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El Toucanet: A country inn in charming Copey

December 3, 2010

Natural wonders abound in Costa Rica, but charming, man-made places are a little harder to find. Tucked away in a river valley, off the beaten path of the Ruta de los Santos in the mountains south of San José, lies one small village that combines natural beauty with architectural charm. And there’s the added bonus of a comfortable lodge.

Copey de Dota is just 7 kilometers east of Santa María de Dota, at the bottom of a steep road that winds past precipitously terraced coffee fincas. It’s home to about 400 inhabitants, mostly farmers who grow apples, avocados and blackberries and tend dairy cows. Named after the copey tree (Clusia rosea), the village has pleasant houses set in lush gardens, a neat elementary school with prettily painted murals, a tidy soccer field and a church. This is not just any church, however, but one of the most charming in the country. Built in the 1920s and dedicated to the town’s patron saint, San Rafael Arcángel, this church was declared a historical heritage site in 1996.

Toucanet Lodge

The town’s charming 1920s church.  Photos by Dorothy MacKinnon | Tico Times

The church is postcard-perfect, sitting on an expanse of green lawns with a smattering of well-tended flowering shrubs and backed by a dramatic line of mountains. The wood-frame building has a turreted Gothic steeple, reminiscent of New England country churches. Instead of the classic Yankee white clapboard, this church has a fresh coat of sunny yellow, with white trim on the windows and a jaunty rosy-red roof. All the decorative gingerbread has been restored as well, and picked out in white.

Heading south out of town, the gravel road follows the curves of the picturesque Pirrís River, known locally as the Río Parrita. The fast-moving river is dramatically strewn with boulders and prettily edged with mossy banks. The river road makes an idyllic country walk, with stunningly beautiful scenic spots, including a stone bridge where you can watch the river tumbling over rocks.

Just 800 meters beyond the village is the entrance to El Toucanet Lodge, high on a hill overlooking the river valley. Since 1996, El Toucanet has been the main reason for visiting Copey. From the lodge’s plant-covered terrace, you have a 270-degree view of mountains and forest. The bird-watching from the main lodge and each private cabin deck is easy and rewarding, with more than 200 species listed. Among the highland species that live here, you’re sure to see pairs of red-white-and-black acorn woodpeckers, as well as the aptly named flame-colored tanager. The lodge’s namesake bird is everywhere to be seen as well – painted on the furniture, place mats and even the artistic recycling bins.

The real bird also makes an occasional appearance, as owner Gary Roberts can attest.

“While we were building the lodge, twice we had toucanets fly into the cabins, so that was the hint for the name,” he says.

Roberts, originally from the South Bay area of the U.S. city of Los Angeles, met Edna Ureña, born and raised in Costa Rica, when they were both attending college in Los Angeles in 1979. A keen surfer, Roberts followed his Costa Rican girlfriend home for a three-month planned surfing vacation that lasted four years.

“I fell in love with the people and the country – and the beautiful surfing beaches,” he says.

Ureña was born and raised in the Los Santos region, and when the couple moved to Costa Rica permanently in 1988, they chose Copey, where Ureña’s family owned property, to build their home. The beauty of the area eventually convinced them to build the lodge and “share this piece of paradise.”

After starting with four rooms, the lodge now has six spacious, comfortable rooms in wooden cabins, each with a private deck. There are also two new junior suites, complete with kitchenettes, fireplaces and hot tubs with picture windows looking out onto garden and mountain views. All the cabins are set in a mature garden with flowering shrubs that attract both birds and butterflies.

For more than a decade, the lodge has been a favorite of hikers and bird-watchers. Every morning Roberts leads guests on a “quetzal quest,” and few visitors are disappointed. The local quetzals are fairly reliable from the middle of December until September, when the nearby aguacatillo trees usually have fruit. Evenings are spent around the fireplace in the main lodge. Dinner usually features the lodge’s famous baked trout, which involves garlic and lemons. The secret ingredient, Roberts says, “lies in the passion we put into cooking our meals.”

The new suites above the main lodge have added an extra touch of luxury and romance to the lodge, making it an even more attractive getaway for city couples in search of some peace and quiet in mountain greenery. The refreshing mountain air is another plus, inspiring the lodge’s slogan: “Fresh air and cold nights.”

Even if you don’t stay in one of the new suites, you can still enjoy a long soak in a hot tub. Just give Roberts notice the night before, and he will fire up the sunken outdoor tub, where you can soak the evening away under the stars.

Going There

From San José, take the Inter-American Highway south. Pass by the Cartago entrance, staying on the highway until you reach Kilometer 51, El Empalme, where you turn right to Santa María de Dota. From the park in Santa María de Dota, turn left (east) for 7 km to Copey, then follow signs to El Toucanet Lodge, 1.5 km past the soccer field.

Double room rates, including breakfast, taxes and quetzal tour, are $76; for suites, including firewood and kitchenette, $120. For information and reservations, call 2541-3045 or visit www.eltoucanet.com.

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