Call of Costa
On the Hunt for the Rio Celeste Waterfall, Howler Monkeys, sublime seafood, and inspired locals, Erin Lentz discovers why Exclusive Resorts’ flagship development, Peninsula Papagayo, is considered a Central American gem.
“You salsa?” asks Alex. It’s barbecue night at the Poro Poro Clubhouse at Exclusive Resorts’ flagship destination, Peninsula Papagayo. As the Costa Rican bartender flashes a smile—a dare, rather—he shakes up pineapple-jalapeño margaritas to the beat of a local ska band. Poncho, a white-faced monkey (and Poro Poro regular), eyes me too, as if echoing Alex’s challenge. I give in, and less than two hours post wheels-down at Liberia airport, I find myself awkwardly attempting to salsa under a canopy of Guanacaste trees and a brilliant crescent moon. And just like that, my dance with this country’s natural playground begins.
Costa Rica has an authentic rhythm. One defined by cheerful locals and volcanic wonders that tango with ethereal waterfalls and 1,000-plus animal and bird species. There’s a tangible admiration for the sea and water, be it the lure of surf breaks in Tamarindo, deep-sea fishing, or hiking to the electric-blue Rio Celeste Waterfall in Tenorio Volcano National Park. This powerful punch of nature, married with a colorful culture, is just what the Exclusive Resorts’ executive team discovered on their initial visit to the idyllic peninsula more than a decade ago. Put simply, there’s some magic to this land.
The following morning, I awake to my first Costa Rican sunrise. As the sun peeks over the peninsula and Culebra Bay, I sip local coffee on our outdoor terrace. A curious iguana sunbathes on a rock near the house, while a howler monkey noshes on a mango in the dense canopy above. I’m reminded of this country’s famous motto, Pura Vida, which celebrates a deep respect for nature and a peaceful, simple approach to life.
The Founding of a Flagship
Upon arrival to the Club’s private gated community, which hugs 30 acres on the south side of Peninsula Papagayo and 23 miles of rugged coastline, it’s quickly apparent why so many Exclusive Resorts Members tap this luxury vacation property as a favorite. The entry, lined by magnificent palm trees and a discreet front drive, instills a sense of grandeur and calm. An undulating road to 17 spectacular four-bedroom villas and the Poro Poro Clubhouse dips and bends, with hints of the bay and the Pacific teased along the way. The night of my arrival, I’m greeted by our personal concierge Ronald Sánchez Batista, who checks me into Jicaro No. 14, a stunning, 3,905-square foot, two-story residence perched high in the jungle with an infinity plunge pool reminiscent of a five-star Robinson Crusoe fantasy. We tour the development via golf cart—Members’ preferred mode of transport—and come to a stop at the aforementioned restaurant, abuzz with families, vacationing couples, and a boisterous girls’ getaway.
Developed in 2004 by Exclusive Resorts’ development team, including former CEO Cathy Ross, this flagship, $70 million property remains the gem of the Club’s portfolio.
Yet developing this piece of paradise, while full of promise, posed its challenges. “I remember looking out across acres of vacant land, up to our waists in brush, trying to visualize with our architects what our residences would look like,” Ross recalls. “We had to walk through the property with a machete, cutting through the jungle.”
With no utilities or roads, the team was first tasked with building an infrastructure. As such, Wayne Johnson, then Director of Architecture at Exclusive Resorts, contracted a team of talented locals: developer Ecodesorrollo/CMS, architect Zurcher Arquitectos, and Fusion Design.
Johnson and team took great lengths to ensure the Club’s development blended with the peninsula’s natural surroundings. “There was an effort to locally source to the greatest extent possible, and to be part of the landscape,” Johnson says, noting the homes’ interior reed roofs. “All of the artwork is by local artisans, and the majority of furniture is custom-built in Honduras. We kept the interior colors muted, so the jungle and ocean views would become the art. We had two floor plans, which we mirrored, and then created two roof styles—the armadillo and the butterfly. This resulted in eight variations of homes, and it feels like all are unique.”
“There was so much thought that went into the homes,” says Ross. “We wanted them to be perfect for our Members. That meant creating expansive porches with lots of seating, spacious dining rooms with open-air kitchens perfect for cooking classes, and kid-friendly floor plans that still provided plenty of privacy for couples traveling together.”
At the heart of the property remain Ricardo Lopez, General Manager, and Executive Chef Nicolas Devenelle. Both have been at the property since its inception. Lopez has created such a genuine rapport with Membersand staff that most nights you’ll find him visiting with guests at the restaurant, asking how their day has been and giving insider tips for the following one. His leadership has been vital to the property’s success, as has Chef Devenelle’s culinary expertise. Born in Champagne, France, Chef Devenelle’s love of cooking was fostered at an early age by his grandmother, and after several positions with various Four Seasons resorts, he launched Exclusive Resorts’ culinary program in Costa Rica. Members repeatedly remark that his exceptional cuisine is a top reason for return visits.
“We have Members that have been to Papagayo 20 times,” Ross adds. “It’s like going to their second home. The staff all know them. Other Members enjoy the flagship because they can go to a rugged destination like Costa Rica yet find all the luxury and bespoke service you could ever want or need. The whole development is owned by Exclusive Resorts, so when they’re going to the Members-only Clubhouse there’s that sense of community, surrounded by like-minded travelers.”
Rainforest or Bust: Tenorio Volcano + The Rio Celeste
Though it’s tempting to spend our stay lounging poolside, we have a waterfall in the jungle to find. Tenorio Volcano National Park and the Rio Celeste River and Waterfall are every bit worth the two-hour drive from Exclusive Resorts headquarters. Rent a four-wheel drive vehicle (or hire a guide with one), as the journey, while beautiful, gets increasingly rough— potholes pepper the final eight miles along a steep dirt road. As we slowly bump and prod our way there—past dogs, chickens and a field of orchids (there’s more than 1,400 species in Costa Rica)—the Tenorio Volcano and tiny village of Rio Celeste come into view. We meet our local naturalist, Christian, and begin our adventure through the rainforest. Owls, snakes, and rare birds line the 4.5-mile trail, while an excited couple from Spain shares iPhone evidence of a tapir, an elusive yet friendly South American species that looks like a pig-horse with a trunk.
Our guide reminds us that Costa Rica has the world’s largest number of species per 10,000 square miles: 615, in fact, according to Lonely Planet. The small country, comparable in size to West Virginia, is part of a narrow strip of land that separates two continents and the globe’s two largest oceans. It’s a geographical goldmine, with a tectonic history. This violence under Costa Rica’s terra firma only punctuates its beauty—a kaleidoscope of tropical landscapes, including 12,000 plant species, and a floral biodiversity unlike any other place on Earth.
Mud Baths, Ziplining + River Tubing
Developed on playful terrain, the 600-acre Rio Perdido resort and thermal experience is located in Bagaces (an hour-and-a-half drive from Papagayo, in Guanacaste). Nestled among the canopy of a dwarf forest and located on a raised peninsula formed by the convergence of the Rio Blanco and the Rio Perdido (the “lost” river), the resort is uber-conscious of its environment, celebrated via sustainable design and a menu of non-stop adventure. One can spa, zipline, hike, mountain bike, go river tubing, and soak in thermal hot springs, all on the same property.
We decide to pack in as much as possible in one afternoon, kick-started by the Rio Perdido Canyon Adventure—an adrenaline-infused zipline through magnificent slot canyons and Espavel trees with canopy heights of 160 feet. Led by experienced local guides, we fly through the rainforest with plenty of hoots and hollers, tackling five ziplines of varying lengths, 15 platforms, and a 50-foot Tarzan swing. As if this weren’t enough, we then float the Rio Perdido via inflatable blue tubes. Perfect family fun, our river rousing makes us all feel like kids again, as we bob, weave, and splash while also marveling at the river walls and the silence of the slot canyon. Post lunch we paint each other with volcanic mud and soak in the thermal hot springs. Your skin, though smelling of sulfur, will thank you. The mud detoxifies and softens—a natural Costa Rican boost after a day of action-packed adventure.
Surf's Up: The Town of Tamarindo
Most any serious surfer will hail Robert August and the 1960s surf documentary The Endless Summer as a slight obsession. Its sequel followed surf legends August and Mike Hynson around the globe, including to the tiny Costa Rican town of Tamarindo and perfect breaks at nearby Witch’s Rock. An obsessed surfer from California named Joe Walsh was so inspired by the scene that in 1998, at age 19, he packed his boards, girlfriend (now wife), and father into a school bus and drove to Tamarindo. He never left, and built Witch’s Rock Surf Camp—a boutique, beachfront surf resort and camp that has grown from two to 100 employees. “When I moved down here, the first thing I did was buy a boat and drive people to Witch’s Rock. It started off being a surf tour outfitter company and we grew into instruction. There’s a selection of breaks here from beginner to advanced.” And born from a personal necessity for better beer post surf sessions, in 2011 he launched Volcano Brewing Company with head brewer and British surfer Nikki Hurren. Bringing it all full circle, when we meet Joe and Nikki to sample their suds (the Hasselhopp IPA is dee-lish) at Joe’s El Vaquero Brewpub, Robert August is just a few tables over. A former Tamarindo local himself—which only furthered the town’s surf cred—he currently resides back in California but still shapes boards and leads seminars at Witch’s Rock Surf Camp.
For non-surfers, the town of Tamarindo shadows a 1.5 mile-stretch of beach, its downtown packed with local boutiques, galleries, and, we happily discover, one of the smallest restaurants in the world. At just 32 square feet (not including the deck), The Shrimp Hole, launched by husband-and-wife duo and London transplants Sasha Nash and Gosia Iwaszko, is tiny by design yet big in flavor. Expect just three charming outdoor tables, groovy music and even groovier food. The menu, locally sourced and inspired by the growing global food truck scene, is simple—main dishes are shrimp, and more shrimp, finished in various sauces (the El Clasico—shrimp finished in butter, garlic, lime, and dill, is a must, as is the Captain’s Lemonade, with ginger and vodka).
After lunch we shop at Papaya Con Leche and meet owner Kata Kis, a beautiful former ballet dancer from Hungary who moved to Tamarindo on a whim. “I started the business on the beach. My daughter was two years old then and I used to craft matching bathing suits for us. Eighteen years later, I’m still in business.” A talented seamstress who has an eye for custom-fitting suits to all body types, she also has a line of signature wedge sandals inspired by the laces of ballet shoes, sold with interchangeable, bikini-fabric straps in different colors and patterns—a chic, all-in-one travel shoe.
That evening, the Tamarindo sunset is on fire. The beach is packed with locals and tourists, anxiously awaiting the brilliant orange curtsy over the ocean. As if on cue, three weathered Guanacaste cowboys traverse the beach on horseback, a reminder of Costa Rica’s simpler, and slower, approach to living. Back at Joe’s restaurant, a local reggae band warms up. We say goodbye to Joe, and as we wind our way back to Exclusive Resorts’ Peninsula Papagayo for our final night of vacation, a full moon dips over Culebra Bay. Conversation quickly turns to when we’ll be back. Pura Vida has us hooked.