Copamarina On Puerto Rico's Caribbean Coast Is Great For Family's First Ecotourism Adventure
By Karen Rubin

It was just our first day at the Copamarina Resort, in Guanica, on Puerto Rico's south coast. We had already kayaked on Caribbean waters to islands formed of mangrove trees, biked on a cliff-side trail beside the turquoise sea through one of the world's few remaining subtropical dry, and in the darkness of the night, beneath the stars, as lightening flashed on a distant horizon, swam in water which sparkled with the phosphorescence of rare plankton, like fairy dust.

On our second day, we explored the primeval underground world of Camuy Caves, one of the largest cave systems in the world, and then visited the world's largest radio telescope (as seen in the movie, "Contact"). On the third day, we went from the UNESCO biosphere reserve, home to the largest selection of endemic and endangered species of birds on Puerto Rico, where we quickly added bird species names to our "Life List", then hiked through a rainforest to a waterfall where a few brave souls among us took advantage of the opportunity to learn how to rappel down a 200-foot cliff.

Far away from the high-rise hotels and casinos for which Puerto Rico has become known, is a peaceful retreat that exemplifies the "real" Puerto Rico. Set on a sandy beach on the Caribbean on Puerto Rico's southern coast, with mangrove islands a mere half-mile off shore and a nature preserve literally at its doorstep, the Copamarina Beach Resort is ecotourism's equivalent of "ski in/ski out"--a place where families can easily and comfortably get close to nature and to Puerto Rico's cultural roots.

This is no small thing because most lodges that cater to ecotourism are in remote locations, are very rustic and typically only cater to one particular interest, such as bird-watching or scuba diving. Others in the family who do not share the same interest might be bored or left behind, altogether. But here, there is a great variety of "soft adventure" and ecotourism excursions; what is more, they can be easy enough for families with young children to enjoy together.

The southern region west of Ponce is virtually unknown to the multitudes of tourists who flock to Puerto Rico's more famous northern coast on the Atlantic. Yet, for those seeking the "real Puerto Rico" -both in the sense of becoming immersed in nature and being able to lunch at a local restaurant with families who have come from their Little League games -the Copamarina could not be more perfect. Indeed, the Copamarina is very popular vacation place for Puerto Rican families, as well.

The Copamarina Beach Resort -surprisingly luxurious (indeed the most luxurious in the southern coastal region) with lavish landscaping, fine dining and excellent facilities-- provides an extraordinary level of quality and variety of experiences. Indeed, had we more time, we would have ventured out to do scuba diving.

The layout of the Copamarina is especially conducive to a relaxing stay: set on 16 acres of lushly landscaped grounds, it offers 106 spacious, air-conditioned rooms in two-story "villa"-like structures, with lovely balconies that face the water. Louvered wooden doors in the rooms screen out the light but let in seabreezes and the beautiful views. The rooms are beautifully done in tropical colors: lime green, strawberry red, tangerine orange, with wood, wicker, and wrought iron furnishings; ceiling fan, and a Dutch door which opens to a porch and the pool and gardens. Amenities also include an in-room refrigerator (which comes stocked with the inclusive-package); color cable television; and direct-dial telephones.

The resort has existed for 35 years but has undergone major renovation and a complete revamping in facilities and activities since being acquired by new owners in 1992. Just recently, it opened 36 deluxe rooms and has plans to open 15 three-room villas, clustered in groups of five each surrounding its own pool.

The facilities include two large freshwater swimming pools (one is free-form; the other is more rectangular and well suited for lap swimmers); hot tubs; children's pools; two tennis courts lighted for night play; a sand beach that links up with a public beach (so there is a very long stretch); a well-supplied waterfront with kayaks, windsurfers, catamarans, snorkeling gear, water bikes, a playground (created from ex-McDonald's equipment). The layout is compact enough so that kids can romp about while parents can lounge and read a book, if they choose.

The Copamarina would be just another lovely Caribbean hideaway resort were it not for some extremely creative programs inspired by Wilo Benet, one of Puerto Rico's foremost chefs and now Vice President of Copamarina Beach Resort. These include the ecotourism and soft-adventure programs, which take full advantage of the fact the resort's situation is ringed by nature preserves and natural wonders; scuba diving operation; "aerobics-on-the-beach"; weekly tennis programs featuring a different visiting pro from country clubs up and down the U.S. East Coast (there is also a resident tennis pro who can provide lessons); corporate "team-building" and motivational programs. The resort also just opened a full gym and plans to offer spa amenities (aromatherapy, Riki, mudbaths, massage) and is opening a 60-yard chipping green.

Literally surrounded by nature preserves and natural wonders, the resort has established a base of operations on its own beach for Encanto Tours, one of the island's leading ecotourism operators, to offer guests a menu of excursions, sightseeing tours and activities. Among the selections: hiking or birdwatching in the Guanica Dry Forest; tours of Phosphorescent Bay; kayaking to Tartaneja Lagoon and Gilligan's Island; sunset biking through the Dwarf Forest; horseback riding; and, from January through March, whale-watching.

We were very impressed with the quality of the Encanto operation-the equipment, the guides, the level of information, and how well run the programs were. Everything from the van to the 21-speed Trek 820 mountain bikes, to the double sea kayaks were top quality. The guides have an extremely nice manner and a wonderful way of explaining information-like plucking an aerospider from the mangrove tree to show to everyone and conveying the wonder of how a mangrove tree forms an entire island. Encanto Tours is extremely good about tailoring an excursion to the level of ability and interest of the participants.

Scuba Diving

Copamarina also features its own PADI scuba-diving operation, including a six-day certification course. The resort has both 31' and 42' boats. Nighttime dives, which take advantage of extraordinary luminescence, are also available. Just 5 to 20 minutes boat ride from the dock, divers can find such features as Fallen Rock, and Disney, where there are mushrooms of mounding coral 12 to 15 feet tall and up to 30 feet in diameter.

To introduce non-certified divers, Copamarina's on-site dive center offers a six-day/five night certification package priced at $760 pp/dbl, consisting of lectures and four dives in calm, protected waters.

Though the Copamarina does not offer supervised activity program for children (yet), there is so much that can be enjoyed together, within a self-contained area that this is not a problem; babysitting can be arranged should parents decide to spend the morning scuba diving ($15/hour per child). Also, most of the ecotourism and "soft" adventures are based at the property and can be enjoyed by the entire family. Guanica Dry Forest, the Dwarf Forest, Gilligan's Island are literally at the doorstep and can be visited independently. Longer excursions, such as to Parguera for the nighttime boat ride to Phosphorescent Bay; to the Camuy Caves and Aricebo Radio Telescope, are excellent family outings.

Dining proves a major attraction of the Copamarina. Wilo Benet, who operates the renowned Pikayo restaurant in San Juan, opened Wilo's Coastal Cuisine at the resort, showcasing Puerto Rican "nouvelle" cuisine. The selections utilize local ingredients (plantains, sweet potatoes, conch), enhance traditional recipes with delicately seasoned sauces, and are exquisitely presented with artistic flare. Chef Benet, who trained at the Culinary Institute of America, had positions at Le Bernardin and Maurice restaurants in New York before returning to Puerto Rico, and served as Executive Chef at the Governor's Mansion in Puerto Rico and was team captain of the Puerto Rico Culinary Team (receiving a gold medal). He is a master at utilizing delectable combinations of flavors (cilantro is one of his favorite seasonings)-never too many as to confuse-which stand out distinctively.

The open-air Las Palmas Cafe‚ and bar also proves an attraction: young bartender Eliazer "Tito" Martinez, won a national award with his extraordinary "Passionate Kiss," which has become a signature for the hotel-a frosted concoction of passion fruit juice, Midori melon brandy, coconut rum and secret spices (better than any frozen daiquiri I have ever tasted; it tastes divine without the liquor, as well). At night, there is live entertainment here.

During the day, there is casual dining at the swimming pool (featuring wrapped sandwiches filled with arroz con pollo and plantains); room service is available from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.

All of this makes the all-inclusive package an excellent choice for clients (Wilo's Coastal Cuisine is unquestionably the best restaurant within an hour's drive, and because the hotel is located at the end of a winding, narrow road, you would not be interested in making the trip all that often): the Copamarina Club package, available year-round, includes a stocked bar in room upon arrival, a la carte breakfast, lunch and dinner daily (with no restrictions) and use of all non-motorized watersports. Prices start at $110 pp/day.

EP rates for 1998 are $155 for superior single/twin, $180 for deluxe single/twin, and $25 for extra person from May 24-Sept. 3; $135, $155 and $25, respectively from Sept. 4-Dec. 17 (plus 9% government tax, 7% resort tariff). One child under 12 stays complimentary in the same room with two adults.

The staff members seem to genuinely enjoy working at the resort, which is demonstrated by attentive and cheerful service. Indeed, the town of Guanica is nicknamed "Amistad"-friendly place--and we found it to be aptly named.

If you choose to rent a car and drive yourself, you should be aware that off the highways, the local road signs are not very helpful; and you may very well get lost. Driving to major attractions is typically up treacherously narrow, winding roads. Getting out en la isla, though, is very rewarding: the fishing villages of Guanica and Paraguera are fun to explore, especially at night or during festivals; stopping in at a local restaurant where Little League families come to enjoy Saturday lunch, or a colmados-a combination neighborhood grocery store, bar and social center.

The Copamarina is situated 20 miles from Mercedita Ponce airport (about 30-40 minutes drive, but if you are flying back through Ponce, plan to leave the hotel 2 1/2 hours before departure time); Ponce is a 25-minute flight from San Juan. You may also prefer to drive to or from San Juan, 2-2 1/2 drive on excellent highways, and would be an interesting trip, especially if you split your stay so they can spend some time visiting Old San Juan. The Copamarina can also arrange a pick-up at San Juan ($50 pp/roundtrip, book at least 72 hours in advance); or at Ponce ($30 pp).

Copamarina Beach Resort, Route 333, Km. 6.5, Guanica, Puerto Rico 00653; telephone 787-821-0505, fax 787-821-0070, reservations: 800-468-4553; http://www.copamarina.com.

This story was previously published on FTN in 1998.

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