I really envied the dogs.
They wandered the roads with abandon. They slept wherever they wanted. They were shaggy and street smart, and they didn’t keep much of a schedule. Most dogs had no collars or licenses, and they went by several names. They’d follow us down the beach. They made a show at dinner, circling our table and eagerly eyeing our plates for scraps.
Really, the dogs set the tone for Brasilito, one of Guanacaste’s most laidback beach towns. Clocks don’t matter much here, nor do fences or rules. From the moment we stepped off the bus, I imagined what it would be like to live in such a place: I could set up a crab shack, talk up travelers, and scratch a stray dog’s ear for a few hours a day. I’d have a boat, obviously. And maybe a motorcycle.
My wife and I spent three days in Brasilito—a long weekend away from our rainy life in the Central Valley—but it took only a few hours to fall into its soothing rhythm. The town seemed bite-sized at first, easily digestible. But like many beach towns that have resisted large-scale development, the simple veneer is deceiving. There’s a lot of pride here, and a lot of concern over the town’s future.
My excuse for visiting Brasilito was a new restaurant, Azul, which was receiving its grand opening. We stayed at Hotel Brasilito, perhaps the best-known hotel in the area. The owner is Shellay Martin, a 42-year-old New Zealander who arrived in town nine years ago and bought the hotel from a German couple.
How did she get here, of all places?
“The long way,” Martin said, smirking.
Before she opened Hotel Brasilito, Martin had zigzagged all over the globe, and her decision to move here was meticulous. Martin had lived and traveled extensively in New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the U.S., including several stints in Southern California. During a long sojourn in Los Angeles, her house exploded in value, and she sold it for a staggering profit.
“I thought, ‘Where can I take the money I’ve got, where it’s warm, I can be near the ocean, and is politically stable?’” she recalled. Martin and her then-husband hoped to settle in Hawaii, but the plan was foiled, so they picked Costa Rica. “I grew up on an island surrounded by the Pacific. I need to live near the water.”
Today, her 13-room hotel is doing nicely. She averages 50% occupancy every month, which isn’t bad considering the low season’s lull.
As we talked, an enormous hound wandered over and begged for food.
“No,” Martin snapped.
The stared for a moment, then settled onto the floor for a nap.
“All the animals here just showed up at my doorstep,” said Martin, gesturing to various cats around the dining room. “This dog belonged to the bar next door. But he got sick, so they stopped feeding him. I gave him some food and his shots. Stick a needle in him and he loves you forever. His name’s Bambi. But that’s no name for a dog that big.”
From the main road, Brasilito looks as small as a town can be. There’s one bus stop, one grassy square, a ring of shops and restaurants, and a crescent of sand. Yet this view is deceptive: Buildings line the highway for a few miles in either direction, and there’s a large squatters’ settlement tucked into the trees along the beach. The town is home to about 3,000 people, although a visitor would be hard pressed to find where they live. The forests and hills swallow most of the town, which is just fine as far as tourists are concerned.
On that humid October weekend, the town was practically empty. The low season is brutal to Brasilito, a town that relies on tourism to survive. Rainstorms can pour for days, so most hotel rooms are vacant, and the restaurants are mostly peppered with locals. But this is typical here. In guidebooks, Brasilito is described as “underrated,” “undiscovered,” and a “hidden gem.” Unlike nearby Playa Flamingo, no all-inclusive resorts dominate the beachfront. There are no American chains, no throbbing nightclubs, no box stores. Locals hang out in chairs and hammocks, watching the world go by. They play a pickup game of soccer in the central square every afternoon. Expats insist that the town retains its Tico identity. They say that “pura vida” still means something here.
The most luxurious place in Brasilito isn’t exactly in Brasilito, but next door: Playa Conchal is a pristine white beach that sprawls sweetly around a blue inlet. While Brasilito’s sand is brownish and the water is murky, Conchal is geomorphic perfection, and it’s only a 10-minute stroll away. Instead of sand, Conchal’s shore comprises innumerable tiny shells, which gleam brightly in the sun. The water is crystal-clear, and nary a building can be seen. Instead of high-rises, Playa Conchal is wreathed in rainforest and hills.
Gorgeous scenery aside, the town is a bargain: Our room at Hotel Brasilito cost only $49 per night, including the view of the water, AC, and a private bathroom. In the balmy heat, even the cold-water shower was refreshing. Except for a few couples and families, we had the place to ourselves. Indeed, Brasilito is only really overrun twice a year—just after Christmas and during Easter, when thousands of Costa Ricans swarm the beaches in search of holiday R&R. During those brief spikes, the roads are clogged with traffic jams, and hotels are overbooked months in advance. Otherwise, the town is fairly calm, even sleepy, all year round.
Which isn’t always a good thing. Brasilito strikes the delicate balance of so many small tourist towns: Attract too few people, and the town collapses. Attract too many, and the town could bloat with development. Feast or famine is the rule. So far, Brasilito has remained tenuously in-between.
Still, it’s an earthbound paradise. I didn’t have to spend much time in Brasilito to realize that its small-town character is sometimes uncomfortable. There’s only one ATM, which often malfunctions, and there isn’t a single gas station within town limits. Sidewalks are nonexistent, even on the narrow bridge into town. I found only one supermarket (if you can call it that), and most of the stores are haphazardly stocked. Meanwhile, the locals all know each other’s business, and they enjoy gossip. Many of the buildings in Brasilito aren’t up to code, and much of the development—especially the squatters’ village—flagrantly defies the Maritime Zone. Locals murmur of corruption and nepotism in the local government. Driving cars and ATVs on the beach is prohibited, but so many drivers do it that their wheels have dug an ad hoc road into the sand. Locals told that six months earlier, a horse slipped on the beach and its rider, a tourist, hit the ground and died. (Since the tragic accident, horse riders require helmets, and the new rule has actually been observed).
Even the entrepreneurial spirit can get aggressive. Restaurateurs wave menus in your face and boast about the freshness of today’s catch. The same teenaged equestrian will bug you to ride his horse on the beach, day after day. A mustached man may follow you down half the beach, intoning, “You would like a quad ride? Horse ride? Boat ride? Very cheap!” When you say no, he may storm off, because you’re one of the only customers he’ll see all day. For micro-businesses in a tiny village, you either hustle or perish. And when nearly every storefront closes shop and switches off the lights by 9 p.m., the window of opportunity isn’t that big.
And although tourists will rarely see it, Brasilito has its share of serious poverty. Many families still live without basic utilities, and a frustrated local teacher privately opined to me that the school system here is abysmal. “There are no books,” she said. “They see a computer and they don’t even know how to turn it on. It’s just a box to them.”
Still, a large consensus is that people in Brasilito want to be left alone, especially the expats. They’re phobic of regulations and committees, and they abhor large-scale construction projects. They know that the wrong kind of attention could ruin the cultural ecosystem they’ve created. They don’t mind being an obscure point on the map, as long as enough tourists show up to keep them solvent.
The big fear is that Brasilito will morph into Tamarindo, the Americanized surfers’ mecca located only 20 minutes away.
“Tamarindo is the only place in the world where I’ve been on the beach, with my children, and was offered [cocaine],” said Martin, with her customary dry humor. She remembers when she came to Costa Rica, nine years ago, and Tamarindo was a nightmare of gridlock traffic and washed out roads. (She’s fond of calling the town “Scam-a-Gringo”). “The recession improved Tamarindo greatly,” she added, smirking.
Each day, a bearded man rides his horse down the road, calling out, “Merry Christmas!” Everybody brought him up in conversation. “Have you met the Merry Christmas guy yet?” they asked me. “He actually wore a Santa Claus suit last December.” The way they talked about him, I thought he might actually hand out presents.
Eccentrics are everywhere in Brasilito—people with unusual backgrounds, peculiar skills, bizarre habits. Three roving mariachi singers show up wherever you go. In English, their band is known as The Screaming Vagabonds, and they usually visit three or four restaurants per night, serenading tables with Spanish songs for a couple thousand colones. They met each other through mutual friends, and each player has strummed a guitar for 12 to 20 years. When they approached our table, the mustached guy said, “Hello, my friend, you would like a song? We are not too expensive.” And because I chuckled, they started to play.
“We’re all the kind of people who are hard-working,” said Javier Cantellops, an energetic, heavily tattooed 31-year-old. Cantellops recently opened Tortugas, an outdoor restaurant, with his brother, Hugh. The menu features a range of fish that the brothers catch themselves. The Cantellopses grew up in South Carolina, but their mother is Tica and their father is Puerto Rican. After serving in the Middle East as an airborne ranger, then working as a wildlife specialist in Florida, Javier wanted a change of pace. “The Pura Vida lifestyle isn’t for everybody,” he told me. “But we don’t like to listen to people boss us around. After the military, I got sick of that.”
Like the Cantellopses, the expats of Brasilito come from all over—the United States, Colombia, Belgium, Italy, the United Kingdom—and the only thing they have in common is a love for this tiny Gold Coast community. They have fled hectic lives, and Guanacaste has set them free.
This hands-on lifestyle is typical in Brasilito, where even well-to-do folks appreciate callused hands. Instead of retirees in condominiums spending their days poolside, the expats are remarkably feisty. They haven’t finished their careers here; rather they’ve started entirely new incarnations. Javier Cantellops served in the military, performed stunts for the film “Black Hawk Down,” and wrestled with all kinds of animals before opening Tortugas. (Like so many expats, Javier has a nickname, Tortuga, Spanish for “turtle”). His brother Hugo spent years as a horse trainer and show-rider, along with his wife, Gabriella. Now Hugo spearfishes every day, taking his boat into the bay and bringing fresh fish to the restaurant.
“I’ve had boats throughout my life,” Hugo said simply. As for his new home: “This is one of the last true Tico towns. I didn’t want to move to Tamarindo. This is the furthest thing from a rat race.”
The brothers’ family has long owned a sugarcane farm in Guanacaste, and Hugo and Gabriella wanted to live close to their property. They’ve been married 15 years and have two kids, but they describe their life as one of routine adventure—catching fish, giving tours on the boat, smoking cigarettes in front of the new restaurant and chatting up strangers.
“This place was a shack,” said Javier, pointing to his new stools and picnic tables. Until recently, the place was known as Crazy Lobster. “The health department had to shut it down, and we had to bring it up to code. We wanted to bring a blend of Costa Rican food and U.S. cuisine. Raise the bar a little bit.” He pointed to himself. “That’s the lesson of the tortugas: Never live in your shell forever. Always have the courage to stick your neck out.”
“It’s like living in Springfield with the Simpsons,” quipped Gabriella. “There are a lot of people running away from things. We have two children. We wanted them to have a better quality of life. You could say we’re running away from our old life.”
Later that night, another bearded eccentric approached me in a tropical bar. He was an older U.S. expat, and he interrupted my conversation to bellow, “Have you ever been fishing?”
“No really,” I said, wondering who he was. “Not since I was a kid.
“Well, when fish see me, they get scared,” he said, wincing like a pirate. The man had a messianic beard and a half-unbuttoned shirt, and he took a break from flirting with a much-younger woman to tell me about his exploits. He said he had a deal with various captains in the area, whereby he split the rental fees with willing tourists.
“They don’t want to pay $1,200 for a fishing trip, so I get to go for only $400,” he said. After telling a story about “riding a shark once,” he added that he often frees dolphins from commercial fishing nets, whenever he has the chance. “I don’t care. I jump right in there with ‘em, cut ‘em loose. It’s because I’m crazy.”
A moment later, he shook my hand, kissed the knuckles of the woman he’d just met, and joined a conga line.
When we finally arrived at Azul, the entrance was subsumed in artificial mist. Every dining table was packed with couples and families, and servers whirled around the circular bar. Guests conversed and held glasses of sangria aloft in the dim orange light. Music blasted from speakers. Now and again a waiter appeared, carrying a tray of ceviche or fish tacos. The atmosphere was already festive by the time the live band started playing, and soon a group of middle-aged women hit the dance floor.
Until 2012, this restaurant was known as Happy Snapper, and among its many regulars was Sildelau Salcedo, a local hotel manager. A native of Mexico City, Salcedo loved spending his free time at Happy Snapper, not only for the upscale tropical atmosphere, but for its view of the water. The building was located across the highway and a short distance from the shore, but if he sat on the restaurant’s second story, he could lovingly watch the sun set over the Pacific.
This year, Salcedo bought the place with his business partner, Gerardo Brenes, a grandfatherly man who is also running for Deputy of Guanacaste. Salcedo wanted the new restaurant’s name to reflect its oceanic locale, so he dubbed it Azul (Spanish for “blue”). Renovation work was slow, and Azul’s grand opening was delayed several times. Locals told me than many other restaurants had failed to launch; many of them had no idea that Azul was opening that night.
But Salcedo beamed the entire evening, welcoming guests and embracing everyone he met. Meanwhile, Brenes broke away from his guests to stand by the bar and survey the scene, smiling contentedly. Their expressions were the portrait of satisfaction, years of yearning finally redeemed.
As the music throbbed and dancers gyrated, I met Laetitia Deweer, Board President of CEPIA, a local nonprofit. She explained that CEPIA was attempting to build the first-ever community center in Guanacaste, in the nearby town of Huacas.
“We are still $100,000 short of our goal,” Deweer told me. “We need to raise the money before we can even start to build it.”
We talked for some time, and our conversation would resonate long after my wife and I left Brasilito, on a nearly empty bus bound for San José. Small as it is, Brasilito struck me as a nexus of practical dreamers. Yes, there are escapists and loners, shark-riders and screaming vagabonds, but beyond its oddball façade, people in Brasilito like to dream big. Whether they fantasize about refurbishing a favorite bar or spearing fish or helping disadvantaged youth with their homework, the Brasilitistas are a restless bunch. They know the odds, and they don’t care. “I’m kind of crazy,” people kept saying, like a mantra. Maybe crazy is what it takes to live in a place like this.
A few days later, I wrote Salcedo to ask how the opening went.
“I left around 10:30 with my children and babysitter, and there was still a lot of people dancing and having a great time,” Salcedo replied. “We closed at 1:30 a.m.”
He added: “We are also donating 15% of the night to CEPIA.”
Maybe, one dream will lead to another.