Open Road

In Costa Rica, a Short Flight and Bumpy Drive Lead to Untold Riches

The remote coastal jungles of the pristine Nicoya Peninsula await—if you’re up for one heck of a road trip.

By Katharine Shilcutt May 31, 2016 Published in the June 2016 issue of Houstonia Magazine

On a remote beach in Costa Rica, a colony of fleet-footed, algae-colored crabs clung to a sharp volcanic outcropping that, together with a crescent of palm-dotted, white-sand beach, formed a delicate scoop of harbor. A few wooden fishing boats bobbed silently in the turquoise water under the mid-day sun.

Aside from those crabs, we were the only ones out in the heat of the afternoon, scorching ourselves on this quiet sprawl of sand, silent save for the steady thrum of the heavy Pacific surf. We should have been inside, too—we’d been swimming all morning, and our skin had turned a worrying shade of red—but we couldn’t leave. When is the next time we’ll have a literal tropical paradise all to ourselves? we reasoned. And besides, it took us long enough to get here. So we stayed and roasted; regret is for the plane ride home.

The beach here at San Juanillo, just 10 miles north of the legendary surf village of Guiones, has been called one of the most beautiful in the world, yet visitors often have the place to themselves. No tourist shacks line the shore; no Señor Frog's hawk margaritas in plastic cups; no private resorts have staked off the beach as their own. The only attraction here is the pristine beauty, preserved by the Costa Rican government for all to enjoy.

But finding something this savagely stunning, this unmolested, requires work in today’s world. Those 10 miles from Playa Guiones took us more than 45 minutes, and our drive into Guiones itself from the northwestern city of Liberia—an 85-mile trip, or the equivalent of driving from Houston to Beaumont—took nearly four hours.

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Washed out roads are common during the rainy season between May and November, which is also the best time to visit.

In fact, the slow, careful drive down muddy, rutted roads gave me a totally new appreciation for the journeys my grandparents once undertook between Marshall and Dallas, back when travel between the two towns was just that—an undertaking. Much like the ones still found in the East Texas countryside, the one-lane-wide dirt roads of the Nicoya Peninsula pass through charming small towns, cross creeks choked with kudzu, and abut wide pastures of grazing cattle.

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Want a waterfall all to yourself? Visit the Nicoya Peninsula.

Unlike East Texas, however, jungle-covered mountains loom in the near distance, their tops shrouded in fog, with screeching monkeys and cackling magpies darting through the thick canopy. And the dirt roads of Costa Rica are often washed out, as was the case during our descent into the peninsula from the small airport in Liberia. With no way to get our rented SUV across the rushing Río Amarillo, we improvised, fumbling with maps and keeping an eye out for all-too-rare roadside signs until finally we arrived, exhausted but thrilled.

Yes, the region is remote, featuring not only a 75-mile stretch of immaculate jungle along the Pacific but one of the country’s oldest settlements—Nicoya itself, which was already the largest Nahuatl chiefdom in the region when it was first encountered by Spanish conquistadors in 1523.

But the peninsula is actually more accessible than ever before, thanks to a once-a-day flight from the Bayou City to Liberia, started by Southwest Airlines last October. In prior years, the only option was to fly into the capital city of San José, then make the 130-mile drive to Liberia, and on into the jungle.

As the afternoon wore on, we finally took our leave from the perfect sliver of beach; crispy skin is only a good look on fish and pork. The ride back to our hotel in Guiones, we knew, would be all but impossible after the sun set.

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The sand and surf are wonderfully uncrowded at Playa Guiones.

The first time I watched Tom Hanks tell Geena Davis to suck it up and keep playing baseball no matter how tough things got, I knew that A League of Their Own had provided me with the mantra that would get me through life: “If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it,” Hanks’s frustrated Jimmy tells Davis’s despondent Dottie. “The hard ... is what makes it great.”

The motto served me well in Costa Rica. I employed it when we summited a steep mountainside in Ostional, a short drive from Guiones, to reach the Miss Sky Canopy Tour, the world’s longest course of its kind, featuring 11 kilometers of thick cables. (Pros: spotting sleek, glossy monkeys in the treetops; swimming in the crisp waters beneath an otherwise isolated waterfall; witnessing the gradual tumble of jungle into the far-distant ocean. Cons: nearly vomiting at the top of the mountain from a combination of strenuous hiking in the intense humidity and general altitude sickness.)

It also came in handy as we tried to find our way around the unmarked country roads we took from beach to beach along the coast. (Pros: stumbling across petite Italian restaurants with wood-fired pizzas better than any I’ve had in Europe; watching local kids in school uniforms play intense soccer matches on well-manicured pitches in even the tiniest villages; meeting friendly dogs in the road. Cons: attempting to navigate via hand-drawn maps and landmarks as dusk or rain fell; nearly losing the rented RAV-4 in giant, unexpected mud holes.)

The hard, as Jimmy would say, is what makes Costa Rica great. Despite the country’s increased accessibility, its zip lines and waterfalls and beaches remain as congestion-free as the dirt roads. And it’s this small volume of traffic which, along with the government’s conservation-minded policies, keeps the Nicoya Peninsula so unspoiled.

Instead of trash along the roadsides, you’ll see recycling bins in front of even the humblest homes; instead of large-scale agriculture, you’ll see family farms and gardens; instead of electrical lines and telephone poles running along highways, much of the country is run with renewable green energy and the occasional cell tower.

There is an underlying principle of self-reliance and sustainability here that’s as attractive as the colorful wildlife and untamed forests; it’s a large part of the reason Costa Rica has been able to position itself within Central America as an eco-tourism destination.

Visitors can commune with monkeys in virtually untouched nature preserves like the Curu Wildlife Refuge in Puntarenas at the far tip of the Nicoya Peninsula or the SIBU Wildlife Sanctuary just outside Guiones, and with their fellow surfers along sparsely populated stretches of the Pacific Ocean offering some of the world’s best waves.

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Jungle's Edge is tucked into the Nosara mountains overlooking Guiones.

That’s not to say life in Costa Rica is all Spartan simplicity and washed-out roads. Our first few nights, we stayed in an inexpensive but charming little hotel called Jungle’s Edge, a 10-minute walk from Guiones. Owned by a retired car salesman/expat who resembles nothing so much as a Virginian Matthew McConaughey, the place features its own restaurant, run by a Cordon Bleu-trained Italian chef using produce from the on-site organic garden.

There’s a saltwater pool, a large outdoor yoga studio, and $22-per-night tents with their own fans and refrigerators, a popular choice for surfers staying there. We opted for the comparatively extravagant $95-per-night suites, which feature air conditioning, queen-sized beds and private bathrooms.

Besides its perfect, consistent waves, Guiones boasts a surprisingly cosmopolitan blend of French patisseries, health-food stores, clay-court tennis clubs, New York–style bagel shops, surfboard rental spots, Italian gelaterias, and a mix of vegan restaurants and roadside taco stands. It was a hard place to leave, but a few days later, it was time to take another journey—13 miles, or one hour’s drive—up the coast to the Azul Ocean Club Hotel.

In the U.S., or even Mexico, a luxury resort of this caliber, boasting a private beach (this one with alluring black sands), poolside cabana service, five-star restaurant and two-story, hammock-draped villas with ocean views, would have cost triple the rate of $199 per night. Yet here, in this far-flung locale, part of the price you pay is simply the time it takes to get here.

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Tacos de costilla borracha (short rib marinated in dark beer with smoked chiles) on homemade corn tortillas at Al Chile in Guiones.

Once at the Azul, there is nothing to do but relax. The hotel staff will set up in-room massages or horseback rides at sunset on the water, but for us, the real draw was alternating between napping on the beach and sitting at the swim-up bar while the friendly staff served up guava, strawberry and rum smoothies. Ticos, or native Costa Ricans, are perpetually eager to rave about their country—if you thought Texans took an inordinate amount of pride in their homeland, you haven’t met a Tico—and it wasn’t long before Maria, who kept refilling my tall milkshake glass with more fruity rum slush, was telling me about her own Costa Rican childhood on a dairy farm in the mountains.

“The cheese, that’s what I miss the most,” she told a small group of us one day, Americans like myself who’d posted up at the bar to hear more Maria stories. “Like mozzarella, but creamier. My mother makes the best cheese.” Yes, she missed her family’s farm higher up in the Nicoya mountains, but working here on the coast meant she could afford a home and acreage of her own. “I have my own chickens now, and so many fruit trees. Every kind of fruit tree!”

Later that evening in the resort’s five-star restaurant, I ordered my final dinner of the trip: a coffee-rubbed filet, whose every ingredient (including, of course, the coffee) came from nearby farms. Our waiter, Juan—who’d taken care of us during every visit, teaching us Tico sayings and teasing good-naturedly until we responded in Spanish—beamed with pride at my order: “You’ll never taste beef like this in America,” he bragged, and indeed it was softer, sweeter, more robust than any filet I’d had stateside in recent memory.

The following morning, we made excuses to stay as long as possible, despite the drive that lay ahead of us. We tracked down Maria and Juan to say goodbye, picked up a final few shells along the black-sand beach, and ate a Tico breakfast of rich, dark-roast coffee, expertly seasoned black beans and rice, plantains and orange-yolked eggs.

We barely made it back to Liberia on time, exhilarated by a final daring rush to the plane, running to the gate just as it was boarding. I couldn’t believe the flight was only half full. Southwest’s customers, it seems, remain unaware of the paradise that’s just a three-hour flight away. Or maybe they just aren’t ready for the road trip that awaits.

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Sunset over the black sand beach at Azul Ocean Club.


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