From an Artists Workshop Retreat to a Sustainable Tourism Eco-Hotel
After two years of planning, in 2005 San Francisco art dealer and gallery owner Carlos Rojas, and Randy Langendorfer, marketing executive and then owner of a boutique contracting business specializing in restoration and renovation of vintage homes in San Francisco and Los Angeles, sold their businesses and all their possessions in the US to move to Costa Rica. The plan was to invite artists to Monte Azul, a 100 acre property near Chirripó National Park and along the banks of the Chirripó Pacifico River, to produce work that would be sold on site and at their gallery space in the Gramercy Park neighborhood of Manhattan.
In the meantime they also developed the Monte Azul Boutique Hotel and Mountain Resort, along with an airy studio and gallery, outdoor restaurant and about 4 kilometers of hiking trails.
“I guess after realizing in our planning stages that a strictly art based studio program left some of our financial needs wanting,” laughed Carlos, “we decided to build four casitas next to the Chirripó River running through our property, as well a restaurant and lounge area. We decided then to plunge into our equal love of organic farming and gardening, chancing that equally minded souls would gravitate to this remote, mountain paradise hotel.” The immediate success of the art business in Costa Rica also resulted in the closure of the MACA gallery in New York, after the two decided to focus their complete attention on Monte Azul.
The result of that ambitious, but risky, decision soon resulted in accolades from such varied sources as “Su Casa” magazine acclaiming the architecture and ambience, to reviews by Conde Nast Traveller, Food and Wine, and Mother Nature Network. With a recent rating by TripAdvisor of #7 in all of Central America for Bed and Breakfast Inns, and probably the only hotel in Costa Rica with a 100% perfect excellent rating on that website, Carlos and Randy’s dream of excellence in art, accommodations and sustainable tourism has certainly been achieved and recognized.
Monte Azul is not your typical resort / hotel that one would think of when visiting Costa Rica. With only four riverside casitas, this places it in the category of a boutique hotel, and one should not come here if he or she is looking for discos, nearby nightlife or city interests. There are none! But, for the eco-vacation traveler, birder or honeymoon couple looking for quiet solitude without skimping on comfort and service, all within a 100 acre protected private rainforest reserve, then this will be more than they had expected.
From the personal attention and greeting upon arrival by the bi-lingual staff, to the welcoming homemade goat cheese and homemade crackers with a glass of wine, guests immediately feel attended to and pampered at the Monte Azul Mountain Resort. The entire resort walls, including the casitas, are replete with art work from several of the most acclaimed artists in Costa Rica, as well as some of those just emerging on the scene. “Half our income is from the sale of art at Monte Azul,” states Carlos. “In addition, we also participate in sponsoring exhibits at the Children’s Museum in San Jose to promote and support the local artists.”
Guests staying at Monte Azul are quickly lured to the well-marked hiking trails that take them along the river or to the waterfall within the private reserve, and to the goat farm from which Randy makes the smoothest goat cheese for the restaurant. In fact, Monte Azul brand cheeses will soon be offered nationally, primarily the creamy French style chevre, triple cream brie and ripened camembert. “My other responsibility is to make different homemade breads each day for our guests,” says Randy. “Carlos works with our two excellent cooks, Esteban Acuña and Andy Cárdenas, both local talent, to teach them the culinary skills that give us our high ratings as a restaurant.”
One of Randy’s other “duties” is as a guide to a nearby cheese maker. This is not the typical “casero” cheese made by most Costa Ricans, but high quality, Swiss cheese sold to resort restaurants and cheese aficionados. Family owner, Mata Hernandez, has a small organic farm across the river and up the hill from Monte Azul. There, he shows us how he starts a batch of cheese by heating milk in a large kettle and putting in the proper bacteria from Switzerland.
As the mixture begins to coagulate, he proudly shows us the rest of his organic farm where no pesticides are used, and only nitrogen, phosphorous and mineral rich compost generated on the property is used as fertilizer.
He even has a methane generating plant, an expanding balloon type structure in which he washes the cow dung into, which then is converted by bio-action into methane gas and residue. The gas goes through pipes to his home below which is used for cooking meals and heating the cow´s milk for making cheese.
In addition, speaking to me by way of Randy as translator, he describes the choice of plants, grass and trees used to best promote the organic, return to nature, sustainable aspects of his farm. I just had to think to myself how much more this isolated, local farmer knew, and used, about sustainable environmental practices than any city dwellers could possibly imagine! Also, for those not raised on a farm, guests to his ranch are encouraged to milk a cow as another back to nature experience.
Returning to the cheese factory sheds by his home overlooking the valley, we finished the cheese making process through several steps, ending in putting the curd into containers that allowed the whey to drain off, leaving a round mound of what is the beginning of the aging process.
Within 3 to 6 months or more, the cheese will age, shrinking in size, being constantly maintained by his wife who daily wipes off each round and turns it over for perfect aging.
Then, the perfect ending to this experience was to taste this homemade delicacy! And, then, to take some home.
For those wishing to experience the “old Costa Rica”, the ambience of a tropical rainforest with a profusion of flora, fauna, monkeys and other wildlife abounding, but enjoying also the luxury of a boutique art hotel, then Monte Azul is certainly for you. Oh, yes, they offer the typical day tours of zip lining, horseback riding or trips to Dominical beach or river rafting. But the simpler, ecological interests of an organic coffee farm tour, a trip to nearby family run thermal springs pool, or just meandering on the nature trails within their private reserve, that’s what Monte Azul is really about. That, and of course, the incredible cheese tour.
Business, Ecology, Ecotourism, Food & Dining, Hotels, Travel