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An unexpected oasis in Costa Rica

So, this is embarrassing. For more than a year, I had been driving down the coastal highway between Jacó and Manuel Antonio without even noticing the signs for dusty turnoffs. I just flew past, sipping coconut juice and probably whining about the lack of quaint, laid-back beach options on the Central Pacific coast.

Then on a recent road trip, after I had finally been notified about the tiny, idyllic beach towns that dot this stretch, I still missed the turn. The people who visit Playas Esterillos and Bejuco must be persistent, I thought. But after just 24 hours in the nether-playa sanctuary, I know I’ll easily find my way back.

Playa Esterillos is an expansive chocolate-colored dream, with plenty of almond trees and almost no humans. There’s also no large-scale development for miles – just forest, palm plantations and farmland. The town consists of a gravel road and a few vacation condos, eateries and hotels including Encantada Ocean Cottages, which recently ascended to TripAdvisor’s no. 1 spot in the area. So we stayed there.


Encantada Ocean Cottages sits right on Playa Esterillos.
Lindsay Fendt

The oceanfront property’s seven units are divided into two tidy rows that face each other, and between them an inviting pool splits the distance. The soothing, verdant grounds feature lemongrass and mango and papaya trees, along with plenty of lazy hammocks and knee-high Buddhist statues. It’s a Zen kind of place – but it wasn’t always this way. For years, the property served as a schoolhouse for troubled youth, and I can’t imagine a less ideal place for having problem children concentrate on anything. Encantada is far more suitable for vacationers to take in the sun with a margarita and some reggae tunes.

“It’s fun to see the transformation,” said hotel manager Diana Benner. She was speaking of American travelers who often arrive uptight and stressed, but after a few hours on the property seem to adopt a more pura vida attitude. “They start to sink into the beauty of nature,” Benner said.

Transplants from San Diego, Diana and her husband Mikey Benner are the kind of managers who become fast friends with guests, offering assistance in all facets of the vacation. They’ll help plan zip-lining excursions, horseback rides and rafting trips on the Río Savegre, along with simpler activities like yoga classes, massages and surf lessons (the hotel rents boogie boards, short boards long boards, and “in-between” boards). Should you get banged up in wipeout or exhaust yourself battling a rip current (which the area is notorious for) Diana’s good to have around – she’s a registered nurse.

Equally hospitable are the hotel pets, a couple of dogs named Jelly Bean and Tuti. The dogs followed us to dinner at the Pelican Beach Bar & Restaurant down the street, and when we walked in, everybody at the bar knew we had come from Encantada. Apparently, the dogs accompany hotel guests to dinner as if it’s their job. As we devoured the town’s best ceviche, the dogs waited, apparently imagining they would also bring us home. But by the end of our meal, it had started to rain very hard, and kind owner of the establishment offered to drive us. The dogs rain behind the car, making certain we got back okay even as they got soaked.


Each cottage has a double bed and a loft.
Lindsay Fendt

As lightning illuminated the Pacific just beyond our cottage window, we settled into our spacious and elegant studio, considered the honeymoon suite for its large deck with an ocean view. Other standout features include a zebra-print comforter, a high, vaulted ceiling and the lack of a television set (for those who can appreciate it). Although we failed to figure out the air-conditioner that night, Mikey demonstrated the next day that bringing the remote control close to the unit does the trick.

The rest of the cottages are adorned with colorful murals on the outside, and the insides are similarly appointed with AC, tasteful furnishings and a variety of room counts and bed sizes to suit every kind of family or group. There’s a large kitchen onsite, and each morning the Benners serve up a delicious daily breakfast of fruit, waffles and coffee that’s included with the stay. Over breakfast, if you ask, they’ll regale you with tales of their travels in Costa Rica, which are pretty extensive. The Benner’s are the kind of people who have been everywhere – the Osa peninsula, Guanacaste, the Caribbean. They’re the kind of people who notice that small sign, and make the turn down the dusty road.


Going there:

Prices range from $55 to $95 a night, depending on the cottage and the season. The hotel can arrange taxis or shuttles. If you drive, use a map or GPS to guide you to the Jacó area, either via the old highway or the new. The hotel is 28 kilometers south of Jacó on the coastal highway. When you get to Esterillo Este, turn right at the airport sign. (Be sure not to make the mistake of going to Esterillos Oeste which you will pass on the way to Esterillos Este.) Follow the road to the end and turn left, go about 400 meters. Encantada Ocean Cottages is on the righthand side.

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