Eco-Tourism 2.0 Takes Root in Costa Rica

Playa Nicuesa Rainforest Lodge offers a master’s class in pura vida.

When Donna and Michael Butler began building their eco-lodge in the Costa Rican rainforest, a friend gave them a copy of Don’t Stop the Carnival, Herman Wouk’s tale of a New Yorker who thinks running a Caribbean hotel will be paradise but turns out to be a tropical disaster. Thankfully, they didn’t heed the book’s warning because the Butlers’ story has a much happier ending. Fifteen years, two boys and numerous adventures later, Playa Nicuesa Rainforest Lodge in southern Costa Rica has become a paradise and vacation destination where visitors learn to coexist with nature, have great meals and participate in more activities than could possibly fit into a week’s stay.

My family and I learned this from experience. While we were originally drawn to Costa Rica by the same gravity that attracts so many of its visitors—the opportunity to experience pura vida in a nation that prioritizes ecology above all else (to the extent that it doesn’t even have an army)—what we found at Nicuesa was so much more than the typical trimmings of ecotourism we’ve come to expect. (We also discovered a craft beer movement that has grown up in Costa Rica in the years since we first visited. See below.)

“The cause of many global problems is that we are so removed from nature,” said Eduardo Valverde Chaves, Nicuesa’s naturalist, bio-architect and guide.

Our arrival at Playa Nicuesa Rainforest Lodge, located on the Osa Peninsula on the shore of the blue-green Golfo Dulce in southwest Costa Rica, was met with a welcome mango smoothie and followed by activities that emphasized the conscious experience that was to follow: a communal lunch of empanadas; a guided tour of the lodge’s edible garden; a fishing expedition; yoga; a cocktail of the day, fish stew dinner and passion fruit ice cream—all made with locally foraged ingredients.

“The cause of many global problems is that we are so removed from nature,” said Eduardo Valverde Chaves, Nicuesa’s naturalist, bio-architect and guide. “Nicuesa makes people more conscious about how everything is connected.”

“Nicuesa makes people more conscious about how everything is connected.”

The truth of Eduardo’s words became more apparent with every passing hour. As we fished with our children and then ate their fresh catches for dinner. As we learned how to forage our way through the rainforest, pausing to sample (with Eduardo’s guidance and encouragement) native fruits like pejibaye, wild cashew, mimbro, manzana de agua (water apple) and even termites straight from a decomposing log. As we hiked to waterfalls and surfed and kayaked, swam and snorkeled and zip-lined. All the activities we enjoyed were ones that leave almost no footprint—carbon or otherwise—and combine fun, exercise and the opportunity to appreciate a special place intimately and firsthand.

Even the beautiful open-air cabins at Nicuesa, like the rest of the lodge, are built of wood and materials found in the immediate area, and all other aspects of life there—from composting to solar clothes-drying to eating what they grow, catch and make—are as sustainable as possible.

All the activities we enjoyed were ones that leave almost no footprint—carbon or otherwise.

“Every tour we take our guests on is designed to inspire, educate and show how all the parts of the ecosystem fit together from an environmental standpoint,” said Donna Butler, who owns and operates Nicuesa with her husband. “The lodge is designed with no walls, as a metaphor for the connectedness of everything.”

“Some guests are knowledgeable, some come to experience the jungle,” continued Donna. “Either way, we give them tools to take home. I’ve heard people say they are going to go home and start their own compost, grow their own gardens, reduce their use of plastic and buy organic. Even our employees take away knowledge when they leave, which in turn educates the local community.”

Signs of Nicuesa’s emphasis on connectedness—and dedication to sustainability—can be seen everywhere at the lodge.

Signs of Nicuesa’s emphasis on connectedness—and dedication to sustainability—can be seen everywhere at the lodge: In its design, in how the lodge and its staff encourage children to take part in everything from cooking to foraging to hiking, in how they introduce every guest to the ongoing significance of medicinal plants like begonia for nausea and wild senna for sunburns and bug bites (see glossary online for more), in how they go out of their way to provide a simultaneously fun and educational experience for every guest—no matter the length of their stay.

And then there are the cocktails of the day, the locally sourced meals and the nightly conversations. All reinforce the lodge’s ethos and sense of community—and my conclusion that what Nicuesa offers is not really “ecotourism,” but instead “Ecotourism 2.0.”

“We want to bring back the knowledge we have been losing due to technology,” said Eduardo. “It’s not obsolete knowledge. A lot of the answers are there. So here we present an example of how life could work. We make people more conscious.”

This is what differentiates Nicuesa from the rest of the Costa Rican pack. Because the lodge certainly doesn’t have a monopoly on the rainforest or ecotourism or surfing, hiking and snorkeling; there are plenty of places in Costa Rica—and beyond—that offer all of that. What Nicuesa offers alone, however, is the chance to experience and enjoy the rainforest while supporting the people who call it home and learning how to live in a way that will help to ensure their, and ultimately our, survival.

So, yes, if you’re looking for a tropical vacation with great food, fun activities and beautiful accommodations, you have lots of choices. But if you want all that and you want to it to be there in the future, check out Nicuesa.

Follow in Edible’s Footsteps

Begin your Costa Rican journey with an easy flight on Copa Airlines from JFK to San Jose, where you can pick up a rental SUV from the super helpful team at the airport Europcar office. From there, with the help of Google Maps, drive to the Studio Hotel in the Santa Ana district.

The Studio Hotel is a world unto itself with a contemporary art gallery showcasing local artists, a rooftop pool and an open air restaurant. Our first meal there featured the two constants we were to encounter throughout our trip—ceviche and craft beer! Not quite Costa Rica’s ubiquitous gallo pinto, but we didn’t complain (and neither will you).

Next, head to the Barrio Escalante neighborhood of San Jose. This is where the best food and drink are to be found. Grab dinner at Agüizotes Gastro Pub, where we enjoyed ceviche, grilled steak, beer and a giant burger (for our son). Proteins definitely dominate the plate here.

After dinner, stop in an ice cream shop up Calle 33, still in Barrio Escalante. Follow your nose to the back of the shop (toward the scent of brewing beer) and revel in the fact that it’s connected to a craft brew pub. Walk past stacked cases of Brooklyn-favorite Evil Twin beer and you’ll find the Wilk Craft Beer Bar with multiple rooms and a wall mounted with handwritten tap handles. Further exploration will reveal a small but sophisticated brewing system that supplies their lines with 10 different varieties. During our visit, Alexis, the house brewer, told us that the Costa Rican craft beer scene took off in 2010 and that there are now over 60 breweries in the country. Don’t be surprised if, like us, you find yourself planning your next trip—to sample more—before you even touch down in New York.