100 GREAT PLACES TO STAY IN COSTA RICA
Web Edition v. 2.0 February, 2009; Copyright © 2007 - 2009 HayFields Science Inc.
All Rights Reserved.
This book is the one we wish we'd had when we first came to Costa Rica. We arrived with a pile of conventional guidebooks but no clear ideas about what the various places we'd planned to visit, or hotels we'd arranged to stay in, would be like. We made some good guesses on that first trip, as well as some not-so-good ones. We never imagined, for example, that our hotel for the first two nights, a "boutique" little place conveniently near Juan Santamaria airport, would be a recovery destination for plastic surgery patients. Imagine our surprise at breakfast when everyone but us appeared in stitches!
Now we live here. We still carry three or four guidebooks around with us, but we mainly trust our own and our traveling friends' impressions of what it's like to stay here or there around the country. What it's like is what this book is about. After all, you're on vacation: you're not just looking for a room, you're looking for an experience. And if you're like us, a medical experience is not what you had in mind.
We've both been business travelers, and have stayed in countless bigname corporate hotels, including several of the "resort" variety. As much as we might appreciate the familiar consistency of these places after 16 hours of air travel and meetings, it's not what we want on a vacation. We want hot water, and an in-room coffee maker is nice, but we're not looking for a place where we know exactly where everything is located because it's just like the last place we stayed. We want to be charmed: we want someone to have taken the time to make a place unique and appealing, to give it a personality. We have a natural bias toward small inns, boutique hotels and B&Bs, but have included some mid-size hotels that use design, services, landscape, or other features to create a distinctive experience.
Costa Rica is about nature, and we're not impressed by structures or attitudes that might be cool, but don't fit at all with the local environment. Snap-to, stand-at-attention service is nice where it belongs, but it hardly matches the relaxed atmosphere and easy-going mannerisms typical of Costa Ricans (or Ticos as they call themselves). Paris or New York manners are out of place in Costa Rica. We like to have WiFi, but we're not fond of television, and hearing the neighbor's TV or having to endure CNN or music videos in a public area is always a black mark in our book.
A principal objective in any hotel is to sleep, and the quiet and darkness necessary to sleeping are important criteria for us. We value privacy and are especially fond of truly private outdoor spaces, where you can neither see nor be seen by other guests.
Costa Rican lodgings come in all price ranges, and price alone is no guide to charm or character. We don't expect a $75 room to have fancy high-count sheets or handmade organic bath soaps; near the coasts, we don't even necessarily expect hot water. We do expect inexpensive places to be well-equipped and pleasant, and to be interesting, fun places to stay. If, however, a hotel claims to have four or five stars or costs more than $250 per night, it had better be perfect. And it had better not be the least bit pretentious. Nothing is worse than an upscale hotel that makes you feel like they're doing you a favor to let you through the door.
The Costa Rican government tourism department (ICT) assigns ratings of one to five stars to hotels that request an official evaluation, using criteria that seem heavily weighted toward the American-style resort hotel model. Many smaller hotels have not bothered filing the required paperwork to get a rating, and the star ratings of those that have bothered don't necessarily correlate with whether we find them charming. A criterion that does matter is whether the owner operates the place him- or herself and/or has hired a competent and fully-empowered manager. We've encountered several places where an absentee owner micromanages the staff, and no one on site has any real authority. Few of them have made it into this book.
Our only overtly hostile reception was at Punta Islita, reputedly the most upscale place on the Nicoya Peninsula, and one of the hardest to find. After driving around for an hour following their less than consistent road signs, we finally reached the front gate and explained that we were travel writers who just wanted to look around the hotel. The guard chatted for while on the phone with the front desk, then explained that we would be admitted provided we left our passports in his care. I've visited sensitive military installations and government labs, and any number of security-crazed corporations, and I've shown my passport or other IDs to a lot of parking-lot guards, but I've never had one ask to keep my passport! We politely declined, and you won't find Punta Islita in this book. There may be people out there who appreciate this level of extreme paranoia, but we're not them, and we expect you aren't either.
Update (March, 2009): We recently returned to a very gracious reception at Punta Islita. As with so many things, our previous experience resulted from an unfortunate miscommunication. The hotel is beautiful; its managers and staff are welcoming and professional. Read our review in the Central Nicoya section.
On top of all of our other criteria, we look pretty closely at how a hotel relates to its environment and its community. We had never even heard of "sustainable tourism" when we first came to Costa Rica, but we were impressed by the number of hotels that had programs in place to support local schools, assist with community-based recycling programs, or contribute in other ways to local economic development and environmental preservation. These are hotel keepers who are not just in business for themselves; they are using their businesses effectively as fund-raising tools to engage in broader social development. They are using tourism income to preserve and strengthen the things tourists come to see in Costa Rica, and indeed in Central America in general: a different and more pristine environment, and a vibrant culture less based on consumerism than those in the U.S. or Europe.
In the late 1990s, Costa Rica developed a formal program to encourage sustainable tourism, the Certification for Sustainable Tourism (CST), which has been implemented by the government's tourism department ( www.turismo-sostenible.co.cr). The CST program evaluates hotels based on criteria including hiring practices (from the local community is best), recycling and alternative energy programs, efforts in guest education and engagement. Many of Costa Rica's best hotels participate in this program; all three that have achieved the highest rating (five Leaves), Lapa Rios, Finca Rosa Blanca, and Villa Blanca, are profiled in this book.
We have, however, also found that many smaller hotels and B&Bs with robust sustainability programs have not been evaluated and hence do not have CST certificates. Several hotel keepers have told us that they do not have the time and resources to prepare the required materials, arrange the on-site evaluations, and make the multiple trips to San José that may be required. Our advice is to expect larger hotels to have CST certificates with at least two leaves, but not to hold the absence of a certificate against a smaller hotel, lodge, or B&B. Whether you see a certificate or not, ask your hosts about sustainability, and what work they are doing for their communities and the environment. You'll find yourself having some very interesting conversations, and you may get an unexpected tour of a local school or a home-made hydroelectric plant. And you'll probably find yourself thinking about how you, too, can help make the tourist economy more sustainable in countries like Costa Rica, and at home as well.
Gone are the days when Costa Rica was an inexpensive destination. Price ranges for lodgings here are comparable to the U.S. or Europe. Different parts of the country have different average prices; the Caribbean coast and the mountains are typically less expensive than the Pacific, the north and south of the country are cheaper than the center, and Monteverde is still surprisingly reasonable given its popularity. We represent price ranges by dollar-sign codes ($ up to $$$$). Lots of places are priced near price-code cutoffs (no matter where you put them), so don't be afraid to cross categories if your budget is near a cutoff point.We use the following cost codes:
Cost codes are based on high-season, double-occupancy rates for the most moderate rooms up to the most expensive. For example $$ means all the rooms for two, counting taxes, are between $76 and $150. A cost code of $ -$$$ means the lodging has rooms for two starting below $76 and going up to somewhere between $151 and $250. A cost code in red (e.g. $$$) indicates that all meals (breakfast, lunch, dinner) are included in the rate. Some places include drinks too!
Many Costa Rican lodgings quote prices exclusive of taxes, which are roughly 16% (for the 2006 - 2007 season). We have added 16% to pretax rates to assign cost codes. Some establishments charge 5% or more for credit-card payments. Our cost codes are based on cash prices.
Prices change unpredictably. Avoid surprises - always check websites for current prices and confirm in writing the total price you will be expected to pay.
Costa Rican lodgings typically advertise a vast array of activities, and most can arrange essentially any activity even at a distant site through third-party tour operators. We use the following keywords to summarize our take on the best attributes and activities at our favorite places, counting only those activities available at or directly organized by the lodging itself.
Costa Rica is a small country (51,000 km2 or 20,000 square miles), bigger than Maryland or Switzerland but smaller than West Virginia or Iceland. The most frustrating mistake many travelers make, however, is to assume that they can get around Costa Rica at U.S. or European speeds. You can, but only if you fly.
If you only have a week in Costa Rica and you want to visit far-flung destinations like Tortuguero or the Osa Peninsula, plan to take one of the regional airlines (SANSA or Nature Air) from San José to wherever you're going and back. Round-trip fares are typically in the neighborhood of $150, so unless you were planning on driving with a car full of people, flying is not much more expensive than car rental and gas. And it is much, much faster: one hour to get to Puerto Jiménez, for example, not ten.
The reliable and inexpensive way to get around is by public busses, which are clean, frequent, and not much slower than driving yourself. Point-to-point fares are typically a few dollars. For an extensive guide with schedules, see John Wood's Costa Rica by Bus.
A final alternative to consider before renting a car is hiring a driver. This is what tour companies do. There are many independent drivers, some with 4-WDs. Many speak at least some English or other second language. A good way to find drivers in the areas you're planning to visit is through your hotels - most have relationships with trustworthy and knowledgeable drivers.
OK, you've evaluated your alternatives and decided to test your skill and patience on Costa Rica's roads. Be advised: this is nothing like driving in the U.S. or Europe, or even Mexico. You simply cannot go fast. Highway speed limits are typically 60 or 80 kilometers per hour, i.e. 37.5 or 50 mph, but averaging 30 mph between point A and point B is making really good time in Costa Rica. Traffic on the famous Interamericana, the main road called Highway 1 north of San José and Highway 2 to the south, is often moving at 10 mph or less, as lines of heavy trucks struggle up and down the mountains. If you think it will take an hour to get where you're going, count on two (or maybe three or four).
Driving in Costa Rica can be fun, but you need a good highway map (we like the National Geographic AdventureMap best), an alert navigator, and a lot of patience. Be prepared for typical Costa Rican highway conditions: no shoulders, minimal signage, one-lane bridges, abrupt changes from paved to unpaved road, lots of potholes. Keep in mind that busses and disabled vehicles stop on the road, not off it, and that road construction often takes precedence over traffic. Don't be surprised if you have to wait in a line that may be over a mile long while a road crew does some paving or fells a tree into the middle of the highway. Keep a sharp eye out for pedestrians (slow down - they will not get out of your way), farm animals, and wildlife of every kind. Always carry drinking water, a good spare tire, a compass, and a flashlight. Don't speed (you will get a ticket), and DO NOT DRIVE AT NIGHT.
With two or three exceptions, Costa Rican highways do not have highway-number signs. Signs at intersections point to destinations, and often to hotels or attractions, not towns. Your best way to navigate to some cities - e.g. Tamarindo - is to follow the signs to the larger hotels. We give directions from prominent towns or other landmarks, and use highway numbers so that you can reference them to your map, not to the road itself.
There are several roads that look great on the map but aren't. Avoid Highway 141 from Naranjo to Ciudad Quesada; it is a major truck route and is excruciatingly slow. The Interamericana from San Ramón to Esparza is narrow, curvy, typically fog-bound, and jammed with truck traffic; take Highway 3 from La Garita to San Mateo, then Highway 131 to Esparza instead. Highway 21 east of the junction with Highway 18 in central Nicoya is wretched; if you're going to southern Nicoya by car, take the ferry from Puntarenas to Paquera (not to Playa Naranjo). Highway 32 from San José to Limón is mostly good road, but don't expect to make good time - every east-bound shipping container goes via this road. Highway 34 down the central Pacific coast is beautiful, except for the stretch between Quepos and Dominical, which is bone-jarringly unpaved (be patient, they're working on it).
There are also some great roads - Highway 6 from just north of Cañas to Upala, Highway 142 from San Ramón to La Fortuna, Highway 10 from Paraíso to Turrialba. Even the Interamericana is pretty, as long as you're not staring at the truck bumper in front of you. And many of the unpaved roads are stunningly beautiful, just slow. So have a granola bar, quit worrying about when you're going to get there, and enjoy the ride.
Update (February, 2009): The Arias administration is making an enormous effort to improve Costa Rica's roads, and it shows in many new bridges, drainage systems, and road surfaces. Even so, don't expect a modern highway system: feasible speeds (and speed limits) are still low, traffic is still heavy, and roads to many popular destinations and to many of our featured hotels are still unpaved. If you're feeling the least bit adventurous, you'll still need a 4WD vehicle.
You'll encounter plenty of special Costa Rican vocabulary traveling here, starting with Tico - what Costa Ricans call themselves. Here are some of the most common Costa Rican-isms, as well as a few ordinary Spanish words you might find worth knowing.