How to tour Costa Rica in style
There’s a phrase you’ll see and hear all over Costa Rica: pura vida. It means “pure life” and it’s a fitting unofficial motto. The country abounds with awe-inspiring nature, sublime scenery and a laid-back attitude to making the most of it all. While its magnificent landscapes are largely untouched by development, with gigantic jungles redolent of Jurassic Park, Costa Rica has a long-established tourist economy that makes visiting both comfortable and convenient. There are now, for instance, direct flights from London to the capital, San José, or regional hub, Liberia. It is also a notably clean country – in 2016, renewable energy sources provided 98.1% of its power – and safe, too, compared with many others in Central America. Tempted to visit? Include these four must-book hotels in your itinerary…
Stop 1: Drake Bay
Set on the remote, beautiful Osa Peninsula, Drake Bay is a rainforest destination that’s abundant with wildlife and free of stress
Stay at: Drake Bay Getaway
If you’ve come to Costa Rica for flora and fauna, there can be few better places to stay than Drake Bay Getaway. At this award-winning, five-room boutique hotel in the remote Osa Peninsula you are totally immersed in natural wonders, from watching toucans and scarlet macaws play and preen in the treetops around your cabin to enjoying native plant species in the restaurant’s culinary creations.
Drake Bay Getaway was built by Yens Steller, who grew up nearby, and his husband Patrick Ludwig, whom he met while working in Seattle. The pair gave up their jobs – Yens in software, Patrick in aerospace – and arrived in 2013 to build the hotel from scratch on a 22-acre plot of land just outside Drake Bay’s main village of Agujitas. Patrick channeled his engineering expertise into the accommodation, which take the form of cabins dotted up the hillside on stilts, featuring sustainably grown local teak as well as passive cooling techniques. The pair also cultivated the surrounding land, planting 150 aguacatillo trees, for instance, and a beautiful hibiscus archway through which guests walk to access the resort.
Each cabin is named after a species of flora found nearby. GQ stayed in Bromeliad, looking out over the treetops and the bay. The furnishings are simple yet stylish and there is deliberately no art on the walls. Yens and Patrick smartly decided to venerate rather than challenge the incredible views, making the entire front of the cabin from large glass panes that open up onto a roomy balcony. From here you can enjoy the vista in tranquil seclusion and relax from the day’s adventures.
Even getting to Drake Bay is an adventure. Most guests either arrive by light aircraft, or take a road transfer to Sierpe. Those that opt for the latter then catch a boat that speeds up the mangroves, past the resident crocodiles, and out into the Pacific to land on the Drake Bay beach.
For the wild at heart, Drake Bay Getaway provides the perfect base to explore the jewel of the Osa Peninsula: Corcovado National Park, said to be home to 2.5 percent of the world’s biodiversity. GQ took a tour with Allan Guevara at Osa Great Adventure and encountered anteater, sloth, four types of monkey and a rare Baird’s tapir; the very luckiest visitors may even glimpse a puma or jaguar. Great diving is to be had out in the ocean at Caño Island while, for those wanting an animal encounter closer to the hotel, the nighttime insect tour with local biologist Tracie Stice is a fascinating way to see frogs, spiders, snakes and more.
One of the core ideas at Drake Bay Getaway is that Yens and Patrick organise everything for you, from any such activities you might desire, to transport to food. Your dietary requirements are noted on arrival then, every day, you will be presented with a different surprise breakfast, lunch and dinner. Locally-sourced ingredients are central to the proceedings; a delicious version of eggs benedict one morning was served with pejibaye, or peach palm fruit, as a healthier substitute for hollandaise. Health is certainly a priority here – the portions are European size rather than American – but not at the expense of flavour. Standout dishes during GQ’s stay included a melt-in-the-mouth yellowfin tuna and a shrimp and avocado risotto.
Somehow it all tastes even better for being served in the intimate setting of Drake Bay Getaway’s small, open-sided restaurant cabin, surrounded by the noises of the jungle. The whole experience is rustic and adventurous – yet luxurious and exclusive at the same time. And, as you walk down from your cabin by torchlight for dinner, and retire back to lie out in a hammock under a vast, crystalline starscape, you can’t help but feel it’s a little bit magical too.
Getting there: From San José, catch a short flight to Bahía Drake Airport; alternatively take a car or bus to Sierpe and enjoy a one-hour boat ride to the bay.
From £410 per night, including transfers from Sierpe or Drake Bay airport, complimentary laundry service, all meals, pre-dinner appetisers and unlimited speciality coffee and natural fruit juices. drakebaygetaway.com
Stop 2: Papagayo
The Papagayo Peninsula comprises 15 miles of coastline, 31 individual beaches and is home to the country’s most glamorous resort
Stay at: Four Seasons Costa Rica
Imagine a classic beach holiday… but perfected. Imagine secluded private bays with four-poster day beds at your disposal and cocktail-ferrying waiters at the ready. Imagine retreating after a day’s diving or kayaking to a vast suite with sweeping views over the ocean. Imagine a host of first-rate dinner options within walking distance (and a chauffeur-driven golf buggy on demand if, well, you’d rather not walk). Imagine all those things, and you might just have a picture of the newly refurbished Four Seasons Costa Rica.
Located in Guanacaste province in the north-west of Costa Rica, within the exclusive Peninsula Papagayo – a private sweep of nature-rich coastline that’s home to a clutch of first-class hotels – the Four Seasons first opened in 2004 and quickly set a new standard for luxury hospitality in the country. Its setting is unsurpassed, built along the isthmus of the peninsula with beaches on either side. The manicured gardens of the resort sit among some 250 acres of rich forestry that is still wild enough to be home to howler monkeys and many beautiful birds. Now, it has reopened following a refurbishment aimed at consolidating its position as the region’s most sought-after destination.
The hotel has 178 rooms, including a series of hilltop suites that are effectively private villas. GQ stayed in one with a private terrace boasting a daybed and an infinity plunge pool with views down to the bay; inside we had a spacious living room and a huge bedroom – both of which looked out to the bay – as well as two bathrooms, a separate washroom with his and her’s sinks, and a dressing room (natch). The fact that you can have all this seclusion without opting to book a “residence” is testament to size of this estate and to the scale of the hotel’s ambition.
A short stroll down the hill, the main hotel complex offers a plethora of things to do, so even on a long stay you won’t want for diversions. There’s a choice of beaches, and pools that look like tropical oases (towels and sunscreen provided), plus three restaurants. The Bahia grill serves fish and meat with Latin American flavours; Añejo is a more casual option that’s perfect for quick bites and drinks; and Pesce, a fish restaurant, offers an ocean panorama. For a further option, head to reception – a soaring, nature-inspired atrium – and hop in a buggy. A short drive away lies Caracol, an American-style grill with majestic views of the Arnold Palmer-designed golf course.
One of the great attractions of Guanacaste is that it is typically the driest and hottest part of Costa Rica. As a result, the hotel is able to offer a reliable daily run of organised activities. There are hiking and cycling tours, sea kayak trips, stargazing sessions, snorkelling explorations, paddle-board outings, yoga, tennis, golf, basketball… in this sense it has all the wholesomeness of a holiday camp, but with all of the downmarket “holiday camp”-ness stripped out.
And if that all sounds a bit too energetic, there’s always the spa. It boasts some 18 treatment rooms, as well as vast, bright, airy chill-out rooms to enhance the sense of calm after a massage. We tried a full-body signature massage. It was as superlative as you would expect.
Getting there: If you’re coming from Drake Bay, take the boat to Sierpe and enjoy a road trip up the coast, perhaps breaking your journey further south in Guanacaste en route. For those coming direct, you can fly from London to Daniel Quiros International Airport Liberia, only 40 minutes’ drive from the resort.
From £355 per night. fourseasons.com/costarica
Stop 3: La Fortuna
Northwest of the capital, the town of La Fortuna is a base for exploring Arenal volcano and relaxing in the hot springs of the thermal Tabacón river
Stay at: Tabacón Thermal Resort & Spa
Arenal is the kind of volcano you learnt about in geography class: a steep-sided cone, jutting out dramatically into the sky. It has a well-deserved place on the classic Costa Rica tourist itinerary, as visitors flock not only to marvel at its dramatic appearance but also to enjoy the ever-growing array of activities that have sprung up in the surrounding area. From zip-wiring to trekking in the lava fields formed by the huge eruption of 1968, there is plenty to keep the active busy – but no trip is complete without a visit to one of the area’s hot springs.
Few things could be more romantic than bathing in the open air in steamy freshwater pools, heated by Mother Nature and surrounded by lush flora and fauna. At least, that’s the theory. The reality, if you don’t choose wisely, risks disappointing: there’s nothing to kill the mood like splashing kids and a soggy schlep back to your hotel.
And that’s where Tabacón Thermal Resort & Spa comes in. For starters, it has some of the most beautiful hot springs going, with wonderfully landscaped waterfalls linking secluded rock-lined pools framed with tropical foliage. But for guests staying at the hotel, the experience is even more special. A dedicated area of the hot springs known as “Shangri-La gardens” is reserved exclusively for adults staying at Tabacón. There are daybeds with curtains for privacy, fresh towels on hand and a bar serving cocktails with a Costa Rican twist (the Mojitico, for example – “tico” being the local nickname for natives of the country – which mixes the classic drink with local sugar-cane liquor). These are the hot springs you dreamed of.
And because you’re staying in the hotel, you need not even avail of the changing rooms on site at the springs – instead, the hotel encourages guests to simply head down in their dressing gowns straight from the room. The hotel itself is located a few hundred meters away up the hill that is easily walkable, but is less than a two-minute journey via the ever-available shuttle bus.
The rooms have excellent views of the volcano if it’s clear; Tabacón hotel is built on the site of the original Tabacón village, so close to Arenal volcano that the settlement was completely destroyed in the surprise 1968 explosion, which was the first in centuries.
Regular puffs of smoke and lava flows were a big draw for years after but subsided in 2010 and the top of Arenal is often covered by cloud during the day. That said, at Tabacón you’re in prime position to take an early morning look outside to check the view and retreat back to bed. GQ stayed in a well-equipped ground floor room which opened out onto a small garden where hummingbirds came to feed from the plants. The water in the shower and bathroom is heated from the geothermal springs.
The volcanic influence goes right through to the dining, where the signature option at Los Tucanes – the smarter of Tabacón’s two restaurants – is a “lava steak”. You’ll be presented with a rare steak, and some sizzling hot lava stone to cook it on. What could be more apt.
Getting there: From the Four Seasons to Tabacón it’s a three-hour drive. GQ used the excellent Morpho Vans for this and all other ground transfers.
From £255 per night including breakfast. 142, Provincia de Alajuela, San Carlos. tabacon.com
Stop 4: San José
Costa Rica’s capital, San José is a bustling city that’s home to two thirds of the country’s residents and retains features from its colonial past
Stay at: Grano de Oro
San José is a lively, buzzing city that is too often overlooked by visitors to the country. From the impressive late-19th century architecture of the Teatro Nacional to the pre-Columbian artefacts in the Museo Nacional de Costa Rica or the colourful markets, there is plenty to merit a day or two exploring. But whether you’re here to take in its sights and sounds, or simply to take a flight home, Grano de Oro is an oasis of calm amid the hustle and bustle.
This elegant building on an unassuming residential street has a colonial demeanour, but was actually built at the turn of the 20th Century as a private residence. This was converted into a hotel and expanded in the early Nineties and once more in 2007. The resulting design has considerable charm. The mansion’s small fountain-filled internal courtyards, abundance of tropical plant life and covered walkways mean that as you walk around the building you feel like you’re indoors and outdoors at the same time. This only adds to the serenity. The rooms are large, well-appointed and comfortable; ours opened up onto an internal private patio and the sound of gurgling fountains and birdsong. This is the Costa Rica of the gilded age.
The real star of the hotel is arguably the restaurant. Located in the portion of the building once occupied by the original house, it comprises a smart, glamorous dining room set around an attractively illuminated quad. It’s the kind of place in which one can imagine Hemingway settling down for dinner, and it attracts Josefinos as much as hotel guests. The cooking is to a standard befitting of the decor. A mix of French Mediterranean and tropical cuisine, it’s presented in the fine dining style, and has a real sense of occasion. The combinations are creative yet also enticing. The rabbit ravioli starter, for instance, comes with carrot foam; the beef tartare is accompanied by mustard ice cream. While you’ll find international ingredients on the menu, such as New Zealand lamb chops or Canadian duck breast, there are also plenty of native dishes, too, including Costa Rican pork and local beef tenderloin. Always looking to add a twist, the latter comes with a safari of three different sauces and is well worth your time.
Located a short drive from the airport, it’s a common stop-off at the end or the start of a Costa Rican trip, meaning that the staff are used to guests needing to leave early. In the event that you do, a packed breakfast will be readied for you to pick up from the front desk upon check-out. A civilised end to a civilised stay.
From £115 a night. Calle 30, Avenida 2 y 4, San José. hotelgranodeoro.com