|A View With
Plus: the World's Ultimate Outposts
By Alex Markels
The Lapa Rios lodge and preserve is at the forefront of a growing trend that benefits both nature and the local economy.
As the morning sun sets the horizon aglow, the trees high above Costa Rica's glittering Golfo Dulce come alive with the cacophony of the lowland jungle. The ocean waves crash against the shore here at the tip of the remote Osa Peninsula, the southernmost coast of this Central American nation. A troop of howler monkeys bark a rowdy greeting to the day; scarlet macaws squawk in unison as they streak across the horizon; and a pair of chestnut-mandibled toucans discuss breakfast plans in a nearby tree. A long-nosed coatimundi scampers up the trunk of a cecropia tree. His tail wrapped around a branch, he sniffs out a few choice fruits, grabs them with his paws, then wedges himself between two branches to feast.
This vision of biodiversity would be remarkable enough if I had seen it while standing on some muddy jungle trail. Yet what makes the scene truly amazing is that I'm taking it in without venturing an inch from my luxurious queen-size bed. Still tucked between striped percale sheets, I lie in the middle of a private open-air bungalow, with hardwood floors, lacquered bamboo walls, and a vaulted palm-thatched roof, perfectly perched along a ridge overlooking the Pacific and bordering the 1,008-acre Lapa Rios rainforest preserve. A combination luxury lodge and eco-sensitive conservation project, Lapa Rios is at the forefront of a growing worldwide movement to develop nature tourism that actually nurtures the fragile ecosystems that draw people in the first place. Since the early 1980s, hundreds of eco-lodges have been built in tropical jungles, cloudforests, and remote savannas. The best of them not only tread lightly on the land and help protect endangered wildlife habitat but also benefit the local economy.
Lapa Rios' stunning main lodge and 14 bungalows were built on a former sheep pasture, and not a single native tree was cut down. The developers, Karen and John Lewis of Minnesota, purchased the site in 1990, intending to demonstrate to both guests and locals that "a rainforest left standing is more profitable than one cut down." They had originally planned to build a rustic birdwatching lodge. But when research showed a far stronger demand for an upscale wilderness resort, featuring such seemingly incongruous amenities as private, heated showers; 24-hour electricity; and gourmet dining, the couple altered their politically correct vision to ensure that their labor of love would be as sustainable economically as it was ecologically. The inevitable compromises yielded a five-acre compound built almost entirely of native materials and equipped with solar-powered showers, but with diesel-generator-driven electricity and a conventional septic tank sewage system. "We're a demonstration in ecotourism, not in energy conservation," says John Lewis.
The middle-aged couple -- he's a lawyer and she's a teacher and professional musician -- have dumped more than $1 million of their own money into the project. They channel part of their profits into protecting their land: saving hundreds of acres of primary rainforest from the sort of slash-and-burn farming that had denuded the resort site, and reforesting several hundred additional acres. Worried that they'd be viewed as interlopers by their neighbors, the former Peace Corps volunteers ventured out into the surrounding hillsides bearing home-baked bread and cookies. After finding out that their neighbors lacked any formal education, the Lewises founded a charitable foundation and recruited other philanthropic groups to help build the village's first primary school. They also hired local residents to work at Lapa Rios -- the entire 43-person staff.
In the six years since the resort opened to the public, it has been lauded not only by such environmental groups as the Ecotourism Society and Conservation International but also by hotel critics, including Andrew Harper, the fastidious editor of the exclusive Hideaway Report newsletter, which awarded its grand prize to Lapa Rios three years ago.
Not that Lapa Rios is an unqualified success. Ironically, by drawing attention to what was once a remote, largely overlooked part of Costa Rica, Lapa Rios has helped put the Osa Peninsula on the tourism map, drawing scores of foreigners who have arrived to grab and subdivide their own piece of paradise. The resort's financial success, as well as the Lewises' exclusion of nonpaying visitors from its private reserve, have also fostered deep resentment among some locals, who mistook the Lewises' good intentions for meddling; at one point the couple were even banished from direct involvement in the school they'd worked so hard to help establish. "It was very hurtful at first," recalls Karen Lewis. "But things seem to be working themselves out."
Despite the pitfalls, Lapa Rios has largely achieved the Lewises' original goal of saving a pristine chunk of jungle wilderness from becoming pastureland, while proving to both tourists and locals that there is value in protecting Costa Rica's endangered lowland rainforest. Meanwhile, its economic success reminds other eco-lodge operators that ecological sustainability requires economic viability, and it may inspire the traditional tourism industry to adopt sustainable practices.
The World's Ultimate Outposts
Hundreds of eco-lodges have been built amid tropical jungles, cloudforests, and remote savannas since the early 1980s. In selecting some of the finest, Audubon used several criteria: Wildlife and wilderness must be plentiful. The accommodations should be clean and comfortable, whether they are rustic open-air cabins or modern luxury hotels. And above all, the eco-resorts ought to prove that nature tourism is not just good for business but good for the environment, the native population, and the local culture as well.
All prices are per person per night, based on double occupancy, and include meals except where otherwise noted.
Il Ngwesi Lodge, Kenya
In 1996 local residents received funding from the African Wildlife Federation and the Kenya Wildlife Service to build and operate the lodge in exchange for allowing wildlife to migrate and graze on their 3,500 acres during the dry season. The lodge they built, also called Ngwesi, overlooks the plains of Kenya's Samburu National Reserve, with Mount Kenya in the distance. The open-air construction of villas affords panoramic views of the surrounding savanna. "The natural experience is as close as it can get," says Hitesh Mehta, a Florida-based eco-lodge architect and expert on the fledgling eco-resort industry.
address: Sanyati Ltd., P.O. Box 15165, Nairobi, Kenya
Chumbe Island Coral Park, Zanzibar, Tanzania
Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America
Hotelito Desconocido, Mexico
address: Hotelito Desconocido, Playón de
Mismaloya, La Cruz de Loreto, Tomatlán, Jalisco, Mexico
Asa Wright Nature Centre and Lodge, Trinidad
address: Asa Wright Nature Centre and Lodge, Box 4710,
Arima, Trinidad and Tobago, West Indies
Rainforest Canopy Tower, Panama
Kapawi Lodge, Ecuador This 20-room enclave on the shores of eastern Ecuador's remote Pastaza River sets a new standard for both local involvement and environmental sensitivity in eco-lodge development. Even before Kapawi's master plan was drawn up, the indigenous Achuar people provided vital information on the rivers and existing trails in this largely unmapped Amazonian region, which is accessible only by airplane. The Achuar's work was supplemented by extensive scientific research on local flora and fauna (including pink dolphins, rare river otters, and more than 300 bird species). Waterside bungalows contain private bathrooms with composting toilets, solar-heated showers, and sun-generated electricity. "It's completely sustainable," says Megan Epler Wood, the president of the Vermont-based Ecotourism Society who was so impressed with Kapawi that she wrote a case study about it. The current owner of the lodge, Ecuador's Canadros tour company, will eventually transfer its management to the Achuar. The tribe already derives nearly half its annual income from the project, and so is better able to resist corporate offers to develop oil wells or raise cattle. Nor is it apt to resort to the slash-and-burn agriculture that has long blighted the region.
address: Luis Urdaneta, 1418y Avenida Del Ejercito, Guayaquil, Ecuador
Posada Amazonas, Peru A two-hour boat ride up the Tambopata River, in southeastern Peru, takes you to this remote thatch-roofed and clay-walled enclave, which is jointly owned by Lima-based outfitter Rainforest Expeditions and the Ese'eja Native Community of Tambopata. The Ese'eja helped build and staff the 24-bedroom facility, and members are on hand to share their knowledge of the surrounding 3.7 million-acre Tambopata Candamo Reserved Zone. Visitors learn about wildlife tracking, the vast rainforest's medicinal plants, and the Ese'eja's spiritual beliefs about nature. University trained scientists help identify the remarkably diverse fauna, which includes 1,200 species of butterflies, 90 species of frogs, and more than 1,300 species of birds -- among them 32 types of parrots. These creatures frequent the world's largest known clay salt lick (about 1,500 feet long and 65 feet high), which is a three-hour trip up the river from the lodge. Kurt Kutay, president of U.S. outfitter Wildland Adventures, says the lodge has financially benefited the Ese'eja and inspired them to preserve clay licks and an oxbow lake where giant river otters have become a major attraction.
address: Posada Amazonas, c/o Rainforest Expeditions, Galeón
120, Lima 41, Peru
Australia and Malaysia
Kingfisher Bay Resort & Village, Fraser Island, Queensland, Australia Kingfisher Bay may be the world's most thoroughly planned eco-resort, with a 152-room hotel, 100 villas, and a 100-bed wilderness lodge -- all situated on Fraser Island, a United Nations World Heritage Site off Australia's Queensland coast. After conducting extensive environmental-impact assessments, the planners decided to build around existing trees and limit the size of buildings. During the construction, landfill came from local sources to avoid importing mainland soil diseases. The $62 million resort provides a "blueprint for future resort development," says eco-lodge expert Hitesh Mehta. The island's more than 40 lakes and numerous beaches yield close encounters with more than 240 bird species, rare "acid" frogs, and migrating humpback whales.
address: Kingfisher Bay Resort & Village, PMB 1, Urangan, Hervey
Bay, QLD 4655, Australia
Sukau Rainforest Lodge, Malaysia The proximity of this 20-room lodge on stilts to the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary in the Borneo rainforest makes it one of the few places in the world where you can see 10 species of primates in the same location. The lodge's owner, Borneo Eco Tours, has earned a long list of accolades for its highly eco-sensitive facility, which is completely self-sufficient in water and electricity, and for its community projects and employment of the local Orang Sungai people, who now build and pilot the wooden longboats used for nature touring. These boats run on solar-charged electric motors, "which made them silent in the narrow channels and did not alarm the birds or many species of monkeys we saw," notes Clive Napier, the president of Birds Australia (a venerable conservation organization) who visited last August.
address: Sukau Rainforest Lodge, Borneo Eco Tours, Sdn Bhd Shoplot 12A,
2nd floor, Lorong Bernam 3, Taman Soon Kiong, 88300 Kota Kinabalu, Sabah,
PO Box 025216
SJO-706 Miami, FL 33102
$130-$310 per person per night