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Eco Idyll: Las Catalinas, the Car-Free Costa Rica Town, Welcomes a New Hotel

April 4, 2019
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Photo: Courtesy of Las Catalinas
Las Catalinas Birds Eye View

What emerges when you put the architecture of a Mediterranean hill town, the outdoor adventure of an American ski town and the beauty of a tropical jungle in a shaker and stir? Las Catalinas, a terracotta-topped coastal hamlet with 25 miles of forested hiking and biking trails tracing the Pacific shores of Guanacaste, Costa Rica.

The 1,200-acre car-free development, nestled between tree-laden hillsides on a crescent slip of beach, is the brainchild of Atlanta-based entrepreneur Charles Brewer, who prizes ancient European cities for their beauty, walkability, sense of community, and architecture built to last. To create his own epitome of a dream town in the tropics, Brewer looked to New Urbanism, a contemporary planning movement that prioritizes an environmentally-friendly approach, compact neighborhoods, and harmony between private and communal spaces. As a result, Las Catalinas’ local shops neighbor private homes on pedestrian streets that meander through cobblestone plazas and under flowering balconies within earshot of rolling ocean waves. Residents from New York to Paris have built over 70 villas from the ground up, each with their own unique flavor. When the owners are away, travelers can reserve a private residence that suits their needs, from chic one-bedroom apartments to sprawling six-bedroom manses.


"The people drawn to Costa Rica love the outdoors," says Neal Herman, who oversees operations and urban affairs at Las Catalinas. On any given day, visitors will find flocks of residents mountain biking together at dawn, surfing at daybreak, and stand-up paddling at sunset. "I once tried creating my own time zone so people would get up two hours earlier to exercise," Brewer adds. While there is a lengthy list of recreational adventures available to guests, from scuba diving to ATVing, Las Catalinas offers more than just adrenaline-spiking activities. The Beach Club is an oasis of respite in the heart of town. Set on a petite bluff above the beach, cushy chaise lounges trim an infinity pool and 25-meter lap pool fashioned from Guatemalan marble that mimics the jade and cobalt hues of the ocean. A gazebo slung with hammocks is the perfect spot to laze with an icy guaro sour delivered from the adjacent bar and restaurant.

Up the street, Wake day spa is a peaceful refuge to indulge in a beauty or body treatment including hot stone and mineral salt massages and scrub and wrap combos. Aesthetes can also amble a few doors down to shop d-Aqui Design, which vends custom-designed furnishings that can be shipped abroad, and LaPula, a hip design shop filled with warm-weather apparel, colorful leather handbags and handmade jewelry from Costa Rican designers. Soon, an exclusive women’s boutique will open near the Beach Club. Foodies will swoon over the town’s chef-owned upscale grocery, Copper & Stone (think Dean & Deluca) that stocks everything from kelp noodles and locally-made kombucha to a variety of cured meats and pantry staples, and hosts elegant wine and cheese tastings surrounded by rare vintages in its wine cellar, The Cava.


Like a SimCity experiment, Las Catalinas continues to double in size each year, lending a sense of continual discovery for residents and returning guests. Its newest addition, Santarena Hotel, debuted this February in the central Beach Town district. Designed as an urban resort, d-Aqui owner Andrina Fonseca (a Gensler alum) created interiors inspired by the 1960s "gentleman surfer" from Europe infused with a tropical twist. Forty-five contemporary guest rooms wrap around an open-air courtyard, evoking the feel of a traditional hacienda.

"We used a lot of natural materials like teak wood floors, burlap-wrapped lighting, and custom-woven furniture made by local artisans to give the hotel an authentic sense of place," Fonseca explains. A sea-view rooftop pool and lounge crown the hotel, while an all-day bakery and ground-floor restaurant act as a congregation point for a casual meal or sophisticated dinner. "After spending the day in a bikini and flip flops, guests can freshen up and slip into a pair of heels for a proper cocktail at the antique-gold lobby bar," says Fonseca.


Directly across from the hotel, a state-of-the-art wellness center is on track to open later this year with a mediation room, yoga and movement studio, as well as a range of alternative therapies from chakra balancing to sound healing. "I want to build a community that is driven by quality of life over the quantity of material possessions," Brewer says, as he watches his dream town come to life, brick by brick, right before his eyes.

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