I was still a bit groggy and seeing green when Manatus Hotel owner Roberto Sansó offered me fresh fruit punch in a delicate crystal wine glass.
We’d spent the past hour snaking through impossibly narrow channels at high speeds in a ferryboat outfitted with twin outboard motors, watching the jungle race by in a blur.
I shook his hand,mustered a “gracias,” then sipped the punch and stepped onto the dock.
It was a fitting welcome to a lodge that somehow manages to thread that fine line between a rustic, experience-the-jungle-style accommodation – which Tortuguero, on the remote northern Caribbean coast, has long been known for – and true luxury.
Sansó, a trim, impeccably dressed Cuban turned-Costa Rican who, together with his family, escaped the island on the eve of the 1959 revolution, is convinced he’s made it happen.
“I believe you can have the jungle on one side, and five stars on the other,” he told us, as he strolled down the hotel’s tastefully covered, raised walkways – which kept us happily dry despite the monsoon-style rains that pelted the tin roof above our heads.
Luxury at Tortuguero was an oxymoron not long ago, he explained.
Year-round rainfall (an average of almost 6,000 mm, or 20 feet), bugs of every shape and size, and the distance and money involved in transporting the high-quality materials to build a fancy hotel made it infeasible.
Sansó, a businessman recently retired from a lifetime managing the Del Trópico produce-packing plant near San José, had the track record to prove that fairy tale wrong. And he did it.
But unlike grandiose plans that bring luxury but rob character – such as the towers and condos you see sprouting along the Pacific coast – he stopped short of overdoing it.
“The tour companies told us they needed us to have more rooms. I told them that’s not the kind of operation we wanted,” he said.
Indeed, Manatus has plenty of room, but it still seems cozy. Two of its four canal-front acres are undeveloped. The cabins are tucked in among breadfruit trees, Malay apples and other exotic fruit trees. Each is appointed with a satellite television, tasteful furniture, beautifully, hand-painted bathroom sinks and spacious showers.
Covered passageways lead to the main lodge with all the modern conveniences: an exercise room, satellite Internet service, a pool and Ping-Pong table and even a gift shop.
“It’s all here – and of course, there’s the jungle,” Sansó said.
Room with a View
Regardless of where you stay, every hotel at Tortuguero offers the standard fringe benefits: nesting sea turtles in season, lush jungle panoramas, abundant sloths, toucans and macaws and three species of monkeys.
We sampled them all.
On Sansó’s advice, we headed out on a tour of the canals with a local guide and a visiting group from Bermuda.
We had barely left the dock in one of the lodge’s two private tour boats (one with a full cover for rainy days) when our guide pointed out a checkered tiger heron tiptoeing along the bank.
We continued on, eventually entering a jungle-shrouded canal. A mosaic of leaves of every shape and size blotted out the sky, and the water turned from a muddy brown to inky black.
“Tannic acid,” explained our knowledgeable local guide. “It seeps like tea from the roots and fronds of overhanging palm trees.”
In the next half-hour,we learned more fun facts about the tropical jungle and saw an emerald toucan, a caiman, howler and spider monkeys, a green iguana and a rare three-toed sloth.
Just as sweat was starting to bead on my brow and the sun starting to bother, our guide announced the tour was over.
In minutes, we were whisked back to the lodge.
It was lunchtime.
When you stay at Manatus, you don’t go to a cafeteria for your food. It’s all included, and it’s à la carte, not buffet-style like most Tortuguero hotels, Sansó said.
In the dining room, set tables await your arrival, a wine selection is on display and a fully stocked bar overlooks the canal.
It all comes courtesy of experienced chef Audberto D’Gracia – a scrappy, hard-working Panamanian who fried his first fish at a waterfront hotel in the Caribbean archipelago of Bocas del Toro, cooking for large groups on a two-burner camp stove.
Now he has a full kitchen and staff at his disposal. His food is Caribbean-style fusion – which means you get the local flavor, but not just rice. Entrées and appetizers include sweet onion soup, refreshing pepper-speckled ceviche, tender cuts of meat on skewers and moist grouper or snapper in delectable sauces.
Each night we were there, D’Gracia stepped outside the kitchen after we’d finished eating and asked every guest how the food was.
You could tell he was sincere, and when we told him it was great, so were we.
Dessert, when we had room for it, was excellent, and was followed immediately by a turtle-watching tour on the beach in TortugueroNational Park. We saw two green turtles, scraping and scratching and laying eggs on the beach, much like the ancient species has done for millennia.
It was a perfect Manatus Hotel day – sunrise over the canal, a sloth and a monkey, a fine dinner of Caribbean ceviche and a turtle nesting on the beach under the moonlight.
The next morning, we awoke early, took a dip in the horizon pool that juts out over the canal, ate a delectable breakfast and packed our bags.
Sansó and chef D’Gracia escorted us to the dock. As we loaded our bags onto the boat, another group arrived. They, too, were wide-eyed from the high-speed ride to the lodge.
Sansó smiled and greeted them with fruit punch.
I felt a pang of envy.
Getting There, Rates, Information
Tortuguero’s charm lies in its remoteness. To get there, travel to either Moín or Caño Blanco by bus or car, then take a ferryboat the rest of the way.
For those staying at Manatus Hotel, owner Roberto Sansó recommends taking the lodge’s shuttle from a prearranged location in the Central Valley, then finishing the journey in the hotel’s private, covered boat (included in package.)
For those looking to cut time off their journey, Nature Air (www.natureair.com) and Sansa (www.flysansa.com) offer direct flights between San José and Tortuguero.
Double occupancy rates are $290 in the high season (December to April, July to August) and $245 in the low season (May to June, September to November), including lodging, three meals a day, ground and water transportation (breakfast/lunch en route), all guided excursions and taxes.
Sansó can arrange a variety of day and half-day trips, including fishing, canopy tours, turtle walks, massages, kayaking, water bikes, birdwatching and a trip to a frog observatory, among others.
For info, visit www.manatushotel.com, e-mail [email protected] or call 239-4854 or 709-8197.