Costa Rica’s Tambor Tropical resort launches adventures and learning on the Nicoya Peninsula

By Richard Read - The Oregonian

Oregonian-Logo3-1024x221Dec 18, 2011 — So I’m sitting beneath coconut trees at Costa Rica’s Tambor Tropical Hotel with a view of a sparkling bay, relearning some old lessons.

First, don’t judge a man by his politics.

It turns out the Oregon owner of this boutique resort, known to me only as Mark before I arrived, is Salem lobbyist Mark Nelson, disparaged by Democrats for his big-business causes. Quietly on the side, Nelson and his wife, Pamela Jones, have not just built this charming Costa Rican property but founded an elementary school nearby where locals get scholarships and resort guests volunteer.

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Second, it’s a small world after all.

Some years ago, a young American couple were walking along the beach here and, unaware of the Oregon connection, spotted Tambor Tropical’s six-sided wooden buildings ringing a turquoise pool. Later they booked the resort for their wedding, inviting family members, including the groom’s father — Ted Kulongoski, who was Oregon’s governor at the time and a Democrat.

And third, when in Costa Rica, just relax and enjoy the sunshine.

Nelson’s story bears telling. But his little resort by a Pacific Ocean fishing village stands on its own as a lovely spot for a vacationer with a good book, or with energy for snorkeling, fishing, horseback riding and jungle-canopy zip-lining.

Costa Rica, a Central American country one-fifth the size of Oregon, is easy to reach in a day from Portland, on flights connecting through Phoenix or Houston. This is a nation that truly understands the links between tourism and the environment. It’s studded with 186 protected areas, including national parks bursting with orchids and heliconia flowers, sea turtles and dart frogs, macaws and monkeys.

A stable democratic state where U.S. citizens move to retire, Costa Rica is a place where a visitor can rent a car, as we did, and safely navigate both Pacific and Caribbean coasts. The best time to visit is December through April, during the dry season.

My daughter and I flew into San José, a sprawling city of 1.2 million, staying with an American friend amid fruit trees on the capital’s outskirts. We could have caught a half-hour flight to Tambor. Instead a friendly Budget guy rented us a car the next day, programming the town of Paquera as our GPS destination.

The GPS worked so well that we led a lost local motorist to the highway. But the computer tried sending us the long way by road to the Nicoya Peninsula, instead of finding the car ferry. So after a 1 1/2-hour drive and a slight GPS-induced detour, we rode the 1 1/4-hour ferry from gritty Puntarenas to tiny Paquera.

Tambor Tropical is a half-hour drive along winding roads to the tip of the peninsula, which juts into the Pacific from northwest Costa Rica. The resort contains five two-story buildings, each with upstairs and downstairs suites designed for couples, with gleaming wood floors, kitchenettes and breezy wrap-around porches. Another unit perches above a spa.

Tambor Tropical usually does not accept children younger than 16. It’s not that anything R-rated occurs here. It’s just that, as Nelson puts it, “People aren’t necessarily thrilled by a couple of 10-year-olds double-flipping over themselves in the pool. It’s a style thing.”

For families or groups up to six, the resort has recently acquired a spacious villa a quarter-mile inland with its own small pool. Guests can send out for groceries or hire a private chef.

The villa, while palatial, has a suburban and isolated feel. But the resort on a calm bay is warm and hospitable, in walking distance to the village. Its intimate atmosphere often wins converts from the five-star Barceló Tambor Beach, an all-inclusive resort nearby.

Nelson, 64, bought the land for his resort in 1989. He brought in some tools and a Salem carpenter, hired a crew and built the first structure.

The resort opened in 1994. Around this time, Nelson reconnected with Jones, his Milwaukie High School sweetheart. The venture became a joint project.

In time, Nelson and Jones realized that local schools often had trouble educating kids, many of whom drop out after sixth grade. After trying to work within the system, the couple decided to start their own private nonprofit school.

They remodeled a structure Nelson had built for processing mangoes from farms where he grows fruit and trees. Tambor Bay School, pre-kindergarten through sixth grade, has 34 students studying in Spanish and English.

My daughter and I spent a few hours at the school along with my sister, who joined us on the trip. Students were smart and engaged. They responded well to my daughter’s presentation on Japan, interpreted by my sister.

Other resort guests have presented topics ranging from recycling to dental hygiene. Some guests decide to sponsor students through scholarships, at $100 to $160 a month.

It’s a hands-on approach to education for Nelson, who has represented the likes of R. J. Reynolds, once helping to kill a cigarette-tax increase that would have funded children’s health insurance. Nelson, considered by some to be Salem’s most powerful lobbyist, points out that his clients are diverse and include Head Start, the federal pre-kindergarten program for low-income families.

One secret to the success of both the school and resort is general manager Juan Carlos Cruz, whose children attend the school. He manages the business, as well as the mango-, guava- and teak-growing operations, sharing financial results daily with Nelson in Salem. He has also led the resort in hosting weddings, in one case stepping in to marry an Italian couple.

“The resort is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Cruz, noting projects that included rerouting a river that bisected the property.

For visitors, Tambor Tropical offers a launchpad for adventure. We rented horses, riding through the fishing village and past howler-monkey colonies to a point where a famed, gnarled “Jesus tree” clung improbably to rocks below the tide line. Guests can take guided sea-kayak tours, combined with birding and snorkeling.

Montezuma, a hippie town farther along the peninsula, is within range for a day trip. We enjoyed swooshing through tall trees nearby on a jungle-canopy zip-line tour, which despite its billing is more about thrills than ecology. We also took a boat tour to Tortuga Island, a beautiful outpost overrun by day-trippers from San José.

Travelers seeking more amenities might prefer staying in Montezuma, where we proceeded to bask in luxury at the Ylang Ylang Beach Resort. The surf is bigger there, and so is the restaurant, with a yoga and dance studio upstairs.

Nelson, who’s developing some hillside house sites for sale, may build some low-rise condominiums near the beach. But he said his resort’s small, intimate feel won’t change, no matter what experts might tell him about ripping out the wooden buildings to increase density.

“I’d never do that,” he said.

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