Pretty much the minute you exit Costa Rica’s Liberia International Airport, a sense of calm ensues. It could be the fresh air, the blue skies, or the glorious vistas. The air is sweeter, the colors more vibrant, and the pace is slower. With great beaches, a multitude of nature to be enjoyed, flora and fauna galore, and a welcoming culture that embraces the pura vida lifestyle, it’s challenging not to fall deeply, profoundly, in love with this Central American nation. And for caffeine addicts the world over, did I mention the excellent Costa Rican coffee?
Just over five hours from the east or west coasts and far less from the southern U.S., it’s hard to argue with Costa Rica’s near perfect location. Clear, warm waters of the Pacific and Caribbean are on Costa Rica’s east and west respectively, with some waters having great surfing and others possessing glass-like surfaces. Political stability has, unlike elsewhere in the region, been Costa Rica’s national bedrock. In 1953, following the abolition of its military, the first democratic presidential election took place and there have been 15 since. No small wonder this lovely place with about five million people is the most visited Central America nation.
The Perfection of Punta Islita
Two-and-one-half hours’ drive or 30-minute flight from Liberia Airport and located within the Blue Zone – one of only five in the world, where residents enjoy extraordinarily long, healthy lives and, where living to 100 isn’t unusual – Hotel Punta Islita is perched atop a hill with breathtaking Pacific views and rock formations that named the area.
Opened in 1994 and built by an architect who apparently was influenced by Robinson Crusoe, large accommodations provide of sense of suspended, treetop animation. Of 56 accommodations, 25 have private plunge pools or whirlpools with decks, and some have hammocks. All 19 multi-bedroom villas have private pools. Privacy walls made from local stones or tropical foliage ensure seclusion in this natural slice of heaven.
Staying in Suite 31, about 650 square feet with a large deck, plunge pool, outdoor day bed and loungers, it was difficult to tear myself away from the intoxicating daytime views. At night, star-filled skies mesmerized, like flickering, black-and-white Jonathan Pollard canvasses. Inside was equally calming with gorgeous furnishings made from Guanacaste, pochote, and teak woods, local art by Islita villagers, stocked mini-bar and two flatscreen televisions. The luscious bed had high-count cotton sheets ensuring sound repose while the Britt Espresso machine made mornings delightful. The enormous bathroom had dual sinks, a dual-head, walk-in shower, and soaking tub with floor-to-ceiling, ocean-facing windows.
Here it’s about nature: seeing it, being in it, and truly experiencing it. Walking pathways and hikes must often be shared with healthy, pre-historic looking iguanas, horseback riding along the property under lush green canopies and your ride may stop to drink from a freshwater stream before heading to deserted beaches, where cherry red and turquoise blue macaws fly overhead in perfect formation as if competing in Paris’ Air Show, where sloths hang impossibly in respite, butterflies flit about, spiders create mammoth webs, turtles seasonally spawn nearby, and even while on the gym’s treadmill, a coati – a Maine Coon-sized, long-snouted, raccoon-like mammal – stopped, inches from the picture window separating us, tilted his head toward me as if questioning, “What on God’s green earth are you doing human? Looks like serious running but going nowhere fast.” A question I’ve often posed myself, then remembered the sublime bread pudding I enjoyed before my crema-laced breakfast burrito, and key-lime pie the night prior after devouring a whole red snapper deliciously prepared, and so fresh, it was surely swimming hours earlier.
Sitting, whether sitting on your deck, at either pool – both with swim-up bars – at the beach, Nanku Spa, or at Alma Restaurant or Aura Beach Club while dining on ‘Zero Kilometer’ cuisine with food freshly sourced onsite or in the hotel’s immediate vicinity, a symphonic, ornithological orgy of sounds await. It’s an omnipresent chirping cacophony in varying octaves, and a constant divine connection to Costa Rica’s ethereal natural world.
The benefits of Nanku Spa’s Signature Experience – a blissful, two-hour affair while cicada serenaded – remain. Commencing with an aromatic chocolate body scrub applied by a talented masseuse with a specialized mitt, I nearly requested a spoon. An outdoor shower in the lush garden followed. Then one of the best, most therapeutic massages I’ve experienced anywhere. A warm coconut oil and honey concoction dripped onto my third eye, ranging from continuous drops to a constant pour and provided multiple sensations: from a nearly altered state of consciousness to one of heightened awareness. Then a 30-minute hot bath laced with green tea, camomile, and eucalyptus leaves and provision of sparkling wine. It was all I could do to remember my name.
It’s entirely possible that staying at Hotel Punta Islita for a week could completely change one from a total Type A person to a B+. However, even if that proved impossible, surely one’s life will be longer, healthier, and better.
Marvelous El Mangroove
Set on 17-acres of mangroves just 20-minutes from Liberia Airport on Papagayo Gulf’s Playa Panama, is the 85 all-suite El Mangroove with its beachfront, other-worldly sunsets. Given its proximity to the airport, its an excellent beginning or end to an overall Costa Rican experience, or a destination all to itself with Papagayo’s nearly endless eco-adventure opportunities.
Suites are set in three, low-lying, modernist buildings with bamboo eaves and taking advantage of local woods instilling a connection to nature and emitting a Bohemian, casual chic luxury. Grounds include a massive Guanacaste tree root and whimsical outdoor sculpture, tic-tac-toe, pool table, dominos, the well-curated GYVE boutique, and naturally, beachfront water sports and adventures.
Suite 112, a stone’s throw from the black-tiled, adults-only pool (three additional pools are on property), was about 700-square feet, containing natural woods and regional art. Excellent bedding, spacious bathroom with travertine walk-in shower, and furnished balcony with a chair hammock had verdant jungle-like vistas. Also, a work area, stocked mini-bar and Britt Espresso machine provided all comforts.
Its beachfront Matiss and open-air Makoko restaurants, serves freshly made, creative, and colorful Costa Rican and continental fare. Highlights: ceviche of any type, especially octopus, and coconut pipa with mango and yuzu, guacamole that’s more tangy and flavorful than Mexican-style, excellent house-made Burrata salad, tuna with caviar sprinkles, and a flavorful ribeye.
The Gulf’s glass-like surface made paddle boarding a snap so going great distances was easy. Flapping, though somewhat shy schools of golden rays kept me amused, while secluded bays and beaches warmed my heart. The same jaunt can be kayaked, but personally, standing is preferred while channeling my inner adventurer. Paddling also allows true presence as my usually surgically attached camera remained behind.
The mixology experience conducted by bartender extraordinaire Eylin was creatively colorful and thirst quenching. Here she used the freshest local ingredients, including several tropical fruits and prepared exquisite, tasty cocktails, notably dragon fruit and blood orange gin tonic, and starfruit and vanilla vodka martini over ice. For coffee aficionados, the Mangroove Cold Brew, served with 20-year-old local Centenario rum, Café Rica – similar to Kahlua – a splash of orange juice, cinnamon syrup, garnished with a gold cookie was divine. Basically, all meals and dessert in one glass!
The Bearth Spa set within the verdant mangroves boasts several dreamy outdoor massage pavilions with ceiling fans, in addition to the air-conditioned ones inside, a calming relaxation terrace, and steam room.
Whether coming for nature, food, relaxation, water activities, or pure vida, amiable locals, called Ticos, will welcome you with kindness and generosity of spirit. Perhaps it’s the cicadas’ hum, the Macaws’ flittering by, or the steady, soul-soothing pulse of the Pacific, but renewal and rebirth, indeed pura vida, seem to be attainable here in Costa Rica. Happy Travels!