One of the OsaPeninsula’s lesser-known natural havens is Playa Platanares, only seven kilometers south of the Puerto Jiménez airfield. This miles-long, all-sand beach stretches along the southern Pacific coast’s Golfo Dulce, looking east across serene waters where dolphins play, to the rolling hills of PiedrasBlancasNational Park. The beach boasts usually calm, warm waters perfect for swimming and kayaking, with occasional swells big enough to make boogie-boarders happy.
Playa Platanares also encompasses the Preciosa Platanares Wildlife Refuge, a 249-hectare, privately owned mangrove estuary teeming with wildlife and accessible by kayak, horseback and a beachfront path.
Among the handful of small lodges here, the premier place to stay is Iguana Lodge, an upscale but unpretentious, family-friendly ecolodge, with eight elegantly decorated rooms in four private casitas spread around a huge beachfront garden, along with a threebedroom villa with its own kitchen. This season, Iguana Lodge added eight luxurious Club Rooms to its roster, in the totally refurbished Pearl of the Osa Hotel, just a stone’s throw away along the beach.
Since 1999, the Cleaver family – Toby, Lauren and their two younger children, Rio and Lakota – have owned and operated Iguana Lodge and made it their home. They saw the potential in the neighboring, twostory Pearl of the Osa, and bought it in 2001.
The downstairs restaurant, called La Perla for short, quickly became the place to be in Puerto Jiménez on Friday nights, with a pasta buffet and dancing to live salsa and Latin music. Last year, they gutted the funky, slightly shabby upstairs guest rooms and renovated them with verve and style.
Shaded by an enormous balsa tree, the hotel faces the beach across a palm-studded lawn strung with hammocks. The entire building is painted in tangy citrus colors and supported by sinuous cara de tigrepillars.
Upstairs, eight new Club Rooms look out onto a wide, wraparound veranda edged with wrought-iron railings and furnished with a stately row of bent bamboo chairs upholstered with cushions in a tropical foliage pattern.
Overhead ceiling fans above each pair of chairs have individual controls inside each room. The four front rooms have beach views and breezes, and the four back rooms look out onto a jungle of trees. The best rooms are the four corner rooms, each with a queensize bed (the four inside rooms have two single beds that can be made up as king beds).
The downside to these rooms is the lack of privacy.When the restaurant/bar is hopping on Friday nights, you won’t get much sleep until the party is over. For the most part, though, the place quiets down by 9 p.m. Though a tad on the small side, extra-high ceilings give the rooms a sense of spaciousness.
The look is elegant, fresh and uncluttered: linen-white walls, large, screened windows with white venetian blinds, dramatic bamboo headboards, custom-made white bedspreads piped with pale green and piled with plenty of pillows. Good reading lamps on bedside tables and wicker easy chairs complete the furnishings. There’s no air conditioning, but screened windows and overhead fans keep the rooms cool, and breezes off the gulf never let you forget you are right on the beach.
Tall cane and bamboo doors lead into luxurious bathrooms where every design detail is delightful: spacious, marble-clad showers with invigorating rain-forest showerheads, diamond-shaped vessel sinks with nickelplated faucets in the shape of a stick of bamboo, a clothes closet hidden behind sliding cane doors, containing plenty of storage space, a safety box and two fluffy terry robes.
There’s one standout, focal point in each room: an oversize canvas of a sensuous, single, exotic flower painted by Lauren Cleaver (see box).
Club Room guests enjoy all the lodge facilities: yoga decks, hammock shack, Japanese soaking tub, complimentary use of boogie boards and kayaks, rental bikes and free Internet and Wi-Fi access in the Rancho Grande, which is also the setting for the lodge’s excellent breakfasts, included in the room rate.
You can choose a table on the covered veranda or sit out on the palm-shaded garden deck. There’s a buffet of homemade yogurt and granola, fresh-squeezed juices and excellent coffee. The huge, open kitchen in the Rancho is always a beehive of activity.
You place your order at the kitchen window overlooking the veranda and the chef whips up your eggs on the spot. The breakfast special might be a made-to-order onion, cheese and red pepper omelet, given an extra jolt with jalapeño peppers. There’s also coffee cake, toast, platters of fresh fruits and sliced tomato and avocado.
Dinners in the Rancho Grande, by reservation only, are a good chance to chat with other guests. The vast upstairs dining room, under a high thatched roof, is illuminated by candles. Guests load up their plates at the buffet, then sit at a huge, continuous, foursided table. The food is inventive and international, reflecting Lauren and Toby’s worldwide travels. The night I dined with them, there was an excellent, spicy shrimp étouffée, New Orleans-style, followed by a scrumptious pecan pie.
Lunch and dinner are also served at the lively La Perla de la Osa Restaurant, open to guests and the public alike. The lunch menu has a sophisticated Mexican flavor; the huge taco plate ($8), for instance, features sautéed mahi-mahi, chicken or tenderloin with roasted peppers, onions and chipotle sauce on soft flour tortillas, with all the trimmings and sides. There are also salads, sandwiches and pizzas and a kids’ menu.
Dinner features more substantial main courses: coq au vin ($12), steak au poivre ($16) and a selection of fresh fish with interesting sauces, such as a balsamic reduction or tropical chimichurri ($12). Laid-back, comfortable lounge areas make this a perfect spot to sit back in a wicker chair, sip a cocktail or share a jug of sangria and enjoy the beach view and evening breezes. The only negative in the restaurant is that menu prices do not include tax or service, as they should.
Beyond the beach setting, one of the best features of the lodge is its proximity to the wildlife refuge, just steps to the north. Surrounded by so many trees, guests wake up to a cacophony of birdcalls, perhaps orange-chinned parakeets cruising the balsa blossoms for breakfast nectar. On an early morning walk along the beach path edging the refuge, you may spot klatches of cackling gray-headed chachalacas, get close-up views of scarlet macaws noisily combing the beach almond trees for nuts, or perhaps catch a glimpse of a rarer mangrove cuckoo.
Getting There, Rates, Info
Iguana Lodge is on Playa Platanares, seven kilometers south of the Puerto Jiménez airport on Playa Platanares. Both Nature Air (www. natureair.com) and Sansa (www.flysansa.com) offer daily flights between San José and Puerto Jiménez. Transportes Blanco-Lobo (2771-4744) offers bus service, for those up for the eight-hour ride.
Rates for the Club Rooms are $135 double occupancy, including taxes, breakfast and use of all Iguana Lodge facilities.
The lodge does have cell phones but they are not always reliable: 8848-0752, 8829-5865. You are sure to reach the lodge by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.iguanalodge.com.
How Does an Artist’s Garden Grow?
Iguana Lodge, renowned for its lush tropical gardens, has a new kind of garden blooming. For the past few years, Lauren Cleaver has been painting eye-catching, large-scale canvases of Georgia O’Keefe-style flowers.
Her paintings are everywhere: hung on the walls of the reception area and the new Club Rooms, gracing the menus of La Perla de la Osa Restaurant, and propped up against walls as she runs out of hanging space.
Lauren’s open studio is the lodge’s Rancho Grande veranda, with paints, brushes and palettes artistically arranged on windowsills and tables, turning the porch into a painterly still life. In the midst of guests coming and going, Lauren hums and sings to herself or chats with passersby as she happily dabs on paint. It’s cheering and entertaining to watch her, with the sun backlighting her canvases, which blend in with the tropical foliage and potted plants bordering her studio.
Lauren, a criminal defense lawyer in the U.S. state of Colorado in her former life, will readily tell you that she has no formal artistic training. But the story of how she found her inspiration to paint is inspiring in itself.
About three years ago, Lauren suffered a horrible fall and broke her pelvis. Her long, painful recuperation was particularly frustrating for an active, athletic woman.Throughout her convalescence, she read voraciously.
When she was finally able to hobble around, husband Toby took her to Paris to learn to walk again. While they roamed the streets and visited art galleries and museums, Lauren was struck with the idea that she wanted to paint.
She happened to be reading a book at the time, written by a successful woman choreographer whose philosophy she admired. Simply stated, it was: Nothing ever just comes naturally. You have to work hard every day to be great at whatever you do. Encouraged by Toby to “just do it,” Lauren started painting, learning as she went and poring over art books – about French Impressionism in particular – for inspiration.
“All those months of reading while I was recuperating made me want to actually be doing something other than reading,” she said.
Sometimes she paints eight hours a day, and she has already painted more than 100 huge canvases.
“It’s a long-term joy for me,” Lauren said. “Toby and I always told our kids to find their passion, and I found mine at 50.”
Now the couple’s international travels focus on visits to art museums around the world. Lauren’s newfound artistic talent has also inspired her to spearhead the Todo Es Posible (Everything Is Possible) program, helping local high school graduates develop their potential by coaching them to apply to university and raising money for scholarships.
To see a photo gallery of Lauren’s paintings, visit www.iguanalodge.com.