Dreamy destination: Las Catalinas, Costa Rica

By Martha Handler

(Ed. note: Last month Cappy Devlin introduced us to some of her favorite spots in Costa Rica. This month, Martha Handler continues our journey there with a trip to Las Catalinas.)

For those of us who are lucky enough to take regular vacations, our trips often fall into two general categories – cultural and leisure. Our cultural excursions encourage immersion into a foreign country and its peoples, but our leisure vacations tend to do just the opposite. You may get a glimpse of the country’s geography from your resort, but having genuine interactions with the indigenous population is often difficult. But what if you could combine the two – travel to somewhere unique and stay in a beautiful home while you live and play among the locals? Such a destination was the dream of my friend, Charles Brewer.

But before I tell you about the destination, let me tell you a bit about the man behind the dream. I’ve known Charles for many years (he was my husband’s roommate in business school) and I liked him from the start, partly because he’s quirky (he generously tosses around the phrase “Good grief” and he has a thing for three-legged Rottweilers – long story), but more important, because he tends to think pretty far outside of the box. After getting his MBA, Charles founded MindSpring, which quickly became one of the largest Internet service providers in the country. (When he first told my husband of this venture, my husband responded, “But you barely know how to use your own computer.”) In 1995 he took his company public and four years later, at the height of the dot-com boom, he merged it with EarthLink. (I guess my husband isn’t right about everything.) Shortly thereafter, he left the combined companies to follow his new passion, “New Urbanism,” a design movement that promotes walkable neighborhoods containing a range of housing and job types.

What spurred Charles into this movement was a disturbing trend he saw sweeping across not only Atlanta – where he resides with his lovely wife, Ginny, and their three children – but the nation. Suburban housing developments were sprawling farther and farther from their respective cities, thereby increasing commute times and correspondingly adding to the pollution and congestion. Equally alarming to Charles was how homogenous the inhabitants of these new developments had become – everyone was about the same age, made about the same amount of money and had the same number of children – due to the uniform size and layout of the homes in any particular housing tract.

With New Urbanism in mind, Charles began to visit (with tape measure, camera and sketchbook in hand) towns and cities across the globe that incorporated mixed land use in a walkable setting with natural landscapes. Europe is full of these types of places but America, not so much. With this knowledge in hand and “seed” money in his pocket from his sale of MindSpring, Charles set out to create a model community in Atlanta featuring environmental sustainability and New Urban design. The result is Glenwood Park, developed from an abandoned 28-acre site – 85 percent of which was covered by impervious concrete surfaces and other contaminants – a community that is now home to 375 residents dwelling in 194 households with 17 unique businesses.

Following Glenwood Park’s success, Charles began to look for a seaside resort destination where he could build a whole town incorporating the New Urbanism themes. Charles eventually chose Costa Rica because of its year-round good weather and stable government that caters to the tourist trade. After an extensive search, he found the perfect spot along Costa Rica’s Northern Pacific Coast, just north of Bahia Potrero in Playa Danta, Guanacaste, for which he, three general partners and 30 other investors (this time around we jumped on board) paid $26 million for 1,200 acres in August 2006. And the lovely eco-town of Las Catalinas was born.

Though I’ve been hearing about the place for years, this past March was the first time I had the pleasure of visiting and I was mightily impressed. Landing in Liberia, we (12 assorted family members and friends) were greeted by staffers who then drove us in SUVs for about 45 minutes to the quaintly nestled seaside town of Las Catalinas. (We were thankful that only the last five miles were on bumpy, dirt roads – something unfortunately you have to get used to in Costa Rica.) Our “home” for the next week was StuCasa, a lovely beachfront house, complete with swimming pool and mamasitas (Costa Rican “mothers” who come daily to clean and cook breakfast and whom we often hired to cook dinner), located along a cobblestone pedestrian walkway with beautiful plazas, a surf/coffee shop and a restaurant.

What’s nice about Las Catalinas is that is has something for everyone. If relaxing is your thing, the beach and surrounding area are heavenly and tranquil with turquoise Pacific waters and soft, silky sand. And if being adventurous is more your style, the options are nearly limitless. On property there’s a 10k single-track trail for biking or hiking, from which you can see a wide variety of flora and fauna – most notably the howler monkeys, iguanas and collared anteaters. (The trail is already the longest in the country, but it will one day be extended to 50k.)From the surf shop you can rent top quality kayaks, boogie boards, stand-up paddleboards, sailboats, bikes, snorkels, volleyballs and more. There are daily yoga and boot-camp classes while a top-notch equestrian center will be opening shortly. Off-property excursions within a 90-minute drive include zip-lining, surfing, sailing and catamaran charters to protected coves to snorkel and barbecue. There’s deep-sea fishing, river rides to see crocodiles, assorted birds and reptiles and volcano hikes. If you’re willing to travel a bit farther, even more adventures await.

We took full advantage of all that was offered – both on- and off-property – and each day was more exhilarating and magical than the one before. But inevitably, my favorite time of day was sunset, when everyone (locals, residents and renters) would stroll along the pedestrian walkway and chat with one another about their day, the local economy, the best new restaurants and excursions, etc., while children played at our feet, local musicians gathered to strum their guitars, local families picnicked on the sand, waves broke in the background and the sky burst with vibrant streaks of color as the sun slowly sank beneath the waves.

Though I’ve been to Costa Rica many times before, this was the first time I felt connected to the land and its people, which somehow made the experience feel much more genuine. And I believe Las Catalinas will keep getting better, because it’s only in Phase I of a multiphase plan. (Charles expects it will take decades to be fully realized). The next phases will include a mix of homes, hotels, restaurants, a church, a soccer field and offices serving both full- and part-time residents. In the end, 200 acres will be developed while the remaining 1,000 will be left as open space. Las Catalinas is truly a dream come true – an eco-community where locals and vacationers can gather together and connect with nature.

To read more, visit lascatalinascr.com.

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