Playa Cativo Lodge
Puntarenas, Costa Rica
Eco-Lux, $$$ (from $220)
The Osa Peninsula — a lush bundle of rainforests, rivers, and mangroves on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast, near the border of Panama — is one of the most biodiverse places on the planet and one of the country’s most remote destinations. The roads are rough and often unpaved, the infrastructure is bare and backpacker-y, and the heat and humidity can be grueling. But those who make it down here — mostly intrepid Europeans, as beach-loving Americans historically prefer the resorts up north — are rewarded with remote hiking trails, swaths of secluded coastline, and incredible wildlife-spotting opportunities.
For adventurous travelers who want the Jurassic Park experience without having to rough it in the jungle, the place to go is Playa Cativo Lodge, a lofty, eighteen-room eco-lodge overlooking the warm, glassy waters of the Golfo Dulce, the only tropical fjord in the Americas. Though it’s not on the peninsula (it’s directly across the bay), the hotel benefits from all the same natural beauty: It’s perched at the base of Piedras Blancas National Park, an extension of the Osa’s famous Corcovado National Park. And it’s much more comfortable than a hostel.
Occupying 1,000 lush acres of private land that predates the founding of the national park, the hotel is home to an abundance of flora and fauna: 750 species of trees, including coconut, cacao, and guava; 390 species of birds (look out for toucans and hummingbirds and colorful turkey-like curassows); 140 different mammals, the cutest of which are definitely the raccoon-like coati and the squirel-esque agouti; more frogs and toads than one would think possible (their unique mating calls form a symphony at night); and enough insects to make one reconsider their place on the food chain (be thankful for bug spray and mosquito nets).
To take it all in, rooms and common spaces, which include a pool, two restaurants, a yoga pavilion, and a newly minted spa, are all open-air, with large decks and clear vistas over the gulf, the gardens, and the private black sand beach. My casita came with a colorful hammock, where I took outdoor naps every afternoon after a post-hike beer or two and a cold plunge pool, which I used as often as I could (there’s no AC on property). The whole set-up was cleverly ensconced in foliage. I felt like I had the rainforest all to myself.
Which is the whole point. You don’t come to Playa Cativo just for the luxury or the adventure. You come to kayak through mangroves where the crabs and the birds outnumber the people by the hundreds of thousands. You come to chase (and be chased) by dolphins through a gulf so still the water looks like glass. You come to spend afternoons gazing at hummingbirds through binoculars, strolling down secluded beaches, and drinking cocktails made with fruits and herbs from an organic garden you can hike to if you feel like breaking a sweat.
Playa Cativo is a scenic, 30-minute boat ride from the airport at Puerto Jimenez on the Osa Peninsula. Hopper plane flights from San Jose are just under an hour. Both legs of the journey are a treat for the eyes. Get the camera out.
There’s a heavy emphasis on sustainability reflected in the design. Nothing is over the top. Casitas are made from reclaimed wood and are accented with local art and tile work and intentionally take a back seat to the well-manicured gardens and wild rainforest surrounding. It’s really all about the nature here.
This Place Is Perfect For
Couples and families who don’t mind getting outside their comfort zone. Nature-lovers looking for a digital detox.
But Not So Perfect For
People who require WiFi and AC at all times. Folks who are squeamish around animals, particularly bugs.
What’s On Site
There’s a yoga pavilion for morning sun salutations, a small freshwater pool for afternoon dips, a spa inspired by traditional healing practices, an adventure center stocked with kayaks, paddle boards, and snorkeling equipment, and an organic farm in the forest that supplies the restaurants. The hotel also has a biological station on-site that carries out research projects and spearheads conservation efforts in the area. There's also a nice pier that’s fun to jump off.
Food + Drink
El Gavilán Restaurant in the main house and El Gazebo Sunset Bar by the swimming pool both sport menus packed with salads, fresh fish, and traditional dishes prepared with produce sourced from the organic farm and seafood caught by fishermen across the bay. Breakfast is a highlight if you like eggs, rice and beans, and fresh fruit. For dinner, stick to the classics: ceviche, gallo pinto (rice and beans with a protein on top), and chifrijo (rice, beans, and crispy fried pork skin).
Number of Rooms
Eighteen guest rooms are spread across the main house; casitas dot the property. They all come with king-sized beds and rain showers, have great views over the water and rainforest, and feel very private. The largest room type, a premium-plus casita, comes with a hammock, a plunge pool, and a shower that opens onto the deck. Whatever the room type, check the mini fridge for local beer and incredible banana bread baked by Juanita, a local legend.
It’s hot, humid, and there’s no air conditioning. Translation: You’re going to be sticky. There’s also a decent chance a bug or bat will make its way into your room, despite the presence of mosquito nets (you’re in the jungle after all), but the staff is quick to take care of any unwanted visitors.
The wildlife. There’s so much of it. One could spend an entire afternoon on the deck of the main house with a pair of binoculars gazing at all the flora and fauna. Should you need help identifying anything, the entirely local staff is highly qualified. Even if they can’t name the species precisely, they’ll likely have a good story to tell about that weird creature you’re looking at.
What to Do Nearby
Playa Cativo is near the towns of Golfito and Puerto Jimenez and the national parks of the Osa Peninsula, but there’s really no reason why you’d ever leave here. It’s also not that easy, given that the lodge is only accessible by boat. The property’s 1,000 acres are loaded with wildlife spotting opportunities and plenty of places to hike, swim, tan, and bathe in waterfalls.
If you’re looking for greater adventure, the hotel’s certified nature guides lead a variety of outdoor experiences, including a frog-filled nocturnal wildlife walk, a dolphin-spotting boat ride through the gulf, and a grueling three-hour hike through Piedras Blancas National Park, where I saw rare white-faced monkeys and sweat more than I ever had in my life.
My favorite of all the experiences was a kayak tour through the mangroves of Rio Esquinas. Gliding through estuaries rich with mud and crabs and other wildlife, it felt like we were the only people for miles. As we exited the mangroves to meet our boat at the mouth of the river, the tides changed and it started to downpour. Visibility dropped to a few feet. So did the water level. We could stand on the river bank. The air was white with rain. It was the highlight of my trip.
Plan Your Trip
How to Get There
Fly to San Juan’s Juan Santamaría International Airport (SJO), then jump a hopper flight to Puerto Jimenez. (FYI: Getting to the domestic terminal requires you walk out of the international terminal and down a road. Map it out before you go.) Folks from the hotel will be waiting for you in Puerto Jimenez to take you across the bay.
If you want to explore the Osa Peninsula while staying at the hotel, the staff is happy to drive you by boat anywhere you want to go (within reason), though you’ll likely be limited to hiking as a means of getting around once you hit dry land.