A game of give and take

There are ways for global experience seekers to give back to nature and the local communities.

There are ways for global experience seekers to give back to nature and the local communities.

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My girlfriend’s idea of going camping is spending a maximum of two nights in a cozy cabin in a national park, complete with hot water, hair dryer, and 24-hour electricity. However much she would like to believe she can ‘rough it’ in the wild, you cannot take the big city out of her.  She’s quite good at foraging for dry branches to feed the campfire, I’ll give her that, but I suspect she just likes to have an excuse to nose around the forest floor, picking up things off the ground as she pleases. With her mortal fear of bugs and insects exhibiting what she calls “sporadic flight patterns”, she took me by surprise when she suggested Costa Rica for our holidays, a country known more for its wildlife biodiversity than its city charms. I’m a mountains kind of guy, and my lady tends to favor beaches, but luckily, the country offers beautiful examples of both.

Costa Rica is a shining example of how governments are integral in leading the way for conservation. Their national park system was only established in 1970, and in less than half a century, more than a quarter of the land was categorized under the El Sistema Nacional de Áreas de Conservación de Costa Rica (SINAC) as refuges, reserves, and national parks. There are also a handful of private reserves owned by individuals, many of which operate sustainable businesses, such as eco-lodges, to preserve the country’s incredible natural beauty.  In this world, some people are born leaders, other followers. Neither of us are eco-warriors, but we’re aware enough that we would gladly support those fighting for the environment. From hours of online research and consultation with friends who had made similar trips in the past, we set our eyes on Lapa Rios Ecolodge, on Costa Rica’s southwestern Osa Península.

Founded by 2 ex-peace corps volunteers, Americans John and Karen Lewis bought a 1,000-acre patch of primary rainforest in 1990 using funds raised from selling all off their assets in the States. Three years later, they built an eco-lodge on the grounds to sustain the reserve, naming it ‘River of Scarlet Macaws’, but in Spanish. My initial thought when researching Lapa Rios – which has since been acknowledged by everyone from Forbes Traveler to National Geographic and Conde Nast Traveler – was “tree hugger”. Why that phrase has come to bear a negative connotation I don’t know, but what I do know is that I’d much rather hug a tree than embrace a concrete pillar any day of the week.

Lapa Rios Ecolodge

On landing at the capital’s San José International airport, we found our way to the adjacent terminal to board a connecting Sansa flight to Puerto Jiménez, which took less than an hour. We were picked up by the Lapa Rios safari truck, and within an hour of being jostled around on bumpy roads, we finally arrived at the Lapa Rios property. After a swift checkin, we passed the free form swimming pool next to the reception, and a few hundred meters later via wooden walkways, reached our eco-bungalow. The eco-lodge was largely how I imagined – rustic wooden structures tucked amongst thick vegetation. What we didn’t expect was the view and proximity of the ocean. As there is no air conditioning, windows are flung open from the bedroom, opening up onto a large wooden deck with a compulsory hammock to kick back and enjoy the views. There is also an outside shower, one with enough foliage that makes it feel like a dousing in the jungle.

On the bug front, initial observations seemed positive. I did notice my girlfriend check the mosquito netting draped over the bamboo bed, and had a quick giggle to myself, wondering whether the netting would pass her quality control. (On another trip, not content with how the netting flapped and didn’t stay in place, she pulled out her travel sewing kit and stitched the two folds together!). She didn’t say anything, so we were safe.

Tune Out, Tune In

There was no telephone, television, or internet at the eco-lodge. The reception on my Blackberry was splotchy at best, and I had to fight the urge to not check emails whenever we had down time. Luckily, we had pre-loaded enough reading material on our kindles to pass the time while “decompressing”, as is encouraged by Lapa Rios. We also signed up for 2 treks while we were there. The main pastime, other than doing nothing, is taking one of the many guided hikes in the forest, offered through the lodge. There are walks through the rainforest, a medicinal plant educational walk, waterfall rappelling, canopy zip lines, a trip to the nearby 100,000-acre Corcovado National Park, as well as several other adventures. On the sunset bird watching tour we took (there was a morning one too for the early birds, but the late birds get the stunning sunset). We were provided binoculars, and our local guide pointed out chestnut-mandibled toucans, scarlet macaws, blue headed parrots, and a ruddy quail-dove, the latter of which we were told were quite rarely sighted out of all the 300+ species that have been sighted in the area. I can’t remember even a quarter of the names our guide was casually tossing out when pointing excitedly into the trees, but the anticipation when raising the binoculars and seeing an animal that comes into sight was one that I’d never felt about nature. We also came across quite a few monkeys on our walk, including howlers and spider monkeys. Two hours might not seem that long of a walk, but by the end of it we were exhausted.


It’s inspiring, knowing that there are those out there who have been moved to save the environment. At Lapa Rios, we also had the chance to participate in transplanting rainforest seedlings in their reforestation program. The baby plants were small and seemingly too fragile to be able to fight the elements, not to mention human activity, so they could grow into the rainforest that surrounded us that day. As all journeys start with a single step, all forests start with a single seedling. However small and indirect our contribution was on that trip, it left us with a perpetual reminder that when it comes to big issues, everyone needs to pitch in, regardless of the size of contribution.

Lapa Rios Ecolodge is managed by Cayuga, a hotel management firm that focuses on sustainable and responsible tourism in Costa Rica and Nicaragua.  Here are other properties managed by the same group:

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