The Simple Pleasures of TAMARINDO

Despite its popularity, the Pacific Coast town has yet to be overrun by high-rise hotels and rampant commercialism.

Costa Rica

Cover Story

January 04, 2004|By FRANK D. ROYLANCE | FRANK D. ROYLANCE,SUN STAFF

A growling outboard motor pushed our boat slowly along the winding channels of the Tamarindo estuary. Crocodiles peered at us from the coffee-colored water, then slipped beneath the surface among the mangrove roots. Somewhere deep in the forest, howler monkeys hooted at our passing.

Then the cell phone rang, wrecking our fantasy of motoring through the jungle aboard the African Queen.

But the phone was a reminder that we had come to Costa Rica's northwest Guanacaste province because of its easy accessibility to some of the country's rich natural heritage, and also its creature comforts.

Just minutes from our air- conditioned room at the Hotel El Diria in Tamarindo, we were putt-putting among crocs and monkeys, clouds of tropical butterflies and a long list of shore birds. Later in the week, we would tour the forest canopy suspended from zip lines, "flying" without wings through towering cashew trees.

Then there were the snorkeling, marlin fishing, afternoon swims on top-rated surfing beaches, and a sunset sail escorted by spotted dolphins.

Costa Rica, a country the size of West Virginia straddling the Central American isthmus between Panama and Nicaragua, has hitched much of its economic future to the growing worldwide interest in ecological tourism.

The tiny nation of about 4.2 million people has set aside more than a quarter of its land area for preservation. A jade-green necklace of national parks and preserves protect wildlife, rain forests, wild rivers, mountain cloud forests, turtle nesting beaches and sputtering volcanoes.

On our weeklong visit, my wife, Christy, and I and our friends Guy and Laura Manfuso, of Timonium, could sample only a fraction of the country's riches. The tour operator at our hotel alone offered a dozen bus trips, including guided hikes through the rain forest to the Arenal and Rincon de la Vieja volcanoes; hot springs and mud baths; a birding trip on rafts down the Corobici River; and a horseback adventure in search of toucans and sloths in the Los Inocentes Ecological Ranch.

But the roads out of Tamarindo are narrow and slow, and we balked at spending so much of our vacation on a bus. Instead, we split our time between the natural attractions within easy reach of our hotel and the creature comforts in the busy beach town of Playa Tamarindo.

The uncrowded season

After decades of fighting and upheaval in Nicaragua, Guatemala and Panama, many Americans are understandably leery of travel to Central America. But Costa Rica should be an exception. A stable democracy since 1949, the country has abolished its army and devoted much of its resources instead to education. Literacy rates are high, unemployment is low and the country is relatively prosperous.

More than 30,000 Americans have retired to Costa Rica, taking advantage of favorable residency and tax laws, and a relatively low cost of living.

Our travel package was booked through Vacation Express, a 14-year-old Atlanta-based tour operator. It came to $900 per person, including a chartered flight from Baltimore and seven nights at the El Diria, with transfers and breakfasts.

Summer vacations in the tropics sound dreadful. But Christy and Laura are teachers, so summer is really the only season we can travel. And we've discovered it's the best time to go.

Costa Rica in July is very hot and humid, but frankly no worse than Baltimore. And there are no crowds.

Maryland's summer and fall are the rainy season in Costa Rica. That means plenty of vacancies and low prices. When it's winter up north, it's the dry season in Costa Rica. Everybody's on vacation; rooms are scarce, restaurants are full and prices are higher.

The rainy season isn't so bad. Typically, it means clear, sunny skies in the morning, with clouds boiling up by 10 a.m. or noon. Cooling showers arrive in the afternoon and depart in time for dinner under the stars.

At the Liberia airport, our guides strapped the baggage to the roof of a bus, and off we went, over narrow, two-lane roads through a countryside of green sugar-cane fields, pastures and wooded hills. The sun peeked through billowing clouds.

Most of the passengers got off at one of the pricey, all-inclusive resorts scattered around the region, with their golf courses and gift shops. We visited one and found it quite lovely. But guests told us they felt isolated, and complained that their dining choices were limited. It reminded us of a cruise ship.

Our bus pressed on until we reached the Pacific coast, and pulled into downtown Tamarindo.

This is not Cancun. There are (for now) no high-rise hotels, no yacht basins, no Starbucks.

In fact, the main street was first paved in 2002. Barely a decade ago, this was a fishing village of perhaps 300 people, with one sizable, low-rise hotel -- the Diria. Since then the place has caught on with Costa Ricans and foreigners. It has acquired more modest but comfortable hotels, and a lot of terrific small restaurants.

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