Plus: the World'sUltimate Outposts
By Alex Markels
The Lapa Rios lodge and preserve is at the forefront of a growing trend that benefits both nature and the local economy. As the morning sun sets the horizon aglow, the trees high above Costa Rica's glittering Golfo Dulce come alive with the cacophony of the lowland jungle. The ocean waves crash against the shore here at the tip of the remote Osa Peninsula, the southernmost coast of this Central American nation. A troop of howler monkeys bark a rowdy greeting to the day; scarlet macaws squawk in unison as they streak across the horizon; and a pair of chestnut-mandibled toucans discuss breakfast plans in a nearby tree. A long-nosed coatimundi scampers up the trunk of a cecropia tree. His tail wrapped around a branch, he sniffs out a few choice fruits, grabs them with his paws, then wedges himself between two branches to feast.
This vision of biodiversity would be remarkable enough if I had seen it while standing on some muddy jungle trail. Yet what makes the scene truly amazing is that I'm taking it in without venturing an inch from my luxurious queen-size bed. Still tucked between striped percale sheets, I lie in the middle of a private open-air bungalow, with hardwood floors, lacquered bamboo walls, and a vaulted palm-thatched roof, perfectly perched along a ridge overlooking the Pacific and bordering the 1,008-acre Lapa Rios rainforest preserve. A combination luxury lodge and eco-sensitive conservation project, Lapa Rios is at the forefront of a growing worldwide movement to develop nature tourism that actually nurtures the fragile ecosystems that draw people in the first place. Since the early 1980s, hundreds of eco-lodges have been built in tropical jungles, cloudforests, and remote savannas. The best of them not only tread lightly on the land and help protect endangered wildlife habitat but also benefit the local economy.
Lapa Rios' stunning main lodge and 14 bungalows were built on a former sheep pasture, and not a single native tree was cut down. The developers, Karen and John Lewis of Minnesota, purchased the site in 1990, intending to demonstrate to both guests and locals that "a rainforest left standing is more profitable than one cut down." They had originally planned to build a rustic birdwatching lodge. But when research showed a far stronger demand for an upscale wilderness resort, featuring such seemingly incongruous amenities as private, heated showers; 24-hour electricity; and gourmet dining, the couple altered their politically correct vision to ensure that their labor of love would be as sustainable economically as it was ecologically. The inevitable compromises yielded a five-acre compound built almost entirely of native materials and equipped with solar-powered showers, but with diesel-generator-driven electricity and a conventional septic tank sewage system. "We're a demonstration in ecotourism, not in energy conservation," says John Lewis.
The middle-aged couple -- he's a lawyer and she's a teacher and professional musician -- have dumped more than $1 million of their own money into the project. They channel part of their profits into protecting their land: saving hundreds of acres of primary rainforest from the sort of slash-and-burn farming that had denuded the resort site, and reforesting several hundred additional acres. Worried that they'd be viewed as interlopers by their neighbors, the former Peace Corps volunteers ventured out into the surrounding hillsides bearing home-baked bread and cookies. After finding out that their neighbors lacked any formal education, the Lewises founded a charitable foundation and recruited other philanthropic groups to help build the village's first primary school. They also hired local residents to work at Lapa Rios -- the entire 43-person staff.
In the six years since the resort opened to the public, it has been lauded not only by such environmental groups as the Ecotourism Society and Conservation International but also by hotel critics, including Andrew Harper, the fastidious editor of the exclusive Hideaway Report newsletter, which awarded its grand prize to Lapa Rios three years ago.
Not that Lapa Rios is an unqualified success. Ironically, by drawing attention to what was once a remote, largely overlooked part of Costa Rica, Lapa Rios has helped put the Osa Peninsula on the tourism map, drawing scores of foreigners who have arrived to grab and subdivide their own piece of paradise. The resort's financial success, as well as the Lewises' exclusion of nonpaying visitors from its private reserve, have also fostered deep resentment among some locals, who mistook the Lewises' good intentions for meddling; at one point the couple were even banished from direct involvement in the school they'd worked so hard to help establish. "It was very hurtful at first," recalls Karen Lewis. "But things seem to be working themselves out."
Despite the pitfalls, Lapa Rios has largely achieved the Lewises' original goal of saving a pristine chunk of jungle wilderness from becoming pastureland, while proving to both tourists and locals that there is value in protecting Costa Rica's endangered lowland rainforest. Meanwhile, its economic success reminds other eco-lodge operators that ecological sustainability requires economic viability, and it may inspire the traditional tourism industry to adopt sustainable practices.