The great thing about Costa Rica is its incredible variety. The country is small, and in just a short distance the scenery and climate can change radically. No better example is leaving the warmth of the Central Valley and heading south from Cartago along the Panamerican Highway. The road soon starts twisting and climbing towards the menacingly-named Cerro de la Muerte (Peak of Death) about an hour away and, at 3,471m, the second highest point in the country. The vegetation slowly changes until it is paramo, mist often swirls around, and the temperature becomes quite chilly.
And quite close to Cerro de la Muerte there is a turning off to San Gerardo de Dota. The gravel road, in good condition, immediately takes you dizzingly downwards into a valley that is a Costa Rican version of shangri-la. The road twists and turns down, between incredibly steep mountain ridges covered in the densest and pretty impenetrable cloud forest. A simply amazing sight. And a great place to get away, albeit a bit chilly, as the road comes to a dead end after a few lodges, houses and miles. It’s the place to see the relatively rare quetzal, a paradise for bird-watchers, and for taking cloud forest walks and eating fresh trout.
One of the first lodges on the way down is Dantica Lodge, definitely one of our favourite places in Costa Rica. With just 9 cabins, each separate, it cleverly follows the contours to yield absolutely stunning views of the surroundings. With a private reserve of 20 ha and a clever network of attractive trails, it is very easy to start relaxing straight away. The cabins have large picture windows that are perfect for catching the view.
How the lodge came to be, and its name, is a fascinating story as explained on Dantica’s website. Joost Wilms, a Dutch ecologist, briefly studied reforestation in San Gerardo de Dota in 1992 before carrying on to study tapirs, or dantas as they are known in Spanish, in the Colombian Amazon. There the local indians soon nicknamed him little tapir, or dantica. While in Colombia he met his Colombian wife, Maria Luisa. who helped local communities to design and create handcraft. They came back to Costa Rica with the intention to build a lodge in San Gerardo de Dota, and the current lodge took 7 years to complete. Throughout the lodge runs a strong sense of design, and the main building has a beautiful gallery featuring Colombian (and some Guatemalan) handcrafts. ( If this seems strange in Costa Rica, go to one of the many normal souvenir shops in the country and you will see how just how dismal and lacking in imagination they are).
What can be done? Apart from relaxing or taking the view from one of the many view points, there are tours to see the quetzal, birds in general, nature tours, a trip to see the paramo of Cerro de la Muerte, horse rides, and visits to waterfalls. The more energetic can take a 6 hour hike from Cerro de la Muerte downhill, passing through several habitats.
If you are driving there in your own car, you can visit the paramo of Cerro de la Muerte also on your own. For a touch of local colour and to appease hunger pangs, stop off in at Los Chesperitos, a traditional restaurant at the small village of Ojo de Agua nearby, and sample any of the local dishes or take them away and eat overlooking the valley below (yes, I have to say, Los Chesperitos has great local food, but they certainly don’t bother much to prettify the place!). There is a local soda right at the start of the road down to San Gerardo, but its pretty facade belies a rather grim interior and food we thought best avoided. But do check things out for yourself, that’s all the fun of travelling in Costa Rica!