Christopher Columbus landed in Costa Rica (i.e., “rich coast”) in 1502. The indigenous people welcomed him and his fellow seamen, who needed to make repairs to their ship before sailing onward. While there, Columbus was impressed by the native people’s hospitality. What caught his attention even more, however, were the jewels and gold they wore.
Word got back to Spain about the treasures, and throughout the 1500s, many more conquistadores landed on the Central American land and eventually colonized it. Today Costa Rica continues to attract people from many lands who fall in love, not with the precious gems and metals, but the country’s beautiful coastlines, cloud forests, flora, and fauna.
Peter and I are on the home stretch of our tour through Costa Rica. We’ve also fallen in love with this place and understand why it attracts so many ex-pats. The climate is mild, the scenery astonishing, but most of all, Costa Ricans are some of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet.
We have been visiting boutique properties belonging to a group called Small Distinctive Hotels of Costa Rica, enjoying the country’s amazing cuisine, and immersing ourselves in Costa Rica’s vibrant culture and stunning natural landscapes. Everywhere we go, the vibe is laid back and mellow, offering vacationers the ideal setting for getting away from it all. (And we all know what “it” is.)
Tambor: Tango Mar Beach
Hotel Spa and Golf Resort
Our sixth property, Tango Mar Beach Hotel Spa and Golf Resort, is the most remote. At the southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula, the resort spreads over 150 tropical acres and features a 9-hole executive golf course, spa, two restaurants, and luxurious accommodations ranging from entire homes to beachfront rooms.
Peter and I check into our oceanfront room and can feel the pounding surf that will provide a soundtrack for our stay. Outside our balcony we stand in awe at the majestic Pacific Ocean, its waves crashing barely a few feet away. Palm trees line the beach, and here and there hammocks invite guests to snooze in the breeze.
Soon after arriving, we meet Hilde Cloet, originally from Belgium, who owns and manages Tango Mar. She gives us a tour and tells us how she came to buy this piece of paradise. In 1997, Hilde and her husband, a Belgian businessman, were seeking investment property and ended up falling in love with this property. They purchased Tango Mar in 1998. At first, the plan was for their daughter and husband to manage the resort, but things didn’t work out, so Hilde came to the rescue, and she’s been here ever since. “I love it here,” she said.
She and her husband, who spends most of his time in Belgium (“He doesn’t like the warm climate,” Hilde says), have made major improvements to the property, and Tango Mar today is a shining jewel of a vacation destination. It’s also an ideal venue for weddings and family reunions, perfect for those who want to escape everyday life. Serenity awaits at Tango Mar.
Before dinner we relax in the infinity pool as tropical birds sing in the towering trees. El Cristobal, the resort’s beautiful open-air restaurant, features native and international cuisine. Dinner is delicious: sea bass for me and fresh-from-the-garden veggies and rice for Peter. The restaurant sources much of its produce from “La Huerta de la Abuela,” or Grandmother’s Garden, which guests are invited to tour. As dusk deepens into night, the waves serenade us, and Peter says, “I could stay here forever.”
The next morning after a hearty breakfast and excellent coffee, we meet Michael, who will guide us on a horseback adventure through the jungle and then on the beach! The horses—Peter rides Banana, and I’m on Lucero—are beautiful and well cared for. Michael tells us we might see some monkeys—yay!
It’s shady in the jungle, which is a good thing because the day is warming up. Out on the beach, pieces of driftwood lie scattered about, and the ocean sparkles. Michael points out the Jesus Tree, a forlorn tree that somehow survives being immersed in ocean water during high tide. The tree reminds onlookers of Jesus walking on the water, hence its name. Some say it’s become a pilgrimage site of sorts where people come to ask for answers to prayers. On the way back, high up in the trees, we spot a family of monkeys lounging in the limbs and take a few photos. I’m in heaven.
Besides golf and horseback riding, other activities at the resort include snorkeling, hiking, and savoring a spa treatment. You can also arrange to go deep sea fishing and scuba diving. Day trips can be booked to nearby Cabo Blanco Reserve, Costa Rica’s first national protected area, which offers 3,000+ acres of undisturbed nature, white beaches, and a plethora of wildlife.
Peter and I opt for a mini-trip to the nearby town of Montezuma, one of Costa Rica’s so-called hippie towns, known for its colorful shops, taverns, and a precarious waterfall hike. Not for the faint of heart, this hike involves balancing on narrow paths while holding onto a rope, hopping across river stones, and ascending a few steep inclines. We pass mostly young people, who clamber by, and chat with blonde Dutch girls who are on a bus tour. At trail’s end the breathtaking waterfall cascades down a steep cliff. Brave souls—locals, no doubt—climb like iguanas up the adjoining granite cliffs to the top of the waterfall. We decide to stay at the bottom and enjoy the view.
After an afternoon dip in Tango Mar’s postcard-pretty pool, we tuck into another tasty dinner. Tomorrow we will take a ferry across the Gulf of Nicoya to the Central Pacific Coast, where our journey continues. Our last morning, Hilde comes to say goodbye. “We’ll be back,” we promise.
Jaco: Villa Caletas
A Taste Of Europe With A Tropical Costa Rican Vibe
Villa Caletas, our next home away from home, perches high on a mountaintop with perfect sunset views of the Gulf of Nicoya. This high-end property features exclusive private villas, most with Jacuzzis, as well as a stunning castle-like, multi-room mansion, Zephyr Palace, which hosts wedding parties and wealthy foreigners who come here to eat, drink, and be merry. The rooms in Zephyr are decorated with artifacts, paintings, and furnishings from around the world.
A divine frescoed mural depicting traditional and Chinese astrological symbols crowns the ceiling above a spacious ballroom, where a lone white grand piano sits silently on a black-and-white checkerboard tile floor. I close my eyes and imagine the grand parties this space has seen. If walls could talk!
We check into our posh villa with its wall of windows facing the balcony and private Jacuzzi overlooking the vast sea. The regal room features unique green-hued woodwork and cabinetry, a comfy king bed, and a bathroom with a walk-in shower and an elegant bathtub facing the same incredible view. In the west Nicoya Peninsula rises up, and Peter and I relax on the balcony watching the rainclouds scudding toward us. Soon a brief shower falls, after which we soak in the dreamy Jacuzzi for a while.
Views to die for await at the open-air restaurant, where we meet Denis, the owner, and Frederic, general manager, both from France. Denis has preselected our dinner menu, which includes a cucumber yogurt salad served on rice paper and a savory vegetable risotto with saffron. The flavors are delicious, perfectly complemented by a well-balanced Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon Denis shares with us. The memorable evening is filled with stories and laughter, and our hosts treat Peter and me like VIPs.
Denis is a dedicated yoga practitioner and leads classes every morning on a stunning patio overlooking the gulf, so the next morning I join him and Frederic for a somewhat challenging yoga flow. I do my best, and afterwards when Denis tells me, “You’re good,” I beam. Luckily the patio is covered because a gentle rain begins to fall, which means Peter and I will have to skip Villa Caletas’ beautiful infinity pool.
Instead, the manager accompanies us to the property’s private beach. We pass lush ferns and towering palms as we travel down, down, down a dirt road where a beautiful beach with palm trees and cabanas awaits. The shore is deserted due to the rain, but I can imagine what a heavenly spot it is on sunnier days.
Frederic tells us that the mountain was bare farmland when Denis bought it in 1990. He planted palms and ferns everywhere as he slowly grew his vision for this luxurious property. Today the landscape looks the way nature intended it—lush, green, and tropical. Villa Caletas feels like an exclusive resort in the South of France, so if you want a taste of Europe with a tropical Costa Rican vibe, this hotel is for you!
Playa Esterillos Este
Alma del Pacifico Beach Hotel & Spa
Our eighth and last Small Distinctive Hotel is Alma del Pacifico Beach Hotel & Spa about 40 minutes south of Villa Calletas. Located on a quiet beach lined with beach homes, this colorful resort was built by an artist from Santa Barbara, Charlene Broudy, and her late husband, who envisioned a paradise where guests could immerse themselves not only in nature but also art and design.
As we walk to our oceanfront villa, Peter and I marvel at the beauty of this place. Villas painted in bright colors—turquoise, violet, and gold—are surrounded by carefully landscaped grounds with pathways weaving among soaring palms, cascading bougainvillea, and aromatic yling ylang blooms—my favorite! Two sparkling pools with waterfalls invite guests to take a dip and cool off. At the far end a large spa offers restorative treatments, including massage, scrubs, and wraps. “Walk in. Float out,” the spa promises on its website.
Our new home is spectacular with a wall of windows facing the beach, a private splash pool, and a veranda with comfy chaise lounges. The huge villa includes a sleeping area, living room, dining area, and a large bathroom with a shower that overlooks a private garden. Next to complementary oranges and mangoes in a handcrafted wooden bowl, a stunning arrangement of birds of paradise welcomes us. Everywhere you look are brilliantly hued mosaics and original artwork. I love this place!
Of course, we head to the pool and spend a couple hours relaxing under the palm trees, swimming, reading, and dozing in the peaceful Garden-of-Eden ambiance. A few other guests check in, but overall it’s serene and quiet. Tomorrow a wedding party arrives for the weekend, and the resort is sold out, so we feel fortunate to have the place mostly to ourselves.
Happy hour beckons at the Beach Bar next to Alma Restaurant. Two gentlemen chat at a table nearby as Peter and I sit in comfy chairs facing the ocean. I have a rum cocktail with tropical fruit, and Peter orders a pineapple mocktail. Just sitting and staring at the waves breaking on the shore as the breeze wafts across the beach is the perfect antidote for the craziness of the past year and a half. No agenda, no deadlines, no chores—this is what vacationing is all about!
Friends of the two gentleman arrive, and suddenly we become part of the convivial group. Turns out one of the men is the American owner of the hotel, Bruce, and the other is Costa Rican chef-manager, Fernando. When I introduce myself, Bruce welcomes me and says with a smile, “I like to stay under the radar.” He recently purchased the property with other investors and shares that the loss of tourism revenue over the past years has been difficult for everyone in the hospitality industry, a sentiment echoed by every hotel owner we have met. We lift a toast to things quickly returning to normal.
Meanwhile, Chef Fernando asks us what we want to eat this evening. “I will prepare it myself,” he says grinning and recommends Peruvian-sautéed tenderloin with vegetables and potatoes for me and Peruvian veggies sauté for Peter. We say goodbye to our new friends and are seated in the thatched-roof open-air restaurant. Soon hot platters of sizzling steak and al dente veggies appear before us, each with flavorful, umami-rich sauce. Wow, Fernando can really cook!
We love everything about Alma del Pacifico: our villa, the stellar cuisine, lovely views, serene pools, and lush landscaping. Before heading off the next day, we stroll down the beach and see a group waving at us from one of the oceanfront houses. Turns out it’s Fernando and Bruce. Later Fernando tells us they were signaling us to come visit, another example of the exuberant kindness and hospitality Costa Ricans are known for.
San Jose Revisited
Hotel and Restaurant Grano de Oro
Our final stop is Hotel Grano de Oro in San Jose, where it feels like we are coming home. We arrive two days before our flight leaves to allow time for our COVID-19 tests and explore downtown, which is a short walk from the hotel. A colorful, vibrant market overflows with fruit, veggies, meat, seafood, household items, clothes, shoes, and souvenirs. We love wandering around its maze-like interior.
Further down the pedestrian shopping street, we arrive at the Plaza of Culture and descend underground to the Museo de Oro, which is housed in a former bank. Brilliant pre-Colombian gold figures dazzle visitors from glass showcases, and exhibits explain the history and culture of the indigenous people. Afterwards we lunch at Le Bistrot de Paris, where I enjoy a Salade Lyonnaise, and Peter tries a goat cheese-topped salad—both are winners. We love the bistro’s French ambiance overlooking one of San Jose’s busy thoroughfares.
Back at Hotel Grano de Oro we meet Michelle, the owner, and her husband, Ciro. We chat about the evolution of the hotel and her father’s main passion, a charity called Casa Luz, a home for adolescent mothers and their children coming from abusive backgrounds and extreme poverty. The restaurant contributes a portion of its proceeds to support the charity, and Michelle says donations are always welcome.
Peter and I enjoy dining at Restaurant Grano de Oro throughout our stay. The food is fabulous, and we love the Old-World ambiance. When it comes time to go to the airport, we are sad to leave.
Costa Rica has been a revelation in more ways than one, an eye-popping destination where you can be adventurous or take it easy. Whichever you choose, it’s the perfect place to find yourself after somersaulting through the past year or so. It’s time to emerge from the COVID cocoon, blink your eyes, and reward yourself for making it through intact. Now it’s time for you. Pura vida!
Design Your Stay in Costa Rica
Find Out About Travel Information & More
Stay at the Best Hotels in Costa Rica
Make plans now to stay in Costa Rica’s top boutique hotels, part of the Small Distinctive Hotels group. Each property is unique, sustainable, and offers a haven for travelers who dream of exotic escapes and a relaxing home away from home. Find out more at www.distinctivehotels.com.
Escape to Luxury at Tango Mar
You will feel you have died and gone to heaven at this beautiful resort on the southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula. Find out about special offers including meal plans at www.tangomar.com.
Ultimate Luxury at Villa Caletas
If you’re seeking an over-the-top experience, head to Villa Caletas, where you can rent a private villa with sweeping views of the Gulf of Nicoya. Check out their rates, special offers, and menus for their fine restaurant at www.villacaletas.com.
Relax and Unwind at Alma del Pacifico
Kick off your shoes, walk on the windswept beach, and enjoy a spa treatment at Alma Del Pacifico Beach Hotel & Spa. Find out more information about this artsy retreat at www.almadelpacificohotel.com.
Personalized Service & Charm Galore
Immerse yourself in culture and history in San Jose and experience the charming grandeur of the Victorian-style Grano de Oro, where the staff will treat you like royal guests. Get more information about their top-quality lodgings and dining at www.hotelgranodeoro.com.
A Charity for Young Mothers
Help Hotel Grano de Oro support the vision of Casa de Luz, which helps young, unwed mothers and their children as they discover their paths toward the future. Get your church involved in this community mission or make a donation at www.casaluz.org.