The stretch of Costa Rican coast, where molasses seals the streets and boa constrictors interrupt morning lattes, presents a unique challenge for other expats: how to avoid the trappings of wealth.
“See that place?”Nosara’s hardest-working real estate agent, Glenn Goodwin, is pointing at a house on a hill that looks out to a calm sea. “That sold for $10 million [$US]. And see that one? That’s Norman Reedus’s place,” he tells me, referring to the star of “The Walking Dead” series. “I sold him that. That wasn’t cheap either.”
Mel Gibson has also sought solitude in this once obscure piece of Costa Rica. He bought a place just south of Nosara in 2007, paying $US25 million for 160 hectares of empty coastline. Goodwin didn’t have the listing. But Christian Bale has been calling lately. Having rented a place in town, near the beach, for a few Christmases, he’s now looking to buy. He’s another celebrity, Goodwin says, who loves the anonymity of a town where locals don’t care (or know) who they are. “People either love this place, or they hate it,” he adds. “If they love it, they come back a second time. The third time they come, they start talking to people like me.”
If it helps you picture it, consider Nosara a much-harder-to-get-to Byron Bay. Access to the town, which lies on the Nicoya Peninsula, a narrow strip in the country’s north, is via a bumpy dirt road from Liberia International Airport, a two-and-a-half-hour journey. The road leads me through valleys of dense jungle and sweet townships where locals sell flowers and exotic fruits by the roadway. There are few cars, mostly just cows, many of them around hairpin corners. If I was less frugal, I might have flown in by small propeller plane to an airstrip a kilometre or so out of town. But this journey gives me a sense of perspective: I’m in the middle of nowhere.
An article in The New York Times, published in 2016, described Nosara as “the anti-resort resort”. There are no high-rises, no walled-off hotels, no fast-food joints, no Starbucks, no late-night beach bars (everything closes at 10pm) and no-one can build a thing within 200 metres of the beach, even if you are Batman.
Families from Aspen and the Hamptons holiday here, but it doesn’t feel like it when I hit town. There’s a nonchalance about the place: bare-chested surfers sit by multicoloured food stalls downing cheap local dishes made with beans and rice, while new locals (Americans, mostly) drive by in golf carts and on quad bikes, heading for the beach. Cashed-up expats spend muchos gringo dollars to keep it this way, including the BuzzFeed co-founder and Johnson & Johnson heir John Johnson, who’s spending big (he and his wife, Susan, own two hotels and a restaurant) to keep Nosara small.
There’s a distinctly Thai feel about the place, probably because with streets as narrow as these, a tuktuk is the most logical form of transport. But here drivers wait patiently for fares. And, as I realise on my first loop of town, one does not beep one’s horn in Nosara. The streets they drive on receive a weekly lashing of black molasses, a by-product of the region’s sugar cane industry, which serves as a quasi-asphalt to settle the dust. When it gets hot — and it does every day — my thongs stick to the streets.
This part of Costa Rica was overlooked by mainstream travellers when the country first became fashionable with Americans. Its development, in the late 1960s, was founded on an induced kind of purification: the promise of renewal. That’s when the American property developer Alan Hutchison bought up blocks of Nosara and peddled them to time-poor, stressed-out New York professionals in publications like the American Medical News. “Truly, wouldn’t you like to run away here to this garden of ours?” an advertisement asked of its readers in 1973, adding, “In all truth isn’t it a sort of self-destruction to accept without demur (as maybe you do) the dank cheerless clutch of winter cold — the wintry faces of cheerless people?” East Coasters arrived in shorts and bikinis ready for their new life.
Long before them, Nosara was home to the Chorotegas, who lived here for a millennium and a half. When the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, the Chorotegas were forced off their land and many were sent to Panama to work the Spanish silver mines. Their piece of paradise, with its coastal mountains and chalky-white sand beaches, was converted into large cattle ranches and deforested to allow the animals easy grazing.
When the first American surfers discovered Nosara in the early 1970s, just after Hutchison did, the landscape was barren. But the waves were untouched: fast and furious, the best in all of Costa Rica. Within a few years, word had spread and more surfers arrived, searching for the perfect wave. Three cattle ranches were sold, providing 1,200 hectares of prime land. At the time, electricity was available for a few hours a day, provided you had access to a diesel generator, and a trip to the shops took two and a half days, if you had your own horse. The first dirt road wasn’t built until 1979.
Fast-forward four decades or so and the electricity is of the on-the-grid variety and my phone coverage is better than it is where I live. But most expats still seem to hail from America’s East Coast — the sort of people who worked hard to make their millions and are now trying to claw back the years it took to get them there. In 1984, the Costa Rican government deemed the region a wildlife refuge, securing Nosara’s future as a drop-out zone for every wannabe hippie. It became the Central American HQ for the renewal generation, a place where you could live cheaply, right by the sea. But looking around, I doubt that anyone actually does.
Bale is having dinner at my hotel. He’s eating like everybody is watching even though, apparently, we’re not. And he’s in and out of the restaurant before anyone could possibly conjure the courage for a selfie. I’m staying at The Gilded Iguana, the first property constructed in Nosara and as close to the beach as I can get. In 1973, a barge dropped anchor nearby and building materials for the hotel, packed in wooden barrels, were thrown over the side then transported by oxcart. The hotel was overhauled a few years ago by the celebrated Costa Rican architect Benjamin Garcia Saxe. It’s modern and chic in a minimalist sort of way, but the ghosts of expats past (who’d gather here for cards when this was the only community hub) still roam the big, open restaurant and bar.
The hotel’s CEO, Jeff Grosshandler, is typical of those doing business in Nosara. A former options trader for a Wall Street hedge fund, he came here in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, using his severance pay to fund a three-month trip. He came to Nosara to surf and to find himself. A decade or so later, he’s still looking. He takes me to the beach one morning, just after dawn, when the sun is mild enough that it doesn’t burn but the ocean is as warm as bathwater. We paddle out and, from beyond the breakers, I look back and see green mountains rising behind the beach.
The Nosara Civic Association was formed in 1975 to renew the deforested land beside the beach. Now the jungle grows wild and free. If you believe the locals, there was a boa constrictor outside the cafe on the main street where I drank my latte yesterday. And this morning, howler monkeys — the loudest land animal on earth — woke me with their God-awful screams. Metre-long iguanas study me when I use my outdoor shower.
The pandemic has given nature a helping hand, Grosshandler tells me. “When Covid first hit, everyone got on the last planes out of here,” he says. “There were deer in the streets, seriously. I worried I was ruined, but the jungle never felt closer.”
I came to Nosara to renew myself through nature. There had been more than six months of La Niña-induced rain and floods where I live in northern New South Wales. The region’s world-famous beaches were stained brown where the rivers empty and, worse, raw sewage was seeping from a broken treatment plant in Lismore. Surfers and swimmers had been hospitalised with bacterial infections, and I hadn’t so much as touched the water since December.
Here, the ocean is as I remember mine. I walk north along the town’s main beach, past an estuary where a sign warns of caimans (like small alligators). Then I climb a rocky path to a headland and look down on another bay, Playa Pelada, where I see fishermen dragging their boats past the high-tide mark, where the jungle grows. There are four beaches, one after the other, each one empty and pristine, serving as breeding grounds for Olive Ridley sea turtles from July to December. Humpback whales pass by close to the shore. They’re protected here, thanks to the Ostional National Wildlife Refuge and the Reserva Biologica Nosara. The sun now scalding, I walk to the water’s edge and leap in. When I open my eyes, bright, shiny fish swim past my outstretched hands.
I spend most of my time in the water, but when I’m on land, I make use of The Gilded Iguana’s yoga room, a glass cube built within a gigantic fig tree. Another highlight is the surf club that operates like a luxury ski club, with private instructors and a clubhouse. I had planned to treat this trip like some kind of wellness “mancation”, but being here reminds me of the thrill of being so far from home (after spending two years in it) and I begin swapping out mindfulness for margaritas. And I’m clearly not the only one.
For all the yoga and day spa options in Nosara, there are better bars and restaurants. They’re spread throughout the fringe of jungle by the beach, accessed via twisting, turning dirt roads that I travel by tuktuk. I have to look hard, but I find a few favourites, including the bar at the Lagarta Lodge, built on a bluff high above town. It serves pricey drinks to a fine-looking crowd on a huge balcony balanced above two rivers and an inaccessible (except by boat) bay, Playa Ostional.
Even higher up is Tierra Magnifica, which is hipper still and the patrons even prettier. It overlooks a beach south of here, Playa Garza, where there’s a ghost hotel, built by an Italian businessman who was fleeing the mafia. At the hotel, once frequented by the likes of Marlon Brando, guests flew in by private plane, dressed in white gowns and gambled at a casino protected by guards with machine guns.
Then I find La Luna. In a town that forbids bars on the beach, La Luna is Central America’s ultimate beach bar. I never do find out how someone got permission to build a few metres from the water, but I spend entire afternoons on wicker chairs and cane lounges beneath the coconut trees. Waiters drift from table to table with trays of cocktails. As the breeze catches the tree fronds, I order ceviche made from tuna caught that morning by the fishermen at the end of the beach. Later, I join the armies of tourists marching towards the beach in time for sunset, when Nosara’s nightlife peaks.
Last Christmas, Drew Barrymore was in Nosara. And Gerard Butler. And Heidi Klum. Susan Sarandon came, too. I wonder about the Hollywood effect and what the mansions on the hill behind town, ever increasing in size and standing, will do to a place that was once an egalitarian oasis for those who wanted to leave the rat-race behind.
Private plane charters in Costa Rica increased eight-fold in the months after the country opened up (after Covid shut it down), and the value of real estate has tripled in 18 months as the uber-rich from America’s largest cities have purchased dreamy Costa Rican hideouts. But Nosara still stinks of molasses roasting in the sun, its roads rattle the crowns in my back teeth and if you drive north for three and a half hours, you’ll end up in Nicaragua, the most volatile country in the Americas. While it might be harder and harder to find an empty bed here now, the caimans, constrictors and howler monkeys aren’t for everyone.