A sandy, forest-fringed beach hugs boutique eco hotel Aguas Claras, where airy, Caribbean-style suites and bungalows dot the jungle-shaded grounds, and a spa and beach club fuel its laid-back vibe. Mother-daughter owners Elizabeth (herself an artist) and Elena are art collectors whose amassed paintings, curios and upcycled furniture enliven rooms and communal areas across the hotel. Suites are themed with lashings of local flavour; bungalows are private and terraced, creating a home from home by the sea. Puerto Viejo itself is a vibrant village, where Caribbean cooking and reggae beats are never far away – a legacy of the area’s Jamaican heritage.
Thirteen: six suites, six bungalows and a two-storey villa.
11am. Earliest check-in, 3pm. Both are flexible, subject to availability.
Double rooms from £209.97 ($262), including tax at 13 per cent.
Rates include breakfast.
Look out for nods to the distinctive style of Wes Anderson not just in suite Belafonte, but also at Papaya restaurant, where the décor is inspired by the Anderson-designed interiors at Bar Luce in Milan.
At the hotel
Pool, spa, yoga shala, beach club, bikes to borrow, laundry service (extra cost). In rooms: free WiFi, free tea & coffee, refillable water bottles, minibar.
Our favourite rooms
Of the six themed suites, we love Belafonte – a colour trip of stylish nods to movie The Life Aquatic; Tropicana is ravishing and retro with Fifties flourishes. Queenston is the only suite with two queen-size beds. Bungalow suite Cacao has a wraparound veranda for indoor-outdoor living, but for a big celebration or gathering of family, Casa Floralia sleeps up to 10 in style.
In front of Papaya restaurant, leafy jungle shades the curvaceous, asymmetric pool, edged by papaya-bright loungers. The pool has stepped entry and a Jacuzzi to one side.
Secluded by the canopy, Casa Gandhi is an open-sided wooden shala beside a lily pond that’s the place for yoga sessions, as well as spa treatments. Massages can be deep-tissue or ayurvedic with optional energy healing treatments.
Colourful dresses and loose-fitting shirts for evenings out in Puerto Viejo.
The hotel offers massages on your private terrace for bungalow guests as well as at the spa; Queenston Suite is wheelchair accessible.
Over-eights are welcome at Aguas Claras; the hotel has two-bedroom bungalows and a family friendly casa, which sleeps 10.
Sustainability is a guiding principle at Aguas Claras, rolled out across all aspects of the hotel’s running. Rubbish is sorted on site into recyclable categories and food waste is collected to turn into compost for the organic kitchen garden. The hotel has its own water purification plant and there are glass water bottles in rooms and metal bottles for guests to refill and take out and about. Cleantech products – an eco-friendly, Costa Rican brand – are used hotel wide. The hotel’s admin offices are housed in remodelled shipping containers, salvaged from the docks. The majority of staff are local and schooled in English lessons by the hotel. Both restaurants at Aguas Claras steer clear of cuisine that would compete with neighbourhood eateries in a bid to generate rather than diminish custom for local businesses. Restaurant ingredients are seasonal and locally sourced; Aguas Claras is signed up to the Dock to Dish program for sustainable fishing with fair terms for the local industry. And when you drink at the bar, you’ll find the garnishes are seasonal, too, and your straw is, of course, made of bamboo. Discover the hotel’s impressive eco credentials for yourself on a back-of-the-house sustainability tour.
Colourful sofas beside coffee tables are covetable spots for drinks after dinner at Papaya; at DaLime, we’re drawn to the in-the-jungle tables outdoors.
As laid-back as you like.
Papaya orange, pale pink and peppermint shades lend Papaya restaurant an opulent mid-century vibe, inspired by Wes Anderson’s movie, The Life Aquatic. Beside the pool, this open-air restaurant has a changing menu of seasonal dishes from around the world, including choripán and shrimp rolls for lunch, and fresh fish, salads, tacos and curries by evening; try the spiced-beef pasties, patí, which hail from Limón Province. Nearer the sea, DaLime Beach Club is shaded on all sides by the jungle with a foliage-fringed wooden deck of white tables and chairs. The two-storied, white-timbered club has yacht-club good looks, with an upper deck lit by ceiling-strung lanterns. The cuisine here is a casual affair of poke bowls, tostadas, wraps and gallitos (stuffed pancakes) – all of which, along with drinks, you can order to your lounger on the beach.
A lively spot to linger in the evening, Papaya has poolside drinks tables and low-slung sofas and side tables and is as much about its piña coladas, margaritas and gin-tonics as it is about dining; a programme of live acoustic performances and DJ sets adds to the conviviality.
At Papaya, breakfast is served 7am–10am; lunch, 11am–4pm and dinner, 6pm–10pm. DaLime Beach Club is open from 10am until 5pm.
There’s no room service, but for bungalow guests, a private dinner on your terrace can be arranged; staff will cook, serve and clear away a selection of Costa Rican and Caribbean dishes tailored to your wishes.
Aguas Claras is by the beach in Puerto Viejo in Limón Province on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast.
Fly into Juan Santamaria Airport (SJO) in San José. From SJO, it’s a five and a half hour drive to the hotel or take a 45-minute connecting flight with Sansa Airlines to Limón airstrip, which is an hour’s drive from Aguas Claras. The hotel can help arrange private transfers or car hire from SJO or Limón.
There are no viable passenger services to this part of the country for now.
Roads in Costa Rica are well maintained and signposted and you can use Waze to safely navigate. There’s free parking at the hotel.
The hotel can arrange private helicopter transfers from San José airport to a designated landing field that’s just a four-minute drive from Aguas Claras.
Worth getting out of bed for
Aguas Claras has a pool, spa and yoga sessions, and offers classes in cookery and mixology. Beaches are bountiful and wild here, with Playa Chiquita’s family-friendly shallows protected by a reef; headland Punta Uva creates a sheltered beach just along the coast that’s ideal for swimming. A flat road, ideal for cycling, connects the beaches in this area. This is a nature-rich stretch of Caribbean coastline, bordering the Cahuita National Park as well as the Manzanilla Wildlife Refuge. Head out with your binos to go birdwatching, take a guided hiking and snorkelling tour at Cahuita; visit Manzanilla to trek the rainforest and spy howler monkeys and sloths. Kayaking tours can take you to the beach or the mangroves, with or without a beach picnic. Explore the rainforest-fringed wetlands at Gandoca in a traditional canoe. Inland, there’s a mountain reserve where indigenous BriBrí residents maintain a traditional way of life and welcome visitors.
Longstanding Puerto Viejo favourite Lidia’s Place is a modest Caribbean restaurant that’s all about flavour-packed home-style cooking with dishes such as rice and beans, slow-cooked stews and pan-fried snapper. Looking onto Playa Cocles in Puerto Viejo, El Rincon Porteño is a tin-roofed Argentinian steak house where the beef is tender and the views palm-tree-framed. Head to upscale Italian Café Viejo as much for the fritto misto as the handmade pasta, wood-fired pizza and calzone.
Linger over waffles, pancakes or eggs with your morning coffee on the wooden deck at Bread and Chocolate; they also serve muffins, brownies and bagels if it’s a pitstop nearer to lunch you’re after. Coffee lovers should make a beeline for Puerto Viejo café and surf store House of Roam, where baristas proudly sport T-shirts that flag ‘Death before Decaf’ as a guiding principle. Amen.
Reggae nights at Salsa Brava Beach Bar are a slice of Jamaica in Puerto Viejo: what begins at sunset with happy-hour cocktails gathers pace with live reggae under lamplit trees on the beach by night. For sundowners laced with local flavour, beachside shack Beach Break Tiki Bar serves piña coladas in hollowed-out pineapples at high stools and does a fine trade in all-day mojitos.
Every hotel featured is visited personally by members of our team, given the Smith seal of approval, and then anonymously reviewed. As soon as our reviewers have returned from this coastal hotel in Limón Province and unpacked their coffee beans and cacao, a full account of their beach break will be with you. In the meantime, to whet your wanderlust, here's a quick peek inside Aguas Claras in Puerto Viejo…
Aguas Claras is a one-of-a-kind upscale stay awash with authentic charm. Its mother-daughter owners, Elizabeth and Elena, are locals; its architectural style is a nod to the area’s Caribbean history (settled by Jamaican immigrants in the 19th century); its art collection is the owners’ passion project, refined over years, and its dedication to sustainability permeates every aspect of hotel life. So far, so legit. Then there’s Puerto Viejo: this laid-back village is a reggae-soundtracked antidote to busier purpose-built resorts; even its beaches are wild-looking natural beauties. And still there’s not a hint of affectation. Stay in an art-dotted suite or spacious bungalow nearer the beach. Combine lazy hammock days by the sea with time out on your terrace, a restorative spa treatment or private dinner for two a casa. Nightlife is on your doorstep to dip into as you please – be it live music or DJ sets at poolside Papaya or bonfire nights and themed evenings hosted by the hotel's beach club.