More Than Meets the Eye

Eco-friendly luxury isn’t an oxymoron in Costa Rica

By: By Michael Lowe


Getting Around

Although Costa Rica is not a large country, getting from the cloud forests to the Pacific surfs require transportation.

Mapache Rent-a-Car is the first and only carbon-neutral rental service. The 100-percent Costa Rican-owned car company is employing sustainable practices in both the office and on the road while achieving an Environmental Sustainability Certificate granted by FONFIFA (Fondo Nacional de Financiamento Forestal) and the Costa Rican Environmental Bureau.

Mapache utilizes rainwater to be reused for car washes. Tires, car batteries and other vehicle accessories are reused after going through certified treatment processes. As part of its carbon-neutral campaign, Mapache is working to reforest 40 acres on the Osa Peninsula.

“It is a part of responsible tourism,” assistant manager Alfredo Cruz said. “Green is the new way of business.”

As a partner of the program A Que Sembras un Arbol (translated as To Sow a Tree), Mapache helped reforest 5 million trees in the last year and is hoping to help reforest another 7 million by the end of this year.

“We are proud to be taking care of the environment,” Jackeline Lopez, administrative and sustainability manager said. “It is time to change our habits.”

Mapache Rent-a-Car



Tabacon // (c) 2008
Tabacon’s La Piapia Pool, one of
seven pools naturally heated to 102.2
degrees F
© 2008 Michael Lowe

To the untrained eye, Tabacon Grand Spa and Thermal Resort is just that: a luxury spa and resort. However, behind the five-star facade, the acres of natural hot springs and a perfect view of Costa Rica’s most active volcano, Arenal, is a concept just catching on in the United States: sustainability.

“We hope to be completely self-sufficient in three years by utilizing solar power and heat energy from the hot springs,” said Victor Esquivel, director of marketing at Tabacon.

The 15-year-old resort recently completed a $2.5 million renovation and is now in the beginning stages of acquiring a Certification for Sustainable Tourism (CST) rating of 5, given only to properties that are more than 95 percent sustainable by the Costa Rican Tourism Institute. So far, there are only four in the country.

Renovation on the hotel’s laundry room began in May and the hotel is hoping to achieve complete sustainability by October by using hot water pumped directly from the hot springs and solar panels for power.

“Instead of using energy to heat cold water, we use hot water from the springs,” Esquivel said.

With 114 rooms complete with linens, towels and bathrobes and a spa facility changing out hundreds of towels daily, a sustainable laundry room may not be the most glamorous way to save energy, but it will certainly reduce energy consumption.

After the hot spring water is pumped to the laundry and throughout the hotel’s faucets and showers, it is treated by Tabacon’s on-property treatment plant and returned to the rivers of Arenal. The plant is inspected by the Costa Rican Minister of Health every month to ensure proper treatment before the water is returned to the streams uncontaminated. However, water is not the only thing getting reused and recycled here.

According to Esquivel, all organic waste goes to local pig farmers in the area to help raise and feed livestock for the community. Whatever waste is left over is collected to produce Tabacon’s own fertilizer to ensure the rich growth of the rainforest surrounding the hot spring area.

All paper, plastic and glass products are donated to a community program, which is able to redeem the recyclables for money eventually used toward local programs.

“We are here because the community helps,” Esquivel said. “Our idea is to give back to the community, even if it is only a grain of sand.”

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. More than 80 percent of Tabacon’s employees are from the local community numbering nearly 350 and local Maleku Indians sell crafts at the entrance of the resort with full permits acquired with the assistance of Tabacon.

Esquivel said Tabacon is in the process of implementing an Adopt-a-Tree program by the end of the year, allowing guests to partake in the sustainability project. For $60, guests may purchase a native tree to be planted in an area owned by Tabacon, which stretches about 198 acres. Deforested for grazing cattle, the project will eventually reforest 10,000 trees in the northern region of Costa Rica adjacent to the hotel. Esquivel hopes to have 300 already planted by the end of the year allowing travelers and locals to combine forces in the fight to preserve the environment.

Although this may sound more like a socio-environmental activist organization than a hotel, rest assured, Tabacon’s alter identity remains a grand spa and thermal resort.

The hotel maintains five room types throughout the property housing two to four people from families to honeymooners. Unadulterated views of the Arenal volcano, local, handcrafted furniture and plush, goose-down mattresses await the weary traveler. At the top of the list is the Honeymoon Suite equipped with a Jacuzzi situated atop a private deck surrounded by tropical plants.

Each reservation comes with breakfast buffet and free entry into the main attraction, the Tabacon Hot Springs, priced at up to $80 per adult. Paths wind and twist throughout the property leading visitors to swim-up bars and hidden hot springs heated to between 80 and 105 degrees Fahrenheit by natural, geothermic processes.

Within the complex are two secluded spas where guests receive treatments ranging from chocolate exfoliations to a steam bath ritual used in Mesoamerican cultures called Temazcal.

The spa and hot springs are located away from the hotel area, but the resort shuttles frequent both lobby areas quickly transporting guests to their destinations in just minutes.

For each room per night, a $3 social responsibility charge is included, which Tabacon matches dollar for dollar. The funds, totaling over $85,000 in just eight months, go to local schools to create computer labs, donate school uniforms and buy bikes for children in areas with poor public transportation. Whether guests are unwinding in the hot springs or taking in the view from their rooms, they can rest easy knowing they are partaking in an active cause for the betterment of the local community and environment at large, even if it’s just a grain of sand.