Video by Craig Orsini, for ELEMENT Productions
The second time a friend of mine, Robert Drake, went to Costa Rica, he stayed at a hotel in the Manuel Antonio National Park, in Puntarenas Province, on the Pacific side.
“On the first day I walked across the main road and noticed there was a chiropractor. Figured I’d give him a try. I walked into his office and he introduced himself as Constant from South Africa. He and his family had bought about 300 hectares of land comprising a mountain valley and river. His dream was to bring more Tapirs [large mammals related to horses and rhinoceroses] and Jaguars into the country, with the help of local government. As I was leaving his office, he asked me if I would like him to organize some tours and he arranged a zip line, horseback riding, nature trails and rafting, all at Rafiki lodge.
“The following year I returned with a girlfriend looking for him. His wife was distraught and told me that he was battling a bad case of Dengue fever. I took a room in Rafiki lodge but my girlfriend made life miserable because it was too buggy for her, so we checked out and went to stay at a place in town.
“To this day I never knew what happened with Constant.”
Constant is fine, he survived although he’s retired now. And Rafiki Safari Lodge, now encompassing 800 acres of pristine forest, has grown, matured into a more serious luxury eco-resort (apparently that is not a contradiction) and in a country that is a leader if not the founder of ecologically-sound tourism, with dozens of environmentally friendly and sustainable hotels, it has become a uniquely extraordinary example of all that, and a magical place to stay.
It is located in the Savegre Valley, along the Savegre river, claimed to be the cleanest river in Central America, in overgrown forest and mountainous terrain. It is not an exaggeration to say it is another world. Manuel Antonio, 18 miles away, has become touristy over the years, but the Savegre Valley remains wild, dotted with small villages mostly without infrastructure, and not easily accessible. You either live there or really want to go there.
The Lodge is mostly powered by hydro-electricity they generate themselves — “because hauling diesel up that road was impossible” says Lautjie Boshoff, one of Constant’s two sons who now run the place. The property has phone and internet, and the essential comforts of a luxury resort, but none of it came easily. For a start, it takes three and a half hours to get anything and anyone from Campos, the closest town. Being sustainable was simply efficient.
“It’s an interesting thing bringing people out in the middle of the woods like this,” continues Lautjie. “I think there’s a big psychological factor that every single person that comes here has had to go up that bumpy road. And I think a lot of people, the first five minutes, may even complain about it, say, ‘oh it’s so long, it’s so hard, why would you do this here?’ But it’s that same person that ten minutes later figures out, well, society is on the other side of that road. And then to camp out here, yeah, the first night sometimes is overwhelming. It may be one of the wildest moments they’ve ever had.
“But it works, you know? You’re comfortable, you’ve got good beds, you have electricity. A nice shower. My mom made sure that the tile bathrooms were gonna be clean, and you weren’t gonna find things in there. But everything else is wild. And I think it’s good for humans to realize that you don’t need to have all the walls, you don’t need to separate yourself from nature as much. I think they become better people.”
Rafiki demonstrates, delivers to you in undeniable clarity, that there is a level of purchasable joy greater than luxury, and that is harmony. Rafiki is luxurious because it is a nice gem in a divine setting. A setting that is luxuriant — lush, breathtaking, truly unspoiled because the things that spoil a place couldn’t or just didn’t bother to get there.
You sleep in sturdy tents that are constructed to withstand the elements, attached to a solid, stone bathroom with modern plumbing. Each has a sense of being intimately private, and a porch with a spectacular view of the forest. (There are also 4 luxury tents around a pristine pool on the beach, 45 minutes drive from the Lodge, and they aren’t shabby either.) The restaurant and the bar at the Lodge are the communal areas, where people who have had their different adventures during the day, get to swap stories over world class cocktails and exceptional local home cooking with the occasional South African influence.
You are camping, but in style and comfort. The trappings are simple, the beds almost butt up against each other in the sleeping part of the tent, but you don’t care. The porch is essentially the living room.
Me, I could look at the forest for a week, eat, drink and go home. I am lazy. But people who come to Rafiki don’t normally sit around (although, let me stress, it’s a pretty extraordinary place to do just that), they go horseback riding, river rafting, kayaking and hiking. They visit villages and eat with the native folks who live there. They get absorbed into the phenomenal forest.
Lautjie and his older brother Carlo have been involved in Rafiki (which means “friends” in Swahili, their father’s first language) since it opened. From the beginning they realized they had to come up with a system that involved the locals.
“We didn’t start off in hospitality, my brother and I are both biologists. So we came here with the idea of conservation or biology,” he says. “We found out right away that without changing the social understanding of the forest, if the people that live here are still threatening the forest, threatening the wildlife, then it wasn’t gonna work. So we got into tourism. We had no idea what the business of tourism was.”
Carlo adds: “The biggest thing in conservation, at least in our eyes, is opportunity. You have to give the local people a way out. This is their backyard, their livelihood, what they’ve lived for generations.
“So our idea is creating as many opportunities as we can for local people. And supporting them. Through our lodge and through the tourism that comes. Our horseback tour is a great example of that, a gentleman we loaned the money to about fifteen years ago, for his first five horses with saddles. Now he has thirteen, his own business, and because of that there’s a little ripple effect. There’s more and more people that work for him and through that everybody in the valley is, little by little, at least finding an opportunity. They see guides making more money than they would if they were chopping trees. All of a sudden the kids now are looking up to the guides.
“Costa Rica does not have any natural resources like oil or gas, the only thing it has is this jungle. And so this jungle has to pay for its right exist in one form or another. And the only way is if the local people are benefiting off of it while it’s standing there, intact, versus cut into logs.”
The biologist sons shared and took up the mantle of their father’s dream of bringing Tapirs back into the forest. Costa Rica is home to one of only four species in the world.
They figured if they got them back into their natural environment, people would come to see what they look like. The brothers worked for ten years trying to re-introduce the creatures, employing South African styles of conservation, following the model of how the white rhinoceros was reintroduced into the South African jungle.
“It was not an easy path, there were a lot of bureaucratic obstacles. Costa Rica in the 1980s, there was a lot of exploitation of wildlife. People would take a chain, put it on a monkey’s neck and put it in the front of the restaurant and hope tourists would come and want to spend time with the monkey and eat at the restaurant. I can understand why they made it illegal. Now, no restaurants, no hotels, can have wildlife in captivity.
“We realized we don’t really need to re-introduce them as long as we leave the forest intact. As long as you leave these ecosystems connected, the wildlife will come back by themselves. The other day we just saw a tapir track. I mean, that’s incredible. I still have goosebumps when I say it because it’s something that we dreamed of.
“Now people are seeing that tapir, but instead of going, ‘meat!’ they’re like, there’s a tapir, we gotta go tell somebody! That’s really cool. And that’s what we want. We want that little thing.”