My husband and I spent the first 2 weeks of Feb 2013 at Hilton Papagayo. This was our second visit, as we loved it so much when we stayed there 2 years ago.
We would have gone back again last year but we thought we should try somewhere different, so we visited an all-inclusive in Dominican Republic. As luxurious and beautiful as the hotel in DR was, and as much as we enjoyed our time there, we couldn't stop thinking about Costa Rica. So of course, this year, we had to go back to the Hilton Papagayo.
Next year, if we go anywhere, it will be back to the HP for a third time.
While the HP Resort is perfect for us, it may not be for everyone. I think it depends upon what you are looking for in a vacation.
Our hotel in Dominican was probably more typical of what most people expect from an all-inclusive, with its perfect white sand beach, meticulously manicured grounds, marble interiors, massive pools and fountains, grand architecture and party atmosphere.
I would say that if the above is what you are looking for, the HP probably isn't for you. The HP is none of those things.
If you're looking for peaceful relaxation, beautiful, natural scenery, sunny skies, tons of interesting wildlife, and a friendly, laid-back atmosphere, the HP could be just what you're looking for.
I think it's very important to research in detail before you book so that you don't get any unwanted surprises.
Talking to other guests at the Hilton, I found that most loved the place and said they'd like to return. Only a couple of people said they were disappointed to find it so different from what they had expected.
The HP is quite rustic. While it is spread out in acreage, it is fairly small as far as the number of guests it accommodates, with only 202 guest rooms, mostly semi-detached sleep cabins (all modern, clean, air-conditioned and with balconies or porches), built into the steep slopes overlooking the sheltered bay - which, by the way, looks more like a lake than open sea.
Because the property is so spread out, it rarely seems to have a lot of people around. There are always plenty of places to sit. There are never any sun-bed wars like we saw in the Dominican resort, and no-one seems to bother getting up at dawn to reserve one.
The pools are not huge, but big enough for this hotel. There are 3 in a grouping in the main area of the resort. One has a swim-up bar, manned by some very generous and good-natured bartenders. A second pool is for kids, and the third is for games.
The pool over at the spa is lovely and often has nobody in it!
Walking from one place to another isn't easy because of the steep hills, heat, and distances between, but the shuttles run constantly and are a lot of fun to ride. During low tide, we often took a shortcut by walking along the beach between the spa area and the main area.
I think the beach is beautiful. Like many of Guanacaste's beaches, this beach is beige and grey, marbled with wavy ribbons of black volcanic sand.
Ultra-shy crabs pop up from the many holes they dig every day at low tide and scamper across the wet sand, quickly darting back down when they see you moving toward them.
In the afternoons, the blazing sun dries the black sand, turning it into a virtual bed of hot coals. You don't want to spend much time trying to walk on it without something on your feet! Make sure to pack flip-flops or water shoes!
Pelicans swoop down catching fish, frigate birds glide with the breezes like kites, hawks sail overhead searching for prey, and lazy iguanas sunbathe on the gnarled tree branches that hang over the water's edge.
Above, in the trees, you might notice a flock of noisy parakeets or other brightly coloured birds. In the early mornings and late afternoons, the birds sing their loudest. I guess they siesta in the mid-day heat.
My husband made friends with a big iguana we named Larry. Every day at 3 p.m., Larry sauntered down to the beach and waited for my husband to show up with bananas (smuggled from breakfast and saved for him). It got to be a regular thing, and Larry was always on time, just like clockwork. Other guests started going down to watch Larry eagerly chomping on his bananas. I bet he can still be found lounging on that same branch down at the spa beach every afternoon. I hope someone else is giving him his daily bananas.
The spa end of the property is perfectly peaceful. It was our favourite place to just sit and watch nature.
It has the adults-only pool, spa treatment rooms, a gym, a sauna, whirlpools, a quiet private beach with palapas for shade, as well as a restaurant/bar that features healthy, delicious foods and ice-cold drinks and smoothies made with fresh fruits. Soft music around the pool adds to the relaxed mood.
Something new for us: the outdoor spa restaurant now re-opens at night, as an Italian a-la-carte restaurant. It, along with El Bocadillo, the outdoor grill restaurant overlooking the main beach, were our two favourite places to enjoy dinner. Advance reservations (earlier in the day) were required, but we never had trouble getting a table at either one.
Another change from two years ago, was the discontinuation of the buffet dinners in the main restaurant, La Cosecha. Now your meal comes cooked to order from a menu posted on a chalkboard outside the door. They still have an unlimited salad bar, soup, and dessert table however. Each night it's a different theme.
While it was mostly enjoyable, we didn't like it as much as the other restaurants, and wish they would go back to serving buffet-style for extra variety.
The breakfast buffet served at La Cosecha was my husband's favourite meal of the day. He loved Marcia's cooked-to-order eggs and omelettes, as well as the huge variety of other breakfast foods - both North American style and Costa Rican. I preferred to try the Costa Rican dishes myself.
On the whole, the food is very good at the Hilton Papagayo. In fact they seem to have added a gourmet flair to the dishes that I don't recall so much from 2011. They put a lot of imagination and creativity into their cuisine. They make the best soups in the world. Try the cream of potato soup for lunch in the spa restaurant... to die for. We had some most days.
Of course you can always get the old stand-bys of hamburgers, pizza, wings, nachos, etc from the snack bar during the day, and from the main bar anytime. The hamburgers and the pizzas are as good as I've had anywhere.
To be honest, I think this lovely resort is starting to show its age a wee bit, but we saw lots of work being done to spruce things up.
The grounds are still very beautiful - but maybe not quite as lush as they were. This year it seems like all of northern Guanacaste is extra-dry, to the point where there were actual brush fires burning up on the hills behind us, sending smoke down over the bay, whenever it got windy. Maybe there wasn't as much rain during this past green season?
The paths up to the bungalows really do need to be fixed. Some of them are dangerous. We had a steep, crumbling path, combined with a few steps here and there, up to our room. At night, there wasn't nearly enough light to see where we were going. Luckily we had a flashlight.
While we took it in our stride, I can see why some reviewers have been critical of this sort of thing.
When we arrived at the resort this time, we noticed some of the clay tiles on the roofs were broken, as also noted by past reviewers, but they replaced them all during our two weeks' stay.
They are obviously working on fixing things up, as we noticed that the old porches and railings have been replaced since our last visit.
I hope they have plans for the paths and steps too.
Despite its minor imperfections, we still love the place as much as before... maybe even more, as we have got to know the staff better.
The staff help make this hotel what it is. They are lovely, lovely people who are genuinely friendly, and not just because it's their jobs to be.
The same people stay working there for years. They always look happy, despite their long hours of very hard work. Their easy-going, friendly attitude rubs off on the guests, and you find that just about everyone talks to everyone else.
We couldn't get over the fact that a couple of the staff members remembered us from 2 years ago! How do they do that, with the thousands upon thousands of visitors that stream through that place week after week? You can't imagine how welcome that made us feel!
We became friendly with many of the hotel people this time and will miss them. There are too many names to mention, and we don't know them all anyway, but some of the stand-out stars are Adilia (our breakfast hostess and volunteer Spanish teacher), Jose, Diego, Dennis, Roberto, Cristian, Pablo, Fabio, Roy, and Marcia the excellent egg cook.
The bartenders knew our drinks and a couple of the shuttle drivers didn't need to be told our room number.
There were some wonderful ladies working at the restaurants whose names I wish I could remember too.
The Hilton Papagayo is laid-back and casual. If you don't feel like dressing up for dinner, you don't have to. I packed way too many clothes that I didn't feel like wearing once I got there. It's good to have one dressier outfit to wear to the more upscale El Dorado restaurant, but as long as a person is decently covered - men wearing Bermuda shorts and shirts with sleeves - women in sundresses or capris rather than bathing suits - casual dress at the other restaurants is common.
Having a 4 weeks' experience with the HP under our belts now, we have learned a few things that aren't obvious at first.
For instance - the red flag at the beach.
We used to think it was a just a warning about rough water, but it seemed odd because sometimes it was flying when the water was calm.
Here's something you need to know about that red flag. Every now and then, a school of tiny, transparent jellyfish will drift into the swimming area. It seems to happen on the windiest days. On those very few days, the red flag goes up.
You don't go in the ocean unless you don't mind feeling like somebody is sticking pins in you.
We didn't know this at first... and sure enough, one day, when the red flag was flying, we both got stung by these tiny little critters. You can't see these guys in the water, they are invisible. You can see them on the sand along the water's edge if you know what to look for.
Honestly, the stings were no big deal to us. We felt like pin cushions for about half an hour afterwards, but there weren't even any marks. I took Benadryl right away, to be on the safe side, because I tend to be allergic to some biting insects. My husband didn't bother and he was fine.
Another guest who swam into a bunch of them way out in deeper water, did end up with pink spots from the stings, so she must have been more sensitive to them than we were.
There were only two days out of our whole stay that these pesky little things kept us out of the ocean. The rest of the time was fine... once we knew about the flag.
I strongly suggest you take Benadryl tablets and the Benadryl sticks with you to Costa Rica, and use them immediately if anything stings or bites.
Another good thing to pack is bug spray. There were hardly any mosquitoes when we were there, but my husband was bothered by a few no-see-ums in the evenings, so he sprayed his legs before heading out to dinner.
A fly swatter is handy too, as well as a flashlight for walking at night. As a matter of fact, the power went out a few times the first week we were there, so we were glad to have the flashlight. They do have generators that kick in after a few minutes, which manage to keep things going throughout most of the property until regular power is restored. That was quite impressive, actually.
If you decide to go shopping in nearby Coco Beach one day, don't do what we did, and get talked into being driven there, by a guy on the beach selling tours. It turned out we could have ordered a taxi from the lobby for half the price and got the same service!
Apparently the tours that can be arranged with the beach sellers are worthwhile - we heard lots of good things about them. Two years ago, we took some of the day trips offered by Swiss Tours at the hotel, which were great, but we later heard they are more expensive than with the beach guys.
Because the beach at the Hilton is cut off at both ends by outcroppings of coral and rock, it's very private, although all beaches in Costa Rica are officially public property.
At this hotel, no outside beach access means no annoying bracelets necessary for guests.
There are a few beach hawkers around, who must come in by boat, selling pottery "made by their families" - coincidentally identical to pottery sold in town for less than half the price - but they are polite enough to leave you alone, after a friendly but firm refusal.
Well, I've gone on too long with this review. I could go on all day about the wonderful time we had. But all I really needed to say was that the Hilton Papagayo is a beautiful, magical place where you can go to clear your head of all your worries, and then go home feeling relaxed and refreshed. It's the perfect way to escape the worst of an Ottawa winter.
I wish we could have stayed longer, and hope we can become "regulars".
We stayed in the quiet 300s, on the spa side both times. This year, our room was right beside the sp...
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This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC.