Playa Cativo: In the thick of the rain forest, a culinary revolution

April 30, 2015
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The sounds of nature are the only sounds at Playa Cativo Lodge. No honking horns, no music from a neighbor’s house, no braking trucks in the distance. Instead, it’s all howler monkeys, toucans and the soft rumble of the surf.

It makes sense. Playa Cativo Lodge sits amid a 400-hectare private rain-forest reserve on the Golfo Dulce; the hotel and grounds take up just 1 percent of this sprawling property. Adding to the remote feel is the surrounding lands: Cativo is surrounded by Piedras Blancas National Park, which extends over 130 square km.

 

This really is in the middle of the rainforest.

This really is in the middle of the rain forest.

 

People flock to Costa Rica from around the world to experience Costa RIca’s intense flora and fauna. After all, this tiny country represents less than 1 percent of the world’s landmass but some 5 percent of its biodiversity.

It’s evident. An early morning bird-watching hike with guide Gerardo brought over 50 species into focus. Coatis roam the property. Howler monkeys call from nearby trees. Toucans and scarlet macaws caw at dusk.

The bird-watching is spectacular. Costa Rica has long been high up on birders’ lists, with 898 recorded species. Just in the Piedras Blancas area, over 360 species have been recorded.

An eagle-eyed bird enthusiast can find species in nearby wetlands, beaches, grasslands, mountains, and there are a number of migratory species. The natural world is very much present, and Costa Rica has done a great job attracting tourists to experience the nature.

People do not, however, often come to Costa RIca for its cuisine. Playa Cativo Lodge’s head chef, Victor Castaneda,  wants to change that. “I want Costa Rica to become a culinary destination, much as Peru did in the 1990s, and Mexico in the 2000s,” Castaneda said. And that’s not just talk — he has a plan.

 

Chef Victor Castaneda prepares dishes at Playa Cativo Lodge.

Chef Victor Castaneda prepares dishes at Playa Cativo Lodge.

 

“I’ve been working to bring back many of Costa Rica’s traditional dishes and flavors,” he said. “Costa Rican cuisine traditionally has been light, with local ingredients. We try to take that further by taking our guests on a journey.”

The journey is more than just an explosion of fresh, local flavor. The dishes at Cativo take guests through Costa Rica’s landscapes. “I try to take guests to different places around Costa Rica through the presentation of our dishes,” Castaneda said. “It’s a journey of both flavor and presentation. These are the traditional dishes that we Costa Ricans eat with our families. You can taste and visualize places all around Costa Rica through our dishes.”

 

This dish, called "Under the Waves," speaks to the region's connection with the sea.

This dish, called “Under the Waves,” speaks to the region’s connection with the sea.

 

One would hardly expect such a well-executed, high-concept restaurant in the middle of the rain forest. Cativo is accessible only by boat. So instead of going to the supermarket, it has its own on-site farm that produces much of what shows up on your plate. It doesn’t get any fresher than that.

In order to keep in line with the region’s strong tradition of conservation, Playa Cativo Lodge uses 100 percent clean energy from solar panels and a micro hydroelectric generator. The water comes from a natural rain-forest spring. And 90 percent of the 100 percent Costa Rican staff come from surrounding communities.

“We hope that our hotel serves as a model for other communities,” says Luis Pardo, the lodge’s general manager. “Nature is part of who we are, and you can see that in our design and philosophy.”

 

Playa Cativo Lodge's rooms offer rustic luxury.

Playa Cativo Lodge’s rooms offer rustic luxury.

 

Indeed, the gently crashing surf, the orchestra of the rain forest, and wildlife in its natural element provide the entertainment. (There is a library with a television if you can’t bear to miss “Game of Thrones.”) Massive, paneless windows surround each room, offering a front-row seat to every day’s show.

It sounds rustic, but it’s all very carefully crafted. Local art adorns the hallways and walls; the tropical hardwood construction is masterfully built; and the finishes are worthy of any high-end hotel.

It’s a well-put-together offering in Costa Rica’s southern zone. Castaneda sums it up nicely: “When you’re inspired by your country, only beautiful things come from your hands.”

 

The greatest show on Earth, every night around 6:00 pm.

The greatest show on Earth, every night around 6:00 pm.

 

How to get there: Flights leave several times daily from San Jose to either Golfito or Puerto Jimenez on Sansa (www.flysansa.com) and Nature Air (www.natureair.com). Flights take around 45 minutes. Once in Golfito or Puerto Jimenez, Playa Cativo Lodge’s representatives will pick you up for a boat transfer to the property.

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