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Casitas Tenorio B&B

Donald Varela Soto and Pip Kelly run Casitas Tenorio B&B, it is both their home and their business. They met while working together on a conservation project in Bijagua in 2001 and since then, they’ve turned their commitment to sustainable living into a working farm and eco-tourism venture. Donald is from Bijagua and Pip is from rural Victoria in Australia (and is also a Costa Rican citizen). They have two bilingual daughters. Casitas Tenorio B&B is more than just a place to stay – it’s an invitation to experience Costa Rican life as part of their community.

“Casitas Tenorio B&B happened by chance. When we were first married, we were unable to find a place to rent in the village and the previous owner of the property allowed us to rent one of her two cottages for a month. We fell in love with the farm and eventually bought it. Slowly, we have built more casitas, each with their own character, which means we can share the magic of the farm with more people” says Pip.

“We have divided the property into two sections - one for tourism and habitat, and one for farming. This means we can combine our passions - sustainable farming and sustainable tourism. We hand-milk eight cows twice a day and sell about thirty litres of milk in the local cheese cooperative. We grow lots of our own fruit and vegetables and practice permaculture and organic farming methods. We churn our own butter, bake our own bread and make delicious jam from seasonal tropical fruits. We have about thirty chickens, some rabbits, a bunch of guinea pigs, a horse and two dogs, Whisky and Dingo.”

How does it feel to be voted the best B&B in Costa Rica? (and #2 in Central America!)

“It feels wonderful to be recognized for all the hard work we have put in over the years that we have run the business for. We started our B&B with two run-down old rooms and served breakfast in the goat shed. We didn't have enough money to buy four chairs and served breakfast in two shifts on a home-made table. My husband and I did everything, from cooking to cleaning, to welcoming guests and running our farm!

Ten years later, we are incredibly grateful, proud and inspired. Casitas Tenorio is a sustainable family project which reflects our values, we work with a dedicated team of staff and are deeply involved in our community. We have welcomed hundreds of guests into our local community and many have become friends and made lasting connections in our community. We live a fulfilled and happy life.

We now have six rooms, and a capacity for twenty-five people and have six staff members- supporting them through employment and training and contributing in a positive way to our local community. This award is a team effort and we are so proud that it puts our rural village on the map. It's a wonderful feeling to know that if you have a dream and work hard anything (including being voted as the best B&B in Costa Rica) is possible!”

Where are guests coming from and how are they booking?

“Our guests come from all over the world. Today we had guests from Germany, the UK, Spain, Switzerland, Argentina and Canada! There are some great new direct flights to Europe from Costa Rica, including flights into Paris, Madrid, Zurich and Gatwick which has meant that more and more guests are coming from Europe, which is great. This year we have seen a huge increase in visitors from the UK.

According to the excellent reporting suites on FTB, in the last year we received from the website 36.9% of our reservations, 30.6% from travel agents and 32.5 from OTAs. We are very satisfied with this, as we all know direct bookings are vital for the survival of small family businesses.”

What makes Casitas Tenorio different to other B&Bs?

“Casitas Tenorio B&B is our home and we have designed our home and farm to be shared - with our community, with the wildlife all around us, and with curious travelers from all over the world. Casitas Tenorio B&B is a rural tourism project. We are also involved in the promotion of rural tourism and actively involved in networks of other rural tourism operators to strengthen this sector.

For us, rural tourism means integrating our B&B with our farm and our community to give guests an opportunity to see and participate in rural Costa Rican life and helping our guests enjoy the life that rural Costa Rica provides. It’s about making tourism part of the community, rather than creating new enclaves that cater only to tourists

We are committed to helping a positive and sustainable development of our community. For us, this means preserving habitat for local wildlife and encouraging sustainable tourism in the area. Casitas Tenorio is both a B&B and a working farm.”

1. Experience the authentic Costa Rica

Bijagua is a small-town set in a valley between Miravalles Volcano and Tenorio Volcano. While there are enough services and shopping to fill most needs, the town still manages to retain its authentic look and feel. The farmer who parks his horse outside the supermarket to go shopping; the small cows being driven down the street to a new pasture; the cultural events held throughout the year - all these make Bijagua "authentic Costa Rica."

2. We are not a hotel - individual bungalows

Unlike large hotels with many impersonal rooms, Casitas Tenorio B&B features individual bungalows (or Casitas), each with its own furnishing and personality. This not only provides a more pleasant experience, but privacy and the ability to enjoy one's own little corner of Costa Rica.

3. Become part of the family

Casitas Tenorio B&B is family owned and operated and our children and extended family are part of the process. Ask one of our daughters how to find a sloth and she will be happy to take you on the trail and show you! We endeavour to make our employees feel part of our family and we think your first interaction with them will show that.

4. See wildlife

Abundant wildlife only 3km from the center of town. Enjoy the spectacular "show" put on by the birds at our breakfast/reception area and keep an eye out for the coatimundi who sneaks into the bird feeding area to get a snack. Of course, sloths and monkeys as well as beautiful squirrels are just part of the possibilities.

5. Experience farm life

Familiarize yourself about farming in Costa Rica and learn to milk a cow. Our morning "Farm Tour" conducted by one of our farm workers will show you all the plants and animals that we raise on our property. You or your kids might be able to feed one of our baby cows.

6. Great service

Friendly service is the standard at Casitas Tenorio B&B. Our family welcomes you and is available to help make your visit with us or your visit anywhere in Costa Rica as good as it can be. We are always available to provide information or help you resolve any problems.

7. Give back to the community

At Casitas Tenorio, we are very involved with our community. In addition to sponsoring classes of various types, we use "Pack for a Purpose" to help with local schools and local families, provide assistance in times of emergencies and we are very involved in several community organizations.

8. Great location

Only 2.5 km from the center of Bijagua, but a world away! Turn into our driveway and you leave everything behind and enjoy the beautiful forested surroundings as well as the many birds, butterflies and other wildlife.

9. Local knowledge

We have lived in Bijagua a long time and can help with any questions you have about the area. Our involvement in the community and our local knowledge allows us to make recommendations to you that are perhaps unique.

10. Rainforest setting

Our property is a mixture of rainforest, some open spaces and pastures. The casitas are situated in rainforest areas and it's easy to find old trees and special plants of the rainforest. Casitas Tenorio B&B is perfect for couples because of the privacy and the ability to just relax and enjoy the surroundings.

What’s the key to your success?

There are many elements that contribute to a successful business such as ours. We challenge ourselves every day to provide the best service to our guests. We want people to come here and have an authentic experience in rural Costa Rica and the biggest part of that is to ensure our guests are satisfied and their expectations met. We work hard as a team and are close like a family. We are constantly trying to be innovative, and to keep up with changes in technology and social media and trends in the local and international tourism sector.

"At Casitas Tenorio we strive to engage in environmental and socially responsible sustainable tourism”

We work to make a positive impact at our property, and in the community beyond, to preserve our environment and culture for future generations. We seek to be the change that we want to see in the world and to constantly reflect on our practices. We do our best to reduce, reuse and recycle throughout our business.

Social Responsibility

We live here. We love our community. We are active citizens. We are members of our local Development Association, the local Chamber of Tourism, the local water board and our local Citizens Road Committee to help improve access to our location as well as to our neighbors' homes and farms. We have coordinated volunteer groups of university students and high school students to work on development projects in our community and helped other small businesses in our community with their tourism projects.

We are involved in many local community organizations and projects. We are proud members of Pack for a Purpose, an initiative that allows travelers to make a lasting impact in the community at your travel destination by using space their luggage to bring supplies for the local school or clinic. We also have a Fair-Trade gift shop. Like so many things at Casitas Tenorio it’s part of a bigger project which provides professional development to artists in things like design practice and marketing skills. The shop operates on the principles of Fair Trade whereby local producers are paid a fair price for their products and receive capacity building.

Reduce

Energy -- We have a solar drying area to reduce the amount of electricity we use for laundry. By setting our casitas in the landscape we have been able to reduce the energy we use to cool them. We use energy-efficient light bulbs and, where possible, automatic lighting controls. Our water heaters are instant water heaters which use less energy than heaters which keep water warm all the time. We track our energy use on a regular basis to see if there are problems that need to be addressed.

Water -- Part of our routine maintenance includes checking for water leaks to ensure no water is wasted Our staff are trained in using "green" practices and our guests are encouraged to support us by doing things like turning off lights and using less water. We collect and use rainwater in our dairy operation. Our gardens and lawns use rainwater only.

On our farm, we use organic and permaculture methods, grow local plants in our gardens and actively protect habitats for animals. We have a reforestation project on our property and periodically plant trees in the local biological corridor. We don’t use any single use plastics.

Reuse

We have use recycled and salvaged materials in the construction of buildings and furniture at Casitas. Our organic kitchen waste is either composted or fed to the chickens. Some of our food is produced on our farm (eggs, milk, cheese, butter, bread, fruits, jams).

Recycle

We use recycled paper in our office and purchase toilet paper and napkins from a company that engages in sustainable practices. Our laundry products are all biodegradable.

We have worked on many community projects over many years at Casitas Tenorio

• We have delivered environmental education programs to groups and schools

• We developed and delivered a school holiday camp ‘Camp Green’ for local school students

• We are members of our local development association and our local chamber of tourism

• We have worked with the local schools and Old people's home to provide day trips to Casitas Tenorio.

• Casitas Tenorio engages in the ‘” Quiet Neighbour attitude” we don’t have any unnecessary noise, music, engines, lighting.

• We provide our guests information about activities in the area

• We are members of our local road committee

• We have delivered English courses classes in the village

• We have helped schools, youth group and old people’s home with donations

• We have coordinated volunteer groups of university students and high school students to work on development projects in our community

• We have worked with local groups including the local development association and the municipality on various projects

• We have provided training and guidance to locals with tourism businesses

• We hire local staff from our community as full-time workers and as contractors

• We ask our guests for their cooperation in reducing water use with unnecessary sheet or towel washing.

• We provide local community members with employment and training.

• We pay our employees according to the local award (including overtime) and provide insurance

• We support our employees to participate in training course and university studies

• We are committed to the values of rural tourism

• We support and promote the use or local tour operators and destinations

• Support local artists with the murals and paintings in each Casita

• We are a founding member of the Costa Rican Chamber for Rural Tourism (CANTURUAL)

• We hire local guides to provide tours of the area

• Our staff have participated in Rainforest Alliance training programs


What’s your best piece of advice/ top tips for other B&B owners?

Be passionate and be authentic. Think about your strengths and what makes you and your business unique and what you can do to ensure that your guests have the best experience possible. Learn from mistakes. Invest in your business, don't cut corners. Face the numbers and make sure you have a good accountant. Train your staff and take care of your staff. Stay innovative, stay up to date with technology changes, have great photos of your business, update your website, respond to all emails quickly and professionally. Be active on social media and invest in promotion. Work with other tourism projects in area, develop your networks, work together to promote your destination. Make sure you have time out with your own family- don't burn out! Be sure to offer a great breakfast! But most importantly enjoy what you do! Be grateful that you get to run your own business and make your own decisions. If you're not happy with what you are doing everyday then it's time to get out.

What does the future hold for Casitas Tenorio?

We have been expanding on a constant basis, and now we would like to consolidate and ensure that our business is running smoothly, and that guests and staff are all satisfied. We want to share time with our daughters and make sure we have time to watch the toucans and sloths that we have in the gardens. We actually have a sister project- Tapir Nature Reserve, a tract of primary rainforest where we are protecting the habitat of the endangered Tapir.


How is freetobook working for you?

Freetobook has been a vital and essential part of our success as a business. The system is user-friendly, and the booking widget has been really important to secure vital direct bookings. The plus features are brilliant, and it saves time and money to have all the channels connected and well as the ical. Storing credit cards securely has been beneficial. The fact that we can’t over book has been great.

I really like that FTB is designed for small family businesses like ours and not a big corporate entity with a faceless team. The company’s philosophy is to help us, especially with direct bookings. The reports that we can draw out of FTB are great and really useful for strategic planning. I want to thank FTB because quite simply without such a secure, reliable and innovative reservation system, we would not be in the position that we are in today receiving recognitions as the #1 B&B in Costa Rica. We owe FTB a big part of our success.

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