Costa Rica: 5 Gems for the Ecotourist

Costa Rica Ecolodges - La Selva Biological Station
Talk travel: What is your favorite ecolodge in Costa Rica?

La Selva Biological Station
At the confluence of the Puerto Viejo and Sarapiquí rivers, La Selva packs about 420 bird species, 460 tree species, and 500 butterfly species into just 15 square km (6 square mi). Spottings might include the spider monkey, poison dart frog, agouti, collared peccary, and dozens of other rare creatures. Extensive, well-marked trails and swing bridges, many of which are wheelchair accessible, connect habitats as varied as tropical wet forest, swamps, creeks, rivers, secondary regenerating forest, and pastures. The site is a project of the Organization for Tropical Studies, a research consortium of 63 U.S., Australian, and Latin American universities, and is one of three biological stations OTS operates in Costa Rica.

La Selva. Other lodges provide more comfort for the money, but none can match La Selva’s tropical nature experience. The dorm-style rooms have large bunk beds, tile floors, and lots of screened windows. Newer family-style cabins can sleep up to four people and offer a greater level of comfort and privacy. The restaurant, something like a school cafeteria, serves decent food but has a very limited schedule (reserve ahead). It’s a good idea to pay the full-board fee, which includes a guided nature walk and three meals a day with your room rate, since there’s nowhere else to eat. Priority is given to researchers, so advance reservations are essential. Pros: Many activities, ecology-minded staff. Cons: OTS, Apdo. 676-2050, San Pedro. 2766-6565, 2524-0607 in San José. 60 bunk beds share 12 baths, 18 cabins. In-room: no a/c, no phone, no TV. In-hotel: restaurant, laundry facilities.

Rincón de la Vieja National Park
Parque Nacional Rincón de la Vieja is Costa Rica’s mini-Yellowstone, with volcanic hot springs and boiling, bubbling mud ponds. The park protects more than 177 square km (54 square mi) of the volcano’s upper slopes, which are covered with forest. Often enveloped in clouds, the volcano dominates the scenery to the east of the Pan-American Highway. It has two peaks: Santa María (1,916 m [6,284 feet]) and the barren Rincón de la Vieja (1,806 m [5,924 feet]). The latter has an active crater and fumaroles on its lower slope that constantly let off steam, making an eruption unlikely anytime soon. The wildlife here is diverse: more than 250 species of birds, including long-tailed manakins and blue-crowned motmots; plus mammals such as white-tailed deer, coyotes, howler and capuchin monkeys, and armadillos.

Costa Rica Ecolodges - Hacienda GuachipelinHacienda Guachipelin. Day-trippers come here, perhaps one of the best values in the Rincón area, for hair-raising adventure tours, but this 3,706-acre working ranch is also famous for its horses—all 120 of them—and its nature trails leading to several waterfalls, hot springs, and mud baths. Rugged ranch hands swaggering around give the place a real cowboy flavor. Rooms are large and pleasantly furnished, with windows front and back to let in cool mountain air. The newer rooms, numbers 32 and up, are more colorful and larger, though a bit of a walk from the restaurant. Avoid Rooms 24-31, right beside the corral, unless you enjoy the aroma of horses; try to get one between 32 and 39, which have volcano views from the front terrace. The hotel’s spa offers an array of treatments, from mud wraps to massages. Pros: Near park entrance, lots of activities, good value. Cons: Caters to lots of large groups and day visitors. 2666-8075, or 2442-1828. www.guachipelin.com. 50 rooms. In-room: no a/c, no phone, safe, no TV. In-hotel: restaurant, bar, pool, spa, no elevator, laundry service, public Internet.

Puerto Jiménez
You might not guess it from the rickety bicycles and ancient pickup trucks parked on the main street, but Puerto Jiménez (a one-iguana town if there ever was one) is the hub of civilization on the Osa Peninsula. Heading south, you fall off the grid. That means no public electricity or telephones. So make your phone calls, send your e-mails, get cash, and stock up on supplies. If you do spend some time here, you will find that new restaurants, hotels, and “green” newcomers lend an interesting, funky edge.

Costa Rica Ecolodge - Bosque del Rio Tigre LodgeBosque del Río Tigre Lodge. You can’t get any closer to nature than this off-the-grid lodge, famous for its birding trails, wedged between the forest and the banks of the Río Tigre. Our readers love it. Four second-story rooms have chest-high walls, and roofs with no screens, just mosquito nets. You’re at eye-level with the trees and, despite the almost-alfresco rooms, you’ll sleep comfortably with linens and pillows that always feel fresh. Electricity is solar-generated and limited but on-demand gas heaters provide hot water for garden showers. The gourmet food rivals that of the best luxury-lodge kitchens. Guests gather around a communal table at dinner with owners Liz Jones and Abraham Gallo, the best bird guides in the area. More than 340 species have been spotted on the property. Abraham, a life-long local, can show you hidden mountain trails into Corcovado National Park, less than a mile away. Miners still pan for gold in the nearby river, which has a great swimming hole. Pros: A birder’s paradise; great hiking trails; fabulous food. Cons: Shared bathroom (except in one separate cabin) and outdoor showers; limited electricity; must love the outdoors. Dos Brazos del Tigre, 12 km (7 mi) west of Puerto Jiménez. 888/875-9543 in U.S. www.osaadventures.com. 4 rooms with shared bath; 1 cabin. In-room: no a/c, no phone, no TV. In-hotel: restaurant, airport shuttle. Closed Oct. and Nov.

Turtles in Tortuguero National Park, Costa Rica Tortuguero National Park
Tortuguero means “Turtle Region,” which is apt, since turtles are the main attraction. Four species of turtles—green, hawksbill, loggerhead, and giant leatherback—lumber up the 35 km (22 mi) of beach at various times of the year and deposit their eggs for safekeeping. With some good planning, you can be there to watch the whole thing happen.

Evergreen Lodge. The Evergreen offers an entirely different (and intimate) concept in Tortuguero lodging: while other lodges have cabins arranged around a clearing, at Evergreen they penetrate deep into the forest. A network of walking trails extends to Canal Chiquerito, the third waterway inland. Cabins are made from deep-red almondwood or gypsum wood. All have one double and one single, as well as venetian blinds for privacy. Honeymooners make up a substantial portion of the clientele here. Watch for the whimsical ANT CROSSING signs as you walk around the grounds. Pros: Seclusion from other lodges. Cons: Rustic rooms. 2 km (1.5 mi) from Tortuguero village on Canal Penitencia. 2257-2242, 800/644-7438 in North America. www.pachiralodge.com. 36 cabins. In-room: no a/c, no phone, no TV. In-hotel: restaurant, bar.

Turrialba
The relatively well-to-do agricultural center of Turrialba (canton population 70,000) suffered when the main San José–Puerto Limón route was diverted through Guá piles in the late 1970s. The demise of the famous Jungle Train that connected these two cities was an additional blow. But today, because of the beautiful scenery and a handful of upscale nature lodges, ecotourism is increasingly the focus of the town’s efforts.

Costa Rica Ecolodges - Ranco NaturalistaRancho Naturalista. Customized guided bird-watching within a 160-acre private nature reserve is the reason to stay here. The ranch is a birder’s paradise and the narrow focus may be too much for those not interested in our feathered friends. More than 400 species of birds and thousands of different kinds of moths and butterflies live on the reserve and nearby sites, and a resident ornithologist helps you see and learn as much as you want. The two-story lodge is upscale modern with rustic touches, as are the separate cabins. Good home cooking is served in the indoor and outdoor dining rooms, both of which have beautiful views of Volcán Irazú’ and the Turrialba Valley. Guided tours, meals, horseback riding and your birding guide are all included in the price. Pros: Birder’s paradise, 11 km of trails for guests, warm atmosphere. Cons: Rooms can be musty, faded bird pictures give common spaces a dated feel, not a great base for adventure day trips. 2433-8278 for reservations, 2554-8100 for directions. wwww.ranchonaturalista.net . 15 rooms, 13 with bath. In-room: no a/c, no phone, no TV, dial-up. In-hotel: restaurant, airport shuttle, laundry service, no-smoking rooms, no elevator.


Photo credits: (1) Photo by Len Blumin; (2) Photo by Dawn Pando, courtesy Ranco Naturalista; (3) Photo courtesy of Hacienda Guachipelin; (4) Photo courtesy of Bosque del Río Tigre Lodge; (5) Photo by Tom Lianza