The Papagayo Peninsula

You can’t go wrong with a vacation in Costa Rica. It’s only a few hours from the U.S., has a stable economy and its reputation is squeaky clean. It hasn’t been involved in any recent wars, terrorism isn’t an issue, and most people speak at least a little English. I got invited to stay at the new Planet Hollywood Resort, and my visit was first class.

I’m not usually a big fan of all-inclusive resorts, but PH is special. Who doesn’t love a little movie culture with their tropical vacation? Like the bronze Ferris Bueller quote emblazoned above the TV? Or some wardrobe items from James Bond, Indiana Jones and the Karate Kid displayed behind gold tempered windows in the lobby? When I walked down the red carpet at the entrance of the hotel, the staff burst into applause and handed me a signature purple martini. Yeah, that’s a good start.

Once I got checked in, I made my way to Guy’s Burger Joint near the main pool. International borders can’t stop a good chef, and Mr. Fieri’s seared patties have found the perfect home in Costa Rica. It’s rare (excuse the pun) to ever get a good burger outside the U.S., so I was pleasantly surprised. But what was outside the pearly gates of the resort?

A lot of excursions, for one thing. You can book an ATV trip, fishing excursion, or even visit a rainforest with the hotel if you don’t want to deal with the details.

Roosterfish is a popular catch in Costa.

If you’re a fisherman, there’s an opportunity to hook a roosterfish, a crazy-looking, popular catch in Costa Rica. They can reach up to four feet in length and have zebra stripes and a spiky crown of fins that resemble, ironically enough, a rooster. They’re fun to catch but here’s the big question: Does roosterfish taste like chicken? You’d think so, but they’re barely edible.

Costa Rica really has three distinct areas: the Pacific Coast to the west (where PH is), the Caribbean Coast to the east, and the volcanic mountainous center. The west coast is where you’ll find most of the surfing, fishing and tourists. The less-traveled, English-speaking Caribbean Coast might make you feel more like you’re in Jamaica. The center of the country has cloud forests, rain forests, active volcanoes and lots of biodiversity. Colorful reptiles, birds, and sloths can be found throughout this part of the country. Costa Rica realized early in its history that preservation of its flora and fauna was important to the economy and enacted ecological standards to protect its wildlife.

One of Planet Hollywood's pools.

Image: Bill Wiatrak

Planet Hollywood is on the Papagayo Penisula, one of the sunniest areas of the country, so it seemed like I ought to spend my first day checking out the pools, amenities and places to eat. There are six different restaurants to choose from as well as bars scattered throughout the resort.

My room was perched high on a hill overlooking Culebra Bay. Purple golf carts take guests up and down the steep winding road to the pool and ocean. The resort has a black sand beach that's home to dozens of white-faced monkeys. 

It didn’t take the monkeys long to figure out that tourists at an all-inclusive resort have some extra fruit to toss their direction. They were obviously spoiled. I could sit around and watch them for hours, but instead I opted to get wet at the swim-up bar. 

A lot of the travelers I met were honeymooners or people from the northern U.S. trying to escape the cold. It was a young, fun crowd and a place where I could really relax if I was into relaxing. I’m pretty hyperactive, so a chill day for me means talking to everyone, going everywhere, and taking pictures of everything. I drank the local rum, tried specialty frozen drinks, went to the Hibachi restaurant, had fish tacos at the Mexican restaurant, ice cream at a coffee place, and stopped into the spa for a bit. It was quite the day.

As beautiful as the Costa Rica beaches are, I love to get into the jungle. A little over an hour’s drive from where I was staying lies one of CR’s coolest parks, Rincon de la Vieja. It’s a tropical paradise with two volcanoes, 32 rivers, and plenty of fun things to do. Horseback riding, hiking, and waterfalls can keep you busy, or, if that doesn’t sound exciting enough, boiling mud baths. If you have a keen eye, there are lots of animals to be spotted in the park as well: sloths, kinkajous, monkeys, tapirs, and on rare occasions, jaguars and pumas. The park is one of the highlights of Central America.

Tamarindo is a couple hours south of the Papagayo Peninsula and has become the central hub for many of Costa Rica’s tourists heading to the west coast with lots of restaurants, surf lessons, and beautiful beaches like Flamingo, just north of the tourist area. From the Papgayo peninsula, a more accessible spot is Coco beach, a little paradise reached by a 30-minute boat ride. Playa del Coco is also the place to stock up on touristy souvenirs and stuffed sloths.

Costa Rica isn’t quite the travel bargain as the rest of Central America, but you won’t have the culture shock and it’s easier to rent a car and organize your adventures. You can also pamper yourself and get away from it all if you prefer a bit more luxury in your vacation.

Liberia International Airport is about a 30-minute drive from the Papagayo Peninsula or a 90-minute drive from Rincon del la Vieja Natonal Park.

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