FLAMINGO, Guanacaste — People often ask me where I live, and I say, “I mostly live in my car.” People say, “You have a camper?” I say, “No, I live in hotels, tear out the walls, I have accountants pay for it all.”
Hey, that would make a good song.
I’ve probably stayed at close to 100 hotels in Costa Rica, from the Ritz to the sh*ts, and I like to think I have a pretty good feel for what to book and what to overlook.
So I was pleasantly surprised on the Flamingo Coast — everything between Playa Grande, north of Tamarindo, and Playa Danta, south of Coco — by the excellent lodging options in a range of prices in this area.
Costa Rica’s Greatest Places
In this series, The Tico Times Travel section takes an in-depth look at some of Costa Rica’s greatest destinations, with multiple articles exploring the attractions of each. Throughout the month of December, we’ll visit the sumptuous Flamingo Coast — Playa Grande, Conchal, Brasilito, Flamingo, Potrero and Las Catalinas.
The following are our recommendations for 10 good, and occasionally great, hotels on this coast in a range of prices. We don’t say “best” because we didn’t try them all, but trust me, these options are not likely to leave you disappointed.
In geographical order, from south to north:
Hotel Bula Bula
The Hotel Bula Bula is a delightful find at the end of a terrible road in Playa Grande (though major road improvements are coming very soon).
Owned by Californians Todd Redeker and Wally Beck since 2002, the Bula Bula (named after a Fijian toast meaning “happy, happy”) has 10 well-appointed rooms, a pretty little pool, lush gardens, a large restaurant called the Great Waltini’s and a well-stocked bar. Todd describes the design as “traditional Guanacaste hacienda,” with lots of caña and guanacaste wood.
All rooms have A/C, ceiling fan, hot water, flatscreen TV, safe, coffeemaker and mini-fridge. From here it’s a five-minute walk to the beach, and there’s a dock that provides $3 taxi boat service to and from Tamarindo within 10 minutes along the estuary.
Bear in mind that the sea-level location on the estuary can make this area a bit buggy, so be prepared.
Rates range from $90 to $125 double plus tax, breakfast included, depending on the season. The hotel also manages local vacation rentals in the area that cost about $100 per bedroom per night. It often uses these to do weddings, typically held on the beach, with the reception at the restaurant and guests staying in the hotel and in vacation homes.
Just a short walk from the popular surfing beaching Playa Grande, the Rip Jack Inn is an attractive, clean, well-run hotel with an excellent restaurant. With several reddish-orange buildings and courtyards full of palms and flowering plants, it’s an eye-pleasing and peaceful place to lounge around one of the two swimming pools or linger over a cocktail in the second-story bar.
The 21 rooms all have A/C, hot water and coffeemakers, while deluxe rooms also have a TV and mini-fridge. The hotel offers yoga retreats, yoga teacher training, massage retreats and surf camps.
Owners Dave and Annie Corredor of California and Luli Andreozzi of Argentina have worked hard here and are proud of their lodging, which they acquired in 2004. The restaurant serves three meals a day seven days a week — a rarity in these parts — and accounts for why the Rip Jack Inn has two dozen employees for only 21 rooms.
The hotel was named after the dogs that came down with the Corredors, Ripley and Jack Brown, who are now in doggie heaven.
The restaurant is one of the best in the area. Try the hot garlic shrimp on hummus with garlic bread, Cajun seared tuna, grilled skirt steak or shrimp-stuffed chicken. The cocktails menu is also varied and creative, featuring mango jalapeño margaritas and a cucumber cooler, a cucumber- and mint-infused ginger ale drink with gin, rum or vodka.
Annie said the hotel has grown along with its repeat clientele.
“First you come with your buddies for a surf trip. And then you want to come back with your girlfriend, and she would like something a little nicer,” she said. “Then you get married, and you need a nice place for your wife. And then you have kids and you need a room for the whole family. We’re kind of a hotel that can grow with you.”
Depending on the season, standard rooms run $75 to $105 and deluxe rooms $120 to $140 double, plus tax. The two-room bungalow is $150 to $175, and suites are $210 to $250 for up to four, plus tax.
Westin Golf Resort & Spa
The Westin here is among the most luxurious hotels in all of Costa Rica. Located right on Playa Conchal, a crushed-shell beach considered one of the country’s most beautiful, it’s in a dream location.
This resort has an astonishing 406 rooms, and it shares a 940-hectare property with Reserva Conchal, an exclusive housing development. It even has its own desalinization plant.
There’s an 18-hole golf course designed by Robert Trent Jones II, with a pro shop; two massive swimming pools with Jacuzzis; three tennis courts and one multi-use court; 10 restaurants and five bars; a 24-hour fitness center, a spa, a kids’ club and a convention center.
As if all that weren’t enough, a second hotel will open here in 2018, one that’s not all-inclusive, of the W brand.
The Westin has an adults-only area called the Royal Beach Club, with 102 rooms, plus a Family Club with 55 rooms. The entire property is owned by Florida Ice and Farm, the beverage company that makes Imperial beer, and is managed by Marriott International under the Westin brand.
Prices vary widely, but can safely be described as “high.” A standard double can run $415 and up, a suite $850 and up. Manager Hernán Binaghi said in September you might pay $400 for a room for two, but on Dec. 29, you would be looking at $1,000 for the same room.
“The idea is you leave feeling much better than when you arrive,” he said.
The Conchal Hotel in Brasilito is a lot of fun to look at, with a whimsical color scheme of bright blues, reds, oranges and yellows, and a pebbled effect on exterior walls reminiscent of the Flintstones. The blue pool in the center of the courtyard is surrounded by a well-tended tropical garden often visited by iguanas and birds.
The 16 rooms have double, queen or king beds with nice linens and lots of pillows. Floors are simple cement, but there are nice decorative touches throughout the rooms. All have A/C, hot water, TV and a mini-fridge, and some have coffeemakers and hair dryers.
The upstairs Papaya Restaurant is also very good, serving healthy international fare, including coconut dorado, 5-spice lobster, filet mignon, coconut green curry and jumbo Caribbean shrimp. Or for big appetites, try the “surf and surf,” with grilled tuna, lobster and shrimp served with grilled vegetables, green papaya salad, and a selection of sauces including avocado wasabi, ginger soy sauce and sweet Thai chili. Entrée prices average about ₡10,000.
You can also easily walk from here to any of the restaurants in Brasilito, and it’s within stumbling distance of several lively bars.
Depending on the season, a standard double costs $55 to $105; a superior double is $60-$120; twin and honeymoon rooms for 3-4 people are $70 to $140; and family superior rooms for 3-4 people are $80 to $160. Rates do not include tax, but breakfast is included.
If you can find nicer beachfront lodging at a better price, book it. Hotel Brasilito is right across the road from Playa Brasilito, and even in the high season you can get a double for $35 without A/C, or $54 with. Rooms are basic but clean, most have A/C and TV, and all have ceiling fans and hot showers. The hotel’s free Wi-Fi is not very reliable, in my experience, but perhaps this will be fixed.
Brasilito is perhaps the most “Tico town” on this coastline, with several lower-priced hotels, restaurants, bars and stores clustered around a fútbol field, all within walking distance of each other. This is a good spot for the more social traveler, who perhaps wants to belly up to a bar at night and converse with locals and visitors. It’s not a “get away from it all” type of place, and you may hear a little music, hustle and bustle from your room at night.
There’s a large restaurant and bar on-site, The Spot, under separate management, and two others right across the street, with a soda next door. Brasilito Beach is right in front across a little dirt road, and the beautiful Playa Conchal is a short hike to the southwest.
Most of the 18 rooms are located in a two-story rectangular building behind the restaurant, and there are three ocean-view rooms between the restaurant and the beach. An ocean-front family room for up to five goes for $75 in the low season, $84 in the high. Budget rooms without air conditioning cost $25 in the low season, $35 in the high, and standard rooms with air conditioning go for $44 in the low season, $54 in the high season. All prices are plus tax, and there is an extra charge to pay by credit card.
Casas del Toro
Attention to detail is the hallmark of this excellent hotel in Flamingo, from its manicured gardens to its curving stone walkways to the imaginative fountains to the classy interior décor. Rústico this is not. This is posh.
On the road that leads to the beach in Flamingo, Casas del Toro opened just two years ago, and improvements are constantly being made — but there’s no rushing this kind of quality. Everywhere I looked I saw the trace of a perfectionist designer saying, “Make it better. Make it nicer. Put some art on that wall. I don’t care what it costs.”
My room had an eye-pleasing nautical design, with artwork depicting boats, a ship’s wheel and a lighthouse. Outside, the nice design touches include rock walls and heavy wrought-iron railings.
The only thing missing here is a real restaurant, though they’re going to build one. There’s a shared kitchen, and meals can be ordered from a menu until 4 p.m. and eaten in your room, at the pool or in the humble dining room.
There are 19 rooms here — one-bedroom apartments ($150 on average for up to three people, breakfast and taxes included) and two-bedroom villas ($250 for up to six). All have living rooms, dining rooms and full kitchens, with air conditioners and TVs in the living room and also each bedroom. And no mini-fridges, for a change; here there are maxi-fridges!
Under the same management is Villas Ferlito, just across the parking lot, where 17 homes are rented by the month or year-round.
Flamingo Beach Resort
As the manager of the Flamingo Beach Resort gave me a tour of this sumptuous property, I told him that this is not the kind of place I usually stay because I’m too frugal — but if my friends from the U.S. were flying thousands of miles to Costa Rica for their one big vacation of the year, it’s the kind of place I would want them to stay.
It’s a beautiful property — the only beachfront hotel in Flamingo, it’s a large, 4-star resort with a huge swimming pool in the middle with a swim-up bar.
There’s a big two-story rancho facing the beach with good restaurants on both floors, and behind that is a courtyard full of palm trees and nice gardens, and the pool.
The hotel has all-inclusive, breakfast-only and room-only options. (In fact, a bartender told me there are eight — 8! — levels you can book, including some that include alcohol but not premium liquors, and some that include everything they have to offer.)
Like many all-inclusives, the hotel offers daily activities like aqua-aerobics, taichi, Latin dance lessons, Spanish lessons and swim-up bar bingo. (I would have played the bingo, but I didn’t understand the strategy.)
Rooms come with all the amenities you’d expect: A/C, TV, phone, mini-fridge, desk, colorful artwork, elegant beds.
Standard rooms in the low season start at $146 double with breakfast, plus tax, and in the high season they are $189. All-inclusive rates for standard rooms are $248 double per night in the low season and $348 in the high season. For pool views, add an extra $10, and for ocean views, add up to $100.
The best deal I found on the Flamingo Coast was at Bahía Esmeralda in Potrero, where I paid $30 for a perfectly good room with air conditioning, ceiling fan, hot water, cable TV, nice artwork, a swimming pool and grounds so spacious that I almost never saw my neighbors.
When it looked like I would have to leave my room because of a prior reservation, I drove up and down the road between Potrero and Brasilito looking for a comparable deal at other cabinas, but I found prices in the $40 to $60 range, and compared to Esmeralda, some of these places were dumps. Fortunately the prior reservation canceled, and I quite happily stayed put.
Sadly, the owner of this hotel died three months ago, and his 28-year-old daughter Elena took it over. She is an oceanologist and a scuba divemaster who studied in Spain and Mexico, and now she has reluctantly added “hotelier” to her resume.
This hotel is a mix of standard hotel rooms ($40 with breakfast, $30 without), and pricier apartments and suites with full kitchens, living rooms and one or two bedrooms, some of them very attractively decorated, and competitively priced with anything in the region.
One minor downside here is that the restaurant no longer operates except to serve a continental breakfast, but the hotel is situated a few minutes’ walk or drive from multiple good restaurants.
Oh, and I did wake up in the middle of the night to the sound of barking dogs in the neighborhood … and then crowing roosters … and then a gobbling turkey … and then howler monkeys. But what is the management supposed to do, go around the neighborhood assassinating all the animals?
All in all, I’d say that this is a place where you get a lot more for a lot less.
Bahía del Sol
For the fairly well-to-do traveler on this coast, the 4-star Bahía del Sol is sort of in the Goldilocks zone — not as expensive as the Westin, not as isolated as Sugar Beach, not as crowded as the Flamingo Beach Resort. Located right in front of Potrero Beach, it’s in a gorgeous location with lush gardens and incomparable sunsets.
Manager Gabriela Rojas, asked what makes this place special, said: “I would say No. 1 is the privacy. Playa Potrero is a beach that’s not full of big businesses, of big chains; you can still enjoy peace and tranquillity on a beach that’s very good for swimming, and for aquatic sports like kayak and stand-up paddling.”
In fact, the beach in front of the hotel does feel pretty private, although of course it’s public by law, but there are stores, restaurants and other businesses within walking distance here in Potrero.
“For people looking for a beach destination for their wedding, there are few hotels in the country that have the privilege of being right in front of the sea — there’s no street between the hotel and the sea,” Rojas said. “And I think it’s an area that’s very tranquila; you can rest, but also be very close to areas that are more commercial, like Tamarindo.”
For weddings, “the ceremony is done on the beach, and the reception is done all around the palapa,” she said. “It’s very pretty and very special because it’s a very isolated beach, so it becomes a very private event. It’s not like other places where there are a lot of people watching people get married.”
Rooms include the ocean-view King Sun Suite, with Jacuzzi, outdoor shower and terrace, for honeymoons or other romantic occasions; deluxe rooms with the same amenities except the ocean view; deluxe superiors, also very romantic and totally renovated, opening Dec. 1; family suites with two bedrooms, two bathrooms, living room, dining room and kitchen; and standard rooms with two queen beds. All rooms have A/C, hot water, free wi-fi, cable TV, minibar and safe box.
There’s a nice swimming pool and a spa that offers massage, manicures, pedicures, wraps and facial treatments.
Rates range from $165 double plus tax, breakfast included, for a standard room to $450 plus tax for a family suite for four.
Sugar Beach Hotel
For a place to “get away from it all” at an upscale hotel with a beautiful playa for under $200, the three-star Sugar Beach Hotel is hard to top. It’s on the gorgeous and isolated Playa Pan de Azúcar between Potrero and Las Catalinas, far enough away from everything that you’ll share the beach with nobody but other hotel guests.
This can be a plus or a minus, depending on your preference — there are no stores or other businesses nearby, so you’ll need your own car or will have to call a taxi to go anywhere else. But most everything you’ll need is right here — a really good restaurant (I liked the curry fish special and the Cuban sandwich); a well-stocked bar (the tamarindo vodka is divine); massages and yoga under a big palapa swept by ocean breezes; and best of all, the unbroken green forest and endless blue sea that surround this special spot.
Rooms are large, posh and well-stocked, all with A/C, hot water, mini-fridges, coffeemakers, flatscreen TVs and DVD players, with a large selection of free movies available at the front desk. I would have liked a desk, but I made do with a comfy chair and a night stand. Annoyances were as minor as a toilet seat that wouldn’t stand up, but at least your wife won’t complain that you left the seat up.
There’s a nice little swimming pool and a broad, curving lawn between the breeze-swept restaurant and the beach, where I saw a couple playing in the surf with their baby and their toddler. (Just don’t ask me why “Playa Pan de Azúcar,” “Sugar Bread Beach,” is translated “Sugar Beach,” as if someone forgot the bread.)
Rates for standard rooms run $140 to $180, depending on the season, with tax and breakfast included. Pricier options include the beach houses and Congo Suite apartments. This is a popular place to hold weddings, and there are 26 units to house all the guests.
Manager Victoria Bonilla described the style as “modern and fresh,” saying, “For us less is more — basic things but clean, nice, simple, comfortable.”
Of this area in general, she said, “When you come here, you go to the roots, you go to the simpler things in life, and then you find yourself.”