Flamingo Beach Resort and Spa in Costa Rica: It's "Pura Vida!"

Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer

They met in Durham, North Carolina, students at Duke going for an MBA. Pam was a pretty blonde from Long Island, cheerful and outgoing. Carlos was a tall and burly guy from Costa Rica with a gentle demeanor that inspired trust and confidence. Through the spring semester, they saw a lot of each other. When it ended, Carlos invited Pam to come home with him. He wanted to introduce her to his family and show her around the little Central American nation that was his home. Pam knew little about Costa Rica beyond what she'd learned in geography classes when she was a kid. But by now, she knew Carlos. It seemed like a good idea.                 

Almost at once, Pam was smitten. The people were universally warm and kindly. It was the rainy season, but when the sun came out, and it did every day, it was glorious! And the scenery, in all its varieties from mountain to sea, enchanted her.

One day Carlos told Pam he was going to take her to a particularly beautiful beach in the province of Guanacaste. They drove along a dirt road for a good four hours. Part of the ride was hard going. But finally they arrived at a pristine stretch of pure white sand fronting the Pacific. Just then the sun burst through the clouds, and egrets, some of them with a pinkish hue, flew out of an estuary on a little rise. Off in the distance, Spanish-style mansions atop a hill were casting deep shadows through the palms below. A man named Osborne had come here some years before, Carlos told Pam, and he built these houses as hideaways for the rich and famous. It was rumored the fugitive financier Robert Vesco once had a home there, that Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton would fly in and out on their own private jet.  

That was the beginning. The summer ended. Pam and Carlos returned to the States. They  got their MBAs, married, began a family. At first they lived in New York City, but after Carlos' family opened a hotel in Costa Rica's capital San Jose, they moved down. And ultimately, in the manner in which way leads on to way, they found themselves back on the beautiful beach in Guanacaste that Carlos had shown Pam years before. Only now they were the owners of the Flamingo Beach Resort.                                                                                                

It is believed that long ago a visitor to the area had seen the egrets and thought they were  flamingoes -- hence the beach's and then the hotel's misnomer. But no mistake was made when it came to creating a resort on the site, and the 120-room, two-story horseshoe-shaped property takes full advantage of its splendid locale. From a glass fronted lobby, one exits a double door and descends an equally broad double stairway to a court as wide as the garden of a French chateau. At its center is a swimming pool of irregular geometric shape; the ocean is visible beyond.  Cone-shaped thatched canopies shade a pool bar and children's swimming area,  poolside tables and bends in walkways. A thatched roof covers the restaurant/function- room building. Together they enhance a tropical ambience marked by avenues of palm trees, bougainvillea vines, and flamboyant beds of birds of paradise and hibiscus.

When we arrived, it was about 5:30 on a January afternoon. We walked into the lobby and there before us was the glass wall. Impatiently we went through the checking-in process, rushed across the floor, opened the double doors and stood at the top of the stairway ready to descend, only to find we were looking down on a largely deserted court. Hardly anyone was in the pool; the lounges stood empty. Then we noticed the crowd at the far end; people were moving through a little lane leading to the beach. What was going on, we wondered. But as we drew near, it became clear: they were gathering to watch the sun set.

"Sunsets here are beyond compare," says Pam. "You can see the sun slowly sink down into the sea at the horizon illuminating the little islands in the distance. It is a glorious sight."

If it was a glorious sunset that heralded our first evening at the Flamingo, it was bird song that heralded our first morning. Awakened by a long shriek (initially startling, but ultimately endearing) just as the sky was beginning to get light, we stepped out on to the terrace of our room and were met by a cacophony of melody. Call and response, call and response -- it filled the air. Birds poised on branches, sang a line or two, then took off. It was unlike anything we'd ever experienced before.

But then Costa Rica was unlike anything we'd ever experienced before. There were butterflies of glorious color and intricate design, dozens of them, alighting on flowers. In their wake were hummingbirds, hovering like miniature iridescent helicopters. Iguanas of shocking chartreuse  slithered across pavements; monkeys with long tails and wizened faces like little old men scampered in the trees.

"Once I fell asleep on the beach and was awakened by the sense that someone was playing around with my hair," Carlos told us. "I opened my eyes, and there was a family of monkeys frolicking around me."                    

"The variety of wildlife is tremendous, and it can be attributed to the thousands of microclimates in Costa Rica," said Flamingo's general manager Donovan Garcia. "In this one little country, you can drive for an hour in one kind of climate, drive another half hour and you'll be in an entirely different kind of climate."

We were meeting Donovan (who is named for his mother's favorite singer) for lunch on the broad dining terrace of Arenas, the resort's restaurant. He asked if we'd prefer a table in the dining room where a great buffet of cold entrees, an array of salads, and baskets of tropical fruits were laid out, or out on the terrace. Like most of the other guests, we opted for the outdoors. The thermometer read 94 degrees, but with the low humidity, the lift of an ocean breeze, and a view of the sea, al fresco dining was eminently appealing.

Although he's been working in the hospitality business for seventeen years, Donovan -- who is from Mexico and partly of Aztec ancestry -- still has the clear, youthful look of the serious undergraduate who planned a career in medicine. But that was before he took a course in tourism which was followed by a summer job as a page at the Camino Real in Mexico City.

"They gave me a nice uniform with a hat and gloves -- maybe that was the original attraction," he told us laughingly. Whatever the motivation, medicine was put on hold as the young man moved up to the concierge and reservations desks. Then, one day, a manager he'd previously worked under called and asked if he'd like to join him at a hotel in Costa Rica.

"By then I was married and had two sons," Donovan said. "Naturally, my family came with me. Costa Rica was new to all of us, but we fit right in. After a while, my wife and I opened a Mexican restaurant along with my wife's aunt who was a terrific cook. We ran it for four years until another good opportunity presented itself, this time on the Baja Peninsula. So we moved back to Mexico.

"I thought it was great. But one day I came home and found my wife and my sons crying. 'We are not happy here. We want to go back to Costa Rica.' And I said to myself, 'Even though I am very happy here, if my family is not, we will have to move.' 

"Ten days later this strange thing happened: I was offered the position of resident manager at a hotel in a town not far from here. They sent the tickets for the whole family. It seemed fated; we returned to Costa Rica. I was there for a year when I was asked to take over the Flamingo."                

Donovan smiled at the happy conclusion of his tale. "I knew the area; the Flamingo Beach had always been my favorite. The sand is white, the sea is calm. There is the estuary which means the area is protected; there is the great aviary life. Ten years ago there were no paved roads around here. But by now the roads had been paved; condominiums and resorts had come up. I thought it would be a good area in which to live, to work, and raise a family."

At this point, Donovan turned to welcome  a well-built man dressed in a white shirt and white pants, with just a wisp of beard and the familiar bright smile that said "California." We had noticed him stopping to greet guests at tables as he walked towards us and thought, "This must be the chef."

We were right on both accounts: David Smith is the chef, and he is from California. He is also outgoing, garrulous, and the bearer of impressive credentials (classical training at the Culinary Institute of America and the Cordon Blue, opener of 32 restaurants, installer of a new dining room at the Four Seasons in Maui). After 14 years in Hawaii, he was starting a project in Costa Rica when the economy crashed, and all work stopped.                                                             

"I returned to Hawaii," David said, "but after six months I was back in Costa Rica. One night I was seated next to Donovan at a dinner sponsored by a branch of an ancient French gastronomic society. A few days later, he called me. 'Hey I need an executive chef,' he said. I came to the Flamingo, stayed for two days, ate breakfast, lunch and dinner, and signed on."   

General Manager Donovan Garcia

David's modus-operandi blends knowledge with passion. His menus, which he calls continuous stories (and they do go on and on) are missives to diners, detailed descriptions accompanied by entreaties. Decision-making becomes difficult. One can mull for hours over whether to go for "Sea Scallops, Sea Scallops, Sea Scallops. Our Scallops Glacé are very large Diver Scallops, lightly seared in a pan with a Madeira Mirin Glaze and served with Crisped Capers, sliced Almonds & Shallots with Seasoned Fresh Vegetables and Polenta Cakes" or:  "Casado means 'Married.' We joyfully marry beef, chicken or fresh fish with Tipico preparations to create our Cascado del Dia. This simple but traditional dish is served with Tico rice, black beans and green cabbage salad."

But it does not take long before one settles into a few favorites. Among ours was the "Signature Flamingo Beach Ceviche" of which David said, "I melt cilantro (I love the flavor) in a martini glass, add a roasted red bell pepper sauce with a little salt, pepper and lemon, to the bottom of the glass, then add organic, farm-raised, renewable sea bass in little pieces.    

"Living in Hawaii for so long, I was blessed by being on the forefront of the Pacific Rim," he continued. "That's a combination of American, Polynesian, Tahitian, Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, and Thai.  I bring them all here. We have the best fresh fish swimming right outside. Today there's mahi-mahi, tuna, scallops. Every day, I do a pan-seared local catch of the day served on a bed of spinach over a sauce. There is bountiful local produce. I have organically grown onions, large like Spanish onions, that I use in onion soup with three cheeses."

Executive Chef & Beverage Manager David Smith

How can he do it all? Three meals a day, seven days a week, fresh items in the buffet each week. "I'm here a lot," David admits. "But I get instant gratification whenever  I pass a table and see people are satisfied. And also it's so wonderful to work in Costa Rica, a rural country where you can get so many organic products, where there is very little processing."     

At that moment, a pitcher of ice water was set on the table leading Donovan to interject, "The water here is among the best in the world. You can be absolutely confident drinking it from the tap." Then, in all likelihood responding to our raised eyebrows  (someone who surely knows about 'Montezuma's Revenge' is telling us to drink water straight from the tap?), he persisted: "There is a great concern with nature in Costa Rica, a commitment to preserving the environment." And maybe to prove his point, he arranged for us to see something of it the next day.

Gustavo Briceno, a tall, youthful guide with a quiet intellectual air, picked us up in his van in the morning, and off we went on an hour and a half drive to Palo Verde National Park. Fields with grazing cattle spread out before us, giving way to mountains rising up in the far distance. After a town called Filadelphia (where Gustavo lives), the paved highway ended, and we continued along narrow rough roads lined with forests.   


Gustavo Briceno, guide with a quiet intellectual air

Suddenly Gustavo turned down a lane, and the landscape changed. We were now on the wide driveway of an estate that led to manicured gardens and a large house embraced by open verandas looking out to distant vistas. Once this was the home of a diplomat, we were told, but today it's a way station operated by TAM Travel Corporation, arranger of "adventure tours". After mingling with other tourists who, like us, had stopped  for a typical Costa Rican lunch of fried plantains, corn tortillas, arroz con pollo (chicken with yellow rice and beans) and stewed fish we got back in the van and proceeded to what would be the highlight of our day.

The southern part of the 90-mile-Tempisque River runs between the alluvial planes of the park before emptying into the Gulf of Nicoya which in turn flows into the Pacific. A major migratory path for birds flying down from North America or up from South America to escape winter's cold, it is home to the largest population of wading birds in Central America as well as considerable amphibian and reptile life. Here is where we would spend the next few hours, drifting down the slow-moving waters on a little canopied river boat operated by the "Captain" who was equipped with several pairs of binoculars and a powerful flashlight that he used to shine on creatures up in the trees. In this way, we were able to see white-faced Capuchin monkeys playfully climbing and swinging over branches. Iguanas, sleepy alligators, even menacing crocodiles who slithered back and forth from river to shore needed no illumination, nor did the flocks of  black-necked stilts (to us, they seemed tall and elegant sandpipers) who stood at the water's edge in military formation.

On the other hand, the extra light did allow us to see the many birds -- wrens, doves, woodpeckers, to name a few -- the Captain spotted in the foliage. Most remarkable was a boat-billed heron perched on a branch in splendid isolation, looking down on us with a measure of contempt, his  expression serious as an owl's. "This bird goes back to pre-historic times," Gustavo said.

Ours was the only boat around. Silence was broken only by birdsong or our own quiet, albeit enthused conversations. We were able enjoy the blessings of a leisurely pace, to stop and look within the space created by time.  Nevertheless when the boat completed its tour, we thought it was much too soon, and it was with no small amount of reluctance that we said goodbye to the "Captain," left him at the dock, and got back in the van en-route to the Flamingo, or so we thought. Gustavo, however, had something else in mind.           

Without warning, he again made one of his abrupt turns, this time onto a field of tall grass, swaying in the quickening breeze. Here he stopped, took a tripod and camera out of the boot, and spent some  time setting his equipment up.

Finally he spoke. "A jabiru has been seen in this area. It is a very rare bird, very hard to find. There are only 40 left in the whole world." He bid us look through the lens, and we took turns until each of had gotten a clear view of a very tall, stork-like white bird, its black neck and head partly hidden high in the branches of a tree. Then one of us saw something else -- a nest, and the jabiru tending to one, no -- to two little birds! So now, there are 42 jabirus! How hopeful a sign for a troubled world.                                                    

But what we had come to see is this little Central American nation is itself a hopeful sign for a troubled world. The commitment to the environment is palpable wherever one goes, whomever one speaks to. So is the commitment to peace. There is no army in Costa Rica; what once was a military budget has been devoted to education since the army was disbanded in 1959. The result is a 96% literacy rate and free public education all the way through college. President Oscar Arias, nearing the completion of his second term of office at the time of our stay, won the Nobel Prize in 1987 for brokering peace between the Sandinistas and the Contras and ending the fighting not only in Nicaragua but El Salvador as well.

The direct democracy Costa Ricans enjoy suggests Norman Rockwell in the tropics. Public access is a treasured right. If someone tries to build a fence to block off public land, and all beaches are public land, people will get together and stop it from happening. But such disputes are rare in a culture where peaceful cooperation is the norm, where irony does not define the common mood, where everyone seems to genuinely delight in life and announce as much in the standard Costa Rican greeting and farewell: "pura  vida" which means "pure life" literally but takes on the connotation of "full of life."  

Part of the "pura vida" Flamingo crowd

All of which is reflected in Costa Rica's dramatic increase in tourism over the past five years, the explosive growth of condominiums, second homes, sophisticated restaurants,  and resorts, many affiliated with international luxury chains.

The Flamingo Beach Resort and Spa occupies a unique place in this echelon. It has all the amenities one would expect in a luxury property including a new full-service spa and access to such off-site activities as snorkeling and deep-sea diving. At the same time, there is nothing corporate about the place. Rather, guests have the sense of being in someone's home. And they are.

Although Pam and Carlos Rodriguez have been living in Miami  for some time now, the Flamingo remains their home away from home. Like the owners of the Catskill hotels we recall with great fondness, they are often around, familiar figures in the dining room, at the pool, on the beach. Their son and daughter, both college students now, still love to come down. The many repeat guests know the family; returning year after year, they are welcomed like old friends. All of which contributes to a hands-on ambience, a sense of closeness and familiarity rarely found in the 21st century hospitality scene.

"Our daughter is a student at Duke," Pam told us, "and she plans to do an independent study project in eco-tourism here in Guanacaste. We are so excited about it. Both our children love this place. We gather here, together with the whole extended family, for all the holidays."

Pam and Carlos Rodriguez at
their home away from home.

For Donovan, life in Guanacaste is a family affair as well. He and his wife now have three sons and a baby daughter; they consider themselves part of the Costa Rican nation.

"Costa Rica is a very small country with a huge mix of cultures which I find very appealing," he says. "There is of course the Spanish influence, but also American, German, French, Chinese, Korean. There even is an Israeli kibbutz. Schools keep improving, more and more roads are getting paved."                                               

He smiles, then makes the ultimate statement: "If something bad happens in the world, there is no place I would rather be. I feel safe here."

Flamingo Beach Resort & Spa
Guanacaste, Costa Rica

Phone: 506-2654-4444

Photographs by Harvey Frommer

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About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

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