We recently traveled to a gorgeous little slice of northwestern Costa Rica called Playa Pan de Azúcar (aka Sugar Beach) to attend a family wedding at a remote and inviting resort with a calm Pacific cove, lively tidepools, a sunset sky aglow with peachy fire and a small stream that trickles through a lush landscape sprinkled with fallen blossoms.
Yeah, I know. We want to go back, too.
Adam’s cousin Minona recently married her longtime love, Peter, at the Hotel Sugar Beach, a gentle sprawl of neo-jungly architecture on its own crescent of pristine beach. Because we believe in the power of love (and Costa Rica), we were there to cheer them on.
The journey to the hotel is an hour’s drive west from the Guanacaste region‘s Liberia (LIR) airport, mostly on a well-paved major road. The last 15-minutes, though, are on a bumpy ribbon of hard-packed dirt, lined on both sides by a shallow tangle of jungle and houses walled in by gates; the Hotel Sugar Beach isn’t exactly Costa Rica as ticos (native locals) know it.
However, HSB is less a showpiece than a cozy means of escape from your usual non-tropical reality. Around a refreshing pool rimmed with tall palms, yellow, orange, brown and white butterflies flirt with flowering shrubs. In a small-scale, friendly version of Jurassic Park, iguanas trudge slowly across the grass, munching sideways as they go. The pale grey sand of Sugar Beach leads to a rocky, wild scoop of the Pacific; between the tiny sea snails winding elaborate patterns and the pockmarked tidepools, water shoes here are a great idea. The cove is bordered by lush hills and high cliffs, the water peppered with exotic islets topped with tufts of jungle.
The hotel property begins atop a high ledge with a stucco collection of guest rooms, standard on the bottom, deluxe on the top. With a 20% discount for the rainy season and another for being wedding guests, we were able to go big: our gorgeous deluxe room was actually two rooms, a huge sitting/dining room with louvered doors leading to a great big balcony, and a softly-furnished bedroom with a soaring bamboo ceiling and yet more balcony action. The earthen-tiled bathroom had two sinks and a big shower with decent water pressure, with beach-adjacent septic plumbing (read: you put your paper in a basket, not the toilet).
Half of this real estate proved to be a waste, however. Costa Rican summers are hot and humid all day and night, so the fact that entry room wasn’t air-conditioned (that pleasure was reserved for the bedroom) meant we never used it. In fact, with almost all of Adam’s paternal family gathered at the hotel, it was soon clear that we’d rarely use our room at all.
The hotel’s initial ledge gently grades to a round, ocean-view restaurant serving complimentary breakfasts and well-priced, filling (and largely unexciting) lunches and dinners. Granola gets damp in the humidity and the quesadillas are tasteless, but bananas are the sweet and local Fife variety; gallo pinto (spicy rice-and-beans) and softly fried plaintains are part of all tipico plates; and the tasty fresh fish is from a nearby harbor. Bonus for the full bar and the kitchen being open throughout the day. Most hotel employees speak English well, but the restaurant and lobby are safe places to bust out your Spanish; trip on a misnomer and it will be gently corrected with a smile.
Past the restaurant, the property gives way to shaded jungle/garden paths and a trickling stream, a cluster of small guestrooms, some impressive ocean-view suites and a couple of swanky villas. Adam’s cousins Eve and Doug stayed with their two teenagers in the Coconut Suite, two bedrooms and an open-air porch about 30 feet from the sand; his Uncle Harvey, Aunt Camilla and Cousin Luca (father, stepmother and half-brother of the bride) camped out in style at the Palm Suite; and upstairs, Minona and Peter had the hotel’s best ocean view from the Honeymoon Suite.
The wedding was held in the early evening on the lawn in front of the Palm/Honeymoon Suite, the happy couple lit by the glow of an opalescent sunset. Orchids stayed bright and strong in the wilting heat (not to mention the bride, wearing a satin-banded gown) and sweet citrus cocktails flowed like water. When the path lights winked on at twilight, our party moved to the restaurant for a truly gorgeous buffet prepared by the hotel kitchen, while a local band played a raucous mix of salsa, cumbia and soca rhythms.
Taking a break from the dancing, Adam and I wandered towards the cove; under an indigo sky, we listened to the soft croaking of jungle frogs and the rolling whoosh of Pacific waves.
Sure sounded like vacation to us.
Costs: The hotel’s three-seasonal rate structure is listed here. Breakfast is included with all rooms, and an average lunch or dinner costs about US $10-20.
How to get here: You can rent a 4×4 at the Liberia airport, or ask the hotel to pre-arrange your ride. If you’d like a rental vehicle once you’re here, the hotel can book you one from the nearby town of Flamingo. The hotel’s free maps don’t offer much detail, so you might want to purchase a Costa Rica map ahead of time.
What to bring: Outside of a wedding, you’ll only need shorts, t-shirts and flip-flops at HSB. But also pack insect repellent, sunscreen, water shoes, hiking shoes if you plan on adventuring, a bathing suit, and a light, semi-dressy outfit if you want a night out in Flamingo. A small store on the property sells incidentals, hats, etc.
Connection to civilization: There are phones and TVs in all guestrooms. Intermittent wi-fi is available only in the lobby, and there’s a local laptop there for public use. There you’ll also find a small library of Costa Rica guide/photo books, and a collection of DVDs.
Fear factor: However harmless, iguanas roam free across the hotel’s lawns and clay-tiled rooftops. The ocean undertow is strong, so swimming is suggested only if you have your cardio in order. Mosquitoes here are hungry, and low-Deet sprays offer only mild relief. After a heavy rain on our last night, we returned to our room to find the floor and bed strewn with dead, formerly-flying termites; they’d apparently come in through a tiny sliver in the bedroom door. The front desk guy didn’t have night access to a vacuum cleaner or spare employee, but he immediately gave us the key to a smaller, bug-free room downstairs. Sorta creepy and never explained, but certainly easily solved.
Stuff to do: If tidepooling, beach-plotzing, cooling pool waters, Scrabble and your novel grow wearying, the hotel can arrange all sorts of tours, like a zip-line canopy excursion or a snorkel/sunset/informal dinner sail from Flamingo Harbor to the Catalina Islands. Go have a beach-side lunch of margaritas and grilled fish at Playa Brasilito’s Camarón Dorado (2654-4028) or enjoy a sunset cocktail and elegant dinner at Flamingo’s hilltop Mar y Sol Restaurante, which offers a near-endless Pacific view.