It comes as no surprise to find a leader in the responsible tourism movement in one of the most eco-friendly countries of the world. Costa Rica ecotourism is part of its citizens’ DNA. I first meet the gregarious Jürgen Klein at the 6th International Conference on Sustainable Tourism held in San José. As a passionate environmentalist and hotelier, it was difficult not to fall under the spell of his enthusiastic love of an eco-friendly lifestyle.
A few days later, I travel to his lodge to see Jürgen’s environmental stewardship in action. Visitors would never claim getting to Selva Bananito Lodge is an easy journey. Years of travel have taught me that off the beaten path often translates into memorable experiences. Such is the case with the Costa Rican ecotourism of Selva Bananito Lodge and Preserve. Nature, in all its glory, awaits my arrival.
Costa Rica is well known for their delicious coffee and chocolate. The last stop before heading off-road in a 4X4 is an organic chocolate farm in Banito Norte, not far from Puerto Limon and the Cahuita National Park. The amiable owner gives me a quick tour. I connect with Jürgen for the second time and he leads me to the lodge, far from the edge of the forest.
The road, and I use the term loosely, is a potholed challenge that crosses rivers and moves deep into the jungle. Part of the drive is right through a river. Children could raft here just 50 years ago. Jürgen and his two sisters spent time swimming in the water running down from the mountains. Now only a few inches deep for a variety of environmental reasons, it is the first visible indicator of the climate change affecting the entire country.
Jurgën’s father purchased the property that would later become Selva Bananito Lodge and Preserve in 1974. Originally the asset was acquired for farming and wood exploitation. As a teen exploring the area with his siblings, I’m sure the family never imagined the role they would later take in the conservation of the land.
Costa Rica EcoTourism Comes Full Circle
Despite their original intentions, the family decided such a gift from Mother Nature must not be abused and in 1994, 2,000 acres of the untouched part of the farm was turned into a private, biological reserve; the logging was abandoned. Knowing full well that the 11 cottages would never generate the same income as the valuable wood, the family moved forward to change the tide and take an active stand in environmental conservation.
The secluded rainforest property is home to 11 cabins. Each is on stilts, built in a traditional Caribbean style using reclaimed lumber and salvage discarded by loggers. Being raised, the design helps to circulate airflow, relieve humidity and keep out a range of creepy crawlers. The height allows for the added benefit of gorgeous mountain views from the balcony hammock in all directions. The small number of beds ensures that the number of visitors entering the reserve is limited.
A nearby rancho serves healthy meals with a focus on local produce and provisions. The small bar makes an excellent daiquiri. Served in a coconut it is especially tasty when consumed by candlelight. A small library rounds out the rancho.
Most of the staff is from the area ensuring a benefit to the local people. The property uses solar energy to heat the water. Shampoo and organic soaps are made for Selva Bananito in a local cooperative. At night, most of the light is by candle (headlamps are strongly advised). Visitors have the opportunity to offset their carbon footprint by supporting a reforestation program. The result of all this effort has landed Selva Bananito regularly on lists featuring Best Eco-Lodges Around the World.
As I turn off my headlamp and tuck into my comfortable bed covered with a thin gauzy layer of mosquito netting, the darkness envelops my space. Sounds of cicada and tree frogs lull me to sleep. It is the first time I have slept with my doors completely open to the elements. Rather than fear, I feel an incredible sense of freedom and joy to partake in such an experience. I wake at daybreak to a cacophony of roosters. Exotic birds are alive with song and a low fog is moving slowly over the mountaintops. It is easy to see how guests are seduced by the experience and never want to leave.
The Gyrocopter Experience
Tourists can enjoy a number of outdoor activities including bird watching, horseback riding, hiking or rappelling down a waterfall in the rainforest. Jürgen, however, has other plans for me. The word gyrocopter was not part of my vocabulary, but when I heard it was airborne, I eagerly agreed to the flight. The shiny, bright machine is open air and holds two people. Close your eyes and imagine an oversized silver roller skate combined with the blades of a helicopter.
We take off from a small grass runway, and seconds later I am floating over an expanse of forest larger than I ever imagined. There is no denying the beauty of the land and the close contact with nature. As far as the eye can see, treetops stretch all the way to the Caribbean. It was breathtaking and exhilarating, probably as close to flying like a bird as I’ll ever get. When he points out the open platforms for the cat experience, I make a mental note to find out more.
Once safely back on the ground. I ask about his Following the Footprints of Wild Cats Program. Jürgen is well aware of the fact that the forest acts as the lungs of our planet. The big cats are considered one of the indicator species; when they have healthy numbers, it indicates that the environment is healthy. In the last 10 years, an all but extinct population has grown steadily. The Wild Cat program allows guest to be involved.
Visitors set and monitor cameras to track the wildlife. Overnights are offered in the jungle on said platforms for a truly off the grid experience. These encounters allow nature lovers to further connect with the outdoors on an even deeper level. Like a big pyramid, when the cats at the top present good numbers, a healthy resource is assumed for all animals inhabiting the environment at the other end of the spectrum.
As a steward of the property, Jürgen hopes to touch the heart of each person who visits. After dinner he spoke: “Eco-tourism is not about seeing the monkey and staying in a traditional hotel with the air conditioning on full blast. It’s about helping us in Costa Rica and other countries protect the natural habitat of endangered species and environments that provide us with water, with oxygen and with unique experiences. In that sense, you are all part of the family now, and you’ve yet to sleep in the forest. What I ask is for you to communicate this message to others so that parallel sustainable programs might also move them. May their hearts also be touched.” With that, the eco-warrior disappears into the dark night of the forest and leaves me all alone with my thoughts and the sounds of the jungle.
Pin Me – Costa Rica Ecotourism-Selva Bananito Lodge