By Gregory B. Gallagher & Donald Rodrigue
The words “luxury” and “ecotourism” have existed at opposite ends of the tourism compass for years, but that’s no longer the case. This tourism phenomenon was not the result of overnight success but rather of decades of dedication, passion and imagination. From the Chaa Creek Lodge in Belize to the Canopy Tower in Panama, Central America is brimming over with exciting lodges and resorts offering luxury ecotourism.
Costa Rica’s verdant landscape has become the epicenter for this burgeoning niche market combining the best of luxury travel and adventure experiences. At the center of this action are two Costa Rican resorts, Finca Rosa Blanca Country Inn and Lapa Rios Ecolodge, both members of The International Ecotourism Society.
If a lodge stuck deep in the jungle seems daunting at first, travelers unfamiliar with ecotourism or with Costa Rica might prefer staying at Finca Rosa Blanca Country Inn (finca-rblanca.co.cr), which lies just a half hour outside of San Jose overlooking the mile-high Central Valley. Owners Teri and Glenn Jampol have created a fairytale domain that sets the bar extremely high for other ecotourism locations.
This boutique inn offers a choice of eight units, including two separate villas. The menu of personalized guided tours covers a rainbow of options sure to satisfy the most eclectic tastes. From their own horseback excursions to white-water rafting, bird-watching, hiking around volcanoes, visits to biological reserves, butterfly farms, bungee-jumping and tours of cloud forests, coffee plantations and national parks, the Jampol family welcomes guests with inspired hospitality, personal attention and gusto.
The Jampol operation is living proof that luxury and sound environmental practices can successfully coexist. The owners developed composting bins to mix organic byproduct ingredients, and they also recycle all of the non-organic waste. As a result, they’ve been honored with the “Five Green Leaf” status from the ICT (Instituto Costarricense de Turismo). Together with Lapa Rios, they are the only resorts in the country to reach this highest level of recognition from the government’s stringent Certification of Sustainable Tourism program.
The Costa Rican Tourism Institute (ICT) established the Certification in Sustainable Tourism Program, or CST, in 1999. The underlying goal was to stem the flood of waste from the hospitality industry and differentiate businesses based on their levels of compliance. This original sustainable model of natural, cultural and social resource management awards from one to five “Green Leaf” icons, according to a thorough property review process.
According to Alvaro Ugalde, the founder of the Costa Rican National Parks System, “The certification program for sustainable tourism of the Costa Rican Tourist Board is an excellent tool to assist in the sustainable development of any country.” This ecotourism model is now being exported to countries like Nigeria, Canada and New Zealand, among others.
Lapa Rios Ecolodge (laparios.com) is located on the southern Pacific coast of Costa Rica near the Panamanian border. The adjacent expanse of wilderness called the Osa Peninsula provides visitors some of the most pristine rainforest in the Americas. At the heart of the Osa is Corcovado National Park, which protects the largest tract of low-lying rainforest in Central America, encompassing some 133,437 acres of raw, untouched nature. Lapa Rios is nestled next to this vast wilderness.
This park is home to abundant wildlife and eight distinct vegetation types within close proximity, including mangroves, palm swamps and bloodweed forest. The visual drama of ancient forests and primeval coastline, with miles of unspoiled beaches and thundering cascades, now draws a stream of cognoscenti visitors from all corners of the globe. National Geographic calls the Osa Peninsula “…the most bio-diverse environment on the planet.”
Globetrotters Karen and John Lewis decided to create Lapa Rios after a two-week birding vacation to Costa Rica’s remote Corcovado National Park in 1990. The friendliness of the local people and the beauty of the untouched rainforest motivated Karen and John to liquidate all their possessions, move to Costa Rica, and purchase an 1,100-acre tract of virgin rainforest to set up an ecotourism lodge.
With the help of the community, 16 hand-hewn bamboo and wood bungalows were eventually built, along with the region’s first school, all lovingly positioned atop a cliff overlooking the confluence of the Pacific Ocean and Golfo Dulce (Sweet Gulf). Artisans created a design paradise throughout the resort, incorporating bamboo furnishings, massive window openings, indigenous artifacts, queen-size platform beds with ceiling-hung mosquito netting, hardwood flooring and stone-laid bathrooms featuring dual-showers driven by solar power.
Many of the local residents who helped construct the Lapa Rios Ecolodge were taught English and the protocol of running a resort and became its first employees. The staff, in turn, teach the clientele about the ways of the rainforest, wildlife habits and local traditions. Lapa Rios has become the focal point of an evolving community and the luxury ecotourism industry at the same time.
Through mutual contacts, John and Karen Lewis were introduced to Clément and Claire Ponçon, two Nicaraguan entrepreneurs originally from France. They were in the process of looking for an ecological design for their own ecolodge in Nicaragua, and found that ideal in Lapa Rios.
Cayuga Sustainable Hospitality (cayugaonline.com), which manages the Lapa Rios Ecolodge in Costa Rica, soon joined the enterprise to develop a 15-room ecolodge resort, and together with the owners created Morgan’s Rock Hacienda and Ecolodge (morgansrock.com). This is the first hotel in Nicaragua seeking to combine strict CST ecological guidelines and appeal to an upscale market while providing luxury levels of service and world-class hotel facilities.
Additional ecotourism resources by country:
Belize: The Belize ecoTourism Association (BETA) promotes environmentally responsible tourism. The website (bzecotourism.org) is a great resource for current environmental issues facing Belize and offers a list of member ecolodges, hotels and tour companies. There’s also a good online magazine (peacecorner.org/ecotourism.htm) offering information on ecotourism in Belize. The Lodge at Chaa Creek Adventure Centre, Rainforest Reserve and Spa (chaacreek.com) has been welcoming ecotourists to its 340-acre spread in the Maya Mountains since 1981. Its programs are specifically designed to stimulate interest in Belize’s environment, culture and archaeology.
Costa Rica: The official site of the ICT (visitcostarica.com) offers a variety of information on ecotourism, the country’s national parks, rivers and lakes, forests, bird-watching, canopy tours and more. Local tour companies dedicated to ecotourism include the family run Costa Rica Adventures (costaricanadventures.com); Greenway Nature Tours (costarica-ecotourism.com), specializing in the rainforest; and Serendipity Adventures (serendipityadventures.com), which focuses on canopy tours, rappelling, white-water rafting and more. Other ecolodges include the Lake Coter EcoLodge located between the spectacular Arenal Volcano and the pristine area of Monteverde; The Delfin Amor Eco Lodge (delfinamor.com) located on Drake Bay in southern Costa Rica; and La Selva Biological Station (ots.ac.cr/en/laselva), an internationally recognized research facility located in the Caribbean lowlands.
El Salvador: One of the country’s most beautiful sites is El imposible National Park, which is the nation’s largest protected area, encompassing some 8,818 acres. Visitors can stay right in the park at the Hostal El Imposible, considered to be the country’s first ecolodge. Its five cabins feature private baths with hot water showers powered by solar energy. The hostel is also a sustainable-development project that supports community development.
Another of the country’s renowned ecolodges is the Perkin Lenca Mountain Hotel (perkinlenca.com) perched more than 4,000 feet above sea level in the Morazan region. The lodge was purposely built to conform to its natural surroundings and is devoted to recycling and ecological preservation.
Guatemala: This vast nation is definitely on the forefront of ecological preservation, having signed an agreement with the neighboring nations of Belize and Mexico to help preserve more than 12,000 acres of its territory known as the Maya Biosphere Reserve. It's also trying to balance the needs of its growing population and preservation by encouraging sustainable development. Both the Laguna del Tigre National Park and the Laguna del Tigre-Rio Escondido Biotope are located within the confines of the reserve and are home to a large variety of wildlife and several endangered species.
Some of the country's top ecolodges include the Ni'tun Private Reserve and Retreat (nitun.com) on the shores of Lake Peten Itza; Hotel Hacienda Tijax Jungle Lodge and Marina in Rio Dulce, focusing on conservation, ecotourism and sustainable farming; and Chimino's Island Lodge (chiminosisland.com), offering five secluded bungalows on an artificial island created by the Maya on the Petexbatun Lagoon in Southeastern Peten, which served as their last outpost.
Honduras: The Honduran National Park site (honduras.com/travel/parks) offers a plethora of information on the country’s great biodiversity. Hacienda San Lucas (haciendasanlucas.com) is one of the country’s premier ecolodges, located in the hills above the Copan Ruins.
Nicaragua: The country’s ecolodges include The Green Hope Farm (fincaesperanzaverde.org), an organic coffee farm and nature preserve located in the mountains of Central Nicaragua; the Selva Negra Mountain Resort (selvanegra.com), another sustainable coffee plantation, which welcomes visitors to its 3,000 foot perch above sea level where they can hike, horseback ride or even take a greenhouse tour; and Casa Iguana (casaiguana.net), located on Little Corn Island off the country’s Caribbean coast.
Panama: Some 29 percent of the nation is now set aside and protected in 14 national parks, a dozen forest reserves and 10 wildlife refuges. A good place to begin your research is via ecotourismpanama.com, which offers links to tour operators, hotels, the national parks and more.
One of the country’s most famous ecolodges is the Canopy Tower Ecolodge & Nature Observatory (canopytower.com), where guests lodge at treetop level in the midst of Soberania National Park with views of the surrounding forests, the Panama Canal and Panama City in the distance. Other Panamanian ecolodges include the unique Coral Lodge in the Caribbean near the island of El Porvenir, whose thatched palapa casitas are located directly over the emerald-green waters; Sierra Llorona Panama Lodge located in the Caribbean watershed, boasting its own private 494-acre nature preserve home to more than 200 species of native and migratory birds and several hiking trails; and Hacienda del Mar (haciendadelmar.net) located on San Jose Island in the Pacific’s beautiful Pearl Island Archipelago and a perfect place to witness the passage of migrating humpback whales.Central America