A Rainforest Retreat

Ecotourism in Costa Rica offers an unforgettable combination of both vacation and preservation.
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Tree Hugger

Choosing doing good over feeling good sometimes requires a sacrifice. But for travelers who enjoy active vacations while avoiding crowds, ecotourism provides a sacrifice-free opportunity to both do good and feel good.

The International Ecotourism Society, established in 1990, defines ecotourism as "responsible travel to natural places, which conserves the environment and sustains or improves the well-being of the local people." The group has developed a set of ecotourism principles, as well as a directory of members adhering to them.

Though the term ecotourism has been in use for less than 30 years, the desire to see nature in a pristine, undeveloped state goes back at least a century to the advent of the conservation movement and the establishment of the national parks system.

Interest in ecotourism has burgeoned recently, making it one of the fastest growing segments in the travel industry. Ecolodges are typically intimately scaled, however, so crowds are not an issue.

At

Lapa Rios, located on the Osa Peninsula at the southern tip of

Costa Rica, there are never more than 64 guests, even during the high season.

A Jewel in the Jungle

Lapa Rios is on a 1,000-acre natural reserve between the Golfo Dolce and the lowland tropical rainforest near the

Corcovado National Park.

The main lodge and 16 bungalows are built on several ridges, all hundreds of feet above sea level. Each airy bungalow has screened walls, two queen-size beds and a private deck with an outdoor shower surrounded by tropical flowers.

The indoor bath has a waterfall shower, as well as the standard type. There is no air conditioning, but cool breezes waft through the walls, and ceiling fans keep the air circulating. The units are designed for privacy, each with unimpeded views of water and tropical foliage.

And whether your activities include hiking, horseback riding, kayaking or just lounging on the deck or by the pool, there is virtually always something in motion nearby.

Lapa Rios is home to creatures great and small, from tiny opalescent insects that glow in the dark to elusive jaguars, which are rarely seen, though at least one group of hikers reported straying close enough to one to hear it snore.

Other critters that may be seen, as well as heard, include white-face monkeys, spider monkeys who often make a morning and evening commute through the trees near the bungalows, and reddish-brown squirrel monkeys that dine in the forest near the swimming pool.

Howler monkeys live up to the name; their

yelping becomes especially frenzied when it rains. A resort guide said the howlers are delighted by downpours that allow them to stay high and safe in the trees and drink water that accumulates in leaves, rather than venturing down to the river where they're more vulnerable.

There are also bright blue morpho butterflies, boa constrictors, iguanas of all sizes -- including a five-foot-long specimen that strolled through the dining room one day at lunch -- and small mammals, such as kinkajous, agoutis, coatimundis and sloths, sometimes in family groups. When kayaking or boating, it's possible to spy whales, sea turtles and dolphins in the gulf and nearby Pacific.

Though the animals encountered at Lapa Rios are undoubtedly wild, they're remarkably tolerant of human presence.

While horseback riding, my group stopped to admire a procession of white-face monkeys, many with babies on their backs. Instead of fleeing, the monkeys stopped to look back at us. The guide explained that monkeys don't fear horses and seem to regard the little animals -- us! -- on the horses' backs as babies, which are also nothing to be afraid of.

Something to Crow About

More than 300 types of birds reside on the Osa Peninsula, so it's an ideal place to spot toucans, parrots, pelicans, green parakeets, owls, eagles and more.

Flocks of green parakeets often fly past the main lodge's deck; I spotted a white hawk soaring nearby, its pale feathers standing out against the dark green forest canopy.

Seeing my interest in the majestic bird, a resort staffer set up a high-powered telescope to give me a better look, commenting that he thinks of the white hawk as the king of the rainforest.

During a prebreakfast bird walk, dozens of feathered friends made appearances.

However, the most breathtaking sight was a tree bedecked with about two dozen brilliantly colored scarlet macaws, locally known as "lapas," for which the resort is named.

Many of the birds had paired off, grooming each other, bickering, feeding, all the while ignoring the handful of humans raptly taking in their every motion.

Never a Dull Moment

It's possible to ride or hike daily throughout your stay at Lapa Rios and see new things each time.

The sweet-tempered horses are comfortable, willing mounts, happy to change gaits at the slightest cue from the rider.

An especially nice ride is to the point where the gulf meets the Pacific. Hiking there would probably take a half day, but I was cantering on the black-sand beach in less than 45 minutes.

For those more comfortable on foot, there's a choice of hikes that vary by length, difficulty and even theme.

The easiest hike, and the only one you can do on your own, is a self-guided rainforest trail which offers a chance to see enormous ancient primary-growth trees, waterfalls and much wildlife.

A night hike is one of the most unusual offerings at the resort. My guided group of four entered the pitch-dark rainforest on a narrow path and headed down a series of steep steps carved into a slope.

Since visibility was nonexistent beyond the beam of our flashlights, other senses became heightened.

The humid air felt heavy enough to touch; sounds from chirping birds and insects, those appropriately named howler monkeys, waterfalls and the flow of an unseen river seemed remarkably loud. Crossing streams on rocks and scrambling up mud-slick hillsides required total concentration.

Other available activities include a medicine walk guided by a local shaman; a 10-mile nature-adventure hike; overnight platform camping in the rainforest; and fishing from shore or boat. Visitors can also plant a tree in the rainforest and learn more about the local ecosystem. All groups are limited to 10 or fewer to preserve the intimacy of the experience.

The Lapa Rios mantra is tat a forest left standing is worth more than one cut down. The resort also has a

sustainability tour that points out the practices which have earned it the highest level

Certification of Sustainable Tourism from the

Costa Rican Tourism Board.

These include using locally grown, renewable materials for building, such as palm leaves for thatched roofs. Solar panels are used to heat water, and food waste is fed to pigs or composted for use in planting beds.

The resort also serves organic food and coffee, uses biodegradable cleaning products and sanitizes the pool with chlorine alternatives.

There are no TVs, radios or phones at Lapa Rios. Occasionally, there's an acoustic guitar player in the main lodge in the evening until the bar closes; otherwise, there is no music, which emphasizes the peaceful isolation of the setting.

And it's not difficult to get to -- most visitors take a 45-minute flight from San Jose to Puerto Jimenez, the town nearest Lapa Rios. The Lapa Rios staff can make your flight plans for you, and arrange a pickup at the resort's office near the landing strip.

From there, the 12-mile four-wheel ride to the resort can take from 40 to 60 minutes over a rough, but interesting road. And for overnight accommodations in San Jose, Lapa Rios recommends

Finca Rosa Blanca or

Xandari Resort, both similarly "green" lodgings.

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Elzy Kolb is a freelance writer living in White Plains, N.Y. In addition to writing the monthly JazzWomen! column in Hot House magazine, her articles on the arts, travel, interior design and other topics have appeared in the New York Times, Interior Design magazine and The Stamford Advocate.