After a long, cold winter the idea of some adult fun in a sunny, tropical locale has universal appeal. The time-honored tradition of Spring Break, once largely associated with college kids partying in Mexican beach resorts, has matured somewhat, with more destinations becoming viable options for a springtime getaway.
Costa Rica, meaning “rich coast” has long been associated with ecotourism and adventure travel. Its national parks and nature reserves make excellent venues for hiking, white-water rafting, and volcano climbing. The country, after all, is the birthplace of adrenaline-inducing outdoor activities such as rainforest canopy ziplining. There’s no shortage of venues offering the opportunity to zip from tree platform to tree platform along a steel cable while dangling high above the forest floor.
More recently, Costa Rica’s coastlines have matured into attractions worthy of the country’s name. For those wanting a more traditional spring break of lounging beachside or poolside with a cocktail in hand, Costa Rica offers excellent beach resorts rivaling those of Mexico and the Caribbean. Most of these are located in the country’s Guanacaste province, in the northern part of the country bordering Nicaragua. Whereas the rest of the country can be quite rainy, the tropical dry forest ecosystem lining the coastline of Guanacaste makes for excellent beach weather. Further adding to the region’s appeal is accessibility, as there’s no need to fly through Costa Rica’s capital (San José) unless you want to. Several U.S. carriers fly multiple times daily to Guanacaste’s Liberia Airport (LIR). From there, it’s just a short drive to the beaches and some wonderful resorts.
Just a 20-minute drive from Liberia Airport, El Mangroove is a sleek beach hotel built on the shores of Playa Panamá. A long, reflective lap pool is lined with cabanas and leads out to the beach. The sea here is tranquil and excellent for activities like paddle boarding. The rooms offer a modern take on traditional beach hotels, with cool accents like patios featuring colorful hammocks and Mexican-style beach chairs. A phenomenal restaurant and bar overlook the swimming pool. This is an Autograph Collection hotel.
North of Playa Panamá, on Peninsula Papagayo, is Hyatt’s own version of modern and traditional beach style fusions. Andaz Peninsula Papagayo is a stylish luxury beach resort crowned with some impressive architecture. The lobby, housed under a large curved roof lined with traditional Costa Rican reeds, overlooks sprawling gardens and a broad, blue bay. A large riverine swimming pool meanders through grounds set above the hotel’s private beach. There are two restaurants and a bar to keep you fed and plied with cocktails.
Heading south, just over an hour from Liberia Airport, is Guanacaste’s prettiest beach – home to the Westin Playa Conchal. The beach here gets its name (and its white color) from the tiny white seashells that have been ground up over time into sand. Although the waters of the Pacific coast off Guanacaste are often a deep blue, the ocean water here looks turquoise, much like the beaches on the Caribbean coast of Mexico. It also draws comparisons to Hawaii, as it’s lined with plumeria trees.
Since my first visit to Guanacaste almost 20 years ago, the beach town of Tamarindo has grown from a sleepy surfers’ enclave into a full-blown beach town. Myriad restaurants, shops, and hotels line the streets along the shore of what is easily one of the widest stretches of beach on Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast. The coastline here is dotted with black volcanic rock, which only adds to its beauty. Surfing is still a big part of the draw here, for beginners to experts and everything in between. South of town about a 30-minute drive along Playa Mansita is the sprawling JW Marriott Guanacaste, built in the style of a large hacienda.
As the Guanacaste coast continues to develop, new hotels are being built and others will continue to evolve. The Four Seasons Peninsula Papagayo recently reopened after a $35 million-makeover. A luxurious Rosewood property, complete with residences, is slated to open in 2019. And for the rock stars out there, the Hard Rock Hotel Papagayo (opening in 2019), will surely suit your tastes.
All this development brings to mind some early reporting done by Conde Nast Traveler back in the 1990s, when Costa Rica was just starting to become a household name on the list of desirable vacation destinations; like Hawaii or Paris. One story asked in its title, “What Price Paradise?” wondering if the country had gotten away from its eco-friendly roots and perhaps sold its soul in the process. All this was being pondered as plans for the development of Peninsula Papagayo’s first hotel were underway.
I still think back to that article 20-some years later and wonder what the future holds. But I don’t think about it for too long. There are still plenty of wild beaches left in Costa Rica. And I’m on vacation. So I order a glass of Guatemalan Zacapa Centenario rum from the beachside bar and watch the sun dip into the Pacific Ocean where once there was nothing but rocks, sand, and the sounds of the sea.
By Al Argueta