At Rancho Naturalista, it’s all about the birds, says owner Cathy Erb. But after a recent visit, I’d say the food is a close second.
High on a hill overlooking the lovely Tuis River valley, southeast of the Caribbean-slope town of Turrialba, the 125-acre property has been one of Costa Rica’s premier birding destinations for more than 18 years. Flocks of international birders arrive each year, intent on adding “lifers” (birds seen for the first time) to their bird lists. But the lodge has also garnered a reputation for excellent food and service, making it a pleasant country getaway for anyone who loves nature and food, and it’s just two and a half hours from San José.
Amongst the lodge’s more than 400 recorded species, hummingbirds are the star attractions. You can spot many species right from the lodge’s recently expanded second floor observation deck.
The early birders get the birds – and fresh coffee, starting at 5 a.m. on the observation deck. It’s a beehive of bird activity, with whirring white-necked jacobins, for which the lodge is famous, competing for feeder perches with green-breasted mangos and crowned woodnymphs. In the garden below, gray-headed chachalacas go head to head with Montezuma oropendolas over bananas placed on tree branches.
Neophyte birder Pat Piessens, from Santa Ana, southwest of San José, was sitting on the deck recently with a copy of “Hummingbirds of Costa Rica” (TT,Nov. 4, 2005) open on her lap. During her weekend stay, she spotted 13 of the 15 species the book lists for the area, plus a couple more.
Just 100 meters from the main lodge, coveted black-crested coquettes and green thorntails reliably flit amidst a hedge of spiky purple flowers. A little farther afield, a short trail into the forest leads to a secluded feeder station with a blind, where birders can sit in comfort and train their binoculars on more elusive snowcaps, tiny brown hummers with snow-white foreheads. You can also hike down a short distance from the lodge to a lookout, dubbed the Hummingbird Baths, where you can sit on a wooden bench and watch snowcaps delicately dipping their tail feathers into the river pools below.
If you find hummingbirds ho-hum, you can explore the lodge’s 11 kilometers of trails, alone or with one of the lodge’s two resident guides, and try your luck spotting such spectacular species as the rufous-tailed jacamar (which looks like a giant hummingbird) as well as tanagers, tityras, woodpeckers, flycatchers and, from now until May, legions of visiting warblers. On a recent weekend, members of the Birding Club of Costa Rica sighted 150 species.
Cathy and John Erb, originally from California and Pennsylvania, respectively, opened their doors to their first birding guests in 1987, prompted by their daughter Lisa’s interest in birds. From those six original rooms in the airy, two-story, white-stucco lodge, the rancho has expanded with two annexes, a row of forest cabins and a duplex cabin, for a total of 15 comfortable rooms.
Most rooms have recently been refreshed and refurbished with handsome wood furniture, new bedspreads and curtains and bright bathrooms. The most luxurious room is No. 1, a spacious, sunlit corner room on the lodge’s second floor, with sliding glass doors leading out to a private deck
For families, adjoining rooms with communicating doors are available. Visitors who like a woodsy atmosphere can choose from three shady rooms with a shared terrace facing the forest. And for hummingbird fanciers, a log cabin with a wraparound veranda is set in a garden thrumming with hummingbirds. It used to be Cathy’s home, but so many guests begged to stay there that she finally converted it into guest rooms and built a new storybook-perfect log cabin for herself, out of sight of covetous guests.
John, who runs the couple’s Tarcol Lodge on the central Pacific coast, came up with the name Rancho Naturalista. Initially, Cathy says, they received inquiries about their “naturalist” (nudist, in European parlance) lodge, but they quickly established a reputation in birding circles for feathers, not skin, thanks to their varied and excellently maintained trails and knowledgeable guides.
“We hire guides with various degrees of expertise, so that we can create new birding leaders in the country,” Cathy says, adding that she feels an obligation to teach and delegate authority and create career opportunities for area community members. The mantra of the staff here is “nothing is too much trouble,” and Cathy encourages all the staff to study English.
She also hires at least one European guide each season.
“For us, it’s a great entry into the European market, because those guides will return some day with birders from their own countries,” she says.
If you tire of birding, you can set off on one of the lodge’s eight horses along mountain and river trails. Happily, horseback riding is included here. Horse wrangler Asunción Aguilar, nicknamed “Chon,” is the model of a modern vaquero: rugged, mustachioed and affable. A blacksmith by trade, he grew up in these parts and knows every inch of the river valley and the mountains. You won’t quite escape birding, though, because he has good eyes and points out birds along the way.
The day I tagged along with more experienced riders, we trotted along a wide trail past fields of sugarcane and a forest edge, then emerged on a windy ridge with sweeping views of the Tuis River valley to the west, backed by Silent Mountain; and, to the south, a vista of the Talamancas, including, on a clear day, the eastern slope of Chirripó, the country’s highest peak, and the remote village of Grano de Oro.
Serious hikers can take an all-day, strenuous hike (always accompanied by a guide) up Silent Mountain, where the higher-altitude forest differs enough to reap higher elevation birds, such as emerald toucanets and resplendent quetzals, and, in the dry season, the elusive lovely cotinga.
After all the birding, hiking and riding, the sound of the dinner bell summoning guests to the table is always welcome. But be prepared to pace yourself. The food here, served family-style in a cozy dining room that spills out onto a terrace, is so delicious and so plentiful that it’s hard to say “when.”
Cathy’s former career as a caterer – she operated the Coppelia Bakery in San José, specializing in catering corporate events – is evident in the multicultural menus, which offer a wide variety of “everybody’s favorites,” Cathy says. Breakfasts feature a mix of southern and northern dishes, from spicy huevos rancheros and delicate corn empanadas, to crispy bacon, scrambled eggs and flaky, totally irresistible, hot cinnamon buns with icing on top.
As at breakfast, a huge plate of fruit accompanies lunch, in addition to a mixed salad. The main courses run the gamut from Mexican tacos to Middle Eastern shish kebabs to Continental seafood crepes. To top it off, there’s always a platter of Cathy’s signature chocolate-chip, oatmeal or peanut butter cookies, right out of the oven, plus chunks of pineapple-carrot cake and banana bread.
Dinners are quite elegant, with dishes such as chicken breasts marinated in molasses, served with prettily piped mashed potatoes, or a delectable pork loin roast, bathed in a sweet-and-sour sauce and served with sesame noodles. Desserts are a tour de force by the local chefs whom Cathy has trained well – say, a moist chocolate-chip blondie square topped with ice cream and caramel sauce, or a feather- light Bavarian cream, tangy with cas fruit. Maybe the food is one of the reasons, as Cathy proudly points out, “most guests leave Rancho Naturalista with smiles on their faces,” along with some new “lifer” birds on their lists and perhaps an extra pound or two around their waists.
Location, Rates, Contact Information
Location: 20 kilometers southeast of Turrialba, then 1.5 km past Tuis.
Rates: High-season, $160 per person, double occupancy, including meals, nonalcoholic beverages, horseback riding, trails, services of resident bird guides and taxes. Discounted rates for weekly stays, for residents and during green season. Day visitors can hike the trails for $25 per group, with an extra charge for use of a guide.
Contact: 433-8278, www.costaricagateway.com.