Featured Properties

Costa Rica Guide - Costa Rica Real Estate

Costa Rica

A land you'll love

By Larry Lipson, Correspondent
Great Escapes

June 17, 2006

JACO, Costa Rica - In the middle of the busy main drag in this seaside town - pronounced HAH-coh and dubbed by some the Daytona Beach of Costa Rica - there's a Mexican restaurant.

Its name: Jaco Bell.

This whimsical touch typifies Costa Rica, where the citizens, affectionately called Ticos, smile endlessly, seem to find joy in everyday living no matter their income, and welcome the growing influx of tourists and legal immigrants whatever their nationality, race or sexual orientation.

Here they say, "Pura vida." It's the good life.

Costa Rica, an anomaly of a Central/South American country with its stable, democratically elected government; universal health system; and progressive free education resulting in a 92 percent literacy rate, lures American tourists in a variety of ways.

The dollar goes far here. A good dinner can be had for around $12, and a decent hotel room still runs from $60 to $90 a night, sometimes even less, though hot running water seems to be a luxury.

It is also a nation of many natural attractions.

On two recent trips, one in June, the other last month, we knew we had chosen to visit Latin America's "Switzerland" in the off-season, but that didn't deter us from such memorable experiences as rafting the wild Naranjo River in the Manuel Antonio National Park region and swinging from tree to tree on a canopy tour in the jungle near the active, smoking Arenal volcano.

We capsized once and had a few incidents of overboard rafters during our river adventure, while the seemingly risky rappelling endeavor went smoothly, despite some initial nervousness.

At Arenal, where, in addition to the volcano, there's a huge lake, we stayed at the Tabacon Resort and enjoyed bathing in the comforting hot-spring waters and experiencing an ethereal volcanic spa treatment.

Although the dining facilities at Tabacon are very good, steak fanciers shouldn't pass up Restaurante El Novillo nearby.

In Quepos in the Manuel Antonio National Park area, we picked La Mansion Inn for a three-day sojourn.

This tiny, secluded hotel, which opened in December 2000 with only 11 rooms (it currently has 16, with three more under construction), is owned and run by Harry Bodaan, a former director of the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., and the founding director of the International Press Center in Moscow.

Bodaan, whose family operated several small hotels in Holland, has a true pictorial wall of fame in La Mansion's foyer, the result of his meeting and posing with many of the world's most celebrated personages while in Washington and Moscow.

The astute hotelier also kept their business cards, allowing him to send announcements about his Costa Rican venture at its debut and later when improvements and expansion were completed.

Consequently, La Mansion has a pretty heady clientele. Bodaan said that actor Chuck Norris and wife Gena had visited there just prior to our stay. But for everyday folk, there's Bodaan and staff's gracious hospitality and ingratiating "no rules" policy.

When registering, guests even receive free drink certificates introducing them to the hotel's distinctive bar, the Bat Cave, low-lit and hewn out of solid rock.

Also low-lit, very romantic and serving excellent food is the Sunspot, a poolside bar and grill at Makanda by the Sea, a spectacular and expensive enclave of villas and studios that is within walking distance of La Mansion.

But as much as Costa Rica impresses with its distinctive sleeping and eating destinations - including ritzy resorts by Four Seasons and Marriott - it's the flora and fauna that help to attract nature-loving tourists to the country. It is home to hundreds of bird species, some so colorful they stop you in your tracks, causing you to stare and yell to a companion, "Look, quickly, before it flies away!"

And the monkeys. Yes, they definitely make their presence felt. White face, howler or the rarer squirrel monkeys cause tourists to constantly look up into the trees. And the monkeys will often wake you up in the morning, especially the howlers.

The antithesis of the noisy, active monkey is the sloth. Silent and immovable, it hangs in one place and eats leaves. That's it. That's the life of the sloth.

The iguana, by contrast, often acts like an arrogant small dragon and looks at you with disdain, even when you feed it.

One time, when we were driving on one of Costa Rica's terrible roads - they may hold the world record for potholes - an iguana decided to cross in front of us. It moved unhurriedly, gave us a haughty look that quickly informed us who had the right of way, and forced us to brake to a full stop.

We knew, instinctively, that this was the iguana's land, not ours, and waited patiently for it to complete its crossing.

We saw iguanas every day when we stayed at the popular beachfront Capitan Suizo Hotel in Tamarindo, in the Pacific northwest part of the country. We were told the iguanas lived in the drains around the pool area. At this hotel, we also fed squirrels and friendly raccoons.

Playa Tamarindo and other playa (beach) towns in this area are growing by leaps and bounds as condo developments, resort hotels and bed-and-breakfast inns continue to lure a burgeoning number of new residents and tourists annually.

In Tamarindo we found ex-Los Angeles chef-restaurateur Alain Cuny, former co-owner of Wine Bistro and Le Sanglier in the San Fernando Valley and Berty's in Brentwood.

French expatriate Cuny, who still maintains a home in Provence with his wife, Muriel, is building a small two-story restaurant complex in Tamarindo that will include apartments (one being his own) and boutique-type stores.

He hopes to complete this project for a March opening.

Meanwhile, Tamarindo has a number of good restaurants, among them Stella, El Jardin del Eden, Carolina's and the open-air dining room at the Capitan Suizo. Also, being a favorite of youthful surfers, the town offers an array of nightclubs.

Similar to Tamarindo are numerous beach towns on Costa Rica's Pacific Coast, many of them chosen by American expatriates, who, as full- or part-time residents, now number in the thousands.

We made quick one-day stops on our first visit at both Samara and Nosara, the latter presenting us with an interesting evening at the Golden Iguana restaurant during a power outage.

Managed by a jovial Floridian, the restaurant (also part of a small hotel) somehow continued full service without electricity as we ate, drank and conversed with other diners in the flickering candlelight.

Also in Nosara are two adjoining properties, Hotel Casa Romantica and Hotel Casita Romantica. We stayed at the latter but ducked through a hedge to enjoy meals at Casa Romantica's excellent restaurant. Nearby is a prime surfing beach.

Although we generally avoided stays in Costa Rica's larger cities, on our first visit we spent one night in its capital, San Jose, where we luckily stumbled upon an extremely good restaurant for dinner, Cafe Mundo.

On that initial trip we also picked up our rental SUV in Liberia, the biggest city in the country's northwest region.

Liberia, incidentally, has opened a spanking-new international airport, which now receives direct flights from Atlanta, Miami and Houston, the hubs of Delta, American and Continental Airlines.

But most flights still land in San Jose. Our first trip on United from Los Angeles, a red-eye, included an early morning wake-up stop in Guatemala City, where we (and others traveling to Costa Rica) had to leave the plane for an hour, sit yawning in a room at the airport, then re-board the plane.

Consequently, on the most recent trip, we flew instead on Taca, the Central American airline, direct and nonstop to San Jose from Los Angeles International Airport.

But no matter how you travel to Costa Rica, you'll undoubtedly join the legions of those before you in loving almost every minute of your stay.

Pura vida.


CAFE MUNDO: In San Jose. (011-506) 222-8868.

CAPITAN SUIZO: In Tamarindo. (011-506) 653-0075.

CAROLINA'S: In Tamarindo. (011-506) 653-0091.

CASA/CASITA ROMANTICA: In Nosara. www.hotelcasaromantica.com. Casa: (011-506) 682-0272. Casita: (011-506) 682-0019.

EL JARDIN DEL EDEN: In Tamarindo. www.jardindeleden.com; (011-506) 653-0137.

EL NOVILLO: In La Fortuna/Arunel. (011-506) 460-6433.

FOUR SEASONS RESORT: On Papagayo Peninsula. www.fourseasons.com/costarica; (800) 819-5053.

GILDED IGUANA: In Playa Nosara. (011-506) 682-0259.

LA MANSION INN: In Quepos. www.lamansioninn.com; (011-506) 777-348.

LOS SUENOS MARRIOTT: In Playa Herradura. www.marriott.com; (888) 236-2427.

SUNSPOT: At Makanda by the Sea Resort, in Quepos. www.makanda.com; (011-506) 777-0442.

STELLA: In Tamarindo. (011-506) 653-0127.

TABACON HOT SPRINGS RESORT: In La Fortuna/Arunel. www.tabacon.com; (877) 277-8291.

INFORMATION: The Costa Rica Tourist Board's Web site is www.visitcostarica.com.

Copyright © 2006 Los Angeles Newspaper Group

Note: The above information is not to be used for any other purpose other than private study, research, criticism or review. Thank you.

Costa Rica Guide - Costa Rica Real Estate

Costa Rica, come visit and stay!