An Ecotourism Adventure: Lapa Rios Ecolodge

by Dr. Jessie Voigts /
Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture
May 16, 2008 / 0 comments

lapa rios

Lapa Rios













The best way to learn about a place is to truly experience it. Add in ethical travel practices via ecotourism and sustainable travel, and you've got a heck of a trip! After perusing the website for a Costa Rican Ecolodge called Lapa Rios, I was hooked. I recently sat down to talk with Millay Kogan, Sustainability Coordinator for Cayuga Sustainable Hospitality about the Lapa Rios Ecolodge. I have to say, this is one place that I can't WAIT to go to!


WE: Tell us a little bit about Lapa Rios...


MK: Set in a private nature reserve spread over 1,000 acres of Central America's last remaining lowland tropical rainforest in Costa Rica, Lapa Rios Ecolodge overlooks the pristine point where the Golfo Dulce meets the Pacific Ocean. Wildlife is abundant and a key feature of the Lapa Rios experience; exotic animals such as toucans, monkeys, scarlet macaws and sloths are only a few of the thousands of species to be found on the Osa Peninsula, one of the most biodiverse areas of the world. It is this combination of pristine beauty and abundant wildlife, coupled with its leadership in environmental stewardship and social responsibility, that truly makes Lapa Rios stand out as an ideal destination for travelers from around the world.


Originally, Lapa Rios was built by John and Karen Lewis as a private nature reserve. A Minnesota couple driven by a vision, John and Karen liquidated all their assets to finance the purchase of a large tract of rainforest and to build the small supporting tourism project. Today, Lapa Rios contains 16 private, thatched-roof bungalows with a full service restaurant and maintains a conservation easement elaborated by The Nature Conservancy and Cederena to ensure that this private reserve will be preserved into perpetuity.


For the past sixteen years, the privately financed Lapa Rios Ecolodge has become more than just a beautiful rainforest hotel or eco resort next to the beach. With over 50 employees and more than 9,000 guests visiting the lodge yearly, Lapa Rios is a model ecotourism project that strives to show both its guests, its employees and the surrounding community that “a forest left standing is more valuable than one cut down”.

WE: It seems that ecotourism is the newest and most important aspect of global travel. Can you tell us a bit more about how Lapa Rios is part of that?


MK: Lapa Rios Ecolodge was one of the first properties in the world to promote the ideals embraced by ecotourism; with almost 60 employees, it is a model ecotourism project that strives to show both its guests, its employees and the surrounding community that conservation and sustainable development truly are a feasible, and more importantly, desireable option for development.

Receiving five leaves from Costa Rica´s renown Certificate for Sustainable Tourism (CST), Lapa Rios works rigorously, and systematically, to include sustainability and conservation in its daily business practices, showing both the surrounding community, the tourism industry and the business community in general, that luxury, sustainability, conservation and community development truly can go hand-in-hand.


Lapa Rios

WE: I see that Lapa Rios has a school. Can you please let us know more about this? How can we help?


MK: The Carbonera School is located on the Osa Peninsula in southwestern Costa Rica, nearby the famed Corcovado National Park. The Peninsula has always been considered the most rural and least developed region in Costa Rica; there is no electrical or telephone service, no water or sewage system and the area contains only a single primitive road winding through the area. In January 1991, when John and Karen Lewis began Lapa Rios, there was no school in the nearby community; as a result, most children in the area did not attend school, as the closest primary school was located in Puerto Jimenez. In an effort to help the community, John and Karen Lewis met with a group of neighbors to discuss the idea of opening up a school. After years of hard work, the Carbonera School was built and still stands (and operates) today.


When Lapa Rios was originally built, most families living in the Carbonera area lived on small farms in simple huts with dirt floors. Very few had running water and none had electricity. Most families living in the area worked as tenant farmers or squatters, simply surviving off of the food they raised (mostly beans and corn). Using slash and burn techniques, these farmers continued to deplete the rain forest and, when the land became infertile, they were taught to cut down even more forest. To earn spending money for essentials men often worked as laborers, stooped under the hot tropical sun with machetes in hand, clearing grass and brush for large-tract land owners and preparing fields for rice or pulp trees. Only some local people in the Carbonera area respected and understood the rich bio-diversity of the region and the opportunities conservation offers.


These days, most of the families living close to the Carbonera School work as guards and/or maintenance personnel for vacation homes owned by foreigners. While many of the families living in the area have stopped their traditional slash and burn farming techniques (due to the pressure of outsiders and governmental officials), education remains a vital tool to ensure the survival of this precious and unique ecosystem. With access to education, the local people can learn alternatives methods to the traditional “slash and burn” agriculture techniques, the importance and significance of biodiversity and to truly appreciate and understand that a forest left standing is more valuable than one cut down. If you would like to support the Carbonera School and other rural schools in the Osa Peninsula, please make your tax deductible contributions to:

La Asociación de EducaciónUSA "Mail Drop"
Box 025216-SJO 706
Miami, FL 33102-5216

WE: What sort of activities are available at Lapa Rios? Is it an all-encompassing vacation spot, i.e., activities, food, etc.?

MK: While the services, amenities, comfort and quality of food served in Brisa Azul restaurant are truly outstanding, it is Lapa Rios´commitment to sustainability, to maintain the surrounding environment and to support the local community that truly set it apart from its competitors. Lapa Rios´commitment to sustainability touches on everything from maintaining its 1,000 acre private reserve and training members of the local community, to using only biodegradable soaps and cleaning products and supporting local schools in the surrounding Osa Peninsula. Guests who stay at Lapa Rios Ecolodge are given a truly unique opportunity: the chance to interact and experience a different natural and environment and culture like no other.


Activities offered by the property include nature tours in the private reserve, typical dance performances, the chance to plant trees in our volunteer rainforest, tours of Corcovado National Park, a nearby animal sanctuary and a local family farm. Additionally, guests are encouraged to participate in the “Living Green Tour”, a tour that exposes guests to the inner workings and sustainability practices of Lapa Rios that make it so unique, examining everything from solar panels to locally woven suiita-thatched roofs. Lapa Rios has been awarded five leaves from Costa Rica´s prestigious Certification for Sustainable Tourism, an award for Corporate Excellence from the U.S. State Department and recognition from the Rainforest Alliance (to name just a few). It is this ability to combine a strong commitment to environmental stewardship and social responsibility, while still maintaining a high level of service and quality that truly make Lapa Rios stand apart from its competition.

WE: Are children welcome? Are there educational programs/activities for children?

MK: Lapa Rios is an excellent vacation spot for families, providing both children and adults the opportunity to get in touch with nature and local communities. For children, we recommend the all activities, particularly the Kids Rainforest Hike, visits to the nearby Carbonera School and the Caña Blanca Sanctuary Tour (which allows children to hold monkeys!).

Lapa Rios


WE: What sorts of accommodations do you have for people with disabilities?


MK: Due to its remote location, site construction (Lapa Rios is constructed on a ridge overlooking the Pacific Ocean), and focus on active, outdoor activities, people with disabilities may encounter some difficulties while staying on property. Nonetheless, we are very accommodating to those with disabilities and do our best to meet the needs of every individual who comes to visit us.

WE: I think that Costa Rica is a gorgeous, amazing place. How did you decide to settle there?


MK: The vision for Lapa Rios came from Karen and John Lewis, a couple from Minnesota who came to Costa Rica for the first time on a bird watching expedition. With their confidence bolstered by their experiences as high school educators in the Peace Corps. (Kenya, 1968-70), John, a trial attorney, and Karen, a professional musician, organist, and teacher, decided to start a small tourism project for environmentally-conscious travelers, particularly for those international guests looking for a destination that was more off the beaten track.


To finance the building of Lapa Rios, they sold their house and possessions, liquidated their pension and profit sharing plan and moved to Costa Rica to develop and build their dream. They searched for and purchased land now known as Lapa Rios on the southwestern Pacific coast of Costa Rica. With the assistance of David Andersen, a Minnesota architect, and Alvaro Poveda, a Costa Rican engineer, the Lewises acted as general contractors to build Lapa Rios with community laborers using local renewable materials. They established Lapa Rios as a 14-room upscale ecolodge following the guidelines and principles then espoused by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and The International Ecotourism Society (TIES).

WE: You must have a high demand for your hotel. How far in advance should people book out? How many days do you recommend people stay, in order to get the most relaxing and educational experience? And what season is best for a visit?


MK: Our space tends to fill up 2 - 6 months in advance and for some periods even earlier than that. We would recommend that you investigate space availability now and if you think you would like to come and stay with us make a reservation now to guarantee the dates that you want.

We must advise you that we do not recommend less than 4 nights at Lapa Rios for anyone who is arriving or leaving by plane. It is too short a time for most people given the experience encountered here and the variety of things to do and see. November through March is our busiest season; during this time, rainfall is very infrequent and weather tends to be very warm. Mid May-October is known as our “green season”, where afternoon rainfall is more common. Both seasons are an excellent time to visit Lapa Rios.

Lapa Rios aerial view



WE: Thank you, Millay. I have to say, we can't wait to visit! I appreciate you taking the time to share about Lapa Rios and Costa Rican ecotourism with us!


For more information on Lapa Rios Ecolodge, please see their website at