2004: ‘Tico Time’

by Dave Seanor

San Jose, Costa Rica

What caused our family to freefall so deeply in love with Costa Rica?

So in love that my wife started taking Spanish language classes when we got back from an 8-day vacation there.

So engaged that I’m researching second-home mortgage rates.

So enamored that not once during our trip did my teen-age son complain about being bored.

The answer is fourfold:

-The richness of the land. When Walter Hagen advised to stop and smell the flowers, he must have had Costa Rica in mind. Few places on Earth can match its biodiversity and geological splendor.

-The amiability of the Ticos, or native Costa Ricans. Laid back, unfailingly friendly, always ready to help. My kind of people, for they operate on “Tico time” – give or take a half-hour.

-The climate. Sure, it can get oppressively

hot – hey, its near the equator! – and there’s a rainy season. But temperatures in the Central Highlands, where San Jose is located, hold steady between 65 and 75 degrees year-round.

-Diversity of activities, including some pretty good – if not plentiful – golf. There are only six quality layouts in Costa Rica, which incongruously underscores the allure of this Central American nation as a golf destination. Here, golf is a worthy but secondary pursuit. It’s not a destination for 36-holes-per-day buddy golf, unless your buddies also are heavily into fishing, surfing or bird watching.

“People in the golf business don’t want to hear this,” says Landy Blank, an American expatriate who makes his living here selling golf equipment and arranging golf tours, “but I want people to come here, enjoy what Costa Rica has to offer, and play a little golf.”

I happened to play a lot of golf on this whirlwind tour, hitting five courses in eight days, including the world-class Four Seasons Resort on the Pacific Ocean in the Guanacaste region. But an experience I had en route bears telling, for it exemplifies the nature of the Costa Rican people.

Driving alone, I had missed a turn and gone 20 miles out of my way, into the town of Liberia. There I pulled into a Burger King parking lot and asked an exiting customer if he knew how to get to the Four Seasons. He spoke enough English to grasp what I wanted, but rather than offer directions, he said, “Follow me. I will take you there.”

I protested, but he insisted it was neither an inconvenience nor out of his way. So I followed him for nearly a half-hour, directly to the Four Seasons’ main entrance, where he smiled, waved and sped off before I could even thank him, let alone offer money for his trouble.

“You don’t have to worry about being hustled all the time,” Blank says of Costa Rican hospitality. “You don’t have to put up with that. It’s not part of the culture here.”

The Four Seasons layout, designed by Arnold Palmer and opened last December, is carved into the mountains that overlook the Pacific. My playing partner was Rob Oosterhuis, the director of golf and son of television commentator Peter Oosterhuis.

The views here are stunning, especially on the stretch of holes 14-15-16. The course is being closely watched by superintendents and environmentalists as an experiment in water conservation. It was sodded tee-to-green in seashore paspalum grass, a variety that can be irrigated with low-grade water with high salinity. Paspalum has been used successfully on many seaside courses in the United States, but its tolerance to the Costa Rican climate has yet to be determined.

The property features all the amenities you’d expect from a Four Seasons – including tropical spa – but it felt somewhat claustrophobic to me, owing to the luxury private homes that are stacked on the cliffs surrounding the resort.

Which is one reason why my personal favorite was a pristine new resort and residential development farther south, called Hacienda Pinilla.

It’s a 5,000-acre working ranch, with three miles of beach, owned by Atlanta industrial developer Pat Patilla. Hacienda Pinilla is his first foray into resorts, and is distinctive for its low density, environmentally sensitive master plan.

Patilla has engaged Hacienda Pinilla in some ambitious community programs, including the construction of three schools and the creation of an American college scholarship program for locals. The property includes an extensive on-site nursery, and student volunteers have helped plant 400,000 trees throughout Hacienda Pinilla.

A hotel deal is in the works (likely a Ritz-Carlton), but Patilla insists that it must be designed in a Spanish Colonial motif and not obstruct ocean views from the high ground. Meanwhile, a superbly appointed Casa de Golf guest house can accommodate 16 people.

Hacienda Pinilla’s seaside golf course was created by architect Mike Young of Atlanta, with input from PGA Tour player-turned-ESPN commentator Charlie Rymer. There was little earth moving during construction and the result is a free-flowing layout with a minimalist character that blends seamlessly into its environs.

While I took on the golf course, my wife Patti took to the horse trails, riding with a guide named Arturo, a Tico who spoke no English. They communicated with gestures, expressions and a common love for horses.

Their mounts were Criollos (cree-OH-yos, meaning born locally), a small, hardy breed found throughout Latin America and South America, descended from the horses ridden by Spanish conquistadors. Patti and Arturo rode through grazing cattle, into the mangrove and along the beach. It was the end of the dry season, and the stream that runs through Hacienda Pinilla was low – yet still appealing to a flock of flamingoes.

Along the trail, adult monkeys hung from tree branches, sleeping. Their babies acted like human children, taking advantage of no supervision, chattering and jumping from tree to tree.

The scene was decidedly less placid on the way back to pick up our 17-year-old son Nick, who had spent the morning fishing aboard the Plautus, a 40-foot Gamefisher based in Playa Flamingo. Patti and I stopped off at the Bohemian beach town of Tamarindo. The Nuigi Bar is a must stop, famous for its scrumptious banana cream pies. Allow time to linger here, have a few local brews, and people-watch.

We, however, had to fetch Nick, and found him at the Mariner Inn, which overlooks the dilapidated marina at Playa Flamingo and is a popular hangout for locals. Over beers, we were entertained by the skipper of the Plautus, Capt. Darryl, a transplanted Coloradoan who politely declined to reveal his last name.

“You can hear so many stories in this place, from so many walks of life,” said Darryl, leading one to suspect he has a few roguish tales of his own.

Nick’s passion is fishing and hunting, but he did join me for a couple of rounds of golf. The first was at Cariari Country Club in San Jose.

Cariari is a private club, but with playing privileges for guests at the adjacent Melia Cariari Hotel and Conference Center. The green fee of $60, including mandatory caddie, is one of the best deals in the Western Hemisphere. (The Four Seasons, by comparison, charges $180 for resort guests.)

Cariari, designed by George Fazio and opened in 1974, was the first 18-hole facility in Costa Rica. The three-minute walk from the hotel lobby to the first tee takes you past the club’s Olympic-size swimming pool, where we paused to watch 2000 bronze medal winner Claudia Poll prepare for the Athens Games.

Cariari is a shotmaker’s course, with narrow fairways and small, elevated greens. Typical of Costa Rica, it plays longer during the rainy season (May-November) and shifting winds give it teeth during the dry season. Playing Cariari is not unlike a suburban American experience – houses line most fairways – but it’s no pushover. When Cariari hosted the Costa Rica Open in 2001, the winning score was 6 over par.

It was at Cariari that we first experienced the Tico way, after one of my contact lenses had fallen into the drain of our bathroom sink. A hotel maintenance worker was summoned, and he cheerily disassembled the drain trap. We found the contact and my new friend was as thrilled about our success as I was. He was genuinely grateful for the $20 tip.

The other round Nick and I shared was at the Los Suenos Marriott, near Jaco Beach on the Pacific Coast. Landy had wangled a spot in the second annual Iguana Invitational on the resort’s Iguana Course, a Ted Robinson design, carved into the rain forest. (Forecaddies accompany each group, and they’re trained to identify the various birds, trees and wildlife encountered during a typical round.)

Our pro in the Iguana Invitational scramble was the delightful Carlos Rojas, a Tico who runs the show at Parque Valle del Sol, the country’s most highly regarded daily fee layout. We finished second on a match of cards – earning wood-carved iguana trophies.

The Los Suenos Marriott also has the most spiffy marina in Costa Rica; two mind-blowingly huge yachts were moored in the harbor when we began a day of family fishing aboard the decidedly more modest Estrella del Mar, a 37-foot Defender inboard diesel.

“It’s not the best looking boat in the marina, but it raises a lot of fish,” said our guide, R.J. Lillie, explaining that the acoustics created by the hull design and the engine are enticing to curious fish.

Despite a late start, we enjoyed some success when we began trolling for sailfish, marlin and tuna about 35 miles off shore. Patti, Nick and I each reeled in two scrappy sailfish.

R.J. and his boss, Capt. Tom (again, no last name given), are at heart hippie surfers who use fishing to pay for their surfing habit. Capt. Tom is a transplanted Philadelphian who also has opened cluster of moderately priced yet comfortable cabins near Los Suenos. They are called the Fisherman’s Lair.

We stayed neither there nor at the Marriott, instead bunking in a spacious a two-bedroom condo at Hotel Club del Mar at Jaco Beach. It has one of only two beaches we had time for, the other being at the Paradisus Playa Conchal resort in Guanacaste.

With it’s golden sand beach, gigantic pool area, five restaurants, round-the-clock shuttle service, private guest bungalows and user-friendly golf course, this all-inclusive Sol Melia resort is a Costa Rican mecca for indolence. The Garra de Leon course at Conchal was designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr., with generous fairways and plenty of strategic options for the resort player. During my round, a pack of howler monkeys created a hellish cacophony, and I spotted too many species of ducks to count. As a Floridian, I’m used to seeing alligators on the golf course, but this was the first time I’ve walked up to my ball near a water hazard and come face-to-menacing-face with a crocodile.

Which was no biggie, since encounters with fauna and flora are what attract most visitors to Costa Rica. To that end, we included among our adventures a day of whitewater rafting and a trek to the Arenal volcano.

The Reventazon River, which flows from the central mountains to the Caribbean, was our rafting venue. Our guide with Rios Tropicales outfitters was Karl Saalau, an ebullient 20-year-old student at the University of Costa Rica. Saalau prefers extreme sports, but as business major, he’s resigned to the fact that “I’ll have to learn to play golf eventually.”

Saalau is among the many Costa Ricans concerned about protecting their nation’s fragile ecology in the face of development.

“We have strict environmental laws,” he says, adding, in true cynical student fashion: “But the big companies pay it off. The biggest problem is not enforcing the laws.”

There were few signs of development on the Reventazon, where we made a 900-foot descent over class III rapids in about three hours. We were fortified before and after by a traditional breakfast and lunch ­– lots of fruit, fish and beans and rice – at Rios Tropicales’ charming staging area, replete with bar, showers and nature walk. Lunch tasted extraordinarily good after the rush of rafting.

Riding the rapids may be a test of stamina and reflexes, but it’s nothing compared to getting behind the wheel of a car in Costa Rica. The country has 35,892 kilometers of highways – 35,891 of which are in disrepair. Costa Ricans drive with audacity, passing at the most inopportune times as they engage in a national game of “chicken.”

I remain baffled why Ticos, otherwise in no great hurry to get things done, are such impatient drivers. If there was any downside to our vacation here, it was the stress created by driving, especially the trip to and from Arenal, a journey that includes a 90-minute drive on pocked roads around the vast, manmade Lake Arenal, west of the volcano.

Nevertheless, our white-knuckle trek was infinitely worth the effort. A fun stop near the end of the lake loop is Toad Hall, a quirky delicatessen and art gallery. Owner Jan Warner says Toad Hall offers one of the best selections of authentic Costa Rican art in the country.

“We don’t bring in junk from Guatemala,” she says. “We’re always scrounging for quality, which is real hard work.”

Nick and I toured the rain forest on zip lines at canopy level, sharing air space with toucans and other exotic species of birds. Even in that rarefied atmosphere, we are awed by the brooding Arenal volcano but 3 miles distant. An ever-present plume of smoke warns that it could erupt in fury on a whim; when the sky clears during the wee hours of the morning, the sky glows as Arenal spits chunks of molten rock.

The simmering volcano was in full view from our cabin at the Arenal Paraiso Resort & Spa. As do most hotels nearby, the Arenal Paraiso features a thermal pool, filled with warm mineral water drawn from volcanic springs.

Only our final stop, at the Vista del Valle Plantation Inn, was more sensual. Vista del Valle is a cluster of airy, Japanese-inspired rental cottages and private homes tucked amid a mountainside coffee plantation. It’s owned by American ex-pats Mike and Johanna Bresnan, who came to Costa Rica more than 20 years ago.

Mike is a single-digit golfer and member at Cariari. Johanna is an avid horse person, and she accompanied Patti as they rode the mountainside on two of Johanna’s sure-footed Criollos.

Toward the end of their ride, after the rows and rows of coffee trees, she and Johanna were treated to the sight of scarlet macaws being flushed out of the bush as they passed.

Wine and laughter flowed freely during our farewell dinner that night, an exquisite affair poolside, by candlelight, with Johanna, Mike, Landy and his wife, Susan. Hearing more about their adopted home, it was obvious we had only scratched the surface. Their affection for the land was unbounded.

“Costa Rica has been good to us,” says Mike. “We flow in this culture.”

For golfers who visit here, that’s great advice. Embrace the adventure. Just flow with it.

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