I’ve stayed in my fair share of hotels around the world, but I’ve never needed a life jacket, helmet or paddle to get to a check-in desk before. But travelling via raft on the whitewater Pacuare River is the only way for guests of remote Pacuare Lodge to reach their destination.
My guide Jorge assures me that if the raft flips, there will be no reason for panic (easy for him to say), and then we push off from the polished-pebble bank. “This is no ordinary river,” he informs me proudly. “It’s one of the great rafting rivers on earth.” And with that, we venture into the heart of Costa Rica, one of the last great wild places on the planet.
Not only is this country stunning – as I’m able to discern once our group of three gets the hang of navigating the rapids – it’s also one of the most conservation-oriented in the world. With good reason: while Costa Rica is a mere speck of land, covering only 0.03 per cent of the earth’s surface, more than 500,000 unique plant and animal species (that’s four per cent of all life) are found here. In addition to Caribbean and Pacific coastlines, and a spine of tall mountains, the country’s borders harbour more than 70 lizard, 120 snake and 890 bird species, along with crocodiles, vampire bats and monkeys – and (though more difficult to spot) tapirs, deer and jaguars. It’s no wonder this is an eco-tourism hot spot. And while the rest of the world is struggling just to recycle bottles, Costa Rica is committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2021. With 80 per cent of its electricity already originating from sustainable sources, it’s well on track.
There are four popular eco-tourist areas in the country, mostly preserved through splendid isolation. Tortuguero National Park, on the far-north Caribbean coast and home to thousands of endangered turtles, can be reached only by small boat. Monteverde Cloud Forest (famous for strange orchids and stranger birds) is perched high among the cumulonimbi in the northwest and accessed by four-wheel drive. The third, the Arenal Volcano, in the northern lowlands, is accessible by car. The fourth, of course, is the Pacuare River.
“Left, back!” shouts Jorge. It’s my cue to paddle backward to prevent us from broadsiding a slab of rock. We careen past towering, moss-softened canyons, as unseen monkeys screech from the treetops. After a few more hours of spray-soaked, rock-dodging fun, we arrive at Pacuare Lodge, my home for the next three days. The resort lies beyond the rain shadow of the Cordillera de Talamanca mountains, east of the capital, San José, toward the Caribbean coast.
The hub of the resort is a two-storey restaurant and lounge overlooking the river. A smattering of private villas is scattered among the trees, through which floats a confetti of iridescent butterflies. My room, a short walk through an Avatar-like landscape, is breezy and open-plan, with a net-draped bed, polished hardwood floors and a claw-foot tub with a view of the river. Outside there’s a natural-stone freshwater plunge pool, expansive deck and outdoor solar-heated shower. The only thing missing is electricity. After a brief moment of First World panic, I realize that all I need is candle- light (amply supplied) and a book. The thick timbers and screened walls frame a view of the treetops, which are atwitter with hummingbirds and twitching with insects whose bodies articulate in ways I didn’t think were possible. When evening falls, we guests head with moth-like predictability toward the electric glow of the lounge for cocktails and to trade stories of zip-lining, rafting and hiking – just three of the adventures the resort can organize for guests.
The following morning, I take a tour with Andreas, Pacuare’s general manager, to see first-hand the extent of the environmental credentials that have earned the lodge five leaves, the top accolade of the country’s Certification for Sustainable Tourism authority. At the bottom of a leafy ravine, a small turbine shed hums energetically as water plunges 55 metres to a paddlewheel generator. The six kilowatts it produces is just enough to power the 100 garden lights, kitchen, lounge and office or the single power-hungry air conditioner for the wine cellar. (I suppress a pang of guilt at having enjoyed a glass of Pinot Noir with last night’s meal.) To round out the tour, Andreas points proudly to a bio-digester they are testing: soon it will turn septic waste into methane cooking gas. It’s not often that beauty and practicality go hand-in-hand, but this place is the whole package.
While organized nature tours are the lodge’s specialty, these also occur spontaneously. I follow a blue morpho butterfly a short distance into the dense jungle, coming upon a foot-long stick insect and a false fer-de-lance (a harmless snake whose defense mechanism is to resemble the country’s deadliest). In the dense canopy above, a troupe of howler monkeys (relocated from farmland by lodge staff) call happily across treetops bejewelled with hummingbirds and toucans. The following day, I backtrack upstream, via a road more treacherous than the river, and kayak the Pacuare in an inflatable canoe. After rafting, the autonomy of the canoe adds to the excitement – although when I flip it end-over-end I have no one to blame but myself.
After taking my reluctant leave from the lodge – which, of course, entails donning that helmet and life jacket again – I meet with Emilio Zúñiga. The co-owner of a three-leaf (and, rather impressively, carbon neutral) tour agency and travel outfitter based in San José, he will drive me to my next lodge. Zúñiga has worked hard to create an environmentally sustainable business. “Eco-tourism in this country is the result of three big events,” he tells me. “The Nobel Peace Prize, the volcano and the World Cup.”
As we descend into a verdant valley, Zúñiga relays the story of how, in 1948, rebels led by José Figueres overthrew the reigning political dictatorship. Figueres amended the constitution, abolished the military and set the country on an uncertain but resolutely peaceful future. He paved the way for President Óscar Arias, who in 1987 brokered a peace deal to end the civil wars raging in Central America, earning himself a Nobel Prize.
Then came the 1990 World Cup. Costa Rica didn’t host, mind you – it simply competed. But this sparked a national pride that in turn fuelled a desire to protect the whole country, environmentally and socially. “The most important thing that kick-started eco-tourism, though, was the volcano,” Zúñiga continues, explaining that Costa Rica literally exploded onto the tourist map in the 1990s when long-dormant Arenal became one of the most active volcanoes on the planet. Rustic lodges replaced cattle ranches and Arenal, where we’re headed now, became a hot spot (excuse the pun) for volcanologists and outdoorsy types.
It’s dark by the time we arrive at Nayara Hotel, Spa and Gardens, and the cluster of restaurants on the main “street” are abuzz with alfresco dinner activity. At first glance, Nayara’s coveted three leaves are a little hard to spot. On inserting my key card into a socket on the wall, the room jumps to life like a small carnival: pot lights and wall sconces fill the room with brilliance and two air conditioners chirp melodiously. There is also a TV, a DVD player, a phone and ample towels and robes – in short, it resembles any luxurious hotel. On the nightstand, a card informs me: “Water is life. Only use the necessary,” but the two indoor rain showers, outdoor shower, double vanity and Jacuzzi give me ample opportunity to squander it. (Not that I’m complaining: it all looks delightful after a day on the road.)
Costa Rica’s genius is that well-run eco-lodges can offer guests every luxury and still be mindful of the environment. Nayara composts all of its food scraps (or sends them to farms for pig feed), uses low-wattage LED lighting and biodegradable cleaning products, monitors water use, recycles wastewater and avoids using pesticide and fertilizer in its verdant native gardens. I revel in the opportunity for a truly hot shower, a good movie and some air conditioning and resolve to spend the following day lazing in my room, scrutinizing the steaming volcano (visible from my window) for any sign of eruption (the last big ’un was 1998). While there are many tours on offer involving hiking and horseback riding on the volcano’s flanks, I’m still sore from rafting. So after lunch I stroll into town and deposit myself at the Eco Termales Hot Springs, one of scores of natural thermal pools in the area. I soak in the steaming water and, later, tuck in to a traditional dinner of beef with rice and refried beans before heading back to my comfortable bed.
The next day I rise early and head two hours north to Rio Celeste Hideaway Hotel. En route, my driver comes to an abrupt halt and beckons me from the car. While I marvel at the girth of a 500-year-old Ceiba tree, he rummages among the damp leaves, emerging triumphantly with a bright-red strawberry poison dart frog. (How exactly he was able to handle such a toxic creature unharmed, I’ll never know.) If in Los Angeles everyone is a budding actor, in Costa Rica everyone’s a naturalist.
When we arrive at the lodge – two sloths, three frogs and a dozen exotic birds later – I’m pleased to find that it feels utterly remote, as if it has just been hacked from the jungle. It has many of the same comforts as three-leaf Nayara (TV, air conditioner and plentiful hot water) but something about it feels even closer to nature: maybe it’s the giant koi pond in the centre of the lounge, or the compact size (just 24 suites).
The newly finished resort should have opened three years ago. The delay was due in part to the fact that they had to plant a new tree for every single one they cut down. The result is a delightful community of bungalows set on the edge of virgin rainforest.
At dawn, I realize just how close to nature I am. I awake to what sounds like a murderer at my door. Leaping from my bed and sneaking outside through a side entrance, I see with some relief that the unwelcome wakeup call is courtesy of a howler monkey. He purses his lips like a tenor and lets out a deep bark, then saunters off in the direction of his companion, who is howling in the treetops.
Now wide awake (thanks Mr. Monkey), I head to the breakfast buffet (snaring an extra serving of treacly teacake for my journey) and then into the forest to explore while the canopy is atwitter. Compared to the Pacuare area, it’s a little drier here. I scan the undergrowth, ever hopeful of spotting one of those elusive jaguars. I meander past a spring (the source of the hotel’s water) and over a few bridges until I arrive at the namesake river, Rio Celeste. I strip down and immerse myself in the surreal blue water. Coloured by minerals, the Rio Celeste is one of the main attractions of the region. But at this little-known bend, I have it all to myself.
As I soak, I wonder what will stay with me most about my journey. It strikes me that I’ve learned a lot, in this place so abundantly blessed by Mother Nature, about human nature. Costa Ricans – a people without a military – have discovered that you don’t need to fight for the environment, you just need to respect and love it. And really, what’s not to love?