Nothing is relative. I’m a New Yorker, after all, and if I’m not navigating a concrete jungle of 8.4 million people, it pretty much feels like nothing. So I’ve decided to leave one jungle for another and head to Costa Rica for a sun-soaked getaway that will boost my vitamin D level, drench me in frothy cocktails, and allow me – albeit briefly – to unplug from city life if only for a few days.
Six airlines fly direct to Costa Rica from the U.S., so I hop on JetBlue from JFK and arrive at Daniel Oduber Quirós International Airport (a.k.a. Liberia International Airport) in about five hours. From here you could spin a dial and end up in a myriad of ecosystems.
Nestled between Nicaragua and Panama, Costa Rica spans 200 miles east to west, offering both the Caribbean as well as the Pacific Ocean. Given that I’ve probably shaved off a few years of life expectancy during my pressure-packed life thus far, I opt for the Nicoya Peninsula, one of the world’s five elite blue zones, where life expectancy exceeds the average and my dream of being cast in the remake of “Cocoon” may come true.
A Room With a View
As much as I’m ready to unplug, I’m also all about luxury, so I’ve set my sights on the JW Marriott Guanacaste Resort and Spa. It’s a winding (and occasionally bumpy) road to the property, which is tucked in the secluded Hacienda Panilla. Comprised of 310 guest rooms including 21 deluxe one-bedroom suites, the resort is spaciously designed and offers stellar ocean views as well as beautifully landscaped gardens.
Boasting the largest pool (25,000 square feet) in Central America at its epicenter, the grounds evoke the country’s mantra, “Pura vida,” which has several loose meanings depending on its context but essentially implies, “great living,” “pure life,” “cheers,” or some kind of goofy post-marijuana expletive. I’ll find myself in that pool for much of the weekend, floating at the edge of its infinity rim, sipping a piña colada (with a rum floater), and watching the sun dip into the Pacific.
Given its secluded location, the JW Marriott Guanacaste offers a broad range of dining options and I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m determined to eat my way through all of them. Each restaurant boasts its own executive chef, and that attention to detail is evident, from the breakfast buffet overflowing with fresh fruit, baked goods, and locally sourced honey dripping off the comb, to beachside dining and a steakhouse that rivals many slabs of beef I’ve conquered in New York City.
Highlights include the Asian-inspired Tamarine, helmed by Chef de Cuisine Raul Janolan. Drawing from Japanese, Thai, and Chinese influences, Janolan’s signature dishes include lobster spring rolls with mango ginger dipping sauce, Thai sour spicy shrimp soup, and Korean baby back ribs with spicy red chile sauce, soy sprouts, and jasmine rice. Local seafood is abundant at the beachside Azul Grill, where ceviches are spiked with spicy Peruvian chiles and freshly caught red snapper is accompanied by toasted coconut rice and a refreshing cabbage salad. But it is a three-hour feast at Sabanero that truly feels like vacation. Chef Adrián Cerdas oversees the open-flame grill, which sears imported as well as Costa Rican cuts to perfection. I opt for beef tenderloin served with an exotic pejibaye and hearts of palm picadillo along with a house made chimichurri.
After about a day and a half, I’ve read through all of my trashy magazines, had a relaxing massage at the onsite spa, and consumed more than my share of guaro, the local spirit. It’s time to move.
Tamarindo is the closest town – a surfer enclave with a main street packed with souvenir shops and casual restaurants. A mix families and hipsters (of the old and new variety) meander throughout, soaking in the sunshine and politely rebuffing the slew of locals selling cheap beads.
I stop for a local brew at El Vaquero, only to discover its owner is none other than Joe Walsh, founder of the famous Witch’s Rock Surf Camp. Along with his wife, Holly, the duo is living the Central American dream, having established a surf shop, local hotel, beachfront eatery, and now – craft brewery. Their Witch’s Rock Pale Ale and Gato Malo taste of sunshine and happiness… or maybe that’s just my new personality.
Where the Wild Things Are
My Guanacaste adventures continue with a guided horseback ride through Hacienda Panilla. Our guide leads the way through natural forests, cattle ranches (where I witness the birth of a calf – that doesn’t happen on the streets of Manhattan!), and ultimately to a secluded beach, where both my equine travel companion and I both heave a sigh of relaxing satisfaction.
The following day I venture into the nearby Palo Verde National Park for a riverboat tour. The water levels are low, which allows time to get up close but not too personal with the local residents, which include howler monkeys, herons, iguanas, and crocodiles basking in the mud and sun.
A couple of hours in nature is enough for me – I think there’s a “chunky monkey” (Bailey’s, vodka, banana, and chocolate syrup) waiting for me at the bar – but for those that want to go deep into Costa Rica’s natural wonders, the JW can organize day trips. Be aware that there is significant travel time to and from points of interest such as Rincón de la Vieja Volcano or white water rafting. Consider adding an extra day so you can appreciate the hotel amenities as well as fully experience what the region has to offer.
Travel was provided by the JW Marriott Guanacaste.