After a serious drive through the countryside up and up hills on really rough gravel roads, we finally arrived at La Carolina Lodge. In, literally, the middle of nowhere, La Carolina is a perfect rustic farm and lodge tucked in the foothills of the Costa Rican outback. Run by a few very hardworking people, La Carolina sits on 170 acres of farmland and forest and runs right up against a beautiful clear river.
We arrived a day earlier than we’d originally planned, and we got in just as dinner was being served to the other guests (oops), so settling in was a bit confusing. After exchanging several really painful and awkward requests for lodging and food for the next three days we were shown to a lovely cabin, along a winding trail lit entirely by candles along the pathway. When we woke up the next morning I was astonished to see what luck we had. This was our view from the River Cabin. After settling in, which admittedly took a little while after the confusion about our reservations and plans, we headed up to the main house for a fantastic dinner of rice and beans, plantains and vegetables and the best BBQ meat I’ve ever tasted. I don’t know if I decided right then, but I knew we’d stay as long as we could at this little gem.
Our cabin was a rustic, wood-framed joint with a big comfy bed (covered with a mosquito net!), a private bathroom, simple fixtures and screened doors and windows. The cabin instantly made me feel relaxed and at ease – it was perfect for us. At night the candles would be lit and the whole room would glow softly.
The main building of the Lodge was the kind of rustic patchwork architecture you always hope to see and live in but is so hard to find. The tin roof sang under the afternoon rains, the wide eaves kept us dry while we read novels in the hammocks. Ingenious adjustable skylights lit up even the dark corners of the all-wood rooms. The lodge opened up onto a hillside of lush gardens full of hummingbirds and bromeliads.
We enjoyed meals in the open dining area next to the kitchen. The women spent most of the day cooking up tortillas, beans and rice, juicing fruits and frying plantains in this kitchen while the men would stop by to chat in between wrangling horses and smoking meat down by the stables. The eggs came from the 30-or-so chickens kept in a coop down by the front gate. Vegetables were stored in the tall cabinet behind the juice, and nothing was refrigerated. In the early morning coffee was made by straining the grounds into a huge pot through a thick sock-like bag that was tacked to a wooden ring.
Years of saddles, wool horse blankets and tack was “artfully” stored in the stables. I say artfully because the composition of everything in the stables together, was pleasing to look at. But when I watched the guys prepare the horses and clean them up after a ride it was obvious that their stable is arranged just the way the items are used – there’s no pretension, no thoughtful compilation of complementary items – their stable is pure utility just as it should be.
Juan guided Ryan and I on a hike through La Carolina’s forest. We walked across the open grazing fields toward a wall of trees and right into a tiny entrance to the jungle that had been cleared to make a trail. The farm’s two boxers, a father and son named Paquito and Toby, led the way and made sure we didn’t get lost. We crossed a few small streams on old handmade bridges that were near collapse in search of the illusive poison dart frogs that live around the dead undergrowth of the jungle. I was amazed by how dense and preserved this little swatch of jungle remained despite all the cleared farmland nearby. The jungle was so dense sound didn’t travel far there appeared to be no way out but by the path Juan led us down.
Juan caught a frog using a big leaf. Look how small it is! I always knew they were small, but I imagined they’d be bigger than a thumb. These poison dart frogs are actually poisonous–and this one in particular is a common hybrid in Costa Rica called the Bluejean Frog. Similar to the al-red Strawberry Frog, these little guys have dark indigo colored limbs and little blue speckles on their red backs. Seeing one of these famed and mysterious frogs up close and in the wild was breathtaking! And when we spotted several more along our hike I felt a huge sense of relief that maybe they’re not as rare and as poached as I had originally feared. Long live these bright little frogs!
After hiking Juan took us out for a ride on the horses through the farm. Meet Tomás, the biggest, boldest, bestest old horse ever. Juan asked me if I wanted to ride “¿muy rapido or muy tranquilo?” and when I said with a hesitant laugh that I wanted to ride muy rapido he set me up with Tomás. We saddled up and rode out into the pastures. Not following any trail in particular, we followed Juan up and down the hills, cantering we dared and remembering the proper technique for trotting. Juan and Alejandro are not just stable boys. After a little conversation Ryan discovered that they are both Sabaneros, extremely talented cowboys in the Costa Rican tradition. Both Juan and Alejandro love working at La Carolina because they can care for the farm’s 30 horses. Each man was very skilled in his horsemanship and was a pleasure to watch just in their riding style. Sabaneros are somewhat of a lost profession and many cowboys find they must make a living tending horses for large ranches instead of on their own, as Costa Rica’s cattle industry tries to modernize and grow with the west.
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We rode past the banana groves and new avocado orchard to the stable that held a five-day old calf, the sweetest cow face I’ve ever seen. A shy and curious baby that made my hear melt. The next day we saw it out in the field with its mother, learning how to much on the sweet grasses.
The cool thing about not speaking a lot of Spanish, but having a knack for phonetics and a deep interest in the world around, is that key words and descriptive phrases are easy and fun to pick up. Juan described every plant and animal he knew, in Spanish and English names, and we repeated them with gusto to test our accents and try to remember. He did an incredibly thoughtful job of sharing his knowledge with us, which made the adventure even more beautiful and interesting. My favorite sighting of the day was the Oropendola Montezuma bird and it’s nests. These blackbirds are really as brightly colored as they are black, with a haunting owl-like call to top it off. The birds were very vocal and active, flying from nest to tree and back again. Their nests are pendulum shaped – perhaps related to the name Oropendola? – and were grouped in bunches on a few trees in every field. I loved spotting them and hearing their calls from a distance. We got a closeup look at their nests back in the stable where a few old nests were hung up and man, they are big and thick and heavier than they look from a distance!
La Carolina Lodge is an incredible place. It feels very secret and remote and special. The food, which I’ll share more of on the next post, is just incredible. The people are gracious and enthusiastic and the grounds are simple and relaxing and just perfect. If you ever have the opportunity to go to Costa Rica and decide to head into the less-populated, less touristy northern regions I would recommend stopping in at La Carolina for a few days to anyone. It was just fantastic.