Connect to share and comment

The celebrities are gone, but locals remain

What life is really like in Sarapiqui, the setting for this season's "I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of here!"

After catching a 6 a.m. bus out of the Nogal Guayacan, the family stopped through the community of Chilamate to visit the Sarapiqui Conservation Learning Center, a nonprofit organization that, with the help of traveling philanthropists and volunteers, operates dozens of community projects, education courses and scholarships.

With her mother, Morales helps her family to carve out a living by selling at the center crafts they make out of bamboo and other materials. Since the mid-1990s, the center has offered hope to families like hers in a region whose social and economic indicators paint a bleak picture.

According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Sarapiqui trails the rest of Costa Rica, which as a whole ranks highest in the agency's Human Development Index in Latin America.

"We conducted a ranking of (all of Costa Rica's) counties with high, medium and low levels of development," said Gerald Mora, program officer with the UNDP's San Jose office. "In 2006, Sarapiqui occupied the 73rd place of 81 counties," he said, adding it was the least developed in its province of Heredia. Like the UNDP's annual global Human Development Index, Mora explained, the nationwide ranking took into account access to "education, health and material well-being (i.e. income)."

The good news is that the region's development is actually gradually climbing. The UNDP's earliest index, in 1992, gave Sarapiqui a grade of 0.593 on a 0-1 scale of development — based on the combined opportunities and capacities a person has for developing freely, Mora said. In 2000, Sarapiqui's grade rose to 0.620 and in 2006, to 0.675.

"It has a long way to go, but that doesn't mean Sarapiqui remains without progress," Mora said.

When it comes to education, in some of the region's villages more than half of the population hasn't made it past elementary school, often because they lack transportation to a secondary school located further from home, said the nonprofit learning center's director Andrew Rothman. The center grants $300 scholarships to high school students to cover bus fare, uniforms and school supplies. In return, the students are required to correspond with their donors, participate in community service activities and keep a minimum grade point average.

But as is the case in many parts of this region, contrasts between privilege and need can be stark.

As the owner of a local dairy farm and a three-car taxi service, Denys Campos would be considered one of Sarapiqui's fortunate few. He's certainly aware, however, of his fellow struggling sarapiquenos. He drives his red taxi by some of the more rundown houses in the area, and makes a comment about reality TV, saying, "The tiny reality those kinds of programs show doesn't represent the reality of this country."

In late June the show wrapped up. Some of the 300 staff lingered to pack up monitors and other equipment, but Diana Focke, executive in charge of production, said the celebrities had gotten out of here — all, that is, but one: Actor Stephen Baldwin, who quit the contest, reportedly due to insect bites, is still at large somewhere in Costa Rica.

Read more on Costa Rica:

In world of amphibians, a rare bright spot

The sloths of Costa Rica

The rice and beans war