Imagine a European hillside village by the seaside, a bucolic place where all the neighbors are eating at the same restaurants, drinking at the same bars, and shopping at the same grocery store–all within walking distance of their house. That’s the scene at Las Catalinas in Costa Rica and you can see it all stretched out in front of you from the view at Santarena Hotel right in the center.
Las Catalinas is a purpose-built development that has all gone up in the 2000s, but it’s meant to look like the kinds of small towns we visit in Europe and wonder, “What would it be like to live here?” They’ve got beaches, bays to explore on kayaks and paddleboards, and trails all around for hikers and mountain bikers. That’s all true here as well but in a tropical climate where it never gets cold. Here’s a piece I wrote about this New Urbanism project in Costa Rica.
To really experience the area like a resident does, leave your car with the development’s valet and check into Hotel Santarena that’s a few steps from everything. Within five minutes on foot you can get whatever you need for a great beach vacation. You can hit the taproom and get craft beer from Papagayo Brewing. You can dine at Pots and Bowls like I did, try sushi or tapas in the same plaza, or head to the newest spot Celeste and sit outside under umbrellas while facing the ocean. There’s an open-air gym (complete with weights made from wood and logs), a grocery store, an ice cream stand, and and a coffee shop–all close by within a few blocks.
You have options on site at Hotel Santarena too, however, the main restaurant serving all three meals. There’s an indoor area for breakfast but most guests don’t want to sit there: it’s too nice on the big terrace facing a plaza with the beach and water beyond. I was fortunate enough to be dining with a few others on Thanksgiving Day, so we had a feast of turkey, cranberries, and mashed potatoes. We were speaking some Spanish, eating like Americans, in a village that felt like something very far away. With the lights in the trees above and attentive servers taking care of what we needed, it was a blissful night.
The hotel also has a bakery on one side of the building, but in a location so secluded that it feels like the morning equivalent of the speakeasy. You have to know where to look (or in my case, ask the front desk person) to go down the right hallway from inside or find the right back of the building from outside. But the name is the address: Cuatro Calle la Ronda.
Once you arrive, there’s a place with pastries, coffee drinks, sandwiches, and fresh smoothies or juices. All with a paper straw and a compostable cup: Las Catalinas is a car-free town in green Costa Rica and they take their sustainability mission seriously.
There’s a small spa on site with three treatment rooms if you don’t get relaxed enough just being in this town where you don’t have to dodge cars. Just across the pedestrian-only street there’s a yoga studio with classes. There’s also a bike shop with rentals and hiking trails that go from mild to miles long.
Rooms at Santarena combine Scandinavian style chairs and desks with a British Empire colonial vibe, complete with cast iron bed. The exterior of black-stained whitewashed walls reminded me of being in faded hill towns in India that have high humidity and a never-ample maintenance budget. I suppose that’s by design to make the place look older than it really is. As with those hill town spots, you forgot all that when you look out at a terrific view from your window.
Rooms vary mostly by view, the standard through Ocean View Premium all being around 350 square feet. The two top categories are really just larger open rooms, junior suite style, with double sinks in the bathroom and a view on two sides from the corner locations. I arrived at night so my arrival room photos didn’t turn out well. See the hotel’s pics here as well as a description of each category.
Baths have Molton Brown toiletries and some have a view of the sea from the shower. The carved wood chairs with canvas or woven strap seats are attractive and don’t take up too much room. Unfortunately, the thinly stained wood floors look like they were probably scuffed up less than a month after they were installed.
Most guests probably don’t notice any of these details since this is the younger and more party-happy hotel option at Las Catalinas. The beds are comfortable, the Wi-Fi usually works, a smart TV is on the wall, and there are places to recharge your gadgets. Those who are looking for a true luxury property with a gourmet restaurant should book a room up the hill at Casa Chameleon.
During my stay, guests who were hanging by the pool were more concerned with getting the right selfie and having a good time here and at the beach than they were about perfection. With a cool pool by day and a gorgeous lounge with a mixologist juggling bottles by night, Santarena manages to be retro-cool for the young crowd and strangely familiar for the older guests who have traveled around former colony countries like India, Sri Lanka, or Malaysia.
The lounge bar off the lobby manages to mix casual and elegant together, with sumptuous furniture and artistic framed mirrors facing mounted surfboards. While there are other place to find a drink in the Las Catalinas town, this is the coziest spot to be, especially if it’s raining outside.
Rates at Santarena run from $214 with taxes and fees for a low season standard up to $700+ for a suite in peak periods. See more information at the official website and book through there or check rates at Expedia.
Editor Tim Leffel was a paid guest at Santarena Hotel in Las Catalinas, Costa Rica. He was hosted by WeRCR, the listing agent for Las Catalinas real estate, while working on several articles about the development. As always, all opinions are his own.