Puntarenas, Costa Rica: Travel Worth Doing

Recently, I returned from my first Costa Rica trip. And, “Wow.” There were some moments that truly left me breathless:

Sunset at Villa Caletas

My visit was mostly business, but thanks to my friend, Charles Boyd: “Costa Rica Charlie,” I managed to get to see some of the unforgettable sights in the Puntareñas province. Puntareñas actually covers most of the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica, but I spent most of my time near the quaint beach town of Jacó.

Traveling to Costa Rica

The actual trip to Costa Rica isn’t bad at all. My flight to San Jose, the nation’s capital and home of its biggest airport, took only two and a half hours (departing from South Florida). Immigration and customs moved at a reasonable rate, and within an hour after arrival I found myself exiting the airport with my checked bags. Even with my incredibly poor Spanish, I navigated through the process with relative ease.

Doing a little research, I found that many major airlines (and some tiny ones) have regular flights between San Jose and a number of U.S. cities. Finding one isn’t a problem, and cost isn’t a big deal. In fact, this whole trip cost less than many I’ve taken inside the U.S.

From the airport, we had a one-hour (give or take) road trip to get to Jaco, which sits directly on the Pacific Ocean. The journey takes you through some scenic mountainous areas on a relatively new highway, with a few stops to pay tolls along the way.

Jacó Beach

The Town of Jaco Sits on This Gorgeous Little Bay

Depending upon the purpose of your visit,  Jacó may or may not be for you. If you’re looking for the travel-brochure, 4-star luxury scene, you’d be better off visiting one of Costa Rica’s higher-end areas. (One exists just a few minutes North of Jaco, in fact: the world-famous Los Sueños Resort & Marina.) Jaco itself is known to attract surfers from all over the world (as is Hermosa just to the South, where evidently the real die-hards go), and is not a particularly upscale city. With its busy nightlife and main thoroughfare (which is loaded with restaurants and shops), it’s got a quaint, beach-town quality that’s familiar to anyone who’s been to Florida.

Beneath the surface, though, Jaco is a small town where everyone seems to know everyone else. The locals you encounter in Jaco will definitely help you understand why Costa Rica is thought of as the happiest country on earth. They seem to put up with gringos like me (I truly butchered the language quite pathetically while I was there) without a complaint.

My photos of Jaco didn’t turn out so great, partly because the times when I wasn’t working and was outside didn’t often seem to coincide with sunshine. The summer is officially part of the “rainy season” in Costa Rica, which makes everything come alive in a glorious green celebration of life, but comes with some extra clouds and rain.

Jaco Beach’s Northern Tip

The beach itself is OK. I’m a bit spoiled since I live and work near the best beach in the USA, so sand quality on other beaches is something I generally have low expectations about to begin with. And the sand of Jaco’s beach met those low expectations quite nicely. It’s actually got a darker color than I was expecting (almost chocolaty brown), and was perfectly tolerable. There are a few areas on the beach that suffer from some litter problems, but this could have had something to do with the exact timing of my visit since I was there during the short part of the year where Costa Rica’s native residents seem to all go to Jaco at once.

Overall, the beach experience was magnificent. Up at 5:30am each day (in summer, they’re on the equivalent of Mountain Time in the US… and they don’t change for Daylight Savings Time), I found the sun was already up and the beach was well-lit for a refreshing early-morning walk — something I highly recommend. I didn’t actually spend much time in the surf, but the waves were gorgeous. I think surfing lessons might be on the agenda for my next trip.

Villa Caletas and Other Local Attractions

A couple of quick adventures that I was able to enjoy when not working included an evening trip to the Hotel Villa Caletas. Along with its castle-like Zephyr Palace, which is a dream-come-true location for a destination wedding in Costa Rica, the Villa Caletas operates a gorgeous hotel with absolutely spectacular views of the rainforest and the Pacific Ocean. Just minutes from Jaco, this is and absolute must-see on any trip to the region. 

The amphitheater & restaurant at Hotel Villa Caletas

Of particular interest is the gorgeous little amphitheater which is built into the top of the mountain ridge that is home to the Hotel Villa Caletas. I wish my photos could somehow do this justice… it’s much more majestic than it seems in these pics. They managed to perch their restaurant atop this ridge, and the stone amphitheater has a stunning drop to a tiny stage which I’m told actually plays host to some live performances.

A More Orange Shot of the Sunset at Villa Caletas

But in the evening time, no live performance could begin to equal the stunning view of the sunset which the amphitheater affords. I took countless photos trying desperately to capture what no camera possibly could. In fact, the color variation in these shots is largely due to my camera’s inability to take everything in with the amazing shaft of light that penetrated through the clouds to the west. Depending upon what I focused the camera on, I got a light, dark or color-desaturated image.

This shot of the spectacular sunset at Villa Caletas shows just a bit of the tall pillars located in the amphitheater

Despite my inability to display it for you, the spectacle was nothing short of breathtaking. The view of the sunset is perfectly dazzling. However, Villa Caletas makes the experience even more unforgettable by creating a phenomenal atmosphere that complements nature’s own display perfectly. Firstly, the amphitheater is equipped with a sound system that adds just the right touch of ambiance with music. When we arrived — and as I caught my breath from taking in the beauty of the visual extravaganza that greeted me  — I recognized the familiar strains of Vangelis’ “1492.” I can’t imagine anything that would have served as a more fitting soundtrack than that.

As we settled into a spot at the amphitheater to prepare for nature’s daily show, a waiter from the restaurant appeared with some seat cushions. We placed our order and a few moments later he re-appeared with what turned out to be a perfect cappuccino.

I was in heaven.

A gorgeous view… both of the sunset over the Pacific and of a spectacular stretch of dense primary rainforest as the mountain ridge dropped away beneath us toward the water… great music… a nice cup of coffee… the only thing I could’ve asked for to make it complete would have been the presence of my gorgeous companion, my lovely wife, Jill. Alas, she didn’t accompany me on this particular trip, so I look forward to a date at Villa Caletas to take in a sunset together the next time I go.

Seriously, this one element is enough to justify the entire trip to Costa Rica.

Yours Truly at Villa Caletas

Ultimately, a small crowd gathered and cameras of every size and shape came out when the sun began its final descent for the day. But… I must say, a sort-of reverent awe came over the entire crowd. I hardly noticed that others were even there as we all watched the glorious display.

So that’s Villa Caletas. Or rather… the portion we took in (and presumably the portion that matters). We did manage to get a peek at Zephyr Palace. Though removed somewhat from the more “public” amphitheater (which could hardly be described as public), the palace commands a similar spectacular view of the Pacific (and the sunset). Like the restaurant area, it has an infinity pool stretching out toward the ocean, which is one story below the banquet facility and directly adjacent to the club-like dance floor. Rumor has it that the palace rents for something like $15,000 a night, and plays host to brides and their parties from the world over. I can see why.

We took in some other sights. I mentioned Los Suenos, which boasts what is arguably the best marina in all of Central America. Walking along the marina, yachts of every shape and size (and flying every conceivable flag) were docked. The luxury resort hotel at Los Suenos is a Marriott property, and although I didn’t get an up-close look at it, I’ve been told it’s an amazing property.

Costa Rica Real Estate

Perhaps the one thing I’m most excited about from this trip is the increased awareness I’ve gained for the Costa Rica real estate market. It’s definitely beginning to boom again. I don’t know if prices have crept up as high as they did during the high point of the market just before the US market crash, but they’re on their way back up. While I was there, an article in the newspaper reported on new statistics from the Central Bank of Costa Rica. The data show that the first quarter of 2013 represented a high water mark in terms of foreign investment in Costa Rica — reaching heights that haven’t been seen since 2000 — including $377 million in the real estate sector alone.

If everything is as it seems, there will be lots of Americans looking to purchase second homes, retirement homes, or even explore the expatriate lifestyle. In my book, Costa Rica is a great fit for any of the above!