Thursday, June 28, 2012

Boutique Hotels in Costa Rica? Should they be Added to the Endangered List?

One of the Original Boutique
Hotels in Costa Rica
Walking down memory lane to the 1990’s, Costa Rica welcomed their first world class hotel chain, the Spanish firm known as Barceló. Specializing in the “All Inclusive” style of lodging, this style of travel did not take much of a foothold in this country, and the Boutique Hotel market remained the most popular choice for tourist accommodations. Now we fast forward some 20+ years and Costa Rica hosts more than a dozen major hotel chains! Everything from Marriott, to Best Western, Intercontinental, Hilton, Choice, Hyatt, Wyndham, Four Seasons and the most controversial group….Riu, which now serve as the main players, with more jumping in each year. If that wasn't enough, ICT (Instituto Costarricense de Turismo) has now announced the Grand Openings of some 11 more new Chain hotels, among them Marriott, Hyatt, Hilton, Wyndham, and other recognized names all planned for the GAM (Greater Metropolitan Area) or the already saturated Guanacaste region of Costa Rica.  With the economy barely stumbling along some 5 years now, all tourism areas of Costa Rica have suffered greatly from the world financial crisis, many areas averaging as low as 38% occupancy, which makes it hard to even keep their doors open and meet their financial obligations.  What will become of some of these hotels when the established hotel chains and their huge marketing budgets take over? As expressed by the Vice President of the Costa Rican Chamber of Hotels, Gustavo Araya, "If the (tourism) numbers were more positive, the increase in hotel rooms would not be so worrisome." (Paraphrased and translated by me......sorry.)
Does this mean the Boutique Hotel concept is ready to be added to the endangered list in Costa Rica?

The "boutique" style is said to have been created in New York back in 1984, though
A Lovely Boutique Hotel in Arenal
there are valid arguments that in 1981 both London and San Francisco boasted the first boutique sized hotels. Most likely, 1984 might be when the term “boutique hotel” actually was coined, with the term coming into more mainstream use. Entrepreneurs Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell opened the boutique Morgans New York on Madison Avenue in the heart of Manhattan, and the concept grew by leaps and bounds from there. Morgans was small, stylish and unique, unlike the big brand-name hotels that predominated the markets at that time. The actual term "boutique hotel" was said to be coined by Rubell himself, who described their new hotel venture as being like a boutique as opposed to a department store. A very succinct analogy if you ask me!

The most defining characteristics of boutique style hotels are that they are generally small properties, with less than 100 rooms and more often averaging between 3 and 50 rooms total. They take great pride in offering
The controversial Mega Riu
Hotel Costa Rica
a super chic atmosphere, unique design and décor, contemporary styling and quite popular these days, a rich historical value or background. Most boutique hotels provide highly personalized service, with very hands-on staff, management and/or ownership, offering a genuine personality that just can’t be found in the large hotel chains. Services can be limited depending on the size and luxury level of the property or you can often find some of the most dynamic local and gourmet restaurants, world class spas, and other unique features that make them stand out from the standard hotel offering. The concept has been so successful, that most multi-national hotel corporations have begun to brand their own chains of boutique resorts in order to try to capture a share of this huge market.

Still a popular choice for hotels in Costa Rica, the concept of “boutique”, “design”
The popular Marriott Hotel San Jose
or “lifestyle” hotels, as they are often referred, has spread throughout the world, to include European & East Asian countries, appearing in such places as Indonesia, mainland China, Japan, Iceland, Turkey, India & the Middle East, just to name a few. They continue to remain popular options throughout Central and South America as well or basically anywhere that provides a desirable destination for travel. I am fairly certain that you will find some sort of boutique hotel in almost any corner of the world these days!

Target Market:
There are no longer cookie cutter molds for guests seeking the “Boutique experience”. Travelers are constantly looking for something new and different, while definitely expecting more than the simple comforts once acceptable to the average vacationista.
Award Winning Lapa Rios
Fabulous Boutique Hotel
Whether planning a business trip, destination wedding, honeymoon getaway, adults only escape, or just an overdue vacation, when planning travel, guests more often than not seek properties that are noticeably different in look and feel from the large branded hotels. Boutique hotels now even present a certain level of social branding. Those staying at these establishments are often considered as trendy, daring, fashionable, hip travelers that are quite often more ecologically minded. Since boutique facilities and their pricing can vary dramatically, there are now boutique properties designed to suit every demographic, any price range or social class, always with the idea of creating an unforgettable “guest experience” that just cannot be found in the larger hotel properties.

Boutique hotels retain certain benefits when it comes to cost of operations and overall profitability. They often have a large customer base to work with, as well as being favored by smaller travel agencies or tour operators that are looking to sell
Is this really what we want in Costa Rica?
the “experiential” concept that the boutique hotel property has to offer. Since boutique hotel owners do not have to pay a franchise fee to be part of a larger chain, the hotel can often operate with a lower overhead that adding costly amenities such as restaurants, spas and convention & meeting spaces would create. However, these added amenities can generate significant profitability and appeal to the hotel's bottom line, so more often than not you will find every sort of amenity imaginable in todays boutique hotel properties. Another benefit for boutique hotel owners is that well established small properties tend to have a higher rate of repeat and word of mouth business compared to normal industry standards, which can save on boutique sized marketing budgets rarely able to compete with the huge marketing budgets of large branded properties. Nevertheless, successful boutique hotels must continually adapt to the constantly changing trends, needs, tastes, preferences, and technology in order to remain competitive in this cut throat hotel market.

In the end, whether it's the most isolated green hotel getaway, the most unique historical location, the most private white sand beach, impeccable five-star white glove service, or you are just looking for that travel environment that loans their son’s boogey board, gives you cookies from their kitchen, offers the most incredible personalized guest services, or located in the most super chic locale, boutique hotels in every instance cater to their guests every need and whim. Who doesn’t want that kind of attention on their hard earned vacation? If we don't continue to support the Boutique Hotel Industry, Costa Rica could end up looking like this:

Could Costa Rica end up like this?

So for your next Costa Rica vacation, bypass that mega chain hotel and try one of the many Costa Rican Boutique Hotels, you will be personally helping keep these unique properties off Costa Rica’s endangered list!!

If you have a favorite boutique hotel you have visited, please feel free to share it with us in the comments section!!

Author: Kimberly Barron, originally from Malibu, California has lived in Parismina and Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica for 20 years. Starting as a certified tour guide, she spent 15 years managing fishing lodges on the Caribbean Coast and later 4* & 5* Hotels on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica. Currently semi-retired, Kimberly still works as the Marketing Director for Byblos Resort & Casino and Hotel Makanda by the Sea.


Monday, June 11, 2012

Sloths of Costa Rica..I wish I could be one in my next Life!

What the heck is a sloth?
Sloths are slow-moving, medium sized mammals. While they are warm-blooded, their blood is typically colder than other mammals, making them less susceptible to biting insects. Like other mammals, they have live births and produce milk to nurse their young.  Sloths are highly adapted to life in the jungles of Central and South America and are very common in certain parts of Costa Rica. Their diets consist mainly of vegetation, which while plentiful, is not very nutritious. Since they do not get much energy from that diet, sloths have a very slow metabolism. It takes up to 30 days to digest a single meal. Their hands and feet are well adapted to allow them to hang upside-down from trees most of their lives. Sloths will only descend from their arboreal homes about once a week to urinate and defecate.  Can you imagine?
Washing Baby Sloths:

The fur of the sloth is another highly specialized adaptation for this animal. The long outer hairs are grooved to allow water to drain away from the body. The hair near the base of their spines crests to form a “drip tip,” which allows rain water to flow off the back. Algae grows in the grooves on a sloth’s fur, providing extra camouflage for the canopy-dweller. Sloth fur also exhibits specialized functions; the outer hairs grow in a direction opposite from that of other mammals. In most mammals hairs grow toward the extremities, but because sloths spend so much time with their legs above their bodies, their hairs grow away from the extremities in order to provide protection from the elements while the sloth hangs upside down.
The Sloths of Costa Rica, also known locally as "Ozos Perezosos" ("Lazy Bears") and not known for being quick and nimble, though they are rather athletic in their own way.  Sloths have short, flat heads; big eyes; a short snout; long legs; and tiny ears. The species found in Costa Rica have stubby tails (6–7 cm long) handy for digging the hole when they defecate, and sloths' bodies usually are anywhere from 50 and 60 cm long.  There is something absolutely fascinating about these big hardly noticeable fur balls that appear too sleepy to budge from their perches in the high tree branches that makes them a favorite of all that have the pleasure to spot one. 

Aviarios del Caribe-Sloth Sanctuary in Cahuita:

Judy Avey Arroyo, a 63-year-old Costa Rica resident (she's originally from Anchorage, Alaska) has spent many years studying these incredible creatures, and this was never even part of her life plan.  In 1992, three local girls near Avey's Caribbean Costa Rica Hotel spotted a three-month-old sloth in the road. The girls carried the orphan to the hotel in search of help, and thus began Avey's study of this misunderstood mammal and her the start of her very popular Aviarios del Caribe Sloth Sanctuary, which has become a cult favorite among sloth enthusiasts and visiting tourism in Costa Rica.

Many of the sloths brought by locals or even travelers from up and down the country’s Caribbean coast to the Aviarios Sanctuary, are just a few months old when they arrive, while others are injured adults. Sometimes they have been badly electrocuted after climbing electrical or telephone cables, or have been crippled by a bad fall, or hit by a car.  There are so few options for these beautiful creatures to rehabilitate in the country, with the only other available sanctuary located on the Central Pacific coast of Costa Rica (recently certified by MINAET, the governing entity in Costa Rica) being located outside of Quepos & Manuel Antonio and is managed by the very popular Kids Saving the Rainforest (  These two facilities are two of only a handful of folks that will even accept these injured animals for rehab and are legally allowed to do so.

Sloths belonging to the Choloepus Genus and the Bradypus Genus arrive to the sanctuaries year round (these are the only types found in Costa Rica). The Choloepus is commonly called a two-toed sloth, although Avey points out it’s more like two fingers, as the animal’s lower limbs each have three toes. The Bradypus has three “fingers” (or "toes") and a sort of smiley face and appears to be wearing a mask around its eyes, so those are not as hard to spot, though both species are difficult to notice when living in the wild.  For both types of sloths, the fingers and toes are curved, claw-like bone appendages with fingernail coatings, which help sloths cling to branches and stuff a variety of tree leaves into their mouths. Sloths can also use the claws for defense against predators, especially should they find themselves on the jungle floor, though the most common predators are the harpy eagles, which can swoop down and snatch these large creatures right off a sturdy tree limb. Although the sluggish herbivores are rarely ever the first to attack, they will eagerly use their long claws if needed for self defense. Their natural self defense is further aided by an algae that grows within their furry coat and helps hide their scent from possible predators, such as ocelots and jaguars.  Naturally, it's humans that have long been one of the sloths' biggest threats, with the continuing loss of habitat.

The three-toed sloth is active during the day, unlike the nocturnal two-toed sloth, and so the three-toed specie is more commonly spotted by passersby. This sloth only eats leaves from trees and lianas, but may feed on one hundred individual trees of up to thirty species, eating leaves of different varying ages. Sloths live, feed, mate, and reproduce near the upper levels of the forest canopy and rarely come down from the canopy except for defecation. They often move to a new tree only to keep balance in their diet, and this is generally only every 2-3 days. Home ranges for sloth individuals can overlap considerably and females tend to be more social than the males. Sloths may prefer different food sources within the same home range, as they tend to feed on what their mothers taught them to eat while growing up.

Though large for an arboreal mammal, the three-toed sloth must also be light for it to be able to live on easily breakable branches where it can sleep for some 12-18 hours per day.  So for that reason, the sloth has overall reduced muscle mass. These unique creatures also have an enormous gut capacity, nearly 30% of their total body weight! The sloth's diet of leaves is digested very slowly, so they need a have this large capacity. Due to their slow metabolism, the sloths have thick fur to insulate them for when their body temperature drops at night.  That is why often you will spot a sloth basking in the sunlight of the day, before curling up in a ball in the tree for the night to conserve their limited energy.
When not sleeping, sloths move only when necessary and even then very slowly.  They have about a quarter as much muscle tissue as other animals of similar weight. They can move at a marginally higher speed if they are in immediate danger from a predator (4 m or 13 feet per minute for the three-toed sloth), but they burn large amounts of energy doing so. Their specialized hands and feet have long, curved claws to allow them to hang upside-down from branches without effort.  In fact, their nails are so adept that hunters can shoot a sloth and it will often remain hanging in the tree!   While they sometimes sit on top of branches, they usually eat, sleep, and even give birth hanging from limbs.
About once a week, the sloth descends from its elevated living space, digs a small hole with its stubby and erect triangular stump of a tail, defecates and urinates in the hole, then covers it with leaves using its hind legs and returning as soon as possible to its safer elevated home. This process lasts less than 30 minutes, but is the most dangerous moments in the sloths life as it is during this time the sloth is most vulnerable to predators. While mortality of young sloths is high, individuals that survive are recorded to live as long as 9-11 years in captivity, and as many as 20-30 years in the wild.

Several kinds of moths have a symbiotic relationship with this species and live as adults on the sloths. These arthropods leave the sloth to deposit their eggs once a week on the sloth's dung, at which time the hatched larvae feed on the dung, pupate, and later emerge as adults, to fly in search of another sloth to make their home. A single sloth may carry 1000 or more species of moths, beetles, mites and other small insects you do not want to share your skin (or bed) with! 
Because of the cyanobacteria and other parasites, sloth fur serves as a small ecosystem all its own.
Adult males are characterized by a patch of shorter hair on their backs that is colored pale to bright yellow, with a dorsoventral black stripe through the center. Adult females lack such a marking, so that is the easiest way to determine the sex. It is essentially impossible to distinguish the sexes of young and juvenile sloths because there is no external genitalia.

An adult female spends approximately half the year pregnant and the other half rearing her single (but on rare occasion twin) offspring. Young sloths can begin eating leaves when they are only two weeks old. As the mother carries the young with her, she shows it which trees and lianas are fit to eat within their home range and when the baby is around 6 months old, the mother suddenly leaves the young to her home-range and moves to establish her own new home range nearby. The young and mother maintain contact through vocalizations, and the young continues to use this portion of the mother's range for a while and then eventually gives up the bond and departs to live on its own.  Their home range can contain over 100 favorite types of meals for the sloth, but by far the most common would be the Cecropia (Guarumo in Spanish) tree, which also happens to be the easiest to spot these beautiful animals due to its large open limbs.
Thank Claire Trimer-Sloth Wrangler

The History of  a Costa Rican Sloth Sanctuary by Judy Arroyo:
Over twenty years ago a small sloth was brought to my door. I cupped the tiny animal in my hands and knew I had to do something. This baby sloth, who many of you know as Buttercup, was dying of starvation. Her mother was most likely dead and I was faced with a huge challenge. At the time, little was known about sloths, much less baby sloths. I was advised to let the baby go, that I would not be able to feed her, that I would only be prolonging the inevitable. I looked down at her little face and knew that I would do anything in my power to save this tiny sloth.

Buttercup had a few difficult months. Using books, common sense and intuition, I was able to concoct a diet that brought her into adulthood. Today, she holds the record of being the sloth to live the longest time in captivity. She reigns supreme over our veranda at the Sloth Sanctuary.
As the years passed, we became the “sloth people”. Orphaned and injured sloths were brought to us for rehabilitation. In 1997 we started an educational program to teach local people and tourists that baby sloths are bad pet choices. We raised awareness about poaching and habitat destruction. The Sloth Sanctuary became a gathering place and international hub for sloth research.
Today we are responsible for over 130 sloths. Many have been maimed by electric wires, or tortured by cruel humans. They require our constant attention. We love taking care of these adorable gentle animals, but we need your help.
Please consider supporting us as we care for these beautiful animals, and become a virtual member of our team. Help us raise awareness in our local community so the needless cruelty and the pain will stop. 
You can learn more about the Aviarios del Caribe Sloth Sanctuary or make a donation at  The sloths thank you!!
Also,  for those aficionados of sloths that just can't get enough of these adorable creatures, I definitely recommend you join for the latest and cutest to be found in the sloth world! 
And for those that live or will be visiting the Manuel Antonio area, please don't miss the chance to volunteer in our area at  the ever popular Kids Saving the Rainforest found at Hotel Mono Azul or check it out at!!  They can arrange individual or groups tours of the sanctuary with their resident veterinarian and helpful and enthusiastic volunteers!
Kimberly Barron, originally from Malibu, California has lived in Parismina and Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica for 20 years.  Starting as a certified tour guide, she spent 15 years managing fishing lodges on the Caribbean Coast and later 4* & 5* Hotels on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica.  Currently semi-retired, Kimberly still works as the Marketing Director for Byblos Resort & Casino and Hotel Makanda by the Sea.
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