Quepos, Costa Rica, located five miles north of Manuel Antonio.Â No doubt that commercial growth has affected Costa Rica over recent years. Hotels and restaurants have sprung up at a rapid rate, and souvenir and surf shops have elbowed in alongside mini supers (short for mini supermarkets and similar to an American convenience store) among small towns.
This tourism boom has also created much-needed employment, gotten roads paved and improved local travel. Punctual, courteous door-to-door van shuttle service by companies like Interbus (www.interbusonline.com/home/home.asp) and Gray Line (www.graylinecostarica.com) lets you visit multiple places hassle-free. If on a tight schedule, the domestic airline Nature Air (www.natureair.com) can get you to your destination in as little as fifteen minutes, versus the three hours it would take to make the same journey by car. Despite these changes, the local charm and flavor of Costa Rica endures. Even in Manuel Antonio, the number one tourist destination which is about two and a half hours southbound by car from San JosÃ©, this holds true.
I stayed at La Colina (www.lacolina.com), a white-stucco hotel halfway between Quepos and Manuel Antonio. I reserved a Jungle View room for $50 a night, but turned out to be a bit small, albeit clean and bright. I decided to upgrade to an Ocean View room for $100 a night instead. Five flights up, the Ocean View rooms may be a bit hard on the knees to get to, but worth the climb once you take in the panoramic views.
I spent evenings relaxing on the private balcony, enjoying the sunset and indulging in a freshly-made cigar from the resident premium supplier, House of Cigars (www.houseofcigar.com). Located down the road in Quepos on the Western side of town, they use imported Cuban tobacco and keep the cigars fresh inside their walk-in humidor.
Should you pass through this store, go next door to CafÃ© Milagro for some strong brew or even a hard to come by (in Costa Rica) iced coffee. If your inner carnivore starts growling, walk a few blocks over to Carnes La Moderna, a local butcher shop where you can see chicharrones (Spanish-style fried pork skins) crackling in a cast-iron vat in a corner and for sale by the kilo. Be sure to also try some fried boneless pork ribs, thick yet tender, and even non-greasy due to the fresh quality.
A tropical sunset, as seen from the balcony of the Ocean View suite at La Colina, Manuel Antonio.
La Colina provides complimentary breakfast in their open-air restaurant, and opens for dinner each night as the Agave Grill. The restaurant offers fresh Southwestern cuisine such as nachos and quesadillas, a delicious tuna ceviche appetizer topped with homemade guacamole, as well as more sophisticated meat and fish entrÃ©es. The restaurant resides right next to the grotto-style pool, so guests can take an early dip before breakfast or sit on a submerged stool that shares a wall with the bar at night, drinking and socializing without getting out of the water.
To get around town and hit the beach without waiting for the public bus you can rent a car without difficulty. Adobe Car Rental (www.adobecar.com) dropped the car and paperwork off at the hotel and picked it up for us from the Quepos airport. Rates, including insurance, start at around $35 a day for a compact car, but given the hilly terrain I chose a five-speed SUV for $45 a day.
For the history buffs out there, grab a bite at El Avion, an authentic 1954 Fairchild C-123 cargo plane from the 1980s Iran-Contra Affair. This plane found a second life as a bar/restaurant, and the interior becomes a club at night. El Avion has great American fare like burgers and salads, plus a few local gems like the grilled mahi mahi sandwich. They also mix up some of the best specialty cocktails around.
Off the beaten path down a very long bumpy dirt road lies Ronnyâ€™s place, boasting the best views anywhere in town. The Spanish-inspired menu has dishes like grilled chicken salad with avocado and hearts of palm and pineapple-marinated chicken kebabs. For an appetizer, try their local take on bruschetta, in which they top grilled garlic bread with homemade pico de gallo.
If you choose to drive to the beach by car, be advised that while you cannot park on the street, you can park pretty much anywhere else. A local money-making scheme involves troops of men in sunglasses and matching khaki uniforms standing in the middle of the road blowing whistles trying to direct you to a â€œprivateâ€ parking lot for a fee. Despite appearances, the truth is that they donâ€™t work for the town or own the land, so donâ€™t feel pressured to take the bait. Instead, just keep driving until you find a secure spot on your own. I, for example, parked beside a restaurant closed for the season.
Three of the many shops to be found in downtown Quepos: House of Cigars, Cafe Milagro Carnes La Moderna.
The last stop on my itinerary, Manuel Antonio, proved to be one of the most memorable places I visited. The beaches, both the public one and the private one found inside the National Park, the local shops, and the excellent area restaurants all make this one of the best places to visit in Costa Rica, not because of the hype, but in spite of it.