As we descended to our landing in Liberia, we could see Rincon de la Vieja volcano off to the left of our American Airlines Boeing 737. “Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore,” my wife said to me. She waits for moments like this to use the Oz quote, but it was true. The Pacific Northwest coast of Costa Rica, where we’d chosen to travel after so long at home, is a unique ecosystem.
The entry was easier than expected; not even a Covid test is required for Costa Rica, though you must buy travel insurance and get tested to come home. Like any flight, you still have to wear a mask for the duration. But the system that circulates air through AA’s medical grade filters is so strong that you welcome the mask, like a face muffler in winter.
Our destination was Casa Chameleon, a boutique resort built atop a promontory of land that sticks out into the ocean near the tiny town of Las Catalinas. The main building is an open-air pavilion with arched ceilings and teak wood trunks as beams, with a wrap-around infinity pool on the sunset side. The feeling is Asian, enhanced by statues of Indian gods, and a Happy Buddha statue-fountain outside the airy entrance hall.
The views are captivating. On one side is Dansa Beach and on the other is Sugar Beach, each forming a curve of volcanic sand, with green islands in the coves and hills rising from the shore. The rooms are separate, individual buildings on the flanks of the bluff. The sound of the surf below is mesmerizing. Each suite has an infinity plunge pool, and we wasted no time before dipping in. The moment was perfect; a sky of pure blue and a hummingbird working on the pink blossoms of an adjacent powderpuff tree.
We landed on a Friday afternoon, a good time to arrive because Friday night is asado night, when executive chef Jose Lopez cooks a seven-course meal in “the grill” – an open room recessed in the base of the main building. Part of the room has an open fire pit, where meats and vegetables are roasting; the other part is a covered balcony with high-top tables for two.
“This is going to be a very special night,” said chef Lopez, who explained how he was roasting eggplants and onions and sweet potatoes in the ashes, and what cuts of grilled meat and fish were coming our way. He warned us to pace ourselves.
Chef Lopez takes his inspiration from Peruvian cuisine, with its distinct fusion of Latin and Asian flavors. His version of marinated, grilled mahi-mahi (caught that day) with a garlic butter sauce was beyond delicious. The same for his fried calamari: Festooned with a citrus-onion slaw and served on a pool comprised of roasted aji peppers, garlic, onion, soda crackers, crumbly cheese and evaporated milk, it was uniquely flavorful.
If not for the breakfast, lunch and dinner dishes engineered by Chef Lopez, we might have never left the cocoon of our room, with its sonorous sounds of waves. The restaurant itself occupies center court in the main building, with panoramic views. It’s bracketed by an open kitchen on one end and a bar with couches facing the sea on the other. Upstairs is a large room where you can sit or practice yoga in daily 9 am classes.
The sun sets early in Costa Rica, and at sundown Casa has an evening ritual of banging a large gong (by a volunteer guest) and igniting columns of flame on the edge of the infinity pool. And after dark there’s a rare sight for city dwellers: a gloriously starry, starry night.
There is plenty to do beyond the walls of Shangri-la. There are expeditions to rain forests and zip lines and kayak friendly rivers. And there are innumerable trails in the surrounding hills. For us, the main outing was to Las Catalinas, the village down a steep road from Casa. The town, born only ten years ago, has been built with exquisite detail in Colonial Spanish style, with a maze of courtyards, side streets, fountains, alleyways, and arches, all off limits to vehicular traffic. There are restaurants on the black volcanic sand and a shop to rent fat-tired bicycles for the beach or trails.
After three days at Casa Chameleon, we were so relaxed I thought we’d need a stretcher bearer to take us out. During our last day, lying in bed, our balcony was visited by three yellow-breasted Great Kiskadees, a bright orange Euphonias, and two prehistoric-looking leather-necked Black Vultures. I had to stop my wife from quoting Dorothy.