Serene Ecolodge Escapes in Costa Rica

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In January, when I decided to dip a toe back into the water of international travel, Costa Rica seemed an obvious destination. The entry requirements were not onerous ­— I had merely to buy extra insurance to cover any pandemic-related medical bills and accommodation costs in the event of being obliged to quarantine — and the country’s tropical climate and small ecolodges would, I reasoned, make it possible for me to spend most of my time outdoors. Like everywhere else, Costa Rica has been affected by COVID-19, but the vast majority of cases have been recorded in the populous areas of the Central Valley, including the capital city, San José. If I headed for the hills, the jungle and the beach, and took sensible precautions, it seemed that the risks would be manageable.


Evidently I was not the first person to have reached a similar conclusion, as, to my astonishment, the flight from New York to San José was packed. Indeed, there didn’t appear to be a single empty seat. On arrival, two or three other planes had just landed, and the entry hall was crowded. Only the ubiquitous face masks, as well as lines on the floor to demarcate the appropriate social distancing, indicated that we had not returned to prepandemic normality. Eventually, summoned by an officer, I discovered that I had lost the QR code on my cell phone that proved I had fulfilled the COVID-era entry requirements. This being Costa Rica, however, where even the immigration officials are friendly, I was allowed time to search for it, all the while in an agony of embarrassment.

On our previous trip to Costa Rica, in 2018, we had concentrated on areas to the south and east of San José, so this time I constructed an itinerary through the northern half of the country, one that ran along its mountain spine as far as the border with Nicaragua, before taking a sharp left turn into the coastal province of Guanacaste.

Xandari

Sunset Pool overlooking San José and the Central Valley at Xandari, Alajuela
Sunset Pool overlooking San José and the Central Valley at Xandari, Alajuela - Photo by Andrew Harper editor

As our flight had landed at 8:30 p.m., we planned to stay initially on the outskirts of San José. For some years, I have recommended the Finca Rosa Blanca Coffee Farm and Inn, which is located about a half-hour from the international airport. Although I have been content with our stays there, the property had never seemed likely to improve on its rating of 90, so on this occasion I decided to try Xandari, a 24-room resort on a hillside overlooking the city, approximately a 20-minute drive from the airport. 

At the time of our visit, San José was under a 9 p.m. curfew — to which tourist vehicles were evidently exempt in certain circumstances — and the streets of the city’s suburbs were deserted. Most of the doors and windows of the houses were open, however, and it was possible to glimpse families gathered together for a meal or watching television, so despite the empty sidewalks the atmosphere did not seem desolate. 

Lulled by a light breeze and feeling the benign effects of the Chilean Sauvignon Blanc, we gazed out across to the myriad lights of San José and felt the stresses of the day’s travel drain away.

On arrival at Xandari, we were greeted with conspicuous politeness and shown to our detached 735-square-foot Ultra Villa. Having dropped our bags, we headed to the restaurant for dinner. As the property is set at approximately 3,900 feet above sea level, the temperature on the dining terrace was pleasantly cool. It was too late for a large meal, so we settled for sea bass ceviche with avocado and corn and a plate of mixed fajitas. Lulled by a light breeze and feeling the benign effects of the Chilean Sauvignon Blanc, we gazed out across to the myriad lights of San José and felt the stresses of the day’s travel drain away.

Xandari was created by the late American architect Sherrill Broudy and his artist wife, Charlene, and its brightly painted buildings have vibrant interiors, adorned with mosaics, large abstract paintings and Central American fabrics and artifacts. Morning revealed that our villa had two tall panels of stained glass, as well as huge windows that afforded a view of a jungle-choked ravine and the Central Valley, bounded by a ridge of distant mountains. Our accommodations struck us as light, spacious, private and peaceful. And it was delightful to step out onto our huge private terrace to admire the view or watch the abundant birdlife, which included the gloriously named Montezuma oropendola (a sizable brown bird with a brilliant yellow tail) and a keel-billed toucan, whose magnificent green, orange, purple and turquoise beak makes up nearly a third of its entire length.

Our room at Xandari, Alajuela - Photo by Andrew Harper editor
The grounds at Xandari  - Photo by Andrew Harper editor
Colorful fountain at Xandari - Photo by Andrew Harper editor
Our breakfast at Xandari - Photo by Andrew Harper editor
Waterfall at Xandari - Photo by Andrew Harper editor

Alas, despite feeling relaxed and comfortable, it was impossible not to notice that the furniture and furnishings were utilitarian rather than luxurious. The lack of air-conditioning did not seem to be a serious deficiency because of the elevation, but the bath was in immediate need of an upgrade. The sliding screen separating it from the bedroom was partially broken, there was only a single sink, the plaster around the faucet of the walk-in shower was crumbling, and the towel supply was meager.

We headed back to the main resort building along footpaths that twisted through lush vegetation and swaths of bougainvillea. In the morning sunlight, the view from the dining room’s curved and shaded terrace was even more spectacular than it had seemed the night before. Taking a table beside the parapet, we ordered the classic Costa Rican breakfast of tortillas, fried eggs, fried plantain and gallo pinto (beans and rice). Accompanied by tropical fruits and Costa Rican coffee, it provided a satisfying start to the day.

Xandari is set on a 40-acre estate, 12 acres of which are a rainforest reserve. The ridge on which the resort buildings are situated falls away abruptly and the grounds are crisscrossed by 3 miles of steep and winding trails. A sign in the lobby advertised guided walks and bird-watching excursions, but we decided to wander off on our own with a hiking map. All began well, and we soon discovered the spa complex, where five palm-roofed pavilions overlook the Central Valley. And five minutes farther on, we came to the most spectacular of the property’s three pools, the Sunset Pool, a long slash of sapphire blue backed by a 30-mile view. Things only began to go wrong when we descended into the rainforest and found ourselves on loose dirt paths clinging to the side of the ravine. For a while we accepted that being lost was due to our own incompetence, but eventually it was impossible not to conclude that the map was hopelessly misleading. Fortunately, our surroundings were idyllic: The dense tropical forest was alive with bird calls and mysterious rustles, and a small river collapsed in a sequence of 50- to 75-foot waterfalls. Eventually, by a process of trial and error, and without cartographical assistance, we found our way back to the resort.

Overall, Xandari proved a paradoxical property. Its setting is dramatic, the staff were uniformly friendly and helpful, and the food, while not exactly scaling the heights of gastronomy, was well-cooked and attractively presented. I liked the place very much, but without investment in the accommodations (especially the baths), it is impossible to recommend.

- Hotel at a Glance -

Xandari    88Andrew Harper Bird

Like

Dramatic location; peaceful atmosphere; friendly and hospitable staff; the beautiful rainforest estate.

Dislike

The bath in our villa was in immediate need of an upgrade.

Good to Know

The most desirable villa, with the most memorable view, is No. 27


Rates: Prima Plus, $290; Ultra Villa, $350
Address: 1 Km NE Del Salon El Diamante, Alajuela
Telephone: (506) 2443-2020

Xandari


Costa Rica is a country of just 19,700 square miles, which makes it bigger than Maryland but smaller than West Virginia. Despite these modest dimensions, it has both a Caribbean and a Pacific coastline and landscapes that range from intensely cultivated pineapple fields to virgin cloud forest. National parks and reserves cover nearly a quarter of its area. There are no fewer than 66 volcanoes, of which six are active, including the tallest, Irazú, which rises to an elevation of 11,260 feet. Of the country’s 5 million inhabitants, 2 million live in the metropolitan area of San José. And unlike Mexico and most Central American nations, there are few Indigenous people, not because they were killed or driven away, but because they never existed in the first place. Costa Rica lay in a no man’s land between the Mesoamerican and Andean Native cultures and despite its name, “Rich Coast” was regarded as an inconsequential backwater during the entire Spanish colonial period. Today, however, Costa Rica is prosperous, with an economy that includes financial and pharmaceutical sectors as well as agriculture and tourism. The fact that most Costa Ricans live in relative comfort, with access to health care and education, doubtless helps to explain why it is comparatively safe and the people are so consistently hospitable.

El Silencio Lodge & Spa

Private jacuzzi on the terrace of our villa at El Silencio Lodge & Spa
Private jacuzzi on the terrace of our villa at El Silencio Lodge & Spa - Photo by Andrew Harper editor

We left Xandari in a minivan sent by our next destination, El Silencio Lodge & Spa, a property located a 90-minute drive to the north. There are only a few large highways in Costa Rica, but the regular roads are usually well-maintained. Many are winding and hilly, and in more-remote areas the tarmac can end unexpectedly, but in general, driving through the countryside is a delightful experience. Very little in Costa Rica is ugly, and much of the landscape is exquisite. Some visitors opt to drive themselves, but I strongly recommend using the services of a chauffeur. Signs are virtually nonexistent, and even with GPS, I suspect it would be extremely easy to get lost.

Leaving behind a series of bustling small towns and villages, we began to climb the western flank of the mountains in a series of switchbacks, reaching the Continental Divide at an elevation of around 9,000 feet.

Leaving behind a series of bustling small towns and villages, we began to climb the western flank of the mountains in a series of switchbacks, reaching the Continental Divide at an elevation of around 9,000 feet. There, sunshine and blue skies disappeared abruptly and we were immersed in cloud, unable to see much more than 100 feet ahead of the vehicle. After crossing the pass and a brief descent, we reached the entrance to El Silencio, driving alongside a rushing stream, past stables and a trout pond, until finally we reached the main resort building. “I just love this weather,” the woman at reception remarked, as the rain teemed down. “It’s so relaxing, don’t you think?”

Owned by American broadcasting entrepreneur John Gormally, El Silencio comprises 18 suites and six villas, set on a private 500-acre forest reserve between the Poás Volcano and Juan Castro Blanco national parks. In many ways, it would be hard to imagine a better place in which to escape the pandemic: Its location is remote, the accommodations are widely spaced, and all the activities — horseback riding, hiking, bird-watching, ziplining and whitewater rafting — ­take place outdoors.

Somewhat to our surprise, we found that we had been upgraded from a regular Suite to the Villa Quetzal, to which we were driven in a golf cart. This came with two bedrooms, two baths, a large living room with a dining table, a double-sided gas log fire and a kitchen. I found the décor, with its brown leather sofas and heavy wooden furniture, to be rather gloomy, and the lighting in the baths was poor. Beyond sliding glass doors was a wooden deck with leather-backed rocking chairs, a hot tub and a view of a densely forested hillside, partly obscured by gauzy scarves of cloud. Although it would have been suitable for a family, the villa was far too big for two people. But it seemed churlish to complain. What I liked best was the sense of seclusion. During our stay, I spent two or three hours a day quietly reading in one of the rocking chairs on the deck, feeling blissfully remote from the world.

Villa Quetzal at El Silencia Lodge & Spa, Alajuela - Photo by Andrew Harper editor
Bedroom of our villa at El Silencio Lodge & Spa - Photo by Andrew Harper editor
Living area of our villa at El Silencio Lodge & Spa - Photo by Andrew Harper editor
Bath of our villa at El Silencio Lodge & Spa - Photo by Andrew Harper editor
Terrace of our villa at El Silencio Lodge & Spa - Photo by Andrew Harper editor
Trout ceviche at El Silencio Lodge & Spa - Photo by Andrew Harper editor
Our breakfast at El Silencio Lodge & Spa - Photo by Andrew Harper editor

The principal lodge building at El Silencio is an attractive, airy, glass-sided pavilion that overlooks gardens and a rushing stream. As well as a lounge with a log fire, it contains a cozy bar and Las Ventanas Restaurant. The food is consistently good, not least because much of the produce comes from the resort’s organic garden. Trout from the property’s own pond also make regular appearances on the menu. (The trout ceviche with pineapple, coconut milk, rocoto chile and tuber chips was outstanding.) The only dish during our stay that was disappointing was a dinner entrée of duck, which, despite being served rare, was extremely tough.) The dining room staff were consistently charming and attentive.

Unfortunately, incessant heavy rain had a thoroughly negative impact on our stay. Braving the downpour, we took a guided hike that culminated at the foot of a majestic 200-foot waterfall. And we also signed up for a trail ride through the forest ­— the stables were well-maintained and the horses were clearly well-cared-for — but slithering around in the mud on a steep hillside was an activity of limited appeal. Only the spa was unaffected by the deluge. While the resort cannot be held responsible for the weather, its location high in the cloud forest means that fair weather may be more an exception than the rule. If you wish to experience this high-altitude ecosystem and are prepared to get wet, then El Silencio has much to recommend it. If not, then you will be well-advised to opt instead for an ecolodge at a lower elevation, where warmth and sunshine can be expected with a greater degree of confidence.

- Hotel at a Glance -

El Silencio Lodge & Spa    89Andrew Harper Bird

Like

The picturesque riverside location; the excellent restaurant; the delightful dining room staff.

Dislike

The interior of our Villa Quetzal was rather dark, and the lighting in the bath was poor.

Good to Know

Coffee tastings are held in a pavilion by the stream and are worthwhile.


Rates: Deluxe Suite, $400; Two-bedroom Villa, $720
Address: Bajos del Toro, Alajuela
Telephone: (506) 4070-1100

El Silencio Lodge & Spa

Nayara Tented Camp

Nayara Tented Camp, La Fortuna, Costa Rica
Nayara Tented Camp, La Fortuna, Costa Rica - Brice Ferre Studio

A two-hour drive to the northwest brought us to the town of La Fortuna, which in normal times is the epicenter of Costa Rica’s adventure-tourism industry and a magnet for college-age travelers from all over the globe. Its main street is lined with innumerable small travel agencies, with billboards advertising kayaking, whitewater rafting and ziplining, as well as dozens of unassuming restaurants and cafés. On our recent trip, however, it was semi-deserted, with shuttered storefronts and long stretches of empty sidewalk. As well as being close to Costa Rica’s largest lake, La Fortuna is situated just to the east of Arenal Volcano, an imposing 5,437-foot cone whose green slopes are extensively scarred by the lava from recent eruptions. For centuries Arenal had slumbered, but in 1968, it suddenly exploded, inaugurating a 40-year period of nightly fireworks. Then, in 2010, just as abruptly, the detonations ceased and Arenal became dormant once again.

A 10-minute drive to the northwest of La Fortuna, the new Nayara Tented Camp is immersed in dense vegetation and is part of a self-contained world that is seemingly unrelated to its wider surroundings. The original resort, Nayara Gardens (recommended since 2013), comprises 50 freestanding bungalows. Later, it was joined by Nayara Springs, an adults-only property of 35 villas. Now the new Tented Camp offers 21 luxury tents, with the construction of a further 11 having been delayed by the pandemic. Taken together, the three resorts make up a sizable property, but they are so buried in greenery that its scale is effectively disguised. Indeed, the Tented Camp feels like a true hideaway.

Already impressed, we went to inspect the tent’s huge terrace, which came with a round dining table, two sun loungers, a hammock, a green marble plunge pool fed with hot-springs water and a glorious unobstructed view of the volcano.

On arrival, check-in took place in the Arrival Tent, the décor of which resembled an upscale African safari camp, with cream canvas walls and dark wood furniture. The paperwork completed, we were taken out to meet the semi-resident three-toed sloth that lives in a nearby tree. A short drive by golf cart brought us to our suite, No. 7, which was elevated on stilts and accessed via a private walkway. There, it was immediately evident that the Tented Camp has the most dramatic location of the three Nayara properties, being at the top of the hilly estate, with sweeping views over the forest canopy to the volcano.

Thoroughly accustomed to luxury tented suites in places such as South Africa or Botswana, I felt immediately at home. Inside, we found a king-size bed draped in mosquito netting, hardwood floors, an ottoman, two daybeds and a private bar and espresso machine ingeniously housed within an outsize steamer trunk. Air-conditioning and an elaborate array of lights on dimmer switches added to the feeling of opulent comfort. The bath turned out to be at least as big as the bedroom, with two sinks set in marble, a freestanding soaking tub, a dressing area and a walk-in shower. Beyond glass doors was an enormous outdoor shower, screened by bamboo walls. Already impressed, we went to inspect the tent’s huge terrace, which came with a round dining table, two sun loungers, a hammock, a green marble plunge pool fed with hot-springs water and a glorious unobstructed view of the volcano. Clearly the architect had intended to design a space that would be unnecessary to leave if its inhabitants were in the mood for seclusion. Gazing out, we could see a few roofs poking through the vegetation, but 90 percent of the Nayara complex was completely invisible.

A sloth near our Luxury Tent at Nayara Tented Camp, La Fortuna - Photo by Andrew Harper editor
Terrace of our Luxury Tent at Nayara Tented Camp - Photo by Andrew Harper editor
Bedroom in our Luxury Tent at Nayara Tented Camp - Photo by Andrew Harper editor
Bath in our Luxury Tent at Nayara Tented Camp - Photo by Andrew Harper editor
Outdoor shower of our Luxury Tent at Nayara Tented Camp - Photo by Andrew Harper editor
View of volcano from our private plunge pool at Nayara Tented Camp - Photo by Andrew Harper editor

Summoning a golf cart, we headed downhill to the Mis Amores restaurant at Nayara Springs, a four-minute drive away. The steep pathway was so enclosed by plants and trees that it felt at times as if we were driving through a green tunnel. Guests at the three resorts are free to move between the sister properties and have signing privileges at any of the bars, cafés and dining areas on the estate. The Tented Camp is scheduled to have its own restaurant, but its debut has been delayed by the pandemic. Mis Amores serves chiefly Costa Rican and Latin American cuisine, so we ordered a light lunch of marlin carpaccio with avocado, salsa, capers and red onion, plus fish and shrimp tacos with guacamole. During our all-too-brief stay, we also tried Asia Luna, a Chinese restaurant at Nayara Gardens, and Amor Loco, the fine dining restaurant at Nayara Springs. At the latter we enjoyed the roasted sea bass with bok choy salad, potato confit and seafood bisque. Only the “Tropical Cazuela” was disappointing. A kind of bouillabaisse of various kinds of fish, shrimp, scallops and mussels, cooked in coconut milk with bean noodles and red and green curry, it looked and smelled delicious. However, the seafood had been overcooked, and the scallops in particular were rubbery. It was a meal that came to seem representative. The Nayara restaurants are aesthetically pleasing, the staff are attentive, and the dishes are presented with finesse. But occasionally the quality of the cooking is unexpectedly deficient. And while it is possible to eat extremely well, the property lacks a restaurant of the highest international standard.


Both Nayara Gardens and Nayara Springs have small spas with open-air treatment rooms, as will the Tented Camp when it is complete. During our stay, however, we preferred to spend time in the six natural spring-fed pools, each a different temperature, that cascaded down the hillside a short stroll away from our tent. Guests wander from one to the next in their bathrobes, and drinks and towels can be summoned. As you would expect, Nayara offers an encyclopedic menu of activities, both on and off the property. We ventured on a three-hour bird-watching hike with a private naturalist guide, on a route that featured half a dozen hanging bridges, each 200 or 300 feet long, suspended high in the forest canopy. A trek through the lava fields on the slopes of the volcano is almost a mandatory excursion, as is a kayaking trip on nearby Lake Arenal.

Leaving Nayara Tented Camp came as a wrench. It is an imaginative and stylish new resort, with an exceptionally serene and relaxing atmosphere created by consistently obliging staff. Duty called, however, so we set off on a two-and-a-half-hour drive northwest to an area of northern Costa Rica close to the border with Nicaragua. Most of the way, we drove along tarred two-lane highways, but for the final 20 minutes or so we found ourselves on a rutted dirt road that wound through villages of neat, tin-roofed houses. Eventually, we pulled up to an unobtrusive gateway, so unobtrusive in fact that without a driver we would have passed it a dozen times, unaware that we had arrived at our destination.

- Hotel at a Glance -

Nayara Tented Camp    94Andrew Harper Bird

Like

Our lavish tent with its blissful outdoor shower, plunge pool and volcano view; the extremely well-organized activities.

Dislike

The quality of the food can be inconsistent.

Good to Know

Eleven more tents are planned, so a period of construction can be anticipated.


Rates: Luxury Tent, $1,020
Address: Arenal Volcano National Park, La Fortuna, Alajuela
Telephone: (506) 2589-8600

View Nayara Tented Camp Listing

ORIGINS

Main building at ORIGINS
Main building at ORIGINS - Photo by Andrew Harper editor

ORIGINS lodge is set on the northern slopes of 6,286-foot Tenorio Volcano, which is surrounded by an eponymous national park. (Aside from its elusive wildlife ­— jaguars, cougars, ocelots and tapirs — it is known for the astonishing turquoise waters of the Rio Celeste, created by volcanic activity.) From its open-sided main lodge building, an unforgettable panorama extends across a verdant landscape to the glinting shoreline of Lake Nicaragua.

With a conical roof smothered in vegetation, from the outside it looked as if it might have been borrowed from one of the hobbits in “The Lord of the Rings.”

The property comprises just six cottages and a three-bedroom villa (with its own kitchen). We were driven by golf cart to our lodging, Neblina. With a conical roof smothered in vegetation, from the outside it looked as if it might have been borrowed from one of the hobbits in “The Lord of the Rings.” I was thrilled to see that its shaded deck — into which was set a hot tub fed with water warmed by an adjacent log fire — afforded exactly the same glorious view as the lodge itself. Inside, we found a king bed swathed in mosquito netting, a parquet floor and a steeply pitched wooden roof with an ingenious skylight. Behind the bed, a door in the paneling opened into a surprisingly light, spacious and well-appointed bath, with two sinks, a stone floor, louvered windows and a wet area with both an overhead and a handheld shower. Although these accommodations were not especially luxurious in any conventional sense, they were extremely comfortable and possessed a unique personality. I felt immediately at home.

Entrance to our cottage at ORIGINS, Bijagua de Upala - Photo by Andrew Harper editor
Hot tub on the deck of our cottage at ORIGINS - Photo by Andrew Harper editor
Bedroom in our cottage at ORIGINS - Photo by Andrew Harper editor
Bath in our cottage at ORIGINS - Photo by Andrew Harper editor
Our breakfast at ORIGINS - Photo by Andrew Harper editor

It did not take me long to appreciate that ORIGINS will appeal chiefly to those who are looking for a refuge, for an otherworldly enclave of calm. It is a place in which to read, to reflect, to meditate. There is plenty to do if you wish: horseback riding and hikes and excursions to the national park, as well as to the Caño Negro wetlands, famous for their astonishing birdlife. And we went on a guided night walk to look for nocturnal mammals, lizards and insects. But the real point of the place is to decompress, to rediscover a sense of balance and proportion. I spent hours on the deck of our cottage, watching the parrots crashing about the nearby trees, before turning my attention to distant Lake Nicaragua, which lay along the horizon like a mirage.

The central building at the resort is open-plan and overlooks a sinuous (unheated) horizon pool. Various unstructured lounge areas, one with a pool table, merge into the dining area, which in turn gives way to an open kitchen and a wine wall. The designers of ORIGINS are French, as is the chef, Jean-Luc L’Hourre, who serves refined regional and seasonal cuisine with produce from the resort’s kitchen garden and fish from its own pond. I particularly enjoyed the lavish breakfast spreads, with several types of fresh-baked bread, muffins, housemade preserves, yogurt, charcuterie, cheeses, tropical fruits, chopped salads and, of course, eggs prepared to order. At lunch and dinner, a short menu appears on a chalkboard, but if nothing appeals, or you would prefer a vegetarian option, the kitchen staff will happily dream up an alternative. With just seven accommodations, ORIGINS can seem rather like your own Costa Rican vacation home, where nothing is inconvenient or too much trouble.

- Hotel at a Glance -

ORIGINS    93Andrew Harper Bird

Like

The comfortable and idiosyncratic cottages; the glorious view; the sense of deep seclusion.

Dislike

The main swimming pool is unheated and rather chilly in consequence.

Good to Know

The resort’s three-bedroom Villa Vertigo would be ideal for a family.


Rates: Luxury Lodge, $860 (minimum stay may apply)
Address: Pueblo Nuevo, Bijagua de Upala, Alajuela
Telephone: (506) 4001-5356

View ORIGINS Listing

Kasiiya Papagayo

View of Peninsula Papagayo, Costa Rica
View of Peninsula Papagayo, Costa Rica - Kasiiya Papagayo

Feeling rested and revived, we set off on the last leg of our journey, a three-hour drive to the Pacific coast of Guanacaste province. In contrast to the volcanic highlands, about which clouds invariably linger, the weather in Guanacaste is consistently dry and sunny, especially from December to May. The provincial capital, Liberia (pop. 45,000), is served by nonstop flights from the United States, which means that visitors coming to the resorts on Peninsula Papagayo have no need to travel via San José. For example, the Four Seasons resort there, a property that I have long recommended, lies just 45 minutes to the west of the international airport. With its 181 rooms and Arnold Palmer-designed golf course, it is a full-service upscale resort of a thoroughly familiar type. Across the Gulf of Papagayo, less than 10 miles distant as the pelican flies, Kasiiya Papagayo, our final destination, offers an entirely different version of luxury.

It was while watching a group of howler monkeys in a nearby tree that I realized that Kasiiya is intended to be entirely natural — a place that was designed to tread lightly on the land, where guests are a part of nature, not spectators of it.

Having skirted the airport, our driver continued southwest for about 30 minutes, before the tarred road was replaced by a dirt track through the forest, along which we bounced for another half an hour. Eventually, we pulled up in front of some modest buildings, from where we were taken to a table with a glimpse of the Pacific. It was at this point I began to wonder if I had made a mistake. No one had cleared the vegetation to improve the view or even troubled to sweep up the dry leaves that had fallen overnight. Everything seemed unstructured and low-key. And then I saw that I was missing the point. It was while watching a group of howler monkeys in a nearby tree that I realized that Kasiiya is intended to be entirely natural. It is a place that was designed to tread lightly on the land, where guests are a part of nature, not spectators of it. The stretch of coastline on which the resort has been constructed is pristine. And if the simple buildings and tented accommodations were dismantled and removed, within weeks no one would be able to tell that they had ever existed. Essentially, Kasiiya is an upscale safari camp on the beach.

Kasiiya opened in 2018, and its completion has been delayed by the pandemic. Presently, there are five tented suites set among trees close to the sea and two more a short drive away on a scenic headland. Eventually, I am told, there will be a total of 20. A three-minute stroll along a boardwalk brought us to our Lazy Turtle beach suite. It turned out to be extremely spacious, with canvas walls, a hardwood floor, a “safari” color palette of sage green and khaki, a king-size bed and a sofa. There was no adornment of any kind, a cooler served as a fridge, and communication with reception was via walkie-talkie. The only concessions to modern technology were air-conditioning (which we never used), Wi-Fi and sophisticated lighting. The bath came with two circular marble sinks set on a solid wooden surround, and both indoor and outdoor showers. Beyond glass doors we found a deck with loungers, a simple dining area and an enormous iguana, about the size of a beagle, which didn’t seem to be entirely thrilled by our arrival. Patches of blue and turquoise glimpsed through the trees betrayed the existence of the Pacific, as did the sound of breaking surf. Descending some wooden steps, we followed a short sandy path that brought us to the beach, a half-mile stretch of golden sand backed by tropical forest. We were alone.

View of Kasiiya Papagayo, Matapalo, Guanacaste - Kasiiya Papagayo
Sunset viewing deck at Kasiiya Papagayo - Photo by Andrew Harper editor
Pristine beach below Kasiiya Papagayo - Photo by Andrew Harper editor
Our villa bedroom at Kasiiya Papagayo - Photo by Andrew Harper editor
Our villa bath at Kasiiya Papagayo - Photo by Andrew Harper editor
Deck of our villa at Kasiiya Papagayo - Photo by Andrew Harper editor
Bath in a Floating Bird Tented Suite at Kasiiya Papagayo - Kasiiya Papagayo

Breakfast and lunch at Kasiiya are served at sea level, but for dinner, guests are driven up to the pavilion on the headland (close to where the two oceanview Laughing Whale suites are situated). A vehicle picked us up at 5:30 p.m. so we could enjoy predinner cocktails while watching the sunset. The first rule of travel writing is never, ever attempt to describe the sunset, so I will content myself by saying that after more than 30 years of travel, I cannot recall one that was more moving or more beautiful. Set around 300 feet above the sea, the viewing deck affords a 180-degree panorama that encompasses a long stretch of untouched coastline, edged by white foam and small dark jagged islands, and an immense gilded expanse of the Pacific. I slumped into a rattan armchair, mojito in hand, and was overwhelmed by a sense of gratitude.

Owing to the pandemic, there were only four other guests for dinner that evening. They turned out to be successful, worldly people: two Americans from Boston and a British-South African couple, residents of the south of France, who had come to Kasiiya to find a temporary escape from reality. All four worked in finance, and two reminisced at length about their shared experiences at MIT. It was clear that they appreciated the property’s sophisticated balance between comfort and nature.

Menus at Kasiiya provide little choice, and food is simple but well-prepared and sustaining, with grilled local fish, rice dishes and excellent salads being typical choices. This is not a place for elevated gastronomy anymore than it is for luxury in a conventional sense. The wine list, however, has some sophisticated bottles, as well as more-expected selections from Chile and Argentina.

Activities at the resort include hiking, both on and off the 120-acre property, and bird-watching excursions, plus fishing, kayaking and snorkeling. A Russian instructor, Ekaterina, gives free-diving instruction to the more-intrepid guests, while Yamuna, whom I learned treats Brad Pitt on visits to Los Angeles, offers ayurvedic therapies, massage and meditation classes. Personally, I found myself delightfully demotivated, and aside from frequent swims in the ocean (there is no pool) and walks along the three deserted beaches nearby, I spent much of my time gazing at the Pacific in hopes of spotting a whale. In my view, Kasiiya is a place more suited than most to the determined cultivation of indolence.

- Hotel at a Glance -

Kasiiya Papagayo    94Andrew Harper Bird

Like

The refined balance between comfort and nature; the pristine natural setting; the spellbinding views.

Dislike

The menu is limited and the food is honest but unsophisticated.

Good to Know

Several more tented suites are planned, and inevitably these will change the character of the property to a degree.


Rates: Laughing Whale, $900; Lazy Turtle, $1,120 (all meals and laundry service included; minimum stay may apply)
Address: 7 Km W of Diamante Eco Adventure Park, Matapalo, Guanacaste
Telephone: (800) 467-0472

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Read more about our editor’s trip to Costa Rica

By Andrew Harper Editor Andrew Harper editors travel the world anonymously to give you the unvarnished truth about luxury hotels. Hotels have no idea who the editors are, so they are treated exactly as you might be.
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