In 1990 two former peace corps volunteers, John and Karen Lewis, decided to abandon their suburban professional lives in the United States, liquidate all personal assets, and use the proceeds to finance the creation of a reserve with over 1,000 acres of mostly primary rainforest, with enormous biodiversity value, in a remote area of Costa Rica.
To support the maintenance of this private reserve and provide sustainable economic activity to the local community, they went on to build a small upscale wilderness lodging operation called Lapa Rios in 1993 that is today one of the most renowned and successful ecotourism operations in the world. This "story" has had enormous appeal to visitors of Lapa Rios, who realize that "ordinary" people (John was a lawyer and Karen taught music) can make an extraordinary difference in the conservation of wilderness and in the lives of people who live in and around such wilderness.
Lapa Rios not only has become a recognized name in the field of ecotourism, but also serves as an important showcase. It is a showcase for guests, who have shown loyalty to Lapa Rios as "a project" they believe in. This is demonstrated by repeat visitation, and by the fact that most guests report coming to Lapa Rios the first time because of a word-of-mouth recommendation.
A stay at Lapa Rios, located on the southeastern tip of the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica , is described by its founders as a deluxe wilderness adventure, offering comfortable, attractive accommodations and personalized service in the setting of an ocean-view rainforest reserve. Each of the 14 spacious and private bungalows has two queen size beds, an indoor solar- and gas-heated shower, a private garden shower, 2 sinks, large closets, and a large deck overlooking the rainforest and the Pacific Ocean . The property offers guests the opportunity to decompress in a completely natural environment, with no phones, faxes or television to remind them of the "real" world outside. In 2002, two additional bungalows were added to the inventory, bringing the total number of cabins up to 16.
Although remote and isolated, Lapa Rios serves food and beverages not usually offered in the wilderness. The kitchen combines fresh fruits and vegetables with local fish, chicken and meat, enhanced by locally inspired gourmet sauces to provide delicious, healthy meals with a tropical flavor. A full service bar mixes favorite beverages from fresh juices, wines and spirits. Electricity is provided by generator, allowing the property not only the benefit of refrigeration in the kitchen but also the ability to offer simple comforts such as ice and evening reading light. A daily laundry service is available.
Along with guided hikes into the private reserve, Lapa Rios offers its guests a variety of additional activities. Among others, these include sea kayaking; visits to botanical gardens; coastal naturalist excursions on shore and by boat; deep-sea catch-and-release fishing; horseback riding in the jungle or along deserted beaches; and private massage therapy. The highlight of many visits is a short plane ride into the heart of Corcovado National Park to explore pristine wildlife with a local guide.
Lapa Rios is a functioning model of ecotourism and sustainable development. A 1000-acre private reserve close to the Corcovado National Park offers miles of trails and spectacular waterfalls. The project demonstrates that "a forest left standing is more valuable than a forest cut down," serving and teaching a remote community new life-skills and professional opportunities. The private reserve offers excellent viewing of thousands of species of trees, plants, birds (over 320 identified species), insects and mammals in Central America 's largest remaining tropical lowland forest.
Lapa Rios was owner-operated from 1993 to 1999. Since then the property has been operated by Cayuga Sustainable Hospitality and has shown improvements in financial results as well as guest satisfaction ratings. While the Osa Peninsula in general and the Puerto Jimenez area in particular are in a forgotten corner of Costa Rica, with below average levels of education and basic services, the pool of motivated employees that Lapa Rios can draw upon has proven more than sufficient. Lapa Rios is the employer of choice for locals, who know that employees are well compensated and well treated.
Since Cayuga Sustainable Hospitality (back then called ISG) took over management in 1999, turnover rates have remained considerably below domestic and international industry averages. The greatest strength of Lapa Rios employees is their positive attitude, their desire to learn and a genuinely friendly treatment of guests. As a result of significant investments in preventive maintenance, the physical assets of the hotel look as good as ever. During the low season months of September and October, all employees take part in a maintenance program. Vehicles, computers and other equipment are well maintained and have been replaced on a frequent basis.
North Americans make up 80% of the current market of Lapa Rios guests. Depending on the time of the year they range in the age of 30 to 65 years, during traditional vacation times accompanied by school age children. They live on the West Coast, the North East and other large metropolitan areas such as Chicago , Atlanta , Denver and Minneapolis . The remaining 20% of the current target market are made up of Europeans (mostly from Great Britain and Spain ) and Costa Ricans from the Central Valley .
Guests are typically professionals, either from upper managerial positions or owners of businesses. Roughly 75% of reservations are made because of word-or-mouth recommendation by a former guest of Lapa Rios. Virtually all guests made their decision to book a reservation after visiting the web site. About 60% of guests book directly with the reservation office in Puerto Jimenez via e-mail or phone/fax. The other 40% use their travel agents. Most guests stay 3 or 4 nights at Lapa Rios and complete their 7 to 9 day trip with one or two other destinations in Costa Rica .
Cayuga Sustainable Hospitality is working hard to make Lapa Rios the best working example of sustainable tourism. The setting of Lapa Rios is what most people in industrialized countries refer to as paradise on earth. However, Lapa Rios has much more to offer than stunning ocean views, lush tropical rainforest and cool drinks by the pool. While staying in Lapa Rios, the guests are able to enjoy a vacation in paradise, and at the same time feel that they are doing something good for the world, while having a learning experience.
By staying at Lapa Rios, guests support the conservation of the rainforest and provide direct employment and income to more than 50 families in the area. In this sense there are two equally salient identities to Lapa Rios: the project and the business. The project is about sustainable development and the business is about funding the project. Neither would exist without the other. The project reflects the "ends" goals while the business reflects the "means" goals.
The most important goal of the Lapa Rios project is to ensure the preservation of the primary forest reserve in perpetuity. This goal was the motivation to create Lapa Rios and it remains the principal goal of Cayuga Sustainable Hospitality. With this as the "ends" goal, the "means" to achieving it is running a high quality profitable ecolodge operation. A possible expansion of the reserve would be the next step that could be achieved in joint ventures with conservation organizations or multinational companies interested in sustainable development.
Along with conservation of the tropical rainforest, the continued development of the local community by providing employment at the hotel and education at the Carbonara School to its members is a very important objective of operating Lapa Rios. Employees of the lodge have been and will continue to be recruited locally.
Lapa Rios creates experiences that demonstrate to guests the importance of conservation. These guests share their "conservation epiphanies" with others and by this process new guests come to Lapa Rios for their own experience with conservation, which creates a cycle of self-reinforcing growth for the project.