Secret Hotels of Costa Rica
In a corner of the southern Nicoya Peninsula--a laid-back slice of paradise on the Pacific that surfers would just as soon keep to themselves--we've uncovered nine charming hideaways. Even in high season, none costs more than $145 a night; one has rooms for $22. Don't tell the surfers that you heard about it from us
Luz de Vida
Opened in 2003 by a group of seven Israeli friends who wanted to escape city life, Luz de Vida has built up a loyal clientele of surfers, families, and surfing families. Footpaths lined with palm, guava, and coconut trees lead to 13 cabins, eight with air-conditioning and five without. They're decorated with chunky wood furniture; three have sleeping lofts. Each has a private patio with two rocking chairs and a hammock. The view from the pool--past the restaurant, right down to the ocean--is spectacular. In addition to massages, the on-site spa offers treatments like manicures, pedicures, and peels. Yoga classes are held in an outdoor studio. 011-506/640-0320, luzdevida-resort.com, doubles from $80, includes breakfast; children under 10 stay free.
Experienced surfers, backpacking young couples, and hip parents unafraid to travel with their babies--these are the kinds of free spirits that tend to find common ground at Casa Zen. Kelly Lange, a transplant from Kansas City, Missouri, opened the hotel in December 2004. She rents nine rooms with one or two beds, and three dorm rooms. Even the six shared bathrooms could be considered part of Casa Zen's communal ethos. All rooms are spare but inviting, with batik-print bedspreads and tangerine, ochre, and yellow color schemes. But guests usually hang out either in the hotel's Thai restaurant or in the "rancho," a circular outdoor pavilion decked out with primary-color pillows and comfortable banquettes. It has games, toys, and books for guests, and hosts movie nights on Thursdays and Sundays. 011-506/640-0523, zencostarica.com, doubles from $22, cash only.
Point Break Hotel
This hotel is just off one of the best breaks on the Nicoya Peninsula. Experienced surfers will want to know that despite the property's name, it's actually a beach break, not a point break--but nonsurfers probably won't care. There are six small cabins; the roofs are topped with dried palm fronds and the "walls" are largely screens (the overall effect is like sleeping out on a porch). White cotton curtains add a degree of privacy. The floors are concrete, inlaid with log cross-sections. Each cabin is fronted by a sandy area with deck chairs for lounging. One slightly more expansive cabin has its own bathroom and a fridge. The rest share a large bathroom, whose multiple sinks are out in the open. For groups of four, there are two rooms in a wooden building that's lifted high on stilts, each with a bathroom and a kitchen. It looks like a big, fun tree house. 011-506/640-0190, surfing-malpais.com, doubles from $40, cash and traveler's checks only.
SAN FRANCISCO DE COYOTE
Atop a high bluff, Casa Caletas overlooks the bay where the Coyote River meets the Pacific. The sunsets can be magical. There's no tourist-friendly town nearby, so guests (many of them honeymooners) tend to stay put. The hotel restaurant has a terrific spa-like menu which features fresh fruits, seafood carpaccios, and green salads. It's read out loud tableside, sometimes by chef Cynthia Baltadano herself. Everything has been art-directed at Casa Caletas--even the coconuts lining the walkways have been painted the resort's signature light green--but the place doesn't come off as fussy. An infinity pool takes advantage of the incredible view. The main house is grand, with high beamed ceilings, lots of picture windows, and dark, rattan furniture. The nine rooms have private patios and striking abstract art made from reeds. A junior suite, though no bigger than the other rooms, boasts a private hot tub on its porch. Optional activities are numerous--kayaking ($10), horseback riding ($25), and waterskiing ($50)--but the nearest swimming beach is a mile away. To reach it, you can rent a golf cart for $25 a day. 011-506/289-6060, casacaletas.com, doubles from $130.
When to go, how to get there, what to pack
The best weather is in the dry season, between November and April. It's also high season, and we've listed those prices in this story. May through September is "green season," when it rains often, but in short, torrential bursts; hotel prices tend to be slightly lower. Avoid October; it's usually a washout. No matter when you go, bring an extra pair of flip-flops just for walking through town, as streets can get muddy. And in the dry season, a bandanna or other dust protection, even goggles, is advised for those who drive an ATV or ride a bike--the best ways to explore these small towns.
Driving a car in Costa Rica, meanwhile, is an adventure in itself. Plan on six hours to get from San Jose to the southern Nicoya Peninsula--heavy rain can make some roads impassable. Or fly: Nature Air (800/235-9272, natureair.com) and Sansa (011-506/221-9414, flysansa.com) run round-trip flights between San Jose and Tambor for roughly $130. From Tambor, it's a half-hour cab ride to Montezuma ($25), and an hour to Malpais or Santa Teresa ($35). For Casa Caletas, fly from San Jose to Punta Islita ($160 round trip). If your itinerary calls for an overnight in San Jose, Hotel Grano de Oro is a great choice (011-506/255-3322, hotelgranodeoro.com, doubles from $90).