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HomeArchiveCristal Azul: Hilltop Hospitality at Its Finest

Cristal Azul: Hilltop Hospitality at Its Finest

Imagine staring into a crystal ball and visualizing a remote, tropical setting where tranquility, privacy and a touch of luxury are complemented by stunning views and scenic beauty.

Open your eyes and see Cristal Azul hotel, perched on a hillside above the small beach community of Playa San Miguel, a still-undiscovered Pacific-coast destination on the southwest coast of the NicoyaPeninsula. Here, deserted beaches stretch for miles and tourism is virtually nonexistent.

It’s a dream come true for Costa Rican Henner Morales and Zene Randall from the U.S. city of Boston. The husband-and-wife team purchased Cristal Azul in 2001 and, after renovating and refurbishing the property, welcomed their first guests five years ago. These charming, hospitable hosts will cater to all your needs, whether you wish to partake in a variety of energetic activities or indulge yourself in a sloth-like way of life, never leaving the beautiful, peaceful surroundings of this hilltop hotel.

The view from Cristal Azul is unforgettable: The magnificent expanse of the beach below is framed by azure ocean and pounding white surf that stretches as far as the eye can see, and is visible from wherever you wander at the hotel.

Set amid a landscaped tropical garden, the thatched rancho, with its soaring pinnacle roof, is a delightful place to spend time, day or night. Teak furnishings dominate this friendly, tastefully decorated gathering place, with its bar, large dining table, comfy sofas and shady deck with tables and chairs. Tempting hammocks invite you to nap or catch up on some reading. After you’ve watched one of the truly memorable sunsets and spied the lights of the fishing boats on the horizon, you can shoot a game of pool on Randall’s pride and joy: a beautifully carved antique pool table.

In front of the rancho, the sparkling blue infinity pool, surrounded by a large deck, swaying palms and colorful bougainvilleas, is an ideal place to bask in the sun between dips or stretch out in the shade on a cushion covered lounge chair.

The four spacious, ocean-view rooms, furnished in fine teak and decorated with works by local artists, offer every imaginable comfort: fine, colorful linens, stacks of fluffy towels, ceiling fans, air-conditioning and hot and cold water in the outdoor showers, where it’s a treat to take a rinse at night under a canopy of stars.

Randall, previously a teacher, did all the interior decorating herself. Her talent and personal touch can be seen everywhere, in fresh floral arrangements, magazines, board games and even a pretty little basket filled with suntan lotion and repellent, just in case you forgot to bring your own.

For many vacationers, good food isn’t just the icing on the cake, but an essential part of the enjoyment. Breakfast at Cristal Azul, included in the rates, is all you could wish for: tropical fruit and juices, locally cured bacon, eggs and gallo pinto, Costa Rica’s traditional rice-and-beans start to the day.

Lunch and dinner prices vary, starting at about $20, depending on what the guest orders. “We plan a personal menu for you and accommodate all tastes, budgets and dietary requirements,” Randall says.

Staying at the hotel for dinner is highly recommended. Talented young chef Marco Tulio’s offerings, which include ocean-fresh seafood, lamb and colorful salads, are delicious and beautifully presented, and his service is a delight.

Tulio and Flory Matarrita, who cooked and served breakfast, are both from the area. “We employ only local staff and train them ourselves,” Randall says. “Involvement in the community is very important when living in an isolated area.”

As part of her community efforts, Randall has started a “Reading Is Fun” project in conjunction with Robin Books, in the western Central Valley town of Santa Ana, which has donated more than 750 books to date. The energetic Randall also hopes to start informal health seminars and have doctors come and stay at the hotel to conduct what she calls a “much needed service.”

“I keep extremely busy and certainly never get bored,” Randall says with her infectious laugh.

Guests need never get bored either, as Cristal Azul offers many activities. Morales, who speaks very good English, has been a professional fishing guide for more than 20 years, and delights in taking guests fishing on his own boat. You can also rent horses and ride along the beach, explore the hillside trails and visit a waterfall. If you fancy a day playing in the surf, you can rent a kayak or spend the day on the beach with a boogie board, umbrella and cooler provided by the hotel. Finally, a must-visit is the nearby Jungle Butterfly Farm (see box).


Playa San Miguel: The Final Undiscovered Frontier

Playa San Miguel is a haven for budget-traveling backpackers, beach bums and surfers looking for an alternative to the country’s more popular and  developed haunts. For nonsurfers, at the end of what seems a never-ending stretch of magnificent, deserted beach, the tidal estuary is a tranquil, safe place to swim (pictured at right). You can also visit or stay in the surrounding rural countryside, away from the pounding surf.

In the small village of Pueblo Nuevo, the Jungle Butterfly Farm rears butterflies native to Costa Rica. No typical tented enclosure exists here; to attract the butterflies, a botanical garden has been planted with host plants such as zinnias, cosmos and lantanas.

You will see many different species of vibrant, colorful butterflies as you explore the property, which includes gardens, pastureland and a cool, shady river walk with lush tropical foliage.

Decades of ranching and farming in the area have damaged the habitat and life cycles of butterflies. Those raised in the farm’s natural habitat are released into the area, where their numbers have been depleted, according to biologist Michael Malliet, a former U.S. Air Force entomologist (pictured at left).

Malliet’s enthusiasm about his farm – a six-year-old project – makes his self-paced tour a delightful experience. “In recent years I have shifted the focus of my energy entirely toward rearing butterflies, and this location on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica has given me the unique opportunity to accomplish this,” he says.

The Jungle Butterfly Farm is a kilometer southeast of Pueblo Nuevo, and is open daily from 9 a.m. to 4 pm. Tours cost $10 for adults and $6 for children under 12. Malliet also offers accommodation in two fully equipped, comfortably furnished apartments with wonderful ocean views from the spacious terrace. Both sleep four and have a connecting door for families or groups. Guests are welcome to use the family pool. Rates are $65 in high season and $45 in low season; add $10 for air-conditioning. For information, call 2655-8070 or 8822-5674, e-mail or visit

After the butterfly tour, be sure to stop at Rhodeside Bed and Breakfast’s espresso bar to sample a delicious concoction of freshly brewed Doka coffee in the home of Edmund and Gwen Rhodes.

Edmund, a native of the U.S. state of South Carolina, came to Costa Rica 11 years ago, looking for a deserted beach to practice his favorite pastime, Jet Skiing.

“I don’t do it anymore,” he says, laughing. “I’m getting too old, so I ride my horses instead.”

Gwen, owner of a café in Toronto, Canada, visited Costa Rica for a coffee harvest trip and rekindled her childhood romance with Edmund, which resulted in marriage and the opening of their B-and-B, where they delight in sharing the beauty and peace of their farm and country home with guests.

Accommodations include two comfortably furnished, octagonal cabins that sleep three, with private bath and outdoor shower. The newer downstairs cabin has a modern tiled bathroom and hot-water shower. Overlooking the valley below, the large shared terrace and fully equipped kitchen are ideal for groups and families.

Rhodeside B-and-B is on the road to the Jungle Butterfly Farm, about a kilometer southeast of Pueblo Nuevo. Room rates are $60, including breakfast. For information, call 2655-8006, e-mail or visit

Down on Playa San Miguel’s beachfront, you’ll find a haven of hospitality, top-notch food and comfortable accommodation at The Flying Scorpion. Dedicated surfer Brandon Rossi and his partner, Amanda Boman, are friendly, fun-loving hosts.

Rossi loves to tell the tale of how The Flying Scorpion got its crazy name: “A long time ago, an expat who was living here caught a scorpion, attached dragonfly wings to it and embedded it in resin. Some people are really gullible. They actually believed it when they saw it.”

The Flying Scorpion’s open-air restaurant and bar is a hive of activity, particularly in the evenings. Rossi, a music producer in his former life in the United States, is renowned for his excellent cuisine, while Boman can conjure up a mean cocktail.

Fresh seafood abounds for lunch and dinner, as do the delicious homemade pastas served with a variety of sauces or interesting trimmings such as sun-dried tomatoes and artichoke hearts. Rossi is of Italian descent, and many of the recipes he uses are family secrets more than 100 years old. A must-try is the mouthwatering homemade ice cream in surprising, innovative flavors. Breakfasts are feasts; the homemade bread baked on the premises and locally cured bacon are delicious.

The five garden cabins are very clean and nicely furnished, with private bathrooms with hot-water showers and ceiling fans. There is also a second-floor studio apartment with an ocean-view balcony. For longer stays, six houses in different locations are available for rent.

Rates, including breakfast, are $45 double in the cabins and $75 for the studio apartment that sleeps up to six. For information, call 2655-8080, e-mail or visit

Also in Playa San Miguel are The Blue Pelican, a beachfront establishment that serves seafood, pizza and libations and rents basic rooms, and Los Maderos, a friendly beach hangout for locals, expats and visitors that serves delicious ceviche, snacks and Costa Rican food.

Getting there: Two buses a day leave San José at 6 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. for Jicaral, where you change buses for San Francisco de Coyote and San Miguel (Empresa Arsa, 2650-0179). The journey takes about six hours.

–Ann Antkiw


Getting There, Rates, Info

Four-wheel drive is recommended year-round and a necessity in the rainy season on the area’s bumpy, muddy dirt roads. From San José, head west on  the new highway to Caldera and continue to Puntarenas. Take the Playa Naranjo ferry to the NicoyaPeninsula. From the dock, drive up the hill until the road comes to a T; turn right and go to Jicaral. Turn left at the church, and the pavement will soon turn into a dirt road. Drive about an hour and a half, following signs for San Francisco. Turn right at the soccer field in San Francisco and follow signs to Playa San Miguel, another 20 minutes. The hotel will meet you at Los Maderos beach bar and lead you up the hill. The alternative route is via the Amistad bridge and the town of Carmona. Ask the hotel for detailed instructions and remember to fill up with gas in Jicaral or Carmona, depending on your route.

By air, both Nature Air ( and Sansa ( service the Punta Islita airstrip, from where the hotel can pick you up for the 20-minute drive.

Low-season (April 16 to Dec. 14) rates are $140 for a standard room with one queen-size bed and $155 for a bunk room with one queen and a bunk bed. High-season (Dec. 15 to April 15) rates are $175 for a standard room and $190 for a bunk room. Rates include breakfast but not tax. Cristal Azul can accommodate 10 guests total; weekly and group rates are available on request.

For information and reservations, call 8705-9881 or 888-822-7369 (U.S. toll-free), e-mail or visit



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