Rancho de Lelo makes meals an experience
By Courtney McBay
SAN LUIS, Costa Rica — Nestled in the rolling hills of San Luis sits a vividly painted open-air house shielded from the Costa Rican sun by tropical trees. The building’s design allows for a steady mountainside breeze rivaled only by the highest-end air conditioning units. Four shaded ponds host thousands of tilapia just a few feet from the house’s patio.
Lelo Malta and his wife, Elvira Cruz, never planned for their home to be a fish farm. The first of Lelo’s tilapia ponds began as a small pool for his children to splash around.
Lelo said the idea came about to throw in a few tilapia. It wasn’t long before neighbors began dropping by for fish to prepare for family meals.
“They liked it and I like it,” he said. “So we built more ponds.”
Today, Rancho de Lelo draws visitors down from their hotels in Monteverde despite winding bumpy roads.
Guests accustomed to smooth blacktops and guard-railed cliffs may feel uneasy about the trek for just a meal, but Rancho de Lelo is more than a food destination. It is also home to cows, chickens, goats, coffee trees and sugarcane stalks.
Lelo recently added a pig to the farm, hoping to provide pork for guests rather than buying from other farms.
“We’ll see how this one goes before adding more,” he said.
Lelo and Elvira have a self-sustaining vision for Rancho de Lelo. They carefully allocate every resource, including a biodigestor for stovetop gas.
“Everything on the farm has a purpose,” Lelo said.
On Jan. 5, Lelo hosted his first farm tour, a first step toward further establishing his ranch as an ecotourism attraction. Guests tour the property before dining in Elvira’s restaurant.
At the pinnacle of Lelo’s tour, he invites visitors to toss a net and catch fish. It doesn’t get fresher than watching your lunch swim just 30 minutes before it hits the plate.
Elvira also offers alternative dishes for those who might find the fish a little too fresh for comfort. Those dishes include pork, poultry or beef, depending on menu arrangements and meat availability.
Elvira’s cooking embodies Costa Rican style. The tilapia’s fried skin is crispy and salty in stark but balanced contrast to the fish’s mild, soft meat. Fried whole, the tilapia’s head and bones remind eaters of just how alive the meal was – a true farm-to-fork experience.
Sides of roasted yuca and pico de gallo atop cold greens deliver a burst of buttery starch and cool freshness, respectively. Elvira’s hand-squeezed orange juice serves as a crisp, sweet seal on a rich lunch.
Elvira has perfected the balance of traditional Costa Rican flavors in her dishes, highlighting the sense of Rancho de Lelo’s authenticity.
The smiles of Rancho de Lelo’s host and chef, accompanied by the beautiful scenery and fresh air, tie everything together with Costa Rican Pura Vida.
Lelo and Elvira plan to expand Rancho de Lelo as a full-service destination for guests. In addition to their soccer field, blueprints for four cabins and a swimming pool are in the works with the local extension of the University of Georgia.
At the end of guests’ time at Rancho de Lelo, thank-you’s and good-bye’s are doled out as if leaving a loved one’s home rather than a restaurant. Lelo and Elvira invite guests to join in one final piece of the experience: signing their guest book for looking back in years to come.