San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Northern Zone’s Laguna del Lagarto Lodge Lets Visitors Get Back to Nature

Surrounded by 500 hectares of protected tropical rain forest, Laguna del Lagarto Lodge is a nature lover’s and birdwatcher’s paradise, boasting an incredible variety of flora and fauna with 380 different bird species, including the rare great green macaw. The lodge is set in one of the most remote areas of Costa Rica’s Northern Zone, close to the small village of Boca Tapada and the Nicaraguan border.

It was this huge variety of feathered friends that attracted my companions and me to this off-the-beaten-track destination. For those who are not avid birders, there is still plenty to do and see, though nature never guarantees wildlife sightings.

Howler, white-faced capuchin and spider monkeys forage in troops among the 150 species of trees on the property. Colorful red and green poison dart frogs make frequent appearances, and basilisks, or Jesus Christ lizards, known for their uncanny ability to run across water, sit and sun themselves on rocks and tree stumps in the two lagoons a short walk from the lodge.

These small lakes also offer an ideal habitat for caimans that lurk in the water looking like half-submerged logs or take siestas on the muddy banks. Harder to see are tapirs or agoutis, but some of our group was lucky enough to observe about 20 white-nosed coatis feeding with tails pointed skyward. On rare occasions, jaguars have been sighted, but you would have to be very lucky to see one of these elusive felines.

On the first morning of our stay, we rose at the crack of dawn.While we enjoyed coffee on the balcony of the open-view dining room, we were greeted by a slaty-tailed trogon, and collared aracaris, toucans, oropendolas, orange-chinned parakeets and redlored parrots were everywhere. Much to our delight, two scarlet macaws flew by, and later we spotted a beautiful, pure-white snowy cotinga and many other species in the trees and heliconia-filled areas around the lodge.

Determined to find the great green macaw, we split into two groups to explore the 10 miles of trails around the lodge.

Didier Castro, a charming young trainee guide from the nearby village of Boca Tapada, led his followers along a farm track frequented by raptors and many other species, including the great green macaw.

Castro’s keen eyes soon spotted our quarry: great green macaws perched in the protected mountain almond trees eating their favorite repast. His enthusiasm and knowledge of the area made up for his limited English (he also speaks some German) and expertise, but he proved to be a dedicated guide throughout our stay.He took us canoeing on the lagoons; the smaller lagoon was a cool, tranquil experience paddling through the rain forest, while the larger one gave us the opportunity to observe a variety of water birds, and we were delighted to observe a pair of great green macaws at very close quarters.

Among our party we were extremely lucky to have Robert Dean, an expert birding aficionado and illustrator of “A Field Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica,” by Richard Garrigues and Dean, to be published early next year. His group disappeared into the forest and later reported the birds in this specific habitat weren’t as prolific as they’d hoped. However, it proved to be an adventurous hike forging streams, clambering over fallen trees and wading along the forest trail through thick red mud.

The lodge provides rubber boots for this venturesome undertaking.

A less strenuous activity enjoyed by all was the boat trip up the Río San Carlos to the confluence of the Río San Juan on the border with Nicaragua. We stopped at the small riverside village of Boca San Carlos, wandered around and enjoyed a cold libation at the only bar in town. It was interesting to see what life in a remote jungle village is like for the inhabitants, many of whom were clustered around a small TV. This recent novelty was possible because electricity had been installed only three months past.

Even the most intrepid cannot live on nature alone; accommodation and food are the necessities of life. Laguna del Lagarto offers 20 double or triple, basic but clean rooms with private bath, hot water, ceiling fans and comfortable beds. A small but much appreciated luxury for three of us sharing a triple was the individual reading lamps above each bed. Our party also enjoyed the spacious verandas overlooking the tropical landscape and lagoon, where we congregated to socialize and chat about the day’s activities.

The open-sided restaurant features a buffet-style, tasty Costa Rican menu with some German influences thrown in. A traditional breakfast of fruit, gallo pinto (beans and rice) and eggs appeared the first morning, but on the second, ham, cheese and hard-boiled eggs had a much more European flavor. The arroz con pollo (chicken and rice) was definitely Tico, but the beef stew possessed a distinctly German influence. If you are looking for gourmet cuisine, luxury accommodations, swimming pools and state-of-the-art frills, the lodge is not for you. However, if you want to relax and explore an unspoiled environment, this jungle hideaway is an ideal spot to visit.

“The philosophy behind Laguna del Lagarto Lodge is to provide visitors with the true meaning of ecotourism while contributing to the development and well-being of the local community,” said lodge owner Vinzenz Schmack, who runs the establishment with his son Kurt (see sidebar).

My only criticism regarding this statement was the feeding of the caimans by flashlight, which I found inconsistent with my belief that feeding wildlife for the benefit of tourists is untoward.

This belief aside, Laguna del Lagarto has been awarded the Certificate of Sustainable Tourism by the Costa Rican Tourism Institute (ICT), which rates lodges and hotels on the basis of sustainable development and environmental friendliness.

Schmack believes that in many cases ecotourism has become a myth, rather than a reality. The prefix “eco-” is a “fashionable label used whenever possible,” he said. “The true meaning of ecotourism is to go back to nature, accept simplicity and the inconvenience of dirt roads and muddy trails, and to be content with clean, basic facilities and not horrified by a few insects.”

Room rates including taxes at Laguna del Lagarto are $68 double, $51 single, during high season, and $52 double, $39 single, during low season. Meals cost $6 for breakfast, $7.50 for lunch and $14 for dinner. Group rates are available. For information, call 289-8163, e-mail or visit

Getting There

From Pital (70 miles north of San José), take the bumpy, gravel-surfaced road north for 19 miles to Boca Tapada, and then continue four miles past the small hamlet of Santa Rita to the lodge. A four-wheeldrive vehicle is recommended. The lodge offers round-trip transfers from San José for $100.

The public bus to Pital departs daily from San José at 12:30 p.m. and connects with a bus to Boca Tapada, where the lodge will pick you up.

Laguna del Lagarto Owner Makes Positive Impact

Laguna del Lagarto Lodge’s contribution to its Northern Zone community is an example of how ecotourism can affect the well-being and lifestyle of the inhabitants of an isolated area.

When German international banker and financial consultant Vinzenz Schmack came to Costa Rica in 1974, he never imagined he would end up as the owner of a jungle lodge.

This “crazy German,” as the locals called him when he first arrived, opened Laguna del Lagarto Lodge in 1992. Since then, he has made a huge impact on the small, isolated community of Boca Tapada and the surrounding area.

When Schmack bought the property, the public electricity line ended 10 miles away. After substantial lobbying, the community, together with the lodge, had its dream come true in 1994. Schmack paid for the final mile of line to the lodge, and received a plaque of recognition from the village for his determination and financial contributions.

The same was repeated with the telephone line that was finally connected to the lodge in 1999. Santa Rita, only a mile away, never received a connection, and the lodge telephone still serves the inhabitants of this tiny hamlet. Santa Rita has its own water supply, to which the lodge is connected, but Schmack contributes constantly to its maintenance and was instrumental in getting a grant from the German Embassy in 2004 to build a reserve tank. Maintenance of the 19-mile stretch of gravel road from Pital to Boca Tapada is a never-ending problem, so the lodge’s generous annual contribution helps all who live along this bumpy stretch.

Apart from assisting with area infrastructure, the lodge has generated employment and education for area residents and has been responsible for many success stories. A local’s primitive dugout boat was used for the trip up the Río San Carlos, though it was totally inadequate.

Thanks to a loan from Schmack, the captain purchased a covered fiberglass boat and now runs a prosperous business transporting not only lodge guests but also his own clientele.

In Boca San Carlos, the restaurant’s main source of income is from those who take the boat trip. The owner of the restaurant in Boca Tapada sold his business and bought a minibus. He now makes a much better living transporting lodge guests to and from La Fortuna.

The lodge employs eight people, including six from local communities, three of whom are women. In an area where unemployment is a household word, Schmack and his son Kurt not only have been responsible for improving the livelihood of area residents, but have also assisted some to achieve previously unthought-of opportunities.

The cook, Adolfo González, an odd-job Nicaraguan refugee, by sheer coincidence discovered his talent for cooking. This resulted in some German guests offering him a fully paid trip to Germany to teach Costa Rican cuisine.

Oscar Artavia, a farm worker, was trained as a guide and sent to San José to learn English, and, through Schmack’s Rotary connections, spent time living with a family in the United States. Later, a visiting tour operator from a canoeing company invited him to Vermont to work as a guide. Subsequently, he returned to Costa Rica and now has his own canoeing company in La Fortuna.

His brother Fauricio was given similar training and now works with Oscar. The lodge continues to train local people, but Schmack appears to hold no resentment when they leave and is proud and delighted to have been able to give them such opportunities.

Through his connections with the Rotary Club of San José, Schmack has been instrumental in bringing Rotary Club members from the United States to do a variety of social projects in the area, including a three-day free dental clinic and donations of medical supplies to be distributed to clinics in the Northern Zone.

Assistance to local schools is ongoing, including construction and refurbishing projects, as well as school supplies and two computers that were donated by the Rotary Club of San José to the school in Boca Tapada. While staying at the lodge, YMCA students have donated their time and supplies toward improvements in the community.

The Schmacks have gained full respect from local communities, and the positive impact of their small lodge, run under strict ecological guidelines, is a commendable example of how ecotourism can benefit the population of a remote area.



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