FLAMINGO, Guanacaste — Showing me a $2.5 million villa at The Palms, Mark Randall touched a button in a master bedroom and a big flatscreen TV started rising from the foot of the bed.
“Wow, this is like a James Bond house!” I said.
It’s so you can watch TV in bed at night, Mark said, but in the morning the TV won’t be blocking the stunning view of Flamingo Beach you see through these glass doors.
You get what you pay for, I thought.
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.
And here on the Flamingo Coast, where I toured properties from Playa Grande to Conchal to Brasilito to Flamingo to Potrero to Las Catalinas, you can get just about anything you want. And you don’t have to be a millionaire.
“You still can get a $100,000 little house that’s walking distance from the beach,” said Estela Reyes, who runs the RE/MAX office in Flamingo, referring to properties in Potrero. “So you can go from $5 million properties to $100,000, and you don’t see the break between the rich and the less fortunate. … Everybody welcomes everybody, and it’s a very small community.”
I talked to a lot of people here about why the Flamingo Coast is a good place to buy property and a good place to live, and the reasons are myriad: natural beauty, great schools, fair prices, close airport and a thriving community in a spot that’s neither too overdeveloped nor too remote.
Marina coming soon — no, really
And there’s one more reason that makes this not only a good place to buy but also a good time: the Flamingo Marina that by all accounts is on the verge of being approved.
“All this apparent inactivity on the land around here, it’s just waiting for that decision,” said Allen Lungo, a Realtor with Keller Williams who’s been here since 2004, around the time the old marina was shut down. “And then this area will be the best place to be in Costa Rica for the next 20 years.”
In other words, the Flamingo region is poised for a major boom, and prices are only going to go up. This is good news both for sellers who can afford to wait and for buyers who are ready to act.
“Let’s say eight years ago, a little bit longer, we had the boom, and real estate in Costa Rica all went up or went down,” said Kenny Segers, a real estate agent with Special Places of Costa Rica (and Estela’s husband). “Now with the marina, everybody is foreseeing that it’s going to go up again.”
Estela said, “Whoever can wait until the marina is in, as soon as the first machine is digging in the ocean, they’re going to raise prices. I have people that contact me — ‘Sell my property’ — and as soon as I mention the marina, they say, ‘Oh, I’m going to wait, then.’”
Even if you’re agnostic about the new marina — and people have been hearing for years that it’s coming any day — the coastline north of Tamarindo and south of Playa del Coco has become a major destination for people looking for a place to live and raise children, to buy an investment or vacation home, or to retire forever.
One of the standout developments here is the Mar Vista, on the green hills overlooking Brasilito and Potrero bays, minutes from the beach. Twenty years in the making, it’s got $14 million worth of infrastructure, paved roads and clay tennis courts, and it remains remarkably low-density.
I was sitting with Federico Marin and Aaron Berkowitz, who design and build homes here, at Club Mar Vista, a hillside restaurant and bar with an infinity pool and a spectacular view of an oceanscape dotted with pretty islands.
“The scenery around here,” Berkowitz said, “because we have all these little islands — we have the Catalina Islands to look at, we have the Parrot Island, Isla de Los Loros — it’s more a scenic view than just looking at the ocean.”
“Also,” Marin said, “if you want to compare this area with Sámara or Santa Teresa, there are some factors like being less than an hour away from the international airport in Liberia; also being less than an hour from good hospital facilities in Liberia; having very good shopping places around. You don’t have to drive an hour to go to a good supermarket. It’s more family-oriented than other places.”
I had already toured a couple of sumptuous homes at Mar Vista with Britta Engelhardt, a German woman who runs the Tropical Homes vacation rental company. (She had asked if I wanted to see her “high-end, super-duper houses,” which struck me as a good description — one had a little movie theater, and both had infinity pools and views to die for.)
Britta also represents homes on the beach in Surfside, an upscale neighborhood in Potrero. Her vacation rentals run close to $6,500 per week, “but divide by six or eight people and it’s a pretty good deal,” she said. Great. Now I just need six or eight friends.
For those looking to buy at Mar Vista, lots start at $70,000 and climb to $500,000, Aaron said. Finished homes range from $400,000 to $3.5 million, though there’s a “starter home” package for $249,000, for a 2-bedroom, 2-bath, 1,150-square-foot home on a quarter-acre lot.
Mar Vista also offers private financing, at rates as low as 4.5 percent, depending on the size of the down payment.
A few people told me that they’re seeing an increasing number of buyers here in their 30s and 40s with young kids. One big plus at Mar Vista is that it shrewdly donated space on its property for the La Paz private international school, possibly the finest in the region. So the kids can walk to school and back in a totally secure area.
On the northern end of this coastline at Playa Danta is a development called Las Catalinas, where you may feel like you’ve stepped out of Costa Rica and into a walkable village on the Mediterranean, full of courtyards, fountains and swimming pools. Manager Neal Herman described the concept as “density but privacy.”
Pedestrian-only streets made of brick or paving stones connect a series of luxe villas that sell for around $200,000 for a one-bedroom flat to $3 million for a 5-bedroom beachfront home. You can also rent these places at prices that average $200 per bedroom per night.
“At our core we’re planners,” Neal said, “so we spend a lot of time thinking about our urban plan, which is modeled after a concept called new urbanism. … It’s all about that we need to be connected, an idea of not having cars on your streets. You’re going to be healthy, walking around on your own power — for some that’s freedom, for some that’s an opportunity to meet other people….
“There’s not a lot of beauty in the world, and we think that doing something beautiful, that’s a good ambition to have.”
On the south end of this coastline, just across the estuary from bustling Tamarindo, is Playa Grande, which unlike the bays of Brasilito and Potrero has excellent surfing. I stayed at a couple of great hotels here, the Bula Bula and the RipJack Inn, and toured a development called Las Ventanas de Playa Grande with real estate agent Dave Corredor, a co-owner of the RipJack.
This 380-acre property has lots that range in price from $60,000 to $220,000, and in size from 1,200 square meters to 5,000. Only 10 homes have been built so far, and all have sold; Dave said he thinks it’s likely that 300 to 350 units will be built, yet even so he said the density will remain very low.
“And it’s a debt-free project… It’s all financed in cash and it will never take on debt,” he said.
Finished homes start at $299,000 for a brand-new, 2-bedroom, 2-bath, 1,200-square-foot home in a “contemporary-tropical” style. Higher-end homes range from $375,000 to $699,000.
“One of the founding principles is construction that’s in harmony with our environment here,” Dave said. “And so that means, generally speaking, houses that are designed efficiently with tons of insulation and other features that make it so they cool themselves.”
Dave showed me an 1,800-square-foot, 3-bedroom, 3-bath house under construction, presold for $599,000, with a Balinese-style roof, wooden deck with outdoor kitchen, barbecue, sink and fridge, an infinity pool, quartz kitchen countertops, custom cabinets with “anti-slam doors,” and huge sliding-glass doors that provide breezy cross-ventilation.
The home is made of beautiful Costa Rican teak, with bathroom walls of coralina, a fossilized coral taken from reefs in Colombia and the Dominican Republic.
“It’s a wonderful finish, super-warm and natural,” he said. “So there’s a lot of modern stuff about these houses, but also earthy, natural touches.”
Just up the road is another community under development, Corona del Cabo, with ocean-view lots of 5,000 square meters at costs ranging from $125,000 to $350,000. It has 30 lots, with one finished home and two under construction.
“Corona del Cabo is a small, intimate gated community that offers beachside living with spectacular ocean views,” said Peter Breitlander, who represents the properties out of his office in Potrero.
The site is 15 minutes from Flamingo, 20 minutes from Tamarindo, 45 minutes from the Liberia international airport — and three minutes from the beach.
Peter and his wife, Sarah, run Krain Costa Rica, which has offices in Potrero, Ocotal and one coming soon to Flamingo. Krain’s eight agents all have U.S. real estate licenses — a nice plus in Costa Rica, where no real estate licensing exists.
“Our team is comprised of U.S. licensed agents who have chosen real estate as their profession and value the high standards imposed by U.S. licensing requirements,” Peter said. “Simply put, we are the best at what we do. Our professionalism, knowledge and high quality of service is the cornerstone of our unprecedented success and is our continued promise to our clients.”
On top of the highest hill on Flamingo’s North Ridge, a major condo project called the 360 Splendor del Pacífico is under construction, with 36 units that will sell for between $295,000 for a 1-bedroom and $1.75 million for a penthouse.
The general partner on the project is Ed Podolak, 69, who was a running back for the Kansas City Chiefs from 1969 to 1977. His team won the Super Bowl his rookie year. He didn’t start, but he did play, and of course he still has the ring.
He and his partners bought the hilltop property in 1998, but they didn’t start building until 2015 — in part because they believed the marina was finally going to be rebuilt.
“It’s a stand-alone, it could be all right, but the marina just makes it much, much better,” Podolak said. “It’s a wonderful site, with access to Flamingo Beach, which is all mangroves, so you know nothing will ever be built on Flamingo Beach. It’ll be like that 200 years from now. … The site is very attractive, but knowing that marina would be built made us pull the trigger.”
I toured a sumptuous model at the site, where Podolak said half the units are already sold. Typically the buyers are investors looking for a place to stay for a month or so and rent out the rest of the year.
The first phase of four buildings is expected to be complete by July, with a fifth ready by December 2017. There will will be an infinity pool, a 4,000-square-foot restaurant and bar, an exercise facility and a spa. The cost of the entire project is about $20 million.
At the upper end up of the upscale options here is the 2,300-acre Reserva Conchal, a luxury housing development on the same property as the Westin Golf Resort & Spa and the 18-hole golf course designed by Robert Trent Jones II.
Here at the Llama del Bosque subdivision, lot prices start at $197,000, or at nearby Aromo they’re $299,000. You can also rent here, of course — around $350 a night for a one-bedroom residence, to around $1,700 for a five-bedroom villa with a private pool.
Owners have access to some but not all of the amenities of the 5-star all-inclusive Westin Golf Resort & Spa. And practically right across the street is an excellent private school, formerly the Country Day School, now known as CRIA, the Costa Rica International Academy.
Hernán Binaghi, the general manager of the Westin, sends his kids to CRIA, and he said, “If you go there to pick up your kids, you can hear maybe 20 languages. It’s amazing. … Here you will hear French, Russian, Croatian, Italian — there’s a huge community. I would say there are more than 20 nationalities in the school.”
So back to that James Bond house. … The Palms, just south of the Flamingo Beach Resort, is probably the nicest housing development I’ve ever visited, and with prices starting at $925,000, it ought to be.
What’s unusual here is that in the 1990s the site was grandfathered in to allow titled property that starts at 50 meters from the high-tide line of the gorgeous beach. This is ordinarily impossible in Costa Rica, where you generally need a concession to build anything within 200 meters of the beach — and even if you “buy” within that concession, you don’t really own the land, you’re just borrowing it.
Words fail me to describe how elegant these residences are. “Lady Gaga should have a place like this,” I said to manager Mark Randall as he gave me a tour of a couple of them.
He said celebrities aren’t really drawn to this place because of privacy issues, but he reeled off a list of names of tech, business and finance titans who own or rent here. I won’t name the individuals, but the companies had names like Google, Amazon and the Minnesota Vikings, and one guy is a former Costa Rican president.
Construction started eight years ago, and it took four and a half years to build. Even the walls around the place are stunning, made of hand-placed stones, some flat and some horizontal, that took three men something like three years to complete.
When Mark came here four years ago, nothing had been sold, but today 20 of 34 units have been. There are 32 2-bedroom, 2-story units ($925,000 to $1.1 million) and two 3-bedroom units on the ends with two master bedrooms each ($2.5 million). Typically owners spend one to three months here and rent them out the rest of the year.
In the center of the complex facing the strangely close beach is a beautiful swimming pool, close-cropped lawn and palm trees. And there’s a restaurant with no dining room, serving gourmet meals at the pool, on the beach or in your villa.
Looking for a nice rental? It’s all yours for $550 to $650 a night — or $1,200 for Christmas or New Year’s.
Come on, live a little.