Costa Rica serves up surf, sun and sustainability

We discover gaudy leaf frogs on a night jungle hike at Lapa Rios Ecolodge.

We discover gaudy leaf frogs on a night jungle hike at Lapa Rios Ecolodge.

Photograph by: Theresa Storm , Freelance

COSTA RICA — As the global ecotourism pioneer, some say long-favoured Costa Rica is passé.

Is it? Especially as fresh destinations like Colombia and Nicaragua hit adventurous travellers’ radar?

Not a chance.

The country recorded a record-breaking 2.2 million visitors in 2011. The tourism board says many are healthy-living mid-life world travellers, “eco-conscious explorers” who appreciate sustainability. They want some beach but they go for eco-adventures.

And after trekking to the peak of one of the Central American country’s 200-plus volcanoes or zipping through the jungle like Tarzan, they want barefoot luxury. Creature comforts like a delicious dinner with fine wine, a great bed with crisp sheets and a private, romantic setting.

See a photo gallery from Theresa Storm’s trip.

That’s why this country’s thriving tourism industry is not content to sit on its laurels. It remains a world ecotourism leader, continuing to improve its eco-standards (its Certification of Sustainable Tourism is globally benchmarked), build environmentally friendly, yet luxurious, ecolodges and up its adventure and experiential nature quotient, offering a dizzying array of activities. It even boasts the world’s first carbon-neutral airline, Nature Air, with the entire country earmarked for carbon-neutrality by 2021.

Costa Rica ranked fifth globally this year in Yale’s Environmental Performance Index. What’s more, the Happy Planet Index recently declared it the world’s happiest country.

Nestled between the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean, Nicaragua and Panama, the country occupies one-half per cent of the planet’s surface, yet its 12 climatic zones harbour almost five per cent of Earth’s biodiversity, the most concentrated anywhere. And the country is committed to sustain it, so far declaring 26 per cent protected lands.

Passé? No amigos. Costa Rica drew more than 133,000 Canadians in 2011, up 33,000 from 2010. Barring the unforeseen, that will grow. Last summer, the two countries signed an open skies agreement, assuring more air service to come.

While the country is tiny, traversing the twisty roads and windy rivers around its volcanoes, rainforests, mangroves and savannahs is slow going. Worth the trip, however, for a bevy of eco-adventure gems await.

Central Highlands

Wake up and smell the Costa Rican coffee, grown here at Finca Rosa Blanca Coffee Plantation & Inn, an eclectically-designed boutique property in the hills of Santa Barbara, Heredia, 1,200 metres above San Jose. A half-hour from the international airport, Costa Rica’s first certified sustainable hotel is a restful place to ease into vacation.

For an interactive lesson about growing, processing and roasting almighty java, one of the country’s leading exports, take the two-hour organic coffee tour.

“It’s the golden bean of the country,” explains guide Manolo Muñoz.

A “coffee cupping” caps a hike through the shady plantation and processing facilities. Similar to wine tasting, Muñoz leads us through a strict protocol requiring one first to exhale and then slurp coffee off a spoon, the louder the better.

That, we learn, is how tasters rate java.

The view of volcanoes Poas, Barva and Irazu from the restaurant’s breezy terrace is as fine as the coffee, as is Chef Picado’s cuisine featuring estate-grown produce. At night, twinkling lights in the valley far below make the setting magical.

Caribbean Highlands

In the highlands a couple of hours toward the Caribbean Coast, Pacuare Lodge is tops for romantic adventure. In an isolated swath of jungle from the bank of Pacuare River, renowned for world-class rafting, to the hills above, are 19 eco-friendly bungalows and suites.

Given its remoteness, the luxury of the one-time tent camp is unexpected. Everything, including building materials and furniture, is rafted in.

The alternative is a bone-jarring dirt road from mountaintop to valley. Rafting, I learn, is also the preferred way for guests to arrive.

No matter.

The drive is forgotten when the door opens to our secluded hilltop Linda Vista suite with spring-fed infinity plunge pool. Really, it’s a house, minus a kitchen.

There’s a canopied bed in a spacious living space with screened walls to let the outdoors in, a huge bathroom with claw foot tub and outdoor shower, and a wraparound deck overlooking the river far below.

At night scores of flickering candles light the suite, creating a dreamy, romantic ambience that is only outdone by the candlelit path to a private riverside anniversary dinner warmed by a bonfire.

For guests able to pry themselves from their room, there’s a waterfall in which to frolic a five-minute stroll away, guided birdwatching or hiking to a nearby indigenous village, canopy ziplining and rappelling on the 340-hectare property, of which 96 per cent is protected rainforest. And, of course, rafting, the reason most are here.

Along with the other guests, my husband excitedly piles into a raft for the 3.5-hour journey out. Ahead lays the river’s most scenic section through a narrow steep-walled canyon, running wild with foaming class III and thrilling class IV rapids.

They emerge drenched; faces alight with Cheshire Cat grins.

Osa Peninsula

Far to the south, in remote Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica’s wild side puts on a show we won’t forget.

We’ve flown Nature Air to Puerto Jimenez for an hour transfer overland to lauded Lapa Rios Ecolodge, 16 thatched bungalows atop a scenic ridge in a 400-hectare private nature reserve in Central America’s last lowland Pacific tropical rainforest.

From our private wooden deck, we soak in the serenity of the jungle, its towering green leafiness spilling unbroken downhill until rainforest gives way to beach and bay, the meeting point of the Golfo Dulce and Pacific Ocean.

Tranquil, that is, until broken by the hair-raising, lion-like roar of howler monkeys and the screech of parakeets at 5:45 a.m.

The cacophony, led by monkey males, shatters the dawn through the bungalow’s screened window walls, startling us from bed.

The chorus rises to a sharp crescendo. As the monkeys settle, a bird akin to a screaming woman takes centre stage.

At 6:15, the commotion ends as abruptly as it started.

Later, a guided sunset bird tour reveals 19 species, including favourites like chestnut-mandibled toucans and scarlet macaws (Lapa Rios means “River of Scarlet Macaws”).

When darkness settles, we rejoin our guide to explore the nocturnal jungle. Flashlight beams ignite a side-plate-sized yellow-kneed tarantula and a tailless whip scorpion, a kinkajou and Virginia opossum, and a couple of snakes including a venomous fer-de-lance, minding its own business curled on a still warm rock wall, and a northern cat-eyed, up in a palm tree.

On leaves and branches hide camouflaged insects like praying mantis and walking sticks and tiny amphibians like gaudy leaf and rain frogs and sleeping basilisks (a.k.a. Jesus Christ lizards as they run on water).

At Lapa Rios nature is everywhere.

Tortuguero

Next we’re off to Tortuguero — “the land of the turtle,” in northeast Limon province.

As the Cessna skims above treetops, we see waves bashing the wild Caribbean shore to our right and a chocolatey river snaking through the jungle below.

Tortuga Lodge & Gardens staff wait as we alight on the tiny airstrip to shuttle us by boat across the canal to the 27-room resort atop the manicured riverbank.

Naturalist Angelo from the nearby crayon-splashed village of Tortuguero, more Caribbean than Latin American, is assigned our guide.

As we set out for the first of two boat excursions, we learn we’re on Tortuguero Lagoon, a brackish natural waterway.

Part of a network of rivers and canals paralleling the sea, this is the liquid (and only) highway to Limon, the country’s sole Caribbean port city 84 kilometres south.

Soon we enter the channels of Tortuguero National Park.

Created in 1975 to protect the Western Hemisphere’s largest nesting beach for thousands of Atlantic green sea turtles, the park now preserves 11 habitats in 20,748 hectares, one of Central America’s last large areas of tropical rainforest.

Drenched by six metres of rain annually, it’s steamier, thicker, and altogether more jungle like than Osa Peninsula.

While it is not nesting season, we see plenty of wildlife along the shore: royal egrets and bare-throated tiger herons, huge male green iguanas turned orange for mating, a basilisk eating bugs atop a black river turtle, spectacled caimans and tropical river otters. Wrapped tightly in trees we find a slumbering boa constrictor, a yellow eyelash pit viper, and a brown-throated three-toed sloth, while above energetic spider monkeys swing wildly through the limbs.

Arenal Volcano

Talk about a room with a view. We’re at Lost Iguana Resort & Spa, a boutique hotel set in 48 rainforest hectares near Lake Arenal, north-central Costa Rica. From our spacious balcony, the view of Arenal Volcano is unimpeded, as it is from all 42 rooms.

One of the world’s 10 most active volcanoes, known for putting on a glowing after dark lava show, the mount slipped into slumber 18 months ago, its peak nearly always cloud-smothered.

While we wait for Arenal to reveal itself, there is plenty to do. Jungle hikes and bird watching on Lost Iguana’s private trails or getting pampered in a creek side bungalow at its Balinese-themed spa.

There’s canyoning with Pure Trek, a wet-thriller rappelling beside and through four waterfalls.

There’s a guided walk at nearby Arenal Hanging Bridges, a 250-hectare protected humid rainforest. Then there’s a rewarding soak in Tabacon Grand Spa Thermal Resort’s volcano-heated mineral hot springs, the area’s only natural springs.

For a volcanic treat, we get slathered in Arenal mud, part of the signature Tabacon couple massage in a garden cabana, and rinse it away under a bamboo pipe streaming simmering spring water.

At last, Mother Nature rewards our patience.

Enshrouding clouds slither down Arenal’s flanks, for a short time revealing her singed dome. Perfecto!

Source / Fuente: calgaryherald.com

Author / Autor: THERESA STORM

Date / Fecha: 07/10/12

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