Try as you might, it's hard to be lazy in Costa Rica. The land is rich with natural sites, activities, and adventures. And good hotels do all the organizing and prep work for you.
PENINSULA PAPAGAYO, Costa Rica – A tropical welcome awaited me as I alighted, somewhat disheveled from a bad cold, on JetBlue's inaugural flight from New York's JFK into Costa Rica's Liberia airport this winter.
Giant fans dispersed the humidity through the simple airport hanger, signaling my arrival somewhere exotic and far-flung. The lull of a wooden marimba playing gentle melodies and school children with bright smiles entertained dignitaries beneath the palm trees in a makeshift press conference to celebrate the new route. I felt like a pioneer in the early days of flying.
Filled with corn tortillas and infused with the local spirit of pura vida, or the good life, we boarded a white van, bumping along narrow country roads, passing verdant farmland lit up by a mellow sun set, before reaching Four Seasons Resort. The enclave is located in Peninsula Papagayo, a remote eco-zone surrounded by white sands, warm waters, and lush scenery that comes with endless rain.
Discrete dwellings inspired by wildlife and designed by Ronald Zurcher, Costa Rica's foremost architect, stand hidden amid the foliage, providing respite from the endless call of the outdoors. A quarter of the property is national forest. Monkeys negotiate trees, snails crawl across the beach, and children yelp as they rummage through the brush, not knowing what they might find.
I had dinner by the water: creamed corn, local lobster, and sharp salsas spread on hand-made crackers. I swam off the feast under starlit skies and sank into a plush bed — a fan circulating overhead, the ocean crashing beyond the verandah.
For ambitious early risers, coffee tastings happen at the crack of dawn. For the more relaxed, there are free classes like rainforest meditation and couples' reflexology. I opted for a Costa Rican breakfast: banana pancakes and stew with rice, beans, and eggs eaten on a porch overlooking the water.
The daily schedule included snorkeling at 8 a.m., scuba at 9, golf at 11 a.m. But the one that caught my eye was dance at 4 p.m. (Hello, Dirty Dancing.) I've avoided resorts my entire life, but here I was in the middle of an upscale American version with all of the trimmings fit for a king. (Saudi princes stay here, I'm told.) I swam with tiny jellyfish nipping my sunburnt skin. I paddled in a kayak pushed into the water by a beach boy in a bright red shirt who told me the only requirement was to have fun.
A chance to explore the country came in the form of the Hacienda Guachipelín, a hotel and activity center that sets up excursions to volcanoes, rapids, bull fighting, and remote emerald-colored hot springs. I covered my body with volcanic mud and let the warm rain wash it off. After a lunch (grilled chicken and handmade potato chips), I hopped on a horse and headed through the fields in search of more hot springs. I recalled the first (and last) time I was on a horse, at age nine at my local beach — my steed insisted in cantering across endless breakwaters. This time we took it slow.
Back at the bull ring, the animals refused to play game, but a troupe of better-behaved school children danced throughout the dinner reception. We devoured warm rice pudding before departing for the dark drive back to our beds.
I had never been a big fan of resorts, but I began to appreciate the ease of the staff and the old-school handling of guests. They organized a trip for me to see some traditional homes in Punta Islita, farther down the coast. The tiny plane bumped through the skies. From this vantage point, Costa Rica looked a lot like farmy southeast England. We even landed in a field of meandering sheep. I followed a woman named Cathy, who came from Santa Fe and wore a large cowboy hat, climbed over the farmer's gate, and jumped in a golf cart headed towards the water.
Here the nature was wild and rugged. The skies were wild and stormy as we headed up to Cathy's mountain-top perch, gossiping about real estate (there was talk of Mel Gibson selling his nearby home to Lady Gaga for forty million dollars).
Back to reality: We needed to save some baby turtles. On a remote beach, we dug our hands into holes filled with lifeless babies and carried them into the waters, their mother long gone. Marvin, our guide from Punta Islita Hotel, took us in search of a rare black turtle. As our torch faded, we scraped about along the dark beach, reminded of how nature has a mind of its own. What would we do if we couldn't find the cart? We all disagreed on where it might be in the bush surrounding the beach. It took three hours of bumpy road (and some take-out ceviche) to make our way back, even though we were in the same corner of the country. Our arrival was signaled by a row of regal palms standing like soldiers welcoming their general.
The adventure of a small plane, new friends, a rescue operation, and the hinterland behind me, I settled on my verandah and drank warm milk. A morning swim, one last kayak trip, a battle with a hard-nosed local craftsman for a ceramic candle holder, and I was ferried back to the airport hanger where it all began.
Four Seasons Costa Rica
Guanacaste, Costa Rica
Rincon de la Vieja
Guanacaste 1, Costa Rica
Punta Islita Hotel
Guanacaste, Costa Rica