Costa Rica offers all kinds of experiences for visitors and residents alike, and there are some so unique, you can only experience them here.
A perfect example of these one-of-a-kind experiences is a visit to Territorio de Zaguates (roughly translated in English to “Land of the Strays”) the world’s largest no-kill dog shelter located in Costa Rica, up in the mountains of Santa Barbara De Heredia.
What is so unique about Territorio de Zaguates you ask? Well, where else on this planet can you hike, run, and play with over 600+ dogs on a mountain? (And then afterward visit a volcano or go surfing?)
Visiting the Territorio de Zaguates in Costa Rica
If you love animals, especially dogs, there is nothing quite like visiting this sanctuary that is home to between 600-900 dogs at any given time.
There is a dog at Territorio for everyone. They have dozens of breeds and mixed breeds; big, medium, and small dogs; short, long and three-legged dogs; black, yellow, red, spotted, and recovering hairless dogs (don’t worry, they’ve all been treated and quarantined before being allowed to roam).
The list goes on: barkers, mutes, and sniffers; friendly, shy, energetic, and calm dogs; you name it, they probably have it!
From Labor of Love to Social Media Sensation
This unconventional dog shelter had very humble beginnings. Dog lover and advocate Lya Battle and her husband Alvaro Saumet began taking in stray dogs in their home, which had a small back yard. After a few years they had acquired so many dogs that they decided to move them to an area on her family farm and started the non-profit organization Territorio de Zaguates in 2008.
At first their organization was small and slowly growing, but news about them suddenly went viral on social media in 2013 when Costa Rican advertising firm Garnier BBDO made a public service video featuring the Zagautes, promoting animal welfare as well as stirring up interest in the adoption of mixed breed dogs.
As a result, it’s incredibly busy at Territorio. Not only does this organization provide food, shelter, and medical care to its hundreds of furry wards, but they also advocate for animal rights, promote awareness of neutering and spaying to reduce the number of strays, and are very active with their adoption program. Tireless dedication is an understatement as to what Lya, Alvaro, their staff, and volunteers do. It is a responsibility that they all take seriously and joyfully.
A Canine Utopia in the Great Costa Rican Outdoors
Imagine you died and went to Dog Heaven.
That’s what it feels like when first you step onto Lya’s and Alvaro’s property. There is a surreal feeling that overcomes you as you are surrounded by hundreds of dogs going about their business. Some will stop and greet you with a sniff and a wag of a tail while most others seem to be preoccupied with some sort of secret mission.
As you pass the big red gate at the entrance of the property, continue travelling up a gravel road for a short distance. You will soon come upon the care facility with a sizeable parking area in front of it. On some days this parking area fills quickly and vehicles have to park along the gravel road or in other grassy areas closer to the entrance.
Next to the small building there are some dog pens and a large enclosed doggy exercise/play area. This is the meeting point where someone from the small staff (maybe Lya herself) will announce details about the hike and its commencement.
It is a joyful hike, which takes place rain or shine, although during the rainy season they do cancel a hike or two because it is too wet and muddy (it can be a bit steep in spots, so be careful regardless). The hike is up the mountain with the dogs to a relatively flat area where, to the visitor’s delight, Alvaro and other staff members will run with them.
The dogs love it and they wind seemingly endlessly through the visitors. This is also where people sit, talk and visit with the zaguates.
You will meet all kinds of characters and personalities (people and dogs). Most dogs are up for adoption, but there are a select few that are permanent residents.
After about an hour or so of this, everyone, including the dogs, hike back down the mountain on a different path, which is much steeper than the hike up. Certain portions of the hike can be difficult and strenuous for some people, as you are already at a high altitude and climbing higher while navigating uneven terrain.
Reasonable care should be taken, but the view and the experience make it all worth it. If you find that you’re not up for it (and some are not), you may still head back down the way everyone came up.
The hike ends at the same place you started, the care facility. They have canopy tents set up outside where you can purchase a drink, snack, and Zaguate merchandise like shirts and hats. This is where you can also make further donations and talk to a staff member about adopting a dog.
There are outdoor sinks in front of the building to wash your hands. The restroom (which is a shower and one toilet) is in the building. Don’t be surprised if you see a zaguate or two taking a nap in the shower stall.
Territorio de Zaguates Hours and Open Walks
Territorio de Zaguates is open to the public at least once a month, where they host what they call “public walks, “ which are free (for now). These walks usually take place on a weekend (Saturday and Sunday), from 9:00am to noon.
There is no set schedule for these public walks. They announce a month or two in advance on their Facebook page when the next public walk will take place.
These announcements also have specific instructions and directions, so be sure to read the entire post, as the instructions change from time to time. What varies on the instructions usually is where they would like the visitors to meet, the set hours for the walks, etc.
From time to time they cancel and reschedule (usually due to inclement weather), so it is important to follow their Facebook page for these updates. To date, they do not have a website. They use Facebook as their primary means of communication and promotion.
How to Get to Territorio de Zaguates
Previously, Territorio de Zaguates would ask visitors to meet up at Plaza Real in Alajuela or provide a shuttle which would fill fast. This was a somewhat long process so now they ask people to come to their property instead.
For those of you who have a smart phone (or a taxi driver who does), the WAZE app works well. Just type in “Territorio de Zaguates” and the location will pop up.
Here are driving directions for those who do not use WAZE:
If you come from the Heredia, exit on the road to Barva and you will pass Santa Lucia, Barva, Bridge Salas, Birri, San Bosco, Oak, Chagüites and arrive at Carrizal with a pay phone to the right. After another curve at the first intersection on the left hand side, turn onto the street Calle El Tanque and from there, the road ends 1600 meters to the red gate of the Territory.
Territorio está ubicado en las montañas de Santa Bárbara de Heredia colindando con Carrizal de Alajuela.
Para llegar a la finca puedes venir por Heredia o también por Alajuela.
Si vienes por Heredia sales por la carretera a Barva y pasas Santa Lucía, Barva, Puente Salas, Birri, San Bosco, El Roble, Chagüites y al llegar a Carrizal doblas en el teléfono público a la derecha y después doblas en la primera que hay a mano izquierda, su nombre es Calle El Tanque, de ahí son 1.600 mts, la carretera termina en el portón rojo de Territorio de Zaguates.
How to Prepare and What to Bring For a Visit
Even though there is a building on the property, it is quite utilitarian and spartan. There is one toilet, so if you need to use the restroom, be prepared to stand in a line. Otherwise, you will be outdoors in the Costa Rican countryside. Bottom line, be prepared for hundreds of dogs, the elements, and to get some good exercise.
- Dress in layers and in clothes that you don’t mind getting wet or dirty. Dressing in layers will allow you to adjust to whatever the situation warrants. It is common to get hot and sweaty from the hike but also feel cool from the mountain air or rain. Shorts are ok.
- Wear closed-toed footwear like running shoes, hiking boots, or rain boots if there is rain in the forecast. If you are more comfortable wearing hiking sandals, just know your feet will most likely get dirty or muddy.
- Bring a rain jacket, poncho, or an umbrella just in case, especially during the rainy/wet season.
- Bring bug spray and sunscreen. You will most likely need at least one of them.
- If you like, wear a hat.
- Bring a small bottle of water for the hike and after the hike.
- Be prepared to donate and buy some merchandise! Cash is best, colones or dollars.
A couple more things for the over-prepared individual to consider:
- Eat breakfast beforehand or bring a snack (like an energy bar) to tide you over. They do have snacks and drinks available after the hike but they can run out.
- Bring some Kleenex or a little toilet tissue just in case they run out.
Territorio de Zaguates Donate
There are a variety of ways an individual can help this organization. They currently do not have a website. The main online platform is their Facebook page, where all the details of how to support them are listed, from monetary donations to adoption. Here are some ways to support Territorio de Zaguates:
- Monetarily: There are several ways to donate monetarily. Visit the Territorio de Zaguate Oficial Facebook page for details.
- Sponsor a Zaguate: If you are unable to adopt a dog, consider sponsoring one!
- Supplies: There is a list of much needed and frequently used medicines and supplies that you can bring to them.
- Territorio is constantly getting an influx of new dogs. One of the best ways to support them is to adopt if possible, and adoption is not limited to people who live in Costa Rica. There have been situations where individuals from other countries adopt.
- Follow and Share on Social Media, spread the word!
- While they do not have a website yet, you can find Territorio de Zaguates on Facebook
- For information about volunteering, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Territorio De Zaguates is still a growing Costa Rican non-profit organization with a lot of potential, even with its current global fame and popularity. With more support it can become even more effective in its mission.
It is a very special place, with a spirit that reflects the love, ingenuity, and devotion of Lya and her husband Alvaro to the stray dogs of Costa Rica. They are doing their best to live out the dream of a world where euthanasia is not the answer to controlling the stray pet population and where animal rights and welfare are a priority. For the zaguates, it is a tale that begins in sadness, neglect and pain that ends in effortless joy and contentment.
The best part of the experience is to be in the presence of such a spirit and the pursuit of a noble dream. It is amazing to witness the hundreds of happy beings who are the recipients of this great cause romp through the hills of such a beautiful country.
If you have a chance to visit Territorio de Zaguates, you must! For most it is a once in a lifetime experience, one that definitely will never be forgotten. For more photos and videos, check our Territorio de Zaguates photo post.
About the Author
Donna is an ordinary woman living an extraordinary life. In 2015 she moved from Austin, TX, to Costa Rica with her husband Scott and her dog Jake to see what else life had to offer besides the typical 9 to 5 grind – and she has not been disappointed.
Having an eclectic professional background, from being an actor, serving in the USAF, and teaching Bikram Yoga for over a decade, she is now living the Pura Vida and blogs about her experiences on expat living and the simple life in Costa Rica on her website PuraDonna.com. She is also on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter as @puradonna.