On the Guanacaste Coast

It's always been a quiet paradise of unspoiled beaches and untamed beauty. But these days, reports Evan McGlinn, Costa Rica's wild west is taking off at full gallop.

Christopher Columbus, while bobbing around in the Caribbean in 1502, spotted a particularly glorious stretch of coastline and proclaimed it Costa Rica. Five hundred years later, Columbus would be very impressed indeed with how rica his discovered country has become, particularly the Pacific coast in the northwest province of Guanacaste. The area has experienced a recent surge of support, from the Costa Rican government and, particularly, from tourists—although not the backpackers who have crisscrossed this country for a decade or more. Travelers accustomed to considerably higher standards have found their way to the handful of luxury properties—from full-scale resorts to private retreats costing $65,000 a week—that have slowly become part of the landscape.

I could see the signs of change the minute I stepped onto the tarmac of the airport in Liberia. Parked between one terminal and another still under construction was a row of private jets. Inside the airport were flat-screen computer monitors and passport scanners; hotel shuttle buses whizzed around the parking lot. Outside the terminal, a bronzed, middle-aged American from Miami handed out real estate brochures. When I asked about the housing market here, he smiled and said business was booming. But he insisted that some properties were still affordable. "The prices here," he said, "aren't as bad as South Florida."

But that may not last, now that Liberia International can accommodate direct flights from the United States (Delta flies from Atlanta; American from Miami; and Continental from Houston). Its opening, less than two years ago, has made Costa Rica's Guanacaste Province, a desertlike region just below the Nicaraguan border, deliciously accessible. No longer do tourists have to fly to the capital, San José, and take a prop plane (or worse, drive the hair-raising mountain roads) to reach pristine Pacific beaches known for great surf spots like Ollie's Point (named after Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, who reportedly used the area as a base to help the Contras battle the Sandinistas during the Nicaraguan civil war).

That North chose this country, which is roughly the size of West Virginia, is no surprise. Since 1948, when the revolutionary José Figueres Ferrer defeated a ragtag Nicaragua-backed army to become president, Costa Rica has been a prosperous, democratic haven surrounded by poor and struggling countries. Comparing statistics over recent years, only 20 percent of Costa Rica's 3.8 million people live below the poverty line and unemployment has hovered around 6.3 percent. In contrast, half of Nicaragua's population lives below the poverty line and unemployment stands at 24 percent. In Guatemala, 75 percent of the country is below the poverty line. For these reasons, Costa Rica is a magnet for its neighbors, whose citizens come seeking jobs in, among other places, the resorts of Guanacaste.

The region looks like a cross between Montana and Malibu. During the dry season (December to April), tropical forest tapers off into low scrubland, giving parts of Guanacaste a dry and dusty haze. Costa Rican sabaneros herd cattle while riding bareback across plains dotted with sugarcane and cantaloupe farms. There's a Big Sky feeling here, enhanced by a mountain range over 6,000 feet high that slices down the middle of the country on the eastern edge of the province. Its 100 volcanoes have earned this part of the globe the name "Pacific Rim of Fire."

If my flight was any indication, most travelers to Guanacaste this year are headed to the new Four Seasons Costa Rica, about a 45-minute drive from Liberia on one of the newest and best-maintained roads in the country. It's fitting that the Four Seasons would have its own highway: More than 700 workers travel daily from Liberia and neighboring towns to work at the resort, which opened in January.

Development of the Four Seasons, along with several residences built around it, has cost well over $225 million. At the tip of the 2,300-acre Papagayo Peninsula jutting out into the Pacific, the resort has 153 rooms and suites, as well as 20 private hillside villas with infinity plunge pools. There is also a stunning 6,788-yard Arnold Palmer golf course where 14 of the 18 holes have ocean views. But that's just the first phase. Future plans call for up to seven boutique hotels, two more golf courses, and a 380-slip marina—due for completion in the summer of 2006—capable of accommodating 20 yachts over 200 feet long.

The design of the Four Seasons and its marina is the work of Costa Rican architect Ronald Zürcher Gurdián, who is known for incorporating indigenous materials and shapes. The property's rooflines were inspired by turtle and armadillo shells, and paint colors were computer generated from samples of local dirt. Even the color of the trees was matched. "The tree bark is not brown," says Zürcher from his office in San José. "In the rainy season it gets a fungus and then dries to a khaki color during the dry season. We took a lot of skins off the trees and got an average color for them as well." That kind of attention to detail will be evident in the marina, too. Zürcher spent weeks traveling around the Mediterranean, from Saint-Tropez to Portofino, taking some 2,000 pictures of the seaside villages in order to recreate them on the edge of a 250-foot cliff.

Costa Rica's economy was once based on coffee, sugar, and banana production; the American-owned United Fruit Company built most of the country's railroads, starting in 1871. Today, though, tourism makes up much of the domestic revenue, and a host of travel companies have moved in for their share. Canopy tours—a means of zipping through the trees while suspended in a harness from a cable—were first used by scientists to explore jungle life and are now one of the biggest tourist draws. It is thrilling to be whipped along, hundreds of feet above the jungle floor, but I'm sorry to report that canopy tours are nothing more than amusement-park rides, without any rare birds or other creatures in sight. In fact, so well traveled are the roads leading to canopy-tour sites, like The Buena Vista Lodge, that nearby villages have had to put down speed bumps for all the tour buses that pass through.

A much better way to see the country's wildlife and learn about its culture is to hire a guide. Mauricio Elizondo, like most guides here, studied for four years to receive a degree in ecotourism. It's a very useful education: The country has over 60 national parks, nature reserves, wildlife refuges, and marine parks. As we drove the Toyota south through Guanacaste to the Nicoya Peninsula, Mauricio told me about things like the geological formation of the volcanoes, how to spot a Nicaraguan based on his accent (they don't pronounce the letter "r"), and the time he saw a crocodile eat a cow.

Before the airport in Liberia opened, driving to the Nicoya Peninsula—a clawlike landmass that curls out into the Pacific—was "a harrowing experience," as one local put it. From San José the mountain roads are steep and dangerous and clogged with traffic on the weekends. But I found the roads well paved as I made the three-hour trip to Punta Islita, a boutique hotel also designed by Ronald Zürcher, stopping in the small village of Guaitil along the way. I'd heard about its murillo appliqué pottery made by the native Chorotega people who, depending on which account you read, have lived here since as far back as a.d. 800 or as recently as the 14th century. Their pots, which they sell in primitive stalls around a small soccer field, are beautiful reproductions of pre-Columbian designs. There isn't anything more to see (I was the only tourist there), but it's worth the 15-minute detour off the highway.

Approaching Punta Islita, I could see Zürcher's telltale thatched-roof huts dotting the hillside several hundred feet above the beach. The 500-acre property was once a working cattle ranch that Zürcher owned with his brother Harry, a lawyer in San José. After years of entertaining friends, Harry suggested that they build a hotel. Opened in 1994, it has 35 rooms and five private villas with plunge pools—all very pleasant and comfortable and with spectacular views of the coast (even if some of the decor needs updating). The best part of Punta Islita is the main infinity pool, where you can float up to the bar next to the palapa-roofed dining room. There is also a small beach club on the water that provides massages in a hut overlooking the surf.

This stretch of Pacific Ocean—the largest and deepest of the four oceans—is one of the best places in the world to fly-fish for Pacific sailfish, as well as black and striped marlin. Deciding to try my luck, I drove half an hour north from Punta Islita and parked in front of a squat, concrete restaurant with a mural of two leaping billfish. I had made arrangements to fish with the owners of Hacienda Dorada, where I would be spending the night. With an increasingly familiar phrase in this laid-back country, I was told that I'd see the boat: "You can't miss it."

Well, there was no boat. No dock either. I walked into a grocery store and asked in broken Spanish about a barca de pescado. The owner simply shrugged. Barefoot and clutching a bag of graphite fly rods and $700 reels, I walked down the empty beach. In the distance I saw a boat anchored offshore. I waved to the one person I saw on board, and, amazingly, he waved back. I had located Mariano Vargas, the captain of the Insanity. Unfortunately, I didn't have the same luck out on the water. I lost a 140-pound sailfish when my flyline wrapped around the butt of my rod.

Hacienda Dorada is the baby of Speed and Nancy Bancroft of Monroe, Louisiana, who took a family vacation to Costa Rica in 1989 and fell in love with the countryside. Intrigued with the idea of buying property, they spent two years jetting back and forth from the States before settling on this piece of land. "We were looking for a white sand beach," explains Mr. Bancroft, the 71-year-old owner of an industrial paper distribution company. "We didn't want one of those dark volcanic sand beaches that are more typical of this area."

After traversing the jungle with machete-wielding local campesinos, Bancroft chose the best sites for three houses and a small open-air restaurant. Completed in 1993, all the houses are beautifully done in Central American style, with antiques, satellite TVs, air-conditioned bedrooms, and well-equipped kitchens (guests can cook for themselves or eat at the restaurant). The most impressive house is Casa Guanacaste, a 6,500-square-foot, seven-bedroom, eight-bathroom mansion. Available for $6,800 a week, it's where former Beatle George Harrison spent a few days shortly before his death. During high season Hacienda Dorada is booked solid a year in advance—one reason Bancroft is looking for a business partner to build a 40-room hotel with a spa on the property.

That night the caretaker, Olger Corrales, who is rail thin, energetic, and an eight-year veteran of Hacienda Dorada, drove with me to the local store for something to cook for dinner (the restaurant was closed). Inside a primitive shack surrounded by trees filled with screaming howler monkeys was everything from chain-saw oil and machetes to rice and fresh garlic. I bought tomato sauce, pasta, three eggs, and some tortillas, to tide me over for the night.

I asked Olger if he wanted a beer. "Why not?" he said, as he pointed to an open-air shack next door. We ordered two beers, and the bartender placed a shot glass full of seviche in front of me.

"That's a boca," Olger explained. "Everywhere you go in Costa Rica, all the bars, they give you that. It's like a little gift."

It was delicious. I told Olger about eating at DB Bistro in New York, where Daniel Boulud serves beef en gelée in a shot glass.

Olger smiled as he took a pull on his cigarette. "Maybe he has been here."

Hacienda Dorada may be private, but another hideaway near the surfing Mecca of Tamarindo is so secluded it was nearly impossible to find (luckily it has its own landing strip). "Look for the stick painted red and make a right," crackled Oliver Schüschner, general manager of Hacienda Cabo Velas, over my satellite phone. I knew I was in trouble when I heard that phrase again: "You can't miss it."

After repeated passes down a stretch of highway, I spotted a stick that looked red-ish and made a turn down a long dusty road. Minutes later I arrived at an imposing gate with a ramshackle guardhouse. A shirtless man appeared, eyeing me suspiciously from the other side of the gate. After I explained in my best high-school Spanish that I was here as a guest, he made a phone call and eventually opened the gate and waved me through. Ten minutes and several wrong turns later—including a drive down the 2,953-foot runway—I came to rest in an immaculately kept pea-gravel courtyard containing a beautifully trimmed matapalo tree in front of a stately pink-and-green oceanfront house with two thatched peaks. Its bright lushness, as if this mansion should be in Palm Beach, came as a shock.

A London-based businessman and his Costa Rican wife purchased this 1,700-acre working cattle ranch with five beaches 15 years ago. Along with the main house, which has a large dining room and a living room facing the ocean, there are four magnificently designed guesthouses with towering thatched domes. Each is air conditioned and has two bedrooms, two baths, an outdoor shower, and two private dressing rooms. The main house is wired for the Internet and has a fax machine.

Hacienda Cabo Velas, which is only rentable in its entirety, is the sort of place to come with an extended family or large group of friends. You will feel well taken care of here: Cabo Velas has a staff of 30 for only 12 to 16 guests. But there could be a few improvements. When I visited, the staff didn't quite have the routine down, but that's understandable given that Cabo Velas, which goes for $65,000 a week, has only been rented twice in the last year. Golfers and tennis players are in luck: There is a Robert Trent Jones­ and an Arnold Palmer­designed golf course, as well as tennis courts, all less than 30 minutes away. But the property lacks a pool, something most travelers have come to expect.

Still, what's extraordinary about Cabo Velas is that, like the Four Seasons, there hasn't ever been anything like it in this part of the country. And it seems clear now that with the arrival of this level of style and exclusivity, Guanacaste, Costa Rica, has entered a whole new age.

The Basics

FOUR SEASONS RESORT COSTA RICA AT PENINSULA PAPAGAYO Rates, $435-$4,950; 506-696-0000; 800-819-5053; www.fourseasons.com.

HOTEL PUNTA ISLITA Rates, $190-$700; 506-290-4259; www.hotelpuntaislita.com.

HACIENDA DORADA Rates, $3,100-$6,800 per week; 866-430-7232; www.dorada.com.

HACIENDA CABO VELAS Rate, $65,000 per week; book through Sanctuare, 800-225-4255; www.sanctuare.com.

INSANITY Rate, $850 per day; 800- 245-1950; www.frontierstrvl.com.

MAURICIO ELIZONDO can be hired through Swiss Travel Service, 506-282-4898; www.swisstravelcr.com. Canopy tours are $40-$120 a person.

Evan McGlinn went fly-fishing in Russia for the March/April issue.