Follow the Inter-American Highway south to kilometer 80. Turn right and continue for four kilometers and you’ll see the Dantica Cloud Forest Lodge at the crest of a hill.
These sound like typical directions in Costa Rica, but the destination is anything but. Leaving the highway, you immediately enter a quieter world – no semis and few cars.
The recently graded dirt road winds through lush forest with occasional glimpses of the Talamanca range appearing blue in the distant mist. After passing through a small settlement of neatly kept homes and a plant nursery, you round the bend and come across whitewashed cottages that look as if they were lifted by crane from modernist northern Europe, or a colonial pocket of Latin America, or maybe a combination of the two.
The bungalows nestle into the ridge that slopes down to the Savegre River. From the road, passers-by see only small windows, the main-entry doors to the units, and plantings that take full advantage of the climate. Hidden from the main road, the backs of the cottages face the mountains across the Savegre river valley with floor-to-ceiling glass. Some guests have found observing nature from the bungalow patio so rewarding that they are reluctant to venture any farther. Woodpeckers, tanagers and hummingbirds are among the 80 species of birds counted around the western slope of Cerro de la Muerte.
The front doors of the cottages open onto the main living area with a cleverly designed kitchen, dining and sitting area. Two of the lodges sleep four with two bedrooms, one on either side of the main room – one with twin beds and the other a queen – and both have adjacent full baths, one with a Jacuzzi. The other lodge is set up with one bedroom.
Since nights are cold, the units are equipped with space heaters, and the beds have duvets for snug highland sleeping. Each unit is equipped with a European-style kitchen, convenient for preparing meals or snacks, as well as with cable television, in case no one is up for a game of Scrabble.
Joost Wilms and Ticha Castro, Dantica’s owners, greet guests at the hotel reception area. Dantica is perfect for visitors who not only love the outdoors but also appreciate buildings that have been designed beautifully to highlight their setting and sit lightly on the terrain. Perhaps when the hotel owners are a biologist and designer, you can find this rare harmony of nature and artistry.
Castro, a Colombian designer, planned the light-filled space, while Wilms, her biologist husband, took charge of the construction. In addition to being the entrance to the hotel, the reception area houses a gallery of unusually high-quality handicrafts imported from Colombia, Panama and other parts of Latin America. As in most parts of the hotel, the attractive layout reflects Castro’s touch. Colorful hammocks, traditional vessels that combine ceramic and woven grasses, jewelry, carved gourds and figurines are among the unique items presented in the eye-catching display. For those of us who like to combine hiking and birdwatching with lazier pursuits, the Dantica gallery is the perfect place to spend part of the day and to easily drop a few colones.
Several steps below the gallery, guests can sit out on a sunny patio or, on less than sunny days, inside a glass-walled café. Breakfast and lunch items can be ordered from early in the morning until 6 in the evening. Reasonably priced sandwiches and omelettes make up most of the fare, in addition to traditional breakfast staples. Nearby are several other dining possibilities.
The closest is doña Miriam, who lives at the top of the hill heading back to the Inter-American Highway. You can call in advance or Dantica will call for you, and you’ll find yourself eating a meal that will hold you for hours of hiking, birdwatching or enjoying a book on the cottage patio. Trout from the river delivered by doña Miriam’s brother, served with sides of rice, mixed vegetables, black beans, slaw, bread and Chilean papaya in syrup were all part of one memorable meal. Doña Miriam has been host mother to foreign students, including Wilms, when he studied small mammal biology in nearby San Gerardo de Dota through Universidad Nacional and the University of Amsterdam, and she cherishes her role as local representative to international visitors, as well as the resident celebrity chef. For a very reasonable price, the quality of doña Miriam’s meals cannot be surpassed.
Now that the curious guest understands how a Dutchman studying in Costa Rica may have planted the seed of Dantica, there should be an explanation of the hotel’s name. Since he’s Dutch, not Danish, and his wife is Colombian, not Tica, the theory that the name combined two nationalities has to be shelved. It turns out Wilms’ specialization in his studies of mammals was the tapir –danta in Spanish – and this shy creature is occasionally viewed in the area. Still, you shouldn’t expect to see any around the hotel itself, where the rare quetzal is much more abundant.
For an astonishing bird tour, Dantica guests leave before 6 a.m. to head down the hill and across the river to Trogon Lodge to meet up with Alex, son of doña Miriam, to look for quetzals in a nearby field. Thanks to the large number of aguacatillo trees and our guide’s sharp eyes, we saw flocks of quetzals at the edge of the forest before 8 a.m. Several trips to north-central Costa Rica’s Monteverde, famous for its variety of flora and fauna, had yielded far fewer glimpses of quetzals. This may have been a fluke, but it was a pleasant one.
After the early morning tour, the Dantica breakfast was welcome: fruit, eggs, toast, juice, coffee – all the breakfast staples were there, and their freshness and the guests’hunger from the morning’s outing made the meal taste all the better.
A number of other excursions are possible around Dantica. The lodge sits adjacent to nine hectares of private cloud forest. Wilms and helpers built two kilometers of trails with a series of wooden steps from the hotel down a pristine stream. Near the start of the path is a clearing with a bench. This is a good spot to take a deep breath before tackling the “Stairmaster.” The river is not far from the bungalows as the quetzal flies, but it’s a good workout.
Within easy driving distance, past the town of San Gerardo de Dota, are trails for hiking and horseback riding to waterfalls, starting from the road about eight kilometers farther into the mountains. Arrangements for riding and trout fishing can be made at Dantica. The owners of the horses estimate a four-hour round-trip ride, but experienced riders will find the trip takes less time, even including a dip in the water.
Wilms and Castro have two adorable small children. Since they enjoy traveling with them, they make a point of offering a pleasant experience for families, while not skimping on the comforts that make guests of all ages feel at home. The hotel owners speak Dutch, Spanish, English, French and German.
If an overnight trip doesn’t fit your schedule, consider going for the day, if only to see the art gallery and enjoy some hearty country food. The quetzals will be in hiding after early morning, but the beauty of the surroundings is stunning at any time of day, and the hotel’s friendly atmosphere, attention to detail and superb views make the trip worthwhile.
Dantica is a hybrid of imported ideas from the Netherlands and Colombia, planted in San Gerardo de Dota to make a unique Costa Rican experience. For information and reservations, visit www.dantica.com, e-mail [email protected] com or call 740-1067.