Tucked back in the mountains above Playas del Coco and surrounded by tropical dry forest, there lives a Detroit-bred Gringo with a long, gray ponytail, and he will make you the best piña colada(s) of your life. He’ll also give you everything else you could possibly want while you are staying at his charming but modern six-room estate, Rancho Armadillo. His name is Rick Vogel, and his rancho es su rancho. He’s the kindest hotel operator in the whole damn country.
While it’s easy to find Vogel’s place on TripAdvisor – his property is the top choice in the area and has nearly 100 effusive reviews – physically getting there can be a little trickier. A couple of miles from the beach, there’s a turnoff before some pink condominiums into an unassuming residential area with only a knee-high, white boulder pointing the way to the rancho.
Through the neighborhood and up a dirt road, visitors finally reach Rancho Armadillo’s 25 jungle acres and collection of funky little casitas, pool area and open-air lounges and kitchen. Upon arrival, the ponytail man materializes, offers refreshments and gives a grand tour.
Each of the six rooms are spacious and brightly painted, with tropical hardwood furnishings, brightly colored Guatemalan bedspreads and unique adornments, many of which come with stories. In my room, one painting was created by a Vietnam vet named John English, who died from complications of being exposed to Agent Orange, Vogel told me.
When English arrived in Costa Rica to spend his final days, he told Vogel that he loved to paint but didn’t believe he’d do it again. Vogel bought English paint supplies and talked him into giving it a shot. When English died three years later, his paintings were displayed all over Playas del Coco.
An expat of 13 years, Vogel’s got lots of stories, and he likes to tell them by the pool, over piña coladas and Marlboro menthols. He did this on the first evening of my stay, and he also brought out his Meade telescope so that we could look at Venus and the moon. As it happened, that was the night of the super moon – the fullest, closest moon to earth of the year. Vogel also summoned the Rancho Armadillo housekeeper and her daughter to behold the spectacle, then regaled us all with trivia about astronomy and creatures of the night. Apparently, Venus has phases just like the moon, and bats dip their chests in the pool when they fly over, then lick the water off.
Spread across two open-air lounges, Vogel’s got all kinds of board games, books, hammocks, indigenous relics and miscellaneous curiosities, and he seems to enjoy being mysterious about their origin. When asked where he got something, he inevitably responds, “men and trucks.”
Once a professor at a culinary academy in Detroit, he delights in cooking for his guests, and teaching them to cook if they’re up for it. Should anybody get lucky fishing, Vogel is happy to fry up the day’s catch as part of a five-course, gourmet meal. He creates a menu to go with it, and here’s one example of a Vogel meal: patacones and baked brie Grand Marnier (appetizer), mango sorbet (palate cleanser), mango capresse with fresh baked bread and roasted red pepper butter (salad), broiled dorado with ginger Dijon lobster sauce, grilled portabella mushrooms, zucchini and eggplant and rice pilaf (entrée) and chocolate liqueur sundae (dessert).
Vogel also serves a complimentary breakfast for his guests, and it includes some of the best waffles I’ve had. He keeps a wide selection of waffle fillings – I chose chocolate chips, strawberries and orange zest – to be mixed with batter and then cooked in a waffle-maker. For other meals and snacks, the kitchen is open 24/7 to guests, and Vogel pledges to do any and all dishes.
A longtime expert on not just Playas del Coco, but much of Costa Rica, Vogel has elaborate packets of information on tours and restaurants that he shares with guests. His recommended activities include a nearby canopy tour that costs only $25 a person (because Vogel does not take a middleman’s cut), a hike to Bagaces Waterfall and Wild Cat Rescue Center, an indigenous pottery and tortilla factory, a pre-Columbian petroglyph site, a coffee plantation tour and various sea-bound adventures. Although the nightlife in Coco is pretty rollicking, spending a boozy night by the Rancho Armadillo pool has my vote.
In addition to regaling his guests with stories and doing their dishes, Vogel also has built his neighbor’s 5-year-old an outdoor playhouse and planted the family a garden. He also pays for several local children to attend private school. He likes improving the lives of those around him, guests included.
When Vogel found out that I’d be catching a very early bus back to San José, he insisted on doing something pretty much unheard of. Despite my protests, he woke up at 3:30 a.m. and drove me five minutes to the bus station.
Rates range from $103 a night for double occupancy in low season to $206 for the two-bedroom suites in high season.To get to the ranch, go toward Playas del Coco. Before the pink condominiums, turn left. The ranch sits at the end of the road. For more info, call 2670-0108 or visit www.ranchoarmadillo.com