Behind the scenes at Lapa Rios Eco Lodge and other Cayuga Hotels in Costa Rica

Last month, we had Matthew from New York City do an internship with us.  He got curious about Cayuga and what we do in Central America during his honeymoon at Jicaro Island Ecolodge in Nicaragua.  Here is his wrap up from his internship:

Lapa Rios Osa Peninsula
Matthew with the waitstaff at Lapa Rios Ecolodge on the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica

I just finished a two week internship at Lapa Rios and Cayuga Sustainable Hotels and want to share how it went.  I had previously been guest at Cayuga”™s property, Jicaro, their Nicarago ecoresort, and have traveled extensively throughout Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Costa Rica, but this was Latin America and the Costa Rica rainforest from a whole new perspective! When I set off for Costa Rica this time, I had three personal goals to accomplish.

  • Learn how Cayuga is creating such an incredible guest experience
  • Understand the keys to running a sustainable business model
  • Make new friends, discover an off the beaten track (STUNNING!) part of Costa Rica and Costa Rica wildlife, and improve my Spanish.

So how did it go? And where to start?!

First, let”™s dispel a myth about traveling during the Green Season in Costa Rica.   Its amazing.   Sunny, beautiful mornings with tons of time for hiking, and then beautiful tropical rainshowers for an hour or two in the afternoon, or at night while you sleep.   One of my favorite memories from my trip was going outside onto my deck while it was pouring rain and taking a shower in my outdoor shower without needing to turn on the water.   Amazing.   And with the rain comes a boom in the entire rainforest eco system, which means wildlife is alive and everywhere.

Golfo Dulce near Lapa Rios
This is the view on my way to work every day: The Golfo Dulce and Pacific Ocean

Lapa Rios is the flagship Cayuga property that has inspired many of the Cayuga values found across the curated portfolio.   Its owners built Lapa Rios as a conservation project first and a luxury ecolodge second ““ very rare.   A stay at Lapa Rios is both a unique luxury experience but also a gesture and contribution towards protecting one of the world”™s most important untouched primary rainforests.   If you have only been to secondary rainforests around the world, then you have to travel here to see the difference in flora and fauna ““ you”™ll see scarlet macaws that only live where there are primary canopies in which to perch.

The eco lodge is truly a 5 star eco lodge destination. The property is pitched high up on a tropical bluff right where the Golfo Dulce and the Pacific meet ““ from the open air dining room, the pool, and the rooms, you have views of water and rainforest mountainsides everywhere you look.   Constantly I would turn a corner and feel like I was in a James Bond movie.

I spent a day with the culinary team behind the scenes and over the course of the two weeks, had a chance to sample most of their menu ““ their fish, which comes only from sustainable sources, was truly excellent.   The beef tenderloin was delicious, and many of their soups (sopitas!) are well tailored for the climate like the refreshing lime cucumber soup.     (Thank you Rebecca and your whole team for welcoming me with my daily set of 100 questions right in the middle of lunch service!)

Lapa Rios Eco Lodge
An office with a view. Quite different from a New York City Office.

I had been to Jicaro, their island ecolodge in Nicaragua, where my husband and I were also blown away by the cuisine (if you go there, my perfect day would be Coconut French Toast with Pineapple syrup for breakfast, Pork Vigaron for Lunch, and then Plantain Lasagna or the Rum Caramel Chicken for Dinner.   Just go on a volcano hike, start the day with a private yoga class, or take out the kayaks on the lake to work up your appetite)

I had a chance to spend a few days traveling up the coast to two more properties ““ Kura Design Villas in Uvita on the southern Pacific coast of Costa Rica and Arenas del Mar in Manuel Antonio.   At Kura they have an excellent menu of fresh juices, smoothies, and cocktails tailored to their vibe of a stunning relaxing destination.   The kitchen at Arenas del Mar invites guest chefs from around the world to cook and teach during regular culinary events ““ they recently had Jen Carroll of Top Chef (from Le Bernadin in NYC).   My favorite of their dishes was the 16 hour roasted beet ““ one of those dishes that you would force your friends to order at your favorite restaurant even when they look skeptical.     Later this year, they are having a week long gluten-free event where the entire hotel will produce gluten-free menus and guests with celiac can experience a stay in beautiful Manuel Antonio without worrying about cross-contamination.

Kura, Uvita, Costa Rica
Alejandra, the General Manager and Co Owner of Kura Design Villas in Uvita

My younger sister has celiac so I was personally touched by this and want to send her there for the event as a gift! Back at Lapa Rios, behind the scenes, the kitchen is dedicated to minimizing waste.     Guests order dinner in the morning at breakfast and the ingredients are sourced at just the right quantities.   Organic food waste is collected and fed to pigs who are part of a closed loop system that produces methane gas that is stored and used for cooking.

At Lapa Rios, I had the chance to stay in a casita ““ I want to design a country home one day to mirror the casitas.   They are fully screened in on 3 sides (with views all around) to allow natural flow of air ““ no air conditioning needed and in fact on one or two nights I pulled out the blanket ““ for a destination that can reach 90 degrees in the middle of the day ““ that”™s intelligent design!   While you are sleeping in bed within the comfort of your mosquito net, you have this feeling of being outdoors in the middle of the jungle.   There are a few other surprises in the rooms, like special touches at turndown service, but I don”™t want to ruin all the fun for those of you reading this who are planning on going.

Lapa Rios Costa Rica
Path to the bungalows at Lapa Rios.  Stair climbing required to get around!

There are a few differences between the way Cayuga structures their hotel teams and what you might find at a bigger company.   Cayuga is a hard core ecotourism hotel group. First of all, they have teams dedicated to operations, housekeeping, sustainability, guest experience, food and beverage, and human resources.   Whats missing from the list? Marketing.   The Cayuga business model is about creating customer experiences that are so exceptional, they have built a healthy business from word of mouth – guests telling their friends and family, travel agents and guide books so enamored by what they find that they know it will be good for their business to send their clients to Lapa Rios.

The money that other brands might be spending on marketing and advertising can instead be invested into the community, the environment, or back into the guest experience itself.    The teams themselves are almost 100% local, from Costa Rica (or Nicaragua at Jicaro).   Cayuga is leading the way in Costa Rica sustainable ecotourism: they hire locals and teach them new skills, but also engage in employment practices not common throughout Latin America, such as retaining their entire staff all year long, even during the low season when they are less busy. This is critical ““ hotels that hire and fire based on customer demand are creating unstable local economies.   A Cayuga hotel presence in a community means the employees of that hotel have consistent income to support their families and which can be spent in their local economy.
Danny Jimenez has been with Lapa Rios Eco Lodge for over 18 years

Another practice I took away was the focus on thrilling each and every guest.   If you”™ve stayed at a Cayuga hotel and filled out the satisfaction survey at the end of your stay, rest assured every single score and comment is recorded, read (generally within less than a day), and taken into consideration.   Lapa Rios only considers their guest scores to be good if they are a 9 or a 10.   Anything lower and they work to correct the issue asap.   The scores are generally high but they hold themselves to a world class standard ““ so even small suggestions are immediately reviewed for action.   The management teams work hard to be present throughout the hotel during the day so they can get to know guests, share stories with each other, and to help customize the experience   – If guests are there for a honeymoon, a family trip, or for adventure, the entire hotel coordinates together to subtly adjust.

Internal guest reports are created before arrival, studied, and then updated multiple times per day throughout the guest stay ““ every department has a copy and so the whole Lapa Rios team knows the guests.  One example I experienced was everyone on staff knew about my nut allergy.   If a manager was recommending a favorite dish in the restaurant, they would always say ” I love this, and its safe for you to eat.”   When the waiters would serve me, they would always present my dish as being ” nut free” to ensure I was at ease.   It was amazing.

Breakfast at Lapa Rios
The favorite meal of the day. Breakfast at Brisa Azul Restaurant

Another guest experience takeaway was the concept of ” ELCR” ““ experience, learn, connect, relax.   These 4 pillars are used to create the Cayuga guest experience at each hotel, while the execution of the pillars will be unique at each.   The idea behind this is to create a vacation that goes beyond just sitting at a chain resort where you almost can”™t tell it apart from the same chain resort in a totally different part of the world.   The goal is for guests to arrive at a Cayuga hotel and have easy access to tailored experiences that can range from unique Costa Rican birding, adventurous rainforest hiking or waterfall rappelling, to yoga and massage.     Guests will also learn something new ““ about nature, about themselves, and about the culture around them, genuinely have a chance to regularly connect with locals like the hotel teams and tour guides, guest classes, or visiting a local school.   And then as anyone would want from a luxury vacation, guests relax with great food, luxurious, locally designed accomodations with a local sense of place, in beautiful surroundings ““ from the pool, a hammock, or wandering on a remote beach lost in paradise.

Scarlet Macaws on the Osa Peninsula
Wildlife is abundant at Lapa Rios. Check out the Scarlet Macaws.

I got to experience ELCR on steroids by working with the teams.   I went sunrise bird watching, swam in rainforest waterfalls, and attended a night lecture at Lapa Rios on the Osa Conservation project to track the puma population of the Osa peninsula.    I also got to meet many of the guests ““ Lapa Rios attracts a very adventurous, laid back, awesome clientele (if I do say so myself”¦!).

We timed my internship to kick off with the Lapa Rios annual Lapathon charity run.   They had hundreds of local residents an their children sign up.   I volunteered to work the kids starting line.   We had a great time, and together we beat our goal and raised over $5,000 ““ enough to buy a defilibrator for the local ambulance and gynecological equipment for the local clinic.   I”™m glad they”™ll have the defilibrator for next year”™s Lapathon ““ it was super hot and kept asking to make sure it had been purchased and the batteries fully charged!

Lapathon at Lapa Rios
Start for the “kids” Lapathon of 3 km. Adults ran 10 km.

While I was at Lapa Rios, I met the new general manager of a brand new Cayuga Hotel and her husband.   Together with Daniel, the ELCR manager of Lapa Rios, they took me to a local event on sustainable farming.   This was a teaching event for farmers throughout the region and the group running it is looking to be sponsored by the UN!   I had a chance to plant parsley in the organic garden by the event, and learn techniques for sustainable farming that enable meaningful crop growth without harmful chemicals and without depleting soil nutrients.

I adopted sustainable practices at the hotel.   I used my re-usable water bottle throughout the whole stay, made sure all fans and lights were turned off, chargers completely unplugged from the wall when I left a room, used only biodegradable cosmetics, took cold showers, and left no trash.   I am noticing how these habits are sticking with me back home!   I”™m also noticing how hard it is to galvanize my friends and family to be more sustainable. Cayuga has created a culture where employees hold each other accountable for sustainability and you see the staff engage with each other on this every day.   I find in the US that doing the same thing can make you seem anti-social.   Its one of my reverse culture shock observations.

Guide at Lapa Rios
Matthew with one of the female guides at Lapa Rios Ecolodge.

I remember Hans Pfister, the president of Cayuga, telling me they severed their relationship with a property that used to be a Cayuga hotel partly because the owner was unwilling to adhere to their sustainability standards. Marijke, the general manager of Lapa Rios, took me on a 3 day trip to see two other Cayuga properties ““ Kura and Arenas del Mar.

All of the Cayuga hotels have the same core values but are totally different.   Lapa Rios for luxury adventure (rain forest honeymoon anyone?), Kura for cutting edge design and relaxing (maybe the best pool and luxury spa in Costa Rica), Arenas del Mar and Harmony are beach resorts but each beat to a different drum (Harmony for Costa Rica farm to table lunch, surfing, and yoga, Arenas del Mar to be able to just walk right from your room into Manuel Antonio National Park and its beaches) and Jicaro is kayaking, lake views, Mombacho volcano, cuisine, and relaxing.

Kura Design Villas
Kura Design Villas in Uvita. Modern look, but still a 100% focus on Sustainability.

Finca Rosa Blanca and Grano del Oro are great destinations if you pass through San Jose.   Grano del Oro has one of the most well known restaurants in the country, and Finca Rosa Blanca is a coffee plantation fairy tale that feels a hundred miles away from San Jose but is just 20 minutes to the airport ““ the organic coffee plantation tour there has stayed with me for years ““ I left the tour with an appreciation for how little consumers know about coffee production and quality compared with other foods.   For example, the two most important factors in coffee quality are the altitude where the coffee was grown (a little higher is better), and the date when the coffee was roasted (recent is better).   Very often, neither of these facts are featured on most coffee that is sold!   Coffee plants are also very hard on the soil, so to re-enrich the soil, organic plantations will inter mix banana plants into the soil which are complimentary to the coffee plants and create a sustainable ecosystem.

Back on the drive with Marijke from Lapa Rios to Kura, on the drive I got to learn her inspiring story (she is from Osa and spent her childhood in Belgium before moving   back when she started working at Lapa Rios at 17).  She showed me some of the most beautiful spots on the northern part of the Golfo Dulce.   We had lunch and met the owner of Kura – a hotel which is polar opposite to Lapa Rios, and so makes for a great combination vacation.   (One for luxury adventure, one to chill out ““ and both with breathtaking views).

Then we continued to Arenas del Mar where I got to see a totally different side of Costa Rica.   The beaches at Arenas del Mar are amazing and the hotel is right on the water with its own private beach. One morning I walked down the beach straight into Manuel Antonio park and went for a hike ““ the beaches in Manuel Antonio are stunning and very quiet for such a popular destination.   I loved it.

Local produce
Local produce is readily available everywhere in Costa Rica

I also had a chance to have dinner with the general manager, Jorge, his ELCR manager Estibaliz (who came from Lapa Rios).     That night we met the new openly gay minister of tourism and his partner who happened to be passing through.   Costa Rica is one of the most welcoming countries for gay people looking to travel more than just safely ““ but to really feel warmly welcomed.   It is a catholic country that is evolving quickly.   The new president just displayed an LGBTQ flag in his presidential office!

On my last night, I drove back to Puerto Jiminez, Costa Rica with Marijke and she and the team took me out for dinner and dancing in town.   They showed me how to salsa and merengue ““ we stayed out until 2am and I spent the night in a guest room at Marijke”™s beautiful home right in town ““ she has a view from her front porch of another rainforest that begins right in town.   Puerto Jiminez is one of those towns that you could drive through as an American and think it looks small and simple.   But below the surface are a group of Tico”™s who are passionate nature lovers living in a town with my new favorite pizzeria (PizzaMail) run by an Italian woman who came to Osa and never left (and I live in Brooklyn!), a Cevicheria that ranks in my top 5 anywhere in the world (Marbella), and a fun, local nightlife, with very few tourists.

Puerto Jimenez
Hitting the town in Puerto Jimenez near Lapa Rios Ecolodge with Marijke and other Lapa Rios staff members.

Its off the beaten track in such a good way.   If you”™re reading this, go! But only tell your favorite friends.   I owe special thanks to the entire Lapa Rios team ““who patiently spoke Spanish with me (Hazel, Arlette, Daniel, and Rebecca thank you!), taught me something new, and made me laugh, and I witnessed how passionate each and every one of them was to creating a truly incredible luxury eco resort experience for each guest. There are lessons from Cayuga that I will take with me anywhere I work and that I will apply in my own home.   I”™ve been reminded of the pleasure of a respectful and positive work culture focused on delighting the customer first, finances second.

I have experienced how sustainability can be deeply woven into a company and into my own daily practices. (this summer I am going to try to make my own takakura super express compost box at home ““ google it!).      I learned that we should never be too busy to stop and look at nature nor take it for granted ““ no matter how many monkeys or scarlet macaws you see, each one is different each time you have the fortune to see one. Last, I made unexpected new Tico friends in a beautiful country – they welcomed a stranger into their community, shared their passions, culture, and stories, made me smile for 14 days straight, and made it very hard to leave.  I will be back!

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