Eco-luxury reaches new heights at Costa Rica’s Drake Bay Getaway Resort, a Forbes Travel Guide Recommended tropical retreat where the jungle meets the sea.
Built from the ground up by owners Yens Steller and Patrick Ludwig, the postcard-worthy property is as hospitable as it is stunning, with custom tours, personalized meals and attentive service from the innkeepers themselves.
We caught up with Steller to find out how two engineers ended up running a sustainable resort, what to pack for a jungle getaway and why you should try chocolate-covered steak.
How did you go from being a computer engineer to owning a resort?
I was 15 years old. I was a tour guide in Costa Rica. I earned enough money to leave my town, Drake Bay.
My dream was to become an astronaut, so I left to Seattle to try and become an astronaut, but I realized that I get seasick. So, I studied computer science instead and became a software engineer and eventually became a manager at a fast-growing company there.
I married Patrick in 2013. After many years of working as a software engineer — he was an aerospace engineer, he worked for Honeywell and I was a manager at that point working for a big software company — we just had enough of running around crazy all the time, so we said, “Let’s get married, let’s sell everything we got and move to Costa Rica.”
We bought 22 waterfront acres and built a hotel from the ground up. We just wanted to do something dramatically different. So, we went from a high-tech world to one where we have no knowledge at all.
What was your initial vision for Drake Bay Getaway?
We knew from the beginning we wanted to do something luxury and sustainable. And we knew the challenge was how to combine the two.
We like to call ourselves “eco-luxury” because there’s a serious commitment when you’re sustainable versus eco-friendly.
Sustainability is a way of designing and running your business, meaning the materials you use to build your hotel. All of our buildings are constructed with 80 percent wood and metal, with high ceilings and white roofs for ventilation.
So, if we ever decided we were done with the hotel business and [we wanted to] shut the hotel down, we would truly just disassemble the construction and the jungle would take over the land — it would be like we were never here.
From the very beginning, we wanted to do something that had no TV, no A/C and no pool. That was very important because everyone seems to have that at this point. But there’s a subset that wants an experience of a lifetime, and that’s what we’re trying to create.
People who come here are people looking for an experience, not just an ordinary, standard hotel. It’s not only about the tours. It’s not only about the view. It’s not only about the food. We, the hotel owners, my spouse and I, are always onsite. The owners are always in the hotel helping out.
Most of the people who visit our hotel are couples and families with children — it’s really split. As long as you want a lifetime experience for your family or your relationship, you are welcome here.
Speaking of once-in-a-lifetime experiences, what are the most popular excursions at Drake Bay?
One of them is Corcovado National Park. It’s known worldwide for its biodiversity. Supposedly, it has 2.5 percent of the world’s biodiversity. That means of all the animal and plant species in the world, it has 2.5 percent in this little park. Well, it’s not little, but if you look at a map, it’s a small point in the world.
People go on day hikes there with a bilingual tour guide and see lots of wildlife. It’s incredible. You see different monkeys and anteaters. One big animal is called tapir. It’s very famous. People always want to see that. It’s like a rhino, like a pig with a long nose. We’ve seen puma twice at the park. There are lots of cats there, too. You can see lots and lots. Those are just the big guys. But there are over 10,000 insects alone in this area. There are hundreds of species of birds.
The next one would be snorkeling or diving at Caño Islands Biological Reserve. That is near us, too. You can go snorkeling or diving to see turtles, sharks, manta rays and dolphins.
Those are the two main ones, but we have bird-watching and night tours — night tours are awesome, you can see lots of wildlife — and in the July-August timeframe, it’s super popular for humpback whale-watching. The humpback whales come here to give birth, and you can witness them giving swimming lessons to the little whales. They’re here by the hundreds.
So, every season is different, but birds and plants are always here. This town has the most scarlet macaws in the world, I think — the red, yellow and blue ones. And since we’re so close to the park, you can see scarlet macaws and toucans almost on a daily basis here. People even take pictures of birds from their shower!
What should we pack for a jungle getaway?
For the jungle, I would say definitely pack wet shoes — either Tevas or wet shoes because most things here are by boat. You’ve got to get in and out of the boat, and it’s a wet landing on the beach.
You also need hiking shoes or tennis shoes to actually do excursions around. You don’t want to get your good shoes wet, because then you have to go hiking.
And since we’re in the tropical rainforest, you should bring some kind of poncho or raincoat, just in case. A backpack [is good to have, too], because you’ve got to carry your own water wherever you go. And always wear clothes for a tropical, warm place, so no long pants. Don’t wear thick clothes, just light colors. Most of the time it’s bright and sunny here, so if you wear a black T-shirt, you’re going to be hot.
We also do laundry for free, so you don’t have to bring too many shorts and T-shirts. You can come for 12 days without having to pack for every single day.
Besides that, I would say sunglasses, obviously. Some hats or a sombrero, and a swimsuit because we’re right next to the ocean, so you’ve got to go swimming.
We do also give away biodegradable water bottles, so when you arrive, there will be a little refrigerator with two biodegradable water bottles for you to [not only] take home, but also to take with you when you go hiking.
Drake Bay Café doesn’t have a menu. After a day of jungle adventures, what can we expect for dinner?
People come here and they fall in love with everything. Every day the surprises just get better.
About 95 percent of our food ingredients are grown in Costa Rica. Seafood comes literally from the bay in front of us and beef is grass-fed beef. And we use tropical fruits. We don’t bring in strawberries, apples and things from outside. It really is fresh and local.
We use chocolate from [Drake Bay], locally grown cacao, to make one of our best items: a chocolate lava cake. It doesn’t have much sugar — we have low sugar, low salt in our food anyway. We had a couple from New York tell us that it was the best dessert ever — not just the best lava cake ever but the best dessert they’d ever had. It’s not too sweet and it’s all natural, raw cacao from the town. It’s a lava cake with guava jam on the side.
As far as meals, we serve a lot of seafood here, so it could be the mahi mahi with curry. That’s got to be one of the best ones. We make the curry with coconut milk. We have a lot of coconuts here on the beach.
We make a ceviche also. But one of the things people really love is the chocolate-covered steak. The chocolate is not sweet. It’s kind of like a mole. It’s chocolate with espresso. People are always shocked with that.
We use really good coffee. By the way, we have unlimited coffee drinks available at the hotel. And it’s much better than Starbucks.
We [also] have a lot of vegetarians that come here. It is paradise [for them] because we have a lot of meals that we make with fresh vegetables.