A travel writer sometimes feels a little awkward recommending a specific resort, rather like a shill for somebody's business instead of an advocate for a vacation venue.
The Lapa Rios Ecolodge in Costa Rica, however, is a vacation venue of its own, a veritable Disneyworld of the tropical rainforest, an immersion in an ancient, timeless fantasy of what the world was like before humans. Centered on nearly 1,000 acres of flowered and fragrant jungle, Lapa Rios teaches its guests to cherish this breathtaking environment and to its preservation.
Located on the Golfo Dulce (Sweet Gulf) Forest Preserve, and on the edge of Corcovado National Park, 100,000 acres of biological diversity and endangered wildlife, it's also elegant luxury in the midst of some of the rarest natural beauty on Earth -- but luxury of a different kind. No phone service, no Internet, no video games or television. Only the quiet sounds of the rain forest. And it's about as far out in the wild boondocks as one can get in Costa Rica.
Visitors approach Lapa Rios by small propeller planes, less than an hour flight from the international airport in Costa Rica's capitol of San Jose. They touch down at Puerto Jimenez, a sleepy hamlet on a muddy little river on the Osa Peninsula on Golfo Dulce on Costa Rica's southern Pacific Ocean coast.
Then it's less than an hour to Lapa Rios on the very tip of the Osa Peninsula, a lurching, bumpy ride along unpaved roads in a "jungle taxi," essentially a pickup truck where travelers sit on benches in the covered back. Then visitors arrive at the towering main lodge of Lapa Rios, a "palapa" of vine-bound poles, roofed with woven palm thatch, open on all sides and towering 50 feet to an observation deck reachable by a three-story, circular hardwood staircase.
Below spreads the wet-green and deeply contoured rainforest canopy, and beyond, from the southwest around to the southeast, is the tropical ocean.
Hot and more likely a little shaken and fatigued from the trip and the truck ride, the tourists are greeted by crisply attired staff members with a warm welcome which more than likely includes tall iced fruit drinks pressed into their sweaty hands as they step down.
Built of natural materials in harmony with the environment of the forest and the beach below, the main lodge is the focal point for just 16 guest bungalows reached by paths and steps along the ridges.
More than 350 feet above the sea, Lapa Rios' swimming pool -- where iguanas perch and squirrel monkeys scamper and leap in the trees above the deck chairs -- and the observation decks of every bungalow, overlook the Golfo Dulce and its awesome sunrises.
Cooling breezes flow from the gulf through the main lodge's bar, restaurant and small library. Across the gulf and down the Pacific shore, one can actually see a far point of land that is Panama.
At check-in, each guest is issued a flashlight and warned to look carefully even in the daytime for the fer-de-lance, bushmaster and other poisonous snakes that may show up on the footpaths. And warned to shake out shoes in the morning for scorpions or other horrors.
Most often killed by snakebite in the Costa Rican rainforest, visitors are told, are people who practice the illegal hunting of monkeys, looking up at the treetops as they walk, and not down, as they should.
Staff members are exclusively people hired from the local community, with an emphasis on education and training. Where no school was available before, the owners have used proceeds from Lapa Rios to build a primary school for local children on the border of the Lapa Rios preserve.
The bungalows are smaller versions of the gargantuan main-lodge palapa, thatch-roofed palapas with attractive interiors of polished hardwood, an indoor shower in the bathroom and an outdoor shower on the deck. Each bungalow has its own private observation deck, where one can watch the kaleidoscopic toucans and macaws gliding between the trees below; see in the trees all around them the howler monkeys, spider monkeys, white-faced monkeys and squirrel monkeys; witness the sunrise with a big-sky view.
The mosquito nets that surround the beds draping on all sides from the high canopies are not really for mosquitoes but for spiders. Guests realize this at night when they wake to see the outside surface of the netting festooned with tarantulas and other fuzzy brown spiders big as a big man's hand with fingers outstretched.
The palm thatch above is where they hide in the daytime. At night, visitors come into their palapas to find these monsters hanging on the screens, perched on a towel on the bathroom towel rack or on a shelf where one has stacked one's clothes and reaches up for a nightgown.
That's okay, though, because nature is what people come here for, and it forms a primary element of guest activities. There are guided night jungle hikes, for example, blind-black except for flashlights that show a night alive with insects and critters like the coati mundi or the kinkajou, its prehensile\ tale affixed to a branch above, its large and lustrous eyes returning the flashlight glare.
Nature hikes are not the whole story, of course. Lapa Rios offers more conventional recreation activities like sea kayaking, surfing lessons (the waves of the Golfo Dulce are not very big, but just right for learners); world-class sport fishing on the gulf and horseback riding down through the jungle and along the beach.
But nature is the main attraction. On guided rainforest day hikes, one might see sights like the frogs that provide the poison for poison darts. There's the "medicine walk," where the local shaman guide points out medicinal plants and explains their uses -- including, of course, as snake bit remedy.
There are guided dawn and dusk bird-watching hikes; a guided walk of the beaches and tidal pools below resort; a guided tour where visitors labor uphill splashing in and out of the clear Carobonera River to high and pristine waterfalls; even a jungle overnight hike to a covered platform where one sleeps to the jungle sounds and thrills to jungle sights -- maybe even a jaguar.
Or visitors can just relax, with few sounds to disturb the relaxation but the calls of birds and the hooting of the big black howler monkeys.
Some parents, lounging on deck chairs by the pools and watching the squirrel monkeys play overhead, are surprised to see their children quietly reading a book or playing chess. No cell phones, no Internet, no television --Lapa Rios, truly, is about as far away as one can get.