In Costa Rica, where anything goes, the locals who mostly prefer sweet stuff to spicy put ginger ale in their ceviche. And they put ketchup on it. Sometimes they even use ketchup and mayo from a premixed packet. But after a few days at the Four Seasons at Peninsula Papagayo, a resort and real estate development on the country’s sunny Pacific coast, in the Guanacaste province, I don’t care anymore. I eat ceviche with and without ketchup, sometimes twice a day, once for breakfast. I eat classic Costa Rican ceviche made with corvina, the local sea bass. I eat blue marlin ceviche. I buy ceviche from a vendor on the beach. I am abnormally unconcerned about possible health hazards. I’ve stopped winding my watch.
I hate boats—and I’m not crazy about lying around on the beach either—but so in love with ceviche am I that I contemplate going on a trip to catch my own fish.
Back in Manhattan, my natural winter habitat, the menu at Crave Ceviche Bar reports how the fish is ceviche’d—with tomato water, lemon, and Thai basil, or with red curry, Meyer lemon, and white soy. As overwrought as the city’s denizens. But in Costa Rica the sun shines all the time, and the living and eating are easy. Ceviche becomes the culinary symbol of the kind of laissez-faire unwinding that’s taking place in my soul.
On my fifth day I’m barefoot and looking at the world over a plate of ceviche and the frosty lip of a beer bottle at Aqua-Sport, a sort of combination watersports rental place and restaurant (only in Costa Rica!) on the beach in Playa Hermosa. Not yet overrun by condo developers, this seaside village reminds me of funky towns in Long Island or Cape Cod, when I visited as a kid, except the weather here is much better.
It’s dusk and the sun drops into the endless ocean. Surfers are out on their boards. In the trees howler monkeys celebrate cocktail hour. Jan MacIntyre, one of the owners of Aqua-Sport, brings out a plate of her sensational rock oyster ceviche. “The only thing that matters is that the seafood is really fresh,” she says, adding, “I get it right from the fisherman.”
Every country along the Pacific from Mexico to Peru eats a variety of ceviche, with Peru claiming to have originated it. It’s said that some English speakers arriving on the shores saw these fishermen eating raw seafood with lemons and salt and cried “See the beach!” This was understood by locals as “ceviche.” True? Most likely not. But as a friend of mine always says, “Why spoil a good story with fact?” (Spoiler: The word probably comes from the Spanish escabeche, meaning “marinade” or “pickling.”) The phrase “ceviche by the beach-ay” soon begins running through my pleasure-addled brain nonstop.
I quickly learn that all you really need for ceviche is fish, salt, and limes (for a marinade that “cooks” the fish). Voilà! Red pepper, onion, cilantro, ginger ale, the kitchen sink, they can all be added to taste. James Cassidy, the chef currently overseeing the restaurants at Peninsula Papagayo, just up the coast from Playa Hermosa, likes his ceviche spicy. “I imported seeds from Mexico and am teaching local farmers how to grow chiles,” says Cassidy, who used to be the chef at the Four Seasons. “Everything grows here.”
And all things do seem to grow in this almost obscenely fertile and well-watered tropical land, or at least all the good ones: sugar, coffee, chocolate, bananas, guava, mango, pineapple. In January melons pop out of the ground like surfer girls from their bikini tops. You can buy round watermelons by the roadside, slice one open on the beach, and let it drip all over you while you eat.
The Spaniards who arrived here in the 16th century named the area the Rich Coast, probably just before they murdered all the natives and ate up all their fish. But in recent centuries Costa Rica’s most vital international connection has been with the United States, and there are many Americans, like Jan MacIntyre and James Cassidy, who have dropped out and turned on to this benign little Eden.
This whole country is a kind of post-hippie paradise, the most laid-back place I’ve ever been. (And I’m more laid-back here than I’ve ever been anywhere.) The military was abolished more than half a century ago, though there’s a surfing beach named for Oliver North. He spent time down this way during the Iran-Contra affair—the one that never officially happened—working just over the border in Nicaragua. I’m not making a case for ol’ Ollie, but any country that names a beach for the mad, bad Colonel North has to have a certain raffish je ne sais quoi. And this is nicely offset by the fact that the president of Costa Rica, Oscar Sánchez Arias, has a Nobel Peace Prize.
It’s a tiny nation, just a five-hour drive across from the Caribbean coast—whose scenery, food, and attitude are a bit like Jamaica’s—to the Pacific shore, which runs about 300 miles from Nicaragua in the north to Panama in the south. Guanacaste is prime for vacations—and for development. (Its capital, Liberia, still a small town of 40,000, has an airport that accommodates nonstops from the States.)
The weather’s sublime, there are beach shacks and palatial villas, condos and ecolodges. There are big resorts coming, too, ones just like the beautifully run Four Seasons where I’ve been spending so much of my time, though I make expeditions down the coast in search of new ceviche every day.
This is a place of ecological wonders: cloud forests and rainforests and volcanoes, rare birds and rarer orchids. You can nuzzle a three-toed sloth—and people do! Visitors come to surf and sail and hike. Do yoga on the beach at dawn. Camp out and kayak on a river where the crocs are big enough for a complete set of Hermès luggage. I’ve grown so mellow here I decide I must explore my Inner Outdoor Me, and so I talk myself into one of those forest-canopy zip-line tours. Perhaps I will be redeemed.
I find myself on a very high, very unstable little wooden platform. The four guys who run the tour and look about 15 years old stuff me into a sort of harness, which is extremely uncomfortable, then clip me to the zip line, which is extremely thin. The idea is to “fly” down the line through the tree canopy from one platform to the next. There are 18 of them.
I look up. I look down. I look at a monkey in the next tree over. It looks at me as if to say “Fool.” Realizing that cowardice is the better part of bravery and food and drink the better part of vacation, I wiggle out of the straps and remove myself from the ledge.
I have to meet James Cassidy in the nearby town of Playas del Coco anyway. We’re going to Seafood Papagayo, the fresh fish market and restaurant whose American owner, Mike Bragg, also runs fishing boats. There Cassidy picks out some corvina and we head to his place. Back in his kitchen he teaches me the basics. We chop up the fish, we chop up some veg, we squeeze fresh limes. “I don’t use ginger ale in mine,” he says. “And I drain off the liquids because it keeps longer.”
An hour and several glasses of cold white wine later, we toss everything in a bowl and take the ceviche out onto the terrace with a big bag of tortilla chips. I eat the final ceviche of my vacation, watching yet another flashy sunset over the water.
The fish, the lime, the red pepper, and the cilantro seem like brand-new flavors to me. I’m besotted with this place, the pace of life, the views, the sense that this is what a vacation—or maybe even a life—should be.
Ceviche by the beach-ay.
For more information on the real estate and resort developments at Peninsula Papagayo, call 866-703-7444 or go to peninsula papagayo.com. For the Four Seasons Costa Rica, call 50-66/96-0000 or visit fourseasons.com.
James’s Sea Bass Ceviche
makes 2 to 4 servings
- 1 lb very fresh sea bass, cut into 1/4- to 1/2-inch cubes
- 8 limes for juicing
- 1 jalapeno, seeded, deveined, and finely diced
- 1 large red bell pepper, seeded, deveined, and finely diced
- 1 small red onion, finely diced
- 1 to 1 1/2 cups chopped fresh cilantro
- finely ground sea salt and black pepper
- Place the fish in a bowl and marinate with the juice of three limes; season with salt and pepper. Set a small plate on the fish and weight it for one hour to speed the curing process.
- In a separate bowl place the jalapeño, bell pepper, and onion and repeat the above steps. Allow the vegetables to sit for one hour.
- Using a fine-mesh strainer, drain the excess liquid from both bowls. Combine the vegetables and fish.
- Add the chopped cilantro and mix well.
- Adjust the seasonings and stir in the juice of the last two limes. Serve with chips or crackers.
NOTES: Mix in more jalapeño or leave it out completely, according to taste. Additional diced tomato to the onion–and–bell pepper mix will give the ceviche a slightly deeper, sweeter flavor.