It’s 5 a.m., “monkey o’clock” in the Costa Rican rain forest. The howlers are howling, the macaws are cawing and the sun is starting to creep into our bedroom window. There’s no snooze button on this natural alarm clock, but that’s fine, because every day at the Playa Cativo ecolodge brings adventure – kayaking through the mangroves, hiking through the rain forest, snorkelling in Cativo Bay – and we don’t want to miss a minute.
With our casita mere steps from the ocean, there’s time to watch crabs scuttle across the sand before breakfast, after which we’ll hike a nearby path into the rain forest to snap photos of wild boars, agouti and dozens of tropical birds and flowers.
Playa Cativo sits on 400 hectares of private reserve land, surrounded by Piedras Blancas National Park. After an hour-long flight from San Jose to Golfito, in the southern end of the country, we’re greeted by resort staff and whisked away on a 30-minute boat ride across the calm waters of Golfo Dulce. On our ride, we stopped to admire a dozen Pacific spotted dolphins that were jumping and frolicking in our wake – it was the first of many unforgettable moments, and we hadn’t even arrived at the resort.
Originally built in 1980, the three-storey lodge has been beautifully remodelled using reclaimed wood and produces clean power from a hydroelectric generator and solar panels. Whimsical touches by local artisans are everywhere, from the colourful wildlife paintings on the guestroom walls to the wooden carvings on the doors. The open, airy design makes you feel as if nothing is standing between you and the hot, fragrant breeze.
EAT IN OR EAT OUT?
The remote location means there’s only one menu, but you’re welcome to take your meals anywhere, any time. Start your day by sipping fresh tropical juices made from fruit harvested at the lodge’s own organic farm, which produces most of the food for guests. The resort’s El Gavilan Restaurant overlooks the ocean and is the perfect place to watch the sunset over Cativo Bay. Chef Victor Manuel Castaneda is happy to accommodate special menu requests, and even invited my children into the kitchen to make cookies and mousse. The menu is a tasty mix of traditional Costa Rican dishes, including ceviche with homemade potato chips and guacamole, and mi pequeno golfo, fajitas with fried plantains, black beans, rice and egg salad. Don’t leave without trying the ice cream made from such tropical fruits as araza and cas, a Costa Rican guava.
The most wonderful thing about Playa Cativo is the young Costa Rican staff, who seem to know what you need before you do. Emerge from a sweaty rain-forest hike and they’ll greet you with cold water and damp towels scented with ylang-ylang and rosemary. Tired of paddle boarding? They will appear like magic and take it away. A hummingbird is stuck in your room? No problem. It will be tenderly removed and released unharmed. Ditto for that frighteningly large beetle that landed on your arm during dinner. (Not to mention, on our hike, guide Gerardo Orozco Borbon was a walking encyclopedia of knowledge about Costa Rica’s natural wonders.)
ROOM WITH A VIEW
For the best view, go for the private casita on the beach or the third-floor premium room facing the ocean.
IF I COULD CHANGE ONE THING
The open-air shower in my casita offered an unspoiled 180-degree view of both the ocean and rain forest, and with only a chest-high wall for privacy it is truly ideal for exhibitionists. However, a shower curtain would appeal to more modest guests.
WHOM YOU’LL MEET
Adventure-seeking nature lovers flock to Playa Cativo from the United States and Europe. And yet, with only seven guest rooms and so much property to explore, it’s possible to go hours without seeing anyone. For most of our five-night stay, we had the pool and beach all to ourselves.
Playa Cativo, Golfito, Puntarenas, Costa Rica, playacativo.com; 7 rooms from $240 (U.S.) a person per night, includes airport transfers, meals and some tours.
The writer was a guest of the hotel.