This month's Making a Difference award winner is Ecolodge San Luis, an ecotourism initiative run by and located on the University of Georgia's (UGA) Costa Rica campus. The hotel provides travelers with a unique base for exploring the Monteverde region of Costa Rica, immersing them in a community of enthusiastic campus staff, researchers, fellow travelers, and students. We spoke with Quint Newcomer and Fabricio Camacho, respectively the Director and General Manager of UGA Costa Rica, to find out more about this sustainable rainforest lodge.

Ecolodge San Luis, Costa Rica

Q. Is Ecolodge San Luis a good place for travelers who are interested in exploring and learning about nature?

A: Ecolodge San Luis is an outstanding place for travelers interested in an educational, nature-based experience in Costa Rica. Our campus is adjacent to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, one of the most important protected forest areas in the country because of its high levels of biodiversity, especially of birds and orchids.

We also maintain our own protected forest reserve as part of the 155-acre campus. We offer guided natural history walks on our forest trails (day and night), birding tours and a monthly bird count activity, and presentations about medicinal plants in the campus' San Luis Botanical Garden. We also have our own tree nursery and carbon-offset program, and offer visitors the opportunity to help plant these trees during the planting season. UGA-Costa Rica also hosts many researchers who are happy to talk to our guests about their work.

Q. What kinds of wildlife can guests expect to see at your lodge?

Ecolodge San Luis, Costa Rica A. Guests can expect to see a wide variety of wildlife, in large part because the ecolodge is nestled into part of UGA-Costa Rica's forest reserve. It is very common to see white-faced capuchin monkeys (Cebus capucinus) in the trees just off the balconies, and to hear the long-tailed manakins (Chiroxiphia linearis), calling out for a mate. Agoutis (Dasyprocta punctata) and coatimundi (Nasua narica) frequently cross our trails. Night hikes may reveal kinkajous (Potus flavus) and olingos (Bassaricyon gabbii). In addition, blue morpho butterflies (Morpho peleides limpida) and hummingbirds such as the violet sabrewing (Campylopterus hemileucurus) abound.

UGA-Costa Rica's bird list includes nearly 250 bird species, including permanent residents as well as altitudinal and latitudinal migrants. One interesting fact about the local avifauna is that there are certain species of Atlantic slope birds, such as the crimson collared tanager (Ramphocelus sanguinolentus) that are regularly seen on the UGA property, even though we are located on the Pacific slope. This is because there is a mountain pass that allows these species to come across the continental divide and become established in the upper part of the valley.

Ecolodge San Luis, Costa Rica The diversity of butterflies at the UGA-Costa Rica campus is still unknown -- to date, more than 150 species have been collected and can be observed in our on-site collection.

There are 109 bat species in Costa Rica. This diversity represents just over half the country's 216 mammal species, and about 12% of the world's bat species. At least 25 species of bats are known to exist at the UGA-Costa Rica Campus.

There are nearly 400 species of amphibians and reptiles in Costa Rica. As with other groups of organisms, this high species diversity is due in part to the great variety of ecosystems. In San Luis, there are 15 known species of amphibians and 43 species of reptiles.

In the town of San Luis, 131 tree species have been recorded and 31 orchid species have been identified -- compare that to 50 orchid species in the entire state of Georgia!

Q. What can your guests do to learn about local culture and customs?

A. We offer a variety of activities in the San Luis Valley, including sustainable agriculture and coffee tours on neighboring farms, cooking lessons at a local home, dance lessons and sometimes all-community dances, soccer games in the local community, fresh tilapia dinners at a local restaurant, and more. You can even catch your own fish for dinner if you'd like! Homestays in the local community can be arranged with at least one month prior notice. UGA-Costa Rica's gift shop also sells goods primarily made by artisans in the local community.

Q. Why is sustainability so important for your hotel and what noteworthy sustainable initiatives are you carrying out?

A. As noted environmentalist David Orr said, sustainability is about "how to make decent communities in which people grow to be responsible citizens and whole people." UGA-Costa Rica is part of the fabric of the community of San Luis de Monteverde. It is our responsibility to act, as a business and as employees representing this business, in the most responsible way possible--toward our fellow community members, toward our environment, and to those who come from other places to spend time with us. UGA-Costa Rica is an endorser of the Earth Charter, and strives to embody its 16 principles for sustainability. Ecolodge San Luis, Costa Rica

The mission of UGA-Costa Rica is to advance our understanding--through instruction, research, and outreach--of the interconnected nature of human and environmental systems and particularly the concepts of socio-cultural, ecological, and economic sustainability. Sustainability is imbedded in our mission and is the core operating principle of our operation. UGA-Costa Rica produces an annual sustainability report, which can be downloaded from our website, that chronicles our journey toward sustainability.

In addition to our carbon offset program, we have education outreach programs with local schools and other community members, on-site organic agriculture and local food purchasing policies, use of biodigesters to treat waste water and generate energy, medicinal plants that we provide to members of the local community for their own home gardens, water quality monitoring within the Bellbird Biological Corridor, service-learning coursework that supports sustainable development initiatives within the community, use of biodegradable "green" cleaning products and other green purchasing policies, water and energy savings measures, participation in Costa Rica's Certification for Sustainable Tourism (CST) program, and much more.

Q. What advantages come from being part of a university campus?

A. The Ecolodge San Luis is the 12-room hotel facility at the UGA-Costa Rica campus. Guests have the opportunity to engage with the students, faculty, and researchers and be a part of the dynamic atmosphere present at UGA-Costa Rica. For tourists to Costa Rica, and for Costa Rican tourists traveling within their country, staying at the Ecolodge San Luis offers the opportunity to engage in educational, nature-based activities in a "living classroom" setting.

Because UGA-Costa Rica's academic programs offer courses spanning over 30 disciplines, guests may also have the opportunity to watch Latin American movies, observe distant constellations in an astronomy lab, or learn watercolor painting techniques. As we are located just a few kilometers from Monteverde, guests can also take advantage of many of the activities available in the Monteverde region, while staying in a place that is far removed from the typical tourist atmosphere.

Ecolodge San Luis, Costa Rica Q. Of all of the hotels in the Monteverde area, what makes Ecolodge San Luis special?

A. Many of the advantages of being a part of a university campus and our deep commitment to sustainability are the same reasons that Ecolodge San Luis is a special place to stay in comparison to other hotels in the Monteverde area. It's not for everyone – rooms don't have telephones, television, or internet, and UGA-Costa Rica does not have a menu to select from for meals (all meals are served family style, and selection rotates daily) or serve alcoholic beverages, although you may bring your own as long as it's kept in your room at the Ecolodge and not brought into the main campus area. However, for those searching for an immersion in nature and culture and don't mind being slightly off-the-beaten-path, Ecolodge San Luis offers a very special experience for travelers young and old.