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Costa Rica: Despite an influx of golf, pura vida just getting started

By GolfPublisher Staff, Staff Report

You hear it and see it all over the country. The literal translation is "pure life," but what pura vida truly means to Costa Ricans is todo esta bien - "all is well, life is good." That's the spirit that's driven Americans to make Costa Rica our cosa nostra for a long time.

Eco-tourists and expat surfers came first. Surfers hate crowds and dream of finding the "empty wave." Most think it no longer exists. A surge in Costa Rica visitation followed the Cabo explosion in the late '90s, and it seemed perhaps Costa Rica's wave had been ridden.

Californians popped down for a weekend, and rumors of swank golf courses and $2 million lots swirled in the ocean breeze. Very quickly, Costa Rica seemed passé and Americans looked to the horizon: a stabilizing Panama, an untouched Nicaragua.

Rest assured - Costa is still much more like Cabo 10 years ago than Cabo now. Mind-blowing resorts do exist, but unclaimed ocean views abound, and it is a raw country still. Roads are horrible even in much of the most popular region, the arid northwest province of Guanacaste. Potholes that can swallow Mini Coopers force drivers off-road.

But Costa Rica's roads will soon smooth out, and legions of well-heeled baby boomers will drive prices up, SoCal-style, in pursuit of the pura vida.

Four resort communities are on the vanguard of development in Guanacaste. You can try to hack your own low-priced lot from the jungle and hope nobody builds a flip-flop factory across the street, or you can relax amid the golf, gates and landscaped beauty of Peninsula Papagayo, Reserva Conchal, Hacienda Pinilla or Tamarindo Heights. Either way, you're crazy not to try to get a piece of Costa Rica.

Sure, pura vida is a marketing slogan now, but the spirit is real. I asked many natives what it meant to them. A shuttle driver offered the most distilled version, after much gesticulation and lingual frustration. "Todo esta bien. Life ... is good."

The time to breeze into paradise is now. Supply for hotel rooms in high season is more than 40 percent below demand throughout Guanacaste, says Alberto Orlich of Reserva Conchal. Tourism during the "low" season (rainy months) now surpasses the high season of just a few years ago. Sitting on the veranda of the clubhouse centered in this group of high-ceilinged, Spanish-tiled luxury condos, it's easy to see why.

It's late January, and bitter cold across most of the United States. Yet here the midday sun would be too warm if not for soft sea breezes. The sprawling pool at the Paradisis Conchal Resort is busy with tourists splashing in its labyrinth coves and cays, shrouded by lush greenery. The Pacific is a hazy blue, stretching out toward the centerpiece of the horizon, the alluring Catalina Islands, where gleaming white sport fishers spread outriggers to combat marlin, sailfish, tuna and dorado.

No hurricanes here. Ever. Texas just won't look the same for all those poolside tourists when they go home, and more and more of them won't. Conchal has built 95 luxe villas since 2003 and sold all but three. The current price is $600,000 to $2 million.

Spurring sales is a gorgeous golf course by Robert Trent Jones II, rife with huge iguanas and water hazards, as well as four restaurants and that seductive pool area. But the real leap in interest came with the new U.S.-backed airport in Liberia, which hosts 45 flights from three major airlines. Those who buy can rent their villas for $500 a day.

A new round of lots will soon go up for between $180,000 and $400,000. With 2,300 acres and infrastructure racing to meet demand, opportunities to own a piece of Conchal's paradise will keep coming; they just won't get any cheaper.

It's $70 by boat each way from Reserva Conchal north to the resplendent shorelines of Peninsula Papagayo, a Four Seasons-built Eden only a year old. From Liberia, it's a 30-minute drive on good roads. No matter how they get there, people arrive with high expectations due to a luminous reputation. Yet they still leave blown away. Years of sensitive planning paid off with perfection. Genius, this place.

Blue water stretches forever above shocking white beaches on both sides of the resort because it straddles a pinched portion of the peninsula. An impossible 15 miles of shoreline sweeps along 31 beaches set amid 2,300 acres with a good-as-it-gets golf course, the first of three. Fractional opportunities and open use of resort facilities make the residential villas coveted. All lots offer course or ocean views.

"The architecture is amazing," a house-hunting investor from Texas told me. "I've been to Four Seasons all over and none compare to Papagayo."

Former petroleum executive Henry Hirsch shows me the goose bumps on his tanned forearm as we crest a prime vista in Tamarindo Heights, an exquisitely planned new luxury community with deep roots in feng shui.

Hirsch gets a chill every time his visits this spot, and the views are the reason - among the prettiest on the coast. This is the Costa Rica you imagined it. The jungle falls away to a turquoise river estuary, brimmed with bobbing boats and bone-white beaches.

When founder Shon Kapeta explored this spot a few years ago, men hacked through the bush with machetes in front of the horses to traverse steep gullies and hills. Kapeta had a vision for a small, ultra-exclusive, Asian-style resort community on the edge of the tiny surf town of Tamarindo. His wife, Mika, bought into the idea and asked him to buy it for her birthday. She is a dizzying green-eyed beauty, and she received her wish. After a life spent in Japan and Bali she chose to raise their children here.

"Yes, it's the beauty and business potential, but it's something about the people of Costa Rica, and the energy here," she said. "Legacy is a big word ... but I want to build something people will really appreciate, that they will look at and think, 'A lot of thought went into this.'"

Coming soon: a 51-suite spa hotel, a three-tiered Japanese clubhouse with a 17-meter waterfall, high-end shopping and an infinity pool overlooking a breathtaking lagoon. This is the place for those seeking an ultra-custom minimalist home emphasizing natural beauty, rich amenities, powerful views and proximity to good schools and to town. Lots start at $400,000 and run to $2.7 million.

Surfers may think the empty wave forever gone, but I found it in the most unlikely place - a former cattle ranch called Hacienda Pinilla, a 4,500-acre community of rolling, open grassland. The perfect surf break is called "Little Hawaii," a gorgeous reef amid three miles of private beaches stretching between two river mouths on Hacienda Pinilla. A place where turtles nest and the only thing emptier than that wave is the 7,500-yard masterpiece golf course.

Imagine the prettiest Texas hill country ranch you've seen and place it next to blue water, warm beaches and a paradise for snorkelers, surfers and sailors. It's dry season there now, and waves of shoulder-high blond grass ripple in equatorial winds across vast meadows created by cattle ranching. Drive through the gates and jungle congestion, crowded roads and jarring potholes fall away with a deep sigh. The hacienda culture is preserved here, with a heavy equestrian emphasis (rodeos on the grounds), a few roaming cattle and luxury Spanish villas.

Lots run from $180,000 into the millions, with a boom likely when a 250-room outpost of the exclusive (only 25 in the world), five-star J.W. Marriott hotel chain opens next year. Four restaurants and a huge spa are in the works. Two phases of residential villas sold out at Pinilla, but more are coming. Oceanfront villas sold at $500,000 two years ago are worth up to $1.5 million.

This article originally appeared in Luxury Golf & Travel, a magazine that caters to those who enjoy the good life, whether that means conquering an incredible golf course, visiting a tropical island or discovering a dream resort. The editors and designers of Luxury Golf & Travel provide a vivid preview of the finest golf courses, resorts and real estate opportunities on the map. To subscribe, click here or call 435-940-1701.

GolfPublisher Staff, Staff Report

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