The town of Santa Ana, which sits about 10 miles west of Costa Rica’s capital city, San José, is famous for many things – from onions to an annual cow herding parade – but mostly for its pottery. Approximately 60 pottery shops line the streets of Santa Ana, displaying piggy banks, vases, candlesticks, and more, all made by local artisans. Stopping at these shops is almost mandatory for the hundreds of national and international tourists who visit Santa Ana.
And now, visitors can not only purchase such traditional handicrafts, but they can also see the oldest potter in town, Mario Hernández (winner of the National Prize for Folk and Traditional Culture), working the clay on his old kick wheel as he tells the story behind all these pottery shops. Tourists can also visit a clay pit, indulge in a clay-mask facial (excellent for the skin), hike through beautiful landscapes, watch birds, and eat delicious typical Costa Rican food.
It’s all part of Pottery in Costa Rica, a tour created and offered by the Hernández family, the very same people who first brought pottery into Santa Ana back in 1960, when Sidóneo Hernández (Mario’s father) arrived with his wife and 10 kids and opened the first pottery workshop. His sons subsequently opened their own workshops, where local workers learned the trade and opened even more workshops. Since then, pottery has provided a sustainable living for dozens of local families and become part of Costa Rica’s cultural patrimony.
After taking a group of special education students to see Santa Ana’s pottery, FUNDECOR (a local NGO that promotes conservation) encouraged the Hernández family to create this tour. Since then, the tour has become popular with students and tourists alike, but Ana Hernández, Mario’s daughter, is working to improve it even further. Over a year ago, FUNDECOR invited her to participate in a series of trainings for small tourism entrepreneurs provided by the Rainforest Alliance. The trainings, funded by Citi Foundation, aimed to strengthen rural and community tourism in Costa Rica as a source of sustainable income; the trainings covered key areas such as sustainable tourism practices, conservation, marketing, as well as business administration and finances.
“I knew everything about pottery but nothing about tourism. During the trainings, I learned easy but very helpful practices to improve our tour. They taught us about customer service, tour guiding, cost-cutting, and finance management. I learned how to create cheaper yet nutritionally balanced and delicious typical meals for my tour, using local and seasonal produce. One of my favorite activities was the exchange of experiences with other entrepreneurs,” Ana Hernández said.
She also learned several environmental practices that helped them to better protect the land where the clay pit and the family cabin are located. The family is reforesting areas near the clay pit, and instead of discarding old tires, family members use them for decoration and retaining walls; the Hernández family is also protecting the small watershed that runs across the property. As part of the tour, the family shares information about local biodiversity. “We want to keep promoting pottery, history, and local nature through our tour,” Ana Hernández said. She added, “We are planning to build cabins where tourists can spend the night.”
More than 600 entrepreneurs and 140 small and medium tourism businesses in different parts of the country benefited from these trainings. The Rainforest Alliance also provided access to an online training platform and gave on-site technical assistance to 50 small management enterprises (SMEs), tourism cooperatives, and community groups.