Green Getaway in Costa Rica

Taking a holiday from the Holidays at a resort that encourages guests to explore the country.

Photo courtesy Four Seasons Resort Costa Rica at Peninsula Papagayo



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WHEN I GOT my first real job in New York City, longer ago than I care to admit here, I had the good fortune of working for one of the sharpest editors I’ve ever known — a lifelong Manhattanite who took me out for multiple-martini lunches and schooled me daily according to her own rules to live by. “Never go anywhere that doesn’t have a Four Seasons” was her go-to travel advice, as she viewed the venerable hotel chain as evidence of an adequately civilized locale. Even though I knew she was at least partly being facetious, it was advice that I would think about for years, usually as I traveled to far-flung destinations without a Four Seasons in sight and tucked myself into a yurt, a roadside motel, or dusty bed-and-breakfast.

It was advice I found myself considering again when pondering a quick getaway from Brooklyn in an effort to avoid the planning and trappings of another long Thanksgiving weekend here in the city. With most of our friends away and with no desire to cook for ourselves, my partner and I latched onto the idea of doing something that felt like the opposite of a typical holiday here — preferably something sunny, green, beach-adjacent, and free from any decision-making or turkey. In a process only slightly less random than throwing a dart at a map, we opted for Costa Rica, a place neither of us had ever been.



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As someone who prefers an out-of-the-way boutique hotel to anything deemed all-inclusive, after less than a day at the Papagayo property, I have fully surrendered to the sanguine Four Seasons experience.

Even though I’ve traveled extensively for most of my adult life, it will always be a novelty to me that you can wake up in one place and, with the help of a few planes, trains, and automobiles, go to bed that night in a place so different it might as well be on another planet. I thought about this when, only a few hours (and two relatively short flights) after leaving New York City, we found ourselves being driven through endless fields of still-green sugar cane, just a few miles away from the Liberia airport. In less than an hour, we passed through the gates of the Four Seasons Resort at Peninsula Papagayo, winding our way up the hillside and approaching a beautifully manicured property that appears, for all intents and purposes, to be perched at the very tip of the world, with wide, panoramic expanses of blue water in seemingly every direction.

I’ve never considered myself a particularly resort-friendly person. As someone with an aversion to tourist traps, child-friendly spaces, and organized fun, who prefers an out-of-the-way boutique hotel or mapless exploring to anything deemed all-inclusive, the typical “chilling by the pool all day” resort experience wears thin pretty quickly. However, after less than a day at the Papagayo property, I have fully surrendered to the sanguine Four Seasons experience. Our suite is actually a small private bungalow tucked away in the jungly hillside, just a short walk from the main lobby and onsite restaurants. The room feels intensely private, even though in reality we are only minutes away from the pool, a spa, and a stretch of private beach with round-the-clock food and cocktail service. The suite includes a private plunge pool on the terrace, which itself offers up a view of the ocean. I start our first day by whisking open the blinds, only to be confronted by the visage of a tiny, startled spider monkey on the other side of the glass, which goes swinging away into the distance. Surrounded by a cacophony of bird sounds and the calming din of lapping waves (and occasional monkey howl), I am once again grateful that we’ve opted for this kind of Thanksgiving and that I am not, at that very moment, trying to defrost a turkey somewhere in chilly Brooklyn.

Considering the brevity of our trip — essentially a long weekend — I am determined to experience as much of Costa Rica’s famous “Pura Vida” (an adage that means enjoying a pure, simple life) as possible, even if only for three days. To that end, I schedule myself the most insane massage experience on offer — a Tsuru Ancestral Cacao treatment, during which I am wrapped in a thick layer of cacao paste and banana leaves like a giant dessert tamale — and spend the rest of the weekend smelling slightly like an expensive chocolate bar. (My partner opts for a less fragrant volcanic scrub.) While still on the property, we rendezvous with the resort’s resident naturalist for a private bird watching expedition. Roaming throughout the sprawling resort grounds and surrounding maritime forest, we identify over 25 different species of birds — among them, orange-fronted parakeets, orioles, hummingbirds, vultures, hawks, and woodpeckers — just a fraction of the over 150 species that live on the peninsula. We eventually find ourselves on a deserted stretch of beach gazing at a bare-throated tiger heron perched on an architectural piece of driftwood. In our bird-induced reverie, we fail to notice a family of coatis — creatures that look like the unlikely pairing of a raccoon and a monkey — making their way around us, unbothered, perusing the beach in search of a snack.

It feels a little strange for my first exposure to Costa Rica — a place synonymous with eco-travel and wild outdoor experiences — to be in the form of a 5-star resort, but everyone at the Four Seasons is intent on providing us with a cultural experience that extends beyond the walls of the resort. This is a part of the brand’s evolving approach to hospitality, which upends their somewhat staid reputation and injects a new emphasis on uniquely personalized touches and curated experiences that go beyond high-end amenities. In our case, a concierge helped us plan a day off-site, so we could at least get a taste of Costa Rica’s “Blue Zone” — an area of the Nicoya Peninsula countryside deemed one of the happiest and healthiest places to live in the world. It is one of only five areas in the world to have such a designation.

My main takeaway from our time exploring around the peninsula is that, first and foremost, I need to come back and spend more time in Costa Rica. Our guide, Néstor Zeledón Soto, takes us to a local river to visit a family of workers who have, for generations, operated a business that harvests fine sand from the riverbed for use in construction. We watch as carts of the extra-fine silt are pulled out of the Rio Tempisque by a team of gentle oxen. Afterwards, we drive up into the mountains for lunch at the home of Doña Lidieth, a woman who has her own organic farm, supplying food to local restaurants and teaching cultivation classes for other locals. We harvest cherry tomatoes and dine on a special corn soup (followed by mazamorra morada, a purple corn dessert) while surrounded by some of the most beautiful succulents I have ever seen. We then pop by a coffee farm to pick our own beans and experience a guided coffee tasting, learning to identify specific roasts by taste and color. Nearby, we stop by the home of Don Chepelito, who operates a roadside bar that sells his own brew of vino de coyol, sometimes referred to as Costa Rica’s alternative to moonshine, which is made from sap extracted, with no small amount of difficulty, from his own spiny coyol palm trees. We toast with small glasses of the psychedelic-tasting brew in his family bar, surrounded by yellowed news clippings and photographs of everyone who had raised a glass there before us.


My favorite part of the trip — chocolate massages, private plunge pools, and exquisite meals aside — happens on our visit to Santa Cruz, a small city near the resort. We are visiting the home of Alvaro Duarte Marin — better known as Pata e Buey, who, along with his wife, Doña Melania, makes what are essentially enormous carnival masks. We park our car and walk through the quiet streets of Santa Cruz, pausing along the way to duck into a leather goods workshop to say hello to a local saddle maker who is occupied with the repair of some ancient-looking cowboy boots. As we continue our walk, I hear the familiar snap of firecrackers, followed by the sound of horns and the thud of a large drum. Rounding the corner, we are greeted by a small band and three looming masked figures, each easily over 10 feet tall — a rooster, a dragon, a horned devil — all of them spinning in circles and dancing to the sound of the music. It’s a command performance organized by Marin to show off the pieces he and his wife create from their home business, Los payasos de Pata E´Buey (The clowns of Pata E'Buey). The gargantuan papier-mache heads are supported by metal frames, themselves hidden by multicolored patchwork dresses and augmented with long arms that fly outward as the characters spin. The huge masks, which are popular at carnivals and local celebrations — particularly the “Dia del Cristo Negro de Esquipulas” — immediately remind me of the Sid and Marty Krofft television shows of my childhood — creatures that might have wandered off the set of “H.R. Pufnstuf” or “The Banana Splits” — and their appearance is so surprising and charmingly jarring that I am momentarily teary-eyed. Later, alone in the couple’s garage workshop, I am surrounded by a chorus of giant, leering heads — witches, goblins, chickens, grinning clowns, some cartoonish, some grotesque, all of them beautiful — and as the late afternoon sun illuminates their giant eyeballs and oversized smiles, I think about how odd it is that in less than 24 hours I will be back in my Brooklyn apartment. I take a moment to acknowledge exactly how I’m feeling — deeply thankful.

Our Contributors

T. Cole Rachel Editor-at-Large

T. Cole Rachel is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor, and teacher with over 20 years of experience working in print and digital media. He is currently an editor-at-large at Departures.

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Joy Scull is an associate creative director for branded content at Departures. A designer and visual storyteller, she's previously collaborated with the ACLU Magazine, Futures Without Violence, Goldbelly, Google, The People’s Portfolio, and more.


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