Green travel. Rarely are two words fraught with more potential for disappointment. We spent weeks of our road trip in Costa Rica checking out eco hotels, eco lodges and eco resorts and there were certainly disappointments. Selva Bananito Eco Lodge & Preserve was not one of them.
Off to a startling start
When the owner of a pioneering eco lodge and vast preserve in Costa Rica tells you he has a surprise for you the moment you arrive, the mind boggles. Even in our wildest dreams, however, we would never have guessed that Jurgen Stein, co-owner and manager of Selva Bananito Eco Lodge & Preserve, was about to point out one of the freakiest and hardest to spot birds in the world mere feet from the porch of our room.
The northern potoo is a night hunting bird that spends its days pretending to be a tree. Mottled feathers, the ability to hold perfectly still for hours on end and its oddly vertical physique allow it to hide in plain sight.
When we were done gawking at the potoo, Jurgen dropped another whammy: the room we were staying in was one of the first ones built when Selva Bananito opened in 1994. Seventeen years in the hot, damp rain forest environment is like 65 years in kinder climes. However, the breezy, spacious cabin looked polished and pristine.
All of the 11 cabins at the totally solar powered lodge were built using mahogany salvaged from trees left behind by previous logging on parts of the 99,000 acres (40,000 hectares) that make up the preserve. Each log was dragged into place by water buffalo, not destructive tractors.
The bathrooms are large and wonderfully tiled and the enormous showers are fitted with low-flow fixtures. The beds are super comfortable and come with mosquito nets (not really necessary) and blankets, which you will be grateful for when the temperature drops at night.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves
None of this would exist–no cabins, no rain forest, no potoo–if Jurgen’s father hadn’t seen the light. Back in the 1970s the German expat began homesteading 2,000 acres (800 hectares). Every year he was issued a logging permit that allowed him to cut down trees on 2/3 of his property. While he cleared some land to plant crops and put up buildings his children, including a very young Jurgen, started talking to him about conserving the land and making money with an eco lodge instead of a chain saw.
Their persistence ultimately paid off and the logging permit was never used. Instead, Jurgen’s father decided to forfeit his right to extract millions of dollars worth of mahogany and other trees on the property that go for up to US$25,000 per tree, in favor of conservation in an era where that word was not part of everyday conversation, even in Costa Rica.
The Selva Bananito property now harbors 250 species of tree, hundreds of species of birds and even jaguars. When we were at Selva Bananito the big cat protection and monitoring group Panthera was also there with special scat sniffing dogs doing a survey of jaguars on the property.
Just 10% of Selva Bananito’s land is used for the lodge, adventure activities and what’s left of the farming activities. This is particularly good news when you realize that an important watershed, serving thousands in the region, is also on Selva Bananito’s land. Jurgen and his sister, Sofia, have even formed the Limon Watershed Foundation to ensure its protection.
Every year since 2010 Selva Bananito has earned five green leaves, the highest eco level handed out by the Costa Rican government’s CST green travel rating association. However, Jurgen seems proudest of the many was Selva Bananito surpasses CST requirements like creating and bank rolling local eco education programs, printing their business cards on paper made from banana fiber waste from their plantation and their amazing zero-impact waste water reclamation system.
Our first ever Poop Tour
An 11 cabin lodge and kitchen produces a not insignificant amount of water waste from sinks, showers and toilets. Sure Selva Bananito uses natural chemical-free soap but they also treat all waste water, including water from toilets, using enzymes and a series of hyacinth-covered pools which naturally purifies it.
The simple but effective process was explained to us by Jurgen during what he calls his Poop Tour. It culminated at the last purification pool which holds the end product (sorry). This water is clean enough to drink as Jurgen, who studied acting and theater before turning to tourism and conservation, dramatically demonstrated. The water is so clean that frogs, some of the most environmentally sensitive animals on the planet, have moved into the purifying pools.
In-room entertainment, Selva Bananito style
In addition to the potoo, we were entertained by the antics of nesting woodpeckers, aracari couples darting in and out of holes in a tree trunk to feed their young, neon song birds darting from branch to bush, toucans, tanagers and more all seen just off our porch.
At dusk the brightest and fastest-blinking fireflies we’ve ever seen took over the sky. As they darted around it looked like the illuminated tips of 100 maestro’s wands conducting the day out and the night in. Selva Bananito may be a TV-free zone but that doesn’t mean there isn’t any in-room entertainment.
Adventures in the Selva Bananito Preserve
More wild entertainment awaited when we headed out into the preserve itself where we were treated to the spectacle of migrating broad shouldered hawks in numbers that literally filled the sky. They formed what looked like a moving black highway high in the sky and we counted more than 200 of them in just one of Eric’s photos.
Get the full effect of a sky filled with thousands of raptors in our video of broad-winged hawks massing above us at Costa Rica’s Selva Bananito Eco Lodge & Preserve. Be sure the volume is up to catch the jungle sounds and the crazy call of the Montezuma oropendola at the very end of this short clip.
Hawks weren’t the only birds in the area. We also saw masked tityras for the first time in the wild, squirrel cuckoos galore, Montezuma’s oropendolas, slaty-tailed trogans and more during an early morning bird watching walk through the property.
We were too busy to notice any birds when we hopped on the three platform zip line through the secondary rain forest which culminated in a 100 foot (30 meter) rappel down to a creek bed which we followed as we hiked back to the lodge, spotting a hog nose viper along the way. Even more exciting was discovering a tent bat dangling beneath a palm leaf which it had carefully chewed and folded into a tent for protection.
The best horseback riding in years
You can also explore the Selva Bananito Preserve on horseback. Now, we’re sort of horseback riding snobs. Having owned our own horses for years we can smell a nose-to-tail snoozer from a mile away.
But when Jurgen offered to accompany us on his Adventure Horseback Ride (US$60 per person, four hours, advanced riders only) we mounted up. Over the next few hours we traveled through Selva Bananito’s remaining banana and palm oil plantations, crashed through dense jungle, galloped across sloping fields, powered up and down slippery slopes and splashed through creeks. We even saw a boa constrictor, a first from the saddle.
At one point we dismounted and walked through a section of jungle that Jurgen calls The Cathedral. The compact area contains massive examples of some of the most impressive trees on the property, including a naturally hollowed out cacha tree and a 130 foot (40 meter) tall mahogany tree which you can climb up assisted by ropes and an ascender then rappel down.
By the time we returned to the lodge the horses were sweaty and ready for a well-earned rest and we were in awe of what has been preserved here.
Selva Bananito Travel Tip
Selva Bananito Eco Lodge & Preserve is located about 1.5 hours from Cahuita, an hour of that spent navigating the 10 mile (17 kilometer) dirt road that leads to this jungle retreat. A 4X4 is required or Jurgen can arrange to pick you up where the pavement ends in his beefy 4X4 van.
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