The “alarm” — the howler monkeys in the trees outside our villa on a hill overlooking Costa Rica’s northern Pacific Coast — began going off just after dawn, or around 5 a.m., on our second morning in this beautiful resort.
It was a unique way to wake up — if a bit earlier than expected — but thankfully not one that would be repeated on a daily basis, which made it perfectly acceptable.
In Costa Rica, where pura vida (pure life) is not just the country’s maxim but the very essence of the culture, days begin and end early. That’s because of how close the country is to the equator, coupled with the fact that it chooses to ignore daylight-saving time.
The howlers didn’t exactly howl. They sounded more like dogs barking back and forth at each other, actually. By mid-morning, whole monkey families would be sprawled out across the branches above us, happily napping in the shade as the temperature rose.
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For my family — a dozen of us had made the trip from Texas — we were just beginning to get our day underway.
Headquarters for our weeklong Costa Rican vacation was Villa Ocotal, a gorgeous eight-bedroom, nine-bath villa, one of three that make up Barefoot Vacation Villas, owned and operated by Jack and Pam Cox of Arlington.
It’s the perfect match: relaxed Costa Rican pura vida paired up with down-home Texas hospitality.
Our one desire is to make sure every one of our guests leaves here happy and wanting to come back.
“Our one desire is to make sure every one of our guests leaves here happy and wanting to come back,” Jack Cox said after dropping by midway through our stay to check on how we were doing.
“If there’s anything we can do to help our guests enjoy themselves, to somehow make their stay better, we want to know about it,” he said.
Indeed, that goal is stressed and emphasized over and over again. Need something? Anything? Just ask Jack or his villa concierge, the affable and eminently helpful Guillermo, who is constantly striving to please.
Jack Cox, who built, owns and leases airport hangars in Arlington and around the Dallas-Fort Worth area, first came to the Guanacaste region on the Pacific Coast back in 1999 to investigate international airport development at Liberia. He fell in love with the people and the culture, as well as with Villa Ocotal, which was a private residence.
Two years later, he was able to buy the villa and add improvements, turning it into a rental property.
Seeing the need for something even larger to host weddings, reunions and larger family gatherings, he purchased the property below Villa Ocotal and built the sprawling Villa Cascada in 2004. A year later, he designed, developed and constructed Estrella Del Mar (Star of the Sea) and the other four connecting villas, which he has since sold.
Jack, who grew up in Breckenridge, makes frequent trips to Costa Rica, staying for six to eight weeks at a time to oversee the properties while his wife, Pam, handles reservations and manages the website from back in Arlington.
All three luxury villas are offered to guests as all-inclusive resorts.
What does that mean? It means everything. It means they come complete with cook, bartender, maid service, laundry service — everything. It includes three delicious meals a day, plus an afternoon snack at poolside, usually featuring homemade guacamole as well as other delights.
It includes all beverages, soft drinks, Costa Rican beer, wine and a vast selection of premium liquors. Yes, it even means all those fruity, frozen tropical drinks we love so much. All are served from the colorful thatch-covered poolside Tiki Bar.
Our bartender and Man Friday was Rafael, who showed up by 7 a.m. (savory Costa Rican coffee is available in the dining room by 6) and didn’t leave until 9 p.m. Piña colada? Malibu sunset? Dirty monkey? He makes them all.
Costa Rican outdoor living
The concept for all of the villas is Costa Rican outdoor living. Only the bedrooms are fully air-conditioned. At Villa Ocotal, the open-air dining room, just beyond one end of the infinity swimming pool and up one level, was kept plenty cool by ceiling fans and seated up to 20.
Maria Louisa was there each morning to cook omelets or eggs to order, along with pancakes or French toast, bacon, and a traditional Costa Rican breakfast standard, gallo pinto, a tasty rice dish with black beans and spices. And of course, there was a lot of fresh fruit.
Lunch was fish tacos with grilled mahi-mahi or maybe a Costa Rican salad with grilled chicken.
Dinner might be filet mignon, grilled mahi-mahi fillets or chicken cordon bleu (best I’ve ever tasted). Or, as on our last night, steak, shrimp and chicken skewers, grilled on the barbecue with onions, bell peppers and mushrooms.
The infinity pool, with its in-pool, umbrella-shaded table and bar stools along the outer edge, is the center of activity. We cooled off there, relaxed there, played spirited games of water volleyball there.
There’s a large, partially covered sun deck alongside the Tiki Bar. Just behind it, there’s a covered pool table and workout area. On the other side of the pool you’ll find a hot tub with covered seating area and big-screen TV (there are three on the property, though we barely used any of them).
The huge Villa Cascada is even more expansive, with a recreation area that includes workout equipment, table tennis, pool table and a regulation foosball table. Around the corner, near the bar, is a regulation shuffleboard table in another covered gathering area.
Cascada also includes a much larger pool, complete with a spectacular waterfall and swim-up bar.
Estrella Del Mar isn’t as lavish as its sisters, is more concise in size and has less outdoor space. It’s also connected to four other 8-bedroom villas, which share a pool.
Besides the villas themselves, Barefoot Vacations also offers a wide variety of excursions, from sailing on the 65-foot Don Bosco (we saw whales!) on trips that include a beach barbecue and snorkeling, to ATV adventures, zip lining in the Costa Rican canopy, volcano tours, deep-sea fishing and even a trip to the casino in nearby Coco Beach. Guillermo arranges all of it. Stay a week and Jack or Guillermo will send a local Costa Rican band to entertain at poolside one night.
Ocotal Beach is just down the hill, a five-minute walk at best. Don’t let the black sand throw you. It’s volcanic and just as soft as the white stuff. Nearby is Father Rooster’s, a nifty beach bar and local hangout.
The walk back is a bit steep but, for a fee, the villa will supply a golf cart for daily use. You can even take them on the 10-minute drive into town, though be aware that the roads are narrow and there are several turns to make.
The villas are priced on a per-person basis and it’s not necessary to fill them up to rent one. Villa Ocotal and Estrella Del Mar require an eight-person minimum, while Cascada necessitates 16. Considering everything — all the meals and drinks — they offer luxury that is incredibly affordable.
It is, in fact, “pura vida” at its finest. The hardest thing you’ll have to do there is pack up and go home.
If you go
Barefoot Vacation Villas
Guanacaste province, Costa Rica
817-375-8606 or 1-888-862-6825; http://barefootvacationvillas.com/
Getting there: Southwest Airlines offers connecting flights from Love Field through Houston to Liberia International Airport. American Airlines offers connections from DFW Airport through Miami.
Ground transportation: The villas offer shuttle service to and from the airport, which is about 25 minutes away. Taxis are easily available for excursions, etc.
Villa Ocotal and Estrella Del Mar: Eight bedrooms, nine baths
Villa Cascada: 16 bedrooms, 18 baths
Pricing: Rates depend on time of year, villa and number of adult guests, but prices can range from $170 per adult, per night, to $235 per adult, per night. They often have last-minute availability, which may discount rates.