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Lapa Rios is a successful eco-lodge, set under the canopy of the Costa Rican rainforest on a lip of land dropping 350 feet to the Pacific-side Golfo Dulce. The owners built the retreat in 1993 as a way to save hundreds of acres of rainforest from development. They have created 16 thatch-roofed bungalows that have solar-heated water in showers, and ceiling fans rather than air-conditioning. The resort functions as a sustainable business that also serves local community and conservation needs, including a lodge-funded school. Lapa Rios provides protection for more than 1,000 acres of rainforest and places emphasis on educating guests, staff and locals on natural and cultural issues. The resort employs about 50 staff -- only local people -- in its operations. The resort maintains architectural integrity with the surrounding area and local styles, and utilizes sustainable construction methods and materials. Lapa Rios is vigilant in energy conservation through passive design and renewable sources. It also uses a sustainable approach to chemical use, waste, sewage, recycling and water management while respecting wildlife and the natural setting. In fact, no live trees were cut for the construction of the buildings.
Our destination in the Osa rainforest was Lapa Rios Ecolodge, a series of luxury bungalows perched on the edge of a 1,000 acre tropical rainforest preserve. The lodge overlooks the very point of the peninsula where the Golfo Dulce meets the Pacific Ocean, and in addition to providing a one-of-a-kind travel experience, the lodge serves to support and protect the land it inhabits.
Our private, thatched-roof hut looked out across an expansive vista of forest and ocean. In the mornings Greg and I sat on the deck with our morning coffee, laughing as we watched the squirrel monkeys swinging from vine to vine in the trees, edging ever closer in an attempt to inspect us. Toucans and macaws flew overhead, and in the distance the fierce-sounding howler monkeys bellowed.
Behind-the-scenes tours tend to dissolve the glamorous gloss of any enterprise. Do you really want to see the waste-disposal system at the Ritz Hotel in Paris ? But in the case of southern Costa Rica 's Lapa Ríos, renowned for both its comforts and its impeccable ecolodge credentials (see sidebar), taking a look at the infrastructure actually enhances the eco-experience.
Part of the credo of sustainable tourism is raising ecological awareness through education. How better to do that than by offering a free Sustainability Tour to your guests?
Even before they arrive, Lapa Ríos guests have pretty well been primed to expect – and demand – a true ecotourism experience. The lodge's Web site and the reservations staff emphasize the rusticity and the conservation goals of the lodge on the southern tip of the Osa Peninsula. Since most guests start out with an interest in conservation and sustainability, the tour has a lot of takers.
Marijke Mulder is the lodge's official sustainability coordinator. Born in the Southern Zone town of Golfito to a Dutch father and a Tica mother, Mulder moved to Holland at age 2, returning to Costa Rica when she was 16. She speaks Dutch, English, Spanish and some French, and, like almost all the employees at Lapa Ríos, she's a local.
And We're Off
The tour starts after breakfast or lunch at the hotel entrance, where Mulder gives a short introduction on the lodge's overall conservation goals, pointing out that Lapa Ríos has two identities: it's an ongoing conservation project as well as an ecolodge.
Then we are off and running, prying into every corner of the lodge, including garbage cans. Along with bins for recycling paper, underneath the reception desk is a small pail for discarded flashlight batteries. It used to be a huge bin that filled up quickly with dead batteries, but ever since the lodge switched to the new generation of kinetic, wind-up flashlights (for sale at the front desk), Mulder says the amount of batteries collected (mostly from guests) has dropped by 75%.
Next stop is the kitchen, where everything is done manually, including the dishes, to save on power. In addition to buying in bulk to reduce packaging, every container is washed out and reused, including plastic bags and the large plastic pails of food staples, which are sent back to the supplier to refill. And, of course, every leftover is sorted, destined for either the compost heap or the pigpen (more about pigs later). The head cook keeps a detailed garbage-recycling log, tracking changes in the amount of garbage so that staff can analyze what they're doing right or wrong.
Fruits, vegetables and other perishables are kept fresh in a sealed room, cooled by a single, tiny air conditioner, the only one on the property, set at 18 degrees Celsius (about 68 Fahrenheit ).
From the kitchen, Mulder leads the way to the garden outside to see the solar panels that heat water for the kitchen. One of the reasons guests are asked to place their dinner orders at breakfast is so that the kitchen can do all the dinner prep work and wash dishes with sunlit hot water during the day. Preordering also cuts down on the amount of wasted food.
Down the hill from the kitchen garden, the next point of interest is the pool shed. The first thing you notice is the absence of any chlorine smell. The pool's filter works on a salt principle, with an “autopilot” that measures the level of salt in the pool. This method requires more cleaning, since algae grow more quickly, and the standard concrete pool bottom had to be replaced with tile, which is easier to clean. But the payoff is no noxious chemicals.
We move on to the guest bungalows, where Mulder points out all the sustainability measures, ranging from the cosmetic – papier-mâché lampshades that incorporate 16 different leaves from the area and bamboo toiletry holders made by a local artisan – to the more practical: low-voltage bulbs, sheets and towels changed every two days, biodegradable toiletries in packaging-saving dispensers and solar-heated hot water, as well as the familiar admonitory signs to turn off lights and fans when you leave the room. One of the lodge's newest policies is to provide each guest with a personal plastic water bottle, which can be refilled free at water dispensers all around the property. This drastically cuts down on the number of plastic bottles that would have to be recycled, and guests take away their souvenir bottle.
As we walk down the steep hill to the maintenance area, Mulder tells us that the trails we're traversing were built with steps and dividers made from railroad ties from the United Fruit Company's abandoned Golfito line, and rescued by the lodge's founders, Karen and John Lewis. She adds that all the gardening is done by hand – by one lone gardener – without the aid of noisy, gas-belching machinery.
The only fly in the sustainability ointment at Lapa Ríos is the diesel generator. There are actually two, working alternately, so one is always humming noisily away. This is the most common criticism leveled by guests on the tour, Mulder says. But she gamely explains that when the lodge was built almost 15 years ago, it was the most economical solution available. Management is working on ways to wean the lodge from generator power, she adds, including solar systems for heating water, which are taking some of the pressure off the need for generators. The lodge did a feasibility study on using the nearby river for hydroelectric power, but the river doesn't have enough capacity and damming it could cause ecological damage.
Ironically, when it's cool and raining, the generators attract lots of animals that come to hang out in the trees overhanging the humming generators to get warm. So it's a great place for guests to spot wildlife, Mulder says.
Next stop is the laundry. Standing under clouds of billowing sheets drying in the “solar dryer,” Mulder shows us the labels on the sheets. They're made from modal, a high-strength fiber made of reconstituted European beech trees in Turkey. They're biodegradable, and although Modal is more expensive than cotton, its production is more sustainable.
From the fresh, clean smells of the laundry, we move on to a dark shed redolent with the distinctive odor of pigs. This is the lodge's most basic recycling project. About 15 pigs of varying sizes eat the kitchen leftovers – except for pineapple skins, mangos and a few other compost-able items that are buried in nearby pits. The excrement produced by the well-fed pigs is hosed down into a trough that funnels into an underground tank. There, bacteria growing on the excrement produce methane gas, which in turn travels through a pipe to the staff kitchen, where it fuels the gas burners used to cook daily meals for 52 employees.
The last stop on the tour is the staff kitchen, for a demonstration of the methane-fueled stoves and a social visit. Over a cool glass of fruit juice and a chunk of watermelon, we make small talk with Zeneida, the head cook, talking about families and food as she carefully separates kernels of rice. It's a pleasant visit and another building block of sustainability – a cultural exchange, however brief, between guests and locals.
On the walk (or truck ride) back up to the lodge, Mulder fields questions. The most commonly asked question, she says, is what happens to the pigs after a productive life of eating and excreting?
Happily, there's no chance that guests will encounter a working pig on a plate.
“The pigs are killed on the property and we sell them to our employees at a low price,” Mulder explains. “We don't serve the meat in our restaurant because we haven't got the proper processing machines.”
At the end of the tour, Mulder says, the comment she hears most often from guests is that they have a new appreciation for what it takes to make a tourist lodge sustainable. In the face of all the “green-washing” of some self-proclaimed “ecolodges” that have hitched an undeserved ride on the eco-marketing bandwagon, this tour shows what it really takes to be sustainable, and that sustainability doesn't come cheap.
See relevant book:
Eco-Resorts: Planning and Design for the Tropics