|An A.M. Costa Rica reprint
First published May 2, 2008
|A.M. Costa Rica Page One
|Contents copyrighted 2008 by Consultantes Río Colorado S.A. (cédula juridica 3-101-290-170). Republication without permission is prohibited under U.S. and Costa Rican laws and international conventions.|
A.M. Costa Rica photos/Helen ThompsonOperator from Playa Hermosa keeps his glass-bottom boat business in the water just off the Four Seasons beach.
the wealthy live at the Four Seasons in Papagayo
By Helen Thompson
of the A.M. Costa Rica staff
Driving up to the “Republic of Papagayo,” border security is tight. One's right to enter the luxury peninsula is checked three times by guards communicating with reception via radios and earpieces. Anyone not entering in a tourist bus or in a fancy car is viewed with suspicion.
But once past their tests, and admitted to the 7-kilometer entrance road, the priviledge of the area starts to seep in. The road is palm-lined, fountains take the sculpted shapes of kneeling women, golfers swing their clubs gently on a course carpeted with a special kind of grass that can be irrigated with salt water, and the staff is attentive to guests' every need.
The Four Seasons hotel is the anchor to the Papagayo Peninsula, which has been dubbed a republic by some for its isolation, and its condition as the only part of Costa Rica annexed and overseen by the Instituto Costarricense de Turismo. It even has its own laws, developed especially for the peninsula.
Indeed, it takes quite some effort to finally arrive at the five-star resort, which sits almost at the end of the strip of land that juts into the Pacific Ocean. The roads in Guanacaste are bad, and without the nearby Liberia Airport, any tourist looking for a little rest and relaxation would leave the hotel off their list.
“The airport has been a great help,” said Luis Argote, general manager of the Four Seasons Resort Costa Rica at Peninsula Papagayo. “Not so long ago, three flights a week would come into that airport. Now it's more like 54. It gives us a lot of opportunities, including opening to the European market with the weekly London direct flight.”
Last year's figures showed that 29 percent of all the people touching down at the airport headed off to the peninsula, making it the most visited destination by air passengers in Guanacaste. But almost 60 percent of the people flying out of Liberia ended their holiday by complaining about the state of the roads.
“I wouldn't say the roads are a hinderance for us. For some people it is part of the experience of visiting an exotic destination.” said Argote, who is Venezuelan but has worked in Four Seasons resorts all over the Americas. He has been working in Costa Rica for five years, one year before the resort's opening in 2004.
The Papagayo hotel has developed a reputation as the playground of the rich, famous, and would-be famous when they holiday in Costa Rica, and Argote is used to dealing with keeping the paparazzi at bay. The latest big intrigue came when Ashlee Simpson — a teen-pop singer, for those at a loss — and her boyfriend Pete Wentz spent a few days in the resort in January. Bill Gates also paid the hotel a visit in April.
“The reason they come here is because they know they'll get peace and quiet,” says Agote. “The normal profile of our guests is that they aren't particularly impressed by having celebrities around. And looking at where the hotel is located, it makes the situation much easier to control.”
With each guest paying something between $415 and $1,000 per night, a high-class experience has to be provided.
Three stepped swimming pools lie on a thin strip of land between two curving white-sand beaches that brush the hotel on either side. The beaches are almost deserted, with many more people swimming in the pool than the sea. A few thoughtfully-placed wicker deck chairs lie on the sand alongside a variety of water-sports equipment, but no motor-vehicles are allowed as the beaches are designated quiet areas.
One could be forgiven for thinking that the resort is violating the Costa Rican law that all beaches are public property, but staff are adamant that there are ways to get to the beaches even if you're not a guest. The only man who tries it on a regular basis is a local of Playa Hermosa, which lies just across the bay. He brings a string of glass-bottom, battery-powered boats across to the beach each day, floating just off the coast and waiting for customers.
Meals are taken in one of four restaurants, which serve seafood, steak, Brazilian and typical food, and from each of which diners can hear the waves rolling onto the shore. The catch of the day is displayed on the beach each day so guests can pick out their personal dinner.
Other bonuses include a gym with cardiovascular equipment and weights, a spa with steam room and jacuzzi which claims to use only biodegradable products, and facilities for private events from small dinner parties to full-blown beach weddings. Children can be disposed of in two daytime youth clubs, one for younger kids and one for teenagers, where they can play sports, watch TV, do art, make friends and stay out of the way of their parents.
There are 163 well-appointed rooms with big bathrooms and self-ordered mini bars. Prices rise with the altitude — and thus the view — of the room, all housed in buildings that have curving shell shaped roofs, allegedly designed to blend with the surroundings.
“We created a new niche in the Costa Rican tourism market,” said Argote. “We were the first luxury hotel to set up here, and I believe we remain the only real luxury product. We didn't dilute the national tourist market with this hotel. The hotels we compete with are outside the country, such as the Ritz Carlton Caribbean and the One&Only Palmilla Resort in Mexico.”
Even with the economic situation going downhill in the United States of America, where Four Seasons recruits most of its clients, Argote says that the hotel is doing well.
“Four Seasons is a mystical name in the U.S.A., and our client base is very loyal,” he said. “We still have over 90 percent American clients, mostly between the ages of 35 and 55. They are always surprised by how much closer Costa Rica, as an exotic destination, is to the U.S. – much closer than they envisaged.”
With so many affluent Americans pouring in to the isolated resort, it's difficult for guests to get any taste of the country that lies outside the guarded barriers.
Staff are mainly Costa Ricans who speak fluent English, and some of the food served is in the typical style, but it's hard to imagine the guests being served guaro instead of a fine scotch or eating rice and beans with every meal. As Argote admits, most of the clients live in the resort while they are there, doing all their eating, sleeping and playing on the grounds.
“We are getting more Costa Ricans coming to stay at the hotel,” he said. “I would say they make up about 6 percent of our client base. We have local packages with special rates for Costa Ricans. Quite a number of Josephinos are also buying shares in our time-share program, so they have a place to come away to a private apartment on the hotel grounds.
“I hope that for Costa Ricans it is a source of pride to have a Four Seasons resort in the country. We say there is a
Sculpted kneeling woman is part of the ambience.
Luis Argote, Four Seasons general manager
Bird's eye view of one lounge. As part of the rules of access, a photographer was not allowed to take close up shots of hotel guests.
Lounge chairs await sun-seekers.
pre-Four Seasons and a post-Four Seasons era in every country, and I hope that they are proud that their country is a real luxury destination now.”
All has not always run smoothly for hotels in the Papagayo area, with the Hotel Allegro Papagayo shut down temporarily in February after it was found to be contaminating the ocean. The hotel lies just outside the gates to the Papagayo peninsula, and caused its neighbouring beach, Playa Manzanillo, to lose its blue flag certification.
Four Seasons Costa Rica itself came under scrutiny in the national media not long after, when it was found that a suspicious pipe leading from the hotel to the ocean could have been used to dump overflow from water treatment plants. A sanitary order was issued by the Ministerio de Salud to Ecodesarrollo Papagayo, the company that oversees the peninsula's infrastructure.
Despite this and other contamination problems in nearby areas such as Tamarindo, Argote is confident that this will not deter guests from coming to his own resort.
“Security is a bigger issue,” he continues. “With the growth of surrounding towns, such as Tamarindo, we see things happening that would never have happened three years ago. If people hear about crime in the country and the international image of the country goes downhill, everyone suffers.”
No mention is made of the recent report by the Contraloría General, which deplores the fact that Four Seasons' neighbours are mostly vacant lots rather than concessioned land under development.
Of 13 projects that have had concessions to develop in the peninsula for up to 11 years, only 2 have even begun construction.
Four Seasons claims to have set the tone for the development of the peninsula, but it is yet to be seen when the desired projects will finally be developed around it.
This is what they came for: A secluded tropical beach.