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Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Villas Kalimba, Playa Samara, Costa Rica

Written by Cheri Lucas
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Villas Kalimba, Playa Samara, Costa RicaIt was a wet November afternoon in Arenal, Costa Rica, and we were driving from the lush, dense jungle of the Northern Lowlands to our next stop: Villas Kalimba in Playa Samara, a beach town on the northwest coast of the Pacific.


I loved the rain, but our trip to the country’s Guanacaste region wouldn’t have been complete if I didn’t see the sun, or at least a hammock. The last time I had treated myself to a proper tropical vacation was in 2004 when I stayed on peaceful Hat Salat Beach on Ko Phangan, an island in the Gulf of Thailand. For a week, I alternated between reading Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex on the hammock of my wooden bungalow’s porch and wading in Hat Salat’s shallow, gentle shores among squishy sea cucumbers. I’d met my brother and sister-in-law there, but spent much of my time alone. Those days were pleasurably protracted, meditative, and now compose a fond memory of one the most idyllic landscapes I’ve ever visited.


I kept recalling that vacation as we sped down the highway to the Nicoya Peninsula. I wasn’t expecting Samara to be like Hat Salat, as Costa Rica was nothing like Thailand. All I knew was that the sky had poured buckets of rain the entire time, and I began to yearn for that sensation of pure relaxation somewhere hot and tropical. We had spent the first several days in La Fortuna to view the region’s awesome, lava-flowing landmark, Arenal Volcano. Unfortunately, the overcast sky prevented us from seeing the peak of the volcano, but the storms made the jungles wet and misty, making our muddy treks through the forest adventurous and exciting.


Still, after our stay in Arenal, I longed for the sun, and I wanted to take my hiking shoes off and let my toes breathe in flip-flops. As we zoomed toward the Pacific, the clouds began to thin. The cobalt blue of the sky became visible, and through the windshield of our tiny rented Yaris, I started to feel the heat on my shoulders. I had not needed sunscreen so far on our trip, but as we got closer to Samara, I slathered lotion on my skin, and the scent of sunblock prompted my remembrance of those uninterrupted, chilled-out days on Hat Salat Beach.


The terrain near the northwest coast of Costa Rica was different from the thick, verdant jungles of Arenal: cattle grazed on flat and exposed fields that extended to the horizon. After hitting traffic and weaving around pedestrians in the town of Nicoya, it didn’t take long to reach Samara. The highway transformed into the town’s main drag, which was dotted with souvenir shops, outdoor restaurants, an eccentric art gallery, the Internet café, an office of SkyNet Tours, and even a Century 21 real estate branch.

Villas Kalimba, Playa Samara, Costa Rica

The main road led to the beach, and at a small police station we turned left and passed a school, a few hotels, a Shake Joe’s restaurant, a spot called Guanafrut that sold fruits and vegetables, and a surf school. I grew excited, however, when we reached the gated entrance of our home for the remainder of our trip: Villas Kalimba.



I’ve experienced my share of basic and characterless accommodations, eschewing comfort and stylish décor for more affordable options, because I’ve mostly traveled as a solo backpacker in the past. I’d stayed in hostels throughout Europe and no-frills guesthouses in Southeast Asia, but I wanted my lodging in Costa Rica to be a step up from those establishments — I was slightly older, after all, and my traveling preferences had matured. To my surprise, I now wanted a tinge of luxury.


Internet searches initially led me to cheaper choices in Samara, like one of the treehouses on stilts on the beach at the Samara Treehouse Inn, or one of the three quaint, quirky casitas, or small cottages, at Las Divaz. While both had their perks, I had decided to splurge the extra thirty-or-so dollars for one of the six private villas at Villas Kalimba.Villas Kalimba, Playa Samara, Costa Rica


Nancy, the woman with whom I had exchanged e-mails about reservations, was responsive and friendly, which encouraged me to book a villa. When we arrived at the gate after our five-hour drive from Arenal, Nancy greeted us and led us through an oasis of tropical plants. We approached a crystal clear pool, surrounded by rocks and a waterfall-fed hot tub. We quickly noticed that Samara was quite different in climate and ambience than Arenal, but it was a welcomed change.




Villas Kalimba, Playa Samara, Costa Rica

The entrance to our villa was nestled behind leafy palms and, like the other villas, surrounded the pool. Styled with New Mexican flair and splashes of color, our bright yellow villa had its own terrace, complete with a patio table, rocking chairs, and an inviting rainbow-striped hammock. Inside, Nancy led us through our fully stocked kitchen, two bedrooms — a master bedroom with a king-sized bed and another with two twins — two bathrooms with colorful-tiled showers, and an extra room for storage. Armed with cable TV, efficient air conditioning, a CD player, and a cordless telephone, the villa felt like home (Actually, it was probably nicer than my home).


We met Roberto Carrer, the personable Italian owner, as he strolled to the Rancho, the outdoor kitchen and dining area. He invited us to sign up for dinner if we were interested. I had read positive reviews online about his dinner nights, where he cooks for and entertains his guests with Italian wines, desserts, salads, and barbeques.


We signed up, and during dinner on the patio, we asked how often he cooked for his guests. “Whenever I feel like it, which is a lot,” he said, smiling. That night, he cooked a divine dish of pasta with jumbo shrimp for us and another couple, and served a tasty assortment of bruschetta appetizers.



Villas Kalimba, Playa Samara, Costa RicaEach evening the sun set in Samara, the villa was an ideal place to relax. The moment I loosened up in the hammock, I recalled those afternoons in Thailand when I did exactly that. At the villa, I listened to the waterfall and pleasant chatter of other guests lounging at the pool or on their patios, and spotted brown and gray squirrels and other critters in the trees.


Roberto also suggested we check out El Lagarto, a restaurant on the beach that blasted reggae and had hearty surf-and-turf plates on the menu. Other nights, we drank beers among locals, students from the Samara Language School, and other travelers at Bar Las Olas on the beach and La Gondola, a bar on the main drag.


Samara’s nightlife, laid-back and less crowded during the rainy season, was what I was looking for. A vacation hangout for both Ticos and tourists, the town maintains a more authentic feel than some beach destinations further north like cosmopolitan Tamarindo, which boasts a large tourist and expat presence, or Flamingo, whose massive resorts attract wealthy vacationers seeking sport fishing and pampering.


Super Samara, the market next door to Villas Kalimba, stocked snacks, food, liquor, and Chilean wine. When we turned a corner and walked several strides down a side street, we caught whiffs of pastries and baked goodies at Panderia Bohemia, where we stopped twice for lunch and coffee (their ham and pineapple pizza breads were tasty). A bit farther down the road was the restaurant El Samareno, a local favorite.


As the days passed, staff assistance was consistent and accommodating. Roberto mapped out the journey back to Liberia when we departed, and Nancy assisted us with calling the United States using our calling card. When I was having difficulty canceling another hotel reservation because I didn’t speak Spanish, another affable lady at the 24-hour reception desk called the hotel and canceled the room for me. Bottom line: the establishment is family-run, and done so with pride. I ultimately felt less like a hotel guest, and more like a resident of the villa.


Granted, the villas weren’t right on the beach — you have to walk a few steps across the road — but the location remains one hundred percent ideal. The complex is gated, which may sound too posh or isolated, but it’s not. The establishment is an upgrade from other hotels in Samara, which is reflected in the slightly higher invoice — we paid $134 a night — but Roberto and his staff maintain a convivial, tranquil, and down-to-earth place that’s not really a resort, hotel, or inn. The villas are unique, and the guests are treated as such. When we asked about reservations for the approaching high season, we weren’t surprised when Roberto said he was booked for the holidays for 2007— and 2008.


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© Cheri Lucas

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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