Equal parts chic and benevolent, Hotel Belmar is a truly one-of-a-kind boutique hotel. As one of the first eco tourism hospitality destinations in Costa Rica, Belmar has helped shape the storied history of Monteverde while spearheading efforts to protect its biodiversity and support the local community. Values aside, the charming Austrian-inspired architecture, ethereal views of the cloud forest landscape, and perfectly understated luxury accents make Belmar one of the most intoxicating hotels I have ever experienced. My friend Pedro Belmar was generous to give me a behind-the-scenes peak at this extraordinary family-owned gem that he and his sister Soledad have so beautifully nurtured.
Location: Monteverde, Costa Rica
Interview date: January 12, 2014
Perched atop the eponymous summit of Monteverde, Hotel Belmar offers striking views of unfathomably lush terrain that stretch as far as the Pacific Ocean. With the first step inside one instantly discovers the establishment itself to be equally awe-inspiring as its vistas.
The hotel was originally constructed in 1985 by Pedro Belmar and his wife Vera Zeledon, who settled in Monteverde following a decade-long sojourn in Austria. Inspired by the majestic wooden chalets they encountered during their stay, Hotel Belmar immediately stood out not only for its mere presence (as the second hotel in the area), but also for its charm. Not long after the Belmars first opened their doors, travelers far and wide were drawn to the unique character of the place. This extraordinary energy was brought to life through a pioneering approach to hospitality—one that successfully balanced a highly personalized luxury experience for guests with a commitment to preserving the wellbeing of the local environment and community.
The rich history of Monteverde can be likened to the beautiful artisanal hammocks famous from the region—an amalgam of diverse, color-soaked strands gracefully knotted to create something strong yet open. Hotel Belmar is an important and ongoing strand in this woven history, aiding the town’s transformation from a subsistence agriculture community to a thriving, modern ecotourism destination known around the world.
From the beginning, Belmar offered a new kind of employment for members of the local community - opportunities for social mobility as well as education in sustainable living. In doing so, it has shaped the lives of many families in the town and holds a special place in the collective hearts of Monteverde residents.
Since its early days providing visitors with an eco-conscious experience of the utmost caliber, Hotel Belmar has continued to expand on this foundation of sustainable practices. In 2002, Belmar joined the Certificate for Sustainable Tourism (CST) program sponsored by the Costa Rican government, leading the way for other Monteverde establishments to follow suit. Currently it is the only hotel in Monteverde to have achieved a level 5 (the highest possible) CST certification.
Naturally, the guest experience has continued to evolve as well. The kitchen is run by a world class chef serving simple yet exquisite meals. The bar boasts an impressive and highly creative menu of artisanal cocktails. In the chalet is a juice bar where guests can customize smoothies made of fruits grown in the garden out back. Free yoga classes are offered twice daily, and locally-sourced coffee is complementary as well. The staff is of course incredibly well-versed on activities and attractions in the area, and couldn't be more friendly or attentive.
Below are some excerpts from my conversation with Pedro Belmar about how the hotel became what it is today, the balance between luxury and sustainability, and the plethora of ways they are giving back to the community.
VV: What are some specific examples of how you strike a balance between a sustainable approach and a premium experience for guests?
PB: We have hot tubs in the rooms but we harvest and filter rainwater for this, and heat the water by solar power so that we’re not consuming more resources. We have upgraded to better quality linens, but we air dry everything rather than using dryers. We also use filtered rainwater for all the laundry in the hotel. We offer free coffee for guests that is locally sourced. This is of course a service that people appreciate, but it’s far more sustainable because coffee makers in the rooms would create a lot of extra waste.
VV: What are some new projects and future endeavors you guys are working on?
PB: At the moment we are finishing our greenhouse, which should be done this month. The greenhouse is being constructed with the biodynamic method; the idea is to have more fresh produce for our restaurant and juice bar, and to be sure of the quality. It will also be an educational facility where people can learn how to grow food. That’s part of the mission of the hotel and the greenhouse in particular. Eventually we plan on having a seed bank, because it’s hard here to get heirloom seeds, people have to buy them at stores for high prices and usually they are GMO. So we want to start a seed exchange and find seeds that have been lost or almost lost.
We are planning to build a natural swimming pool. It’s a swimming pool that’s surrounded by another pool that’s filled with plants, and then you circulate the water between the inner and outer parts and the plants do all the filtration. This way we won't need any chlorine or chemicals to keep the water clean, and we won’t pose any risks or harm to the animals that might drink from the pool. We are planning to build a spa this year with similar water-saving techniques. We are also planning to buy the land adjacent to the preserve to expand it and ensure that this area remains a forest.
VV: What are some of your initiatives involving a relationship with the community?
PB: We have workshops constantly on different topics. Sometimes it’s first aid, or composting, or Costa Rican cuisine, or computer skills of different kinds. And these workshops are always open to everyone outside of the hotel, including our staff. The idea is offering opportunities for people here in Monteverde to gain knowledge, because people here don’t have the resources to take classes like that and they’re not really that available anyways.
We are working with a school in a nearby village and developing different environmental education programs such as helping them start a vegetable garden, teaching methods for recycling, collaboratively building a compost facility, things like that. Because there’s a lot of knowledge that we have acquired after all this time, and we want to share it. We can help. Sustainability is not something you do individually. It takes the whole community. It’s not a competition or a matter of who does it better. It’s about sharing what you know.
VV: How do you approach supporting the local economy?
Our purchasing policies are really strict because the intention is to benefit the local economy as much as possible. When you have a big operation like ours—even though it’s a small hotel—the impacts can be very big. And again, it’s an educational role as well. We make sure to purchase as much as we can from the local people. It’s good for the local economy, it’s good for he environment because there’s no transportation or carbon footprint.
But that said, we need things to be done a certain way. For example we can’t buy over-packaged goods; we can’t buy chicken that was raised in an unethical way; we can’t buy vegetables that are not organic or grown in an eco-friendly way. So when we know people who are doing things with the right mentality but not in quite the way we need them to do it for our standards, we tell them. We say, “We want to buy from you but we need it to be done like this.” And they’re usually really open to changing their practices. First they know that we’re going to buy from them if they change, but also because they want to learn. They understand that there’s added value in selling a better quality and more ethical product. Sometimes we tell people we want to buy your product but first we need you to take the bottles back and wash them and reuse them. And then they research and learn how to do it. So these things are a huge part of our sustainability program too, and it’s a great way to interact with the community in a positive, constructive way.