Of all my travel stories that have been published this past decade, this one is both the most difficult to write and the most significant. Difficult because all travel has been halted and somehow writing about places that no one can get to seems redundant. Significant, because when the world rights itself and people spread their wings again, sanctuaries such as Playa Cativo Lodge on Golfo Dulce, Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica, will be there to remind us why we travel in the first place.
In early March, I boarded a canopied motor boat at Puerto Jimenez and sped across the placid gulf for 30 minutes to a secluded mile-long beach rimmed with palm trees. Playa Cativo Lodge, on the edge of Piedras Blancas National Park, came into view as its 18 guest rooms revealed their dark wood facades through a forest of trees, carefully tended lawns and an array of native flowering plants. I breathed in a welcomed sense of tranquility despite the obvious concerns of the gathering viral storms raging far away. With only four nights before I was to return home on a scheduled flight, I made peace with my decision to stay and was rewarded immeasurably.
The American owner, Mark Betts, created this eco-lodge five years ago on what used to be a banana plantation. Sustainability and conservation are its watchwords. Every aspect of the lodge’s operations are carefully calibrated to make it run efficiently with maximum attention to the cost to the environment without diminishing the high quality of comfort for the guests. Its generates 100% clean electric energy with hydroelectric generator and solar panels on site; organic waste is treated at its compost center to produce fertilizer and rich soil, which in turn are used in the gardens and organic farm.
On the afternoon of my first day, Nelson Fernandez, a veteran naturalist, guided four guests through a steep and rugged path into the forest. He pointed out butterfly gardens and leaf cutting ant sites that make modern cities seem inefficient. Giant plants that reduced us to the size of Lilliputians lined the path as our hike led us to a clearing where agoutis, flying wild turkeys and peccaries dazzled us with their acrobatics. This area is also home to the massive organic farm that produced the tropical fruits, vegetables and medicinal herbs that graced our menus each day.
Kudos to the three chefs who created delicious, healthy and beautifully presented meals. A knockout dessert that I still am savoring was the warm peanut butter tart with homemade banana ice cream; a close second, the creamy arroz con leche (rice pudding). The dessert wizard, Kenlly Fernandez, kindly gave me the recipe, which I will try to replicate.
Each day my fridge was filled with fresh fruit, water and a bottle of freshly squeezed fruit juice: pairings of papaya, mangoes, guava, bananas, pineapples, oranges and coconuts. Literally drinking in the morning surrounded by flowering trees and a bevy of birds flitting amongst them, while lounging on my 30’x10’ terrace. The entire casita was spacious and airy, with reclaimed wood, cathedral ceilings and long stretches of screens that created the effect of living in a tree house. Local artisans hand-painted ceramic sinks, wove bed and sofa throws and pillows, and curated arts and crafts teeming with nature themes.
The staff, to a person, created a sense of calm and comfort, despite the obvious tensions that whirled beyond our shore. Specifically, my sense of well-being was held, literally, in the hands of Berny Naranjo, Lotus Wellness spa supervisor. You can travel the world several times and only once meet a healer such as Berny: calm, centered, caring and creative. Having endured an injury in a bizarre encounter with a bamboo branch, I arranged for a massage in my casita and what I encountered was beyond any expectation. A massage bed covered in silk sheets stood in the middle of my terrace rimmed with votive candles. Berny’s massage was a true holistic experience: his massage technique was both restorative and soothing. I slept for eight hours straight, completely without pain when I awakened.
If that wasn’t enough, two days later, without my initiation, Berny did one better. Just before sunset I was led to an open space near the beach, encircled by trees, and introduced to a tableau that one might encounter in a Salvador Dali-meets-Paul Gauguin painting. A massive round bed covered in a green fern print festooned with pillows provided the centerpiece. Wooden poles buoyed a white opaque canopy entwined with hibiscus and red heliconia vines. A covered wooden plate was filled with avocados, breadfruit, watermelon, nuts, pesto sauce, cheese and chocolate cookies. A staff member, acting as a personal bartender, concocted herbal drinks at a makeshift bar several feet away. Warm breezes were wafting by, myriad birds winging their way to their night nests, and I was in a state of childlike wonder at it all.
That was just the beginning. As hues of pink and orange, turquoise and soft grey began to transform the sky, Berny eased me into yoga positions and breathing exercises. Complete relaxation ensued as I drowsed. The experience was enhanced by the sound of an acoustic guitar and followed by the celestial tones of an instrument called the Hang. Berny played both. I had never met a Hang before, but at the end of this wellness treatment, Bernie offered it to me to play on in my casita. For those who, like me, didn’t know what a Hang is … it’s a convex steel drum played with the hands or soft mallets, and is tuned with multiple notes. Very cool.
Another Lotus Wellness treatment, which alas I couldn’t experience, takes place as the Cascadi, or nearby waterfall. It will be a surprise on my return to this idyllic place.
Because of my injury, sadly, I couldn’t go snorkeling or kayaking, or even the night nature walk, but I lucked out with Alejandra Rojas, the resident tropical biologist and nature guide. On a glistening morning, we boated along the 50-mile Golfo Dulce to the mangroves. Along the way, Aly pointed out the giant white corals that have lived in the shallow waters for 4,000 years and lamented the fact that they are slowly dying; overhead we spotted frigates and ospreys, and royal terns. When we arrived where seven species of mangroves thrived, blue herons, snowy egrets and kingfishers greeted us. Of the 400 species of birds in the Osa Peninsula, 71 species of aquatic birds and 43 species of migratory birds made their home among the 5,000-year-old mangroves.
The excursion was thrilling, educational and tinged with a dollop of sadness. All this teeming life that mankind may destroy at its peril.
Playa Cativo Lodge is at the forefront of conservationists in a country that is a leader in this realm.
When we all rethink how we want our world to be, may these areas of conservation be sustained.
As the “Tico” (native Costa Rican) saying goes: “pura vida,” or pure life.
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