From the print edition
As legend has it, during the 2009 earthquake that rocked the Poás region, 30 miles northwest of San José, some of the animals at the La Paz Waterfall Gardens escaped their cages. Although the birds and wild cats fled into the surrounding rain forest, the spider monkeys were apparently uninterested in a getaway. Instead, they headed for Colibries Restaurant and sat down at the tables, looking around expectantly.
The takeaway is that the smartest animals know it doesn’t get better than staying at La Paz, where the majestic waterfall gardens, animal exhibits and accompanying luxury mountain cabins feel like something out of a Latin fairytale. Since the Peace Lodge hotel opened in 2003, it has become one of the foremost accommodations in Costa Rica, winning numerous accolades for both environmental friendliness and guest experience.
Though earthquake damage did create a setback, owners Lee and Cindy Banks have rebuilt where necessary. The trout lake cracked down the middle, but has since been repaired, and some of the trails to the waterfalls also needed work. At this point, only the nearby roads remain damaged; still, they are passable.
The aviary, the mariposario (butterfly observatory), the ranarium, the serpentarium and the casita (a reproduction of an old Caribbean farmhouse) all withstood the shaking, and these exhibits continue to allow up-close encounters that guests will be talking about for years. At the jungle cat cages, visitors can stand an arm’s length from a mountain lion, margay, ocelot or jaguar. In the aviary, visitors can feed hummingbirds and toucans by hand. A night tour given by the hotel brings visitors face-to-face with nocturnal fauna, including the very symbol of Costa Rica – the red-eyed frog.
Those fortunate enough to be staying on the property, which consists of 70 acres of jungle and just 17 units, can return after a day of exploration to some of the most adorable and awe-inspiring accommodations in the country. The guest’s last name will be spelled out in wooden blocks beside the door, behind which await four-poster king beds, stone fireplaces, showers designed to resemble caves (with a waterfall option) and Jacuzzis in the bathrooms and on the balconies. Although the rooms are unquestionably upscale, personal touches like mosaic, hand-painted tiles and stained glass adornments make the place feel like home.
The balconies feature traditional Costa Rican rocking chairs and hammocks, with foggy mountain views that include the active Poás Volcano, which occasionally shoots geyser-like ejections out of its crater and makes for an excellent day trip. The Doka coffee plantation is also worth a stop while touring the charming Poás region, which is also known for its organic strawberries and fern farms.
After packed days of exploring, romantic evenings at Peace Lodge involve cranking the gas fireplace and ordering a bottle of wine and fresh trout to the room (adventurous guests may feast on a trout they caught personally at the pond). Those seeking a more formal affair can head up to the Vista Poás Restaurant for a four-course meal. Breakfast can also be taken in the room or out on the restaurant terrace, and options include anything from traditional gallo pinto to delectable egg-white omelettes.
Although the public is invited to visit the La Paz Waterfall Gardens from 8 a.m.-5 p.m., hotel guests have all-hours access. My absolute favorite thing do to at La Paz is to take an early morning stroll on the trail past the waterfalls, and then to spend some off-hours quality time with the jungle cats.
Rates range from $295-$545 a night. To get there, take the Pan-American Highway from San José towards the airport and take the Alajuela exit. Continue for 12 miles, following the signs for Poás Volcano. At the deadend, three-way intersection, take a right. Go one mile to the town of Poasito and take a right at the intersection where it says Heredia Vara Blanca, Sarapiquí. Make a left at the gas station at Vara Blanca and go three miles. Waterfall Gardens is on the left. For more, call 2482-2100 or visit www.waterfallgardens.com.