Sunday, July 29, 2007
WHAT: Lookout Inn, a small eco-friendly rain-forest resort.
WHERE: Puntarenas, Costa Rica, on the Osa Peninsula, about 90 miles southwest of San Jose.
WHY GO: To find a thrill or just chill in a spot where monkeys are invited to breakfast.
"Why is the ocean so loud?"
That's about the only complaint Terry Conroy says he has ever heard in the years he's been running the eight-room Lookout Inn. The tough customer (a New Yorker) was staying in one of the inn's tiki huts, the tented tree houses exposed to eye-level views of the abundant wildlife and sparkling Pacific below.
The pounding surf does come in loud and clear, but giant waves are a main attraction for most visitors. "People do their homework, so they know what to expect," Conroy says. Or rather what not to expect -- TVs, telephones, air conditioning or private bathrooms. But with hardwood floors, tasteful furnishings and fresh flowers, the "tents" are hardly roughing it, and private cabins are available for the less adventurous.
What savvy travelers do expect is the perfect jump-off point to Corcovado National Park, which National Geographic describes as "the most biologically intense place on Earth."
The peninsula is the last undeveloped frontier in a country increasingly overrun with condominiums, hotel chains and fast-food joints. Preservation efforts have made the area home to many endangered species -- and the country's largest population of the threatened scarlet macaw, a bright red bird. A sign offers a free night at the inn if you don't see one during your stay (a deal Conroy's never had to make good on), and bananas are set out for the monkeys' breakfasts to ensure their regular appearances, too. The area is also crawling with crocodiles, jaguars, tapirs and those red-eyed, green tree frogs that are practically a national symbol.
It wasn't as mosquito-infested as I'd expected, but the insects are just as plentiful and impressive as the rest of the critters. The beds are sufficiently netted, but while the outdoor bathrooms are a fun idea -- and the toilet view is spectacular -- expect to get swarmed when you flick on the lights at night and to find some little bodies stuck in your toothbrush in the morning. As squeamish as I am, I couldn't help but marvel at how big and bizarre some of the insects were. The giant moths, in particular, are stunning.
The Lookout offers bargain rates, but its location is the most desirable real estate on the peninsula. The inn's 11 acres include manicured gardens, a small but lovely pool, a cascading hot tub and a 227-step "Stairway to Heaven" that leads to triple waterfalls.
Conroy, a young-looking 54, provides yoga mats and exercise space on the top deck of the inn, which is designed to blend in with the scenery. Indeed, the dense jungle so completely camouflages the few tent camps and homes around the nearby tiny village of Carate that it's easy to imagine yourself on a deserted isle. A development moratorium along the coast aims to keep it that way.
All that remoteness, however, comes at a price: The closest airport is 25 miles away in Puerto Jimenez. Then it's either a costly charter flight to Carate's tiny airstrip or an hour-and-a-half ride on what's been dubbed the "punishing road." It was even tougher when Conroy and his partner, Wendy Dearth, decided to move there in 1996. The couple stayed in a tiny trailer while they built the house, living without running water, electricity or any communication with the outside world. "It was like 'Gilligan's Island' for some time," Conroy says.
The inn's solar-power system keeps the lights on during power outages; there are also 110-volt outlets, a satellite phone and a burglar alarm in every room. Costa Rica has been spared the kind of violent tourist attacks that plague its neighbors, but reports suggest such crimes are on the rise. Conroy says most crime is just petty theft from cars, but knife-wielding robbers did break into the room of a couple staying in a nearby lodge a month before our stay. (Thankfully, it was only after my return that I read a heart-stopping account of the attack in a travel blog.)
Meals are family-style -- or private, if guests prefer. Not to be missed is the chat with Conroy and his sous-chefs at the kitchen-side bar while they whip up dinners -- which are surprisingly fresh, given the ingredients' long journey. Conroy manages the limitations by making delicious meals of one night's leftovers for the next day's breakfast or lunch, always served with breads baked on-site, locally made cheese (which Conroy spices or smokes), fresh fruit and salads.
November is the wettest month, and a downpour kept me indoors on one of our few precious days there. Conroy tried to console me with reminders that heavy rains nurture the forest's charms and that I could entertain myself with yoga or a hot tub soak. I wasn't sold, but at least the deluge drowned out that infernal crashing of the waves.
-- Gretchen Cook
Rates at the Lookout Inn start at $119 per person double (tiki huts) and top out at $150 per person for a garden cabin. Rates include all meals. Area activities include surfing, diving, sportfishing, kayaking, mountain biking and horseback riding. Info: 815-955-1520, http://www.lookout-inn.com; check the Web site for directions on how to get there, including details on flights from San Jose.