WHY WE LOVE IT
- A paradise for intrepid nature lovers, and increasingly for luxury-seeking ones.
- Incredible lodges, combining eco-sensitivity with services. Small, simple inns in wild country. And a few fantastic luxury resorts.
- Birthplace of ecotourism! Ten percent of all the world's bird species live here.
- Experience rain forest, Pacific surf, Caribbean coastline, mountains, and live volcanoes.
- Adventure is easily found: rafting, kayaking, zip-line tours, whale watching, diving, sportfishing, and bird-watching.
- New direct flights from the U.S. to Liberia are making Guanacaste the new hot spot.
- Good buys: Bottles of Salsa Lizano, coffee beans, clay ocarinas, hand-painted oxcarts, notebooks of banana-fiber paper, emeralds.
WHEN TO GO
January through April is the high season, because it's generally drier across the country. But if you want tropical, try bargain hunting during the "Green Season," from May through October. Though very humid and featuring afternoon downpours, it's the best way to see how lushly beautiful this country can be.
RESTAURANTE GRANO DE ORO
Hotel Grano de Oro
If it's not too humid, a table on the ornate wrought-iron veranda or the tropical garden of this Colonial-style hotel is so romantic; the dining room, with its wicker bucket chairs, is a little less so. Either way, this is the capital's best restaurant, all grand-Euro cuisine and well-heeled locals.
Marina Los Sueños, Playa Herradura
Near the Marriott resort and part of a growing development, this waterside setting is lovely, with marina lights twinkling, boats bobbing, and rigging clinking. The food here really stands out: fresh, seafood-centric and contemporary—it's worth the sticker shock.
INN AT COYOTE MOUNTAIN
San Ramon, Central Valley
A divine Spanish hacienda-style inn on top of a hill west of San José is where to get some of the country's best food—innovative Latin-Creole dishes by chef-owners from Nova Scotia, who also run a cooking school here. Consider overnighting in one of the four lovely rooms.
BALCÓN DE UVITA
You won't believe your eyes—or stomachs—when you arrive at this tiny inn, whose restaurant has blue shutters, Balinese chairs, a spectacular view to the ocean a mile away, and the best (doubtless the only) Indonesian kitchen in Costa Rica. Order the absolutely authentic 15-dish rijsttafel and rejoice. It's open Thursday through Sunday till 9 p.m. for non-guests. You can stay, too, in one of their spotless cabinas.
This modern, high-style restaurant has a partly glass-sided, part-open terrace overlooking gardens carpeted (in season) with ginger flowers. The food, by the Canadian expatriate owner-chef, has style too—ginger-glazed chicken, ceviche, spring rolls, all served on small plates for sharing.
HOTEL GRANO DE ORO
Really the only place to overnight in the missable capital is this gracious mansion with one of the best restaurants in town, a rooftop terrace, and comfortable, beautifully kept rooms. If you like Victoriana, the Vista de Oro and Garden suites are quite magical.
The top eco-wilderness lodge for well over a decade, this property features 16 enormous *Suiita-*thatched, screen-walled bungalows with hammocks on huge decks, spectacular Pacific views, rustic spa bathrooms, bamboo four-posters, and plenty of jungle visitors: toucans, howler monkeys, giant stick insects, you name it. The food is fantastic and there's yoga, massage, rain forest hikes, ocean kayaking—so you can have the option to do as much or as little as you please.
FINCA ROSA BLANCA COUNTRY INN
Santa Bárbara de Heredia, Barrio Jesus
Only a 15-minute drive to San José is this family-owned, lovingly hand-built homage to Antoni Gaudí, with murals, archways, antiques, patios, and beamed ceilings reminiscent of the famed Catalan architect's style. Optional guests-only, four-course dinners with estate-grown produce are highlights.
Intimate and remote, the ten indoor-outdoor suites have enclosed bedrooms with A/C, while their living rooms and bathrooms are open to the gardens (don't worry, they're private). People particularly love the high-intensity yoga and Pilates, and all the usual eco-pursuits are available, plus in-room massage and walks on the perfect (though not swimable) white-sand beach.
FOUR SEASONS RESORT COSTA RICA
Peninsula Papagayo, Guanacaste
The January 2004 pioneer on the wild northwest coast (now so accessible—with direct U.S.-Liberia flights) has all the luxuries you expect: towels and cocktails round the pool; L'Occitane amenities in the oversized bathrooms, room service, spa, Har-Tru tennis, Arnold Palmer-designed golf course—plus jungle adventure on the doorstep.
LOS SUEÑOS MARRIOTT OCEAN & GOLF RESORT
Tel: 506-637-8886 or 866-865-9759
If you are most comfortable with American style and efficiency with no surprises, Marriott delivers all that at this Colonial-style marina resort (part of a residential development) that's manicured, landscaped, and spotless. Here are golf, tennis, spa services, and a (not so hot) casino—but theres also 1,000+ acres of rain forest just outside the grounds.
PEACE LODGE at LA PAZ WATERFALL GARDENS
The large, fanciful rooms here echo the landscape outside: Bathrooms like illuminated caves have jungle murals and waterfall showers, wood-and-stone bedrooms have fireplaces and four-poster beds, and the garden terraces have Jacuzzis and hammocks. As the paved hiking paths and butterfly enclosure suggest, it's not quite the real thing, but that can be a plus.
HOTEL CASA CHAMELEON
"Hotel" is a misnomer for these two new (January 2005) bungalows on stilts with clean lines and big terraces. Each is entirely private and self-contained, though they share a pool, beach, and pro-grade outdoor kitchen with a barbecue grill. Do let the owners arrange a chef for you—extra charge, but worth it. In fact, they arrange anything you want—via walkie-talkie.
__SPIROGYRA BUTTERFLY GARDEN
One of the nicest things to do in the capital is wander the trails of this gorgeous garden that's also a nonprofit working to improve the lives of disadvantaged local women. Commune with around 30 butterfly species, plus hummingbirds, or just linger at the idyllic café. Afterward, stop in for some shopping at the adjacent El Pueblo Shopping Center full of souvenir shops.
__Arenal Volcano National Park
After four dormant centuries, this volcano started erupting in 1968, and it's been going ever since. The best way to see it is from this lodge, built for Smithsonian scientists in 1987. Though a gorge protects you from lava, the more extreme flows are quite hairy and thrilling. On the other hand, you could end up seeing very little if you come on a day when clouds obscure the volcano altogether. Tours—by foot, horseback, canopy, and more—leave from here, too.
The Pacific Coast of this Guanacuaste-province peninsula is filling up since Liberia airport started taking direct flights from the U.S. in December 2005. Still, the great white-sand stretches—Playas Hermosa, del Coco, Tamarindo, Montezuma, and so on—among the fishing villages, beach towns, and, increasingly, resort developments, bear close investigation. And if you're surfers, you will be in heaven.
__CORCOVADO NATIONAL PARK
Remote and wild compared to most U.S. national parks, this marks the boundary between dry, tropical Guanacaste and the green Central Pacific and is incredibly rich in biodiversity. Among the 400-odd bird species are lots of macaws, and this is one of only two places you might see squirrel monkeys.