By Karen Lewis, Founder of Lapa Rios Ecolodge and Reserve

Decade One: Dream, Design, and Build and Ecolodge

My impact tourism story began with disbelief, incredulity, and derision. In 1990, people reacted with, “What! You’re moving to the jungle to work with a community? You don’t speak their language or know the culture. And you plan to preserve a wilderness rainforest with them? Why?”

The resolve: make an impact.

Lapa Rios—in Spanish, “Rivers of the Scarlet Macaw”—was founded by my former husband, John Lewis, and me in 1990. It was the next of our adventures that had begun in 1967, first as newlyweds in the US Peace Corps in rural Kenya. Twenty-three years later we again acted boldly. Our children were in high school, still at home. People declared the ‘crazy idea’ brave, yet we would add adventure and challenge to many people’s lives, not just our own.

As avid birders who loved to travel, we’d often experienced underwhelming wilderness hospitality, wishing for more than ‘a place to sleep.’ Could we answer that dream, create a tourism destination in a remote area? Costa Ricans treasured their 1970’s conservation efforts, and by 1990 greater than 25% of the landmass was under some level of protection, either in defined national parks or private reserves. Leaders knew Costa Rica hosted huge amounts of tropical biodiversity and, to bring balance to its agricultural-export economy, wanted to attract international travelers curious to experience their multiple, unique ecosystems. And, their non-violent, no-army history would help promote environmental protection, attract tourism. The Tourism Ministry welcomed the idea of Lapa Rios though pronounced the scheme ‘too small to be profitable,’ finishing with, “Who will travel that far from mainstream tourism, on a dirt track?

Searching for wilderness land contiguous to preserved land required patience, yet we purchased almost 1,100 acres of wilderness rainforest touching the Golfo Dulce-Pacific Ocean on the Osa Peninsula, a remote area in SW Costa Rica hosting half the country’s biodiversity, or 2.5% of the world’s species in 0.00000085% land surface. Eighty-five percent of the three contiguous farms were primary forest, the remainder in 20+ year secondary growth or pasture. We believed the 1890’s-style “conservation for conservation’s sake” was untenable; world population had increased almost six-fold in 100 years. This property could spearhead other property owners to help buffer nearby Corcovado National Park.

Together with Minnesota architect David Andersen, we started the unending process to design the project. We wrote the Vision Statement: “No matter how you cut it, a rainforest left standing is more valuable than one cut down.” Implicit within that vision: measure and value wilderness and people differently, not focused purely on fiscal earnings, rather toward making differences.

Understanding Community Needs: Finding a Shared Dream

True, we had no hospitality experience, little business acumen, didn’t speak Spanish, hadn’t done social work nor held forestry degrees, but we used more sustainable practices than any people we knew and had lived amid cultural differences. We firmly believed the planet needed a low impact, conservation-tourism model that combined the travelers’ wildlife expectation together with an untapped resource: the local people. Our Peace Corp experiences proved local stakeholders had to be enrolled and engaged, from the learning process through development and into operation. We would not repeat neo-colonialism. If we wanted to conserve the forest and help mitigate climate change, our responsible action would be to include the community from the beginning of the dream. Net positive tourism combines the conservation of people and place with travelers.

We knew the Lapa Rios biodiverse rainforest would provide the economic vehicle to attract travelers, and slowly the community would learn to treasure their unique region. Who better to inform travelers the value of the Osa Peninsula than those who had lived, hunted and foraged the same forests for generations, and their stories would add local authenticity. For all concerned—the forest, the community, John and me—survival depended on learning and sharing like-minded values. We knew it would be up to us to augment the locally-perceived values to the Osa’s forests, streams and beaches, to expand the community’s familiar to the sublime. With time and education, our community would understand our future guests’ words, terms like world unique or unfolding biodiversity. However, we first needed to improve poor practices, i.e. ‘toss it in the river,’ to change the value of tangible-intangible assets. Eventually we’d find a communal response: “WOW, the Osa holds our future’s treasure chest.”

By horseback, hiking unfamiliar forest trails, or in the blue pickup, we were intent to meet nearby families. We invited them to an afternoon get-to-know-you picnic atop the hill overlooking the Golfo Dulce, near the “falling down rancho.” Most everyone knew the location, a remarkable forest-marine vista. We wanted our neighbors to hear our words directly, not to rely on gossip regarding our intentions for the newly purchase land: “Together—with you—we’d like to build a small lodge for travelers wanting to experience the rainforest. This lodge will help all of us to protect this area’s forests and help insure the Osa’s economic future.

In 1991, ‘conservation tourism’ was a novel ideal. We’d practiced earlier, then pronounced, “con-ser-va-ci-ón.” Neighbors heard the word, but few understood the meaning behind conservation. One man, a subsistent farmer-squatter, courageously declared us foolish not to cut/sell the trees, “You’d get lots of money, not need to work for a long time. Crazy.” We’d worn that moniker before…

Education and Environmental Stewardship: Uniting One Shared Dream

Despite our “crazy” reputation, we pressed onward. We needed to hear our neighbor’s dreams, and if or how we could weave our dreams together. Women were quick to share their common goal: “Help us build a primary school. You were a teacher; you must know how.” What, primary school music teacher builds schools? Though skeptical, I was committed to build relationships.

Within the majorly small, subsistent farms around Lapa Rios there were more than fifty children between 7-15 years old. Lacking a school nearby, most parents had neither the money nor means to transport their children to the closest school 17 kilometers away in Puerto Jiménez. We started a school-day round trip transport program for the school year 1992, either driving our pick-up or hiring a truck driver to transport children to Escuela Pto. Jiménez. We promised to continue the transport until year’s end, and hoping that, together with the neighbors, we could finish building a classroom by early 1993. Each family contributed $7 for monthly expenses; most gave payment in fruit or vegetables to help supplement our worker’s meals. We willingly chanced that Lapa Rios would figure out a recapture tool for those transportation costs, the building materials and labor. A few families did not enroll their children, citing pending harvests or animal attending, but in late February 22 children began first grade, several older than ten years.

Tip from a Pioneer: Guests & Community. Guests had the opportunity to visit the Carbonera School, with owner Karen or staff guide, to join children in singing, reading, or playing soccer. The hands-on experience was especially enjoyed by families with children, as post-trip parent letters ranked the school visit one of the most memorable events their children experienced. From 1993 onwards, school visits were the best method for us to demonstrate educational challenges and needs inherent to physical remoteness and inspire helpful guest donations. When organizing these visits, ensure interactions with children are supervised, do not interrupt class time, and foster ethical, meaningful interactions.

We opened Lapa Rios Ecolodge on January, 20 1993 and the nearby Escuela Carbonera on March 1, 1993. Our first guests, five brave Canadians, were greeted with open arms. Twenty-one area children welcomed their new teacher, and within a week, 26 children had registered.

Building Community Capacity: Local Capacity Training

We could not have anticipated the depth of operational challenges during those early years. We knew the forest-ocean setting amazing, the wildlife dependably abundant, though our entire staff, including us, were still practicing hospitality skills. Hiring only-local employees was our top priority, however in the early 90’s there were less than 1,500 people living in the entire peninsula. Admittedly, our early efforts to attract labor lacked sophistication: “Willing to work and learn for salary, housing and three meals?”  Most everyone in the community had never been to school or had a career. Though I’d wished for more women employees, few women were allowed; tradition placed women in the home. Chopping grass was seasonal labor for local men, meaning other than illegal gold mining or logging, income was sparse. Overall, a true labor pool qualified in hospitality was non-existent.

Throughout the 1990s, we learned to select and train employees who accepted flexibility and change as part of the job description. From the beginning, employees began learning English, though some faster than others. Several years passed before guest activities could shift entirely from the owners leading interpretation to staff and/or community-led interaction. We found it was easier and faster to teach an unskilled employee the skills needed for an ecotourism enterprise than to undo poor practices from skilled employees; retraining requires great patience and time, is often met with resistance, and often undermines a team’s learned best practices.

Tip from a Pioneer: Guest Feedback & Evaluations. Guest evaluations provide a valuable tool to learn what works and what needs improvement. For us, guest feedback proved the value of these local interactions. Friendship bonds developed between travelers and employees, even inspired repeat guests and lots of mail. Commonly, guest evaluations cite: “We came to Costa Rica to experience nature, yet we depart grateful for both the wildlife conservation and your caring locals-only employees. Thank you for the most uncontrived adventure.” After all, isn’t travel merely sharing and making stories with people?

Tip from a Pioneer: Employee Education Beyond Just Hospitality Skills. The lodge water source was a year-round natural spring located three kilometers up the hill, and water usage was not measured in 1999. A maintenance worker challenged, “Why do we need to measure our usage? All the spring water flows to the river, except what we use from a four-centimeter tube.” Fast forward to 2001: By educating staff about broader environmental issues, employees who lived in town significantly lowered their municipal water bill by learning to turn off the faucet. They had shared lessons with their families about why water is precious and how to lower their water bills.

At the end of the first decade, with multiple peoples’ effort and energy, plus hiring a few trained Costa Rican experts to assist team development, rewards were obvious. Our employees and community grew in confidence. They looked directly at travelers and spoke audibly. They sent their children to school and knew why that a good idea. The employees’ homes soon had concrete floors, their families healthier. Their steady jobs signified ‘status’ and with greater self-esteem many became community leaders, even began to develop their local schools.

Decade Two: Share Needs, Expand Relationships, Go Beyond the Osa

From the beginning, we knew our methods and ethics would be challenged because our ideals and practices were unusual, definitely uncommon. We proceeded slowly, endlessly repeated lessons. I was more a teacher than la doña, the owner/boss-who-must-be obeyed. We focused our goals to envisage different outcomes with community, staff and travel companies. Our preferred guests were those who wanted what we could offer. We were known to disengage with agencies or travelers dictating expectations beyond our capacity. We became separators of want vs. need, as remote locations can rarely fulfill personal wants/demands.

Like most owner-operator businesses, I was needed everywhere—maintenance, housekeeping, at the front desk caring for guests’ needs, etc. I couldn’t routinely monitor 8km trail development or baking routines, much less check if the maintenance team were meeting certification standards. By the late 90’s, John and I were growing weary from 7-day/18 hour shifts.

The Ecolodge Owners’ Dilemma: What is the succession plan?

Being inexperienced yet enthusiastic in 1990, our initial design scheme never considered succession planning or, once operating, had time to develop any answers. We invited members of the government, The Nature Conservancy, and The International Ecotourism Society, local stakeholders, lodge owners and academics to brainstorm solutions that could ensure long-term harmony combining our community, environmental conservation, and the business.

In one weekend, 35 people created The Lapa Rios Succession Plan. Outcomes of the roundtable discussion included:

  • Finding management willing to learn sustainable ecotourism and live in the wilderness.
  • Finding conservation methods to protect the Reserve beyond the sale in order to deny any land division or development.
  • Getting assistance from attendees and others who can help find solutions.

However, the group determined, good intentions aside, that no seller can dictate business design and strategy to the next owner(s). Therefore, sustaining the community, practicing stewardship, or supporting local schools could only be guaranteed by finding the right buyers.

In 2003, two experienced Lapa Rios managers, Andrea Bonilla and Hans Pfister, co-founded Cayuga Sustainable Hospitality Management; both trained at Cornell University Hotel School. Once hired, they brought a youthful positive energy and experienced skillset, along with their dedication to manage Lapa Rios sustainably. Like us, they understood the process and procedures defined by the Costa Rica’s sustainable tourism certification program, and best of all, they agreed to uphold our main metric for success: “How will this action or decision impact the rainforest, the community, and the business?”

Tip from a Pioneer: Succession Planning Design your own Succession Plan, regardless of the business size or type. Sellers of triple bottom line businesses, particularly with attached tracts of precious property, need more time and effort than any standard operation. It is important to consider the long-term, sustainable future of your enterprise and impact tourism program by properly planning and finding the right successor.

Twenty years later, Cayuga successfully manages several Central American destinations, insisting on sustainable practices. Cayuga’s guidance helped Lapa Rios improve more rapidly. The emergence of internet expanded the business and improved guest communications, and bookkeeping and inventories proved efficient. Because of this, John and I were free to imagine new programs for community-guest-staff involvement, and to work with CEDARENA, Costa Rica’s legal team dedicated to teach local land owners how to value their primary and secondary forests differently. We moved closer to our conservation goal to demonstrate an ecolodge can be a viable vehicle for expanding conservation.

Decade Three: Owners-Management-Community-Guests, Moving in Sync

Throughout my last decade in Lapa Rios we relied heavily on Cayuga Management, from marketing and reservations to their management team improving employees’ skills development and guest interaction. To expand our program, improving guest and employee experiences, we added managerial challenges; building memorable cultural experiences requires extra human resources, planning time and management power. Rainforest interpretation was always the focus of Lapa Rios, as we did not want a top-down, all-inclusive business requiring ownership of boats, kayaks, or the pasturing horses.

Within the second and third decades, Lapa Rios haddeveloped and facilitated guest, staff, and community interaction through these impact tourism programs:

  • Each day, we showcased a local fruit or vegetable, using a small informational sign citing seasonality and various uses.
  • Menus highlighted and explained ‘locally grown yet guest-unknown’ produce items or why we didn’t serve non-sustainably caught tuna or shrimp.
  • We restricted the recipes to only-national food, seasonal choices. Sustainable travelers wish to experience local flavors, or recipes created by laudable cooks but inspired by the people and products found locally. Exotic menu items, much less imported foods, did not match our travelers’ expectations.
  • We invited local artisans to come to the lodge, to make and sell their arts on-site, some offering guests a hands-on experience. Guests mingling directly with community craftspeople is a treasured experience.
  • Some confident employees taught simple Spanish phrases or palm weaving lessons during late afternoon guest activities.
  • We invited local crafts people to produce hospitality business needs: placemats, candle holders, bamboo furniture, chocolate items, even soaps. With added experience and proven production, we also sold these items in the gift shop.
  • The naturalist staff members led presentations, which both educated and allowed for guests to meet other guests. We included researchers from Corcorvado National Park or environmental-educational NGOs; their presentations subsequently benefitted their organizations’ research via guest donations. 
  • Guests helped collect data from multiple camera traps lining the forest trails, even making scat and footprint molds.
  • Since 1993, we’ve harvested seedling trees beneath primary forest trees for guests to re-plant in second growth areas during our “Plant-A-Tree Tour”. To regenerate and improve property with Osa-species trees, we shared trees with local farmers and help reforest barren school yards.
  • Since 2010, the staff-iniatiated “LapaThon” has started the race at the Carbonera School, crossed several streams to finish at the village plaza. Many guests and employees have participated, including Osa children and adults. Fees and donated funds were contributed by former guests plus local and national businesses. Earned funds support Osa community’s needs: ambulance supplies, a school water tank, building municipal sports court, etc. The LapaThon requires extra management time and skills, and helps to promote good health, communal spirit and aids local infrastructure building.

Additionally, prior to our sale of Lapa Rios and honoring our intention to “make a difference; be the change we wish for the future,” we placed a permanent conservation easement on the Lapa Rios Reserve in 2013, the first Central American business to place rights and restrictions in perpetuity on its Reserve property. The rights assign use only to the Lapa Rios business for its guests’ educational and scientific purposes, and the title belongs to Lapa Rios. Restrictions echo other easements, basically denying development and requiring routine monitoring against outside impact or contamination.

Reflections Over the Decades: Learning How to Design-Build-Operate a Locally-Designed Palm Thatch Lodge and Primary School

Lessons Learned in Decade One

There were no guidebooks or core principles on “How to Build an Ecolodge in 10 Easy Steps”. At the beginning, we had no electricity, no infrastructure, only water sourced from a hilltop spring and a marine radio for communication. We lacked development experience hence no financial backer, but what provided confidence was believing in ourselves and the values we held. We confronted a laundry list of challenges:

  • We needed to develop and build local relationships, beginning with:
    • architects, engineers, and a palm thatch expert;
    • construction crews and training specialists;
    • suppliers and distributors, including those legally harvesting renewable natural resources for construction (such as palm fronds for roofing, cane for walls, etc.);
    • along with travel companies, naturalists, lodge owners, conservation-minded lawyers, and the government tourism department, in order to find and add value to authentic natural destinations which answer both the travelers’ and communities’ needs and expectations.
  • Together with three neighbor-mothers, we developed ideas to build a primary school, which required solutions for:
    • Funding the reliable skilled labor and materials, since Costa Rican government doesn’t build local schools;
    • Transferring school complex to Ministry of Education for teacher staffing;
    • And, most importantly, how to repay any community lenders and ourselves in the process.
  • We needed to employ and continuously train community members who were willing to work, starting with basic construction labor skills and advancing to hospitality skills. We constantly confronted the question, “How do we identify people who want to increase their personal responsibility, earn a salary, improve skills capacity, wear socks and a belt, learn about the Osa’s unique environment, are curious to speak conversational English, etc.?”
  • We were forced to learn how to promote and teach unfamiliar, intangible environmental concepts and the abstract values underpinning land conservation.

Needless to say, we did not hold all the solutions; lessons were learned only though experiencing actual work on the ground. Best practices relied on attempting to “do good,” then modeling and teaching the what, why, and how to.

To mitigate our poor practices, for our planet to survive with people, education is the tool for identifying why and how we lower our impact. Impact tourism relies on educating every stakeholder involved in the lodge operation. Learning is not simply about children’s basics education, but it is also the only tool for employees, local communities, and travelers to improve personal experiences. The Carbonera School was not the only education center we created; Lapa Rios itself needed to be a school, at times many schools, for staff, community and guests.

Lessons Learned in Decade Two

With the lodge and school up and running, we continued to measure all decisions with the question “How will this action or decision impact the rainforest, the community and the business?” We envisioned ‘success’ beyond the immediate situation, eclipsing easy answers.  To champion the sustainable mission, we found that measuring the business only using monetary gain negated the vision. When using sustainable practices, we had to move slowly, both to ease the cultural transition and also slow the drain of our dwindling life savings. We built trust and confidence with our staff and community, often acting contrary to local customs. Critical to ensuring sustainability of our business, conservation, and community efforts, we considered our long-term planning early on. Guided by our key metric for success, we unknowingly created a “triple bottom line” practice, interpreting viability by combining people + environment + fiscal success.

Lessons Learned in Decade Three

Decade three allowed us time to expand and reflect on our impact tourism practices. We learned that fortunately, sustainable impact tourism aims to support, educate and develop community-based tour operators, local farmers, crafts people, and renewable resources collectors. Authentic impact tourism is a business working beyond its own borders.

True impact tourism also has the opportunity to augment national land preservation. Lodges around the world, especially those with land holdings, have an opportunity to further extend land conservation and/or add buffering zones to existing parks or reserves—before the property owner-developers no longer have the voice or opportunity. Owner-developers with private lands need act ‘beyond their voice’ now, to make conservation a permanency, a legacy greater than any monetary gain.

Final Reflections

What had begun with untrained developers and unskilled employees at an eight-bungalow ecolodge alongside a wilderness track become a world-leading ecolodge. This was not because the Osa finally got a roadway infrastructure upgrade in 2017, but because we all held a common belief that “a tree left standing is worth more than one cut down.”We all listened and learned from multiple organizations, evolved our product detail by detail, we treasured our staff and growing success. Because of ecotourism, land conservation started to rebound by 2005, farmers choosing preservation over slash and burn. Women became more educated, accepted work opportunities and now represent twenty-five percent of Osa tourism businesses. New houses have been constructed, savings/checking accounts replaced the jar under the 4th tree root, good health and happiness are common. The internet and cellphones connect the lodge to the world (though guests receive a signal in one area only). Suppliers now come to the Osa with much greater ease compared to 20 years of unreliable boats or hours by truck from San José. Best of all, the rainforest, its streams and moist air, remain constant, blissfully unaware of human curiosity. Undisturbed, this pristine environment dazzles humans with its endemic flora and fauna, the crashing waves or tiniest hummingbird flying next to its mimicking beetle. Does any critter or character in this cast of millions sense the peoples’ awe, their respect or gratitude?

In the end, we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught.

1968, a Baba Dioum credo

My deepest gratitude to our community and the world’s travelers who believed in and supported us along an amazing Lapa Rios impact journey.

About the author:

Karen Greiling Lewis, raised in Minnesota, loves new adventures, preferably in the outdoors. Multiple and diverse life experiences helped Karen pioneer IMPACT tourism: Girl Scouts, AFS student exchange, professional musician-teacher, Peace Corp Volunteer and raising two children.

In 1990, she and John Lewis took their bird watching avocation to a contributory level, purchasing 1,100 acres of tropical rainforest in the Osa Peninsula, SW Costa Rica. To maintain-preserve the biodiverse-rich property, they and their community designed and built the Lapa Rios Ecolodge. From its 1993 opening until the 2019 sale, Lapa Rios Lodge and its community offered a unique cultural and wilderness rainforest experience to world travelers.

Karen believes education is the best tool to sustain cultural and natural environments. Education helps increase an individual’s self-determination and raises awareness for communal and natural resource preservation. Socio-environmental education helps attract discerning travelers eager to learn about remote wilderness and its people. She co-developed La Asociación de Educacíon in 1991, a Lapa Rios guest-supported foundation dedicated to build-maintain Osa primary schools. In 2013, Lapa Rios Lodge, with the assistance of The Nature Conservancy and Costa Rican-based CEDARENA land trusts, placed a conservation easement on the 930-acre Lapa Rios Reserve, now preserved in perpetuity. Without question, the 17-year management assistance from Cayuga Sustainable Hospitality helped improve and promote the Lapa Rios product and experience. Karen wears the designation Founder of Lapa Rios with honor.

This Impact Tourism Handbook was made possible by generous financial support from Elevate Destinations, Hilton, Holbrook Travel, and Overseas Adventure Travel.