“I can’t believe how Costa Rica has changed,” said my traveling companion, a surfing addict who has been traveling to that beautiful Central American country since the 1980’s, just as he got set to hit a towering drive straight toward the pin on Hole 4 of the Four Seasons Costa Rica golf course.
That hotel, perched out on a finger of land at Peninsula Papagayo in the northwest corner of the country, is a stunningly luxurious place, with an incredibly beautiful and challenging Arnold Palmer-designed golf course that offers numerous vistas of the azure blue Pacific Ocean.
And Costa Rica truly has transformed, especially since the Four Seasons came to the Guanacaste province back in 2004, bringing a level of luxury and elegance to the area – and the whole country, really – that never existed before. And with the stellar success of the Four Seasons here, it is no wonder that so many big hotel companies are following, with openings of a Ritz Carlton, a Mandarin Oriental, a One and Only, a Regent, and a Hyatt Regency (among others, and all with accompanying golf courses) scheduled in the neighborhood in the next two years. That’s why Liberia Airport (LIR) has grown exponentially since 2004 as well, expanded runways and numerous daily nonstop flights coming from New York, Dallas, Atlanta, Miami, Houston, and (during high season) Los Angeles.
Taking over an area that was previously uninhabited, the eco-friendly Four Seasons Hotel is tucked into a vast hillside, where villas, suites, and rooms look out over the shimmering water. A riot of greenery is everywhere – watch and listen and you’re sure to catch a howler monkey hollering as he swings through the trees, or hear the sweet singing of a myriad of birds.
Here, in the dry rain forest, the weather is often sunny, even in the so-called “green” (or wet) season, so hitting the resort’s two beaches, where kayaks, boogie boards, and snorkeling equipment await, is a no-brainer. The clean, clear water is warm and inviting, perfect for a trip out on a catamaran, or a deep-sea fishing jaunt, or even a scuba diving or surfing trip; all are offered by the resort, as well as guided forest nature walks, where monkeys, parrots, iguanas, and the adorable coatimundis, a raccoon-like creature with a long striped tail and usually friendly disposition.
There’s so much luxury and relaxation at the Four Seasons Costa Rica, with its amazing spa (make sure to check out the outdoor plunge pools located inside the locker rooms, and to experience the signature Natural Healing Bamboo Massage, in which a therapist uses freshly cut bamboo rollers of varying diameters and lengths to work out every kink) and top-notch restaurants (Caracol at the golf course clubhouse sports great views and makes a mean oven-roasted pizza) that it may be tough to consider leaving the property to see more of the country. And of course, there’s that world-class golf course to conquer, with its unparalleled cart rides between holes. You’ll find yourself riding up steep hills in the midst of dense forest as the monkeys howl and chatter in the trees, then spilling out onto an eye-poppingly beautiful hole with perfectly manicured fairways and visions of the blue ocean beyond.
But it would be a crime to miss some of Costa Rica’s local flavor, so plan to pack your bags and hit the road in a 4-wheel drive SUV (as some of the roads around the country are not part of the burgeoning changes happening there, and are paved in gravel or dirt). Head north of Liberia to the pristine wilderness of two protected national parks, Santa Rosa and Guanacaste, and check into your own private villa at Recreo Costa Rica.
With 25 luxury villas, this secluded destination is owned by a blended Costa Rican-American family, who built, then sold to individual owners, and now manages the villas. So visitors can pick and choose the home that suits their needs, from 3-bedroom homes to the expansive 5-bedroom villa; all have swimming pools, cable television and internet access, air conditioning, easy beach access (via the golf cart supplied with the villa), and include a personal chef who will create authentic Tico dishes for every meal, from the villa’s fully stocked kitchen and bar. Make sure to ask for arroz con pollo as well as the olla de carne, both staples of the typical Tican diet, and you’ll feel just like a local.
Grab a kayak and head out into the ocean from either of the two public beaches just down the hill from your villa, or perhaps take a horseback ride or play some beach volleyball, tennis, or basketball, Recreo (which means “recreation” in Spanish) will keep you busy right on the property. They even have a local massage therapist on call, who will give you a treatment right out by the pool, if you’d like. And if you’re feeling more adventurous, the resort offers a myriad of physically challenging trips, from kite surfing (located close by in Bolaños Bay) to waterskiing, whitewater rafting, mountain biking, and zip-lining (the exhilarating tree-canopy experience that Costa Rica made famous worldwide). Or take advantage of Recreo’s proximity to Nicaragua and go on their all-day tour of that fascinating country (see the sidebar to this story for more on that fascinating jaunt). And after an exciting day, don’t miss having cocktails and appetizers up at Recreo’s Mountain Top Cantina, where 360-degree views of the Pacific Ocean mean the chance of seeing a truly breathtaking sunset.
There’s so much to see in Costa Rica that simply staying up in the Guanacaste area seems somewhat limiting, despite the luxurious possibilities offered by the Four Seasons and Recreo. And if, unlike my traveling companion and myself, you are on your first trip to this beautiful place filled with friendly locals, you owe it to yourself to head south in your SUV and visit some of the legendary places, like Arenal Volcano National Park, the bustling seaside town of Jaco (where the American yachting community gathers), and gorgeous Manuel Antonio National Park, where countless pretty hotels, restaurants, and nightclubs dot the mountainside that leads to the entrance of the park. Inside the park, beautiful beaches lead into lush rainforest, home to more than 100 species of animals and close to 200 types of birds. Take a guided hiking tour into the forest and perhaps you’ll be lucky to spot a sloth hanging in the trees!
For a typically Costa Rican hotel experience, stay at the Monterey Del Mar Hotel in Playa Esterillos. Located halfway between Jaco and Manuel Antonio, the quaint boutique hotel sits on a secluded beach. The open-air restaurant serves up tasty ceviche, freshly caught fish, rice and black beans – all the staples of a typical Tican diet – as brilliantly plumed birds skitter across the tile floors, and iguanas wander by. It’s an idyllic spot to make a home base for surfing trips to famed Playa Hermosa near Jaco, for horseback rides along the empty beach, or just spending some time communing with a hammock and a good book.
And while it is true that Costa Rica has gone through some major changes in the past twenty years, becoming somewhat Americanized in many areas as more and more outdoor-loving Yankees with means find their way to this Central American tropical paradise, bringing money and their own idea of sophisticated living, one thing has stayed the same. The Ticos are incredibly welcoming, hospitable, friendly people, who are justifiably proud of their wonderful country.
Photos by Jenny Peters.