In the backyard of Hotel Alta, you may have noticed our thriving Guanacaste tree, one of the oldest and largest in all of Costa Rica. The tree has lived for nearly two centuries, its leafy limbs ever swaying on the breeze as historical events transpired, lofty ambitions were realized and highly influential people came and went.
In the 1800s, farmers on horseback galloped by the young Guanacaste, and oxcarts brimming with coffee beans wheeled past en route to the port in Puntarenas. In the 1900s, Costa Rica’s aristocracy bought up most of the undulating countryside, and they constructed opulent colonial homes and haciendas. It wasn’t until the 1990s that a group of entrepreneurial North Americans realized that land by the tree – a little haven called Alto de las Palomas (“hill of the doves”) with expansive views of the valley – was an ideal site to build a dream hotel.
The project was the brainchild of Richard Talley, a savvy investment banker and a descendant of Oliver Winchester, whom you may recognize as the father of the repeating rifle, or “the gun that won the west.” Talley arranged the financing and spared no expense in the construction of the Alta, hiring the country’s most famous architect at that time – Rolf Ruge – to build the five-story, Mediterranean-inspired affair. Ruge, a Costa Rican with a German father, had drawn up the plans for dozens of Costa Rica’s most impressive and eco-friendly hotels, and later started Feria Verde, a wildly popular farmer’s market in San José. As for the hotel interior, local artisans, ironworkers, carpenters and upholsterers were brought in to handcraft all the furnishings and adornments.
And the restaurant was of the utmost importance: An Italian celebrity chef who worked at California’s famous Valentino’s Restaurant was tapped to move to Costa Rica and create the menu.
The Alta became one of the first boutique hotels in the Central Valley, a retreat in which to relax before heading to sister properties on the coast and in the cloud forest. The Alta’s group of investors started small, but in an unprecedented move after the hotel opened in 1998, Talley took the company public. His corporation became the first with assets confined to Costa Rica to trade on U.S. public exchanges (OTCBB). A few hundred people bought shares, and many flew down to stay at the hotel and celebrate.
The Alta’s terracotta roof tiles, arching doorways and sweeping vistas of grassy hillsides made it resemble something out of Tuscany or Provence. Its award-winning restaurant La Luz introduced a fusion of southwestern and Costa Rican cuisine to the country, earning five forks and being named the best restaurant in Costa Rica by La Nación, the nation’s top newspaper. (La Luz was originally going to be Italian, but Parmesan cheese proved impossible to import.) Designers dubbed the interior style “elegant austerity,” for its exposed piping and ochre beams, which lent a monastery-like feel to the space. So it came as no surprise when the bishop of Costa Rica considered purchasing Alta to turn it into one. That didn’t happen though, and the guests were hardly monks.
Instead, the Alta became popular with TV executives like NBC’s Warren Littlefield and CBS’s Les Moonves, along with stars like Mel Gibson and Gisele Bündchen. When Michael Crichton visited Costa Rica the first time (after writing “Jurassic Park”), he rested his head in the Alta penthouse. Weddings took place frequently, as did other family celebrations and outrageous parties. Music often emanated from the upstairs parlor, where opera singers and jazz musicians moved among the tables, belting and strumming their soulful songs. That still happens today, as Alta remains a home for Costa Rica’s Credomatic Music Festival, drawing classical performers from all over the world each summer.
When Nature Air purchased the hotel in 2012, the place got a modern makeover, a new chef and an expanded parking lot. But take a close look around, and you’ll sense the history in these walls. Also remaining are Hotel Alta’s commitment to excellence, and of course that magical Guanacaste tree.