The Great Dilemma of the Ecolodge Owner – Resolved Today!

In the late 1980s, John and Karen Lewis, two former Peace Corps volunteers from Minnesota, came to Costa Rica. What they had in mind was to purchase a parcel of endangered rainforest for conservation, build a school for the local community, and develop a high-end ecolodge to generate conservation funds, employment and offer an inspiring, educative experience for visitors. Their pioneering project became known as Lapa Rios Ecolodge, and has saved thousands of trees and touched hundreds of lives since its opening in 1992. To this day some 27 years on, Lapa Rios is still considered an exemplary model for sustainable luxury tourism.

Lapa Rios during construction in 1991. The picture suffered from humidity damage while stored at Lapa Rios.

But it hasn’t all been plain sailing. John and Karen quickly realized that running a luxury ecolodge in a remote area of Costa Rica was challenging. They realized their need for an exit strategy. In April of 1999, John and Karen closed the lodge for a week and invited experts from around the world to the “Ecolodge Owner Dilemma Conference” in order to find a solution. It was an intense workshop and in the end, there were two clear conclusions. In order to be sustainable, Lapa Rios needed professional management and the rainforest needed to be protected in perpetuity.

The professional management part was solved by hiring the Cayuga Collection, a Costa Rica based management company for small sustainable luxury hotels and lodges. For the last 20 years John and Karen have been working with Cayuga’s owners, Hans Pfister and Andrea Bonilla, to successfully bring state of the art hotel management to the tropical rainforests of the Osa Peninsula. And Lapa Rios has gone from strength to strength.

The conservation part was solved by signing an easement with Cedarena, a Costa Rican NGO and Nature Conservancy to ensure that no tree ever gets cut down in the private reserve which protects some of Central America’s last remaining lowland coastal rainforest. As a result of John and Karen’s conservation efforts, the amount of wildlife has increased dramatically in the area.

The Ecolodge Owner Dilemma has been “under control” for the past 20 years with the guaranteed protection of the rainforest in place and the professional management services provided by Cayuga. But now in their mid-seventies, John and Karen have also been looking to pass on the torch of ownership to a perfect buyer. One who would honor their legacy, take care of their ‘baby’, and also pay a fair price, giving hope to all those ecotourism entrepreneurs out there that their blood, sweat and tears will be honored some day.

Today, Lapa Rios was sold to that perfect buyer.

And to none other than the owners of Pacuare Lodge, a National Geographic Unique Lodge of the World just like Lapa Rios. They are Costa Rican, understand ecotourism and have a passion for hospitality. John and Karen are at ease in the knowledge that their lodge, the trees in the surrounding forest and the staff are in good hands. Mission accomplished.

Ecolodge Owner Dilemma resolved.

18 Responses

  1. so amazing and grateful to see the vision, passion and life-work of john and karen carried-on.
    much love from the mearns family. (sammy, peggy, kelly and cara)

    1. Thanks for the nice comment. Please come back to Lapa Rios or any of the other Cayuga Collection Hotels and Lodges soon.

  2. Fantastic news. While one legacy ends another begins- so happy for everyone whose passion and dedication created the transformative experience that is Laps Rios! Congratulations!

  3. It is the most beautiful, peaceful and inspiring place I have ever stayed, not a day goes by that I don’t wish I was back there. I am so grateful to John and Karen for Lapa Rios, and so happy that their inspiration and dream, will continue with Cayuga……..I hope to come back, I plan to return. I loved it there, and wish I could stay forever ! Thank you.

  4. It’s so great that Roberto and Luz of Pacuare Lodge can conserve the legacy and bring their own special style into the future of Lapa Rios. Well done! Congratulations Cayuga for bringing Lapa Rios into prominence and for maintaining their ethical and environmental fervor.

  5. Felicitaciones a todos : a los Lewis, a Roberto y Luz a Hans y Andrea, con quienes he tenido el privilegio de compartir aventuras y esfuerzos desde los inicios de la época del Turismo Sostenible. Un abrazo

  6. Congratulations, John and Karen. So pleased that your amazing, inspiring legacy will continue. Look forward to visiting Lapa Rios again soon!

  7. What wonderful news, my enthusiastic congratulations, after so many years of struggle to solve what is indeed, the dilemma of most privately protected areas around the world that depend on, and risk to be limited by, the life span of their passionate founder – owners…! So glad that Roberto and Luz could take over Lapa Rios from Karen and John, and with this they are creating synergies between 2 outstanding places that we, the members of The Long Run (, had the privilege to visit a few years ago… I sincerely hope that more such alliances will follow among our members, for a growing worldwide network of unique places where nature is fully protected for perpetuity, while at the same time generating sufficient income for their professional management and benefits for local communities…
    The legacy of Lapa Rios is secured, while Karen and John can now enjoy a life with less burdensome responsibilities…
    I hope to meet you soon again in our next meeting of The Long Run,
    Chumbe Island Coral Park

  8. This is terrific news! Thanks to Karen and John (backed by Cayuga) for setting a high benchmark and holding out until the right person came along. We all know it wasn’t easy, but you’ve shown that careful succession planning can bring fine results. All the best wishes, to everyone involved,

  9. Nice to see it sold to somebody who knows how to keep it the way it all started with John and Karen..

  10. Happy to hear Roberto and Luz will continue the conservation efforts, it will be in the best hands no doubt!! I’m so so happy for them and the Puerto Jimenez community.

  11. Amazing news. Congratulations Karen and John for all you have achieved, and Cayuga who have provided that exemplary professional management all these years. 20 years after the realisation of the exit necessity, you have certainly waited for the right solution and time.
    Best of wishes to Roberto and Luz – another exemplary lodge and management, Lapa Rios couldn’t wish for better new owners!

    1. Thanks Vicky. We are very proud of what we have achieved and know that Lapa Rios will be in good hands with Roberto and Luz.

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