Resting on the shores of the Pacific Ocean between the booming tourist destinations of Jacó and Manuel Antonio are three small communities, each distinct but all sharing one name: Esterillos.
The Esterilloses are all relatively hidden off the coastal highway behind bright green fields full of cows and the occasional horse, a few small signs being the only real notice that anything exists here. The beaches, scattered with the limbs and trunks of trees, are bashed by ceaseless waves as visibility is hazed by the heavy humidity.
These are places where hammocks easily outnumber humans, and the only really pressing matter is to find a place in the shade with the cool comfort of a beer.
The coast moves west to east along the stretch where the three towns lie, and their names take that into account. Esterillos Oeste (West Esterillos) is the largest and most developed, followed by Esterillos Centro (Central Esterillos), which is the least developed. The trio is anchored in the southeast by Esterillos Este (East Esterillos), the most refined.
It’s almost as if three siblings, all sharing the same genes and maternal coddling, developed their own personality traits and tastes – of which Esterillos Centro plays the rebellious middle child who never developed to his full potential.
All three feature strong waves and rip tides, which make swimming a risky endeavor. For this reason, signs are tacked up near the beaches, warning the unobservant that the massive waves crashing in are, in fact, as dangerous as they look.
At the same time, all three are set in a tropical haven, and the leaning palms backing the wide expanse of sand provide steadyshade to allow extended lazing.
Heading south from Jacó along the coastal highway, Esterillos Oeste greets drivers with big billboards and a little sign indicating the main turnoff.
One of the first major sites to make itself apparent is Las Olas Beach Community (www.lasolassite.com, 8885-8112), which consists of houses and condominiums for rent and ownership in the gated community.
Also, among the more elegant establishments in the westernmost Esterillos is the CaboCaletasOcean and Golf Club (www.cabocaletas.com, 2778-7112), where PebbleBeach is seemingly transplanted into the Costa Rican jungle. The hotel and spa offer a nice place to relax, as well.
But the heart of Esterillos Oeste lies along the main dirt road leading to the beach, with houses, hotels, restaurants and what looks like a broken down discoteca all lining the streets. Where the street deadends at the beach, two large Imperial beer signs swing with the breeze – one on each side – ushering in the laid-back, no-worries atmosphere.
The sign on the east side of the street sways above the Lowtide Lounge. Even if Jimmy Buffett wasn’t the inspiration here, he would no doubt make a willing patron. The place is built of local trees and bears a vague resemblance to an old dock, anchored down by its wonderfully complete liquor selection.
Bob Marley plays over the speakers during most of our luncheon, which consists of a Philly cheesesteak, a hamburger and two heaps of fries. The food is full-throttle Gringo and cooked to greasy perfection.
Across the street is a pizza joint, El Vago. Close by is a small coffee shop doubling as a souvenir store. The streets sprawl out, forming a confusing web, where small, wooden and tin huts sit between hotels and rental houses.
Camping is offered right by the main road for ¢3,000 ($5.20) per night, including showers and bathrooms.
Esterillos Oeste’s second entrance, farther east off the coastal highway, doesn’t have nearly as much to offer. There is a little bar, Barlito, which has a disco ball and where people from the different Esterilloses come “when they want to dance,” according to the bartender.
There is also the Hotel Walt Paraíso (www.waltparaiso.com, 2778-8060, $75-110) and the Bar Caza (2778-7338) next door, with a restaurant shaped like a beached ship. Moving one Esterillos to the east places a traveler in Esterillos Centro, a desolate stretch of beach with little to offer.
“There’s the hotel,” says a man selling melons to the two other people out on the street, “but there aren’t any businesses or anything. The hotel is everything.”
The hotel, inaptly called La Felicidad (www.lafelicidad.com, 2778-6824, $65-80), or “Happiness,” looks as if it’s consuming itself. The dark lobby feels like it hasn’t seen visitors in some time, and the torn screens and dusty tables and chairs leave a sense of, well, not happiness.
Back along the main road, but far removed from the beach, is the Villa Claudia (www.vrbo.com/119359, 2778-8123, $70-125), which is home to two apartments.
Unlike the rest of Esterillos Centro, it is a rather nice place, where sailing, horseback riding, canopy tours and tours to ManuelAntonioNational Park, about 45 minutes to the south, can be organized – as is the case at many of the Esterillos hotels.
Finally, Esterillos Este anchors the other side, providing the most beautiful and exclusive setting. A number of gated and walled-off compounds characterize this final community.
The Monterey del Mar Hotel (www.montereydelmar.com, 2778-8787, $105- 280) sits just off the airstrip, a compound surrounded by red-orange walls. Inside rest the small cabins painted in the same vibrant color and topped with Spanish colonial roof tiles. With its own small soccer field, a beautiful pool and a seaside restaurant and bar, the hotel is a beautiful but very closed-off place to spend a vacation.
The other major attraction is the Xandari by the Pacific (www.xandari.com, 2443-2020, $210-415). Also gated, though in a less obvious manner, the resort is full of color and comfort. Tropical hues and inventive architecture combine with lush fauna that almost overtakes the walking paths connecting the different buildings. Meanwhile, the spa is able to provide any additional relaxation that the atmosphere can’t.
For a more affordable stop, the Pelican Hotel (www.pelicanbeachfronthotel.com, 2778-8105, $40-90) offers a beautiful stay farther down the beach. The site is cloaked in palm-provided shade, and the grounds are full of places to sit back and relax.
The town also has one restaurant, El Tulú, Cabinas Flor de Esterillos (2778-8045) and Encantado Ocean Cottages (www.encantadacostarica.com, 2778-7048), along with various rental homes.
In the end, it all depends on what you’re looking for, because the three offer about as diverse a combination as three small beach towns can provide.
Getting to the Central Pacific
San José – Jacó
6, 7, 9, 11 a.m., 1, 3, 5, 7 p.m., 3 hours. Return: 5, 7:30, 11 a.m., 3, 5 p.m. Transportes Jacó, Coca-Cola station, Ca. 16, Av. 1/3, 2223-1109, ¢1,970.
San José – Puntarenas
Direct, every hour from 6 a.m.- 7 p.m., 2 hours, 15 minutes; regular, 4, 6, 8, 10 a.m., noon, 2, 3:30, 4:10, 4:55, 5, 6, 7:30, 9, 10:30 p.m., 3 hours. Return: Direct, every hour from 6 a.m.- 7 p.m.; regular, 4, 6, 8, 10 a.m., noon, 2, 3:30, 4:10, 4:55, 5, 6 (except Sat.-Sun.), 7:30, 9, 10:30 p.m. (weekends only). Empresarios Unidos, Ca. 16, Av. 10/12, 2222-0064, ¢1,720.
San José – Quepos – Manuel Antonio (stops in Esterillos)
Direct, 6, 9 a.m., noon, 2:30, 6, 7:30 p.m., 3 hours, 45 minutes, ¢2,965; regular, 6 (to Uvita and Bahía), 7, 10 a.m., 2, 3 (to Uvita and Bahía), 4, 5 p.m. (Mon.-Fri.), 5 hours, ¢2,775. Return: Direct, 6, 9:30 a.m., noon, 2, 5 p.m.; regular, 4:30 a.m., 1 p.m. Transportes Delio Morales, Coca-Cola station, Ca. 16, Av. 3/5, 2777-0263, 2223-5567.
San José – Quepos
Nature Air, www.natureair.com, 2299-6000, departs from TobíasBolañosAirport in Pavas, 9 a.m. and 2:30 p.m.; return 7:50, 10:45 a.m., 3 p.m., $80 one-way, some discounts offered.
Sansa, www.flysansa.com, 2290-4100, departs from JuanSantamaríaAirport in Alajuela. High season: 6, 7:39, 9:08, 9:31 a.m., 12:02, 12:32, 2:28, 4:22 p.m.; return 6:44, 8:23, 10:15, 11:01 a.m., 12:46, 1:16, 3:12, 5:06 p.m. Low season: 7, 8:58, 9:18 a.m., 12:02, 1:31, 2:28 p.m.; return 7:44, 9:42, 10:02, 11:04 a.m., 12:46, 2:15, 3:12 p.m., $75 foreigners, $60 residents, one-way.