Chest-high pink and red stalks of ginger dot the landscape like tiki torches. They brighten the forest as distant thunder echoes through the valley. Hummingbirds dart between the trees and I’m amazed I don’t get impaled by one of them. This is Rancho Margot, just shy of the eastern side of the Continental Divide in the Cordillera Talamanca, in central Costa Rica. We are only a mile or so from the nearest village, a few miles from one of Costa Rica’s most famous volcanoes, Arenal, and about 20 miles (or a 40 minute drive) from the lively restaurants, resort hot springs, and trinket shops of the bustling tourist outpost of La Fortuna. But it feels as though we are on another planet.
In researching places to visit for my first big almost-but-not-quite-done-with-the-pandemic international trip, I wanted to stick to my newly minted Travel Manifesto as much as possible. I wanted to stay in places that were locally owned and making an effort to be sustainable. Rancho Margot came up in several Google searches. It’s won a number of awards not only for being a great spot for a vacation, but for its sustainable design that works with the natural environment to actively draw down atmospheric carbon. In fact, the ecolodge has been certified as ‘carbon negative’, meaning that the lodge and farm take up more carbon from the atmosphere than they emit.
As we learned from our guide while strolling along on our introductory farm tour, this place was the brainchild of Don Juan Sostheim, a wealthy fast-food magnate and agricultural chemist who left his job in Europe and bought this pastureland in the Costa Rican highlands in 2004. He wanted to make up for the damage done to the earth by his years working in industry. His dream was to build a sustainable farm, ecolodge, and learning community in the midst of a restored forest. He brought in ecologists, biologists, and others with the scientific and ecological expertise to ‘design’ a forest that would be a thriving ecosystem amidst a comfortable resort. Drawing on studies in permaculture, they planted tropical species that would have a symbiotic relationship with each other, and with the other plants and animals already at the site.
The property is now home to a thriving secondary rainforest that grows at a rate of up to two meters a year. The large farm and ranch employs principles of permaculture (which adopts relationships found between species in flourishing, sustainable natural ecosystems) to improve yields in a way that avoids any use of pesticides or herbicides. For example, the torch ginger attracts hummingbirds but also repels mosquitos – so it’s a win-win for birds and people! As a guest, wandering through the trails and among the non-imposing bungalows and open-air structures, you begin to feel like you are a part of this ecosystem.
The hotel grows most of it’s own produce, meat and dairy. There are on the order of 320 chickens (some of them are for egg-laying and some for eating) who build their leg muscles by scuttling up and down through their hilly enclosure all day, about 50 pigs nearby, and a small herd of cattle. There are rows of kale, lettuce and spinach – which show up in the dinner buffet line each night – peppers, broccoli, tomatoes, and beans. Fresh farmer’s cheese and homemade yogurt also show up in the restaurant.
I think what impressed me is that nothing goes to waste, and there’s an active and elaborate compost system that keeps the veggie garden brimming. Animal fat is rendered into soap that shows up in each of the guest bungalows and in the small shop at the reception office.
The guest bungalows sit on the edge of the forest along a paved path up the hill from the central reception and dining hall. Our bungalow was small – really small, but with open windows on either side of a bed that allowed for a cross-breeze when there was one. There was a small table and bathroom vanity, all handcrafted onsite (from wood that is purchased and brought in elsewhere, as it’s illegal to cut down any forest in Costa Rica.) The tile roofs on all the buildings sprout ferns, grass and shrubs, like scruffy head of hair. But this keeps things a bit cooler. Apparently, the tiles have to be cleaned every few years, or they would just get too heavy from the weight of the forest that seems to want to grow everywhere.
The entire ranch is powered by small, hydroelectric turbines on the three rivers that flow into the valley and join near the lodge. Hot water for the guest bungalows is available thanks to a small array of solar panels which do well enough if there’s a bit of sunshine (although, we found it hard to get hot water late at night or early in the morning.) Mountain microorganisms (MM), a fungus that grows naturally in the tropical forest floor is used to treat waste water from the lodge. While I’m a bit fuzzy on the process, it’s my understanding that MM are mixed with sawdust, molasses, some protein and wheat, and essentially act to compost the waste. What emerges is clean water.
Apparently, COVID cleaning protocols required by the Costa Rican tourism board have posed somewhat of a challenge for the wastewater treatment at Rancho Margot, as they have had to introduce some harsh disinfectants which have killed off the MM communities, which has required them to develop some temporary work-arounds to manage the waste.
In designing the ecolodge, one of the rivers was diverted for a series of pools: two natural pools paved with river stones and supplied directly by the river water, and another fed by water that has been minimally heated (because, despite what you might think, the Tropics are not always warm! Especially when you find yourself in the mountains).
This trip to Costa Rica was my first international trip in three years. My first trip in the COVID-endemic world. I had a lot of anxiety about going: about time on an airplane with unmasked people, and about the required testing to return home, which, incidentally, was abandoned while we were in Costa Rica. In a world where you struggle to find those hopeful rays of sunshine amid the chaos, arriving at Rancho Margot was a welcome paradise, and a dose of inspiration. This is not a place that feels primeval or untouched, like Monteverde, but instead, it is a place that has been restored. This place has been intentionally designed in a way that allows nature, farm animals, and people, to live sustainably and support each other. It’s a model for how we could to design our entire planet – in a way that would allow our civilization to continue.
Every moment at Rancho Margot I felt deep gratitude. Gratitude for being able to travel again, for being healthy, for being in a place where I could witness nature and people interacting in a healthy way together. It’s a great example of what human ingenuity and intention can do, and that gave me hope. We cannot preserve nature as it once was on this planet. We cannot return the Earth – or even large parts of it – to it’s ‘pre-human’ state. But we have the capacity to design something new, something where all living things benefit and support each other. And because of that, I left Rancho Margot feeling a bit lighter than when I arrived (despite all the amazing home-grown farm food that they fed us each day.)
There are other places like this:
Apparently, Rancho Margot has not entirely cornered the market on sustainable ecolodges. I’m happy to see that there are many other places that are trying to do something similar. In doing research for this blog post, for example, I discovered Rancho Mastatal, in the mountains to the southwest of San Jose. If you are so inclined, please check it out if you are planning an eco-friendly vacation and let me know what you think!