Costa Rica's Capital Hotels

I recently traveled to Costa Rica, that anomaly of a country where 25% of the land is held in national parks and where eco-consciousness is a way of life, not political posturing.

Two hotels in the capital city of San Jose that I stayed in serve as metaphors for the old versus new way of thinking. The Gran Hotel de Costa Rica is a magnificent structure, built in the heyday of the capital city. It is huge, ornate and, sadly, run down. The marble and wood entryway are impressive, as is the classic restaurant sitting area as one enters.

But, initial impressions are deceiving. Look behind the lobby and you have tiny, claustrophobic rooms with no air conditioning and poor ventilation. The rooms have that tired, worn look and the bathrooms are tiny. It reminded me of the old, long-gone days of the South American renaissance.

Oddly enough, the ground floor restaurant food and service was mediocre, while the lunch buffet on an upstairs floor was excellent and a draw for businesspeople and tourists alike. Go figure!

One thing about San Jose that tourists eager to travel to Costa Rica should know is that it is not a particularly safe city. Wander even a block or two from the main downtown area and you are asking for trouble. Since most tourists are in CR to see the parks and wildlife, that’s usually no problem. Just stay in or right around your hotel. San Jose hotels serve as springboards to eco-tours. You fly in, spend a night getting a good sleep and off you go to see howler monkeys in the wild.

So, after three nights in the Gran, I decided to try something completely different. I booked into the Parque del Lago Hotel Vivo, where I had visited earlier for a business presentation and was impressed by the catering and attentive staff.

The Parque is a boutique hotel, a smartly executed concept by Ana Alfaro, whose vision of an intimate guest experience for the world traveler is reflected in every aspect of the hotel’s operation. Walk in the door and you know you are entering the future of hospitality in CR. There is nothing pretentious here. The hotel has a fresh look and is immaculately clean. The rooms are, well… roomy. Mine had a windowed, airy, separate seating area that allowed me to do my work in comfort on the couch or at the small desk. The bathroom was freshly scrubbed. And the prices are quite reasonable.

Each floor carries a separate motif reflecting forest, water and fire, the elemental forces that shaped and are Costa Rica today. The ground floor has engaging informational panels painted onto the walls, explaining the culture and history of CR. A small gift shop reflects the canteenas of old. But, it is in the small and tastefully designed restaurant that the Parque truly shines.

Alfaro brought in Executive chef Pedro Reyes to develop a CR-based cuisine where every bite is a morsel of Valhalla. I feasted on mahi mahi prepared with sliver-fried plantains and a light cream sauce. The palate feel of melt-in-your-mouth fresh fish and crisp plantains was perfectly balanced and the sauce burst open with notes of citrus. The traditional Costa Rican rice and beans was raised to a higher level with the addition of a hint of spicy heat. I ended the meal with a desert aptly named “Plantain in Glory,” a scoop of vanilla ice cream surrounded by sliced, warm plantain cooked in caramel sauce, white wine, cinnamon, and sugar. Even a simple item like coffee was excellent, a strong brew of home-grown beans.

The dining room itself is small, intimate and unpretentious, with nicely designed elements of Costa Rican culture gracing the walls. The soft Latin music was a perfect complement to the dining experience.

One final note; the staff at Parque was exceptional, which I believe reflects Alfaro’s passion. They were helpful without being pushy. They were cheerful and enthusiastic. I found myself wondering when the last time was that I could say that about a hotel staff.

If you’re planning a trip to Costa Rica that includes San Jose, do yourself a favor and treat yourself to the Parque del Lago Hotel Vivo experience. You won’t regret it.

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