By Sarah Erdman
Poison dart frogs hop among rocks, Jesus Christ lizards skitter across the surface of streams, scarlet macaws screech as they soar overhead, and squirrel monkeys whistle and chirp in rowdy troops. Somewhere, deep in the ancient jungle, lurks the jaguar; while pods of humpback whales swim along the shores of the Pacific coast. Welcome to Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula—part cacophonous dreamscape, part master class in biodiversity.
Amid some of Central America’s last remaining lowland tropical rain forest, this pristine landscape sustains two and a half percent of the world’s total biodiversity, including more than 300 bird species. The “most biologically intense place on Earth,” as it has been called, also sets a classroom-like backdrop for an eco-getaway that passes with flying colors.
Immersed in this natural wonderland stands Lapa Rios Lodge, part of the National Geographic Unique Lodge of the World collection. This pioneering eco-lodge has long offered a crash course for wildlife lovers, and a new expert-led training program for budding nature guides formalizes the learning experience. Texas travelers Susan and Robert Jones recently became the inaugural graduates in the Lapa Rios Guide School program, a five-night experience that teaches guests the essentials of nature guiding.
“We are not vacationers who like to sit around,” says Susan, who holds a degree in biology as well as a secondary teaching certification. “We are very active and enjoy learning about the environments we visit.”
For her second trip to the Osa Peninsula—and her husband’s first—she sought a unique experience with compelling activities. The guide school program plotted out Susan’s ideal itinerary, and the promise of a small group—with a maximum of eight participants at a time—also appealed to her. Throughout the course of the program, enrollees attend talks by expert guides on sustainability issues and local wildlife, head out on early birding outings, take the lodge’s local medicine hike to learn about native plants and their medicinal uses, help collect footage from motion-sensor-activated cameras, and put their skills to the test by identifying primates on a walk to the beach.
A night walk led by senior guide Danilo Alvarez proved particularly memorable. “We saw so many species of snakes, amphibians, plants, and other creepy-crawlies. Afterward, we were went back to the guide hut to review all the critters we saw on the hike,” Susan says. “Danilo was a wealth of knowledge, and his passion for the Osa and dedication to sharing his knowledge with others is simply impressive. To basically have him as a private guide was beyond our expectation.”
Climb up the winding staircase of the main lodge at Lapa Rios and you come to a panoramic lookout, a thatched turret surrounded by a vast green sea of trees—and beyond that, the sea itself, crashing against the tip of Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula. If you take a seat here in the afternoon and gaze out over this lush scene, it won’t be long before you hear the jarring shriek of a scarlet macaw, and see a pair of them gliding brightly over the treetops.
From this perch above the canopy—or along the path to your bungalow, you may spot howler monkeys or black-mandibled toucans, baby iguanas and iridescent blue morpho butterflies, maybe even a sloth. And if you walk further down the hill, you will also find pigs.
No one, it is safe to say, travels deep into the Costa Rican jungle to observe pigs, but the pigs of Lapa Rios are worth your attention. They serve a key role in helping the pioneering eco-lodge stay, well, eco. The founders of Lapa Rios purchased 1,000 acres of pristine forest more than 20 years ago in order to protect it and create a natural buffer for nearby Corcovado National Park. Only afterwards did they decide to build a lodge here to anchor the private reserve as a place where staff from local communities could work together toward the ultimate goals of educating travelers about this biologically important ecosystem—and keeping it intact.
Maintaining a light footprint has always been a joint effort between the owners and the local staff. From the housekeepers to the naturalist guides, the staff has fully embraced the green principles upon which the lodge is established, and they've also contributed solutions of their own. One staff member introduced straws made of thin reeds of locally grown bamboo, and plastic straws became a thing of the past. Marciano, the head of maintenance at the time, was the first to suggest bringing pigs to Lapa Rios. At his farm in a nearby community, he had begun harvesting methane gas from his pigs’ manure to use for cooking fuel. The process was simple and efficient, and could help the lodge feed their staff of around 50 with minimal use of fossil fuels.
That was about ten years ago. Lapa Rios has had a team of resident pigs ever since, whose daily routines include gobbling up scraps from the restaurant (thereby reducing kitchen waste) and dutifully defecating in their pen. The manure is channeled into a shallow reservoir sealed with a plastic cover, and the anaerobic conditions under the plastic spark the production of methane. The gas keeps the cover billowing like a kids’ jumping pillow, but no odors escape. Being lighter than air, it naturally funnels into a pipe that feeds directly into the stove in the staff kitchen just up the hill. There, Dona Josefa, the staff cook, simply turns on the burner to cook up gallo pinto for 50+ staff members. The organic matter is composted for later use in the lodge gardens.
When the project first started, local staff built the pigs a small pen. “Guests would see it and say, ‘Oh those poor pigs!’” says Hans Pfister, president of Cayuga Collection of Sustainable Luxury Hotels and Lodge, which manages Lapa Rios. “So we gave them an upgrade. We turned their room into a suite and built them a spa!” That spa, a big pit of mud, is where you’re liable to find the industrious pigs of Lapa Rios lolling if you go on the lodge's back-of-the-house Twigs, Pigs, and Trash sustainability tour.
Once you’ve had a chance to spot some of the more thrilling creatures of the jungle, peer up at the massive ironwoods and mahoganies of the primary forest, watch those squawking macaws screech across the sky, pay a visit to the pigs. They're a curly-tailed reminder of how a simple, sustainable solution can be beneficial to both humans and the natural world.
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