It’s a splendid morning on the Nicoya Peninsula along Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast. Peter and I are swimming in a sparkling pool, surrounded by lush tropical plants and soaring palm trees. A French family is photographing a large iguana munching on leaves nearby.
Suddenly I hear a scream and a loud splash. I look down in the water, and something gray torpedoes by, inches from my leg—swoosh! Before I can say, “What the heck was that?” the iguana’s head pops out of the water at the pool’s edge and, using its suction cup-equipped feet, climbs up the side of the pool and waddles off to the nearest palm tree, ascending into its high branches and leaving Peter and me standing in the pool, our mouths agape.
Welcome to Capitán Suizo, a boutique beachfront hotel in Tamarindo and a member of Small Distinctive Hotels of Costa Rica. Here in this idyllic spot, fauna and flora are a big part of the experience. In fact, the hotel’s mission statement emphasizes its “informal and cheerful atmosphere where animals and nature are integrated with love and respect...”
Like the other properties in the Small Distinctive Hotels group, Capitán Suizo is committed to sustainability and reducing the effect tourism has on the local environment. Costa Rica as a country is equally focused on sustainability. In 2019 the United Nations awarded this small nation a Champions of the Earth award, calling Costa Rica “a pioneer in the protection of peace and nature.”
During our recent visit, Peter and I discovered peace and nature everywhere we went. After a crazy year of pandemic restrictions, it was exactly what we needed. Join us as we continue our Pura Vida journey and visit Costa Rica’s beautiful boutique hotels.
Tamarindo: Capitán Suizo
Environmentally Conscience Beach Hotel
Located in Guanacaste Province, Hotel Capitán Suizo is just steps away from the beach and offers expansive views of Tamarindo Bay and the Pacific. Founded by a Swiss family, the hotel today has 35 rooms, including eight bungalows and a four-bedroom suite.
“Our vision was big,” writes Ursula Schmid on the hotel’s website, “an environmentally conscious and future-oriented beach hotel in an excellent location with a family ambience... We wanted to create a relaxed and cheerful atmosphere where the guests, as well as the employees, would feel totally happy. In 1991 we found, in Costa Rica, the place where we wanted to make our dream come true.”
The hotel has been a dream come true for guests since it opened in 1995 after three years of construction, a process made more difficult by the remote location and lack of infrastructure and machinery. But the results are stunning: natural island-style architecture that blends into the environment, handcrafted furniture made of local wood, and a feeling of privacy and spaciousness on the well-manicured grounds. Ursula’s son, Urs, who manages the hotel today, says many of Capitán Suizo’s guests return year after year.
I can see why. Peter and I are staying in a beautiful bungalow with large sliding glass doors that open onto our own private patio. There’s even a hammock for ultimate relaxation. All around us are palms of every size and description in shades of green from emerald to mint, flowering bushes with brilliant yellow and magenta blooms, and birds flitting about amid the lush foliage, singing melodic tunes—it’s a tropical paradise.
As with most tropical climates, it is a bit hot here on the coast, especially compared to the cloud forest we left behind, and a rainstorm threatens. Peter and I have time for a dip in the serene pool before the rain starts to fall. From our cozy patio, we watch the downpour for about an hour, hydrating all the lush plants and making everything smell fresh and clean.
We plan to have a romantic dinner at El Barco del Capitán, the hotel’s signature restaurant, and reserve one of the tables right on the beach. Unfortunately, the rain continues to fall, so we find a nice spot at the bar. A 20-something American gal sits down near us, and soon we’re conversing like old friends. It turns out she works for a Costa Rica travel company and is here doing research. She agrees Capitán Suizo is a very unique property with a low-key, luxury vibe.
The restaurant specializes in international and traditional Costa Rican cuisine enhanced by seasonal tropical ingredients. There’s a 1500 square meter organic garden across from the hotel, where the chef sources produce and herbs for El Barco’s elegant dishes. For dinner I sample the sea bass, which is served with a pesto barley risotto. It’s fresh and fabulous, as are the al dente veggies—carrots, string beans, and zucchini—served alongside. Peter opts for appetizers: mini empanadas and plantain fritters—plus stracciatella cake for dessert.
The next morning we take a walk on Tamarindo Beach, which stretches three miles beside the bay. A variety of lodgings, restaurants, and surf shops are tucked among the trees and palms that line the coast. If you continue further, you reach the bustling town of Tamarindo, where souvenir stores, arts and crafts shops, restaurants, and bars await. But we turn around and head back, preferring the peaceful vibe of Hotel Capitán Suizo.
A breakfast buffet is offered to guests, so after grabbing one of El Barco’s beachside tables, we head to the buffet, where delicious fruit, pastries, eggs, and breads await. Of course, there’s always rice and beans at breakfast, which is part of the traditional “Tico” breakfast. Costa Rica coffee is some of the world’s best, so if you’re a coffee aficionado like me, you’ll be in heaven every morning.
Even in paradise, duty calls so after breakfast we do some email back in the bungalow before heading to the beach for a swim in the bay. The silky water is warm and so clear you can see the bottom. All kinds of watersports are available at Hotel Capitán Suizo: you can rent a surfboard or a kayak or snorkeling gear or simply go for a swim in the gentle waves as we do.
Lounging by the pool is next on the agenda, and we take it easy til lunchtime, dipping in the pool now and again to cool off. After our close encounter with the iguana, a staff member assures me iguanas are harmless and nothing to be afraid of. It didn’t bother me at all, I tell him. Plus now I can say I went swimming with iguanas!
After a fabulous lunch at El Barco—best hamburger ever!—we check out of Capitán Suizo. I’ll miss the chill vibe, the friendly staff, and the peace and nature we found here in this tranquil corner of Costa Rica.
Nosara: The Gilded Iguana Surf Hotel
Sunsets and Surf Lessons
Iguanas are ubiquitous in Costa Rica, we discover. Our next hotel down the coast in Nosara, The Gilded Iguana, is also home to plenty of these homely lizards. We see mostly black iguanas, which are actually grayish with black stripes. They’re the fastest lizard species in the world and reach speeds of 21 mph.
Nosara is known far and wide for its great surf—just ask any surfer. The Gilded Iguana, the first structure built in Nosara back in the 80s, is synonymous with the town and has been a meeting spot for surfers for decades. During that time, the hotel has grown and expanded to become one of the best places to stay in Nosara.
Its trendy, sleek architecture combines rugged luxury with an authentic surf vibe and features artisan craftsmanship, high-end furnishings, indoor and outdoor showers, and private patios or balconies. Peter and I are staying in a beautiful, spacious first-floor room. I love the décor and can’t wait to try the outdoor shower.
Another unique amenity is The Gilded Iguana Surf Club, which offers surfboard rentals, storage, lessons, and other perks to members. We have lessons scheduled early the next morning, so we stop in for a quick look on our way to Playa Guiones to see the sunset. The open air surf club has lounge seating, a juice bar, and state-of-the-art climate-controlled buildings for surfboards. It’s a surfer’s dream destination.
Two hundred meters down a dirt road, the famous beach spreads before us. It’s full of people of all ages who have come to watch the sunset—and what a sunset. As Peter and I walk on the beach, the sky changes from light blue to pink to deep orange to fiery yellow. Surfers are still riding the roaring waves as dusk descends, and we feel lucky to have shared this awe-inspiring sunset with everyone around us.
Back at the hotel, we dine at the restaurant, which specializes in healthy foods and has many vegan and vegetarian options. Peter orders a veggie pizza with pineapple. My Nicoise salad features green beans, lettuce, quinoa, potatoes, tuna, and hard-boiled egg with a mustard vinaigrette. It’s a bit busy and noisy in the open-air restaurant, so we are glad to return to the sanctuary of our room.
At the Surf Club the next morning, we meet David, our instructor, who’s all smiles. I wonder what he’s really thinking as he sizes us up. Peter and I are not exactly in tip-top shape. But David’s a pro and, after we carry our boards to the beach, he helps us learn a simple routine on the sand that we’ll put into action once we’re on the water. Lie on the board, lift to your toes, scoot your knees underneath, bring one knee forward, stand up, adjust your stance so your feet point sideways, and voila, you just caught a wave!
In fact, with David’s help, Peter and I do catch a few waves. One time as I’m riding a wave, I think “Ahh, this is what surfing is all about…going with the flow, the effortless ride, being one with nature.” And then, splash, I’m in the water, my brief oneness moment a memory. Even though we fall more often than we ride, we love it. The water is warm, the surf is mellow, and David’s encouraging words and high fives keep us going.
It’s still mid-morning when our lesson ends, and we have a fabulous Tico breakfast back at The Gilded Iguana’s restaurant. Today is all about R & R, so we spend a few hours by the pool before I wander off to the spa, where I have an amazing aromatherapy massage with Karen. Using a mixture of mint, lemon, lavender, and orange essential oils, she skillfully works out my kinks. “You’re a rock star,” I say when it’s over.
Peter and I go for a walk and meet a girl from Maryland, Kristen, who’s been working remotely in Nosara since December. “I’m doing more surfing than working,” she admits with a dazzling smile. She tells us about a nice trail through the woods and recommends a mountaintop restaurant called Coyol everyone’s raving about, which we plan to try for dinner.
The short trail is at the end of Calle Los Mangos and takes us through the jungle to the little downtown area of Nosara, where we grab a smoothie at Café de Paris, an open-air bistro started by a French couple who were traveling around the world, but changed their minds when they found this town and decided to settle down and open a cafe. It’s a cool spot with palms and flowering plants. There’s even a pool and a playground for kids.
Coyol: Rustic Mountaintop Restaurant in Nosara
Stunning Views and Local Cuisine
That night we drive up a steep dirt road to the top of a mountain where the staff at Coyol are busy welcoming guests to their rustic glass-enclosed restaurant. Nearly everyone heads to the overlook, and some take a turn on the swing, which swings you out over an embankment so you’re suspended in space—a cheap thrill but tons of fun and an awesome Insta pic. From the point, you can see views of the Pacific and, if you’re lucky, sunsets like no other. We’re not sure how lucky we’ll be tonight, however, as rains clouds are gathering to the southwest. No matter. We’re stoked to be here.
Peter and I start chatting with a couple sitting on a bench, enjoying the view, and the woman asks, “Where are you from?” “Virginia Beach,” we answer. “You’re kidding,” she says. Turns out her name is Susan, and she and her husband, Paul, are also from Virginia Beach. They’re in Nosara checking on property they bought years ago. Small world! We decide to dine together and have a fun evening, getting to know each other. The food is as extraordinary as the view, and reservations at Coyol are absolutely necessary.
Our last morning at The Gilded Iguana we enjoy another hearty Tico breakfast in the restaurant and watch iguanas crawl onto the patio to catch some sun. Occasionally we hear the hooting of howler monkeys, but they remain elusive, just out of view. I’m still hoping I’ll be able to see one in the wild. Maybe at our next stop: Hotel Tango Mar at the southern end of Nicoya Peninsula.
Don’t Miss Pt. 3 of Peggy’s Pura Vida Adventure in Costa Rica coming up in July.
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