Lapa Rios

The soft rays of the morning sun strike the land below the vintage DC-3 airplane to allow my first look at the countryside of southwestern Costa Rica. From up here the densely wooded mountains stretch out as far as my eyes can see, and the fields flaunt a carpet of green that reminds me of the countryside of Ireland. Five hours ago I was looking at a dreary mantle of white on the snow covered fields of Michigan. Below the green is like candy for my eyes.

Today I am on my way to a new Ecotourist Resort Hotel called Lapa Rios. It is located in a remote area of Costa Rica called The Osa Peninsula. To get to there from North America I must fly on three different airplanes, each one smaller than the one before. I left the United States aboard a very modern “Jumbo Jet.” In San Jose, I boarded an aging, but well maintained Douglas DC-3. It is a true adventure flying over the mountains in a plane that is vintage 1930s. When I arrive in the old “Banana Republic” town of Golfito I board, or shall I say, climb into a small single engine Cessna. Four other travelers from North America are crammed into this little air machine along with our luggage, and the pilot. One of my fellow passengers nervously wonders aloud if this tiny little craft will even fly with such a load. I decide not to speculate about our chances, but to just keep my video camera rolling during the entire flight.

The flight across the gulf peninsula lasts only 7 minutes. It turns out to be very pleasant. However, given the diminishing size of the airplanes, I am extremely happy that there is not a fourth plane in my immediate future. We land on a gravel runway located in the town of Puerto Jimenez where I see a small, flat bed pickup truck. This truck, among other things, is displaying a sign that reads “taxi.” It is not at all like any taxi that I have previously known, but that’s okay with me, just as long as I do not have to fly in it.

Puerto Jimenez, the largest town on the Osa peninsula, is somewhat reminiscent of a North American frontier town complete with an interesting mix of cars and horses kicking up dust from the dirt streets. The town is only about eight square blocks long, and as we pass through, I see a couple of modern looking houses. Everything else is made out of wood and looks as if it has been around for some time. I am not sure, but my imagination tells me that life here must be similar to life in the western United States in a bygone era.

We head south and bump along for about 35 minutes, occasionally driving on the wrong side of the road to avoid a “pot hole.” There are holes everywhere, so I am not sure why we try to miss some, but go into others. I guess this is what is called “local knowledge.” The taxi driver informs me that the United States Army Corps of Engineers will be arriving soon to resurface the road and replace several of the aging bridges. This is very good because some bridges are damaged. We must ford several streams to get to Lapa Rios. I decide that the condition of the road simply enhances the adventure of going into a rain forest.

The incredible beauty of the countryside along the way makes the trip seem shorter than it really is. I am finally beginning to feel comfortable with the road when suddenly, from over the crest of a hill; a thundering herd of cattle appears. I stare in disbelief at the rapidly approaching sea of fierce looking bovines descending upon us. The dust cloud and the noise are intimidating to me, but the calm demeanor of the “taxi” driver reassures me that all is well. It is never a problem for us because the herd splits apart and passes around the vehicle while I get some good video footage of the entire event.

When I arrive at Lapa Rios, my senses go into overload. A truly unique resort hotel stands where a year ago only a barren 350-foot mesa existed. It is a beautiful piece of architecture and it looks like something that actually belongs in a rain forest.

The large main lodge is a giant “jungle hut.” Inside is a restaurant and bar with a dramatic spiral staircase that leads to an observation deck. Outside there is a swimming pool, and 14 luxury cabins spread out over the mesa. I am in awe by what has sprung from the jungle in just over a year.

The name Lapa Rios translates loosely into English as “Rivers of the Scarlet Macaw.” The Scarlet Macaw is the bright-multicolored parrot-like bird indigenous to the area. When viewed in flight from the 350-foot mesa these birds appear to be a river of moving color — thus the name Lapa Rios. Because it has just opened, the resort is not very crowded during the time of my stay, but this situation will no doubt change as word of the incredible resort spreads throughout the land.

In the past, most of the people who came to see the rain forest jungle were the adventurous backpacker-camper types who liked the idea of pitching a tent in the wilderness. Now all that has changed. Of course, you can still pitch a tent and camp along the beach, but now there is another alternative. Lapa Rios was constructed to be a luxury resort in the rain forest. It is a place with 14 luxury cabins, each complete with twin queen size beds, modern lavatory facilities, a garden patio, and electricity. If that’s not enough, how about a place that also has a five-star restaurant and bar. All of this was accomplished in keeping with the principles of good rain forest ecology. In fact, during construction, not one live tree was cut from the site where the hotel now stands.

John and Karen Lewis created Lapa Rios, but it is Karen who is most responsible for the beautiful tropical gardens that adorn the complex. They contribute to the decor of each cabin. One can easily get the feeling of being in the jungle without leaving the enclosed patio of their cabin.

My days at Lapa Rios are filled with bird watching and observing the other types of wildlife including the flora and fauna. I also like to visit the near-by beach or walk along the Rio Carbonara. This river is what most people would call a large stream. It features several dazzling waterfalls and during the course of my hike, I stop frequently to stand under the cascading water and cool off.

I walk many of the jungle trails within the rain forest, but much of what I encounter is within just a few meters of the hotel. In a single week, here I have seen an overwhelming abundance of plant and animal wild life. The list of what I have seen includes; a family of three toed sloth’s, four different types of monkeys, over 100 different species of birds, and several types of butterflies including the large “electric blue” amorphous butterflies called “morfos” by the locals. (Mariposa Morfo Azul)  All this I see without ever leaving the hotel grounds.

Although I’m living in a tropical rain forest jungle, life is quite comfortable. The air is humid, but there always seems to be a soft fragrant breeze washing over the mesa where the Hotel Lapa Rios stands. This provides a comfortable environment in which to view the land and waters of the adjacent Golfo Dulce. (Sweet Gulf) Actually, on the Osa Peninsula one can find an unlimited number of places that offer a sweeping view of the ocean waters.

From the beginning, it has been an effort for me to absorb the abundance of the tropical diversity that exists here, but no matter how many times I enter the rain forest I am still in awe of the beauty and tranquility that I find there. When I slip under the canopy, I encounter a different world teeming with life. Yet, for me, it is very much like being inside a giant cathedral.

One thing that I like about Costa Rica is that winter, as most North Americans know it, does not exist here. (Snow Bunnies please skip the rest of this paragraph.) There are actually only two seasons in Costa Rica, wet and dry. On the OSA Peninsula that translates into “Mud or Dust.” However, there is but one temperature here all year round–HOT! January is in the dry season, but to my delight, this year there have been a couple of good tropical rain showers. I like tropical rain because it is often quite dramatic. The sky opens up and quickly the giant cumulus clouds dump millions of gallons of water onto the jungle. Then, as if by magic, the clouds vanish to permit the strong rays of the sun to reach into the dripping jungle and summon the water back to the sky. The ascending pillars of water vapor give rise to the term “steaming jungle.” If you have never been witness to this process then you have a wonderful experience awaiting you.

The rain forest in this part of Costa Rica is among the last remaining low land tropical rain forest jungle left in the world. My trip here to see it has been everything that I had expected it to be, and more.

Jim Sayers
March 1993

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