Over breakfast one recent Saturday, a friend of mine bemoaned how despite his best intentions of getting out of the city, work or pure exhaustion from the week usually sidetracked his plans of escaping San José.
Feeling like I too needed an escape from belching buses and the claustrophobia of the capital, my partner and I headed out to Dantica Cloud Forest Lodge in San Gerardo de Dota. Just two to three hours south (depending on whether you get stuck behind a semi) on the Inter-American highway away from San José, it was the perfect distance to get out of the city.
After checking in at reception, a see-through office attaching to an art gallery, we walked along a winding path cut through a dewy forest to our bungalow.
As soon as we opened the door, I knew why the place had such a good reputation: floor-to-ceiling windows composed an entire wall of the cabin, and tellingly, the couch faces the windows, not the room’s small television. The wall of glass afforded guests an uninterrupted 180-degree view of the valley, yet the bungalows are perched at angles where occupants can’t sneak a peak at other travelers.
Ribbons of clouds wove in and out of the primary oak forests that blanket the valley’s dark green slopes, like an idyllic scene from an ink painting hanging in a Chinese restaurant. The folds of the mountains faded from dark green to ever-lighter shades of white, disappearing into the clouds that poured into the valley like tributaries into a river.
IKEA-inspired furniture outfitted the room, complete with blond wood dresser, low-backed slate-colored couch, and a sleek white table with two chairs. A quirky metal fireplace hung on the wall next to the bed. After pouring in a bottle of ethanol — yes, ethanol — into the grill and lighting it from a safe distance, a tall flame sprung up and gave the room a warm feeling, even if it didn’t produce much heat.
I gazed out over the balcony, half-heartedly looking for a resplendent quetzal in the late afternoon, wondering if I could recognize its emerald plumage in the fading light.
The valley’s reputation for the long-tailed bird is what brought co-owner and biologist Joost Wilms to San Gerardo for the first time more than 20 years ago. The Dutch scientist studied the birds there for years and fell under the valley’s spell, eventually prompting him to open the hotel with his wife, Colombian textile designer María Luisa Castro.
Guests who want to take a quetzal tour with Dantica will have better luck than I did that afternoon: Wilms claimed that his birding tours have a 95 percent success rate. Other wildlife, like the eponymous tapir that gives the lodge it’s name in Tico Spanish, “little tapir,” mountain lions and owls also roam the valley.
Besides the wildlife and hiking offered both onsite and throughout the valley, Dantica’s Le Tapir restaurant is its own destination. Wilms said that their idea for the lodge was to bring people as close to nature as possible and that goes for the restaurant, too, a cozy jewel box extending over the hillside with 270-degree views of the valley.
We started our dinner with a salad of chopped olives and pineapple (trust me, it was great) and moved on to the main course: cloud forest trout with hearts of palm in a white wine sauce. The fish was a standout dish, moist and flaky, if not a little heavy for the sauce it came with. For dessert, the panna cotta was cool and creamy and had a nice crunch from the seeds of the fresh passion fruit on top.
Dantica also offers one of the most generous complementary breakfasts I’ve ever had, complete with fresh baked rolls, locally grown coffee, and a choice of omelet, pancakes or gallo pinto, a mix of black beans and rice, with scrambled eggs.
The lodge’s seclusion makes it an attractive choice for a rugged couple’s getaway but some of the amenities were less than ideal for lovebirds. Our apparent queen size bed was actually two twin beds pushed together, landing a cuddle attempt in the sinkhole between the mattresses.
While the size of the bathroom — especially the size of the sink — was a rare treat for the rugged setting, the shower was unruly and oscillating water temperature between too hot and freezing was a rude awakening in the morning chill of the mountains.
After breakfast, I took a hike down the hill to the river. Following the path with the aid of a crumpled map I kept in my back pocket, I walked, climbed and slid down the trail, following the rushing sounds of the river.
When I reached the water a noise caught my attention. There, just a head of me perched in the trees was a pair of Black Guan, large black birds with blue-tipped beaks. I stopped and watched the birds until my not-so subtle attempt to see them better startled them deeper into the woods. They might not have been resplendent quetzals, but for those minutes I stood there watching them, I felt a million miles from the city.
From San José, take the Inter-American highway to Cartago. Just a few kilometers before reaching Cartago, after the Delta gas station and some traffic lights, there is a sign: San Isidro and Paso Canoas (Panamá). Veer right and wind into the mountains. After about 30 kilometers you reach the gasoline station at El Empalme (last place to fill up your car!), stay on the road for another 30 kilometers and then turn right at Kilometer 80 to San Gerardo de Dota. Follow the dirt road (partly asphalted) for 4 kilometers downhill until you see the lodge at your right hand site. Rates range from $136 to $192 (plus the requisite 13 percent tax) depending on the accommodation and the season.