Camping out in style Down South
From the print edition
Ever considered going camping, but never felt adventurous enough to pitch your own tent? Río Tico Safari Lodge, on the Pacific coast south of Uvita, has the perfect setup for hesitant campers: extremely comfortable, authentic African safari tents, set high and dry on platforms perched on a hillside beside a rushing river. Not only are these tents spacious and airy, with lots of headroom and screened window openings to let in breezes and light, but they also have electric fans and lamps. And most comforting, these tents come with private bathrooms.
In fact, these seven-by-four-meter tents, prettily edged with flowering ginger, are fresher and more comfortable than many cabinas. And, with three roofs – one made of PVC – these treated-canvas tents stay dry even in the hardest rain. (I stayed dry as a bone in one of these tents the night Hurricane Irene pelted the Pacific coast last August.)
Each of the putty-gray tents has two comfortable double beds or a king-size bed, draped in colorful Guatemalan bedspreads. Floor lights, along with lamps on bamboo night tables, provide soft lighting. Cleverly designed bamboo wardrobes have both hanging space and shelves, so you can actually unpack instead of leaving damp clothes to wrinkle in a suitcase.
But the star feature is the connected bathroom. Just unzip the tent’s back flap and step into a tile-and-concrete bathroom, with sink, ecological toilet and spacious shower. It’s bright and fresh, with plenty of hot water.
Each tent-bungalow also has a front porch, with comfortable bamboo chairs to relax in and soak up the constant, soothing sound of the river, punctuated by the sound effects provided by the local fauna.
Up at road level, which is a steepish climb up a stone path, the main lodge building is airy and cheerful, with exuberant flower arrangements and orange color accents. The combined dining-sitting room has artisan-made wooden tables, bamboo chairs and comfortable sofas, all looking out onto sun-streaked greenery. Breakfast is excellent – skillfully carved fresh fruit, healthy home-baked bread, eggs as you like them, and delicious, light, Dutch-style pancakes – more like crepes – smothered in butter and jam or syrup.
The energetic man whipping up the pancakes in the kitchen is owner Cees van Vliet. He and wife Miranda (see box) are the lodge’s amiable, multilingual hosts. Healthy snacks and beverages are available throughout the day, but there’s no dinner or lunch served, in keeping with the van Vliets’ sustainability philosophy.
“We want the locals to share and have a part of tourism,” Cees says. So guests can walk 100 meters down the road for lunch or dinner at Tilapias El Pavón, an excellent family-run restaurant with its own tilapia ponds and a trail to a dramatic waterfall and swimming hole. Or they can drive or walk 1.5 kilometers down the road to La Cascada, another family-run restaurant, this one overlooking tilapia ponds and a stream.
The same philosophy applies to promoting local tour operators, including ocean kayaking, horse tours, daylong nature hikes and bird-watching tours.
Exploring the river, which cascades down to the Pacific, is the main self-guided activity here. (Its actual name is the Río Punta Mala, but the van Vliets decided Río Tico would be a more attractive name for their lodge.) It’s a delight for children and grown-ups alike. Stepping-stones allow guests to crisscross the river, searching for hidden pools to cool off in or huge, flat rocks to sunbathe on. There is also a bright blue, metallic bridge a little upriver that leads to Montañas La Esperanza, a private reserve with three kilometers of well-marked hiking trails, great for birding and catching scenic sunset views.
And if tents, no matter how luxurious, are still not your cup of tea, the main lodge has three modern, comfortable guest rooms, including one that is handicapped-accessible.
The Río Tico Safari Lodge story
This tent lodge sprung up almost by accident. Miranda and Cees (pronounced Case) van Vliet, from Holland, wanted a simpler, more integrated life for their young family, in a small, safe community.
As a former military policeman, Cees was always on call and often didn’t see his sons, Rik and Thijs, in the evenings.
Miranda had been a tour leader in Central America, so their dream to live in another country brought them to Costa Rica, with the idea of running a small hotel.
They scoured the country in vain, looking for an affordable turn key hotel to buy. On the last day of their scouting trip, feeling very discouraged, they chanced upon Tilapias El Pavón, a family-run restaurant in Vergel de Punta Mala de Osa, a village of about 12 houses with two tilapia restaurants and a small furniture factory.
They started talking to Henry Mora, the restaurant owner,who said he had a nearby property on the river that he was selling.
Miranda and Cees immediately looked it over, sat down by the river, absorbed the scene, turned to each other and said, “Wow.” “When you both say ‘wow,’ that’s when you know you have found your place,” Cees says.
Instead of building cabins, they ordered tents over the Internet from a company in South Africa that supplies African game parks.
It took six months for the tents to travel from South Africa to Hamburg to Costa Rica’s Caribbean port of Limón, where they were loaded onto trucks. The truck drivers dumped the bagged tents unceremoniously on the road in front of their lodge site, where they had already built the tent platforms and bathrooms.
“We had ordered only one frame, to save money,” Cees says,“and we hired a local metalworker to copy it and make the rest of the frames from galvanized steel.”
There were a few tense moments trying to figure out how to actually put up the tents, Miranda says. An anxious email to the tent manufacturers produced some hand-drawn assembly diagrams, and up went all nine tents.
In less than a year and a half, they were in business.
Río Tico Safari Lodge is in Vergel de Punta Mala de Osa. From the Costanera highway, the turnoff is 18 km south of Uvita, then 4 km up a dirt road. Rates are $34.50 per person, including breakfast. For information and reservations, call 8996-7935 or visit www.riotico.com.
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