Bajos del Toro, Alajuela, 20km north of Sarchí
There is a misty, cloud-forested valley, hidden deep within Costa Rica's cultural heart, a retreat from the world where every expectation is met, every polished-wood suite outfitted to perfection- all sustainably, of course.
The refuge known as El Silencio Lodge and Spa can be found in Bajos del Toro, a tiny town in the clouds. It is well away from the crowds, the groups who prefer to roam such well-traveled spots as Monteverde. But here, among these quetzals, is a quieter place, long unknown to the international set and thus a treasured retreat for Costa Rican families, who come to fish for trout in mountain streams, marvel at the many waterfalls, and relax into the diffused light of each rainbow-soaked day.
In November 2007, a group also responsible for the eco–fabulous Punta Islita, opened the region's first luxury property along the banks of the burbling El Gorreon River. With only 16 suites, each its own delightful cabin overlooking the river and rainforest, El Silencio focuses on relaxation, well being, and communion with nature.
The delightfully scenic drive to this mountaintop paradise begins in Sarchí, the "Cradle of Costa Rican Handicrafts," known for its handmade wooden furniture and colorful oxcarts, painted with the iconic mandalas that have come to symbolize the country. Climb into the misty pastoral highlands, where you'll finally arrive at the graceful lodge constructed in concert with nature. Conservation was of the utmost concern; the beautiful almond that makes up the bulk of construction was sustainably farmed and harvested, as were elegant accents hewn from coffee wood, so plentiful at these heights, plus bamboo and cane.
The architecture invites the outdoors in: Huge windows and expansive patios allow an almost 360-degree view of the more than 500 acres, most still pristine wilderness, upon which this divine property sits. A large fireplace is lit in the chill evenings (a bonfire, outside, lights up the night in dry season, December through March), while board games, books and drinks hot and cold are always available. A comfortably furnished television room (there are no TVs in the suites) doubles as a conference room when needed.
You'll be welcomed to the lodge with a tropical drink and assigned your personal, English–speaking "eco–concierge," who can arrange trips throughout the property, region and country—or perhaps a schedule spa treatment to help you relax right here. Then it's up to your suite (along short, steep trails that might challenge the mobility impaired), truly luxurious little cabins with outstanding views. This is a new property, with vegetation that might one day offer more privacy as it grows up around each cabin. Until then, suites 1, 12 and 16 seemed the most secluded, within sight and sound of that marvelous little river.
Inside, the cabins are spacious and airy, rendered in warm earthy tones with rustic touches, such as hardwood accents, paintings of flowers, and woven bamboo mats that give a delightful texture to the ceiling. All of which conjures a traditional ecotourism ambiance, while the sleek and sophisticated layout, such as built–in sofas that maximize space, and beautiful king–sized beds with teak headboards and fluffy comforters, offer absolutely modern comforts. A fully stocked minibar, coffee maker supplied with local Dota blend, and a wonderful gas fireplace keep things comfortable, cozy and romantic no matter how chilly it gets outside.
And outside is part of the décor here as well. Huge glass doors offering outstanding views slide open onto the private polished–wood porch, outfitted with comfortable Sarchí rocking chairs where you can welcome the sun each morning or watch the mist creep down the mountains in the afternoon. To one side is a delightful private whirlpool tub, naturally beautiful in smoothed sandstone and surrounded with a curtain of cane, just the thing after hiking the property's several hours worth of trails, which visit three enormous waterfalls. The fine marble bathrooms have a shower and Italian ceramic sinks, as well as hairdryers, fluffy robes (but no slippers) and L'Occitane personal products. You'll also find lots of interesting hand-beaded extras, such as sewing kits, made by a rural Costa Rican artists cooperative supported by Punta Islita.
Your stay includes three a la carte meals per day, created by Chef Marco González. Much of the menu is grown organically right on El Silencio's grounds—“you can visit the impressive gardens. Inspired by both Costa Rican cooking and famed Chef Alice Waters' healthy California cuisine, González offers several outstanding vegetarian soups and salads to begin, followed by your choice of several entrees, always including a fish, chicken and vegetarian (usually pasta) option. Asian and Indian influences also abound, and presentation is always artistic, as it must be to do justice to the gorgeous, glass-enclosed restaurant overlooking the river. If you want to dine closer to nature, you can sit outdoors in the midst of it all. Red meat isn't served, but if you so desire, you could walk into the town of Bajos del Toro, where a handful of inexpensive eateries geared to a Costa Rican crowd offer every option, as well as trout-fishing adventures at several "you catch, we cook" types of places.
Back at El Silencio, healthy cuisine is just part of a holistic wellness focus, which includes the beautiful views, clear water and air, and long walks through pristine cloud forest. They also promote a healthy relationship with the environment, and belong to the federal carbon offset program that lets you make up for your flight here with investment in rainforest preservation. Or invest in your own well being with yoga classes at their serene and exceptional spa. There is no more beautiful place to stretch than their dark wood platform, entirely surrounded by jungle. (It also doubles as a spot for wedding ceremonies.)
Even the walk to the spa, beneath a vine–covered trellis heavy with the blooms of emperatriz Eugenia, begins to unwind even the most type–A visitors. The scent of uplifting orange and relaxing vanilla emanating from handmade candles also soothes as you're offered a cup of herbal tea. Then choose one of several massages, facials, wraps and other treatments, all using only locally made, natural products. Be sure to request the conical treatment room, its unusual architecture designed to focus nature's energy into the recipient of whatever treatment he or she chooses.
Overall, El Silencio is a wonderful and romantic property, perfect for those who want a healthy break from a faster-paced world, to escape from it all; families (children under eight are discouraged) and others looking for more stimulation might enjoy it less. This isn't the stereotypical tropical climate either; come prepared for cool and rainy weather, even in dry season (umbrellas are provided). Because the property is new, there may be kinks to work out; previous guests noted that not everyone on staff is quite fluent in English. But this excellent addition to Costa Rica's growing roster of luxury ecotourism options is well worth experiencing for yourself.
Web Address: www.elsilenciolodge.com
Total number of suites: 16
Published Rates: Rooms $420-480 double
Review and photos by Paige Penland