Welcome to part 3 in our Best Of the Trans-Americas Journey 2012 series of posts. Part 3 is all about the Best Hotels from the past year on the road including boutique hotel bargains, a mind-boggling pool, and a room with (nearly) no walls. Part 1 covers the Top Travel Adventures of 2012 and part 2 covers the Best Food & Beverages of the year.
Yes, end of year round-ups can be lame. On the other hand, they can also be a valuable chance for us to look back on the year that was and remember just how damn lucky we are. Done right, an end of year round-up can also be a quick and easy way for you to get the best tips, tricks and truths that made our Trans-Americas Journey travels so special in 2012. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll hit the road yourself in 2013 (or 2014, no pressure).
First, a few relevant stats. In 2012 we thoroughly explored Nicaragua, Costa Rica and northern Panama driving 8,349 miles (13,436 km), spending $2,608 on fuel, and making seven overland border crossings.
We also spent nearly all 365 nights of 2012 in hotels (when we weren’t lucky enough to be staying with new friends, old friends or family). In no particular order, here are some of the hotel moments that stand out.
The Best Hotels of 2012
Best infinity edge pool: We took one look at the infinity pool at the newly opened Kurà Design Villas in the hills above Uvita on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast and we knew we had our winner. As the name would imply, design is a major element of this super-stylish, super-romantic place and it’s the first time we’ve ever seen a pool with an infinity edge on all four sides (check it out, below). Toss in a flame that shoots out of the deep end, underwater speakers and breath taking views and you’ve got one spectacular swim.
Best accommodation with a sense of place: Little Corn Island is like no other place in Nicaragua thanks to a serious Caribbean cultural and culinary influence and the quirks that come from island life. Farm Peace & Love, created on the north side of the island by a Little Corn native named Bing and his Italian wife Paola, is a stellar reflection of the island’s unique personality. Two stand-alone bungalows with kitchens come complete with freshly laid eggs,homemade coconut bread and fruit from the surrounding organic farm. Live like a local for a few days with ocean breezes on your porch, resident land crabs in the yard and no TVs or cell service.
Best bed with a view: Room 5532 at Parador Resort & Spa near Manuel Antonio National Park Costa Rica would be a stunning over-size suite even if the bed wasn’t angled to give you a perfectly unobstructed view of the Pacific Ocean, a sandy arc of beach and the occasional whale.
Best rooms with no walls: Okay, there are partial walls, but all seven traditionally built wood and thatch bungalows at Al Natural Resort on Isla Bastimentos in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago in Panama opens up completely to the sea. You can pull curtains closed if you want, but with a view like that why would you?
Best re-birth of a hotel: Poas Volcano Lodge near Poas Volcano National Park in Costa Rica was heavily damaged after an earthquake in 2009. The owners turned tragedy into an opportunity to re-invent their operation, turning what was a basic, homey lodge into a chic boutique property with style and service. For more, read our full review of Poas Volcano Lodge.
Best B&B for bird watching over breakfast: The 10 rooms at Boquete Garden Inn in Boquete, Panama are a comfortable bargain and the owners are dedicated, charming and info-filled. But the best part of this place is the garden which attracts dozens of species of colorful birds which flit around bird baths and fruit-filled platforms nearly oblivious to your presence. Bring your binoculars to breakfast and enjoy some of the best (and laziest) bird watching in Panama.
Best turn down treat: The locally made dark chocolates spiked with delicious ground coffee from their own estate grown beans at Finca Rosa Blanca Coffee Plantation Resort in Costa Rica topped all other turn down treats of the year. For more, read our full review of Finca Rosa Blanca Coffee Plantation Resort.
Best boutique hotel bargain: The city of Granada in Nicaragua has more than its share of hotels, most of them in the classic colonial style. Los Patios Hotel takes a refreshingly different approach, blending Spanish colonial architecture with minimalist Scandinavian decor from the homeland of the hotel’s owners. Los Patios is so polished and well-appointed that we still can’t believe that rates start a US$90 double including a fabulous full breakfast and you can take 15% off that if you stay more than three nights. If you need more reasons to book a stay, read our full review of Los Patios Hotel.
Best truly eco hotel: After 20 years in the green hotel business the owners of Lapa Rios Eco Lodge in the Osa Peninsula of southern Costa Rica have learned a thing or two. For example, the original buildings were constructed using lumber harvested from fallen trees on the lodge’s 1,000 acre (400 hectare) private reserve. Then they realized that the nutrients in the fallen trees are best left to leach back into the soil so new constructions and furniture are now made using bamboo. Here are more ways they scored green points with us:
- 58 out of the lodge’s 60 employees are from local villages and all of those employees who commute on motorcycles (the preferred mode of transport) have four-stroke engines.
- The lodge is moving to fake palapa instead of natural thatch on all roofs to avoid the need to cut down palm when the roofs need to be replaced or repaired.
- Kitchen garbage is fed to pigs (some of the most impeccably clean ones we’ve ever seen) and methane is collected from their waste and used to fuel the employee kitchen.
- All water is cleaned with natural bacteria and plant filtration.
- The pool is chlorine free and kept clean with ionization instead. Housekeeping staff really adhere to the towel and sheet replacement rules.
- Biodegradable soap and shampoo is supplied along with biodegradable conditioner and lotion.
- And, yes, they recycle.
Best value city hotel: Hotel Aranjuez in San Jose, Costa Rica where US$30 gets you an antique-filled double room with a shared (spotless) bathroom (only slightly more for rooms with a private bathroom and dorms are available too) plus parking, Wi-Fi and the most mouth-watering and diverse hotel breakfast buffet we’ve ever seen. Choose from freshly baked breads and cakes, made to order eggs, fruit and juice galore, homemade jams, a table full of salads and more. Reservations highly recommended.
Best beach bungalow: Aguas Claras in Puerto Viejo de Talamancas on the Caribbean Coast of Costa Rica has four simple wood bungalows with kitchens and porches. Each one is built in a breezy Caribbean style and painted in joyful bright colors. It’s a one minute walk to one of the most beautiful stretches of beach in this part of Costa Rica but we were so charmed by our bungalow that we basically didn’t leave it for three whole days.
Best healing spa treatments: Pura Vida in Costa Rica is well-known yoga retreat and healing center offering many experiences and treatments not found elsewhere in the country. Eric had never even heard of Korean Hand Therapy (US$105 per hour) so he booked it with a renowned blind practitioner named Olman. The mega-massage was powerful and painful but it effectively de-kinked the knots in his muscles (some he didn’t even know he had) and generally straightened him out. Karen booked her first Watsu treatment (US$125 per hour) with Sergio who managed to alleviate the chronic pain in her hip during an hour of weightless manipulation and stretching in a silent, soothing pool. We both wish we could have these treatments weekly.
Best un-hotel experience: We completed our first house sitting gig in 2012 through Trusted Housesitters and our experiences looking after a house (and dog and cat) in the hills above Playa Matapalo in Costa Rica for a few weeks have us hooked on this fun and free way to put down temporary roots. More to come in 2013.
Here’s more about travel in Panama
Here’s more about travel in Costa Rica
Here’s more about travel in Nicaragua