They met in Durham, North Carolina, students at
Duke going for an MBA. Pam was a pretty blonde from Long Island,
cheerful and outgoing. Carlos was a tall and burly guy from Costa
Rica with a gentle demeanor that inspired trust and confidence.
Through the spring semester, they saw a lot of each other. When it
ended, Carlos invited Pam to come home with him. He wanted to
introduce her to his family and show her around the little Central
American nation that was his home. Pam knew little about Costa Rica
beyond what she'd learned in geography classes when she was a kid.
But by now, she knew Carlos. It seemed like a good
Almost at once, Pam was smitten. The people were
universally warm and kindly. It was the rainy season, but when the
sun came out, and it did every day, it was glorious! And the
scenery, in all its varieties from mountain to sea, enchanted
One day Carlos told Pam he was going to take her
to a particularly beautiful beach in the province of Guanacaste.
They drove along a dirt road for a good four hours. Part of the ride
was hard going. But finally they arrived at a pristine stretch of
pure white sand fronting the Pacific. Just then the sun burst
through the clouds, and egrets, some of them with a pinkish hue,
flew out of an estuary on a little rise. Off in the distance,
Spanish-style mansions atop a hill were casting deep shadows through
the palms below. A man named Osborne had come here some years
before, Carlos told Pam, and he built these houses as hideaways for
the rich and famous. It was rumored the fugitive financier Robert
Vesco once had a home there, that Elizabeth Taylor and Richard
Burton would fly in and out on their own private jet.
That was the beginning. The summer ended. Pam and
Carlos returned to the States. They got their MBAs, married, began
a family. At first they lived in New York City, but after Carlos'
family opened a hotel in Costa Rica's capital San Jose, they moved
down. And ultimately, in the manner in which way leads on to way,
they found themselves back on the beautiful beach in Guanacaste that
Carlos had shown Pam years before. Only now they were the owners of
the Flamingo Beach Resort.
It is believed that long ago a visitor to the area
had seen the egrets and thought they were flamingoes -- hence the
beach's and then the hotel's misnomer. But no mistake was made when
it came to creating a resort on the site, and the 120-room,
two-story horseshoe-shaped property takes full advantage of its
splendid locale. From a glass fronted lobby, one exits a double door
and descends an equally broad double stairway to a court as wide as
the garden of a French chateau. At its center is a swimming pool of
irregular geometric shape; the ocean is visible beyond. Cone-shaped
thatched canopies shade a pool bar and children's swimming area,
poolside tables and bends in walkways. A thatched roof
covers the restaurant/function- room building. Together they enhance
a tropical ambience marked by avenues of palm trees, bougainvillea
vines, and flamboyant beds of birds of paradise and hibiscus.
When we arrived, it was about 5:30 on a January
afternoon. We walked into the lobby and there before us was the
glass wall. Impatiently we went through the checking-in process,
rushed across the floor, opened the double doors and stood at the
top of the stairway ready to descend, only to find we were looking
down on a largely deserted court. Hardly anyone was in the pool; the
lounges stood empty. Then we noticed the crowd at the far end;
people were moving through a little lane leading to the beach. What
was going on, we wondered. But as we drew near, it became clear:
they were gathering to watch the sun set.
"Sunsets here are beyond
compare," says Pam. "You can see the sun slowly sink down into the
sea at the horizon illuminating the little islands in the distance.
It is a glorious
If it was a glorious sunset that heralded our
first evening at the Flamingo, it was bird song that heralded our
first morning. Awakened by a long shriek (initially startling, but
ultimately endearing) just as the sky was beginning to get light, we
stepped out on to the terrace of our room and were met by a
cacophony of melody. Call and response, call and response -- it
filled the air. Birds poised on branches, sang a line or two, then
took off. It was unlike anything we'd ever experienced before.
But then Costa Rica was unlike
anything we'd ever experienced before. There were butterflies of
glorious color and intricate design, dozens of them, alighting on
flowers. In their wake were hummingbirds, hovering like miniature
iridescent helicopters. Iguanas of shocking chartreuse
slithered across pavements; monkeys with long tails and wizened
faces like little old men scampered in the trees.
"Once I fell asleep on the beach
and was awakened by the sense that someone was playing around with
my hair," Carlos told us. "I opened my eyes, and there was a family
of monkeys frolicking around me."
"The variety of wildlife is
tremendous, and it can be attributed to the thousands of
microclimates in Costa Rica," said Flamingo's general manager
Donovan Garcia. "In this one little country, you can drive for an
hour in one kind of climate, drive another half hour and you'll be
in an entirely different kind of climate."
We were meeting Donovan (who is
named for his mother's favorite singer) for lunch on the broad
dining terrace of Arenas, the resort's restaurant. He asked if we'd
prefer a table in the dining room where a great buffet of cold
entrees, an array of salads, and baskets of tropical fruits were
laid out, or out on the terrace. Like most of the other guests, we
opted for the outdoors. The thermometer read 94 degrees, but with
the low humidity, the lift of an ocean breeze, and a view of the
sea, al fresco dining was eminently appealing.
Although he's been working in
the hospitality business for seventeen years, Donovan -- who is from
Mexico and partly of Aztec ancestry -- still has the clear, youthful
look of the serious undergraduate who planned a career in medicine.
But that was before he took a course in tourism which was followed
by a summer job as a page at the Camino Real in Mexico City.
"They gave me a nice uniform
with a hat and gloves -- maybe that was the original attraction," he
told us laughingly. Whatever the motivation, medicine was put on
hold as the young man moved up to the concierge and reservations
desks. Then, one day, a manager he'd previously worked under called
and asked if he'd like to join him at a hotel in Costa Rica.
"By then I was married and had
two sons," Donovan said. "Naturally, my family came with me. Costa
Rica was new to all of us, but we fit right in. After a while, my
wife and I opened a Mexican restaurant along with my wife's aunt who
was a terrific cook. We ran it for four years until another good
opportunity presented itself, this time on the Baja Peninsula. So we
moved back to Mexico.
"I thought it was great. But one
day I came home and found my wife and my sons crying. 'We are not
happy here. We want to go back to Costa Rica.' And I said to myself,
'Even though I am very happy here, if my family is not, we will have
"Ten days later this strange
thing happened: I was offered the position of resident manager at a
hotel in a town not far from here. They sent the tickets for the
whole family. It seemed fated; we returned to Costa Rica. I was
there for a year when I was asked to take over the
Donovan smiled at the happy
conclusion of his tale. "I knew the area; the Flamingo Beach had
always been my favorite. The sand is white, the sea is calm. There
is the estuary which means the area is protected; there is the great
aviary life. Ten years ago there were no paved roads around here.
But by now the roads had been paved; condominiums and resorts had
come up. I thought it would be a good area in which to live, to
work, and raise a family."
At this point, Donovan turned to
welcome a well-built man dressed in a white shirt and white pants,
with just a wisp of beard and the familiar bright smile that said
"California." We had noticed him stopping to greet guests at tables
as he walked towards us and thought, "This must be the chef."
We were right on both accounts:
David Smith is the chef, and he is from California. He is also
outgoing, garrulous, and the bearer of impressive credentials
(classical training at the Culinary Institute of America and the
Cordon Blue, opener of 32 restaurants, installer of a new dining
room at the Four Seasons in Maui). After 14 years in Hawaii, he was
starting a project in Costa Rica when the economy crashed, and all
"I returned to Hawaii," David
said, "but after six months I was back in Costa Rica. One night I
was seated next to Donovan at a dinner sponsored by a branch of an
ancient French gastronomic society. A few days later, he called me.
'Hey I need an executive chef,' he said. I came to the Flamingo,
stayed for two days, ate breakfast, lunch and dinner, and signed
General Manager Donovan Garcia
|David's modus-operandi blends knowledge
with passion. His menus, which he calls continuous stories
(and they do go on and on) are missives to diners, detailed
descriptions accompanied by entreaties. Decision-making
becomes difficult. One can mull for hours over whether to go
"Sea Scallops, Sea Scallops, Sea Scallops.
Our Scallops Glacé
are very large Diver Scallops, lightly seared in a pan with
a Madeira Mirin Glaze and served with Crisped Capers, sliced
Almonds & Shallots with Seasoned Fresh Vegetables and
or: "Casado means 'Married.' We
joyfully marry beef, chicken or fresh fish with Tipico
preparations to create our Cascado del Dia. This simple but
traditional dish is served with Tico rice, black beans and
green cabbage salad."
it does not take long before one settles into a few
favorites. Among ours was the "Signature Flamingo Beach
Ceviche" of which David said, "I melt cilantro (I love the
flavor) in a martini glass, add a roasted red bell pepper
sauce with a little salt, pepper and lemon, to the bottom of
the glass, then add organic, farm-raised, renewable sea bass
in little pieces.
"Living in Hawaii for so
long, I was blessed by being on the forefront of the Pacific
Rim," he continued. "That's a combination of American,
Polynesian, Tahitian, Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, and
Thai. I bring them all here. We have the best fresh fish
swimming right outside. Today there's mahi-mahi, tuna,
scallops. Every day, I do a pan-seared local catch of the
day served on a bed of spinach over a sauce. There is
bountiful local produce. I have organically grown onions,
large like Spanish onions, that I use in onion soup with
Executive Chef & Beverage Manager David Smith
How can he do it all?
Three meals a day, seven days a week, fresh items in the
buffet each week. "I'm here a lot," David admits. "But I get
instant gratification whenever I pass a table and see
people are satisfied. And also it's so wonderful to work in
Costa Rica, a rural country where you can get so many
organic products, where there is very little processing."
At that moment, a
pitcher of ice water was set on the table leading Donovan to
interject, "The water here is among the best in the world.
You can be absolutely confident drinking it from the tap."
Then, in all likelihood responding to our raised eyebrows
(someone who surely knows about 'Montezuma's Revenge' is
telling us to drink water straight from the tap?), he
persisted: "There is a great concern with nature in Costa
Rica, a commitment to preserving the environment." And maybe
to prove his point, he arranged for us to see something of
it the next day.
Gustavo Briceno, a tall, youthful guide with a quiet intellectual
air, picked us up in his van in the morning, and off we went on an
hour and a half drive to Palo Verde National Park. Fields with
grazing cattle spread out before us, giving way to mountains rising
up in the far distance. After a town called Filadelphia (where
Gustavo lives), the paved highway ended, and we continued along
narrow rough roads lined with forests.
Gustavo Briceno, guide with a quiet
Suddenly Gustavo turned down
a lane, and the landscape changed. We were now on the wide
driveway of an estate that led to manicured gardens and a
large house embraced by open verandas looking out to distant
vistas. Once this was the home of a diplomat, we were told,
but today it's a way station operated by TAM Travel
Corporation, arranger of "adventure tours". After mingling
with other tourists who, like us, had stopped for a typical
Costa Rican lunch of fried plantains, corn
tortillas, arroz con pollo (chicken with yellow rice and
beans) and stewed fish we got back in the van and
proceeded to what would be the highlight of our day.
The southern part of the
90-mile-Tempisque River runs between the alluvial planes of
the park before emptying into the Gulf of Nicoya which in
turn flows into the Pacific. A major migratory path for
birds flying down from North America or up from South
America to escape winter's cold, it is home to the largest
population of wading birds in Central America as well as
considerable amphibian and reptile life. Here is where we
would spend the next few hours, drifting down the
slow-moving waters on a little canopied river boat operated
by the "Captain" who was equipped with several pairs of
binoculars and a powerful flashlight that he used to shine
on creatures up in the trees. In this way, we were able to
see white-faced Capuchin monkeys playfully climbing and
swinging over branches. Iguanas, sleepy alligators, even
menacing crocodiles who slithered back and forth from river
to shore needed no illumination, nor did the flocks of
black-necked stilts (to us, they seemed tall and elegant
sandpipers) who stood at the water's edge in military
On the other hand, the extra light did allow us to
see the many birds -- wrens, doves, woodpeckers, to name a few --
the Captain spotted in the foliage. Most remarkable was a
boat-billed heron perched on a branch in splendid isolation, looking
down on us with a measure of contempt, his expression serious as an
owl's. "This bird goes back to pre-historic times," Gustavo said.
was the only boat around. Silence was broken only by birdsong or our
own quiet, albeit enthused conversations. We were able enjoy the
blessings of a leisurely pace, to stop and look within the space
created by time. Nevertheless when the boat completed its tour, we
thought it was much too soon, and it was with no small amount of
reluctance that we said goodbye to the "Captain," left him at the
dock, and got back in the van en-route to the Flamingo, or so we
thought. Gustavo, however, had something else in mind.
warning, he again made one of his abrupt turns, this time onto a
field of tall grass, swaying in the quickening breeze. Here he
stopped, took a tripod and camera out of the boot, and spent some
time setting his equipment up.
he spoke. "A jabiru has been seen in this area. It is a very rare
bird, very hard to find. There are only 40 left in the whole world."
He bid us look through the lens, and we took turns until each of had
gotten a clear view of a very tall, stork-like white bird, its black
neck and head partly hidden high in the branches of a tree. Then one
of us saw something else -- a nest, and the jabiru tending to one,
no -- to two little birds! So now, there are 42 jabirus! How hopeful
a sign for a troubled
what we had come to see is this little Central American nation is
itself a hopeful sign for a troubled world. The commitment to the
environment is palpable wherever one goes, whomever one speaks to.
So is the commitment to peace. There is no army in Costa Rica; what
once was a military budget has been devoted to education since the
army was disbanded in 1959. The result is a 96% literacy rate and
free public education all the way through college. President Oscar
Arias, nearing the completion of his second term of office at the
time of our stay, won the Nobel Prize in 1987 for brokering peace
between the Sandinistas and the Contras and ending the fighting not
only in Nicaragua but El Salvador as well.
direct democracy Costa Ricans enjoy suggests Norman Rockwell in the
tropics. Public access is a treasured right. If someone tries to
build a fence to block off public land, and all beaches are public
land, people will get together and stop it from happening. But such
disputes are rare in a culture where peaceful cooperation is the
norm, where irony does not define the common mood, where everyone
seems to genuinely delight in life and announce as much in the
standard Costa Rican greeting and farewell: "pura vida" which means
"pure life" literally but takes on the connotation of "full of
|Part of the
"pura vida" Flamingo
All of which is reflected in Costa Rica's dramatic
increase in tourism over the past five years, the explosive growth
of condominiums, second homes, sophisticated restaurants, and
resorts, many affiliated with international luxury chains.
The Flamingo Beach Resort and Spa occupies a
unique place in this echelon. It has all the amenities one would
expect in a luxury property including a new full-service spa and
access to such off-site activities as snorkeling and deep-sea
diving. At the same time, there is nothing corporate about the
place. Rather, guests have the sense of being in someone's home. And
|Although Pam and Carlos
Rodriguez have been living in Miami for some time now, the
Flamingo remains their home away from home. Like the owners
of the Catskill hotels we recall with great fondness, they
are often around, familiar figures in the dining room, at
the pool, on the beach. Their son and daughter, both college
students now, still love to come down. The many repeat
guests know the family; returning year after year, they are
welcomed like old friends. All of which contributes to a
hands-on ambience, a sense of closeness and familiarity
rarely found in the 21st century hospitality scene.
"Our daughter is a student at
Duke," Pam told us, "and she plans to do an independent study
project in eco-tourism here in Guanacaste. We are so excited about
it. Both our children love this place. We gather here, together with
the whole extended family, for all the holidays."
Pam and Carlos Rodriguez at
their home away from home.
For Donovan, life in Guanacaste
is a family affair as well. He and his wife now have three sons and
a baby daughter; they consider themselves part of the Costa Rican
"Costa Rica is a very small
country with a huge mix of cultures which I find very appealing," he
says. "There is of course the Spanish influence, but also American,
German, French, Chinese, Korean. There even is an Israeli kibbutz.
Schools keep improving, more and more roads are getting
He smiles, then makes the
ultimate statement: "If something bad happens in the world, there is
no place I would rather be. I feel safe here."
Flamingo Beach Resort & Spa
Guanacaste, Costa Rica