A clutch of new luxury hotels and eco-retreats is creating fresh interest in Costa Rica’s abundant natural charms.
It was like a scene from Avatar. I was on a mountainside in southern Costa Rica, gazing out on dense jungle rolling down to azure ocean. A humpback whale and her calf were frolicking in the waves, and ﬂying low over the forest canopy below me – a dazzling burst of red, yellow and blue against the green – was a pair of scarlet macaws, rare long-tailed parrots of such exquisite beauty that for a second I wondered if they were real. Behind me, squirrel monkeys leapt among the palms and electric-blue butterﬂies alighted on emerald ferns. I was observing all of this not from some rustic, vine-strangled eco-lodge but from the polished-cement inﬁnity-pool.
“Your coffee,” purred a blonde waitress in a skintight zip-up dress, the jaguar paw logo of the hotel embroidered on her chest, handing me a perfectly made espresso. “Enjoy the view.”
It was my ﬁnal morning in Costa Rica, the last of a seven-day drive through the country, and it wasn’t the ﬁrst time I’d been rendered punch-drunk by its colour and stupeﬁed by its wildlife. A sliver of a country sandwiched between Panama and Nicaragua, with the Atlantic and Paciﬁc lapping its shores, Costa Rica is unique and other-worldly even for the region.
In 1948 it abolished its military and began pouring money into health, education and conservation. By the 1970s and 80s, when much of Latin America was in the grip of caudillos and death squads, Costa Ricans – Ticos – were declaring vast swathes of their country protected nature reserves, and teaching school kids about biosphere and sustainability. With 0.03 per cent of the Earth’s land mass but 5 per cent of its biodiversity, Costa Rica was “green” before the term existed. Indeed, so successful was this back-to-nature campaign that by the mid-1990s, when eco-tourism became travel’s new buzz word, the country was a ready-made paradise. Birders, botanists, biologists and adventure sports enthusiasts (especially surfers, white-water rafters and zip-liners) have ﬂooded in ever since. And yet, one thing has long been missing: style.
Aside from a handful of boutique hotels on the Paciﬁc coast, the predominant mode of accommodation has been the forest-bound eco lodge. Which is all very well – but who’s to say that, if you want to save the planet, you have to do it from behind the mosquito net of a bamboo hut?
Fortunately, that is changing. The past year has seen a slate of luxury hotel openings in Costa Rica targeting afﬂuent, style-conscious travellers. I was here to see the natural wonders, but also these new properties. I had three in mind: Nayara Springs, a 16-villa hotel in the cloud forest and rainforest of the central Arenal Volcano region; Andaz Peninsula Papagayo, a chic 153-room beach resort in the tropical dry forest of the Paciﬁc north-west; and, my ﬁnal stop, Kurà, that six-suite gem in the tropical “South Paciﬁc”.
It looked like Asia; the jungles of Laos or Vietnam.I was two hours north of the capital, San José, driving on a winding, mist-shrouded mountain road with dense banks of greenery on either side. Suddenly, the road dropped out of the cloud and I saw it shimmering ahead of me: Arenal, a still-active 5,357ft-high volcano, a necklace of cumulus round her neck.
There are a dozen volcanoes in Costa Rica, but Arenal, part of Arenal Volcano National Park, is the most visited, and dotted around its base are dozens of backpackers’ lodges, budget restaurants and adventure outﬁts selling zip-line rides and horse trails. In short: there’s a young, resorty vibe with mid-range hotels to match. The exception is Nayara Springs, launched in December 2013.
“I had a dream to build a luxury hotel in a rainforest,” said Leo Ghitis, a Colombian-born entrepreneur based in Miami. I was speaking to him from the teak sunbed of my Nayara Springs villa, my feet soaking in the bubbling mineral water of the hot tub. Leo was in Miami and we were talking via Skype. “When my kids were old enough, I wanted to take them to Colombia but it was too dangerous. So I took them to Costa Rica instead. I fell in love! It was a paradise, with lovely people – a country almost like Switzerland.”
Ever the entrepreneur, Leo wanted a piece of it and soon became a partner in a popular Arenal hotel, Nayara Hotel Spa & Gardens. But something was missing. “I’d travelled throughout Asia, and stayed at Aman Resorts and Four Seasons, and I’d always thought: why does Costa Rica not have this level of luxury? High-end design, gourmet food, state-of-the-art technology?”
Behold Nayara Springs. It comprises 16 apricot-hued villas made of teak and stone, accessed by a wooden footbridge strung over a creek behind the original hotel. Mineral springs bubble underfoot and lush rainforest vegetation – palms, pink mimosas, pelican ﬂowers, tree ferns – explode all around. Golf carts silently hum guests down curved slate pathways to the spa, yoga studio, swimming pool and restaurant.
My villa, with its sliding-glass doors, was all handcarved hardwood, marble ﬂoors and ceiling fans, with a large outdoor shower. Only the crystal chandelier in the bedroom (and the framed photographs of Hollywood stars on the walls of the hotel’s Moroccan-themed restaurant) seemed out of place. Who needs imported opulence when you have so much natural wonder around?
Costa Ricans’ favourite expression is Pura vida! – pure life – and I took them at their word. I did a yoga class early each morning in an open-sided studio perched over the creek (the only time I’ve heard a toucan mock my downward dog) and, after a leisurely morning on the orange-canopied whicker day beds by the pool (the humidity eased by regular short bursts of rain and fruit cocktails from the bar), joined two guests from a neighbouring hotel for an afternoon horse ride across the slopes of the volcano.
I left early the following morning for the Paciﬁc coast, picked up by a guide and driver from Bill Beard’s. How quickly the geography changed: within an hour we had left the rainforest behind and were motoring through semi-arid river-crossed plains. It looked like Texas – but with volcanoes. Cows and sheep peered at us from roadside ranches. We stopped for a plate of ﬁsh ceviche (the national dish) at a riverside “soda” – a makeshift restaurant – and watched river rafters shoot rapids on the bend below.
This was Guanacaste, the largest and most visited province in the country, famous for the Peninsula de Nicoya, with its hundreds of beach resorts and surf camps. I was heading somewhere more exclusive: the Peninsula Papagayo, a private, jungle-covered spit jutting into the Paciﬁc near the Nicaragua border. It was here, in December 2013, that Hyatt’s boutique brand, Andaz, unveiled the Andaz Peninsula Papagayo, a 153-room “lifestyle” resort that is easily the most talked about new hotel in Central America.
I had stayed at Andaz Fifth Avenue New York (the brand has a distinctly urban ethos) and this place was instantly different. The ﬁrst thing I noticed was a futuristic cocoon-shaped pod rising above the tree line, ﬂanked by a series of earth-hued stone and wood structures, with a strikingly blue swimming pool winding in front of it. It all blended so seamlessly with the surrounding greenery as to be almost invisible.
The cocoon turned out to be the reception area: an open-plan lobby of polished cement ﬂoors and reﬂecting pools, the waters of Papagayo Bay below framed by its arch. I was greeted by a young hostess in ﬂoral uniform and fedora who checked me in via iPad. “No formality,” she said, smiling. “Pura vida!”
The hotel was designed by Ronald Zürcher, a local “naturalist” architect, and inspired by the fauna and ﬂora of the region: the cocoon represents an armadillo; the meandering inﬁnity pool a river; the multi-layered roof and dining platforms of the main restaurant, Rio Bhongo, a forest mushroom. Even my warehouse-sized suite had local driftwood art on the walls and a rainforest shower with local beach stone underfoot.
I popped a fedora on my head (rooms all come with trendy hats) and wandered on to my deck in time to see a 300ft yacht, the Mayan Queen IV, pull into the marina below. I Googled it. It belonged to the Mexican billionaire Alberto Baillères, the 35th richest person in the world.
The organic, free-ﬂowing aesthetic extends to the restaurants, too. I made my way to the property’s ﬂagship Ostra (Oyster) for dinner. It’s a sleek open-plan space where you help yourself, ﬁsh-market style, to oysters and cocktails as you make your way to your table. “All our produce is from within 50 miles of here,” a waiter informed me, handing me three menus, one dedicated entirely to ceviche.
And what food! Wagyu beef from the cattle country I had just driven through; corvina, a delicate local ﬁsh similar to a sea bass, with prosciutto and shaved quail’s egg; and a crispy pork belly that tasted so good I ordered it again with a spicy Chipotle Eggs Benedict for breakfast the next morning.
Peruvian Omar Grados is the chef, but the hotel has also imported a specialist barista from Buenos Aires to run its coffee bar, and Costa Rica’s champion mixologist, Clark Jiménez Alvarado, from San José to helm the rustic-chic tapas bar, Chao Pescao. I ended up there for a nightcap one evening, and he made me a ginger and muddled lemongrass concoction with 30-year-old Flor de Caña Nicaraguan rum.
“What’s it called?” I asked. “I just invented it,” he said. “Call it the Dougalitas.” There you go – I have a cocktail named for me in Central America.
When you eat and drink so well, you need to work it off. I did so, albeit gently, over three days: at the spa, on the sunbeds at the beach (you don’t get white sand but the ocean is clear, azure blue) and on a cruise around the point of the peninsula one afternoon on the resort’s boat. Howler monkeys leapt from trees on the banks, and devil rays broke the surface of the water. Rounding the point, a humpback and her calf saluted with their tails and went under.
Alfredo picked me up on day ﬁve for the ﬁnal leg, a four-hour drive to Uvita in Puntarenas Province, in the far south near the Panama border. For the ﬁrst hour we drove on the PanAmerican Highway – the biggest road in the country, yet still a narrow two-lane thoroughfare. Trafﬁc was smooth, not the chaos I was expecting for Central America. It turns out the government intentionally controls development, keeping roads and airports small, and ensuring hotels comply with strict environmental building codes. “We have an expression: if we don’t build it they will come!” Alfredo explained – the reverse of Ray Kinsella’s quote in the ﬁlm Field of Dreams. So far, it’s working.
We made a brief stop for a swim at Manuel Antonio, a spectacular half-moon beach with giant black rocks off its shore. Alfredo showed me a furry three-toed sloth up the oak tree near where we parked. Deer scarpered, monkeys howled. I marvelled at the wildlife. Alfredo grinned. “You should see the Atlantic coast: red-eyed frogs, giant turtles, bigger waves than in Hawaii!”
If Andaz Papagayo is for the big-spending metropolitan, Kurà is its edgier younger cousin – a building of shiny teak, steel and polished black concrete. I stepped from the vehicle on to ﬂoors inlaid with glass boxes displaying outlandish Boruca tribal masks. Steps away was the deck, a bento box of a bar to the left, a raised L-shaped inﬁnity pool to the right, and below me that dramatic view of jungle rolling down to ocean – the Marino Ballena National Park.
Tucking into Imperial beer and shrimp tartare at the bar were the owners, thirtysomething marine biologist Alejandra Umana and her equally youthful architect husband Martin Wells, both from San José. Quite what brought them to a mountain in the south they’re still trying to work out, but it started with the idea of opening a backpacker lodge in Uvita. Then they were shown this plot of land and plans changed. It took them three years to build, but they are now owners of the coolest boutique hotel in the country.
My room, an Inﬁnity Villa, struck me as being the size of an aircraft hangar, with giant, two-storey ﬂoor-to-ceiling glass sliding doors. It felt like stepping into an aquarium. The ﬂoor was inlaid with another Boruca tribal mask and the glass shower with solar-heated water had smooth fossil-stone underfoot. On the balcony were an oversized purple hammock and white leather sofas that wouldn’t have looked amiss in a modernist museum.
I took a jungle cruise on the Rio Grande de Térabba (squirrel monkeys leaping over boa constrictors in the trees) and then paid a visit to Hacienda Las Delicias, the elegant palm-oil estate and plantation guesthouse owned by the Italian businesswoman and socialite Donatella Zingone (previous guest: Paul Simon). But mostly I lived the Pura vida at Kurà, reclining on that hammock, tanning by its pool, and gazing out on that Avatar-like panorama, those whales frolicking in the waves.
Costa Rica, I thought. Who knew?
No matter what adventure you crave, you’ll find it in Costa Rica — both topside and underwater. Try speeding through the rain-forest canopy on a zip line or scuba diving with bull sharks. Bordered by the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea in the heart of Central America, Costa Rica is a prime ecotourism destination and boasts some of the world’s most biologically diverse habitats – including rainforest, volcano and mangrove ecosystems. While the Caribbean coast has yet to develop a serious scuba diving infrastructure, diving off the Pacific Coast is nothing short of spectacular. The underwater volcanic rock formations and pinnacles are home to small hard corals, sponges and gorgonians. Guanacaste is a giant bay off the northwest coast that provides access to Catalina and Bat Islands – key dive areas. The southern area is a protected biological reserve and offers the chance to see rays, turtles, and white-tip reef sharks. Plus, you’ll see large schools of fish swimming overhead on almost every dive. You can also get out to Cocos Island off the Pacific coast to dive with its hammerhead shark schools, whale sharks and manta rays.
Sublimely beautiful Costa Rica has something for everyone. The treats range from exciting adventure to leisurely relaxation, and everything in between that we can add to your vacation package. Furthermore, tourists can sample the laid-back national lifestyle that ticos (the name the Costa Ricans call themselves) refer to as ‘Pura Vida’ – ‘pure life’: no stress, no hassle. All this, combined with unsurpassed natural beauty and a developed and accommodating tourist industry, makes Costa Rica a wonderful place to visit and vacation.
Our agents can set up the all inclusive or al a carte vacation package and itinerary you want throughout the country. There is no charge for our service and we’ll save you money and lots of time and you’ll get the vacation you want.
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