I've been researching my Moon Costa Rica for two decades and have known the country since it was little more than a blip on the tourist map. The country's evolution has since been explosive. In terms of tourist infrastructure – hotels, tour operators, and the like – Costa Rica is now off the charts in both volume and quality. Keeping up with the trends and new arrivals is a constant challenge. That's one reason the Moon Costa Rica is now published afresh every two years.
Staying tuned in to new hotels (both recently opened and/or planned) always keeps me on my feet. During my recent nine-week research trip (October through December, 2008), I counted more than four dozen new hotels (not counting run-of-the-mill cabinas), of which at least half-a-dozen are world-class.
Costa Rica has moved decidedly upmarket in recent years, a trend acknowledged by the opening in 2005 of the Four Seasons Papagayo. Ritz-Carlton is building a property. Other big-name high-end hoteliers are moving in. But the real excitement is in the realm of boutique hotels – a Costa Rican forte.
I'm always delighted to find a new class-act in the boondocks. The stand-out newcomer-in-the-wilds for 2008 is the Celeste Mountain Lodge  near Bijagua, on the northern slopes of Tenorio volcano. The setting is sensational. Actually, the best views are northwest toward Miravalles volcano. Two in one! French owner, Joel Marchal, eschewed the trite all-wood "lodge" theme for a far more exciting 21st-century post-modernist look using metal beams, slanted walls of glass, and an airy atrium plan. Every element of design is eco-conscious (for example, retaining walls made of recycled car tires). The furnishings are stylish. The king beds are divinely comfortable. And even the food – served family-style at bench tables – is gourmet.
What is it with the French? There's no holding them down this year. Just when I thought Denis Roy couldn't elevate things any further at Villa Caletas  (back in 1991, when it opened, I called it the "finest resort hotel in Costa Rica"), in 2007 he opened Zephyr Palace  as truly one of the world's most sublime hotels. Sure, you need big bucks to lay your head here. And to many folks it might be OTT ("over the top"). But by any measure, this is an amazing place. Palatial in the extreme. And a genius of interior design: It's individually themed seven suites transport you allegorically to Africa, Egypt, and dare I say, Heaven!
Many existing hotels continue to upgrade. The stand out this time around goes to Iguana Lodge  at Playa Platanares, on the Osa Peninsula. Toby and Loran Cleaver has elevated their lovely lodge into the best digs for miles. The four previously rustic stilt-cabins surrounded by forest have been taken upmarket, and the formerly budget-oriented "Pearl of the Osa" rooms have metamorphosed into lovely "Iguana Club Rooms" with lavish travertine-clad bathrooms. The Cleaver's still serve gourmet meals. Best yet, it's the ultimate bargain, especially when compared to the exorbitant rates charged by some of the more well-known competitors such as Lapa Rios.
Meanwhile, on January 17 I return to Costa Rica to serve as the National Geographic Photographer on "The Panama Canal & the Wonders of Costa Rica"  expedition aboard the Sea Voyager. Join me!