks, for the third time, for letting me he here with you in this place of dreaming.” – Emily Jump



Mutual Responsibility
For Community


“I only hope I was able to give back a fraction of what I’ve gained.” – Noelle Dames


“Your home is a place where cultures meet and community is built…that’s incredibly valuable.” – Kim Justice

‘You have provided a space for so many lives to be joined, celebrated, and honored.” – Janet Eremento



Rancho Mastatal has four key qualities that contribute to a strong community. It is clear in Table II that the Ranch’s community is classified as strong. The qualities personal growth and/or change, a desire to return to Rancho Mastatal in the future, and feeling a connection of community are all appropriated in the strength column. The remaining quality, hospitality, is placed in both the strong and weak columns of the table. Hospitality has suited aspects that place it in both columns. The guest book entry quote from Noelle Dames exemplifies how hospitality fits into Table I’s definition of concern for the survival and health of the community shared among all community active participants. Unfitting however are other entries such as Kim Justice’s and Janet Eremento’s who place the responsibility of the community on the owners and operators of Rancho Mastatal. The usage of ‘your’ and ‘you’ within the context of the entries is directed towards Tim O’Hara and Robin Nunes. Reasoning entries like these I have placed the hospitality quality into the table box described by Table I as “one or only a few persons struggle to keep the group together” (Kibel et al, 1997).


Five out of five rows in the Strong column correspond to Rancho Mastatal’s key communal qualities and guest book entries. Only one out of five rows in the Weak column suite the Ranch’s key communal qualities and guest book entries. From these numbers I conclude, as hypothesized, that Rancho Mastatal is a strong community.

Concluding Reflection

Members of the community - including all guest, past and present, animals, and the surrounding ecological diversity – are to be credited with contributing to strength of the community. However, special attention should be given to the founders, owners, and operators; Tim O’Hara and Robin Nunes, long-term volunteer Roger, frequent visitor and educator Tom McDonald, residents of Mastatal, the always welcoming Pico and Mangy, the beautiful and mystical forest that unites the community of Rancho Mastatal. There may have been, and my still be, others to add to this list.

Rancho Mastatal community members create the qualities that define it as a strong community. It is the visitors of the past and the guest of tomorrow that participate in the practices that define the community as a way of life. Rancho Mastatal’s commitment to sustainable community living is beyond ecotourism and differentiates Rancho Mastatal as a unique and special dwelling.

Considerations for Further Studies

Having only collected data from the guest books did not include all guest and visitors of the Ranch, nor did it include all the human guest and visitors of the Ranch. Additionally the guest book entries lend way to bias because the guest book does not serve as an evaluation survey asking for both positive and negative feedback. As a recommendation I suggest polling the community members/guest with a survey asking for a range of feedback. Although the guest book entries do provide insight into the feel of the community of Rancho Mastatal I would consider broadening the data set to include a variety of data sources.

This paper did not detail activities of the Ranch or aspects of community members that help to create the key qualities and strength of the community. Defining and understanding the community of Rancho Mastatal is in no way complete, much like the list of contributing members of the community.



I would like to thank the community of Rancho Mastatal, Professor John E. Banks ‘Buck’ for the incredible opportunity to study in Costa Rica, Tom McDonald ‘Tiburon’ for sharing with us a tropical paradise and his knowledge of Costa Rica and it’s environment, Amber Robison for assisting in collecting data; reading guest book entries along side me, and Diamatris Winston for the use of his computer, printer, and supplying caffeine and encouragement throughout the paper writing process.


Gombos, M., & Nelson, E. (1999). !Prua vida¡ [Electronic version]. Earth Island Journal, 14(2), 15.


Honey, M. (2003). Giving a grade to Costa Rica’s green tourism [Electronic version]. NACLA Report on the Americas, 36(6), 39.


Honey, M. (1998). Ecotourism and sustainable development: Who owns paradise? Oakland, CA: Island Press.


Kibel, B., Stein-Seroussi, A. (1997). Effective community mobilization: Lessons from the past. Rockville, MD: Health and Human Service Department.


Rancho Mastatal. (2005). About Rancho Mastatal. Retrieved August 20, 2005. From


Silva, E. (2003). Selling sustainable development and shortchanging social ecology in Costa Rican forest policy [Electronic version]. Latin American Politics and Society, 45(3), 93.


Webster’s Dictionary. (2005). Community. Retrieved August 20, 2005. From