A Lake, A Volcano, and Breakfast at 8

As I’ve mentioned before, I am looking to move by November 1, when my current lease is up. Escazu, where I live now, is perfect for someone’s first year, as it’s close to everything and so much is geared toward expats that it can feel a lot like the US.  However, everything’s expensive here and, now that I can manage in Spanish, it’s time to venture out.

I’ve been working with Maritza, the realtor who found me this place, to find someplace a bit more authentic.  She heard of a 3-bedroom house for $375 per month in Nuevo Arenal, which is one of the most beautiful spots in Costa Rica, with a lake and a volcano by the same name.  She warned me that it was a “Tico house,” which means it was designed for the local population, as opposed to a gringo house, which was designed for foreigners.  So, Maritza and I and Carlos, her boyfriend, headed off on our adventure.

Arenal is in Guanacaste in the north of CR.  The ride was often beautiful, and we stopped in Puntarenas, the county to the south, to check out a property for another of Maritza’s clients.  We had lunch and continued to our hotel, the Gingerbread Hotel and Restaurant.

I had found the hotel online the day before; the prices were decent and the 2nd floor rooms had themes and views of the lake.  When I made the reservation, the owner (who, it turns out, is a world-class chef) took only my name; when I tried to give him my phone number, he said “That’s not the way we do business here.”  Since it is not high-season, and there are rooms to be had, I didn’t worry that there was no official reservation or confirmation. 

When we arrived, we found the hotel very charming, When I tried to register, Beth, who greeted us, stuck out her hand; I shook it and she said “Now you’re registered.” As it was late in the day, and we had houses to check out, I asked if reservations were necessary for dinner.  She replied that “We expect all of our guests to have dinner.”  I didn’t know if she meant that we had automatic reservations or that attendance at dinner was mandatory. (Many people come specifically for the very highly-rated restaurant.)  When I told her that we didn’t know if we would be ready to eat by eight, their deadline, she allowed that we didn’t have to eat there.  Off we went to see houses.

Now, I have seen Tico houses in my neighborhood, and, from the outside, they seem basic but fine.  However, the houses I saw in Arenal were not just simple—they were built without any design.  Rooms were small and lined up, but there was no sense of a central space or flow from one area to another; windows were small, and construction was homemade and of very poor quality.  As one friend of mine explained when I visited her house, which was very nice, many Tico houses have no decorations on the walls and the furniture is utilitarian.  There is often no attention paid to appearances. 

The first house we saw had a beautiful back yard with view of the lake and mountains; I could easily have lived there.  However, I would have to live, at night at least, inside the house, which was, sadly, unlivable. The rooms were ugly and tiny; the kitchen old and dirty; the washer and dryer hookups were in different rooms, and there was no place in the kitchen for a refrigerator.  It is important to add here that there are perfectly livable and comfortable Tico houses; this was not one of them. I guess, as everywhere else, you get what you pay for.

We checked out a few other places and found nothing even close to acceptable.  There were some nice gringo houses in the neighborhood, but no one could show them during the weekend.  We took down some names and numbers and decided that we needed a drink (or two).

We went back to the hotel, where a party was in full swing.  It just so happened that a local woman, in her 50s, unexpectedly had a heart attack and died; so the Gingerbread was hosting a celebration of her life.  The restaurant was full of English speaking gringos, all of whom knew one another and were very welcoming to us.  We ordered drinks and appetizers, which were filling.  This was a good thing, since, without seeing menus, we had no idea how expensive the food was.  The music was loud; there was a band and later karaoke, interspersed with testimonials to the woman who had died. There was so much noise that I turned down my hearing aids; Martiza, however, took it upon herself to ask the host to lower the volume.  (Not the best request to make at a memorial.)  They didn’t. 

When we decided to go to our rooms, I said goodnight to the host.  He looked at me and said “Breakfast at 8.”  I then asked how late was breakfast served.  He repeated severely “Breakfast at 8.” Whereas I appreciate the eccentricity of the people and the place, I had a problem with paying guests being ordered to breakfast. However, I said nothing.  I figured that, if I got up late, I’d eat in town.

We went up to our rooms and hung out on the balcony.  When I went to my room, the Jungle Room, I found the ceiling and walls painted in that style, including a waterfall that flowed down over the headboard. (Maritza and her boyfriend had the cupid room with, of course, cupids painted on the lamps.)  I realized that there was no TV, which, although strange, was appealing.  This was not a typical hotel.

At 7:45 the next morning, I got a phone call from the person who was staying at my house with my dog; he had a question about the dog’s medications.  Then, at 8:00, there was a knock on my door.  I assumed it was Maritza, but, when I opened it, a young lady who worked for the hotel told me it was time for breakfast. Yikes! They weren’t kidding.  I actually got a little concerned, since I didn’t want to offend the owner before he calculated our bill; I had no proof of the prices we’d discussed.  So I obediently went to breakfast and found a young couple and the owner/chef at the table.  He served a very good breakfast, and we chatted for a while.  I later learned that Maritza and Carlos had been awakened not once but twice to come to breakfast.  They chose to go back to bed. Unlike me, the eager to please (or not to offend) gringo, they felt no obligation to attend.

We saw a few more houses, one with dirty dishes and a bottle of Jack Daniels on the counter; I decided to stick to gringo houses, at least in Arenal, since one can find a very nice place for $600 per month.  Unfortunately, since no one was showing, we headed back to Escazu.

I asked Maritza if we were going to pass through any of the other areas she had mentioned as possibilities for me.  She directed me to Ciudad Colon (Columbus City), which is close to where I live now but is less expensive.  There we saw some spectacular views and nice houses. As it was a last-minute stop, we had no appointments to see much, but we did see a beautiful cabin in the woods.  It was too small for me, but incredibly charming; it was also a long long drive up a very very windy road. Living there would mean that I would rarely leave the house and, if, god forbid, I needed an ambulance or firetruck, I would have to simply lie down and die. 

But at least it would be in a fabulous place.