Costa Rica Eco-Lounge: A Haven For Nature Enthusiasts

By: Dave Zuchowski

“I don’t own Selva Verde. Selva Verde owns me.” – Giovanna Holbrook, founder of Selva Verde Eco-Lodge

As my plane made its initial descent a hundred or so miles from Costa Rica’s San Jose International Airport, I looked out the window at my first glimpse of this ecology-minded Central American nation.

I was lucky. The clouds that normally surround the Arenal Volcano, one of the 10 most active volcanoes in the world, had lifted and I could see the entire cone-shaped outline of the mighty mountain and a column of steam rising from its depths. Located about 90 kilometers northwest of San Jose, the volcano sits along side Lake Arenal, the nation’s largest lake, which I could see glimmering to the west amid a sea of green rolling hills of forest and pasture land.

Costa Rica (Spanish for ‘rich coast’) has protected about 27% of its territory in the form of 24 national parks or nature reserves and in 2008, it ranked first in the Americas and fifth in the world on the Environmental Performance Index, a gauge for quantifying a nation’s environmental policies.

As an ecological tie-in, the purpose of my visit was to explore Selva Verde (Spanish for ‘green jungle’), one of Costa Rica’s first rainforest resorts with an ecology educational component, established in the nation that’s slightly smaller than West Virginia, yet holds 5% of the world’s biodiversity.

After touching down at the airport, I boarded the lodge’s van for the 42-mile, two-hour ride that gave me a glimpse of sprawling San Jose and an up-close look at Braulio Carrillo National Park to the northeast as we passed over an excellent road that ran through the steep, lush, rain-forested mountains. After passing through Puerto Viejo, a small town in the Atlantic Coastal lowlands, we turned left for the five-minute drive to Selva Verde.

NOTE: Tours to the Arenal Volcano and Braulio Carrillo National Park, 110,000 acres of virgin forest that make it one of the Costa Rica’s largest and most biologically diverse national parks, can be arranged through the lodge’s reservations officer.

Although Selva Verde sits on 500 acres of tropical rainforest and is along the new national bird route that begins near Nicaragua to the north and runs through the volcanic area, it also straddles a well-maintained road that runs just past the entranceway and is close to an agricultural area known for growing bananas and pineapples.

SELVA VERDE
The lodge’s spacious, airy lobby boasts a wall mural depicting a tropical rainforest, tile floor, potted plants and bamboo chairs and tables, which set the tropical mood from the get go. From the reception area, covered walkways protect from sudden downpours the concrete sidewalks that lead to the accommodations — clusters of four rooms on pillars that rise 10 feet or more above the ground with elevated verandahs lined with chairs and hammocks that give great views of the flora and fauna below.

Selva Verde lodgings are comfortable and equipped with ceiling fans, clean bathrooms with hot running water, safety boxes, hair dryers, skylights, screened windows with shutters for privacy and telephones. Although the rooms are without televisions, the lodge usually schedules evening programs such as guided nighttime hikes, cooking classes and ecology-themed videos.

On the other side of the main road, the lodge also maintains four air-conditioned bungalows for those who might want more privacy such as honeymooners or for those wanting a bit more peace and quiet. The bungalows are tucked away in the forest just beyond the botanical garden and are a 10-minute walk to the reception area.

The lodge sports a well-maintained pool and meals are taken in a raised riverside dining room perfect for bird and fauna watching. (A howler monkey gave folks mingling at the patio bar a good bit of entertaining one evening of my visit with his antics scurrying up and down a nearby tree).

The surrounding area is home to more than 300 species of birds, and early morning guided birding hikes are a popular leisure time activity. The lodge maintains a large bird feeding area near the lobby and has seven separate hiking trails on the grounds plus six more in the primal forest, which are accessed via a suspension bridge built over the raging Sarapiqui River. Boots are provided for hikers free of charge and are necessary especially in the rainy season when the trials run through muddy terrain.

A SHORT HISTORY OF SELVA VERDE
In 1984, Selva Verde’s current owner, Giovanna Holbrook, booked a group of 20 birders associated with the Pittsburgh Aviary to stay at the La Selva Biological Station in Costa Rica though a tour operator in San Jose. When the group of birders arrived, they discovered the facility had been overbooked and they were left without overnight accommodations.

As a conscientious owner of a travel agency in the U.S., Mrs. Holbrook flew to Costa Rica the next day to help find accommodations for her clients. Through her efforts the group was able to stay at the house of Dr. Thomas Ray, who owned a 40-acre tract of land called Finca el Bejuco across the road from the present Selva Verde.

An avid conservationist, Mrs. Holbrook discovered that the 500 acres near Dr. Ray’s property was owned by a Canadian couple named Colusso, who wanted to sell their land of largely primary forest and move back to Canada. Alarmed that the forest might be in jeopardy because the new owners might decide to timber the land, Mrs. Holbrook made up her mind to purchase the property herself.

“I make my living by taking people birding, so I wanted to save the forest as best I could,” she said.

It took her almost a half-year to raise the funds to purchase the property, but after she did, she left a caretaker in charge. When she returned two years later, she discovered that a group of squatters had occupied her property and after a series of legal moves, she had them removed.

Starting with the remodeled Colusso house, Selva Verde began hosting birders and nature lovers, and over the past 25 years, the lodge has grown to its present state.

“Thanks to the support of our wonderful guests, we’ve been able to see Selva Verde grow,” said Mrs. Holbrook. “People who stay here are not just staying at a hotel, they’re helping to support the rain forest.”

SEARCH FOR THE GREEN MACAW
Yawn! When I arose on my first day in the Costa Rican rainforest, I’d already missed Selva Verde’s 6am guided bird walk, but I excused my tardy sleep-in, blaming it on jet lag and the two-hour van ride from the airport to the resort.

The lodge’s bird walk would have let me see some of the more than 300 avian species that make the area their home, but it turns out I encountered one of the most spectacular of Costa Rica’s feathered creatures on a hike through the rainforest later that morning with guide and informed biologist, Alexander Ramirez.

After putting on a pair of the lodge’s boots that helped get us through some of the muddier areas, we set off across the pedestrian suspension bridge that crosses the swift-moving Sarapiqui River and headed into the forest.

How valuable a trained guide can be! Just a little into our trek, Alexander pointed out things our small group of hikers might have missed — like the armadillo holes in the mud banks along our path, a grandiose 70-year old mimosa tree and an up-close look at the leaves of the Helicornia musa, a plant used as food and brooding tents for the white bat, one of 112 species of bats in Costa Rica.

“May is the best time to see the Helicornia bloom,” said Alexander as a large, four-inch-long damsel fly with black and white wings skittered by like a miniature helicopter.

Our hike over meandering paths cut through the rainforest was somewhat strenuous as it included several fairly steep rises and descents. Most of the challenging spots had steps and handrails to make the passage easier, and, fortunately, the temperature held in the mid-80s, making for a fairly comfortable outing.

At one point we veered of the main trail and headed up a gentle slope until Alexander stopped us in our tracks with his finger to his lips and a quick, “Shhh …” The next thing I remember was the yawp of the endangered great green macaw, the largest parrot in its natural range. This beautiful bird is bright turquoise with a reddish forehead and light sky-blue rump and upper tail feathers. With Alexander pointing the way, I got to see the bird briefly in a nearby almond tree before the 2-1/2-foot tall avian flew away with a gentle flap of its wings.

Ironically, with a slew of colorful birds to choose from, including the great green macaw, Costa Rica lit on the rather drab clay-colored robin as its national bird, chiefly because it’s one that’s indigenous to all parts of the nation.

Backtracking a bit to the main trail, we headed off in a new direction, taking note of a long line of army ants that relentlessly crossed our path, busy with their chores, and a considerable number of brilliantly colored, black and green poison dart frogs, small in stature, but with poisonous secretions that covers their skin. Remember the film Apocolypto?

After about 40 minutes into the hike, we came across our major objective — a 400 to 600 year old almond tree, one of the oldest living specimens in Central America. As venerable as a giant Sequoia, the tree is 49 meters (roughly 54 yards) tall with a 39-meter branch span at the top (roughly 32 yards).

“It takes 14 people joining hand-to-hand to girt the tree completely,” said Alexander as we took out our cameras and captured images of the aged giant.

Oddly enough, the hike back to the lodge seemed quicker, perhaps because we didn’t stop so often to take notice of the flora and fauna. After shedding our boots and washing off the caked mud, we headed to the lodge’s Sarapiqui Conservation Learning Center for a talk on Costa Rican ecology. It was a nice way to begin a four-day stay in Costa Rica.

SARAPIQUI CONSERVATION LEARNING CENTER
As a resource to Selva Verde visitors, the Sarapiqui Conservation Learning Center serves as the local office of the San Juan – La Selva Biological Corridor, a project to connect and protect habitat for the endangered Great Green Macaw (Ara ambiguus). As part of this project, the Center offers educational programs to visitors and local adults as well as children via in-class environmental education programs. Interested visitors can also participate in a local reforestation project and even visit neighboring family farms.

“Planting native species of trees helps to maintain dwindling wildlife habitat that is being encroached upon by Costa Rica’s ever-expanding pineapple industry,” said Andrew Rothman, center director. “The pineapple plantations turn former forests into barren agriculture lands because the limited organic content of the clay-like soils of the tropics quickly washes away and the monoculture stands of two-foot tall pineapple plants provide no habitat for wildlife. Loss of habitat is the number one threat to our wildlife and the bio-diversity of our planet.”

BOATING DOWN THE SARAPIQUI: ENJOYING IT FAST AND SLOW
It’s amazing how I got to experience the majestic Sarapiqui River in two vastly different ways; by slow moving flatboat where the water was languid and unhurried and by rubber raft along a stretch of its energetic Class III white water. Ironically, both water experience put ins were a short drive from my base at Selva Verde, both lasted about two hours, and I’d be hard pressed to say which one I liked best.

Flowing freely from two Costa Rican volcanic parks, the Sarapiqui is one of the most pristine and cleanest rivers in the country. Higher up, nearer the headwaters, it’s possible to take Class IV and V white water excursions, but I was satisfied to enter the river further downstream where the Class III waters are more manageable but still challenging and exciting.

I can’t say more for the professionalism of Aventuras de Sarapiqui, the outfitter that arranged my outing with a white water whiz named Maurice, a gallant, personable, entertaining yet no-nonsense guide who made us feel safe and confident on our excursion. After our group of eight went through a brief but thorough safety lecture, we eagerly bounded into a large rubber raft and awaited the words to cast off.

Splash! Before long we were getting soaked to the gills as we plunged over churning rapids and bounced off rock cliffs where the river made abrupt turns. Maurice added color to the experience pointing out the names of the more challenging rapids like Confusion and Y Carumba.

Here and there, the river settled down a bit, affording us a chance to get a look at some of the water birds (green herons, kingfishers, great egrets and cormorants) that lined the riverbank looking for a meal. About halfway through the trip, we pulled onto shore to rest, snack on a large, sweet watermelon and (for those willing) jump off a fifteen feet tall cliff into the river.

Oaring our raft almost continuously for two hours gave me some much-needed aerobic exercise, but after seeing our lodge come into view as we rounded a bend, I was both glad for the possibility of an hour on a hammock but also somewhat dismayed that the trip was over.

After lunch, we headed by van to another put-in down river, where we met Jose Ramirez, captain of a motorized flat-bottom boat and wildlife spotter extraordinaire. As we slowly floated along the Sarapiqui, Ramirez pointed out everything from a green heron perched on a tree trunk, a huge iguana sunning himself on a tree limb 30-feet above the river, bromeliads as large as eagles’ nests and a five-foot long caiman resting lazily along the shore.

Along the river, human habitations are few and far between. Those we saw were little more than shacks with ladders leading down to the river. At one point, we approached a large banana plantation along the cliffs, and I was surprised to see that workers had placed large blue bags over the clusters of fruit.

“They help keep the insects off the crop,” explained Ramirez.

During the trip new species encounters (for me) included a scarlet rump tanager — a black bird with a silvery bill and striking red feathers along its posterior, the mangrove swallow – bright blue birds less than two inches long with white and black bands, and the auspicious-looking anhinga, a fish eater with an average body length of almost three feet and a 45-inch wingspan.

“The anhinga is in the cormorant family,” said Ramirez of the bird with a long and sharp pointed beak and silver and black wings.

While the colony of six Brazilian long-nose bats clinging to a limb that hung just over our boat caused a definite stir, our encounter with a band of six howler monkeys proved the showstopper as they clung to wispy tree branches with their hands and tails, playfully throwing figs into the river where apparently ravenous fish pecked at them incessantly.

“These particular figs are poisonous or toxic to humans, but the fish seem to enjoy eating them and with no ill effects,” said Ramirez.

Refreshed from our leisurely river excursion complete with wildlife spottings and ecology lessons, I decided to continue the day’s wet adventures by spending an hour or so in Selva Verde’s splendid pool, surrounded by lush jungle vegetation and keeping my eye out for any stray anhinga that might be lurking about with mischievous intent.

SELVA VERDE’S LINKS TO THEMED ACTIVITIES
Those who’ve birded, hiked and explored the 500-acre tract of land that Selva Verde encompasses also have a number of ecology-themed activities to enjoy nearby, all of which can be arranged through the lodge’s reception desk.

First off, while it may be a bit of a stretch to find a relationship between a horseback riding outfitter and ecology and land preservation, keep in mind that the lodge has a link to a family farm whose owner has the option of turning his land into pineapple production. Instead, he chooses to preserve the lowlands ecology by partially supporting his family by offering guided tours on horseback.

True, in addition to the farm’s 17 docile, well-trained and obedient horses, the owner, to make ends meet, also maintains a herd of cows, which fit in nicely with the rolling grasslands our party of about 20 riders trekked through one gorgeous late November afternoon.

Our two and a half hour ride took us through some beautiful countryside on the edge of the rainforest. In the meadows, tall, elegant trees, including some coconuts and a few gorgeous almonds, dotted the landscape. As one who’d taken a dozen horseback outings in the US, I was enchanted by the fascinating lowlands terrain we rode through, which made the outing somewhat novel, even exotic.

An even more fascinating expedition was an outing to a family farm operated by an elderly couple, Herman and Rosalina Sebaja, who have been married 32 years. The Sarapiqui Conservation Learning Center, a non-profit organization housed on the grounds of Selva Verde Lodge, has a relationship with nearly 20 farms between seven and 45 acres in size that allow guest visitation, although the tours have to be prearranged a couple days in advance.

The Sebaja farm was located about a fifteen minute drive from the lodge, and when we arrived with Rachel Osborn, a volunteer educator for the Learning Center, Rosalinda was busy making cheese tortillas on an electric griddle in the kitchen while Herman was picking sweet lemons off a tree in the yard.

Originally town dwellers, the Sebajas moved to their farm and modest house nine years ago so they could both enjoy an agrarian way of life. While their herd of 16 beef and dairy cows are the backbone of their operation, they also plant corn, yucca, squash and pumpkin with seeds they get from the Agriculture Institute.

Short and thin but very spry and energetic, Rosalina led our group through the hilly terrain of her property, stopping by the farm’s biodigester, an interesting apparatus that produces methane gas for home use from cattle manure.

At one point on our tour, Rachel pointed to a poison dart frog, warning us not to touch it. “The secretions on the frog’s skin can cause blindness if you rub your eyes,” she said. “The oils in human hands can also be harmful to the frog.”

Everywhere we looked we saw plants like hibiscus, zebra plants and caladium you’d find back home in a garden center, but here they were flourishing in the wild. One bit of flora we found particularly interesting was the gavilan tree, which Rosalina said, “sleeps” at night, meaning its leaves close in the evening and reopen the following dawn.

The tree was growing naturally along a creek bed along with others planted by volunteers from the Learning Center as part of a reforestation project.

We ended out tour sitting outside on the porch of the house snacking on cheese tortillas, home baked buns and rich Costa Rican coffee and enjoying Rosalinda and Herman’s bucolic hospitality.

ZIPLINING
Probably the most exhilarating activity arranged by the lodge is the zipline tour over the jungle canopy. Located just a short drive away from Selva Verde, the tour encompasses 12 different stations and crosses the Sarapiqui River twice.

The last zipline experience is the longest and begins just above the treetops. Abruptly, where the forest ends, the land suddenly drops down to the river as you fly across the wire high above the surface of the water. Awesome!

THE FOOD AT SELVA VERDE
Selva Verde serves three buffet meals daily in its dining room overlooking the Sarapiqui River. US-trained chef Oscar Briceno oversees the preparation of each meal. With some training at the Culinary Institute of America, Briceno, a native Costa Rican, previously worked in several prestigious restaurants on the east coast of the US.

After returning to Costa Rica in 2004, Briceno brought his culinary prowess to his native country and currently plans the daily-changing menu of foods on Selva Verde’s buffet which serves as many as 300 to 350 dinner patrons in the high season, November through April.

The menu is a fusion of local and international foods and includes fresh salads, a wonderful salsa, at least two exciting entree choices, vegetables and dessert served tableside. Some of my favorite items were the delicious fresh fruit drinks made with guava, passion fruit, soursop and blackberry, the freshly brewed Costa Rican coffee, an excellent roasted chicken with herbs, guacamole and the tres leches and cocoa flan desserts.

IF YOU’RE GOING
More information about Selva Verde Eco-Lodge: Tel: 800-451-7111 or visit selvaverde.com.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dave Zuchowski has been writing about travel for twenty years and his articles have made the pages of many newspapers and magazines across the country, including AAA, Pathfinders, West Virginia Magazine, Southsider, and Westsylvania. Currently, he is the travel correspondent for the New Castle News, a daily in the Pittsburgh area. In his spare time, he also puts his horticultural interests to good use on his 15-acre farm located near Centerville, PA.

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