5 Very Different Hotels To Consider For Your Vacation to Costa Rica (and some fun activities to do while you’re there)

If there’s one thing that COVID, and all the lock downs we’ve had here in Ontario (Canada) have taught me, is not to take anything for granted. I’ve always known that, but this challenging time in our history has really hammered the point home.

When I took my trip to Costa Rica in the fall of 2019, I had no idea that that would be the last international trip I would take for two years (I realize we aren’t in autumn 2021 yet but I know I won’t be able to travel internationally this fall).

It’s not that I would have enjoyed my time in Costa Rica any more than I did, but when you travel to a place, it’s not just about the destination, it’s about the journey (I know, corny), about the people you meet, about the connections you make, about the memories you create.

Now I appreciate even just being able to jump in the car, drive two hours (each way) and spend some time beach glass hunting. Not exactly tropical, but just having a change of scenery feeds my travel bug and I’m content. For a while. Until that bug gets hungry again.

If you have a travel bug to feed, and you’re like me in that you love nature and wild animals, photography, good food, scenic beaches (notice I said “scenic”, I’ll get to why I said that in a bit), friendly people, and a warm and tropical climate, I would recommend you add Costa Rica to your must see list and experience it for yourself once international travel is safe again.

I visited Costa Rica from November 25th to 29th, 2019 on a fam trip (as a travel consultant, we’re invited to go on these fam trips, short for familiarization, to do hotel inspections, experience various services and excursions, etc). Normally the fam trips I take are a week long (minimum) but since it was high season I wanted to be in the office to help my clients get away rather than me being away too long.

With that said, and with what I’m about to say about my time in Costa Rica, I really wish I had had more time in this lush and beautiful country and I recommend, if you’re going on vacation there, to go for a minimum of one week. The reason for this is, not that Costa Rica is a very large country, but it’s very diverse. The more time you can spend there, the more experiences you’ll be able to enjoy.

In case you don’t know much about Costa Rica, here are a few fun facts (do you like fun facts? Comment below!):

According to the Happy Planet Index, in 2012 Costa Rica held the top position as the happiest country in the world. A lot of factors play into this ranking including the fact that the government invests funds that it would have spent on an army (which was abolished in 1949) into education, healthcare and pensions. It has since slipped from the top position, but it’s still a country filled with smiles and positivity.

Costa Rica is the most biodiverse country in the world, with a whopping 500,000 species of plants and animals, of these, about 300,000 species are insects and 900 of them are birds; Manuel Antonio National Park is home to 184 different types of birds. There are over 50 species of hummingbirds alone!

Costa Rica is part of the Pacific Ring Fire Circle and has over 200 volcanic formations traced back over 65 million years. Of these formations, there are about 100 of them that actually show any signs of activity and five are classified as active (Turrialba, Poas, Arenal, Rincon de la Vieja and Irazu).

Costa Rica boasts an average life expectancy of 80 years (average global life expectancy is about 72 years), making me wonder if a relaxing, laidback lifestyle surrounded by nature might be the secret recipe to a longer life. Nicoya, on Costa Rica’s western coast, is a well-known Blue Zone, meaning that its inhabitants commonly live active lives past the age of 100.

Life expectancy is usually linked to wealth. However, Costa Rica is only a developing nation where the per capita expenditure on health care is only a fraction of that in Canada and the USA, yet, the country’s citizens enjoy longer lives than the citizens of many of the world’s most well developed nations. Could this be due to “pura vida“?

Pura vida, meaning “pure life”, is not only a common greeting, it’s also a state of mind. Pura vida encapsulates the laidback, friendly and welcoming vibe of Costa Ricans.

I think pura vida is the secret to a happy life

With 12 ecological zones and over 100 national parks, reserves, refuges and protected lands, Costa Rica is a true display of mother nature’s beauty. The country is dedicated to protecting and preserving their eco-diversity and are on their way to becoming the first carbon neutral nation in the world.

Costa Rica generates more than 99% of its electricity using renewable energy, using five renewable sources: hydropower, wind, geothermal energy, biomass, and solar.

Costa Ricans wake up to the national anthem playing on most major radio stations, every morning at 7 am.

From surfing to white water rafting to zip-lining, there’s no shortage of outdoor activities for thrill-seekers. Costa Rica is known to have some of the best surfing waves in the world and the rain forests are ideal for treetop trekking adventures.

All righty, enough fun facts, let’s get into it, 5 Very Different Hotels To Consider For Your Next Vacation To Costa Rica:

Planet Hollywood. I’ll be honest, this is the hotel I stayed at, so I experienced more of it than I did of the other four hotels. With that said, as much as I loved it, I can’t say for sure it’s the best fit for YOU, because it depends on what you’re looking for. Each of these five hotels are very different one from the other.

Planet Hollywood main lobby
Planet Hollywood lobby lounge and bar
cheers to Costa Rica!
I love handwritten welcome notes!

What I loved about Planet Hollywood is that it’s only about 35 minutes from the airport (not too close, not too far, as Goldie Locks would say, it’s juuuuuuusssst right!) and also that it’s a small hotel.

Now, I’d like to take a moment to explain…..by the way, if you haven’t read my previous blog posts (please do!), I’ve been in the travel business since the late ’80’s. Currently, due to COVID and the drop in travel business, I’m on lay-off. Having said that, prior to 2020 I had done at least one fam trip per year. So I’ve seen a lot.

I think it’s important to keep that in mind, because sometimes, for instance, if you go on Trip Advisor, you’ll see varying reviews of a property, all from 1 star to 5 star. This in large part is due to the reviewers travel experience, expectations, and quite frankly, the mood they’re in when writing their review.

Also to keep in mind, we are all very different people….what I might love, you may hate, and vice versa; this is why I said earlier that you need to take into consideration what you’re looking for….your lifestyle, your taste, your needs, and your budget, before you decide where to stay for your vacation. Ok, onward….

So in my mind, the Planet Holleywood is a small hotel. Large hotels are 1000 rooms or more. Medium hotels are 500-700ish rooms or so. Small hotels are 200-400 rooms or so. Boutique properties are 10-80 rooms or so. And of course you have all those numbers in between.

The benefit of staying at a small property is that it’s easy to get around, service is typically faster, better and more personalized, and it’s more about quality vs quantity.

The benefit of staying on a large property is that there are more dining options, there are more activities, and it’s easier to “get lost”.

Planet Hollywood has 294 luxury suites which include custom hand-crafted mattresses specially designed for Planet Hollywood (they are SOOOO comfy! I had the best sleep!). For me, having a good sleep is vital; it determines what my day will be like, 100%.

Each suite features 24-hour room service, private terrace or balcony (our room faced west so the views at sunset were spectacular), in-room coffee machine (by the way, and I know this is all to each individuals taste, but in my opinion, Costa Rican coffee is one of the best in the world!), plush bathrobes and slippers, satellite TV (I could not care less about the TV….during the day I’m out experiencing all there is to experience, at night there’s live entertainment and then I go to my room to sleep and freshen up for the next day), and a safe and ironing board.

Costa Rica is the only country in the world where it is illegal to produce anything less than 100% Arabica coffee beans – the highest quality. Arabica beans are some of the most difficult to grow, but the result is a richer, premium blend of coffee

The hotel offers six a la carte restaurants, one international buffet, five bars, and a cafe (“Fuel” offers awesome baked goods and coffee to die for!). The food at Planet Hollywood is excellent! For a fast and satisfying bite, be sure to go to Guys Burger Joint (“Guy” being Guy Fieri) for excellent burgers and fries which you can enjoy poolside.

for delicious baked goods, ice cream or a caffeine boost
why does food always taste better when you’re poolside?

Planet Hollywood offers added perks such as a Soundtrack program (so you can pick your theme music for your stay), and if you’re a STAR Class guest (I recommend this upgrade), then you get a personal rider with bar labels and in-room snacks, a personal agent to handle all your arrangements and reservations, complimentary access to their hydrotherapy pool, upgraded room service menu, aromatherapy and pillow menu.

They have a Splash Zone, one main pool which is very lively and another smaller pool exclusively for STAR Class guests; as someone who values peace and quiet, I found this smaller pool noisy because sound carries up the hill from the main pool, but it’s still a great place to hang out, sip on a nice cold beverage and enjoy the view.

plenty of sun and shade by the main pool
Bali beds and egg-chair loungers by the main pool
STAR Class members pool
view from STAR Class members pool toward main pool and beach

There’s Hollywood memorabilia everywhere (but not in a kitchy or cluttered way!), as well as entertainment-themed facilities and amenities.

cute!

For families, there’s a supervised kids club (for ages 4 to 12) and one very popular amenity is the free and unlimited high-speed WiFi throughout the resort, for all your family’s devices.

If you love being pampered, maybe a visit to the spa would suit you?

who doesn’t love a little pampering and hydrotherapy?

They DO have a gym, PUMPED, but honestly, I got my exercise going from lobby to my room to pool/beach, and back multiple times per day (the hotel sits hillside). They DO have free shuttles that run constantly, but I needed to work off some calories from all the delicious food I had had AND I wanted more time to soak in those hillside views.

My FAVOURITE part of the hotel? The monkeys! They have wild Capuchin in the trees by the beach!! They’re wild, so don’t feed them (I saw some children feeding them but this is never a good idea). I loved that they were trusting enough to be close to humans, but still kept their wild instincts and would scamper away or up a tree to put enough safe space between themselves and humans (I’m referring to the monkeys now, not the children).

peek-a-boo
grooming time
so inquisitive
just hanging out
how many capuchins does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
enough with the photos, Lady!

The beach at Planet Hollywood is OK for laying on a sun lounger to read a book, but it’s not the best beach for swimming. It was very muddy, but a weird kind of mud, like slimy muddy. Well, it wasn’t a good swimming or walking beach when we were there end of November, maybe it makes a difference depending on the time of year? If you’ve stayed at this hotel and were there NOT in November, please share your experience in the Comment section, and correct me if I’m wrong about the beach.

sun loungers by the beach (the capuchins are in the branches overhead)
pretty view but not the best beach for either swimming or walking
view from the area where the a la carte restaurants are (my favourite was the Blue Star Tex-Mex Cantina)

Speaking of beach…..the next two hotels we visited were sister hotels and sit side by side, not on what I would call a great beach but on the best beach I saw during my short stay in the Papagayo area.

The RIU Palace Costa Rica and the RIU Guanacaste.

view from RIU Palace Costa Rica from lobby toward beach

These two have been there a long time; RIU Guanacaste was built in November 2009 and RIU Palace was opened in November 2012. These two hotels are typical of RIU’s (I’ve seen their other properties in Mexico, Dominican Republic and Bahamas); they’re big, they’re loud, they’re lively, and they’re dated. A pet peeve of mine is when hotels rate themselves five stars on their website. This is NOT a good idea because it sets guests’ expectations high (rightfully so) and if you aren’t a TRUE five star hotel, DON’T advertise yourself that you are!!!

In my mind, a TRUE five star hotel must have: immaculate rooms, attention-to-detail decor, impeccable service, world-class F & B (food and beverage), pristine beach, desirable location, as well as personalized amenities. Neither of the RIU’s in Costa Rica have these features.

Giving it a fair rating…I’m rating them as one hotel even though they’re two, side by side, because honestly they blend together in my memory, I would give this sister property a low 4 star.

FOR ME, this would not be a best fit, because I’m an introvert, I don’t like large crowds of noisy people. But if you’re an extrovert, you might love these two hotels.

One thing I liked about the RIU’s….at their bars, they have these notices posted which state: “Do you really need the straw? It is used only 1 hour and it takes 500 years to decompose….267 species are affected by plastic.”

a short walk from the RIU’s is “Splash Water World” – open from 10 am to 5 pm
family-friendly water fun at “Splash Water World”

Next was the Occidental Papagayo.

beach to the right side (as you face the sea) is ok

This was the most basic and oldest (built in 1995) hotel we visited, but I really liked it! This small hotel (163 rooms) sits on a very lush piece of land, so lush that in some places during our walk around the property I found it a bit claustrophobic actually, but it’s a great little hotel for someone looking for an affordable adults-only place to stay.

During our inspection of this property, as we were walking from one area of the property to another, we passed by some rooms, and on the upper level was a man who shouted down to us from his balcony, to ask who were were and why were we there, so we explained. Without prompting, he said, “I’ve been to Costa Rica 15 times, to all the hotels and resorts, and this one is my favourite”.

Again, it depends on what you’re looking for, your taste, expectations, budget, etc. I personally, wouldn’t hesitate to stay at this little hotel; but again, I’m not there to take advantage of amenities the hotel does or doesn’t offer, for me it’s simply a place to lay my head. As long as it’s clean, service is friendly, and I can get a good nights’ sleep, I’m happy.

lush landscape and pretty views

The last property we inspected was the Secrets Papagayo.

I imagine on a cloudless day, this view would be even more spectacular

I had been to many other Secrets properties (mostly in Mexico) so I DID have expectations prior to arriving at the Secrets Papagayo. The Secrets in Mexico (Cancun and Mayan Riviera) are contemporary and modern, sleek and sexy. The Secrets Papagayo is none of those things. This Secrets is very Costa Rican in design and feel and I LOVED THAT! I personally don’t like cookie-cutter hotels (not that the Secrets in Mexico are cookie-cutter!). This Secrets is much less flashy, with intimate bungalows scattered on a hillside, it’s a great setting for a romantic getaway. As all Secrets properties, it’s adults-only and they pride themselves on their excellent service (which I can vouch for, IS excellent).

1 of 202 bungalow suites
cheers to more green!
open-air massage anyone?
pretty flowers everywhere on this property
resort map – more legible version available to my clients

One thing I loved about my visit to Costa Rica is that I got to participate in some soft-adventure. I’m not an adrenaline junkie, but I feel that life is short, and if you don’t do something from time to time that makes your heart beat just a little bit faster than usual, then what’s the point?

my good friend Nancy and I – ready for some zip-lining fun!

We did the Mega Combo Buena Vista (this fam was courtesy of Sunwing Vacations) which is described on their website as follows (edited here for the sake of time/space):

“Embark on a series of adventures in the heart of the Costa Rican jungle, including ziplining and a trek though the forest on horseback.

• Soar up to 100 metres (328 feet) above the rainforest on a zipline adventure
• Explore the Costa Rican jungle on horseback
• Unwind in thermal pools while soaking in the picturesque views

Take in stunning aerial views of the jungle on a zipline circuit at up to 100 metres (328 feet) in the air. From there, embark on a trek through the jungle on horseback, passing picturesque scenery with views of Rincon de la Vieja volcano in the background. After your adventures, unwind in one of the many natural thermal pools while you admire the breathtaking scenery in the heart of the jungle. Looking for some more adventure? Take an exciting ride down the 425-metre (1394-foot) Jungle Waterslide!”

The description isn’t 100% accurate, which I was happy about, but I feel it’s important to mention it here as it might affect your decision to do this excursion or not (by the way, this is an all-day excursion, ie, about six hours in duration)….for the zip-lining….the first cable goes 205 meters (or about 673 feet) and is 88 meters (or about 289 feet high)….zipping along the fourth cable, you will travel 452 meters (or about 1483 feet) at a height of about 56 meters (or about 184 feet).

I happen to love zip-lining! The higher and longer the cable takes me, the more fun it is for me! My first experience of it was in Whistler, British Columbia; that one was called the Eagle Tour, it had 5 ziplines, including a 2400 ft/732 meter zipline with a 30-storey descent!

Zip-lining through the Costa Rican jungle was far less heart-stopping, but nonetheless it was a lot of fun and I would highly recommend it!

Another thing not mentioned in Sunwing’s description…..we got to experience the volcanic mud baths! That was a lot of fun and my skin felt amazing afterward! Again, I highly recommend this activity (just don’t wear a white bathing suit)!

our view upon arrival back at the Planet Hollywood after a full day of adventuring – this photo is unfiltered, these are the true colours

And there you have it! 5 Very Different Hotels To Consider For Your Vacation to Costa Rica.

cheers to you Sunwing Vacations, Costa Rica and everyone who hosted us!

Thank you for giving up fiveish minutes of your time today to read this post. Ok, maybe 10-ish, but hey, I like to be thorough and even though I was in Costa Rica only four days, as you can likely tell, I loved it!!

Feel free to share in the Comments section your experiences in Costa Rica! I’d love to hear about it!

Please note: Comments are moderated so please be respectful. Trolls will not be tolerated and any rude comments will be deleted.

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