The lights at the end of the three-anda- half-kilometer, bone-rattling road beckoned encouragingly through the mist. It was dark and unusually windy, but the first glimpse of Celeste Mountain Lodge’s inviting communal dining area dispelled the chill.
The owner, Joel Marchal, greeted us while his wife, Selma, and their two boys, Rafael, 12, and Gabriel, 16, ate dinner with a few guests. Candles flickered and the long, wooden tables reflected the golden glow in their finish.
Though the 18-room lodge in the north-central Costa Rica town of Bijagua is his first hotel,Marchal is not a novice when it comes to tourism. After growing up in France,Marchal met his wife in Brazil and they relocated to Canada, where he worked in tourism, specializing in Central America. The entrepreneur and his family moved to Costa Rica four years ago to bring to fruition his dream of building a hotel.
“I was a tour operator for 20 years, so if there is one thing I know, it’s what tourists like, what they want and how they want it,” he said.
A walk around the lodge confirmed that Marchal has developed an instinct about what travelers require to feel comfortable. From the inviting dining room and open kitchen to the lounge facing a working fireplace and hot tub, all the public space in the hotel is designed for relaxation and enjoyment.
The following day, the clouds lifted, revealing a panoramic view of Miravalles Volcano and its foothills. A section of Tenorio Volcano looms over the other side of the property. The lodge sits on four acres of pastureland surrounded by protected forest housing abundant wildlife, including monkeys, toucans and even the endangered tapir.
“Nature here is very strong, and you feel it,” Marchal said. “I normally don’t tell tourists this because most of them freak out, but we have an array of insects that are just the most amazing and beautiful things. We see insects here that are wild stuff.”
When his boys went into a detailed description of a giant beetle they had seen on the property, Marchal assured me that such insects are always gone by daylight.
The sunlight also brought into focus the contemporary architecture of the lodge.
Marchal hired Jacqueline Gillet, a Belgian architect who has lived in Costa Rica for 15 years, to design the building. Though Marchal explained that he wasn’t initially interested in contemporary design, he went with all of Gillet’s suggestions.
“I’ve been the easiest client. I said, ‘Carte blanche, go ahead, surprise me.’ And I did not ask for one change whatsoever,” he said.
The design takes into account the damp climate of the region and included simple solutions such as putting the building on pillars a few inches off the ground and using a variety of ventilation techniques.
But the interior decor is all Marchal’s doing.
“I took care of the decoration, the colors,” he said. “From childhood I wanted to be an artist, but my father never let me go to a fine arts school. So I had the opportunity to develop my creativity right here.”
The immaculate rooms are decorated simply but thoughtfully, with reading lamps in easy reach from the beds, plenty of shelf and counter space, and teak louvered windows that allow fresh air to circulate, while screens keep out unwanted visitors. Marchal built the lamps and much of the decorations out of salvaged scrap metal and found objects. The counters are made from salvaged wood, because beyond simply making guests feel comfortable, he has made it his goal to establish responsible and innovative tourism.
From belowground to the roof of the building, Marchal has painstakingly implemented creative methods of environmentally sensitive development that should make other “ecolodges” green with envy. It is evident from the enthusiasm with which he discusses these projects that Marchal has not jumped on the ecotourism bandwagon just to use the trendy prefix. His vision is sustainable, both inside his lodge and in relationship to the environment and the nearby community.
“At the end of the construction, half a truckload went to the dump. Seven square cubic meters. It’s nothing – for a building this size, it’s insignificant. We used everything we could,”Marchal said with pride.
Not only was he careful to reduce waste, Marchal also used salvaged and recycled material as much as possible throughout the lodge. He used 1,000 discarded truck tires, some to build a wall on the property and the rest to try a new system of underground water drainage that he adapted from research on the Internet.
“They discovered that drainage made with tires has fauna and flora that is 10 times richer than drainage made with rocks,” he said. Hot water for the hotel is produced by solar panels. Rainwater is collected for the hot tub and then heated in a chimney made from scrap metal.
In building the lodge, only one tree was cut down on the entire property, Marchal said. The rest of the wooden tables and counters were built from felled trees salvaged from the surrounding forest.
“What is not from there, the outside of the building, the ceiling, this is teak wood.
Plantation. Bottom line, we have not used any forest wood in this building,” Marchal said. In addition, he planted 200 new trees on the hill above the lodge.
Some of the counters in the common area were made in San José from post-consumer recycled plastic. Dining table benches are padded with coconut fiber cushions and a separate bioclimatic cabin is used for airdrying the hotel’s laundry.
Marchal got excited describing some of the innovative techniques he is experimenting with, including creating biogas to fuel burners in the kitchen.
“It’s a system that I got from a guy in Guápiles (a town on the Caribbean slope). He installed it for us here,” he said. “We put in all the leftovers from the kitchen and the plates.”
Though it’s not enough to fuel the whole kitchen, Marchal plans to use the biogas for slow-cooking items such as frijoles.
Rates include all meals; though this can feel restrictive and boring at some hotels, here it is a delight. Chef Andrés Pichardo is an area resident who has worked at high-end resorts in other parts of the country.His food combines traditional Costa Rican ingredients with gourmet and creative touches.
Chicken was served with sides of regional vegetables and flavored with herbs grown on the grounds. Another meal featured homemade fettuccini and a gorgeous green salad with avocado. Breakfast was a substantial and tasty vegetable omelet accompanied by homemade bread and several varieties of homemade jams, served under towering, tropical flowers.
During our visit we sampled two desserts, a delicious arroz con leche (rice pudding) served with mora (blackberry) sauce and a cheesecake that achieved just the right level of sweetness. There is no menu, just what Pichardo creates, though special dietary needs can be accommodated with advance notice. Most of the dishes are served on wooden trays with banana leaves underneath the food, which creates a pleasing garnish as well as more fuel for the biogas containers.
Though it may be hard to drag yourself from the open-air dining room with its volcano views, the main activity in the area is hiking in TenorioVolcanoNational Park and visiting the brilliant blue waters of the Río Celeste (see sidebar). Other options are horseback riding and white-water rafting.
Marchal is also working with the community to help organize tours.
“There is a group of guys from the village who want to form a tour operator, supply activities. So we are giving them support about things like safety, insurance and giving them ideas,” he said. “We want to support those kids. Tourism has to benefit this village, too. If not, it’s not going to work.”
The Unreal Blue of the Río Celeste
The park ranger told us to hike to the end of the trail, visit the “Blue Lagoon” and the natural hot springs and, on the way back, stop to see the waterfall, but we couldn’t delay our curiosity.
The Río Celeste waterfall is unique among rain-forest cataracts for the remarkable turquoise color of the water, the result of chemical reactions of volcanic minerals such as sulfur and calcium carbonates.
As soon as we saw the signs pointing to the left of the main trail, we headed down the slippery steps toward the pool at the bottom of 20 meters of crashing water.
We glimpsed the water at several turns during the descent, its color the unreal hue of a sports drink. Once we reached the bottom, with the mist and spray making rocks treacherous, we inched our way closer to the thunderous torrent. It looked like an image from a travel brochure, framed by vibrant green foliage, the falls crashing into the aquamarine pool.
Though TenorioVolcanoNational Park doesn’t make many tourists’ must-see lists, a survey by the Spanishlanguage daily La Nación asking readers to vote for the seven wonders of Costa Rica ranked the park’s Río Celeste in fourth place (TT, Aug. 31, 2007).
Local legend says that after painting the sky, God washed his paintbrushes in the Río Celeste.
The river’s waters are definitely celestial, the blue seeming not of the earth but rather the sky, with the white torrents forming what might be tempestuous clouds.
After the moderately strenuous climb back to the path, we continued on to visit the other notable areas of the park, stopping along the way to admire a view of the towering dormant volcano and the verdant forest. There is also the placid Blue Lagoon, a calm section of the turquoise river’s course.
One of the most interesting sections of the trail is called Teñideros, where two smaller rivers join together and their clear waters react to form the unique color of the Río Celeste.
The only areas of the river where people are allowed to take a dip are the hot springs. Park rangers have marked with rock borders the warmer spots where natural vents heat the water.
Other than the section to and from the waterfall and a couple of sketchy footbridges, the trail is an easy seven-kilometer hike round-trip. The El Pilón ranger station has bathrooms, water and even maps for visitors.