San Gerardo de Dota, nine kilometers (5.5 miles) west and sharply downhill from the Pan-American Highway at Kilometer 80, is an exquisite hamlet tucked at the base of a narrow wooded valley at 1,900 meters (6,200 feet)—a true Shangri-la cut off from the rest of the world. It’s a magnificent setting. The road is snaking, steep, and breathtakingly beautiful.
The Valle de Río Savegre is a center for apples and peaches; it also attracts resplendent quetzals, especially during the April-May nesting season. The Savegre Mountain Hotel hosts the Quetzal Education Research Complex, a religious entity operated in association with the Southern Nazarene University of Oklahoma. Also here is the Savegre Biological Reserve, at Savegre Natural Reserve & Spa; there are trails, and it offers jeep tours into the cloud forest. Perhaps the best spot for guaranteed quetzal spotting in season (Oct.-Feb.) is Finca Luis Monge (tel. 506/2740-1005, $5), about one kilometer (0.6 miles) above the village school.
The Trogon Lodge Canopy Tour offers a zipline ride among five treetop platforms ($35), plus a waterfall hike and horseback ride ($35). After hiking, you can relax with a massage at Las Cumbres de Altamira (tel. 506/2740-1042), at the top of the mountainside.
Los Quetzales National Park
San Gerardo is a gateway to Parque Nacional Los Quetzales (tel. 506/2200-5354, 8am-4pm daily, $10), created in 2005 and covering 5,000 hectares (12,360 acres) of cloud forest on the upper reaches of the Río Savegre. The park borders the Pan-American Highway between Kilometer 70 and Kilometer 80; the main entrance is opposite Restaurante Los Chesperitos, at Kilometer 76.5. It currently has three trails. The park opens for birdwatchers at 6am by appointment; guides ($10 pp) can be hired with 24 hours’ notice. The San José-San Isidro bus (hourly from Calle Central, Ave. 22, tel. 506/2222-2422) will drop you at the entrance.
Rodolfo Chacón and his wife, Maribel, have four cabinas—Cabinas El Quetzal (tel./fax 506/2740-1036, $68.75 pp, including meals), on the banks of the river. All have hot water, and there’s a children’s playground.
Trogon Lodge (tel. 506/2293-8181, standard $59 s, $79 d, junior suite $110 s, $130 d) enjoys a beautiful and secluded setting at the head of the Valle de San Gerardo, beside the burbling river tumbling through exquisitely landscaped grounds. There are 10 simply appointed two-bedroom hardwood cabins with tasteful fabrics, heaters, private baths with hot water, and verandas. Meals are served in a rustic lodge overlooking a trout pond. Fishing is available. Trails lead to waterfalls. Guided horseback rides, quetzal tours, a canopy tour, and mountain bike rentals are offered.
Set amid beautifully landscaped grounds, Savegre Lodge Natural Reserve & Spa (tel. 506/2740-1028, from $106 s/d), in the midst of the tiny little community, has 20 handsome all-wood cabins with heaters. There are also 20 newer, more spacious, wood-paneled junior suites. It has trails, plus bird-watching trips, cloud-forest hiking, guided horseback riding, and trout fishing. A deluxe spa opened in 2010 with two huge whirlpool tubs and three treatment rooms. At last visit, quetzals flew back and forth below the restaurant veranda.
Suria Lodge (tel. 506/2740-1004, $60 pp, including all meals), at the end of the road, also offers lovely Colorado-style cabins. Alejandro Dada at El Manantial Mountain Lodge (tel. 506/2740-1045, $65 s, $87 d, including breakfast) has cozy accommodations in a simple wooden lodge with rough-hewn floors, along with an open-air restaurant with a cast-iron stove overlooking an apple orchard. You can “pick your own dinner” from the organic garden. There’s even a simple steam room with a slate seat.
One of my favorite hotels in Costa Rica, Dantica Cloud Forest Lodge & Gallery (tel. 506/2740-1067, low season $136-163 s/d, high season $163-189), midway between the highway and valley bottom, is a dramatic modernist creation with walls of glass throughout. Run by a Danish-Colombian couple, it has seven one- and two-bedroom villas plus a suite (with its own private garden) tastefully furnished Ikea-style, with cozy down duvets and thermal blankets. Lovely details include teak and gray stone floors, space heaters, halogen ceiling lights, and tasteful art pieces; there are also genuine antique doors, window rails, and even roof tiles imported from Colombia. There are lots of thoughtful extras, such as flashlights, ponchos, and walking sticks in every room. These details, and hip contemporary baths with whirlpool tubs, gracefully combine old and new into a delightful aesthetic. The two-bedroom villas have fully equipped kitchens. Some rooms are a hilly 200-meter (660-foot) hike from reception. A highlight is the exhibition of ethnic art, and a gift store sells quality indigenous pieces. Massages are offered, and seven kilometers (4.5 miles) of trails lead through a private 20-hectare (49-acre) forest adjoining Parque Nacional Los Quetzales.
All the lodges serve food, including Restaurante La Tapir (7am-9pm daily, $2-18), at Dantica Cloud Forest Lodge, with its glass walls and cozy cast-iron stove. Look for such breakfast treats as European-style pancakes, and a bagel with smoked salmon, cream cheese, capers, and peppers. Lunch could include steak sandwiches with onions, mushrooms, and paprika. I enjoyed a gourmet dinner of grilled zucchini with tomato pomodori sauce ($4.50), a fillet of trout with fresh herbs ($9.50), and a hot banana with ice cream and chocolate sauce ($5).
San Gerardo de Dota has two outstanding stand-alone restaurants. A 400-meter (0.25- mile) uphill hike from Dantica brings you to Comida Típica Miriam (tel. 560/2740-1049, 6am-8pm daily, $5-10), a local farmstead and soda where the charming Serrano family serves delicious, filling meals in a simple room heated by an old cast-iron stove. Miriam also rents out basic cabins with heaters ($35) and has trails good for spotting quetzals.
Restaurant Los Lagos (tel. 506/2740-1009, email@example.com, 6am-7pm Mon.-Thurs., 6am-9pm Fri.-Sun., $5-12), in the valley bottom opposite Cabinas El Quetzal, specializes in trout dishes; it also has lodging. And nearby, the new Café Kahawa (tel. 506/2740-1051) has a lovely open-air riverside setting for enjoying an eclectic range of dishes, from tacos to fresh trout with organic veggies.
A minibus (tel. 506/8367-8141, $15) connects the Pan-American Highway with San Gerardo and meets the San José-San Isidro bus at Kilometer 80 at 7:40am daily; it departs San Gerardo for the highway at 6:50am daily.
Excerpted from the Ninth Edition of Moon Costa Rica.