The city lights trail behind as we travel down paved roads. Passing through lands cleared for cattle, bananas and pineapples, the last remnants of modern civilization fade into the background. A few hours later, we jump off the back of a wagon.
The only sound we hear is our rubber boots penetrating the muddy ground as we begin our trek into the depths of the unspoiled, virgin rain forest.
The journey to Rara Avis Rainforest Lodge and Reserve begins at the lodge’s office in the small town of Horquetas, in the northern lowlands of Costa Rica. Reaching the lodge is not easy.
Following the old wisdom that getting there is half the fun, this is one adventure that will have you laughing your knee-high rubber boots off.
Intrepid travelers climb into a covered wagon pulled by a farm tractor to begin a 15- kilometer ascent. Danilo Villegas, the lodge’s operations manager and a native of Horquetas, sits relaxed at the helm in a neatly pressed shirt. Villegas worked as a truck driver for 15 years before returning to Horquetas and Rara Avis a year and a half ago. His son also works at the lodge.
Villegas skillfully maneuvers the tractor across suspension bridges, through muddy ravines and over steep, boulder-strewn sections of the path while stopping along the way to point out oropendola nests and endangered jícaro (calabash) trees.
“It is important for us that our staff is from the Horquetas area, and that our business is part of the local community,” says Amos Bien, a U.S.-Costa Rican biologist and founding member of Rara Avis. “Another of the concepts that gave rise to Rara Avis was to allow Costa Ricans and foreign visitors to experience the rain forest as I did when I first came 30 years ago – complete with mud, rain, rubber boots, kerosene lamps and extraordinary beauty.
“Once immersed in it, the idea is for guides to explain some of the intricacies of the forest, so that beyond beauty, there is understanding.”
Many choose to walk the last three kilometers to Rara Avis; whether you continue the tractor ride or walk, the journey takes about an hour. The tractor, which also delivers food and supplies to the lodge, resumes with any baggage you don’t want to carry. At 700 meters (2,300 feet) above sea level, the climate is cool year-round, averaging 25 degrees Celsius – perfect hiking weather.
Though it rains a lot – 8.3 meters annually – mosquitoes are not a problem.
Wilberth Jarquín, the hotel manager and a naturalist guide, together with volunteer Valerie Therrien, a Canadian taking a break from university before returning to study environmental law, welcome our group at the 12-kilometer mark. They guide us into the forest, and within moments we move from secondary forest into primary, virgin forest. Blue morpho butterflies flit along the trail, offering a surreal contrast to the predominantly green and brown backdrop.
Rubber boots with good tread, available for loan at the Horquetas office, come in handy as you find your balance walking on beds of slippery clay and the wooden pavers that sporadically mark the trail.
“We do just enough to maintain the trail for visitors, as every little adjustment disrupts the delicate ecology of the area,” Therrien says.
The verdant tunnel leads to a final suspension bridge before opening out onto the manicured lodge grounds.
Upon arrival, a hearty Costa Rican meal awaits the hungry traveler. Everyone takes a place on the wooden benches nestled under the open-air, communal dining area. Large plates of rice, beans, vegetables, stewed meat and a spicy, homemade salsa make the rounds in the family-style setting. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are included in the lodging rates.
Rara Avis offers three types of accommodation: the Waterfall Lodge, the River-Edge Cabin and the Casitas.
The Waterfall Lodge is the most central and gets its name from the two-tiered cataract 200 meters away. The two-story building’s eight corner rooms all have private, hot-water showers and wraparound balconies. A large patio with a small library on the second floor offers spectacular views of the treetops.
The River-Edge Cabin is a wobbly, 10-minute walk into the forest. A large balcony facing the river joins two rooms, also with private, hot-water showers. The thick foliage reaches the balcony’s edge and practically pours into the main entrance. Standing on the balcony makes you feel like Dorothy waking up in the land of Oz.
A short walk from the dining area, the Casitas are the most economical of the lodge’s accommodations. The four two-cabin rooms have private, cold-water showers.
All accommodations are comfortable and come complete with welcoming details, such as a personal towel folded into a blossom on each bed, topped with a small bath soap.
Before you head to your rooms, Jarquín instructs you how to light and care for the kerosene lamp in your room.
The lodge has no electricity; however, the River-Edge Cabins have a few hours of solargenerated light per day and the dining area is lit with generator power. It’s a good idea to bring a flashlight or headlamp for night hikes and trips from the dining area to your room.
Rara Avis opened in 1983 as one of the first ecolodges and private nature reserves in Costa Rica. The lodge sits in the middle of the 484-hectare reserve bordering Braulio Carrillo National Park. The conservation project expanded in 1987 after Rara Avis members found environmentally conscious buyers to purchase an additional 1,000 hectares of neighboring land,much of which belonged to a sawmill consortium.
Over the years, Rara Avis has brought environmental awareness to the local community, the scientific community and to tourists. It has introduced economically viable, nondestructive agricultural practices, such as conserving forest on farmland, butterfly farming and planting native tree seedlings, to the local community.
The private reserve has supported pivotal research, such as U.S. biologist Donald Perry’s steel platform vehicle, constructed in the late 1980s to promote exploration of the rain forest canopy.
Researchers and tourists used to scan the treetops riding the metal contraption until it went out of operation about 10 years ago. The pioneering mechanism set the stage for the more than 200 canopy-exploring businesses – ziplines, walkways, bridges and trams – operating in the country today.
“We trained many of the first naturalist guides, who went on to train new generations of guides throughout the country,” Bien says.
Staff naturalists are available at Rara Avis throughout the day for guided hikes and for answering questions. Familiar with the area and enthusiastic about sharing their knowledge, the guides not only spot things most people easily fail to notice, but also explain them beyond just their names.
Most hikes begin after breakfast and range in difficulty from moderate to difficult. Maps are available for those who wish to venture off alone.
Rara Avis is home to more than 362 species of birds, 500 species of trees, several species of poisonous snakes, including the fer-delance and the coral snake, and mammals such as white-faced, spider and howler monkeys, coatis, banded anteaters and tapirs. If you are in the right place at the right time, you may even spot a jungle cat. The lodge keeps an exciting book of sightings filled in by guests over the years. Make sure to take a few minutes to add to the history.
Socially responsible tourists who still want to have fun will find the adventure of a lifetime at Rara Avis. Forgoing a few creature comforts offers a new perspective on how we lead our daily lives.
“In the past 20 years, there has been a tendency in ecolodges toward increasing luxury and movement away from being immersed in the forest and isolated from civilization,” Bien says. “While we want people to be comfortable and well fed, we also want to maintain the sensation of being in a place that, while constantly changing, has remained unchanged for millions of years.”
Getting There, Rates, Info
From San José, take the highway to Guápiles and Limón through BraulioCarrilloNational Park. Shortly after leaving the park, turn left at the signs for Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí. Travel 16 km to the second entrance sign for the village of Horquetas. Turn left at the sign for Rara Avis.
Secured parking is available at the Rara Avis offices in Horquetas. From here, a tractor-pulled charabanc cart or jeep leaves at 9:30 a.m. for the lodge. For those who want to travel to and from the lodge at different times, horses can be rented for $25 each. You must walk the last three km if you go on horseback.
For reservations and information visit www.rara-avis.com.