The famously eco-friendly destination has a spate of luxurious new hotels. Writer Gina Hamadey details her stay and adventures at Nayara Springs.

By Gina Hamadey
Updated May 23, 2017
© Blasius Erlinger

From the way my dad tells it, Costa Rica in 1995 was pure backwoods. “Roads were horrible, just dirt and potholes,” he says. At the time, my father was divorcing my mother, and he’d come to Costa Rica looking for a beautiful place where he could sort through his thoughts alone. Maybe the bumpy roads became a symbol of his emotional journey. Or maybe they really were just unforgettably awful. Either way, 20 years later, they are what stand out most clearly in his mind.

Costa Rica has changed a lot since the ’90s, when a tourist boom turned farmers into hoteliers seemingly overnight. The infrastructure took a while to catch up. Today Costa Rica has a small number of new high-end hotels offering both luxury and authenticity, including Hacienda AltaGracia, in the mountains, and the Andaz Peninsula Papagayo, on the coast. My mission was to check out a property called Nayara Springs.

The hotel sent a driver to the airport in San José, Costa Rica’s capital, to pick up my sister Brigitte and me. He chatted amiably with us as we traveled on a road as smoothly paved as any Los Angeles freeway. Three hours later we were at Nayara Springs, just outside Arenal Volcano National Park. Ten minutes after that, Brigitte and I were in our villa’s private plunge pool, drinking just-squeezed watermelon juice. The pool was filled with mineral water, piped from hot springs near the volcano via gravity. It was body temperature—that is to say, perfect. Tropical greenery framed our astonishing view of the volcano and gave us complete privacy.

© Brigitte Hamadey

Nayara Springs is the luxurious offshoot of Nayara Hotel, Spa & Gardens, to which it is connected by a small bridge. Each of its 16 villas (19 more are due to launch in January) is assigned a Costa Rican host. That night we sat down with ours, Maricela Durán, a former teacher with a huge smile. She went over the list of organized activities, like yoga, zip-lining and bird-watching, then offered her assistance to us for any unexpected need. That, she explained, is what the hosts are for. For example, a colleague of hers once helped a couple adopt a stray dog they’d fallen in love with—taking the animal in, dealing with the considerable red tape. (Brigitte and I never called on Durán’s help for anything as life-changing, but she did book our spa appointments and arrange for a surprise delivery of chocolate-covered strawberries afterward.)

On Durán’s suggestion, we started the next day with an early-morning bird-watching excursion led by staff naturalist Julio Mendez. He’d gone to college to become a licensed tour guide (a common Costa Rican career path). On a hike over 16 bridges in a gorgeous Arenal rain forest park, he displayed almost supernatural powers of observation. Scanning the rain forest teeming with animals, he set up his telescope and homed in on a tiny, colorful dot. “People think the guides have an eagle eye, but that’s not true,” Mendez said. “We just know how to look for things. You start to see different colors on the branches, on the leaves. You see humps that don’t belong.” I felt like there was a larger lesson here, something about paying attention to the world around you. Before any of these thoughts could crystallize, however, Mendez pointed out a red frog roughly the size of a penny—the blue jeans poison dart frog—40 yards away.

Farther down the path, he plucked a rod-like plant out of the ground, pulled it apart to reveal a white center and quizzed us on what it might be. My overachieving sister, who at this point had proven herself a far superior bird-watcher, shouted out, “Hearts of palm!” Right: The previous night we’d shared a salad of these supercrunchy hearts. We tried them again at Altamira, one of the three main restaurants at Nayara Springs and the first project of its new chef, Jaak Toomsalu. These hearts of palm were tender, blanched in butter, flamed with Cognac, topped with Parmigiano-Reggiano and black volcanic salt, and dotted with a red pepper–Peruvian ají sauce and a green sauce made with herbs from the hotel’s new greenhouse.

© Brigitte Hamadey

Toomsalu has big ambitions: He wants to win a Michelin star within four years. Born in Estonia, he spent the past five years cooking in Norway, including a stint at the Radisson Blu Royal Hotel in Bergen (where Bocuse d’Or winner Ørjan Johannessen was the resident chef). He’s obsessed with the quality of Costa Rica’s seafood and produce, and in the short time he’s been in the country, he has worked to source the best ingredients he can. For his Tuesday-night seafood grills, for instance, he makes trips to Puntarenas, a fishing village about two hours away, and invites San José’s best chefs to join him. This is so unusual that the local paper published an article about it. He has also started buying from local organic vegetable and dairy farms.

Brigitte and I and a crew from Nayara Springs visited one of those farms. A woman nicknamed Macha pointed out the Jersey cows, prized for their creamy milk, and explained that it takes two hours to turn raw milk into the queso fresco that chef Jaak is using in his salads and vegetable terrine. (“Queso fresco makes this funny squeaky noise,” says Toomsalu. “It’s beautiful.”)

Outside Macha’s turquoise farmhouse was a spread of sliced queso fresco—indeed squeaky—plus warm corn tortillas, and a giant pork-and-chicken tamale rolled and sliced like a pinwheel. The people gathered around the food included Freddy Obando, the only co-owner of Nayara who is from Costa Rica.

© Brigitte Hamadey

Obando grew up poor but recognized the potential of tourism in this town. He built Nayara, his brainchild, along with a partner, Angelo Zaragovia, who designed the space. Eventually Leo and Ruthy Ghitis came in and dialed up the luxury. But Obando is crucial to the whole operation. He’s on-property every day, fostering a positive environment for the staff, encouraging them to share their ideas. He’s unassuming. At one point he told us about his college experience: “Once I went to college… It was raining and I needed shelter.” This charming self-deprecation masks his ambition. He owns the farm we just visited; Macha is his sister-in-law.

Driving back to Nayara Springs, I looked out the window at the bright blue and green houses in the tiny farming town of Puerto Seco. Two old men on a porch waved hello. In the foreground were “living fences.” Instead of using plywood, farmers simply plant tree branches in the ground and tie them together. They’re beautiful. When Julio Mendez, the naturalist, had pointed them out, I remarked at their eco-friendliness. Mendez corrected me, explaining that these farmers don’t care whether something is eco-friendly. It’s just cheaper.

Costa Rica’s eco slant has long been a lure for travelers. Nayara is planning to start a green tour that even includes—some might say questionably—a walk-through of the laundry room. Originally, though, much of the country’s eco-friendliness was simply the best way to do things on the cheap in a place blessed with so many natural assets—like the blackwood and poro branches that quickly send out new shoots when planted to make a fence.

© Brigitte Hamadey

I was thinking about all of this while bouncing up and down in my seat like a jackhammer: Puerto Seco’s roads are so bumpy that the car couldn’t go faster than maybe five miles an hour. “Think of it as a free massage!” said Jairo Quesada, Nayara’s general manager.

It felt like an echo of my dad’s trip, all those years ago. Modern Costa Rican luxury includes authentic experiences, and that means venturing beyond the newly paved roads into the beautifully bumpy parts. The jolts are worth it. Nayara Springs, private villas from $650 per night;

Gina Hamadey, the former travel editor at Food & Wine, is the founding editor of Beekman 1802 Almanac.