Standing atop a water tank in the middle of Hacienda Pinilla, a sprawling 4,500-acre compound in the northwestern province of Guanacaste, I had a 360-degree view of the surrounding dry forest, luxury developments and undulating Pacific Ocean. “Not bad,” I understated, and Jorge, my guide on the morning’s expedition, nodded. Then we climbed down, remounted our horses and took off for Playa Langosta.
As we trotted through the forest, Jorge pointed out the distinctive trees of the region: the Matapalo tree, which slowly strangles other trees in much the same way a boa constrictor suffocates its prey; the Indio Desnudo, named for its resemblance to a naked Indian and the region’s namesake Guanacaste tree with fruit that looks like big, leathery ears. The bellows of howlers and the chatter of tropical birds carried on a breeze, bringing to mind the remarkable changes that had come about at Hacienda Pinilla in the past 40 years.
When Atlanta developer Hg Pattillo bought the farm in 1973, it was mostly desolate pastureland and sweaty, masticating cows. Pattillo, now a humble octogenarian and dedicated philanthropist, won’t admit to having a “vision” for the sprawling hacienda. But over the past four decades, he has without question transformed the property and the surrounding community.
In exchange for much of the desolate pastureland, Pattillo has replanted nearly a million trees of dry forest and winding hiking trails. He has also built a hotel, luxury condos and homes, and he connected them with paved roads. Additionally, Pattillo has installed three fiber optic cables, a water-supply system, a golf course, a tennis and fitness center, horse stables, a beach resort, three restaurants and a wastewater treatment plant to accommodate 8,000 residents.
“It basically looks like Jurassic Park, in the middle of nowhere,” said Hacienda Pinilla General Manager Mauricio Estrada. “We are thinking for the future.”
Pattillo’s purported lack of a vision has also included a heavy focus on the environment. The hacienda has secured a Blue Flag from the Costa Rican Tourism Board for the cleanliness of its 6 kilometer-stretch of beaches and a White Flag for its water system. Its eco-friendly, par 72 golf course has been certified by Audubon International.
The extensive project has also been a godsend for the local community, for which Pattillo has provide financial resources, cultural events and precious jobs. At one time, his operation employed more than 1,000 Ticos. He has only ever employed one other Gringo, Estrada said, and that was the golf pro.
Much of earnings that have come in from the real estate side of the project have been funneled into a foundation and back into educational and environmental programs and the local community. Meanwhile, when Pattillo stays on the property, he sleeps in a rickety, modest house on the beach. Four years ago, Guanacaste named him “Hijo Predilecto” of the region. It means favorite son.
All of the changes that Pattillo made here, he made before the Daniel Oduber International Airport in provincial capital Liberia became a major transportation hub. When the housing market crashed in 2008, things got pretty quiet around these parts. But with the economy slowly recovering, and with all the new flights cruising into the new airport terminal from around the world, Hacienda Pinilla is positioned to reemerge as a thriving destination.
Pattillo is certainly going to be ready for it. Two years ago, he built a new Beach Club at Avellanas Beach, which boasts its own restaurant and wellness area. There are a variety of long- and short-term options for guest accommodation: the colonial-style residential homes in the communities of Villas Malinches, Avellanas and Villas Palmas Real suit families and retirees looking to come back again and again (and perhaps just stay a while).
The La Posada Hotel provides an option for first-time visitors and shorter-lived stays, and for those seeking the all-inclusive hotel experience, the Pinilla property also includes the JW Marriot Guanacaste – a 310-room resort and spa that went up in 2009.
As much as Pattillo has changed the area, there are some things he knows are worth preserving. Between January and March, Hacienda Pinilla brings in a bunch of equestrians, bull riders, folkloric dancers and marimba players for some of the best parties of the year – a traditional Guanacastecan Fiesta Sabañero.
From San José, you can take a 40-minute flight to the airstrip in nearby Tamarindo or rent a car for a scenic four-hour drive through the mountains to Hacienda Pinilla. You can also fly into Liberia’s Daniel Oduber International Airport. From there you can make the drive to Hacienda Pinilla in 45 minutes.
Nighty rates start at $126 for Hotel La Posada, and reach as high as $1,265 for a three-bedroom town house. For more info, see www.haciendapinilla.com.