On a journey down the Pacific coast of Costa Rica and into the rain forest, T+L uncovers amazing jungle lodges and oceanfront hotels.
Deserted sand. Wildlife refuges. A laid-back pura vida lifestyle. What’s not to love about Costa Rica? Sure, it’s been on our radar for a while, but with a host of small, stylish hotels hidden in the jungle and along the shore, the tiny Central American country is now more appealing than ever. Here, the eight places that top our list.
Oxygen Jungle Villas, Uvita de Osa
As you drive up the steep gravel road that leads to this remote retreat above the southern town of Uvita, you may start to lose faith. Did you miss a turn? Could it be up this high? A few minutes later, you spot the pool, edged with Moroccan lanterns and seeming to spill out over green hills to the Pacific. Lounge music plays at just the right volume; guests lie under Balinese umbrellas reading their Kindles and listening to their iPods. Marco, the young concierge, escorts you to your bungalow, one of just 12 on the property. The rooms are all glass, except for the teak peaked roofs, and furnished with big poster beds, stacks of baskets that serve as dressers, and large white sofas on the front porches. There’s something disconcerting about staying in such futuristic digs in the middle of the jungle, but you’ll adjust quickly. Soon you’re off trekking to Oxygen’s waterfall, visiting nearby beaches, or venturing a 40-minute drive south to Corcovado National Park, one of the most biodiverse landscapes in the world.
T+L Tip: Ask the concierge to organize a zipline excursion with Osa Canopy Tours.
Rancho Pacifico, Uvita de Osa
Seeking a mountain to call your own? Set on a 250-acre preserve, this hilltop eco-lodge draws an A-list clientele (Anderson Cooper, Sheryl Crow, and Al Gore, to name a few) who come for the privacy: check in to one of two new “Treehauses,” which are set back from the main building. Rooms have neo-Modernist furnishings and sweeping vistas of the ocean—almost unheard of for a hotel in the rain forest. Adventurers can go wildlife spotting or visit indigenous villages, while those in need of downtime can opt for a hot-stone massage or relax at one of the property’s five pools. There is little reason to leave the lodge, except perhaps to spend the day at Ballena Beach Club, where hotel guests have free access to the umbrella-covered chaises and pristine white sand of Playa La Colonia. $$
T+L Tip: Arrange for a seafood dinner for two—or 10—beside the infinity pool.
Florblanca, Playa Santa Teresa
It’s not often that you come across an Asian-inspired resort in Costa Rica—especially one located on Playa Santa Teresa’s best surf break. Here, it’s more about blissing out than riding the waves. There are only a few dozen guests at any time, and everything is designed to soothe—from the boulder-studded pool, where you’ll feel like you’re swimming in an aqueous Zen garden, to the bamboo spa bungalow, with its ponds and shoji screens. Each of Florblanca’s 11 villas is accented with organic fabrics and native hardwoods, and all have terraces outfitted with hammocks. (Book the Surf House, steps from the ocean.) After an evening yoga class on the beach, kick back with a tamarind mojito—or two—from the open-air Nectar bar. $$$
T+L Tip: Don’t miss the tide pools surrounded by limestone formations, just steps from Florblanca.
Latitude 10º, Playa Santa Teresa
If Florblanca feels like a luxe Asian retreat, Latitude 10, its neighbor to the north, is somewhat of a no-frills—but fashionable—safari hideaway in Africa. Don’t expect Frette linens or flat-screen TV’s: the five simple, open-sided wooden casitas were built with shades instead of windows, so guests can “sleep and reside completely in harmony with nature,” as the sign reads in the lobby. Come dinnertime, you’ll be rewarded for your fortitude, thanks to affable French chef Sebastian Regier, who creates daily seafood-centric dishes—guests can preorder before noon for the freshest catch from local fishermen—served in the breezy dining room or, if you prefer, at a secluded beachside spot. $$
T+L Tip: Unwind with a sunset holistic massage by Sebastian Campanile or Dolores Aviani, two of the top practitioners in the area.
Nayara Hotel, Spa & Gardens, Arenal Volcano (La Fortuna)
In a country known for its natural wonders, the 5,643-foot Arenal Volcano is arguably the star attraction. Though the volcano is now dormant, travelers still flock to this lush region for its wildlife spotting, white-water rafting, and kayaking on Lake Arenal. Among the dozens of hotels in the area, we love the newly revamped Nayara Hotel, Spa & Gardens (the No. 1 resort in Central and South America in our World’s Best Awards). Dynamic owner Leo Ghitis has outfitted the 50 villas with spacious decks (some have hot tubs), plantation furniture, and, alas, jarring avocado-colored walls. But the jaw-dropping views of the volcano more than make up for the painting faux pas. And the just-opened wine bar serves up some of Latin America’s best vintages by the glass. $$
T+L Tip: Sign up for the hotel’s guided five-mile hike through Tenorio Volcano National Park that ends at the robin’s-egg-blue waters of Río Celeste.
El Silencio Lodge & Spa, Bajos del Toro
Tangaras, quetzals, smiling sloths—you’ll find them all on this 500-acre hideaway in the depths of a tropical cloud forest. Indeed, the place feels so far off the map that it’s hard to believe the lodge is only a 90-minute drive north of the capital, San José. From a narrow road, you’ll enter what resembles a remote Japanese mountain village: 16 wooden bungalows built on pillars rise above gargantuan leaves and exotic ferns. The rustic-chic interiors are the work of renowned Costa Rican architect Ronald Zurcher, who incorporated lacquered wood floors, bamboo ceilings, and, best of all, decks overlooking the cloud-ringed mountains. At night, head to the glass-walled restaurant to feast on such Central American specialties as spicy chicken chalupas, with ingredients sourced from El Silencio’s organic farm. $$
T+L Tip: Spend the afternoon at the Catarata del Toro, a 300-foot waterfall that cascades into the crater of an extinct volcano near the spa.
The Logan, Sámara
On a palm-studded crescent of white sand, Playa Sámara is a funky settlement of some 1,500 expats and Costa Ricans, a 90-minute drive south of Tamarindo. This is laid-back Costa Rica at its best: barefoot cafés, beachside surf schools, and a coral reef with unbeatable snorkeling. The area’s most buzzed-about newcomer is the Logan, a stylishly spare four-suite property opened by Canadians Quinn Vorster and his wife, Monika Dukszta. Custom-made dark-wood furniture and cement floors make up the light-filled interiors, and the saltwater pool is the perfect place for whiling the day away. Vorster and Dukszta are on hand to give you the scoop on where to eat and what to do, from a candlelit dinner at nearby La Vela Latina to a picnic at the remote Playa Carrillo, a half-hour walk away. $
T+L Tip: For a low-key lunch nearby, swing by Pablito’s, on the edge of town. Try a chicken, beef, or seafood stew with an ice-cold Imperial beer.
Cala Luna, Playa Langosta, Tamarindo
A decade ago, the town of Tamarindo was a quiet surfers’ haven on Costa Rica’s northern Pacific coast. These days it is, for better or worse, one of the country’s most well-trodden beach resorts, filled with low-rise hotels and lively waterside restaurants. For those who’d prefer to dip in and out of the scene, there’s Cala Luna, two miles south on the almost empty Playa Langosta. Built in 1994 by a Belgian couple, the property closed for two years and just reopened after a top-to-bottom makeover. Rooms and villas are as sensitive to the environment as they are easy on the eyes, using only natural and recycled materials and done up in cool beiges, locally made furniture, and polished concrete walls and mosaic-tiled tubs in the large bathrooms. Next to the shaded pool, a waitstaff dressed in plaid shirts and cowboy hats serve ceviche at the buzzy restaurant. Besides the usual array of watersports (Jet Skiing; snorkeling), there’s horseback riding at the owners’ nearby finca and whale watching aboard the hotel’s 26-foot powerboat. Just get back in time for sunset at the property’s little beach. $$
T+L Tip: Take a surfing lesson at Witch’s Rock Surf Camp on Playa Tamarindo, a stone’s throw away from Cala Luna.
Costa Rica: Getting There and Around
The main airports in Costa Rica are San José International (SJO) and Liberia (LIR). American Airlines, United, and Delta have direct flights from New York, Miami, and Dallas. Once there, consider renting a car with four-wheel drive. Or take a puddle jumper with Nature Air or Sansa to your final destination.
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El Silencio Lodge & Spa
Costa Rica has long been known as an eco-travel destination, but El Silencio—a serene retreat on 500 acres opened in 2008 by the owners of the nearby Hotel Punta Islita—presents an unusual level of luxury for the green-oriented adventurer. Designed by prominent Costa Rican architect Ronald Zurcher in a “rustic zen” style, the 16 cottages each feature a private deck, outdoor whirlpool, gas fireplace, and top-of-the line amenities (L’Occitane and more), and all have views of the majestic Poás Volcano. Guests can tour the 1,300-square-foot organic garden to learn about the vegetables, fruits, and herbs that are served at the in-house restaurant. And the resort lives up to its name: there are no in-room TVs or even cell-phone reception.
Named for the frangipani flower, with rock waterfalls and tropical landscapes, Costa Rica’s Florblanca is an ideal Nicoya Peninsula getaway for beachgoers in search of solitude paired with the occasional fitness class or surfing excursion. On seven acres along the talcum beaches of Santa Teresa and Malpais, 11 pink stucco villas have three-walled living rooms that open to the Pacific Ocean, with low-slung hammocks on every shaded patio. Suites are painted in neutral hues, accented by natural fabrics and local hardwoods, and feature alfresco rain showers, while Pan Pacific touches are found throughout the property (Balinese carvings in the rooms, Buddhas perched around the property, a Japanese-inspired temple of a spa). After a day on the beach or at the spa (where daily yoga and Pilates classes are on offer), join the honeymooners and surfers for fruity cocktails at the Nectar restaurant and bar, overlooking the pool, while howler monkeys call in the distance. For a quiet night on your own, reserve the palapa over the pool for a private meal of freshly caught Pacific mahimahi.
Seeking a mountain to call your own? Set on a 250-acre preserve, this hilltop eco-lodge draws an A-list clientele (Anderson Cooper, Sheryl Crow, and Al Gore, to name a few) who come for the privacy: check in to one of two new “Treehauses,” which are set back from the main building. Rooms have neo-Modernist furnishings and sweeping vistas of the ocean—almost unheard of for a hotel in the rain forest. Adventurers can go wildlife spotting or visit indigenous villages, while those in need of downtime can opt for a hot-stone massage or relax at one of the property’s five pools. There is little reason to leave the lodge, except perhaps to spend the day at Ballena Beach Club, where hotel guests have free access to the umbrella-covered chaises and pristine white sand of Playa La Colonia.