By Dannielle Hayes
"Pura vida" is an all-purpose Costa Rican term that means "this is living the cool, pure life". It's a perfect way to describe how the gutsy little Central American democracy has capitalised on its ecological riches: 5% of the planet's biodiversity, a pristine Caribbean and Pacific Ocean coastline, six active (106 dormant) volcanoes, and massive swaths of rainforests and cloud forests. A quarter of its landmass is classified as national park and biosphere reserve, and world-class environmental stewardship is championed by three of the country's top eco lodges. Let's check 'em out.
So harmonious is the blending of sustainable tourism and luxury trappings that Pacuare Lodge effortlessly offers a guilt-free and wildly appealing holiday experience, which is exactly what owner and former local river guide, Roberto Fernandez, intends. "My goal was to create a place where people could enjoy nature while respecting and protecting the environment. From day one, I've tried to have a positive impact on the lodge's surroundings and neighbours while providing guests with an educational, exciting and sublimely natural experience." The staff is local, organic waste is composted and all other materials are taken out by raft and recycled, a small water-driven turbine generates electricity, and guides run an expansive education program in eight local schools.
There are also sensational hikes to local Cabecar Indian villages, abseiling down waterfalls and zip-line adventures on the 300 hectare property, which will protect the rainforest in perpetuity.Lapa Rios, on a ridge surrounded by 1000 acres of protected rainforest on the soon-to-be World Heritage-listed Osa Peninsula, is the best hotel in Central America according to Conde Nast Traveler and one of National Geographic Adventure 'Top 50 Eco Lodges'. And it all comes down to its pristine tropical jungle, alive with chestnut mandible toucans, scarlet macaws and squirrel monkeys, which act as a protective wildlife corridor, attached to the Corcovado National Park. Its 16 bungalows are constructed from local plantation teak and bamboo with traditional suita palm-thatched roofs, and the engaging local staff are committed to supporting the local community. You'll find strict composting and recycling programs and even a generator fuelled by the methane gas produced by the resort's pigs!
Immerse yourself in a tropical paradise with one of the world's best ocean views from the main lodge, whose soaring rafters house a wildlife viewing deck in the tree canopy. Enjoy exquisite meals with local ingredients like chayote, coconut, papaya, mango, seafood, avocado, and maracuya passionfruit and even a different chip each day such as freshly made yuca, plantain, ñampi or tiquisque to get to know the local delicacies.
Learn to surf on long breaks at the cove at the bottom of the hill, go with local guides on bird watching tours, hike to rainforest waterfalls, or take a dolphin and whale watching trip on the Golfo Duce, one of only four tropical fjords in the world and the only one where northern and southern humpback whales gather to give birth. You must also visit the Sanctuario Silvestre private wildlife refuge where more than 70 animals like squirrels, spiders and capuchin monkeys, sloths, macaws, and other endangered species are rescued from the illegal pet trade. This is one of the many local organisations that Lapa Rios supports alongside the impressive Yaguara Wild Cats Conservation program, where scientists are working to sustain the indigenous jaguar, puma and ocelot population … and sometimes guests are encouraged towards hands-on involvement.Finca Rosa Blanca (The White Rose Farm) in its a gaggle of whimsical hobbit-like cottages tucked into lush greenery surrounded by orchards and a small organic coffee plantation in the hills behind the Costa Rican capital of San Jose.
Brightly coloured naïve paintings and murals of tropical vegetation adorn many of the inn's rounded walls and much of the locally hand-made furniture has an organic, Art Nouveau reverence for the natural world. The restaurant has a spacious deck overlooking the Central Valley and a ring of volcanic mountains in the distance. Green parakeets and blue crowned mot mots serenade from the tropical foliage surrounding a delightful 'sweet-water' solar-heated pool, with its refreshing waterfall.
Take the fabulous coffee tour to learn about producing high-quality Arabica coffee. You'll find out how organic shade-grown plantations allow for full development of the natural sugars and flavour profiles of the beans. You'll see how planting coffee with bananas, beans and other yummies helps recycle nutrients back into the soil and eliminates the need for herbicides while retaining bird habitats and ensuring greater biodiversity. After following the drying and roasting process, you enjoy a tasting (or 'cupping') session to learn how to rate gourmet brews.
Other adventures include horse-rides through coffee farms on the slopes of Barva Volcano, cultural tours to nearby Spanish colonial towns visiting markets and the workshops of giant puppet and mask makers as well as sustainability tours of Finca Rosa Blanca to see the organic gardens and red-worm farm and learn about its revolutionary non-toxic, copper-silver ionization system for the pool.
And if all this whets your appetite to go eco adventuring into more remote parts of Central America, check out Jicaro Island Ecolodge, Nicaragua's upscale eco lodge on a private island in Lake Nicaragua.
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