San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

El Cafetal Inn Embraces Life and Leisure Just 20 Minutes from Airport

For an easy escape from San José, the coffee town of Atenas is only about a halfhour northwest of the city by car, and El Cafetal Inn, with its airy and friendly ambience, is a comfortable, verdant landing pad.

El Cafetal sits on top of a hill, overlooking the volcanoes that cradle it. There is green as far as the eye can see; the hotel is on 10 acres of land covered in coffee plants, orange, papaya, avocado, ficus and palm trees, and an endless variety of flowering plants. Beyond the hotel, the hills are coated in wild trees and manicured farmlands. The Colorado River runs along the northern edge of the property, and a five-minute climb down rocky steps cut out of the hill leads to its edge.

Owners Lee and Romy Rodríguez are believers in leisure and taking time to enjoy oneself. A riverside bench is one of many areas they created for guests to soak up the surroundings. Birds are drawn to the secluded spot, and the fresh water and tree-lined banks of the river. With the toe-dipping accessibility of the river, the absence of city bustle and the chirpy, bubbling, rustling sounds of nature, it’s a good spot for just hanging out.

“When you’re calm, you’re more productive, creative. You have to create quiet places so you can evaluate your life,” Lee reflected.

She and Romy started with a bare hill in 1993, built the hotel, planted everything and opened the doors in 1994. Twelve years later, the bare hill has been transformed into a lusciously comfortable place to relax.

“Embrace life” is a sentiment posted around the hotel. One thing to embrace is that the hotel doesn’t serve lunch or dinner on the premises. Or beer. Or bottles of water. But embrace life, and head two minutes down the driveway to the traditional Costa Rican restaurant next door, or head up the street 10 meters to the pulpería for an ice cream or neighborhood gossip. Everybody’s hanging out – at the hotel, around the neighborhood, at the restaurant. Leisure rules.

Another option for meals or coffee is to drive 25 minutes along the highway toward the central Pacific beach town of Jacó, to the El Mirador Restaurant, also owned and operated by the Rodríguezes. The building is set into a hill and has been designed to maximize the view of the Pacific. Almost every seat in the house looks out across the valley to the sea; the restaurant has been constructed to arc into the view, with the seating running along that arc and open to the air – no glass comes between you and the great big sky and deep valley.

The menu offers “indigenous dishes,” such as fish cooked with garlic, and steamed carrots, broccoli and cauliflower, with white rice and plátano maduro ($9.50). Also on the menu are classics such as empanadas ($4), tamales ($3) and fried chicken ($3.50). Souvenirs are available, which together with the prices listed in U.S. dollars hit home that this place is for tourists. But the view is amazing, the coffee options are many, and the décor speaks to the Rodríguezes’ personality.

The dynamic couple’s engaging personalities are reflected throughout the inn. Romy is an artist and graphic designer, and his photographs of coffee plants and their harvest are featured in the bedrooms. Lee’s son Ozzie Hoppe’s mixed-media art hangs in the poolside area (more power to them, because it’s got soul, and probably doesn’t appeal to everyone’s taste), and the couple’s Central and South American art and artifact collection adorns the entry and lounge areas.

Originally from Colombia (Lee) and El Salvador (Romy), the couple lived in California for 10 years prior to making the move to Costa Rica.

“I had been all over the world when I worked for the airlines, and when I came to visit a friend in Atenas I fell in love,” Lee said.

“Thirty years ago I stayed at a bed-and breakfast in Prince Edward Island, Canada, and they had such cute country style,” she added. “With fresh muffins baking in the morning, it was so homey. I wanted to emulate that feeling when we created this hotel.”

The employees are in on it. Kim, Sandra, Francisco and Marielos are nice, helpful and seem to like their jobs; that goes a long way toward making one feel comfortable.

El Cafetal is a good-time hotel, but not a party hotel. The nightlife is what you make  of the tropical night air, the palm trees silhouetted by the pink twilit sky, the bougainvillea, stars, chirping crickets, bugs biting your ankles if you sit outside, and the plush chairs in the lounge area, which includes a beautiful handmade backgammon board, a chess board, a vintage deck of cards from Holland and stacks of books and magazines.

As the sun goes down, the hills illuminate with the lights of Atenas, Alajuela and San José, making it clear how close the cities are, and perhaps tempting you out to see what’s kicking in Atenas, only 15 minutes’ drive away. But the roads are twisting and narrow, and locals tear around the corners at dangerous speeds. Best to hunker down in any one of the spots Lee and Romy have created for relaxing, including in the hotel rooms themselves.

Each of the 15 rooms is architecturally unique. The Tower Room ($115), for example, has a 180-degree, rounded window set in a turret, so guests can gaze out of the coffee plantation, valley and hills. The honeymoon suite ($150), with king-size bed, features floor-to-ceiling windows that open onto a balcony, also with a view of the hills and plantations, and, if you look straight down, the palm-lined pool.

If you tire of introspection and scanning the horizon for the toucans, howler monkeys, motmots and other wildlife drawn to the green setting, you can opt for a massage in the diaphanous sultan’s-tent-style massage area, and experience an exfoliating coffee scrub and massage – perfect for an itchy, sunburned back.

A trail along the property leads to a waterfall, requiring walking 30 meters through the waist-high river.

“I tell people to bring a knife, so they can pick fruit from the trees on the way,” Lee said.

With the hotel as a home base, guests can enjoy lots of day trips to nearby attractions: a horseback tour of the surrounding hills; Poás Volcano; La Paz Waterfall Garden; the Los Angeles Cloud Forest in San Ramón; Jardines de Guarias orchid farm near Palmares; and a tour of the neighboring town of Sarchí, including shopping for wooden crafts. A list of 27 day trips is posted on each hotel room door.

El Cafetal Inn is a quality alternative to a beach getaway, with a staff that aims to please, comfortable rooms and picturesque surroundings. Room rates range from $80 for a single and $90 for double to $150 for the poolside bungalow with bathtub that accommodates up to four people. Rooms can be rented nightly, weekly or monthly.

Rates include a home-cooked buffet breakfast and coffee made with El Cafetal’s own homegrown coffee beans. The hotel staff can organize day trips and transportation, or have a rental car delivered to the hotel. Airport pick-up or drop-off can be arranged for $25.

Location and Contact Info

El Cafetal Inn can be reached from San José via the

Inter-American Highway

. Take the Grecia exit, and take the first left (less than a mile). Drive eight miles, and the hotel’s driveway is on the right, next to El Jardín restaurant. Telephone: 446-5785, 446-7361 Web: E-mail:

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