Cabo Matapalo, Costa Rica
Costa Rica's original deluxe ecolodge remains on top with nearly 1,000 acres of jungle, bungalows with panoramic sea views, and an abundance of wildlife in eco–friendly surroundings.
Before John and Karen Lewis conjured this remote retreat from the rainforest a decade ago, the concept of a deluxe nature lodge in Costa Rica seemed like an oxymoron. With the aid of brilliant marketing, they garnered instant headlines that helped draw an elite clientele, launching Lapa Rios into the premier league of internationally acclaimed resorts—no small feat given the off–the–beaten–path locale and difficulty of access. The concept was simple. Buy 400 hectares of tropical rainforest on a remote corner of the Osa peninsula, build a luxury ridgetop resort in indigenous style, and channel the proceeds into local community causes.
Despite lots of competition in the years since and an explosion of attention for Costa Rica as a "green destination," Lapa Rios continues to attract Americans by the Nature Air planeload. There are more luxurious resorts, lodges that are more strictly green, and ones that could be called a better value, but Lapa Rios stays busy because guests have a great time and many return or spread the word. Some of their sustainable features include back-of-the-house sustainability tours, banning plastic and drinking straws, and feeding the property's pigs with kitchen scraps (they in turn produce some of the biogas used to fuel parts of the hotel).
Inaccessibility is part of the appeal here, with the resort being at the bottom tip of the Osa Peninsula. Access from the airport or Puerto Jiminez boat dock is via a rough dirt road tailored for rugged adventure and in the worst part of the rainy season it can become downright impassable—"off-season travel" is not a good idea for this spot and it's highly recommended to use the resort's Land Rover transfers. Pastures give way to dense forests of subaqueous green thicken as you pass around Cabo Matapalo and ascend a steep driveway to the thatched lodge, where almost everything is built from wood or bamboo. It is dominated by a mirador (lookout) soaring above the treetops that is reached via a dramatic spiral staircase in the center.
The dining room and bar are not all that fancy, with the eyes drawn instead to the flora and fauna outside and the Gulfo Dulce in the distance. The bar selection is routine, but prices are fair considering the considerable challenge of getting shipments up here. Because of the challenges, you are asked to order your dinner selection at breakfast time so the kitchen can limit what it needs to pick up that day and avoid waste. There's no real chef here: instead a staff of locals has been trained well and are able to whip up colorful, tantalizing dishes from local ingredients. In a country where cuisine often seems like an afterthought, meals at Lapa Rios are consistently good. On a side table each day is a juice of the day (often also showing up in a special cocktail or smoothie you can order) and a chip of the day made from some kind of local tuber or plantain.
Wooden boardwalks span the ridgetop, connecting the bungalows dispersed for privacy and a sense of jungly seclusion. These thatched quarters rise on stilts from the ground and offer stupendous forest and ocean views through screened yet otherwise open walls to three sides, and through French doors opening to broad wooden decks. They come furnished with bamboo pieces and deep blue fabrics, and feature two queen beds draped in mosquito nets that enhance the mood of romance. Twin showers—one an outdoor, stone–lined cold–water "rainforest" experience; the other of conventional tile and delivering hot water perfect after a sweaty hike. Large decks are furnished with lounge chairs and a hammock and frequently offer views of toucans, hawks, hummingbirds, and monkeys. There are no TVs, music players, or internet routers: this is an eco lodge after all and most guests come here to get away from the constant hum of electronic noise.
Most of the bungalows are the same, though the cheapest (#16) is smaller and has less of a view, while the largest (#15) is a family unit that can sleep kids on daybeds away from the parents. Some villas are a considerable hike and will leave out–of–shape guests huffing and puffing. Reserve a lower number to be closer to the main building. Making amends are the animals that parade in the trees at fingertip distance: one two–minute walk from my bungalow would often result in sightings of macaws, agoutis, and multiple kinds of monkeys.
The wildlife is the main draw here, of course, and this is a place where even a dip in the swimming pool comes with a side order of nature spotting. Well-trained guides lead multiple nature hikes though to teach about the jungle plants and help spot creatures that are harder to find. These hikes range from simple loops to strenuous half-day excursions, plus a night hike in the mix offering the chance to see sleeping birds and rising nocturnal animals.
On top of all this, a five–minute walk or short ride leads down to a pristine beach that you can have almost to yourself. With the surf and the turf in one place, this is a lodge that keeps most guests occupied for days to a week. It's not a place with butlers on call and there seldom seems to be a manager around, but for guests who care more about getting close to nature in a sustainable manner, this is a comfortable and exciting place for bonding with friends, family, and fauna.
Web Address: www.laparios.com
Total Number of Rooms: 16
Published rates: $540 to $980 double incl. meals, taxes, and two tours
Original review by Christopher Baker, updates and photos by Timothy Scott