My Favorite Costa Rica Eco-Lodges
By Catherine Evans, Tours of Exploration
The popularity of Costa Rica among tropical travelers is not surprising. You are never more than one hour from a national park or private reserve teeming with plants and wildlife or a few hours from a beautiful coastal retreat. Costa Rica covers a mere 0.03 percent of the planet’s surface, and yet is home to 5% of all living organisms on earth. It seems to have it all – active volcanoes, lush cloud forests, lowland jungles, rolling savannas, black volcanic and coral sand beaches, and some of the finest forest-lined rivers on the planet. Such spectacular settings amplify the interaction with the country’s exotic flora and fauna. The Nation has had the foresight to protect nearly 25% of its land in a remarkable series of park systems and reserves while maintaining community development and measured economic growth. The result has made them pioneers and global leaders in eco-tourism. Couple this with a well-educated and peaceful host population, and you have the makings for an ideal nature-rich trip.
My first visit to Costa Rica was a 14-day natural history expedition that took me from coast to coast through a variety of national parks and private reserves led by a local biologist guide. The exhilaration of that first journey led to more adventures in Costa Rica, none so exciting as my journey to work with World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and several local NGO’s in three communities: Arenal, Santa Elena/Monteverde and Bijagua. The aim of this community-based development project was to assist in efforts to shift from deforestation and intense agriculture towards more environmentally-sound economic activities that included eco-lodges, organic farming, medical plant nurseries, and cottage industry development – all towards an environmentally sustainable future.
I have been back more than once to visit Catarata Eco-Lodge, one of three eco-lodges originally assisted by the WWF collaborative project. What is unique in the world of eco-lodges is that this is community-owned and operated. Moneys generated from visitors support projects that include orchid rehabilitation, paca breeding, organic farming and butterfly nurseries. Three generations of locals can often be observed in the lodge activities and projects.
A big draw for visitors here is the famous Arenal Volcano, visible from the lodge on a clear day. An evening visit to the local hot springs is also a delight, always keeping an eye open for glimpses of the giant flow of incandescent red lava running down the mountain slopes. The lodge also serves as a base for exploring the nearby forests, visiting the waterfalls (cataratas) and rafting on the Sarapiquí River.
The Sarapiquí region itself is another wonderful region to include in an ecological journey to Costa Rica. It is located about two hours each from Arenal or from the capital San Jose. I highly recommend a stop enroute at La Paz Waterfalls & Gardens. This private wildlife sanctuary has lush tropical rain forest, flowing white rivers, spectacular waterfalls, birds, butterflies, monkeys, hummingbirds, snakes, felines and frogs.
Another eco-lodge that deserves recommendation is La Quinta. What was once a ten-acre livestock farm has been regenerated and reforested with native trees and gardens to complement some old-growth forest on the riverside. The forests and wild gardens attract abundant bird diversity, butterflies, frogs, and some small mammals too.
The small lodge is family owned and operated and locally staffed. The Inn is certified at the highest qualification level (5 leaves) by the Costa Rican Tourism Board with its Certification for Sustainable Tourism (CST). Even though this place is larger than some other eco-lodges, its popularity with ecotourists means that early bookings are essential.
Perhaps the quintessential eco-destination in Costa Rica is Monteverde on the continental divide where weather patterns from both the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean create a wonderful example of a cloud forest ecosystem.
Plan to stay a minimum of three nights to allow ample time to search for birds, monkeys and other wildlife in the cloud forest and dry forests that are protected in national and private reserves. Look here for one of the most famous inhabitants, the Resplendent Quetzal. The Monteverde forest is home for many other interesting bird species such as the Emerald Toucanet, Black Guan, Purple Throated Mountain Gem (hummingbird), and the Blue Crowned Motmot, just to mention a few found here.
One of my favorite eco-lodges in this neck of the woods is Hotel Fonda Vela at a 4,200-foot/1,400-meter elevation in the Monteverde Cloud Forest. After a long closure, this informal hillside property opened again in 2017. The gardens and trails of its 35 acres are always spectacular with sightings of some sixty different species of migratory birds, and over 200 species of non-migratory birds. The owners, brothers Paul and Steven Smith, grew up on this property and went on to build and manage the hotel. “Our goal,” they say, “is to promote a greater visitor understanding of the environment and this unique habitat.”
And finally, in the Northwest of Costa Rica is the tiny community of Bijagua nature travelers can find three small eco-lodges (Las Heliconias, no website; Celeste Mountain Lodge, and Rio Celeste Hideway) listed in order from basic to boutique luxury.
These accommodations sit on the edge of the pristine Tenorio Volcano National Park, one of the country’s youngest parks created in 1995. There a series of hanging bridges allows incredible canopy views of the flora and birds. Walking one time with one of the lodge owners, we hiked to the pristine Rio Celeste. The azure waters of celestial blue were so magical that I knew at that moment I would name my soon-to-be-born daughter, Celeste, after this beautiful place. Someday soon I hope to return there with her.
Follow Up FactsFor nearly 30 years, Tours of Exploration www.toursexplore.com has been planning ecotourism visits in Costa Rica and countries around the world. Almost 90 percent of Tours of Exploration clients are 50 to 80 years of age mainly from Canada (80%) and the US (15%) with the balance from Europe and Australia (5%).
Costa Rica Tourism website, www.visitcostarica.com. In particular spend some time investigating the website’s Ecotourism Ideas, and Rural Tourism Ideas. See complete list of Costa Rica’s National Parks, Reserves and Protected Areas.
We also recommend two other richly-illustrated feature articles in our Travel Article Library: one about Costa Rica’s Five Best National Parks, and a personal reflection by the Living Abroad in Costa Rica author as she gets to know her new home country.
As well, you will also enjoy reading Catherine’s most recent contribution to our Travel Article Library detailing her discoveries while scuba diving on Belize’s Mezoamerican Coral Reef, the second longest in the world.
During a 30-year career in tourism, Catherine Evans has contributed to a range of innovative projects in experiential, educational, ecotourism, and wildlife tourism as well as community-based development. With an MA in Tourism Management, she is a successful entrepreneur of the global travel company, Tours of Exploration, www.toursexplore.com, which customizes programs on all seven continents. Email: email@example.com