Most travelers equate Costa Rica with its ecolodges, which are properties that are committed to conservation, financially supporting nearby communities, educating clients and treading gently on their surroundings. For the most part, lodges tend to be in natural settings, resorts are along the beach and hotels are the cities, though the terms are often used interchangeably.
Here's a rundown of lodging choices in Costa Rica.
Just because your hotel is near a tree or two, calling it an ecolodge doth not make it so.
Many small inns, hotels and lodges around the world have adopted the buzzword, but few actually are ecolodges in the truest sense. It's different in Costa Rica. This is one of the few nations that has a certification program in place; since 1997, lodges have had to meet certain standards enforced by the Costa Rica Tourism Board to receive one to five stars.
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One of the most luxurious and sustainable of the bunch is Lapa Rios, which the certification board calls "a model ecotourism project." The five-star lodge has 16 low-impact bungalows on a private tropical rain forest reserve and emphasizes the importance of sustainability to both guests and employees. (Check out our Lapa Rios review.)
The ultimate way to arrive at another five-star-certified ecolodge is by whitewater rafting in. That's how you access the Pacuare Lodge, which sits on the banks of a river of the same name in the Talamanca Mountains. Local Cabecar Indians crafted the lodge's 13 cabins, and the lodge supports monkey reintroduction work in the surrounding rain forests, among many examples of its commitment to sustainability.
Arenal Observatory Lodge is a particularly famous ecolodge in Costa Rica. It sits on a ridge 1.7 miles from Arenal, one of the most active volcanoes in the world. (Since 1998 there have only been two evacuations from the region because of one-day eruptions -- so while there is some risk in being that close to an active volcano, recent history has proved it to be minimal.)
Beyond the big-name lodges, there are many more where locals are trying to make a positive impact on their communities and environment. They may not have the resources to pump into big initiatives like the larger lodges, but they are still worthy of your tourism dollars.
Note: A lodge's star rating will tell you its sustainability score, not the level of amenities the property offers. For example, the Four Seasons Resort at Papagayo is rated two stars for sustainability, but clearly we know that resort offers the best of the best in terms of service, food, amenities and activities.
Use the links below to evaluate a property's eco-rating, but then go to the lodge's Web site to examine whether it offers all you're seeking in a place to stay.
Costa Rica Ecolodge Resources:
Certification for Sustainable Tourism
Costa Rica Tourist Board's List of Certified Hotels
Global chain brands, such as Marriott, Radisson, Crowne Plaza and Hyatt, have standard hotels in and around the city of San Jose. Essentially, these hotels accommodate travelers for the nights before or after a flight from the second-busiest airport in Central America, Juan Santamaria International Airport. Unless they're there on business, most travelers don't stay for more than a night. Near Liberia Airport, there's a Hilton and a Hilton Garden Inn.
There are locally owned hotels, too. The Hotel Grano de Oro is one; it's close to downtown San Jose but distant enough to avoid the city noise. The 40-room Victorian mansion has lovely tropical nuances, including landscaped courtyards and pretty balconies, and is close to restaurants. It's frequently voted among the top five hotels in all of Central America. (Check rates at the Hotel Grano de Oro.)
Boutique hotels are the latest trend in Costa Rica; the tourist board has even started highlighting them on its website. Villa Caletas, for example, is nestled in a lush, cliffside rain forest overlooking the Central Pacific Coast. Nayara Hotel, Spa and Gardens in La Fortuna overlooks the famous Arenal Volcano. (See our review of Nayara Hotel, Spa and and Gardens.)
Costa Rica Hotel Resources:
Getting Around Costa Rica
If being pampered at a posh beachside resort is in order for your vacation, you can stay at one of Costa Rica's resorts. Many specialize in golf, spa treatments or family activities; some even have casinos.
The regions of Guanacaste and Puntarenas are best known for their resort hotels, including nearly a dozen all-inclusives operated by such brands as Barcelo, Occidental, Doubletree and Hotel Rui. The Four Seasons Resort at Peninsula Papagayo in Guanacaste is one of the most luxurious.
But beachside resorts don't need to be over the top. At the family-owned Ylang-Ylang Beach Resort in Montezuma, for example, you can sleep in a geodesic domed bungalow mere steps from where the sand meets the sea.
Costa Rica Resort Resources:
Delve into the culture of Costa Rica, enjoy home-cooked meals and practice your Spanish by arranging a homestay.
Seven families in the community of San Gerardo de Rivas in south-central Costa Rica, for example, have formed an organization to welcome tourists into their homes. Besides living shoulder to shoulder with a family, you can participate in a variety of community activities. These include visits to a coffee farm, guided wildlife walks through the cloud forest, cheesemaking classes and horseback riding. You can also volunteer in the community.
Many individuals also market their own homes, with basic, comfortable rooms priced as low as $14 a night. Keep in mind, though, that many properties are far from the beaten tourist path, so homestays are often best for those who have rented vehicles. (Learn more about Homestays and Farmstays.)
Costa Rica Homestay Resources:
Most rental homes in Costa Rica are maintained to similar high standards as you'd find in the United States. Some are one-off homes on private properties, while others are in condo-like communities. The region surrounding Manuel Antonio National Park and the tourist beach town of Tamarindo have the most vacation homes for rent. (See our tips for Finding a Vacation Rental.)
Costa Rica Vacation Home Rentals:
True natural history lovers may wish to stay at scientific research or educational facilities in Costa Rica.
The Organization for Tropical Studies is a nonprofit consortium of more than 63 universities and institutions that conduct research in the rain forests. The organization owns three research facilities, all of which open their dorm-style rooms and cafeterias to tourists interested in science.
The most popular one is La Selva Biological Station, located at the northern base of Braulio Carrillo National Park along the Caribbean side. The two other facilities are Las Cruces Biological Station along the southern Pacific slope and within the Amistad Biosphere Reserve, and Palo Verde Biological Station in Palo Verde National Park in the northwestern Pacific lowlands. The latter is the least visited.
Rates are less than $95 a night and include lodging, three meals, taxes and one guided tour. Additional guided tours, including birding walks and hikes in search of nocturnal wildlife, are available for additional fees. You may have the chance to interact with scientists at the facility, including attending lectures, but for the most part tourists do not participate in scientific research.
Visitors can also stay overnight at the Sloth Sanctuary near Cahuita; the rehabilitation and research center has six large but basic rooms.
Costa Rica Scientific Facilities:
Ots.ac.cr (Organization for Tropical Studies)
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--written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma
Editor's Note: IndependentTraveler.com is published by The Independent Traveler, Inc., a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network.