Some nights on Peninsula Papagayo, on the northern Pacific side of Costa Rica, the moon shone so bright, with so little evidence of human life, that I felt like an interloper just for bearing witness, for breathing through its stillness. Then I would remember how much it cost to be able to look at that moon from this particular part of the world and the poetry was quickly shattered.
If this bio-diverse Central American country has branded itself as a playground for rich North Americans — 40 percent of its tourists come from the United States — then Peninsula Papagayo, in the Guanacaste Province, is where the ultrarich go to avoid having to interact with the regular rich. The 1,400-acre luxury resort area is in a tropical dry forest, 70 percent of which is conserved as open green space. Guard stations and miles of cliffside roads separate its dwellings from any public byway. Lady Gaga and Christian Bale rang in the New Year there (separately). A night in a basic room at the Four Seasons, which is part of a development group that controls most properties on the peninsula, would set me back more than my monthly New York City rent (around $1,445, with taxes and resort fees). A night at its most expensive estate home goes for $34,500 in peak season.
As a traveler, I am deeply uncomfortable with frills. Our typical family vacation when I was growing up near Santa Fe, N.M., consisted of stuffing a black cargo van with camping gear and driving as far south across the Mexican border as we could before the van broke down. In this case, though, some frills couldn’t be avoided. I’m on assignment to visit every destination on The Times’s 52 Places to Go in 2018 list, and the entirely private, entirely exclusive Peninsula Papagayo — not to be confused with the plain old Papagayo region just to the south — came in at No. 20. Beyond the Four Seasons, one can stay in private condos (more expensive), properties managed by Exclusive Resorts (more expensive), and the Andaz, the “budget” option, where the cheapest room I could find for a single night came in at $735 (resort fee and tax included).
Extreme beauty does come with those price tags. I checked in for my one-night stay at the Andaz in an open-air reception area perched on a cliff above the ocean. Soon, though, I began to feel trapped. A laundry mix-up left me without pants — long story — and after an hour of waiting for help from a bellman, to no avail, I was forced to wrap a towel around my waist and wrest new pants from the trunk of my car myself. (The laundry bill was $34 for five items.)
Fellow cheap people: There is hope. I got three nights of terrific sleep gently rocking away on a $245-a-night yacht I’d found through some miracle of Airbnb, docked at Marina Papagayo. Low-key and just a 10-minute walk (and, weirdly, a 30-minute drive) from the Andaz, the marina has a dive bar called The Dive Bar and offers hotel rooms starting at $169 a night. (Laundry: $2 a load.)
The yacht also had a surprise that became the best part of Costa Rica for me. I knew from my communications with the owner that a 21-year-old sailor named Álvaro Álvarez would be letting me onto the boat. I didn’t know that he’d speak no English and he’d be my roommate the whole time, sleeping on a pad on the floor of the upstairs helm. Confusion turned to delight as I came to rely on him for his funny observations of the area’s extreme wealth, for the way he’d shout out “Dime!” (“Tell me!”) whenever I’d call out his name. He told me about his life in the coastal city of Puntarenas, where he has a new wife and a 6-month-old son he adores. I told him why I was in Costa Rica, and he was eager to guide me as a kind of reporter’s assistant.
With his help, I found out how to enter the peninsula through a dinner reservation at Poro Poro restaurant, run by Exclusive Resorts. (Marina employees told me they do the same thing with lunch reservations at the Four Seasons’ trio of restaurants.) A short beach hike from the marina allowed me to spend a whole day at one of the Andaz’s outdoor restaurants using its fast Wi-Fi. The only hitch was when I stayed after dark and had to ask the hotel staff to drive me back because the walk had become “muy peligroso” (very dangerous). “I went looking for you!” Mr. Álvarez scolded me that night. “The forest is full of snakes and jaguars and pumas and I was worried they ate you!”
Every beach in Costa Rica is, by law, a public beach. But in two years of working in the marina, Mr. Álvarez told me he’d only seen the beaches on the Four Seasons property once — and the trek had been so arduous he didn’t think he’d ever do it again. One morning, we tried going to the best beach marina guests can get to, Playa Nacascolo, but that required an hour’s journey there and back on a Four Seasons shuttle.
So when the Four Seasons got wind that I was on the peninsula and invited me to tour the property, I knew I had to take Mr. Álvarez with me. It’s a vast and arresting resort that is doing commendable conservation work (the new Papagayo Explorers Club is cataloging every species on the peninsula), and offers the best-paying work in Guanacaste. I just didn’t enjoy being surrounded by English speakers in a place where no locals could afford to live.
The Costa Rica I’ll treasure is the one Mr. Álvarez and I visited on our road trips. One took us 45 minutes south to Playas del Coco, a populist beach filled with soccer-playing construction workers and fishermen just returning with their catch. On our way to another free beach, Playa Hermosa, Mr. Álvarez jumped a fence to gather green mangoes that he sliced up and served with lime and salt for dinner. (He also offered me Coca-Cola and Cup-o-Noodle soup from his own personal stash when it was clear he’d only brought enough for himself.)
On my last day, we made an epic drive across the island. He needed to go home to see his wife and child — he’d normally hitchhike, then take two multi-hour bus rides — and I needed his help navigating a civic festival in Guanacaste’s capital city, Liberia, in which everyone rides their horses through the streets, and then to a bar where they don’t have to dismount to grab a beer. Over many hours of language-challenged bonding, I learned that Mr. Álvarez dreams of seeing Texas someday and is afraid of bulls because one threw him into the air at a similar festival.
Most of all, though, I got back to something I’d been missing over a month of solo travel: the joy of getting lost with someone whose company you enjoy. At every wrong turn, Mr. Álvarez would throw his hands up and say, “Aventura!” Maybe, I thought, with a bit of attitude adjustment I could keep the adventure going for the rest of the year.
Renting a car is highly recommended for getting around Costa Rica. Be sure to have tons of runway on your credit card for the $1,500 mandatory deposit, plus the cost of the rental. (I saw an American couple have to walk away carless and spend their vacation on busses because they didn’t.) If your credit card provides rental insurance, you’ll still need to present a formal letter, in paper form, to the agency to avoid getting charged. Beware potholes and unexpected dirt roads. Always drive in the left lane on a highway to avoid hitting the many cows, pedestrians or cyclists on the right-side shoulder. When home, double check that the massive deposit has been removed.
Jada Yuan will be traveling to every place on this year’s 52 Places to Go list. Follow her on Instagram @alphajada.
QCostarica.com was not involved in the creation of the content. This article was originally published on Nytimes.com. Read the original article.