“Pure life” might as well be emblazoned on the Costa Rican flag as the national motto, for that expression sums up the aura of relaxed, unforced fun of any vacation there.
But when it comes to spending even just a few days at the Villa Manzu, it might be advised to amend the slogan to read a “pure and rich life” — as so much luxury abounds at the 3-year-old, assiduously private villa perched high above the glistening Pacific Ocean.
How appropriate that the word “manzu” means “friend” in the indigenous Chorotega Indian dialect of this northwestern region of Costa Rica. “Friend” as in someone who treats me with such all-enveloping warmth and courtesy that the entire vacation begins even before I’ve opened the door to my glorious suite.
Villa Manzu’s embrace begins from the moment I land at Liberia International Airport, where I meet the first of several of the villa’s hosts — Chris Celiceo, a co-manager along with his wife, Jenifer Cowles.
While at the wheel of his SUV, Chris reminds me that Villa Manzu is located in the cowboy province of Guanacaste. Situated at sea level, though some volcanoes etch the horizon, this land is honeycombed with endless cattle ranches, and sugar cane, rice, mango, and melon fields.
The Costa Rican tourism season operates yearlong, with the country still famous for its dozen microclimates and its tropical forests — from dry to rain to cloud. Villa Manzu sits where the dry tropical forest predominates, producing a climate akin to Baja in summer and Hawaii during the green season.
Upon arriving at Villa Manzu, I’m immediately struck by its location, perched overlooking the indentations of the Papagayo peninsula. Measuring more than 30,000 square feet, the villa sits on five acres of raw and finely manicured land.
I’m not two steps inside the villa’s first sun-filled living space when I’m greeted by a welcome cocktail of coconut water, served in a fresh-off-the-tree shell.
Villa Manzu offers eight suites, allowing for a full guest capacity of 22. With 18 core staff, the ratio of staff-to-guest is almost 1-to-1.
It is clear from my first tour of the villa that it has put the “custom” back in custom-made. Designed by Costa Rican architect Abraham Valenzuela, with all its specific interior touches by Houston-based designer Lynn Yellen, Villa Manzu is out to create a clean-lined, serene sanctuary.
Unique touches abound, from the free-flowing, lightly beaded chandeliers found in some of the bathrooms, to the use of coralina, an Italian-mined material with a marblelike sheen, as much of the villa’s interior stone.
Villa Manzu is replete with one-of-a-kind decorative pieces, purchased during designer trips to Africa, Indonesia, India, Malaysia and Thailand. My casita features a sculpture from a cast of a whale vertebra. My ceiling is formed from inlaid sugar cane — a typical Costa Rican touch.
Nothing awakens me from my travel stupor like a dip in one of the villa’s two saltwater infinity pools. The pool extends toward the hilly mini-islands dotting the surrounding peninsula.
A surefire way of tracking some of the local exotic wildlife is my afternoon tour of the Arnold Palmer-designed golf course, where 14 holes have ocean backdrops. With pristinely groomed greens and raw dry forest — featuring the Ceiba, a Game of Thrones-worthy spike-barked tree — the course is a zoological preserve for such Costa Rican species as the howler monkey and the white-faced capuchin. I spot a ring-tailed coati, whose elongated snout is perfectly tailored to dig for worms. And heading back to the villa, with parakeets serenading me, I run across an avocado-green iguana sunning itself on the path.
My first day at Villa Manzu will be marked by the debut meals from the villa’s executive chef, Mariano Fernandez. Argentine-born Fernandez is a gustatory globetrotter, often making culinary stops in the Middle East, India and Southeast Asia all before reaching dessert.
The prelude to all Villa Manzu dinners is an informal cocktail hour — often set against a blood-orange sunset. The star libation features the local guaro or sugar cane-based liquor. One popular guaro-based drink boasts lime, sugar and garnishes of cashew nut fruit and starfruit. Another, sampled after a sunset tour of the picturesque town of Playa Hermosa — at its beach-side Aqua Sport restaurant, whose patrons appear to have wandered in from a Vogue shoot — is a “guarito,” or a guaro-mojito served in an industrial-sized schooner.
Dinners at Villa Manzu display chef Fernandez’s culinary wanderlust. He starts in Italy with a lusty cavatelli pasta in a lobster sauce, before another part of southern Europe inspires a watermelon salad, dotted with tangy goat cheese and pistachios. The chef trawls nearby waters for a tuna marinated in soy, accompanied by a rice foam. For fans of “the other white meat,” Villa Manzu serves a decadent braised pork belly, with the acid-sweet punch of balsamic onions. And carnivores can tuck into a medium-rare filet mignon, paired with a smoked carrot flan dusted with paprika.
Desserts allow Fernandez to solve the ultimate sweet-savory riddle, with his sweet avocado mousse collaborating with roasted white chocolate and pickled blueberries and strawberries. It comes perfectly married with a sweet malbec dessert wine from the chef’s native Argentina.
I will spend my first full day at Villa Manzu largely on or under the Pacific. The N’ia boat is waiting for me, and it is fully stocked with everything from Bluetooth music to gear for tubing, snorkeling, fishing, paddle boarding and wake boarding.
Our captain-guide, Eduardo Espinoza (aka Guayo), accelerates our boat into Snake Bay. One of our first aquatic targets is Monkey Head Rock and, thanks to the expertise of Guayo, I become a mini-fishery expert, spotting such species as snapper, jack, grouper, moray eels, angelfish, and devil and manta rays.
As the boat approaches Witch’s Rock, Pantropical spotted dolphins, pelagic sea snakes, devil rays and the rare sailfish show off their gifts for aquatic ballet. A stingray suddenly leaps out of the water just to cleanse itself. As the boat gathers speed on Palmares Bay, we head toward a quiet stretch of sand and private cove. Marking our progress like a compass on the horizon is the silhouette of the Rincon de la Vieja volcano.
Anchoring at Palmares Bay, I dive into 45 minutes of snorkeling, among the shallows’ volcanic-rock formations that are havens for hundreds of fish. With the sun sending light through the turquoise water, this underwater world throbs with iridescent color and endless aquatic life.
Once submerged in the warm (81 degrees) Pacific, I’m surrounded by great schools of tiger, puffer and porcupine fish and spidery starfish. I try to catch up with the billowing bodies of the dark-blue, parrot and rusty-tailed angelfish, darting in and out of the porous volcanic rock.
The only activity that could possibly rival snorkeling is a perfectly catered lunch, served on an Edenic strip of Nacascolo Beach. I opt for a luxurious rarity in my diet: grilled lobster tail. The charring action of the flame enhances the inherent sweetness of the lobster meat.
My final full day in Costa Rica is built around what could be arguably termed its national pastime for tourists: Forest zip lining. Certainly, given the bold-faced client names who have taken the Witch’s Rock Canopy Tour (10 minutes from Villa Manzu) — Bill Gates, Steven Tyler, Beyoncé, Andre Agassi, Steffi Graf and Cindy Crawford, among many others — this seems to be the status-symbol zip-lining experience.
Ten years after I first tried zip lining in Costa Rica, the exhilaration is still there as I soar above the forest’s treetops. Some zip lines send me on a joy ride more than 100 feet above the ground, well north of the tree’s canopy. Meanwhile, other lines are shorter in length, allowing me to take in the landscape whooshing by.
After returning, panting from the breathless exuberance of cruising above the trees, my last night at Villa Manzu can only conclude with a villa feast and a last midnight swim, under a hazy apostrophe of a moon.
With a final sip of my coconut-rum cocktail, I stroll back to my villa sanctuary. Returning to my suite, I spontaneously recall Villa Manzu’s mantra at the bottom of my welcome letter: “Walk gently, breathe deeply, feel strongly.”
I mouth to myself its more succinct version: “Pura vida.”
Papagayo, Costa Rica
Getting there: Fly from DFW on American Airlines (via Miami), United (via Houston), Delta (via Atlanta), and Alaska Air (overnight via Los Angeles) to Liberia International Airport in Liberia, Costa Rica. A private driver picks you up at the airport for the 30-to-40-minute trip.
Cost: Only the entire villa is available for rent. For one to 14 guests, one night is $16,500. From 14 to a maximum of 22 guests, it is an additional $500 per person, $250 per child (14 and under). For this basic fee, guests receive a staff of two butlers, and three chefs preparing breakfast, lunch and dinner.
What to do: A selection of available activities (not included in the villa’s base price) include rental of a yacht complete with private fireworks display, fishing, beach horseback riding, kayaking, Jet Ski riding, mountain biking, tubing, back-roads navigating with all-terrain vehicles and 4-by-4 jeeps, and adventure touring of the Pacific coastline by helicopter. Golf and tennis are available at the neighboring facilities of the Four Seasons Resort. Wine tasting is from the villa’s 100-bottle cave, in addition to Nicaraguan cigar tastings. Villa Manzu’s spa is nestled between two 30-foot waterfalls. Body wraps and skin treatments, massages, and cedar sauna and aromatherapy vapor steam rooms are available.