When Lianne Jangula and Bo Blake decided to elope, they chose Costa Rica. The Chicago couple, engaged for two years, realized that with their families spread across the United States, planning a wedding would be a challenge.
“I felt we were headed towards a Vegas wedding. … That wasn’t unique enough for us,” Jangula said.
Though they’d never been to Costa Rica, reports from friends and co-workers and Internet research informed them that May in Costa Rica would be beautiful.
“It’s the best of both worlds here,” Jangula said. “Bo’s a jungle guy; he likes adventure. Me, I could live on the beach forever. We thought Costa Rica was the perfect answer.”
Just three weeks in advance, Jangula sent queries to a few wedding planners.
“I liked what Pura Vida Weddings had to offer, and I really connected with Donna,” she said.
Donna Mickley’s company specializes in small, personalized beach weddings on the northern Pacific coast. She also handles a lot of elopements.
“It is the most romantic thing to watch,” Mickley said. “The entire ceremony is just for them … not planned to please an audience.”
Jangula and Blake decided on an intimate sunset ceremony in front of Hotel Capitán Suizo on Playa Tamarindo. They announced their plans to friends and families two weeks before leaving, and the bride bought her dress one week before departure. No guests, no stress.
More and more couples are choosing to skip the fuss of a traditional wedding in favor of a destination wedding, with beaches as the most popular locations. According to a study by Condé Nast Bridal Group, 16 percent of U.S. couples choose destination weddings.
A beach wedding can be significantly less expensive than a traditional one, allowing couples to save thousands of dollars. Bridal Association of America statistics show that the average cost of a U.S. wedding in 2009 was $30,000, with half of that budget going to the reception. The average number of guests was 169, versus 48 for destination weddings. While reception meals can cost roughly $100 to $160 per person in the U.S., they run about $35 to $60 per person in Costa Rica, local wedding planners estimate.
And with a beach wedding, couples can shrink the guest list without guilt and sidestep any family issues.
Beach weddings allow for total creative freedom – get married in a bikini if you want. Fireworks, a Brazilian carnival group and fire dancers are options for couples wanting unique additions to the festivities.
By choosing a tropical destination, the bride and groom are able to combine wedding and honeymoon, and their guests can enjoy a mini-vacation. The process is stress-free; the bride can relax and let the local wedding planner do all the work.
Costa Rica consistently ranks in the top 10 for wedding and honeymoon destinations. And why not? It offers incredible value combined with unspoiled beauty.
From quaint bed-and-breakfasts to five-star luxury hotels, options for lodging, reception locations and honeymoons offer something for every budget. Add to that the bonanza of nature – exotic birds, sea turtles, butterflies, monkeys and hundreds of beaches – that costs nothing, and a tropical wedding can be an economical choice.
Mickley said the top three reasons her clients choose Costa Rica are the tropical location, enjoyment potential for family and friends, and the backdrop of nature.
“We are one of the few tourist destinations in the world that have beaches with a natural setting … where the beaches are still pristine,” she said. “North Pacific beach towns are ideal because they are an hour or less from the Liberia airport, and the dry climate means less chance of rain on your wedding day.”
Working with a local wedding planner is essential if you don’t live in Costa Rica. A bride needs an experienced, local liaison who knows the tried-and-true vendors and can communicate the bride’s vision to them. Wedding planners living in the country are familiar with all the ingredients of a successful ocean-side wedding: the tides, the weather, the terrain near the beach and local regulations.
There are several well-established, experienced destination-wedding planners in Costa Rica, with the resources and creativity to put on even the most lavish affair.
The quality and sophistication of destination weddings in Costa Rica have dramatically improved since Aimee Monihan pioneered the way in 1999 with her company, Tropical Occasions.
“When I started, there were no wedding planners and no hotels offering this service. Culturally, in Costa Rica the mother of the bride does the planning,” she said.
As the first professional destination-wedding planner in Costa Rica, Monihan literally had to train her vendors in the wedding trends of the day.
“Back then, florists were still making bouquets in an ’80s style,” she said. “I trained photographers to take the kind of pictures U.S. brides wanted.”
Monihan also designed facilities that were built specifically for weddings. She continuously holds workshops for her vendors to instruct them in the latest trends.
Today, she has a cadre of dependable, professional vendors and assistants who can produce weddings for the luxury market. Tropical Occasions has planned weddings for celebrities and, increasingly, international crowds. Her clients have traveled from South Africa, India, Germany, the United Kingdom and Australia.
Canadian Larissa Banting formed Weddings Costa Rica in 2003 to become the second destination-wedding planner here. She, too, has witnessed the increasing level of sophistication in wedding requests.
“Today’s bride is more informed, Internet- savvy, and has a strong sense of style,” Banting said. “Fortunately, we now have better resources in Costa Rica to accommodate her vision. There are some incredibly talented vendors, and some awesome bands.”
She also noted that the size of weddings has increased from the early days. Her largest wedding to date had 225 guests.
Weddings Costa Rica recently coordinated perhaps the ultimate multicultural wedding. The Costa Rican bride and Spanish groom met in Madrid, moved to Warsaw, Poland, and now live in Hong Kong. The event took place at a private villa in Malpaís, on the southern tip of the NicoyaPeninsula, attended by 160 guests from around the world. The wedding was featured on the popular wedding blog Style Me Pretty.
Costa Rica has experienced a healthy growth in destination weddings, in part thanks to the press this kind of wedding gets.
“I’ve gone from six weddings my first year to over 100 a year now,” Monihan said. Tropical Occasions weddings have been featured in Destination I Do and Eco-Beautiful Weddings magazines. The company now has four Costa Rican offices and one in the United States.
Weddings Costa Rica has been covered in three publications, including the prestigious Inside Weddings. Banting just made the “A-List” in Destination Weddings and Honeymoons’ spring edition, and was named one of the top 30 wedding planners of 2010. Mickley said Pura Vida Weddings has also grown steadily since she started in 2005.
The growth in the wedding business goes hand in hand with the continuous increase in tourism in Costa Rica. Cover stories in major travel magazines and an aggressive marketing plan by the Costa Rican Tourism Board (ICT) have attracted a growing number of tourists for the past several years, despite economic troubles in the United States. The 2002 opening of DanielOduberInternationalAirport in Liberia, capital of the northwestern province of Guanacaste, and increased flights from more airlines fueled a growth in Guanacaste tourism by making beaches on the northern Pacific coast more accessible. Now, with the new highway between San José and Caldera – the recent closure notwithstanding – the Central Pacific beaches are an hour closer to the capital and JuanSantamaríaInternationalAirport.
Banting said 20 to 25 percent growth in the world destination-wedding market is predicted over the next eight years. This is good news for wedding planners and for Costa Rica, she added.
“We haven’t begun to tap the market,” she said.
At present, 90 percent of Banting’s weddings come from North America, but she anticipates that the international market will grow. She and Monihan agree India is a huge emerging market.
The concept of “green” weddings is also gaining in popularity. Eco-Beautiful Weddings has featured a green wedding coordinated by Tropical Occasions at Hotel Bahía del Sol in Guanacaste’s Playa Potrero.
“We used recycled paper, and what few flowers were used were donated to local schools and charities,” Monihan said. “The couple requested that specific charitable donations be made in lieu of gifts. They even calculated their carbon offsetting.”
Weddings Costa Rica recently staged an “off-the-grid” wedding on southwestern Costa Rica’s OsaPeninsula, where almost all of the power was supplied by solar panels. With its reputation for ecotourism, Costa Rica seems an ideal choice for a green wedding.
But whether it’s green, lavish or simple, large or small and intimate, a wedding is ultimately about realizing the vision a bride has for her big day. It is a day she’ll never forget. If she has dreamed of saying her vows to the accompaniment of birds, monkeys and the sound of lapping waves, against the backdrop of a fiery sunset with the sand caressing her feet, then a Costa Rican beach awaits.
Pura Vida Weddings, Donna Mickley, 2653-0744, [email protected], www.weddingsincostarica.com
Tropical Occasions, Aimee Monihan, 2774-0439, 1-877- 325-1977 (toll-free from U.S./Canada), [email protected] com, www.tropical occasions.com
Weddings Costa Rica, Larissa Banting, 2203-7576, 1-866-574-7213 (toll-free from U.S./Canada), [email protected], www.weddingscostarica.com
A Local Eye
Using an experienced local photographer is the key to capturing unforgettable images of a tropical wedding.
“Do not underestimate the difficulty of getting good beach photographs. The intense light and strong colors of the Pacific sunset present technical challenges,” explained Thornton Cohen, a British, Tamarindo-based professional photographer whose work has appeared in Lonely Planet and Frommer’s travel guides.
Cohen’s specialties are editorial-travel and destination-wedding photography, and he sees a growing style in wedding photos.
“Couples no longer want a photographer to direct the day with staged shots; they want someone to document the day as it happens,” he said.
Cohen loves to do what he calls environmental photojournalism, integrating local culture into photos. He will shoot wedding couples in front of a brightly painted Tico house or talking with fishermen on the beach.
“You’re in Costa Rica, so why not include the local elements into your wedding to make your photos unique?” he observed. “It takes a local photographer to know where all these special photo-op locations are.”
Cohen’s work may be viewed at www.weddingsoverhere.com and weddingsoverhere.wordpress.com. He can be contacted at photog [email protected].
Other photographers in Costa Rica include:
Bruno Dubreuil, www.weddingphotographer incostarica.com
Carlos Charpentier and Pamela Fuster, www.costaricaweddingparadise.com
Fernando Carcamo, www.weddings.co.cr
Laura Pardo, www.laurapardo.com
Richard May, www.weddingscr.com
Ronald Reyes, www.ronald-reyes.com
Ronald Román, www.ronaldroman.com
Toh Gouttenoire, www.bidrop.com