Walking towards the lobby of the Hacienda Guachipelín, I come across a man carrying a big boa constrictor. But this isn’t a pet. The ecolodge grounds are brimming with wildlife and this particular snake was slithering too close to the restaurant for guests’ comfort. So a worker is gently relocating the snake farther from the center of things. He affably stops and poses for pictures. The snake flicks his tongue, telling me to hurry the heck up.
There’s plenty of space for snakes and humans on the grounds. And monkeys, birds, tapirs and even jaguars. Hacienda Guachipelín Volcano Ranch Hotel and Hot Springs is part of a 3,400-acre working ranch surrounded by jungle and borders Rincon de la Vieja Volcano, one of Costa Rica’s national parks. It’s a fabulous place to savor much of what Costa Rica offers tourists.
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The hacienda is in the Guanacaste region of northwestern Costa Rica, about an hour northeast of Liberia airport. There’s been ranching and cowboying on the hacienda’s land since about 1880. The Batalla family, who still owns the ranch, acquired the property in 1975. It became an ecolodge by accident.
In 1982, a Lonely Planet writer was working on a Costa Rica guidebook. She recommended visiting Rincon de la Vieja, which had become a national park about nine years earlier. Once the guidebook was published, tourists soon descended on the area. Back then the hacienda was only a family farm, Maria Membreño, manager of the hacienda’s reception area, told me.
“The road was too difficult,” she said, explaining that by the time people got all the way from Liberia, it was too dark to see the park. “Usually they arrived late at night. So they asked the family, ‘Can I stay tonight?’” And so the farm began to rent out rooms.
In the ensuing forty years, the hacienda has developed into the kind of mountain resort where you could spend an entire week. There are 79 guest rooms, an adventure center, trails, waterfalls, a gorgeous swimming pool, hot springs, restaurants, occasional live music at night and even a corral full of horses and cowboys.
“We try to be as sustainable as we can,” Membreño tells me as we sit by the pool. “We use solar panels for hot water.” But there’s also an electric assist since guests aren’t always patient about limited hot water. Oops. Is she looking at me significantly? I’m one of those guests that repeatedly asked why my water wasn’t hot.
The hacienda grows a lot of the food it serves in its restaurants. “We have our greenhouse,“ Membreño says. “We try to cultivate our own vegetables. For example, our salads come from there. Also, we have a small farm where we produce our eggs. And milk, for example, cheese, everything we will prepare here.”
In addition to a recycling program, Membreño says one of the hacienda’s proudest eco features is a biodigester to break down organic waste.
I spent a few days on the property as part of a trip with Choose Life Sober Adventures. One of the many wonderful things about that group experience was the knowledge of our guide, Marco Fallas. When visiting the hacienda or the adjacent park, you’ll have a much better chance of seeing wildlife if you hire a local guide.
On our walks and drives with Marco, we saw all three types of local monkeys: capuchins, howlers and spider monkeys. We watched monkeys swing through trees, passing over our heads in the forest. We also got to witness a whole band of howler monkeys taking turns crossing a telephone wire. Only one would cross at a time, lest they throw off the others’ balance. It was like human pedestrians walking across a janky suspension bridge, but only as wide as a finger. One of the younger monkeys was still getting the hang of it, moving forward in stops and starts, almost falling off, and probably not appreciating an audience taking videos.
One evening we saw a beautiful red, yellow and black striped coral snake crossing the road in front of our bus. We all got out to get a closer look at the highly venomous snake. Fortunately for us, they have tiny mouths, so they can’t really bite people unless they manage to strike between your fingers or toes.
We also saw lots of big rodents called agoutis that look a little like short-eared rabbits. But we didn’t see any tapirs. The piglike mammals are a rare sighting, according to Membreño. She laughingly told me about envying a German family who recently encountered a group of tapirs. Membreño herself has yet to see one.
The hacienda’s activity center is truly impressive, with a long menu of adventure tours. You can zipline, take a guided waterfall hike, ride horses and go river tubing, all on the property. You can also sign up for a farm and ranch tour where you hang out with cowboys all day. You don’t need to be a registered guest to use the adventure center. You can show up and join a public tour, or arrange a private tour for your group ahead of time.
My group took full advantage of the activities, including jumping into waterfalls, ziplining and river tubing. The guides were excellent and the gear sturdy. We also loved the hacienda’s hot springs, where nine pools varied by temperature and you could slather yourself with healing mud.
Rooms and food
My room was big, comfortable and colorfully decorated with huge paintings of jungle animals. I had a private bench outside the sliding back door and a hammock near my front door. I meant to spend time lounging in my hammock, but I was too busy ziplining and splashing around beneath waterfalls.
The hacienda has a big main buffet restaurant and another restaurant where you order off the menu. We ate most of our meals at the extensive buffet. There was lots for vegans to eat, including the salad bar, endless black beans and rice and lots of vegetables. The omnivores I was traveling with kept praising the chicken and the big selection of desserts. Since it’s Costa Rica, the coffee was always good.
If you want to experience lots of adventures in one place, Hacienda Guachipelín is a fun and convenient way to see part of Costa Rica. I highly recommend it for wildlife lovers who like a variety of physical activities — without sacrificing resort amenities like excellent food and a comfortable bed.
Images via Teresa Bergen