100 GREAT PLACES TO STAY IN COSTA RICA
Web Edition v. 2.0 February, 2009; Copyright © 2007 - 2009 HayFields Science Inc.
All Rights Reserved.
Cartago, named for the ancient trading city of Carthage in North Africa, was founded by Spanish colonists in 1563, forty years after the founding of Granada in neighboring Nicaragua. The “costa rica” (rich coast) of the conquistadors who followed Columbus had proved to be not all that rica after all, with fierce inhabitants, inhospitable coastal terrain, and nothing in the way of exploitable minerals. The Cartago colony subsisted on small-scale agriculture in the fertile valleys south of Volcán Irazú high above the malarial coast. The independent, entrepreneurial nature of Costa Ricans today is often attributed to its founding as a nation by small-scale farmers, a cultural beginning more similar to that of New England than to the rest of Spanish Central America.
The Cartago area still feels like the heartland, but there’s nothing “colonial” about this city, at least nothing still standing. Cartago’s first cathedral, destroyed twice by earthquakes, is a spectacular ruin, but most of the old city has simply been built over. Eclipsed by San José in the early 1800s, Cartago experienced the coffee boom as a provincial city, not as the capital. Industrialization and 20thcentury population growth were focused elsewhere. Cartago remains a small city of churches and colleges surrounded by small towns and agriculture, its horizons dominated by Irazú to the north and the peaks of the Talamancas to the south. When you arrive here, it’s clear that you’ve left the noise and bustle of San José behind.
An hour east of Cartago on the old road to Limón is the railroad town of Turrialba, which has the frontier feeling of a mining town in the Colorado Rockies in the U.S. (at least it does for Chris, who has a weakness for old mining towns). Just north of Turrialba higher up the slope of Volcán Turrialba is Guayabo, the largest Pre-Columbian city thus far discovered in Costa Rica, already populated in 1,000 BC. It was abandoned before the Spanish came; as is usual for ancient cities in Central America, no one knows precisely why.
Adventurous travelers come to Turrialba to raft the Reventazón River which drains much of the rainy northern slopes of the Talamancas including the Lake Cachi basin. Some rafting companies maintain their own riverside lodges; the Turrialtico, just east of Turrialba on the road to Limón, is a favorite of rafters arranging their own lodging.
Lake Cachí itself is fed by the Rio Grande de Orosi, centerpiece of the beautiful Orosi Valley. Orosi is the perfect traditional Costa Rican coffee town with its 18th century adobe church, town square, and near-vertical terraced plantations. It is also the northern gateway to the enormous Tapantí National Park which extends over the northern slopes of the Cerro de la Muerte (the Mountain of Death, so named for early travelers from the Pacific coast who succumbed to the cold there). With extreme luck you can see jaguars here, just like those early Spaniards did when they cleared their little farms in this wilderness 450 years ago.
Photo © Orosi LodgeContact Information:
English, Spanish, German
All major credit cards accepted
Public hot springs next door
Breakfast available, Café serves coffee and pastries until 7 p.m.
Room Amenities: Ceiling fan, Coffee maker, Refrigerator/minibar, Internet access in café
How to get here:
Follow the main road from Paraiso down the mountain into Orosi. Turn right two blocks after the central plaza, following signs to the balneario(hot springs and baths). The Orosi Lodge is at the end of this road on your left, just before the entrance to the hot springs.
We checked into the Orosi Lodge before lunch and Andy gave us pointers for our exploratory drive around the valley. The Orosi-Cachí valley is surely one of the prettiest spots in Costa Rica – not grand, not stunning, just pretty in the settled, well-tended way little valleys are when they have been looked after lovingly by generations of inhabitants. It was January – early dry season – and flowers bloomed everywhere. We crossed the Rio Grande and followed the river through forests interspersed with planted fields. Orosi–Cachí is the valley of coffee and trout. We sampled both at the Casona restaurant, just south of the town of Cachí, with its dining patio hanging over a scenic bend in the lake. Brilliant orange poró trees bloomed all around us.
After lunch we continued around the lake to Ujarras where the grateful villagers built a magnificent church in the 1680s to thank the Virgin for her aid in defeating a raid by English pirates. The church is now a ruin, but its thick stone walls still stand thanks to the innovative mid-wall buttresses that were invented here and then used throughout the Americas. We’ve seen churches like this in New Mexico and Arizona; seeing this one with its happy little stream, beautiful poró trees, and flocks of noisy parrots brought back memories, but also a real sense of history. What a contrast between this lush tropical valley and the mountainous deserts of our northern home! Who were the frontier architects who had carried a style of buttress from Ujarras to Santa Fe? It had taken us two weeks to drive that distance. How long had it taken them?
We returned to Orosi in time for afternoon espresso at the Orosi Lodge café where we stocked up on organic Turrialba coffee and some local artwork for our guestroom in Atenas and consulted with Andy about early-morning hikes in the surrounding countryside. Anything you might want to do in the area, from river trips or horseback rides to an evening in the hot springs at the fancy Rio Perlas resort outside of town, you can set it up here. Andy and Connie have been in Orosi for years and seem to know everyone in town. And you don’t want to miss Connie’s fabulous apple cake; pick some up before the café closes at 7:00 so you’ll have it on hand after dinner at one of Orosi’s little sodas.
Rooms at the Orosi Lodge are simply furnished but very comfortable with European-style individual comforters on the beds and a generous supply of coffee and tea for the morning. The three rooms upstairs have a nice view from the balcony and the advantage of no one walking around on the floor above you during the night. The town hot springs is right next door, and the central plaza with its famous adobe church is only three blocks away. The jukebox downstairs plays classic rock and roll interspersed with Latin swing and calypso. A perfect place to just make yourself at home.
Update (March, 2008): Andy and Connie bought the three-bedroom house next door, added an upstairs covered deck, and are offering it for rent by the day or the week.
East of Turrialba
Keywords: Honeymoons, Hiking, Horseback riding
Photo © Alison TinsleyContact Information:
12 Rooms, 4 Suites
English, Spanish, French, German
All major credit cards accepted
Swimming pool, Lakeside
Breakfast included, Restaurant, Bar
Room Amenities: TV, Ceiling fan, Coffee maker, Refrigerator/minibar, In-room safe, Bathtub, Private outdoor space, Internet access in reception
How to get here:
Follow the old highway toward Limón (Highway 10) from Cartago through Turrialba. A few minutes out of Turrialba, you will pass CATIE, an agricultural research center, then cross a bridge. After the bridge, turn right toward La Suiza. Turn right again at the sign for Tucurrique; the driveway to Casa Turire will be on your right.
Lake Angostura was perfectly calm, and we swept across it in Casa Turire’s sea kayaks. Besides the ducks, Alison and I had the water to ourselves. Quite a nice break from always-windy Lake Arenal or the crowds at the beach. Yellow flycatchers rose and dove from the trees along the shore; around one bend solemn black vultures held a silent committee meeting, wings outstretched, drying in the early sun. We made a passage around the lake in about 45 minutes then racked our kayaks and headed up to breakfast on Casa Turire’s elegant poolside patio. What a transition – here four or five languages were being spoken, German and Costa Rican kids shared the pool, and formally-attired waiters served coffee.
Casa Turire is a grand plantation-style house set on expansive grounds surrounding Lake Angostura which covers the narrow valley that once held Turire’s private golf course. There are touches of every kind of architecture here, from the grand verandah of a classic country house to the airy cathedral-ceiling interior and the Italian art deco flourishes around counters and over doorways in the dining room, but everything fits. The atmosphere is comfortable, welcoming, and self-assured without even a hint of pretension. And there’s something for everyone – a dark-wood sitting room if you’d like a cigar, a private gazebo with a swing surrounded by hibiscus if you’re feeling romantic, horses if you care for a romp through the countryside and, of course, the kayaks if you don’t mind getting a bit wet.
Rooms at Casa Turire are ample and well-equipped and most have pleasant balconies overlooking the lake. There is a grand two-floor master suite that could be in an early 20thcentury New York hotel. It has a balcony covering one whole end of the building, overlooking the entryway fountain, the stately palm-lined driveway and the fields beyond. But the real stars here are the two junior suites on the third floor with high balconies looking down onto the lake. If you’re planning a honeymoon, ask for one of these.
Casa Turire’s property is still a working farm. Just down the drive is the main barn housing the riding horses together with goats, cattle, geese, and even a few Asian flat-horned buffalo. Gardens here grow the organic vegetables and greens you’ll enjoy at dinner. Turn left at the barn and you enter a path that takes you around the lake; a gentle walk of a couple of hours perfect for a picnic. Or arrange a horse and guide for a longer tour past the sugarcane fields up into the surrounding hills.
After your day’s adventures, it’s time for drinks on the verandah or by the pool followed by a dinner even more elegant than breakfast. The menu is continental with a Costa Rican touch, artfully prepared, graciously served, and very tasty. Don’t skip dessert!
Update (March, 2008): Casa Turire now offers free WiFi.
One of Jainie Murray's guests at Ambrosia en la Montaña wrote "You have provided a paradise of seclusion, peace and beauty ..." in the guestbook. We agree, and would add Jainie's excellent cooking to the list. Before moving to her family's coffee plantation above the mountain village of Orosi, Jainie was owner-chef of one of San José's best-loved restaurants, and she continues the gourmet tradition with delightful fireside dinners for her guests.
Ambrosia is located on seven hectares of forest overlooking the rushing Rio Grandé, two km up a steep switchbacked road from Orosi. The huge wilderness of Tapantí National Park is right next door. Ask Edwin to guide you up the winding trail into the woods for giant trees, hanging vines on which you can swing like Tarzan, and impressive views over the Orosi-Cachí Valley on one side and the Cartago Plateau on the other.
Ambrosia has just two cabins, one for couples and the other for families, and just opened last summer. Jainie isn't planning much in the way of expansion, so you can expect Ambrosia to remain a secluded, quiet hideaway - with great cooking! - even after the word gets out.
Reviewed February 29, 2008