Staying at the Beach House, Mal Pais

beach house verandasAdditional postings from this trip, and last year are found elsewhere in this blog.  Look for Mal Pais / Santa Teresa on the sidebar.
 
This year, we came back to Santa Teresa with a group of friends, and rented “The Beach House”.  This immediately adjoins the Hotel Tropico Latino, and has the same ownership.  So all of the facilities at the hotel (pool, restaurant, beach chairs, etc) are available to guests at the house.
 
beach house bathroomThe house slept our three couples and two “single” gals quite well.  The gals shared a first floor suite with two bedrooms with king beds.  Each bedroom opened onto the beachfront deck and had its own access to the bath.  One couple also had a first floor room with two beds, and private bath.  Again, it opened onto its own covered beachfront deck.  The other two couples had suites on the second floor, each with a king sized bed, private bath, and small beachfront porch.  One featured a second bedroom (double bed) and the bath here was amazing.  Double vanity, shower, and large jacuzzi tub.  The lower half of the wall was wavy free form cement, and the top half was screened in.  Very nice.  We all did the paper, rock, scissors thing, and my bride and I were lucky enough to score this suite.
 
In between the first floor suites, was a fairly well equipped kitchen.  This was the scene of our daily “family” breakfasts, and where we did some serious research on our Bloody Mary recipes.  There was even a single trundle bed in the dining area, that would be a good place for some kids to crash.  All in all the house was nice enough, but not so perfect that you felt that you had to be overly fussy.  So it was a very comfortable place to hang out and socialize when we weren’t on the beach or on an activity.  I can see this place easily sleeping a dozen family members, or close friends when absolute privacy is not an issue.  It will sleep four couples with full privacy, and five or six if some don’t mind sharing a bath.
 
beach house verandaAll the bedrooms and the kitchen were air conditioned.  The house came complete with fast and free WiFi.  There was even a cat!  Although, I have to say that this was more of a pleasure for my wife and I than for some other members of the group.  We are very cat friendly, and it was nice to have this little guy hanging around.  Very sweet, and seems to know where the food is kept!  He even followed us out to the beach every day.  Though he would hang back and cry out to us if we got too close to the surf.  Must have had a bad experience! 
 
If you aren’t a cat lover, you could shoo him away.  We noticed last year that he liked hanging around the hotel.
 
Although none of us were surfers, we thought we might come back next year for lessons.  Great surfing was right outside the door!  This is a good news / bad news kinda thing.  The water here is turbulent, and the shore can be rocky.  So it isn’t a great swimming beach.  We were told that we could walk down the beach a ways, and find a spot there.  We never looked for it.  But we enjoyed wading, and walking down the beautiful beach.  The hotel pool was very nice, and we were there cooling off almost every day.
 
The location here is perfect.  It is only about a thirty yard walk across the lawn to the beach and some very inviting hammocks.  It is close enough to the hotel to be convenient, but not so close to feel like we were without privacy.  Our gals were even comfortable using the outdoor shower, when they had a small plumbing problem in their suite one day.
 
It is a short walk to the concentration of shops, restaurants, tour companies, and other small businesses in this area.  Not a metropolis by any means.  But there are dining and shopping options nearby, and secure parking for your vehicle right outside.
 
This was a great spot for our group of friends, that enjoy being together.  I could see it working well for a large family group, or a gang of surfers.  The suites can also be rented individually at a reasonable price.  You must rent at least two, to get the kitchen.
 
We have already booked it for next year!

Rincon de la Vieja: Geysers, Mud Pits, and Horses

We had always wanted to visit here. The Rincon de la Vieja is a compound volcano, kind of a small version of Yellowstone. There are nine craters, with some oddly shaped peaks, geysers, mud pits, hot springs, and cold waterfalls. It sounded like nothing I had ever seen in Costa Rica, and we found that to be true. 

This is an area that is not promoted very much in the US. This seems to be because the couple of hotels that have been there for awhile are European owned, and they have been promoting to their home markets. Also, until recently the road has not been very good. My wife and I made an attempt a few years ago in a Toyota Corolla. We had to give up, the road was too bad. But now ICE (the national power company) is building a geothermal power plant in the area, and has improved the road. 

We had the opportunity to inspect three hotels, all completely different. 

First up was the hotel we stayed at, the Rincon de La Vieja Lodge. This is a diamond in the rough. It is very rustic, and not without a couple of problems. But the staff is very sweet and the new manager is trying to put it into shape. If you are a serious hiker on a budget, and want to stay close to the entrance to the National Park, then this would be a good choice. 

The standard rooms were small, but looked comfortable. The log cabin bungalows are a legitimate bargain at only $80.00 per night, including tax and breakfast. Ours had a view of one of four ponds on the property, and you could hear the small river rushing behind our unit. There were small porches front and back. They are better than most rustic accommodations, but it would be easy to make a few improvements. The shower was serviceable, but not attractive. The bathroom needed a countertop and better light. Small complaints, I know. But easy to fix and would have made the unit much nicer. They also turn the electricity off after 10:30 PM, but I was told that this was being remedied soon. 

The restaurant serves typical food at a reasonable price. I had a steak that was pretty good, and my wife had a chicken and mushroom dish that she enjoyed as well. There are no menus and the staff speaks very little English. We speak enough Spanish that we were fine. But we could hear confusion around us as those less fluent tried to muddle through. 

The new manager is still working on implementing some new tours. So there was not a lot to choose from. We took a very nice horseback ride to the hotel’s own natural hot springs, and to a beautiful mirador (scenic overlook). We did not have enough time to take a whole day ride back to a beautiful waterfall and cold swimming hole in the national park that looked very inviting. There is also a good network of hiking trails within the national park. The hotel has its own canopy (zip line) tour. 

One intriguing activity was an overnight canopy tour. About halfway through, there is a platform with a tent. The guides leave the guest with coffee and chocolate for the morning. You then finish the canopy tour in the morning, and go to breakfast at the lodge. 

I forgot to ask what they offer for overnight bathroom facilities! But it sounded like it could be fun and romantic. 

So the short review on this property is that it is good for someone on a budget, and may be the best choice for the serious hiker. It is lacking attention to details, but my hope is that the new management is able to whip it into shape. The reasons to stay here are the price, access to the park, and the fact that it is located in an absolutely beautiful setting. 

borinquen hotelThe other end of the scale was the Hotel Borinquen. For those in the $300 per night range, this place will knock you out. The rooms are beautiful and fully appointed. Great for a getaway or honeymoon. They have bubbling mud pits on site. Their sauna is actually built over one. There is a wooden slatted floor, and the steam comes up through the floor. Their spa appeared to be first rate with beautiful views into the forest. This is also built over a rushing river, that I am sure would be great background white noise to listen to during a massage. They offer different treatments with the volcanic mud. There is a very nice pool, too. The hotel offers a full compliment of hikes and horseback tours into the park. They also offered “ATV safaris” and have a pretty decent canopy tour onsite. I was only able to glance at a menu (there are two restaurants), but it looked like the chef is creative, and there were some interesting options. 

Strangely enough, their hot springs were not anything special. There were just a couple of circular pools maybe 12 feet in diameter. I was surprised that such an upscale place that had done everything so right did so little with such an attractive asset. 

The short review on this property is that those with the higher budget will like this place. Great for honeymooners. Anyone that wants to see the hot springs and mud pits, but does not want to rough it, will be very comfortable. You will also have the opportunity to be one of a few North Americans that have even heard of this place! 

In between, there is the Hacienda Guachipelin. This was a pleasant surprise. It has zero curb appeal, we drove past it on the way to the Rincon de la Vieja Lodge. We were not impressed, and kept going. On the way back from the Lodge, we drove past the back of the hotel and glanced into the area where the rooms were located and saw a beautiful lawn surrounded by attractive low buildings. So we thought we would check it out. 

This was a genuine find. The rates are very reasonable with standards going for around $80.00 per night, plus tax. The superiors are larger and only about ten bucks more. No TV, no phones, no a/c, no problem! The rooms were very clean and nicely appointed. We happened to be here for lunch. We did not stick around to eat, but I did check out the buffet. It looked very good for the price ($12.00). Fresh salads and veggies, the usual choices of chicken, pork and “tipical” Costa Rica dishes. 

waterfall

The nature is the attraction here. They offer a full compliment of tours. One of the more interesting to me was the whitewater tubing. Helmet and life jacket while floating on a tube. It looked like big fun. Like the other properties in the area, they offer horseback rides (they have their own horses) and hiking into the park. They also have a canopy tour. Some of these can be combined, and they had a canopy / rappelling tour that looked pretty neat.  Funny thing was that after we returned home, we caught an episode of Samantha Brown’s show on the Travel Channel.  She was doing the white water tubing and rappelling tour.  She liked it! 

They do some things with horseback riding to the mud baths too. They have a spa, but it is located offsite. So we did not have a chance to inspect it, but the pictures looked good. 

We found that this hotel was a great mix of comfort and activities at a reasonable price. It will probably be the one I recommend the most to my clients. 

We only had time to fully inspect three hotels. I heard good things about the Buena Vista Lodge as well. I guess we just have to go back!

Italian Sophistication on a Costa Rican beach

Our first impression of Hotel Tropico Latino was a little misleading.  We arrived after dark, and all we could see was a small parking lot and a small guard hut.  The guard directed me down a dimly lit gravel pathway.  I really did not know what to expect, and have to admit that I was wondering what I was getting into.  I needn’t have worried.  As my eyes adjusted to the light, I realized that this was actually a very nice tropical garden.  Along one side, there were small bungalows with porches and hammocks.  I came to a clearing and there was the open air bar and restaurant.  I could hear the pounding surf and soft Latin jazz.  Reception was closed, but they were expecting us.  The very personable young Argentine woman behind the bar had our room key, and checked us in with no fuss or ceremony.  We dumped our bags, and returned to the bar for drinks and dinner. 

Hotel Tropico Latino restaurantOver the next couple of days, we grew to love this place.  The hotel is Italian owned, and the  bar/restaurant staff are almost all either Italian or from Argentina. Fun group, and amazing food. The chef is from Florence, and really knows his stuff. He had owned a restaurant in the area, and the owner persuaded him to move it to this hotel. Sure, it was a little pricey by Tico standards.  But it was a very good value by US standards, and we felt as if we had been transported to Italy. Fresh seafood was the specialty, and all was prepared in a very imaginative fashion.

We ate here that first night.  It had been a long travel day, and we were ready for a little spoiling.  We were totally blown away.  This was my bride’s birthday trip.  Before we left on our trip, she told me that all she wanted was a lobster while we were at the beach.  As good as the food was, I noted that there was no lobster on the menu.  My plan was to find a restaurant that would be able to satisfy her request.  But the next day, my wife told me that she loved the restaurant.  She didn’t care about the lobster anymore.  She wanted to eat there again! 

So I made a point to find the chef when she wasn’t around, and ask him about surprising her with a lobster. He was a very nice younger guy and obviously passionate about food.  It was Sunday, and early afternoon before I found him. He was excited about a surprise, and promised to do what he could.

When we arrived for dinner, I was informed that they were not able to find a lobster on such short notice. But I was told by the bartender that the chef had spent the better part of the afternoon calling fisherman, and trying to locate the owner of the (closed on Sunday) fish market. I was very appreciative for the effort, and his kindness left an impression. Dinner still rocked, and we were quite happy.

We stayed in a Garden Bungalow. Not right on the beach, but less than a hundred feet away. They offer beach front bungalows too, for a little more. These have nice little ocean view porches. But the Garden Bungalows were bigger, and we liked the extra space. All rooms have a fridge and a microwave. Our room had two huge king beds, and the best A/C I have ever had in Costa Rica. It was needed too, this area is hot!

The hotel also offers a two bedroom beach house, and a huge house that sleeps a large group (12?). It is big enough that it can be split into separate units.

The only knock on this hotel is the very expensive breakfast. It seems like a different crew is in the kitchen during breakfast. It was more expensive than what I paid in Manhattan! I am not kidding. I know that hotel breakfasts are sometimes expensive in Europe. Maybe that is what the owner is thinking here. But another guest clued us in, and told us about a cheap breakfast spot across the street. That seems to be the way to go. All in all, I didn’t let this one little bump in the road change my opinion of the hotel. I thought everything else was a great value, and we are counting the days to our next visit.

“Over the top” in Arenal

Costa Rica is known as the land of the reasonably priced boutique hotel.  But sometimes, it is fun to splurge at a top resort, too. “Over the top”, is exactly how I would describe the new “The Springs Resort and Spa” at Arenal. We did not stay here, but we were invited to use the springs one evening. We went back the next day to tour the grounds and see the suites. 

springsThis property is owned and was developed by Lee and Cindy Banks, the owners and creators of the La Paz Waterfall Gardens and Peace Lodge. I first met Lee about ten years ago at the yearly tourism convention. He owned the land that was to become La Paz, and had just installed the first paths and walkways. Here was this young guy in probably the worst location in the exhibition hall. But you could tell he was a very dynamic person, very bright, and full of energy. The videos he had of the waterfalls were very impressive, and you could see that he was on to something. Over the years, we have all seen what La Paz has become. 

Was it possible to improve on La Paz? I would not have thought so. But this is an amazing development. My first impression of the place was that a whole teak forest died to construct the main building. It IS beautiful. I didn’t say anything, but I was a little sad. I perked up when it was pointed out to me that the wood was not teak at all. It was laurel, a local renewable wood. It was just stained to a teak color. The huge planks that supported the stairs, roof, etc. were not wood at all. It was the expertly painted concrete and fiberglass. The color and grain were a perfect match. Seamless. I know that it sounds Disneyish, but they did a great job of it. At least it is sustainable, and keeps the natural feel to the place. 

They were in a “soft opening”. Many of the amenities were still under construction. Men and women currently share the same spa. But eventually one whole floor (14,000 square feet) of the main building will be dedicated to the health club and separate men and women’s spas. There will be a casino too. Not my favorite activity, but there is a market for that kind of thing. There is a formal restaurant, and a more casual one. 

But the Springs were amazing. Twelve pools in all, with more on the way. Yes, this place is open to the public for day trips. But I don’t see it becoming as crowded as the other springs in the area. The pools are split between some modern ones of different temperatures, including one with a swim up bar. There are several more natural appearing pools with waterfalls, in the woods. These were our favorites. 

springsresort3There are several different room classes. From beautiful standard doubles, to full blown villas. All high end, and very well done. This is not a cheap option by any means. Rates start at $375.00 per night in high season, and go all the way up to $1400.00 for two attached villas. 

The admission for a day package at the springs is $40.00 per person. Meals and beverages are extra.  

They are also opening a wild cat exhibit soon, and this will be included in the day package.  There was a shelter that was being closed near San Jose.  These were animals that for one reason or another could not be released in the wild.   There was a fear that the animals were going to be destroyed.  The owners here stepped in, and are putting the finishing touches on an exhibit of these beautiful creatures. 

In short, I think that the day package is definitely worth it. The rooms are worth the price, but not in everyone’s budget. Like the Peace Lodge, these will be great for honeymooners or just as a splurge. But even at this price point, I think they are a good value.

Finally finding my way to Santa Teresa

Although I have been to Montezuma several times, I had never made the short trip up the road to the Mal Pais / Santa Teresa area. Shame on me, because there has been a buzz going on about Mal Pais for a while. I was late getting here.

The beach was unbelievable. It just went on forever. We love to take long walks on the beach at sunset (sorry if this sounds like a personal ad!). This was perfect for that. The surfers love this beach, though you have to be aware where the big rocks are. Swimmers have to mind the current as well. But it is also a great place to just hang out with an adult beverage.

During my recent visit to the Mal Pais / Santa Teresa area I made several hotel inspections.  We stayed at Hotel Tropico Latino, and I profile this hotel in my post “Italian Sophistication on a Costa Rica Beach”.    The following is a quick review of some of the other hotels we toured.

The first place I wanted to see, was The Moana Lodge in Mal Pais.  It has always gotten pretty favorable reviews, and this was before they built the new Suites and Jr. Suites. I have a feeling that the reviews are going to get even better. 

These accommodations are the newest part of the hotel. They had only been open for a week when I did the inspection. The only negative I can give is that there are so many steps. I mean lots and lots of steps. But they do carry your luggage.  I promise that once you are up in the rooms, you forget about the climb. The views are magnificent, and the whole front of the Suites and Jr. Suites is plate glass. There is a balcony if you feel the need to sit outside, but you can see the ocean just fine from the living room or bedroom. There are teak floors throughout. The bathroom in the Suite features two sinks, bidet, and a two person jacuzzi tub. It’s perfect for honeymooners. 

moanalodgeThe almost 1000 square foot Suite goes for under $300 per night in high season, including tax. This is really a great value for a suite at this level. I know I am going to be sending some honeymooners, for sure. The new Jr. Suites are $225.00 per night at high season, also including tax. They are smaller than the big Suite, and the bathroom is not as over the top. But again, they are extremely well appointed and not a lot of money for an accommodation at this level. 

All of the rooms at the Moana Lodge are done in an African theme. The older existing rooms have also been redone to reflect the theme. While they are not as spectacular as the suites, they are attractive and a good value. The only other small negative to mention here is that the hotel is located across the street from the beach and up a bit of a hill. So you have to walk a little back and forth from the beach. Between the steps and this walk, I don’t think I am sending anyone elderly or with mobility problems. But for the young and fit looking for a romantic spot, this is a great choice. I can’t wait to return to Mal Pais, and actually stay here. 

Even more over the top was Flor Blanca. But with high season rates that start at $475 per night, and climb to over $850 I guess you expect to be amazed. I know I was. Each of the deluxe secluded individual villas feature tastefully decorated huge open air living rooms, complete with hammocks. The garden bath is also open air. But the bedrooms are air conditioned for comfort. Very private. If you have the budget, this is the perfect romantic spot. I glanced at the restaurant menu and the spa. Both appeared to be first rate. 

There are a couple places that I missed, and would have liked to inspect. Most notable was Hotel Casa Marbella. I have heard very good reviews about this hotel, but I just ran out of time. 

The former owner of the Flor Blanca is also constructing a new hotel up the road on the beach. I knew these folks before Flor Blanca, when they operated a hotel in the Tamarindo area. We sent them guests on a regular basis, and once used them for a lovely destination wedding. This new project will be their third hotel, and the last two were very interesting. So I am eager to see what they have come up with. There was no one at the construction site but some local workers. So I didn’t get the tour. It was hard to see what was going on, but I know there will be some open air showers. I guess I will have to go back!