Laguna del Lagarto, Wildlife Photographers Paradise

Laguna del Lagarto Lodge Costa Rica

‘Bye-bye Nicaragua! I’m now visiting my 7th country on this Hospitality Tour; welcome to Costa Rica! The very model of eco-tourism itself, so they say. Costa Rica even has its own free hotel eco-certification program. What is this really all about? Come and follow me as I go behind the scenes while visiting a few eco-hotels throughout the country. The adventure starts right now as we arrive at a lodge just a few kilometers from the Rio San Juan: the « Laguna del Lagarto » (in Spanish: Alligator Lagoon), a total immersion in the heart of the Rainforest … and where the famous alligators don’t hesitate to show up … and that’s not all!

From Germany all the way to Costa Rica, a Delightful Story

avec Kurt Laguna del LagartoLa Laguna del Lagarto–just like the Jaguar InnArbol de Fuego, or even Selva Negra–is another great example of a family-owned hotel, where the second generation is taking hold of the reins.

Kurt’s Dad, Vinzenz A. Schmack, is a German national who grew up in East Germany under Hitler. His own father went from wealthy farmer to garbage collector when the family emigrated to Czechoslovakia. Despite the hard living circumstances faced by his family, Vinzenz had always carried a big dream, that of going off one day to discover the world. He studied Economics and took advantage of being granted a scholarship to fly off to Canada. And thus began his adventure in the Americas, where he later met his wife, from Guatemala, in New York. While working for a big American bank, he multiplied his adventures abroad: Paris, Brussels, Guatemala, Dominican Republic … and finally, Costa Rica, where he stayed for good.

Vinzenz also had another dream: he wanted one day to own a piece of land just as his father had done. It just so happened that the bank he was working with had recently repossessed a farm of 500 hectares (1,250 acres) because its owner had not been able to repay a loan for a tractor. Vinzenz then decided to buy that same piece of land for a rather low price, and he tried to cultivate it: pineapple, black pepper … but without much success: because the place was rather inaccessible, production and transportation costs became too high. Moreover, it would have been necessary to tear down a whole part of the forest, and transporting all that wood all the way to town would have been a dangerous endeavor … in those days eco-tourism and environmental issues were not on people’s radar. Rather, people sought to survive by exploiting as much cultivable land as was possible.

It was then that a friend of Vinzenz, during a discussion, suggested to him in fact not to deforest this precious virgin forest, but instead build a few bungalows and throw himself into the tourism business. This was in 1981; the notion of eco-tourism wasn’t developed in Costa Rica until a few years later (late ‘80’s).   At that time, the site was difficult to reach at 10 hours away from the capital! Nevertheless, Vinzenz decided to try: he built 4 bungalows and invited a friend, who worked for the big German travel agency Neckermann, to come and visit. The travel agent felt that there was quite a big potential in what he saw, and promised Vinzenz that if he were to build more bungalows to take in small groups, they could work together during the coming season. The deal was signed, new bungalows were built, and six months later, the very first « eco-tourists » in search of a unique experience in the heart of the jungle began arriving.

Right at the Heart of Tropical Wildlife

Compil animals Costa RicaToday’s Laguna del Lagarto consists of 22 rooms and one restaurant. Two other hotels were built in the vicinity. There’s still only a dirt road, but telephone and electricity lines have been installed. The lodge is the biggest « business » in the village (Boca Tapa, population around one hundred). Vinzenz’s eldest son, Kurt, took over the business, and the manager on site who welcomes the clients, Adolfo, has been working at the lodge almost since its opening (his first job there was behind the stove!).   The lodge became an important actor in the development of the local area; it is a lovely example of ethical tourism (cf Article on Hopineo to find, in detail, all sustainable practices that have been put in place).

Because of its 400 different identified species of birds, 100 hectares of virgin forest and 169 reforested land, nature lovers, bird-watchers and wildlife photographers have kept knowledge of the site as a secret among themselves. Moreover, Kurt and his team have developed several blinds and perches where they at times place some food to attract certain animals, making it easier to observe and photograph them up close: bananas for toucans, cow-head carcasses for vultures, sugar-water for bats, etc…

I spent a week at Laguna del Lagarto, working especially on a marketing strategy to better attract European bird-watchers to the region and lodge (cf. Article « Marketing Strategy to Attract Bird-Watchers »). Thanks to Henry, and also Diego, both working at the hotel, I was able to go off and discover the jungle, by day and by night, and come across animals I had only seen before in photographs, and which I would never have thought of approaching up-close: alligators, toucans, monkeys, tarantulas, frogs and birds of all colors … incredible encounters! Animal encounters, but also human ones …

Owners, Workers, Travelers: Unforgettable Shared Moments

Rencontres Costa RicaThis Hospitality Tour is giving me the chance to travel in a very unique way. I am not really a hotel client nor a hotel employee. I am a free electron in the middle of everyone else, and this gives me the chance to meet people who each have very different life experiences, and share wonderful moments, slices of life.

In fact, I am at once somewhat like the director’s assistant for a few days, discussing with employees between two work shifts, and then sharing a meal with clients.

This way, I have met photographers from the United Kingdom, the U.S.A., Canada … each more adventurous and passionate than the other: a snake-lover who fought in Vietnam; an ex-New York Police Chief who ran a marathon in Antarctica; a computer-programmer who owns an island in Nicaragua; a professional photographer who organizes wildlife photography tours around the world …

And then I become friends with Diego who takes me to discover the laguna, and who flushes out for me the most incredible-looking frogs. I also make friends with Henry, the night-watchman, who works at his own grocery store during the day and brings me chocolates each evening, who takes me on night walks in the jungle to look for wild animals, introduces me to his alligator friends (Mama Ugly, Eva, Agresivo) and to the beautiful green frog with huge orange eyes (Model Frosch). One Saturday, Henry invited me to his home to meet his sons and have coffee with his wife. So after one week, having hardly had the time to get to know everyone … suddenly it is already time to leave … will I ever return? I would prefer not to make promises, but anyway I certainly hope so!

Read also the article that I wrote for Sustainability-Leaders website:
Birdwatcher’s Paradise: Ecolodge Laguna Del Lagarto in Costa Rica

Translated by my friend Hélène Masson from Quebec