Costa Rica’s new groove
Watch our video of contributing photographer Oliver Pilcher’s daughters surfing to get a feel for the twinkly Costa Rican coast, and then scroll down for our guide.
‘You have great elbows,’ says Jory Serota, the grinning Californian yoga teacher, as I bend my arms and raise them towards the sky. He’s trying to make me feel better, I think, because he’s just said that I have a lazy left arm (it doesn’t swing to the same point as my right). This is small fry for Serota – who spent seven years working with US Open tennis players. Now he’s a visiting instructor at the Healing Centre of the Harmony Hotel in Nosara. We go through a series of stretches; he watches, head waggling a lot, then makes minute adjustments to my poses, and by the end of the session my left arm is somehow behaving itself and my upper body feels much looser. Both yoga and surfing are taken incredibly seriously here. Yet despite being on a par with Oahu’s North Shore in Hawaii as an international surfing destination, it has a very chilled vibe. Nothing much happens in Nosara town itself; most people head straight to the beaches – Nosara, Pelada and Guiones, a gently curling six-kilometre bay which is the best for catching waves. On the back roads behind it is the Nosara Yoga Institute, a few low-key bars, restaurants, boutiques selling exercise kit and a mini-supermarket with a noticeboard filled with flyers for Pilates classes. As I stand on the coconut-strewn beach to watch the pros practising for the weekend’s National Surfing Circuit competition, a lone man sits cross-legged in the sand, meditating.
Where to stay
The Harmony Hotel The Healing Centre and its excellent treatment programme are at the heart of this laid-back place, just five minutes’ walk from Guiones beach. So it’s unsettling to learn that it is expanding and moving in 2016. Until then, as well as the daily classes (yoga on the beach, vinyasa body dance), there are one-off retreats, first-class guest instructors and a vegetarian juice bar with such a good reputation that health nuts from all around pop in for lunch: heavenly goat’s-cheese salads; mango, banana and flax smoothies; pineapple bread. Dinner in the main restaurant isn’t quite as good. Everyone lolls around the kidney-bean-shaped pool as white-faced monkeys swing from the nearby trees. The hotel has a mix of bungalows (they are the most private) and smart Cocos rooms with hessian lamps, grey-and-white pinstripe curtains and rocking chairs on the wooden decks. If you’re up early to hit the waves, book in for a surfer’s massage afterwards: a hardcore combination of deep-tissue and sports techniques, it will unknot your upper body after all that paddling. harmonynosara.com. Doubles from about £120.
Life here revolves around the castaway-style beaches. There are 13 of them, not private (no beach in Costa Rica is) but mostly deserted, apart from the odd pair of neat turtle tracks in the sand. An easy 20-minute drive from Liberia airport, this is where everyone eases into a trip down the coast for a few sun-drenched, lazy days. Setting out from Marina Papagayo (where the yacht belonging to Steve Jobs’s family is berthed), a gang of us charter a blue-and-white wooden boat and motor around the Papagayo Gulf. There are wiry trees, clumps of cacti clinging to wrinkled rocks that look like elephant hide, and a handful of plots earmarked for hotel construction as part of a government project (it leases land to developers and regulates what’s built). Fingers crossed this unspoilt view won’t change too much. We stop at Egg beach, where at low tide you can swim through a cave to a second bay. Our timing is off, so we cool down by splashing about in the gin-clear water, munching on watermelon. Blue jays swoop down from the trees to nibble on our leftovers; the sand slowly turns from white to grey, like a colour chart, as we go up the shore. On the way back, we stop to watch a somersaulting manta ray; he’s showing off for an underwater temptress by launching himself in the air, flipping over like a pancake and landing smack on his silver belly again and again.
Where to stay
Andaz Peninsula Papagayo Resort This year’s hottest opening is the most talked about in Costa Rica since the Four Seasons launched a decade ago. Costa Rican architect Ronald Zürcher designed both, but with the unexpectedly modernist style of Andaz he has come up trumps. Set seamlessly into the hillside above two beaches are whelk-shaped public spaces and seven low-level concrete blocks of rooms. Bamboo frames the floor-to-ceiling windows and walkways. Inside, it’s all natural materials: wooden furniture, a huge tear-drop light inspired by a bird’s nest, and a shower with a mosaic pebble wall and sliding doors that open onto the balcony. But it’s the other details that add the funky factor. Wooden carts by the two pools form makeshift bars, painted with football emblems and stocked with Cacique Guaro liquor. Chao Pescao, the most fun of three restaurants, feels like it could be a real, rocking neighbourhood joint. Have a traditional breakfast of gallo pinto (rice and beans) and then head to the spa where everything can be customised, from the ingredients in your organic scrub to your post-treatment tea. papagayo.andaz.hyatt.com. Doubles from about £370.
By 7am the sun is white-hot and Santa Teresa beach is already humming. There are dog walkers, bare-chested runners in tiny shorts and surfers with straggly hair. A couple arrive with a surfing instructor and wade into the water. The boy is confident, jumping onto his board and easily riding the small waves into the shallows; the girl less so, slipping off sideways into the froth on her first attempt. Surfing is one of the main reasons people head to this spot, not far from the southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula. It was once a fishing village; now the road that runs parallel to the beach has cute cafés and the odd fashion boutique dotted among the surf shops. As I sit outside The Bakery in Playa Carmen sipping fresh-mint lemonade, Bob Marley’s ‘Three Little Birds’ comes over the speakers. It suits this vaguely hippy town, which feels like it has the potential to morph into a less polished Tulum. Later, as the sun sets over the Pacific in front and the moon rises above the mangroves behind, I have my first surf lesson. After an hour I’ve managed to stand up only twice on my board. I’ve got red, sore knees because I’ve smacked into the seabed so many times, aching arms and the beginnings of a bruise as big as my fist on my right hip. But I feel as if I’m starting to fit in.
Where to stay
Hacienda AltaGracia, Auberge Resorts Collection, Costa Rica The hotel’s commitment to wellness and service begins from the moment you touch down on the property’s private airstrip. Grab a coffee from the on-site plantation before heading to one of 50 casitas, many of which include private plunge pools. From here, it’s up to you: Take a six-hour sunrise hike? Go horseback riding to a neighboring farm? Lounge by the pool with a pineapple-turmeric-ginger juice? Enjoy an immersive river bath and craniosacral facial at the spa? Done and done. A stay at Hacienda AltaGracia is like passing through a portal into another world—only here, everyone’s everyone’s biggest priority is you. Lauren DeCarlo. Booking.com
Florblanca This beachfront beauty put Santa Teresa on the map when it opened 11 years ago and is still the most sought-after place to bed down. To get here, drive through the town until the road ends and all that’s left is a dirt track. Suddenly you’re surrounded by jungle, with a sloping path to the pool, restaurant and sand beyond. There are daily ashtanga classes full of strapping surf dudes in an open-sided sala cooled by sea breezes, a fully equipped Pilates studio upstairs, a lemon-scented spa (try the coffee scrub), and villas with hammocks big enough for two, outdoor bathrooms with powerful showers and four-poster beds. Villa 1 has the best beach view but Villa 11, the honeymoon house, is gorgeous. Borrow a bicycle to pop into town or a board to hit the waves. At sunset, bag the swing seat by the water. The crowd is unselfconsciously cool (Gisele Bündchen tied the knot on the beach here a few years ago); the food (salads, tuna burgers, sashimi) is fresh and organic and just part of the sustainable vision that’s so important here. florblanca.com. Villas from about £270.
Latitude 10˚ Practically next door to Florblanca but with far fewer frills (no classes or spa, less buzz), this decade-old, five-suite sanctuary is at the furthest point of Santa Teresa beach. There are no keys because your room – built from almond wood, with folding doors, a small deck at the front and an outside bathroom – has no glass in the window frames (this also means no air-con). Chattering howler monkeys are the 5am wake-up call; a friendly cricket sits in the sink as you brush your teeth. It’s wonderfully simple: there’s a canopied bed and desk in one corner and driftwood hangers on a rope in the other. In the small restaurant, the chef, who doubles as the waiter, cooks chicken quesadillas and mahi-mahi with amazing garlic-yucca mash on the stove behind the bar. And from the pool a path leads to a couple of hammocks and sunbeds on the sand. There are mostly couples in this quiet place, and you won’t see a soul about after 9.30pm. latitude10resort.com. Suites from about £185.
When Christopher Columbus landed in Limón on the Caribbean coast in 1502, he thought he’d struck gold. On seeing the indigenous women wearing ornate necklaces, he assumed the land would be full of treasure, so he named it Costa Rica (rich coast). He was wrong about the precious metal, but this country is rich in other ways: more than 25 per cent of its land is protected through national parks and reserves, it has 10 per cent of the world’s butterfly population and there are 112 volcanoes, including Arenal in the north, which looks like a murky witch’s cauldron bubbling over. Few travellers come to Costa Rica without visiting a reserve. Corcovado National Park, further south, is the biggest and where you might spot a jaguar if you’re lucky. But it’s the volcano and biodiversity that make the 12,000-hectare Arenal National Park stand out. On a five-kilometre walk through the rainforest here, my guide, Mainor, points out hollow trumpet trees, umbrella-shaped ferns and a thick walking palm that sways with fruit hanging from thin vines like Rastafarian dreads. We stop to watch leaf-cutter ants scurrying along a piece of bark. There are plants as colourful as parrots, and electric-blue butterflies that flutter past as we cross a hanging bridge and descend to a waterfall. Afterwards, I swap the rainforest for Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge in the north, where a softly spoken youngster called Jimmy with eagle eyes and expert knowledge takes me out in his boat. We glide down the Frío River, past caymans sunning themselves on rocks, to spot powder-blue herons, yellow warblers and velvety green-and-orange pygmy kingfishers among the reeds. It’s twitcher heaven.
Where to stay
Nayara Springs Less than a 30-minute drive from Arenal volcano is this new outpost, a sister property to Nayara Hotel Spa & Gardens next door. But once you cross the footbridge from the original hotel, everything feels more intimate; there are 16 villas (compared to 50). You can dip in and out of Nayara but all you could want is here, including a steam room and open-air yoga pavilion. Supper is at poolside Amor Loco restaurant, which has a Moroccan vibe, with velvet-covered sofas and a softly strumming guitarist. Feast on steamed corvina fish wrapped in plantain leaves, followed by a perfect chocolate soufflé. The lovely villas have four-poster beds, vast bathrooms and decks with hot tubs filled from a nearby natural spring. Staff are bubbly, service is sharp and it’s all crazily colourful, from the public spaces with blue and sun-yellow walls to Carlota, the magnificent resident macaw. nayarasprings.com. Villas from about £400.
For the past two years, adrenalin junkies have been making a beeline for Río Perdido’s 240 hectares of forest to go canyoning, tubing, mountain-biking (Paolo Montoya, the Costa Rican champion, comes here to train – in the dark) and hiking on trails that lead to hot springs or along the Agua Caliente River. A 30-minute drive north of the small town of Bagaces, through farmland and down a bone-juddering track where clouds of dust billow in the four-wheel-drive’s wake, takes us to what feels like the middle of nowhere. I’m nervous as I get harnessed for canyoning but there’s no need to be: I’m hooked instantly and fly through the air on zip-lines that zigzag from one side of the gorge to the other high above the milky-blue water. There’s a Tarzan swing, a wobbling bridge two planks wide, metal rungs on the side of rocks to climb up and then a final zip-line through the forest. That evening, a handful of us clamber down to a natural pool. Two lights are fixed to the trees, there’s a pitch-black sky and as I float in water as warm as a bath, a bat swoops low over my head and out through the canyon.
Where to stay
Rio Perdido You don’t expect to find this kind of urban living in the forest. The rooms at the adventure park, which opened at the end of last year, are shipping containers on stilts. Marked by a neon-yellow or turquoise stripe hugging their middles, they have corrugated roofs, concrete floors and brass-piping lights beside the kingsize beds on castors. Fresh, graphic touches – chevron-patterned cushions, striped hammocks on the small deck – are contrasted with white corner sofas, raffia rugs and rope wardrobe doors. A few minutes’ walk away, the restaurant is in an award-winning building with views of the thermal pools. It was originally designed to serve a buffet lunch to the day visitors who flock here for the activities, so at night it can lack atmosphere. What’s far nicer is to request supper under the stars, either on the hanging bridge or the lantern-lit platform overlooking the canyon. rioperdido.com. Doubles from about £135.
Steppes Travel (+44 1285 601495; steppestravel.co.uk) offers a 12-day trip staying at Rio Perdido, Latitude 10˚, Florblanca and The Harmony Hotel from £2,195 per person, including breakfast, flights, transfers and excursions.
This feature first appeared in Condé Nast Traveller November 2014
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