A Crowded Field of Contenders Vying to Be 'The Next Costa Rica'

Stuart Emmrich February 22, 2005

For the past decade or so, Costa Rica has been on the ''must do'' list for travelers who want to experience a guilt-free (but still occasionally luxurious) vacation, as it has been home to a growing number of eco-resorts, including the trend-setting Lapa Rios. (The luxury factor went up a notch with the recent arrival of the Four Seasons on the Peninsula Papagayo, bringing with it a state-of-the-art spa and a championship golf course.)

Now some other countries in Central America -- including Panama, Honduras, Nicaragua and even Guatemala -- have begun to muscle in on Costa Rica's territory.

In particular, a lot of people like to compare Panama to Costa Rica 15 or 20 years ago. But that analogy is not quite right. Sure, there is a ton of nascent eco-tourism, and an embarrassment of wildlife and natural beauty to see -- just as in Costa Rica. But parts of Panama are undeniably first-world, and priced accordingly. In many ways, it is much more user-friendly for the casual adventurer than other developing nations: Many people speak English; the United States dollar is the official currency; the drinking water is clean; the government is stable; there are some nice hotels; and crime is low. The downside of this is that it's harder to vacation here on an ultrathin wallet. Unlike Costa Rica 15 years ago, Panama isn't a backpacker's nirvana. That said, what's your pleasure? Whitewater rafting? Bird-watching? Monkey-viewing? Surfing? Snorkeling? It's all there.

High on the list of destinations for many travelers to Panama these days is the Punta Caracol Acqua-Lodge, (507) 612-1088, www.puntacaracol.com.pa, which features six solar-powered luxury bungalows suspended over the waters of Almirante Bay, near Bocas del Toro. Double rooms start at $132 a person in low season, $162.50 a person in high season.

Honduras, with several hundred miles of Caribbean coastline, mountains and rain forests, is drawing both adventure seekers and bird-watchers. Visitors go to scuba dive around the Bay Islands off the northern coast, to see the famous Maya ruins of Copán, or to explore the cloud forests of La Muralla and Sierra de Agaltanational parks or the Rio Platano Biosphere Reserve.

One luxury eco-resort in Honduras is the Lodge at Pico Bonito, (504) 440-0388, www.slh.com/picobonito, with 22 cabins, each with a veranda, set in the middle of the rain forest, where nearby you can bathe beneath waterfalls or go rafting on Class I to IV rapids. Double rooms start at $155 in low season, $180 in high.

After years of political turbulence, Nicaragua is beginning to emerge as a popular eco-tourist destination, as word gets out about its pristine beaches, six active volcanoes and what has been called the largest area of primary-growth rain forest north of the Amazon. Morgan's Rock Hacienda and Ecolodge, on the Pacific coast near San Juan del Sur, has 15 bungalows -- all of which face west, so that you can watch the setting sun each evening from your private deck. Double rooms start at $151 a person in low season; $179 in high season; (506) 296-9442, www.morgansrock.com.

And even Guatemala, despite warnings from the United States State Department about the dangers of visiting that country, has begun to attract increasing numbers of American tourists. Ratcheting up the buzz level is Francis Ford Coppola's property, La Lancha -- a 10-room eco-resort, (800) 746-3743, www.blancaneauxlodge.com, on the shores of Guatemala's spectacular Lake Petén Itzá, just a short distance from the Maya ruins of Tikal. Doubles start at $95 in low season, $120 in high season. STUART EMMRICH.