Destination
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Destination of the Week: Papagayo, Costa Rica

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If this winter’s polar vortex is inspiring you to plan a tropical vacation, know that now through April, Costa Rica  is warm, sunny and dry. For today’s Destination of the Week, TPG Assistant Editor Melanie Wynne takes us to one of her (and The Points Guy’s) favorite spots on the northwest coast of Costa Rica: the wild, volcanic Peninsula Papagayo.

papagayo-gulf-2-melanie-wynne
The Gulf of Papagayo

Best known for its sandy beaches and deep blue, warm waters of the eponymous gulf it sits on, the small peninsula of Papagayo in the northwest Guanacaste region of Costa Rica is surrounded by a volcanic landscape of high cliffs and rocky Pacific Ocean coves. Its interior is crisscrossed by river rapids and waterfalls, and dry tropical forests full of wildlife like monkeys and toucans. The Four Seasons Resort Costa Rica at Peninsula Papagayo used to be the area’s only lodgings of note, but in recent years Papagayo has evolved into an ecotourism destination on a slightly larger scale, with several hotels and scores of outdoor activities that range from adventurous to relaxing.

The peak season here lasts from January to April, offering the warmest temperatures (averaging 80° F) and the least rain. Humidity levels rise in May, bringing brief, daily rain showers through July. The official rainy season stretches from August to December, bringing lush greenery to the peninsula.

WHAT TO DO

While many of the Guanacaste region’s beaches are studded with volcanic rock, the coastline around Papagayo is mostly soft, golden sand. You could easily spend your days here hanging out on a lounge chair with a good book, but there’s also plenty to do in the bathtub-warm water of the Gulf of Papagayo, and on side trips throughout the region’s well-protected wilderness.

Golden sand beach on Culebra Bay

Around the crooked curve of the peninsula, the Gulf of Papagayo includes Papagayo Bay and Culebra Bay, and its three main resort towns are Panama Beach, Hermosa Beach and Coco Beach. All three beach areas are renowned for their marine life, attracting snorkelers and scuba divers, as well as sea kayaking and sport fishing excursions. Panama is the most affluent of the three – as well as the only shore with dark gray-brown sand – and includes high-end shopping, restaurants and five-star resorts like the Four Seasons. Hermosa has several mid-range hotels and restaurants along its northern end, but is far quieter on its southern end, where horseback riding is a popular pastime. Coco is best known as a laid-back hangout for expats and Ticos (Costa Rican slang for locals), but is also remarkable for its calm, blue-gray water, as opposed to the blue-green water found just about everywhere else. 

If you want to get out into the forest surrounding the peninsula without straying too far from your resort or hotel, you can book a  local zip-line or waterfall-rappelling adventure. Or if you’re up for day and/or overnight trips, consider the outdoor activities and wildlife experiences at the national parks closest to Papagayo.

Rincón de la Vieja: 30 minutes northeast of Papagayo, you can hike through meadows and evergreen forest until you reach hot springs near the base of this park’s volcano. Bring along a swimsuit to enjoy a dip in this rarely crowded spot, as well as various waterfall pools in the park.

waterfall-rincon-de-la-vieja-costa-rica
Rincón de la Vieja

Santa Rosa and Guanacaste: 90 minutes north of the peninsula, these two contiguous national parks contain the largest protected dry forest area in Costa Rica. Santa Rosa is also home to two of the world’s most famous surf spots – Witch’s Rock and Ollie’s Point, both set on the Gulf of Papagayo – and its Nancite and Naranjo beaches are nesting areas for various sea turtles. December to February are peak times to see Pacific Green turtles, while Olive Ridley turtles can generally be seen here throughout the year. The landlocked Guanacaste National Park, an ideal destination for hiking, includes three volcanoes and 230,000 different species of mammals, birds, amphibians and reptiles.

Palo Verde: 2 hours southeast of Papagayo, this park is popular for birdwatching tours along its Río Tempisque in flat-bottom boats. This is the most significant migratory bird site of the Mesoamerican Pacific, with noted sightings of about 250,000 different species. The height of the dry season, January through April, is the best time for bird viewing, as greenery is at its lowest and most sparse.

Toucans can be seen in many Guanacaste parks
Toucans can be seen in many Guanacaste parks

Marino Las Baulas/Tamarindo National Wildlife Refuge: 2 ½ hours south of the peninsula, right on the coast, Marino Las Baulas is named for the Leatherback turtles (baulas) who nest on the park’s isolated Playa Grande from October to March. Nesting grounds are largely unmarked, so the safest way to spot local wildlife is by kayaking through the estuaries and mangrove swamps of the adjacent Tamarindo Refuge.

Barra Honda: Three hours southeast of Papagayo, by the Nicoya Peninsula, this park is known for its extensive limestone caverns. Early morning through mid-afternoon, local guides lead daily tours of some of the caves, which contain a myriad of rock formations and unusual creatures. You can also take yourself hiking along a well-defined network of trails through the park’s dry tropical forest.

WHERE TO EAT

Costa Rica isn’t especially renowned for its cuisine, which generally involves lightly seasoned fresh fish, chicken or beef, grilled plantains and a combination of black beans and rice called gallo pinto. The most commonly found restaurants are inexpensive, casual and open-air cafés called sodas, slang for the packaged soda crackers that accompany everything from fresh ceviches to blue-plate specials called casados. However, as a high-end beach resort area, Papagayo offers a wider selection of dining options.

Casual cafes called "sodas" are named for soda crackers
Casual cafes called “sodas” are named for soda crackers

One of the few eateries right on the sand at Coco Beach, Cafe de Playa serves full meals and snacks from morning to night, and features big breakfasts, a sushi menu, a mostly-Spanish wine list and a 2-for-1 happy hour. Four blocks from the beach, streamlined, modern Citron Restaurante offers Italian spins on Costa Rican seafood dishes, and features a large garden deck out back.

Cantilevered into the side of a hill above Hermosa Beach, the treehouse-style Ginger Restaurant & Bar offers an Asian-Mediterranean, all-appetizer menu for happy hour and dinner. Down on the sand, the inexpensive, casual and family-run restaurant at Hotel El Velero serves three daily meals, specializing in Costa Rican seafood and, on Wednesday and Saturday nights, hearty BBQ dinners.

Ginger Restaurant and Bar
Ginger Restaurant and Bar

At Panama Beach, the Hacienda del Mar business/residential project features the rustic-chic Abbocato, which is run by a husband-wife team and and blends Costa Rican, Northern Italian and Chinese flavors. The beam-ceilinged dining room is surrounded by a tropical garden, and the poolside patio looks out on the gulf.

GETTING THERE

The closest airport is Daniel Oduber Quíros International Airport (LIR) Liberia, about 25 miles away. LIR offers direct flights from New York, Miami, Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Toronto and Montreal, and carriers include American Airlines, Delta, United, JetBlue, Air Canada and West Jet.

Liberia Airport
Liberia Airport

Other destinations will require flying into Costa Rica’s hub, Juan Santamaría International Airport (SJO), in the capital city of San José; carriers include American, Delta, United and US Airways. Costa Rica’s own charter airline, Nature Air, offers three daily, 45-minute connecting flights between SJO and LIR.

Costa Rica's Nature Air connects SJO and LIR
Costa Rica’s Nature Air connects SJO and LIR

Many Papagayo area hotels provide paid shuttle service, either private or shared, to and from LIR. Alternatively, private taxis and public buses can be found at the airport. Be advised that air conditioning is rarely available on either and taxis aren’t bound to set rates. Car rental companies with kiosks at LIR include Avis, Budget and Europcar, all of which encourage advance bookings during the peak season. Consider renting  a 4×4 vehicle if you plan to explore nearby beaches or visit national parks; Papagayo is surrounded by mostly paved, two-lane country roads, but secondary roads can be gravel-paved, marked with potholes, or run across shallow stretches of river.

HOTELS

Hilton

Hilton Papagayo Costa Rica Resort & Spa: Featuring a wide range of room types, including bungalows with gulf views and junior suites with plunge pools, this all-inclusive, family-friendly resort is 100% smoke-free and home to six different restaurants and bars. On-site activities include tennis, kayaking and snorkeling, as well as a full-service spa with 13 treatment rooms, and special clubs for children and teens. TPG found the property less than spectacular, though, and left midway through his stay for the Andaz Papagayo. February rates start at $458 a night or 60,000 HHonors Points.

Hilton Papagayo
Hilton Papagayo

Hilton Garden Inn Liberia Airport: Ideal for early or late departures from LIR, this Category 4 property features an outdoor pool, on-site restaurant and convenience store, and guestrooms include Garden Sleep beds, 32-inch LCDs with HDTV, and complimentary WiFi. February nightly rates start at $149, 30,000 HHonors Points, or 12,000 HHonors points + $50.

Hyatt

Andaz Peninsula Papagayo: This 153-guestroom luxury property opened in December 2013 beside Culebra Bay, featuring decor with woven textiles, solid wood fixtures and carved artifacts. There are separate infinity pools for adults and families, the resort offers an on-site kids’ club, and two of the 11,000 square-foot spa’s nine treatment rooms are set outdoors above the treeline. Outdoor equipment includes snorkel gear and jet skis, and there are three restaurants from which to choose. WiFi and non-alcoholic minibars in each room are complimentary. All rooms include walk-in rain showers and 40-inch LCD TVs, and a handful of suites have plunge pools. In February, nightly rates begin at $480 or 25,000 Hyatt Passport points. Read TPG’s review from his January stay here.

Andaz Peninsula
Andaz Peninsula Papagayo

Visa Signature

When cardholders use a Visa Signature credit card to book a room through the Visa Signature Hotels program, they are eligible to receive extra perks such as discounted room rates, room upgrades, free breakfast, early check-in and late check-out, dining and spa credits and more. Visa Signature cards include the Chase Sapphire Preferred, Chase SapphireInk BoldInk PlusBritish Airways Visa, the Hyatt card, the Marriott Rewards Premier and Marriott Rewards cards, the Southwest Plus card, Bank of America’s Alaska Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines cards, Capital One VentureCiti Hilton HHonors and Citi Hilton HHonors ReserveUS Bank FlexPerksCiti AAdvantage Visa Signature, and many more, so chances are you’re carrying at least one of them in your wallet.

El Mangroove: Newly opened in 2014, this 85-suite property is set amongst dry tropical forest and mangroves on a one-mile stretch of Papagayo Bay, just 20 minutes from LIR. Geared towards adults, sustainability and wellness, the resort offers a treetop spa, a cross-fit gym, yoga decks, and a 130-foot-long plunge pool ringed by private cabanas. The decor’s palette is mostly white, with touches of gold, orange and brown, and in-room services include pleasure kits, as well as pillow and scent menus. There are two restaurants and two lounges, and outdoor activities include stand-up paddle boarding and surfing. February rates start at $320 per night. 

El Mangroove
El Mangroove

Amex Fine Hotels & Resorts

Update: The offer mentioned below for the Platinum Card from American Express has expired. View the current offer here.

Fine Hotels and Resorts is a hotel program specifically for American Express Platinum and Business Platinum cardholders. By booking through this portal, you receive added perks and benefits thrown in with your stay – sort of like you would with elite status or by booking through a travel agent with great contacts at a hotel.

Four Seasons Resort Costa Rica at Peninsula Papagayo: This 175-guestroom luxury property sprawls along Culebra Bay, with access to two beaches, four pools, five restaurants and a bar/lounge. All rooms and suites blend indoor and outdoor spaces, toiletries are by L’Occitaine and WiFi is complimentary throughout the resort. Private residences, ranging from one to five bedrooms, include private pools and complimentary shuttle access to the nearby Prieta Beach Club & Spa. In addition to an 18-room spa, there’s a 72-par golf course designed by Arnold Palmer, as well as an on-site surfing school and tennis courts. Child-friendly amenities include a dedicated pool, a teen club outfitted with a wide variety of gaming consoles, and outdoor activities geared towards ages 4-12. Rates in February start at $1,125 per night.

Other Options

Occidental Grand Papagayo Resort: Declared adults-only in November 2013, this 162-guestroom, all-inclusive property on the gulf’s Playa Buena features the option of Royal Club status, with VIP access to all amenities and complimentary WiFi. Deluxe ocean view rooms include terraces or balconies, and most rooms and suites feature white textiles and terra-cotta tile floors. In addition to a freshwater pool and a full menu of outdoor activities (from kayaking to bocce ball), the resort features four restaurants (three a la carte, one buffet), four bars, and a disco. February rates start at $325.60 per night.

Occidental Grand Papagayo
Occidental Grand Papagayo

Note: The Grand Papagayo’s nearby sister property, the Occidental Allegro Papagayo, features similar amenities and allows children.

With warm temperatures and clear skies through April – and no sign of the cold releasing its grip on North America – now is an ideal time to book a tropical escape to Papagayo.

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