I’ve lived in Costa Rica for well on 20 years now, with a brief time in Austin. I’ve never spent much time in the Nicoya Peninsula. Why? Various reasons: its a long drive over there, and usually when friends visit, we go to the usual places near Jacó so we can come back to the house to sleep. Also, my husband is not a fan of ’boutique’ hotels. So, when my good friends Debbie and Jeff came to visit, I asked if they wanted to take an adventure and head over to the Nicoya.
The Nicoya Peninsula is an area on the Pacific Coast that is considered a Blue Zone of the world. A Blue Zone is an area where people typically live past 100 years old. Why? 30% is genetic, and 70% is lifestyle. If you want to know more visit here.
We ended up recruiting 2 more people: Julie and her mother-in-law, Debbie (yes, there are two Debbies on this trip). So, there were 5 of us packed into my Jeep. Thankfully, with only a 4 night trip, we really didn’t have much to pack. We did throw the cooler on top of the Jeep to anchor the surfboard and keep it from sliding around. Since this was the first time I’ve used my luggage rack it was a process figuring out how to strap things down. Thankfully, Julie has experience strapping down her surfboard.
From Playa Herradura to Punta Islita it is 211 km, or 131 miles. Typically in the US that would take 2 hours. Not in Costa Rica, it takes 4 hours. There are several factors that North Americans and Europeans don’t factor in when driving around in Costa Rica: the speed limit is generally 60 kph or 37 mph on the ‘country’ roads, and 80 kph or 49 mph on the highway. Now, generally, most people will drive faster than that, but there is the odd person who actually drives the posted speed. And on a two-lane road (a road that has one lane in each direction), you are stuck behind that law abiding person until it is safe to pass. Which is generally never because traffic is always an issue. There will be the odd time where the two-lane road will have a passing lane (in areas where they had enough room to build it), but at that point, the person driving the posted speed will 1) stay in the left lane, 2) speed up so you don’t have the opportunity to pass, then 3) immediately slow down, back to the posted speed once the road goes back to the two-lane variety. Then there are the motorcyclists who drive even slower. While they are generally easier to pass because some of them move over to the far right, it’s not always safe to do so. So, our trip took 4 hours.
We stopped a few times to buy some fruit, shoo some ducks out of the road, and to take some photos. The last 10 miles or so was a windy, washboard, dirt road. I ended up putting the Jeep in 4-wheel drive just to keep from vibrating off the side of the road. Definitely, and adventure. Just what we were looking for.
Since I had never been over to that part of Costa Rica, I asked my network and they recommended that we go to Hotel Punta Islita. It’s a Marriott Autograph Collection Hotel. Yeah, I didn’t know what that meant either so I had to look it up. “Autograph Collection is a group of independent upper-upscale to luxury hotels within the Marriott International portfolio. These properties are independently owned and operated under the Autograph Collection name.” I was pleasantly surprised by the level of service at this hotel. We were greeted by a Tico (Costa Rican) with a British Accent, Melvin Seas. Evidently, he studied at the British School in San Jose, where he learned “The Queen’s English”. He’s worked at the Four Seasons in Dallas and various other locations in other countries. By far the best service I have every received in Costa Rica. The other fantasticality of this hotel is the chef, Randy. Born and raised in the area, his passion is “Kilometro Cero” which sources ingredients from less than one kilometer (.6 miles) away. He is working toward sustainability and organic produce. He combines Costa Rican food with an Asian influence. So, so good. You can read more about him here. We had a genuine tasting menu with a wine paring, all including the fancy presentation with our plates coming out with lids on top and all being revealed at the same time. Then the chef, or one in training, under the chef gave us an explanation of what we were eating. Very fancy indeed.
The hotel has several different types of room accommodation. We got a 3-bedroom villa off property. It was perfect. The beds were comfortable. There was a kitchen which allowed us to bring food and beverages. We did have to improvise our beverage selection when Debbie promptly dropped and broke the bottle of tequila that I had been infusing for a month with ginger. But, Julie came to the rescue and we had a combo of Limoncello, Vodka, and Ginger Ale. Don’t sneer. It wasn’t that bad. Besides, the view was amazing, we had out own little pool (despite the rain), some amazing friends to hang out with. It was made even more special when about 10 Scarlett Macaws landed in the tree by the pool. And really, what silly things could some middle aged women get up to? Seems we never grow up, do we?
Our first excursion was to the art center/museum to make refrigerator magnets. The town population is only 135 and they work in and around the area supporting the hotel , macaw sanctuary, and farmers. It’s a really cool artist community, and the entire town is decorated with tile mosaic murals. The museum is one big workshop with a gift shop, and an attached convenience store. If you are an artist looking for a simple life, or a teacher looking for a job, THIS is the place. The town has a cute, mosaic covered house next to the mosaic covered school for the teacher to live in, if you are interested.
Our next excursion was to the Macaw Recovery Network. Costa Rica is home to some amazing birds. And living in Playa Herradura we see our fair number of Scarlet Macaws. More and more each year, thankfully. However, they are still a threatened species along with the even more Critically Endangered Great Green Macaws. We learned about the reintroduction efforts, the education of the population on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica where the Great Green Macaws are found, and the sustainability efforts to plant the trees that the GGM feed on. Truly and amazing effort and they are making some progress. It is a simple operation with only the costs of caring, feeding, and release of the hatchlings. You can donate here.
The next destination on the adventure was meant to be Santa Teresa for lunch and to hang out for a few hours to watch Julie surf before we made our way to our other recommended hotel. It’s only a short two and a half hour drive for the 76 kilometers (46 miles) to Santa Teresa along another dirt road. We planned to take the road along the coast (dark blue track) that my Jeep could easily handle, but Waze, for some reason, rerouted us completely across the peninsula(gray path). We didn’t realize it until we came out of the mountains and saw the mainland across the gulf.
We did get to see the teak farms during that trek, but we didn’t get to see Santa Teresa. I was really disappointed. The whole point of this trip was to see Santa Teresa and that side of the Nicoya. Not only had Waze rerouted us on some nonsensical route, but our hotel was two hours away from Santa Teresa. Now, I had asked our Taco friends for a hotel recommendation near Santa Teresa or Mal Pais. And I should have looked to see the location of the hotel when I booked the reservation, so I do bear some responsibility for our plight, because the hotel was nowhere near Santa Teresa. It was a full 2 hours away! Right about where the little bird is in the photo above. However, we arrived at the exact same time as some other friends who wanted to see the Nicoya, too. So, it was all good.
I don’t really have anything nice to say about this hotel. The location sucked. Our front door was 30 feet from the highway. The ‘security measures’ on the entrance to our room was so complicated that upon check in, even the employee couldn’t figure it out. We were moved to a different room, which was bigger. Yet when we met for lunch, we all independently elected to enter and exit via the patio sliding glass door instead of the front door, because the lock was easier to figure out.
The food was actually pretty good but slow to be delivered and cold by the time we got it. I think they only had one cook who was trying to serve two tables of five all at the same time. But, instead of making the cold plates first, like the salads, the chef made the grilled stuff first and it sat in the window cooling off while he made the salads. Dinner was even worse. Instead of going to the dining room we were all sitting in the pool area together, on some nice patio loungers. We had to constantly go to the bar to ask for the waiter to come to us. THEN tell him that the food we ordered had been sitting in the window for delivery for quite some time, and could we get it please?
If you are into SUP, the water is flat. However, the location of the hotel is about 500 meters from the ferry dock. So the water was gross. And we all itched like crazy when we got out. So, no. Not doing that again.
There were several things that were okay about the hotel, so it’s not completely fair to say that it totally sucked. The beds were comfortable and we had new sheets, towels, and pillows. The grounds were well established and there were lots of birds to watch in the morning. It looks like it is a new owner trying to make it a better resort. There were some weird configuration details that made no sense. The coffee maker couldn’t be plugged in anywhere but from the bedside table because the newly renovated room didn’t have plugs in the normal places. One plug was half way up the wall. I’m guessing its where the TV will eventually be plugged into. There was NO plug under the desk where there was a hole to pass one’s computer cord down thru to be plugged in. For a room that could hold 4 people, there were only two chairs outside on the patio. Thankfully, because we were the only ones in the hotel, we could pilfer the chairs on the neighboring patio when making coffee for everyone in our party because their coffee makers didn’t work. I won’t recommend or go back to this hotel. Of course, it could be that I’m entirely too particular about things like noise and employees with initiative.
We did eventually make it to Santa Teresa the next day. We were NOT going to hang out at our hotel all day, so we drove the 70 kilometers (44 miles), close to two hours, for a nice beach with waves for Julie. We ended up at at place called Banana Beach. We had a nice area to sit, and the best hamburger we’ve had in awhile, and the service was excellent. They were Johnny-on-the-spot with drinks and food. I will definitely go back there. Probably even stay there as the rooms looked really nice.
The next morning we made our way home via ferry. It was most definitely the slow boat to China, but it was faster than driving all the way around. If you take the 4pm ferry, you can watch the sunset over the water.
Costa Rica is open and ready for business. They are diligent with the COVID cleaning, and mask wearing. Most of the restaurants are outdoor dining. And the tables are spaced at least 10 feet apart. There are tons of places ready to explore when you are ready to get out of your own space. Come for a visit. You will LOVE it.