100 GREAT PLACES TO STAY IN COSTA RICA
Web Edition v. 2.0 February, 2009; Copyright © 2007 - 2009 HayFields Science Inc.
All Rights Reserved.
El Volcán Poás is the closest volcano to Juan Santamaria International Airport. It has a lovely paved road leading to the very top, and its still-active crater sports a bubbling blue-green pool of sulfuric acid. What more could you ask for in a top-notch destination? Weekenders flock here on Saturdays and Sundays, hoping that the clouds will part. That’s the rub – you have to get lucky to find a clear day on the top of Poás. Early mornings are best, so aim to get here when the park opens at 8 a.m. You’ll beat the tour busses by coming early, too.
As Poás looms over bustling Alajuela, its dormant neighbor to the south, wooded Barva graces the skyline above sleepier Heredia. Barva is the western anchor of Braulio Carillo National Park, created when Highway 32 was built to more efficiently link San José with Limón. The summit of Barva is deep in the park and accessible only with a strenuous hike. You won’t find many tourists up there.
There are several routes to Poás, but by far the easiest goes straight north from the center of Alajuela to the town of Fraijanes and from there to the crossroads at Poasito. Bear left at the intersection in Poasito to go to the volcano. Turning right takes you to the mountain town of Varablanca, the crossroads for the narrow pass that drops over the mountains to the eastern slopes and the Caribbean plain.
The western slopes of both Poás and Barva are covered by coffee plantations at lower elevations and by grey and black shade-cloth as you venture higher. This is strawberry country; you’ll find vendors on every roadside holding plastic bags or wooden flats filled with ripe fresas. Prices are good but wash the berries before eating as many of the farmers use pesticides.
There are lots of lodgings on the western slopes of Poás and Barva, but our favorites are around Varablanca. This small town feels remote but is only about 45 minutes from Alajuela and a bit over an hour from San José. Volcán Poás National Park is half an hour from here to the north, and less than two hours to the east is Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí, gateway to the rivers and rainforests of the northeastern plains. Even Arenal is only a couple of hours from Varablanca if you don’t hit heavy traffic.
Another reason to stay near Varablanca is Restaurante Colbert, one of the best French restaurants in Costa Rica, about half a kilometer out of town on the way to Heredia. Colbert is a hidden treasure, one of those places even many locals don’t know about. They make their own pastries, serve local cheeses and produce, and smoke hams over a wood-burning stove in the middle of the dining room. The home-made pâtés are wonderful, and the appetizer plate is almost a meal for two. If they’re offering the cabrito (baby goat) cooked in beer when you arrive, don’t turn it down!
Keywords: Relax/Get away, Hiking, Horseback Riding
Photo © Poas Volcano Lodge
6 Rooms, 5 Suites
English, Spanish, French
All major credit cards accepted
Horseback tours available
Breakfast included, Lunch and dinner available
Room Amenities: Ceiling fan, Coffee maker (suites), Internet available (in game room)
How to get here:
From Alajuela, follow signs to Poás, then turn right in Poasito toward Varablanca. Poas Volcano Lodge is between Poasito and Varablanca, on the east side of the road about ½ km north of Varablanca.
Our first morning at Poas Volcano Lodge, I woke with a start from a terrible dream of snowstorms. Outside, the wind was howling and rain and clouds flew by in horizontal sheets. We contemplated making a fire – the Master Suite’s fireplace was well provided with dry wood – but when Chris stepped out onto the patio, he reported that it wasn’t really cold, just sweater weather. It felt like a summer morning in the Colorado Rockies of his youth. We snuggled back under the quilt of our massive four-poster bed and watched the clouds whip by through the clerestory windows. A perfect morning for a leisurely bath in the free-form bathtub, I thought. But I knew it wasn’t going to happen; Chris was going to insist we hike one of the three beautifully laid-out trails.
Poas Volcano Lodge was built in the early 1970s as the family farmhouse for the 300-acre El Cortijo dairy farm and is surrounded by lush fields full of healthy, happy-looking cows. Michael, the courtly owner of the Lodge, built the main house using the rough stone and massive hand-hewn wooden beams of rural architecture in his native England. Huge windows and clerestories provide views and light and two full-size fireplaces warm the public rooms in the evenings. Every detail has been thought of – the sunken, cushioned bancos facing the upstairs fireplace, the piano and pool-table in the family room downstairs, and rubber boots (neatly arranged by metric sizes) and walking sticks provided for hikers. As well as the luxurious Master Suite, the Lodge offers four standard rooms and four junior suites. They are all charmingly decorated, but the standards are a bit small for two people (and they don’t have an in-room coffee maker) so, if you’re traveling with a companion, opt for a junior suite.
By the time we’d made coffee there were a few shafts of sunlight so we set off on the Yellow Trail which runs down through pastures to a sizeable stand of old-growth cloud forest covering the ridges and canyons of the creeks feeding the La Paz river. The trail was advertised as a one-hour walk but took almost twice that due to our constant stops to admire the huge trees covered with orchids, bromeliads, mosses, hanging lianas, and countless other epiphytes. At 1,850 meters (about 6,000 feet), the climbs up and down the canyons through the steep-sided pastures and over the dozen or so yellow-painted stiles at every fence crossing take some work. We earned our excellent breakfasts of ham & eggs, fruit, homemade muesli, and toast with delicious local strawberry preserves.
Poas Volcano Lodge also offers a wonderful dinner; we recommend it highly. Sitting by the fire before and after, sharing a glass of wine with fellow guests, you too may decide that this is one of your favorite places in all of Costa Rica.
Update (February, 2008): Michael's daughter Emily is now organizing horseback tours through the high country around Póas and Barva. Reserve through Poas Volcano Lodge.
Update (February, 2009): Poas Volcano Lodge suffered damage in the January 8, 2009 earthquake and is rebuilding. Some guestrooms are undamaged and available. Guests are also being accomodated at Emily's new hotel, Caciquita Lodge.
East of Varablanca
Keywords: Honeymoons, Hiking, Kid-friendly, Wildlife
Photo © Peace Lodge
16 Rooms, One 2-BR villa
All major credit cards accepted
Swimming pool, Waterfalls, Hummingbird and butterfly houses, Snake and frog exhibits
Breakfast included, Restaurants, Bars
Room Amenities: AC, Ceiling fan, Coffee maker, Refrigerator/minibar, Private outdoor space with hot tub
How to get here:
From Varablanca, go east on Highway 9 (also called Highway 126) following signs to Sarapiquí. Peace Lodge is five km from Varablanca on the left.
We arrived at Peace Lodge before check-in time so, before going to our room, we wandered the roughly one km loop of the Fern Trail through a part of the Lodge’s 70 acres of cloud forest, then had a relaxed lunch by the combination trout pond and deep-water infinity swimming pool. After lunch, we were escorted to one of the four standard rooms that include a waterfall shower. Imagine Walt Disney designing a lavish jungle retreat and you’ve kind of got the picture. The orchid-hung waterfall pouring from the 12-foot ceiling in the spacious bathroom was worth the price of admission (and the price of admission is not cheap). Our walk had left us hot and sweaty, so I immediately had to try it out. Never before have I experienced such beautifully hot water tumbling over my head and shoulders. Of course, Chris had to try it next. Afterwards, we donned the robes provided and repaired to our private balcony with our own hot tub to relax. The sun shone following afternoon rains and the resident hummingbirds were everywhere. What a way to spend our anniversary!
Peace Lodge is part of La Paz Waterfall Gardens which surround the cascades of the clear-running La Paz River. Paved trails with hanging bridges and observation platforms follow the river providing close-up viewing of five spectacular waterfalls. It was August when we visited, deep in the rainy season, and the forest was dense, dripping wet, and full of morning birdsong. Many of the cloud forest’s elusive creatures can be seen close-up at La Paz’s hummingbird, butterfly, frog, and snake enclosures. The butterfly garden specializes in Blue Morphos and Owl butterflies which we saw emerging from their cocoons, unfolding and drying their wings, and taking their first steps with their brand-new legs.
Dinner at Peace Lodge is by reservation for guests only and was excellent, from the onion soup in a bread bowl to dark-chocolate mousse in a delicate, cinnamon pastry shell. Hunter, the Lodge’s striped tabby, was sitting by our door when we returned from our after-dinner nocturnal frog tour and joined us by the fire in our room.
Peace Lodge has eight standard and eight deluxe rooms plus a
two-bedroom villa. All rooms have private balconies with hot tubs,
luxurious bathrooms, four-poster king beds, and fireplaces. Deluxe
rooms are distinguished from standards by their upper-floor
locations, peaked ceilings, and larger bathrooms with jacuzzi tubs.
We recommend asking for one of the four standards that have
bathroom waterfalls – just for the wonderful sound of the water.
Avoid the rooms that border the central pool and spa. These can be
noisy if your fellow guests ignore the 10 p.m. closing time, as some
did during our stay.
Update (February, 2009): Peace Lodge is re-building following severe damage in the January 8, 2009 earthquake, and plans to re-open in summer, 2009.