Travels in Costa Rica, Part II: The Papagayo Peninsula


In the second part of our Costa Rica travel special, Lydia Manch dives into the Bay of Papagayo’s pura vida… 

There’s a huge hammock strung along one corner of our suite at El Mangroove, and a note confirming our pool cabana reservation: a tacit promise that the biggest thing asked of us in the next handful of days and nights will just be the transfer from one sleeping location to another. 

Bodes well for my plans: sleeping in the sundappled heat of the cabanas; sleeping in our hammock; sleeping in the shade of the huge mangrove trees fringing the beach. Maybe, if I’m feeling energetic, continuing research for my exhaustive, objective, three-weeks-in-the-making leaderboard of the most important chiliguaros in northwest Costa Rica. 

A small horseshoe curve of coastline that looks far too peaceful and improbably green to be less than half an hour’s drive from Liberia airport, the Golfo de Papagayo’s home to a handful of hyperluxe larger hotels inside a gated community, and boutique smaller ones studded along the Bay of Papagayo. El Mangroove sits along Playa Panamà, a pristine stretch of beach with waters so calm it’d look more like a lake than the Pacific, if it weren’t for the occasional luxury yacht drifting by on the horizon. 

International tourism to this region’s a majority North American crowd, with a lot of New Englanders and Quebecois fleeing the east coast winters via a 5-hr flight that delivers a mindblowing gearshift in both lifestyle and weather. In nearly a month of exploring the northwest of Costa Rica I don’t meet another British person, and very few Europeans; flights are indirect from the UK and, at their smoothest, tightest combination of changeovers still take the best part of a day to deliver you to Liberia airport. Once you’re there, though, it’s hard to remember the effort. Particularly somewhere like the El Mangroove, which seems determined to ply you with good sleeping spots and cocoon you in gentle, nonchalant glamour.

There’s something a little Golden Age of the Italian Riviera to the look at El Mangroove: a Slim Aarons aesthetic filtering through the cabanas by the pool, with their long, white linen curtains frilling out in the breeze; the open-air restaurant with a line of sight that traces along the narrow rectangular pool and down to the beach, with a few anchored speedboats barely bobbing on the water; the olive-and-cream striped sunloungers lining the pool and scattered through the grounds; the pan-Mediterranean seafood menu at Malú, and the startlingly good martinis at Makoko.

But the design notes are just notes: the menus – including some all-time-great ceviches, outstanding tostades at breakfast, and guided Costa Rican coffee tastings – plus the constant birdsong, the rugged green curl of coastline across the peninsula, beyond the edge of the hotel’s grounds, and the lizards weaving through the tables at lunch, so huge it feels less like the staff are shooing them away and more like a crime boss being escorted out of a club by their entourage – they all mark it as a world away from Europe, the dolce vita aesthetic gearshifting into the pura vida lifestyle.

Pura vida definitions get thrown around by guides on Costa Rica, the literal meaning of the phrase – ‘simple life’ – falling very short of the ways it’s commonly used; it’s said in general greeting and goodbye, in thanks, to affirm everything’s good, that you’re welcome, that something’s no problem, appreciation for something great, a verbal shrug to indicate that if everything’s not great right now it will be.

Zoom out, and it’s often held up as the philosophy underpinning everything that leads to the country’s high life satisfaction – including high literacy and employment rates, high average life expectancy, strong environmental protection policies, and, in December 2023, 75 years since the abolition of its standing army and reinvestment of the funds in education and health initiatives – and its regular place at the top of global happiness index leaderboards. 

Despite our intentions for this to mostly be a stay where we just sleep in 80 different settings, we’re lured away from our hammock-cabana-sunlounger rotation a few times – mostly just for walks along the pristine stretch of the Playa Panamà at the edge of the hotel’s grounds, but one day we also give into the allure of the mirror-smooth sea and head out into the bay with a two-person kayak. 

That kickstarts an unintentionally high-adrenaline series of events that includes but is not limited to: deciding to explore further along the curve of the peninsula instead of staying in the so-tranquil-it-could-be-a-bathtub waters near our hotel; noticing a beautiful, secluded bay in the distance that you can only get to by water; spending a while sunbathing in its pristine emptiness, feeling godlike; a fiercer-than-it-looked wave flipping the kayak as we set out again, stuttering us along the stony shallows before dropping us – a bit bloodier and quite a lot less godlike than before – like semi-drowned puppies back in the same bay, and finally ends with us (second try) paddling back towards the pura vida comforts of the Playa Panamà and El Mangroove, wide-eyed with adrenaline, exhilarated with still being alive, medium confident that the minor wounds and bloody smears everywhere look worse than they are.

And as we walk back up the beach to the kayak hire hut, the guys come out to reclaim the equipment. There’s a pause, while they take in our scratched-up shoulders and bleeding knees and what I’d describe as a general Demeanour of Chaos, and then by silent consensus we all shrug, and nod – and say, pura vida

Half an hour later – sand washed out of our scratches, bandaged ourselves up, phones surrendering their seawater to a jar of rice – we’re sitting in Matiss, the beachfront bar at El Mangroove: cold beer, seabreeze ruffling the mangrove trees, ceviche on order. And hard to say if it’s the shaded serenity of Matiss or the implacable calm of – rapidly becoming my favourite animal on this continent – the lizards basking in between the tables, or the fact that kayaking notwithstanding I have, sure, spent a lot of the last three days either asleep or about to be, but I feel great. Not just not-bad-despite-recent-events – but holistically, contentedly great. So could be – along with a few small but important things about how to sea kayak in the future a way that won’t get me killed – I’ve also learned something about pura vida from the Gulf of Papagayo.

The Arbuturian were hosted by El Mangroove, an Autograph Collection hotel on the Papagayo Peninsula in Costa Rica. Suites at El Mangroove start at $411 a night in spring. 

There are flights to Liberia airport in Guanacaste from London, including with United Airlines, with stops in Canada, Spain, and the US.