It’s just before six in the early evening and the line of sunset watchers clutching their drinks and clicking cameras sigh collectively in appreciation as another awe inspiring Guanacaste sun dips gracefully and vividly over the horizon. An explosion of pollen from a stand of trees in mid-distance, backlit by the dying rays, looks like smoke from a forest fire as it drifts and dissipates across the plains. In this northwestern province, where spectacular sunsets are the norm, these sun worshippers have a privileged spot.
We were perched atop an escarpment around the 1,000-meter line, some 40 kilometers inland, at the aptly if unimaginatively named Mirador (Lookout) Bar. Our vantage point gave us uninterrupted views of not only the distant Pacific Ocean, but also
the sweeping flatlands extending north into Nicaragua and south toward Liberia, Guanacaste’s capital. Rincón de la Vieja Volcano looming just behind us was the icing on the panoramic cake.
Mirador Bar is part of the Buena Vista Lodge and Adventure Center, 18 miles north and east of Liberia, on the dusty Cañas Dulces road, hugging the southern flank of Rincón de la Vieja Volcano in northwestern Costa Rica. Besides doing a neat line in crepuscular light effects, the resort focuses on outdoor and leisure activities with enough onsite choices to satisfy everyone’s expectations.
Back in 1991, the Ocampo family decided to convert part of their 2,000-acre cattle ranch into a lodge. They started simply enough with a few wood-and-stone cabins, some horses and those outstanding Guanacaste views. Fifteen years later, it’s easy to see that Buena Vista has proved a success. With a total of 90 rooms and cabins – and more planned – laid out across the hillside or around its ornamental lake, the lodge is literally a growing concern.
The accommodations are simple but comfortable. I was placed in one of the original cabins and found the room, though spacious enough, with two queen-size beds, to swing an iguana, was rather dark; the newer, alpine-looking wood cabins enjoy much better views with individual balconies and lighter decor.
The advantage of all that space is being able to spread out. This is no intimate boutique hotel, but the facilities have been laid out in such a way that even with the lodge running to its 200-guest capacity, as during my visit, I never felt like part of the masses – everyone seemed to be off enjoying the action elsewhere.
And there is plenty to do, making it a good choice for families with active youngsters or nature lovers who don’t mind mixing remote countryside with resort amenities. The ranch climbs from 400 to 1,200 meters and borders Rincón de la Vieja National Park (the Las Pailas park entrance is 25 miles away on a different access road), giving hikers and birdwatchers lots of trail options through the half of the estate still under primary and secondary forest.
Within minutes of my arrival, I was on horseback with guide Edwin Dominguez, riding up to one of the three waterfalls found on the property. We reached the 50-meter Borinquen waterfall after a leisurely 40- minute ride, tying our mounts to a tree before the final walk down to the cataract.
Dominguez is one of 11 horsemen caring for the lodge’s impressive 300 head of horses, and like many of the staff he comes from the nearby village of Cañas Dulces. He often rides home on his day off, while most staff are driven up the tortuous unpaved road daily in the hotel bus.
The majority of the lodge’s clientele are foreign tour groups, and it has a reputation for good value among agencies, birding clubs and adventure groups. With the rapid turnover rate of visitors, it would be easy for the staff to lose the personal touch, but all the personnel I encountered, from wait staff to spa attendants and guides, retained a simple rural courtesy – no glossy hospitality smiles here.
Whilst the opportunities for walking and riding are many, the less mobile are well catered to with several tractor-drawn trailers making the 20-minute climb up the hill to a picturesque spa hidden deep within the forest.
Five stone-clad, spring-fed pools of varying temperatures connect via wooden walkways among the trees, though the spa staff suggest starting at the naturally heated sauna before a daubing session with the specially imported Rincón volcanic mud to revitalize the skin before plunging into the pool of your choice.
Perhaps the most bizarre facility at the lodge is the 420-meter, concrete-lined water chute. A manually sluice-released body of river water propels sliders rapidly and rather bumpily down the hillside under the forest canopy to deposit them in mostly undignified fashion into the lower collection pool.
Skin remains intact thanks to helmets, inflated inner tubes and leather sit-upon protectors.
In true Disney fashion, you can be photographed, open-mouthed and screaming, at some spot on your descent, with the printed results later available from the lodge’s Internet center.
Buena Vista also has an aerial trail spanning a total of 780 meters of bridges that can be walked alone or with one of the onsite guides to help unaccustomed eyes pick out the variety of wildlife and plants. Some of the trail stations share tree platforms with the 11 slides of the canopy tour, which means competition between growling howler monkeys and shrieking zipliners at times.
For perhaps more reliable wildlife spotting, the night tour offers a two-hour wander along the reserve paths and aerial bridges with the resident bilingual naturalist guide. This can be rounded off with a visit to the serpentarium for a close-up view of different snake and frog species, with a night-feeding option available.
With all the action, appetites will be keen. Three different dining venues throughout the resort help break up an otherwise canteen approach to feeding so many guests, and offer either buffet meals or fixed menus with wait staff, depending on the restaurant. The fare leans more toward hearty, filling, Tico cuisine than fancy international choices, but much of the dairy and fresh produce comes from the farm and the El Coati bar by the main restaurant provides a full drink menu with a limited selection of wines.
The individual activities could soon mount up in price, although when compared to other, more up-market resorts, these are not excessive: horseback riding is $10 per hour, the spa $30, the water chute $20 for five turns, the canopy tour $30, aerial bridges or night hike $20, and serpentarium $10. The full-day combo including spa, canopy, water chute, tractor rides and buffet lunch is an option at $80 per person for at least one day of a weekend visit, but other package options are available.
The river-fed, free-form swimming pool was being renovated during my visit, but is an additional attraction for families wanting watery diversion. The downside for beach lovers is the distance from the coast, and, for volcano aficionados, the 50 miles round-trip to the national park entrance means it is virtually impossible to hike to the summit and back in one day.
Rates for a double cabin are $30 for residents and $54 for nonresidents, with breakfast at $6.50 and lunch and dinner at $8, making this a reasonable getaway for a few days into spectacular countryside, with plenty on offer for all tastes.
Operation RubyThroat: The Hummingbird Project
Buena Vista Lodge provided accommodations for a groundbreaking, eight-day field trip of North American bird enthusiasts taking part in “Operation RubyThroat: The Hummingbird Project,” organized by Bill Hilton, Jr., director of the Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History in the U.S. state of South Carolina.
I joined up with the group on their third data-collecting trip as they prepared to observe, net, band and document the tiny, three-and-a-half-inch creatures. Commonly spotted here, the ruby-throated hummingbird is the only hummingbird species in Costa Rica to migrate between March and September, often flying thousands of miles to reach its summer breeding grounds in the eastern United States and southern Canada. Little is known about these birds’ migratory patterns. Just how do they manage to navigate the perilous 525 miles of open water in the Gulf of Mexico?
That means 20 hours of nonstop flying with no margins for error – a real challenge when average body weight is a mere 5-7 grams.
Hilton is one of only 150 certified hummingbird banders, and has banded more than 3,250 ruby-throats at his nature center since 1982. He founded the Hummingbird Project in 1999 to encourage teachers, students and nature lovers in general to participate as “citizen scientists” in studying species distribution and behavior. The project also operates as a protocol for the GLOBE (Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment) program, an international, school-based science initiative to promote practical scientific research (www.globe.gov).
With local bird guide and field ornithologist Ernesto Carmen, we found a flowering aloe vera field near Cañas Dulces attracting enough nectar-seeking ruby-throats for the mist nets to be set up. Netting and banding such minute birds is painstaking work, especially under a burning Guanacaste sun.
Although the previous two trips had captured a scant 15 ruby-throats, largely due to the aloes not being in flower, the following days’ netting yielded a grand total of 51. No sooner had the nets been rigged than two ruby-throats zoomed straight into them. Carefully removed and transferred to soft mesh bags for protection, they were soon documented as Hilton and team noted the date, time and location of each catch while individually forming the minute, unique number band that would be clasped around either the right (female) or left (male) leg of each bird.
Sex and age were determined or estimated, not always obvious as the juvenile males sported the white throats and white-tipped, fan-shaped tail feathers characteristic of females. No mature males with full red throat feathers (gorget) were caught. Had they perhaps migrated north earlier? Hilton determined that the 2007 project trip would take place earlier to investigate that possibility.
The tiny captives were inserted briefly into a paper tube to prevent escape while they were weighed, their wing lengths and beaks measured, feather wear noted and fat and molt estimated. Most of the ruby-throats netted seemed in mid-molt, still sporting very scruffy flight feathers as proof of their buffeting trip south.
For easier identification of recaptured birds, a temporary, non-toxic blue ink was applied to each bird’s throat before it took some sips of sugar water and whirred off to freedom. Hilton asked that readers be informed “there’s nothing wrong with putting up hummingbird feeders. They are not harmful as long as they are kept clean and the mix is right, and they are great for observing hummingbirds up close.”
Taking part in the Operation Ruby-Throat field trip to Costa Rica qualifies participants in the use of the project’s protocols, as well as giving opportunities to explore the region and enjoy the lodge’s amenities. However, anyone is welcome to take part in the initiative, and Hilton’s Web sites are crammed with information on how to participate.
The data collected are entered into a central clearing house, analyzed and posted on the Operation RubyThroat Web site (www.rubythroat.org).
Location and Information
Buena Vista Lodge and Adventure Center is on the outskirts of Rincón de la Vieja Volcano in Guanacaste, 31 kilometers from Liberia. From the Inter-American Highway turnoff to Cañas Dulces, travel 18 km northeast on an unpaved road. For information, call 661-8156 or visit www.buenavistalodgecr.com.