Day 2: Enchanted by San Gerardo de Dota
If asked to describe my vision of paradise, I would depict something akin to the emerald valley of San Gerardo de Dota -- truly one of Costa Rica's best kept secrets. This is a place where daytime temperatures hover around 70 F, and where anglers can cast a line for plump rainbow trout in the frothy waters along the high-elevation Savegre River. Simple wood houses hug the green mountainsides, and life moves at a gentler pace.
At 80 Km along Cerro de la Muerte, the road veers off and steeply descends some 500 meters into the spectacular valley of San Gerardo de Dota.
Roughly 150 people inhabit this river vale and, as I soon discovered, all are family or friends on a first-name basis. Rows of peach and apple trees line the gravel road which snakes through the tiny village. There are no supermarkets, banks or gas stations, just a couple of sodas and a handful of cabins and lodges. I was staying at Savegre Hotel de Montana, the granddaddy of all lodges and a kind of legend among birders who have been visiting this hidden valley for years.
Undoubtedly, the area's main draws are highland birding and trout fishing, both of which became popular with travelers in the 80's. Tourism in the valley today can largely be attributed to the Chacon family, owners of the Savegre Hotel de Montana.
Don Efrain Chacon and his brother first visited San Gerardo in the early 1950's when it was little more than steep tracks of heavily-forested land. Realizing its potential, they returned and began clearing portions to plant fruit orchards. They traveled by foot over grueling terrain, as the road had yet to be constructed, and lived in primitive conditions with their families for years. After the introduction of rainbow trout to the Savegre River in the 60's, word got out, and fisherman along with the odd curious traveler began to visit.
Although still a family-run endeavor, the Savegre Hotel de Montana is no longer the mom and pop operation known only in birding circles. The lodge now has 30 comfortable cabins and attracts both passionate birders and the occasional angler. I considered myself more of the latter, but I would soon be initiated into the world of birding.
My junior suite had all the basic amenities in addition to an inviting fireplace and sitting area. The region sits 2,200 meters above sea level with a perpetual spring-like climate. However, evenings are at times wintry enough to warrant a toasty fire, at least for a Central Valley girl like me.
The Chacon family is quite unassuming; you will often see the 80-something Don Efrain on a rigorous morning hike. I spoke with his wife while she tended her peach trees and recounted the old days when she first visited San Gerardo on foot. They began with a couple of rustic cabins run by generator, and slowly expanded as eco-tourism spread throughout the country.Thankfully, tourism in the valley remains minimal, and visitors like me can still enjoy the beauty that initially attracted the Chacons.
Healthy meals are served buffet-style in the restaurant, where guests gathered to compare notes on their day's discoveries. I joined a group of birdwatchers around the lodge's hummingbird feeders, and watched several photographers with huge telephoto lenses twitter excitedly (much like the birds they were photographing). I assumed that with such expensive cameras they were with National Geographic or some other publication, but I was mistaken -- these were die-hard birders, and they wanted that perfect shot.
Before dinner, I wandered around the outskirts of the lodge, and spoke with a few locals about the fishing. They were some of the friendliest, most cheerful Ticos I had ever met. Between the fresh mountain air, fabulous fishing and idyllic setting, I could understand why.