Cam and I went to Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica for our honeymoon this year. It's a coastal paradise with lots of natural beauty.
This is a pretty long post - I had a lot to say. So feel free to jump around.
Memories of Costa Rica
Costa Rica holds a special place in my heart because after my freshman year in college, I did a fellowship as a volunteer with the Costa Rican Humanitarian Foundation. I assisted in running the educational programs in a Nicaraguan immigrant community known as La Carpio. It was an important, formative experience for me as a young adult. I lived in the capital, San José, in a quaint little neighborhood called Piedades de Santa Ana. On the weekends, I travelled with other volunteers all over Costa Rica, a country that is about the size of North Carolina. And I've always wanted to go back.
Without diving too much into the history of Costa Rica, it's a Central American country that has had no standing army since 1948. They have one of the most stable, and productive, economies in Latin America. And tourism is their most important industry. The country practically invented ecotourism, and thanks to sweeping protection of the environment, despite having only 0.03% of the Earth's surface, it is home to 6% of its biodiversity.
Important cultural themes in Costa Rica are: locals are called ticos for their funny pronunciation of diminuitive words like "chiquito" as "chiquitico". Their favorite phrase is "pura vida", which can be used to respond to most every question. And they are growers of some of the most fresh and delicious fruits, vegetables & coffee in the world!
Costa Rica is a pretty "chill" place. Since it's on the equator, year-round the sun rises at 5:30am and sets at 5:30pm. So it's not known as a party place. Most people are home and getting ready for bed by 10pm or so. Since most of the area is tropical rainforest, it rains a lot. During the summer and fall, it rains every day like clockwork. The best time to visit for drier weather is mid-November through April. However, it will still rain often throughout the year.
Manuel Antonio is also known as an LGBTQ tourist destination in Costa Rica, and there are lots of LGBTQ people, both tourists and residents. But don't expect a pride festival, though there are gay bars, while we were there people were mostly there to relax.
Cam and I got married in October of 2015 at the Beverly Hills Courthouse. We hadn't gone on a honeymoon vacation, so in July of 2016, we planned a weeklong November trip to Costa Rica. You can see my post about planning this trip, where I decided between a few locations, and Costa Rica ended up being the optimal choice in terms of price and value.
Yipee! I'd be going back to a place I loved, and I'd be able to show it to Cam for the first time. And I'd have a chance to practice my Spanish, a language I used to be pretty good at speaking.
El Viaje (The Journey)
As we headed to the LA airport, my Dad told me to check the news headlines for Costa Rica. Hurricane Otto was set to make landfall in Costa Rica – the first hurricane to make landfall in Costa Rica in more than 150 years. We were pretty scared! It was a Category 2 hurricane, and we were driving to Costa Rica the night before the storm was set to hit. I checked with a friend of mine that lives there, and she told me that where we were going on the Pacific Coast wasn't likely to be hit too hard, since Otto was coming from the Caribbean side of the country. Only rain was expected in San José, where we were landing. So we boarded our Avianca flight and headed to Costa Rica.
Avianca was a really pleasant airline to fly. Both directions we had smooth connections with very short wait times between flights. We watched free movies the whole way like The Secret Lives of Pets and some others. I had also purchased Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie on iTunes to watch.
As we were preparing to land in San José, the captain told the passengers that because of Hurricane Otto, we were being delayed in landing and may need to divert to Panama City! We were so scared at that point, thinking the worst. But after an hour of standby, our plane was able to land in San José as planned, with only some fog and no wind or rain at the airport.
After we landed, the trusty transport service I had hired, Costa Rica Drivers, was waiting for us right outside the arrivals area. Our driver let us stop for a quick fast food bite, and then we took off on the 2 hour drive to Manuel Antonio. There is also an airport 20 minutes from Manuel Antonio, in Quepos, but in most cases a transfer is required in San José anyways, making the flight not worthwhile.
Finally, we arrived to Gaia Hotel & Reserve, and, with much excitement for the next morning, we went to bed.
Gaia Hotel & Reserve
In the morning we awoke to the most lovely hotel room. The front door opened to a view of the beautiful rainforest. I ran to the door right away and looked outside.
Let's gush for a minute at the the gorgeous room! Ah we were in heaven immediately.
Gaia is a very unique hotel. I heard about it from one of the owners, Tom, when I lived in San Francisco. They are a five star hotel, complete with a fine dining restaurant called "La Luna", a wonderful spa, multiple swimming pools, and a great service staff.
What makes the hotel especially unique is its commitment to nature – they have a 12 acre nature reserve, complete with a macaw rehabilitation center. Their reserve, which we toured with their resident biologist, Josue, is also home to sloths, monkeys, toucans, and other wonderful Costa Rican creatures. Beyond a commitment to nature, the hotel is also heavily involved with supporting the local community – both financially and through education programs. And the hotel staff make sure to complete the circle by telling guests what their stay pays to support. You can read all about the hotel's amazing social responsibility commitments on their website.
To rave more about the hotel, the service was exquisite. The staff communicate constantly, and as we planned our activities for the week, they knew where we were going to and coming from. They whisked us away from our room in a golf cart to catch transportation each day. And they smiled constantly, taking genuine interest in our happiness. One of the owners, Boris, told me that staff at Gaia have the opportunity to gain ownership shares in the business over their tenure (a practice uncommon in Costa Rica), and in addition they provide many basic needs for employees. Their joy in working at Gaia certainly showed.
As you may have seen when I planned this trip, despite being a five star hotel, we were able to reserve our rooms for slightly more than what a very average hotel room would have cost in Miami or Puerto Rico. In Costa Rica, a dollar will go a lot farther. I won't say it's cheap, but you can generally get a lot more than you would in the USA.
The restaurant, La Luna, was excellent. It's rated the best in town on Trip Advisor. We ate the free breakfast (eggs, bacon, fruit, bread) every morning. And we enjoyed several lunches and dinners there as well. From fresh mango and pineapple smoothies to gourmet fish and steaks, the restaurant left us completely satisfied with every meal.
Gaia sits atop a hill, with a panoramic view of the ocean. It's secluded and private, with no road noise reaching the grounds. But it's only a 10 minute ride to the beach, so with a quick call to the front desk, we could find our feet in the sand.
Manuel Antonio Village
Manuel Antonio is a small village me up almost entirely vacation homes, hotels & restaurants. It's part of the larger community of Quepos, which is the name of a city 10 minutes north on the coast. Since Manuel Antonio is a town geared towards tourism, everything is made very convenient for travelers – from transportation to activities to basic needs (like ATMs & pharmacy).
The heart of Manuel Antonio is the public beach, along which several restaurants and tourist shops are situated. The main beach is lovely, and we spent one long morning at the beach. The water is a balmy 80 degrees fahrenheit, meaning we could spend several hours floating in the water and sliding over waves. Gaia set us up with a beach service called Mary's where we could rent umbrellas and chairs for US$8 and order delicious arroz con pollo for around US$12. Oh and a fresh coconut to drink with a straw for only US$2.
Further down the beach is the entrance to Manuel Antonio Park, which is one of the most important attractions in the area.
Manuel Antonio Park
Manuel Antonio Park is one of the most precious features of this area. The park is home to many families of monkeys, lots of birds and reptiles, and even bats. But what I remembered best from my visit many years before was the two beaches: Manuel Antonio beach and Espadilla Beach. For US$16 per day, visitors can enter the park, explore the grounds, and spend as long as they like on the pristine, prehistoric-looking beaches.
The main beach is crowded, has lots of raccoons who will tear open bags to get at food, and also lots of monkeys. But Espadilla beach is mostly empty, and it's the perfect place to spend an afternoon.
Other Recommendations & Closing
Holis Spa: We did "detox": massage, body wrap & facial.
El Santuario: Zipline canopy tour, including a 1 mile long zipline!
Emilio's Cafe: Delicious desserts and great seafood selection. Watch out for monkeys stealing things!
Selina Hostel: A fun place to hang out in the evening or as a stylish but affordable lodging.
We had the most wonderful trip to Costa Rica. It was hard to come back and be back in real life, after fully relaxing for a week straight. Thanks to Gaia Hotel & Reserve, we had a perfect honeymoon. And it will be a lifetime of memories.