For travelers who want to experience the cloud forest of Costa Rica, but don’t want to rough it, a new luxurious ecoresort is pampering the way.
By the owners of Hotel Punta Islita, an award-winning resort on the NicoyaPeninsula, El Silencio Lodge brings the same high level of service and comfort inland to the mountains of the Central Valley.
About 30 minutes north of Sarchí, the lodge is nestled between the Poás Volcano and JuanCastroBlancoNational Parks on a 500-acre reserve. The property has several kilometers of hiking trails of various difficulty, a river and three waterfalls.
Sixteen individual suites are perched on a small clearing of converted farmland surrounded by the lush and verdant cloud forest.
At check-in guests are offered fresh fruit smoothies while being introduced to their “eco-concierge,” one of the unique services of El Silencio. An eco-concierge is appointed to every group and functions as a cross between a personal assistant and a naturalist guide.
Our concierge was Edgardo Camacho, a pleasant and smiling 29-year-old from the nearby town of Sarchí, who gave us an overview of the property, the philosophy behind El Silencio and the various hiking options we could choose from.
After our orientation, Camacho delivered us to our hillside room in an electric golf cart.
The luxury aspects of the lodge are immediately apparent in the rooms. Suites are fully appointed with sublimely comfortable beds and 400-count linens, a lounge area and gas fireplace to ward off the cloud forest’s evening chill.
Enormous bathrooms are supplied with excellent towels and robes as well as an outdoor whirlpool, a delightful way to appreciate the cool evenings of the area.
Designed by Costa Rican architect Ronald Zurcher (whose brother is one of the owners), the suites are built with an eye to the surrounding environment. Floor to ceiling windows allow full nature views of either the nearby mountain or the quietly murmuring river. Building materials such as bamboo and almond wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council were selected for their environmentally friendly and sustainable qualities.
The goal was to create a place in which visitors could genuinely feel the nature around them. Therefore, while the hotel is luxurious, certain things like TV and Internet have been intentionally left out.
As manager Andrey Gómez explained, “This is Costa Rica, by the Costa Ricans.”
And the Ticos who are behind El Silencio want to ensure that guests get to appreciate the natural beauty of the country.
Entertainment here is sitting in the Sarchí wooden rockers on the private porch and watching clouds and mist roll over the mountain to blanket the peaceful valley below.
We decided to delay enjoying the view since Camacho had agreed to take us on a short hike before dinner, so we changed into our hiking boots and headed out.
As we climbed the hill behind the lodge’s main building with the clouds settling around us, Camacho cheerfully said, “Coming here and not getting wet is not really being here.” It is a cloud forest after all, and what better way to appreciate the surrounding environment than to walk through the trees as the dampness of the early evening envelops them?
Along the path Camacho pointed out plants, birds and explained the preservation and reforestation efforts being made.
The property’s unique location between two national parks makes preservation extremely important as the area functions as a biological corridor for many species of animals in the region.
Fortunately the owners are devoted to protecting the area. Though the hotel has just been open since November, much progress has already been made such as planting endemic trees where forest had once been cleared for farming.
Toward the end of the hike we paused at the Magical Knot, a small labyrinth created out of flowering bushes. The selected plants are all butterfly and hummingbird attractors and area artists have been invited to create pieces in the nooks of the maze.
We left the labyrinth as fireflies began to flicker and light the way. It was time for dinner and a sampling of chef Marco González’s creations. (The chef ’s name may be familiar to some readers as he also writes a cooking column for this newspaper.)
The dining room is surrounded on three sides by floor-to-ceiling windows and kept warm by a gas fireplace. Outdoor seating is available when weather permits, and sounds from the river provide background music for al fresco meals.
During dinner González introduces himself at each table and explains the philosophy behind his cooking and the restaurant at El Silencio. His goal is a Costa Rican fusion cuisine that focuses on fresh, healthy and organic-when-possible ingredients.
The restaurant is primarily vegetarian, though regional fish and free-range chicken are also offered. Red meat is not served; however, for committed carnivores, vouchers for a steak restaurant in town will be provided.
The cuisine’s main strength is González’s creative use of typical Costa Rican ingredients in novel combinations.
“This country is known for bland, boring cuisine, but we have a lot of vegetables we just put them on the side,” González lamented. However in his kitchen, vegetables get main play.
Soups such as yellow pepper and broccoli are made with little to no cream and yet taste rich and satisfying. Salads are celebrations of the half-acre organic garden that González also oversees. Lovely beet leaves mix with more traditional lettuces and other fresh vegetables to create a salad as delectable visually as it is to the palate.
The peach-palm fruit, pejibaye, typically eaten in Costa Rica with mayonnaise gets special treatment as an appetizer called pejibaye ceviche. Despite the name, it includes no fish. However, González’s rendition will convert anyone who has never liked the rich, nutty flavor of pejibaye.
Main dishes sampled were a tasty tilapia and pasta with fresh, macadamia-nut pesto.
To end the night, we selected the tres leches cake that proved to be another unique twist on the traditional. González uses coconut milk to give the cake a Caribbean flavor and a result my companion and I agreed was the best tres leches we’d ever had.
His sincerity was evident when González said, “If you don’t cook with passion it’s not going to taste good.”
Besides eating and enjoying nature, another way to pamper yourself at El Silencio is to partake of their natural and specialized spa services. The spa is located at a bend in the river and the adjoining yoga platform is wrapped in the sounds of the gently flowing water.
Services include facials, body treatments and a variety of massages, featuring natural products made from ingredients such as coffee, banana, papaya and honey. An unusual aspect of the spa is a specially designed conical room. The high, pointy-ceiling room is said to be inspired by the indigenous and the shape is purported to channel positive energies while aiding the detoxification of the body.
Camacho described the experience, “I don’t really believe in energy. That’s the truth, but once you lie down there, you feel different… it’s really interesting.”
During lunch the next day, Gómez, the general manager, spoke in more detail about the lodge’s commitment to responsible tourism.
Like its sister hotel on the Pacific Ocean, El Silencio’s business model includes local hiring and purchasing policies, community development programs and environmental stewardship.
“What we definitely want to support are the local enterprises,” Gómez said.
So far the hotel is buying fish from local fish farms, candles from an area candle maker and has hired 85 percent of its employees from the region. The spa is working to produce a line of natural beauty products as well. There is room for improvement in this area, as the bathrooms are currently stocked with L’Occitane products, which are far from local.
Gómez rattled off the many other environmental projects focusing on reducing the hotel’s carbon output that are being instituted. Plastic bottles are not used and natural spring water is filtered and treated for general use. Gray water goes to an onsite water treatment plant.
Leftover food items are composted or sent to a neighbor who raises pigs. Recyclables are sent to a person in town. Cleaning supplies are natural and eco-friendly and artificial lighting is limited so as not to disturb wildlife.
Future plans include experiments with wind power and hydroelectricity on the property.
“Nature here is so rich that we must make sure we don’t cause any pollution,” Gómez explained in summary of their efforts to develop a culture of responsible tourism.
The afternoon of checkout, we discover there is one more part of the lodge’s environmental initiative: a reforestation project that allows guests to actively participate. On our way out we’re given a baby oak to plant anywhere on the property.
The tiny tree is a sweet memory as we drive away in our SUV headed back to the congested highway that leads to San José.n
Getting There, Rates, Info
Drive north to Sarchí, turn at Pali supermarket following signs to the Jardín Botánico. Continue past the garden and follow the winding, steep mountainous road 20-25 kilometers until you see the entrance for El Silencio lodge on the right. Just outside the town of Bajos del Toro.
Rates in the high season for a double run at $240 per person with a two-night minimum stay required.
Price includes three daily meals a la carte and nonalcoholic beverages. Included in the room rate are the services of an “eco-concierge” and one guided hiking tour per party.
No children under 8 years old.
Phone number and Web site: www.elsilenciolodge.com 2291-3044