We just returned back from 5 days at each property: First, we stayed 5 nights at the JW Marriott Guanacaste and then we headed north for 5 nights at the Andaz Papagayo.
The two properties were like night and day, and I’m going to break down what you might like or not like about each and with a twist – how suitable they each were with a 22 month old toddler.
I’ll start right off by saying that while the JW Marriott had plenty going for it, it did not at all live up to the JW Marriott brand expectations of luxury. The resort should be rebranded as a standard Marriott or Renaissance brand property which would bring expectations in line with the level of luxury – or lack thereof – to expect. Even after the Marriott Bonvoy Twitter team shared some of my disappointments with the property, they could not be bothered to reply to me in any way. At a 5 start resort, you can bet that somebody in management would have at least sat down with me to discuss my concerns even if they couldn’t do much about it, but they did not take that opportunity and that says a lot about how they operate.
With that said, let’s take a look at the main things you need to know about each resort to help you choose which might be right for you. Note that you also might consider the W Conchal or Westin Conchal (all-inclusive) which are supposed to sit on a nicer beach, but I cannot speak to them as we steered away from the W with our infant and the Westin was unavailable (and seems to have a reputation as being a bit dated on TripAdvisor).
In this article
JW Marriott Guanacaste – How I Booked
I used 244,000 Marriott Bonvoy points for 5 nights in a standard room (remember the 5th night is free on awards). The cash rate was approximately $919 a night.
This gave us a 1.9 cent per point value per Marriott Bonvoy point which was pretty sweet as I value Bonvoy points around 0.6 cents each.
I always say that the holidays present the absolute best chance to get outsized value from all popular hotel points programs with the exception of IHG.
JW Marriott Guanacaste – Arrival from Liberia (LIR) Airport
We flew direct from NYC to Liberia (about a 5 hour flight) and headed to Sixt to rent a car. I originally had a reservation at Hertz but after reading review after review online about Hertz not having cars when people arrived (imagine dealing with that after a full travel day with a 22 month old?!). I also noticed they were a franchise and that means anything goes… I switched to Sixt which had stellar reviews online.
I want to say that I had a fantastic experience with Sixt which matched the stellar online reviews. They were more than happy to offer a Platinum upgrade and really helped us with finding the best car that they had (which was limited due to the holidays) that could accommodate and also had safety latches for the travel car seat. The kind employee probably spent 20 minutes with us making sure we had what we needed. Unfortunately in order to have the safety latches we had to switch from a pretty nice car to an extremely bare-bones / power lacking SUV – but with a ton of cargo space and those safety latches, so it worked out!
When you exit the airport, walk left past the cafe and eventually a Sixt van will show up to take you to the rental agency, about 7 mins away. Note that every single car rental company at Liberia Airport is off airport, even if they have a desk in-airport.
We chose to rent a car specifically so we’d feel safe start to finish with our infant. Due to the holidays, the 10 day rental cost us $1,050. Not cheap! So if you are going to one or two resorts and plan to book tours from those resorts (that generally pick you up), you can save a bundle booking private transport instead of renting a car.
The drive to the JW Marriott took about 1.5 hours and here’s my first MAJOR tip for you all. When driving in Costa Rica, use Google Maps. Do NOT use Waze. We wound up taking a long set of dirt roads the last few miles to the JW when we could have simply gone another way with all paved roads. Lesson learned!
JW Marriott Guanacaste – Location
Both of these resorts are isolated. The JW’s closest town is the fairly bustling town of Tamarindo, best known for it’s surfing, and that is a 25 minute drive. When I was there in 2011, it was basically one paved road and a few bars/restaurants + a bunch of surf shops. Now it’s an built-out town and even has an outdoor food court of sorts which might be fun to try if you aren’t pushing a stroller on the gravel 😉
So, if you have a car, that’s a fun place to check out. That is it. So assume you’ll stay on property and/or take tours from the JW.
JW Marriott Guanacaste – Arrival / Check-In
The best part of the JW was our room, a 1 bedroom suite. As a Marriott Bonvoy Titanium, I still opted to try to use 5 Suite Night Awards rather than hoping for an upgrade right before Christmas, and boy was that the right move. Not only was every single room sold (so obviously no upgrades), but the person checking us in noted that tons of elites had tried to use SNAs and didn’t have luck. I think that status factors in so it’s very possible having Titanium status (over the Platinum status anyone can get with the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant credit card) pushed us over the edge.
A bellman had taken our bags while we checked in and delivered them to the room for us.
JW Marriott Guanacaste – The Room
It was great. If you are traveling with an infant, there is plenty for them to try and pick up and smash, given the opportunity, so do as you would do anywhere and scan / hide what you must. We also brought ties to keep him from being able to open the balcony door on the off chance he “escaped” the provided crib. It would have been awesome if the balcony off the bedroom had the loungers instead of the living room purely so we could have used it after he went to bed, but that’s purely a “we have an infant with us” problem 😉 For most, they were in the absolute most logical place.
We often commented how being in this room saved the 5 days, given our overall lackluster thoughts on the resort which I’ll obviously get to.
We were given a nice reusable water bottle (which can be refilled easily next to the ice cream shop) but they also provide unlimited bottles of water in the room on request.
There was also a cute stuffed animal left for our son:
The shower was super cool with up to 6 shower streams at once (yes, it will spray into the sink area!) and powerful, so that was a nice feature.
Overall, we loved the room.
One note was that there was nowhere to get ice and I was surprised to be told it would be a $3 fee to get some delivered to the room despite no other option – but it was not actually levied on the bill so I don’t know if that is really a thing or not. I sure hope not!
JW Marriott Guanacaste – The Pool and Beach
Here’s where things start to slip pretty much from the start. The pool is “fine.” While billed as the largest hotel pool in Central America, that really didn’t mean too much. Our first two days there they refused to open the umbrellas, citing the light wind, meaning that we had no shade for our baby except to keep moving the chairs under various trees.
The beach area had a handful of chairs also with no umbrella. While this part of the shore in Costa Rica (it’s on the Pacific Ocean, not the Caribbean) is too rough for swimming in December, it would have been nice to have some real chairs and umbrellas on the beach with service, but this was not the case (here, that is – the Andaz did indeed have plenty of beachfront service).
But the thing that drove me absolutely nuts for 5 days was that a JW freaking Marriott had no poolside food service (waiter/waitress). They did have a server for drinks only (if you could catch one – there were all of two working the “largest pool in Central America”!), but not food. And while they advertised a beachfront restaurant called Azul with casual food (per what the concierges sent me just a few days head of arrival), we arrived to our first day’s reservation to find out that this casual lunch spot was now a high end seafood restaurant for both lunch and dinner (same menu and pricing) which was way more high end than either of us wanted for lunch. That left the snack bar, called Palapa.
The snack bar was just that, a bar with a smattering of food that you could either walk up to and order or order via QR code from your seat. But surely, at the JW Marriott there would be someone to run the food to you, right? Even if they wouldn’t come take your order, they would definitely let you comfortably stay in your seat and bring you the food. Especially when you consider that seating at the snack bar was THREE PICNIC TABLES WITH NO SHADE.
As you can guess from my sarcasm, this was not the case and you needed to guess when the food would be ready and then walk all the way around the pool and hang out until they called your order then try not to drop any on the way back.
Also, the food at Palapa was universally lousy.
JW Marriott Guanacaste – The Food
That’s a natural segue into the topic of the food and beverage.
The food options are:
Pimento: Italian Cuisine (and where anyone can take breakfast)
Sabanero: A steakhouse (and where lites take breakfast)
Azul: Upscale seafood by the water
Palapa: A snackbar by the pool
Tamarine: Asian Cuisine
Sandbar: A locally themed bar upstairs with food
Pretty universally awful from a quality perspective (with the exception of the steakhouse, Sabanero), the thing that struck us most was the lack of Costa Rican food. Sure, it’s a US branded hotel, but you are in Costa Rica!
At breakfast, not a single item on the menu (note that Platinums and higher are allowed to take breakfast at Sabenero, as opposed to Pimento where the standard breakfast buffet is) was Costa Rican.
Not even an incredibly simple Costa Rican (or “Ticos”) breakfast was on the menu. I was able to order one by asking, but shouldn’t local food be featured on the menu of the country you are visiting?
Look, I get many Americans don’t want to stray outside their comfort zone on food, but I’m sure enough do (like me!) that every single menu should have some local touches unless it’s themed to another country (i.e. I understand Pimento, an Italian restaurant, not having Costa Rican food).
We found out on the second day that there was in fact one establishment that had some local food – the upstairs bar called Sandbar. That menu did have 3 or 4 local dishes on it – thank goodness.
However, even there, the food wasn’t great. It was OK. As one example of what I didn’t expect from a JW level hotel was the tortilla chips. We had them on multiple occasions and these chips were not only out of a bag, but they were also stale. Every time.
They did have a small kids menu, although it was very, very small and exactly the same at every restaurant. Our infant only wanted pizza and that wasn’t on it – but happily the servers universally allowed us to get him a giant cheese slice from the snack bar ($10) and we always checked in advance to ensure no issue.
Of the above outlets, we had dinners at Pimento, Sabanero, and Sandbar (and we went into Tamarindo for dinner one night, eating at a small new place called Rural – definitely a small locals joint).
Sabanero, the steakhouse, was pretty good. We both enjoyed it and the service was on point. At Pimento, the food just lacked flavor. It was fine, not great. And at Sandbar, while we enjoyed the option for Costa Rican food, none of it was too good and as I mentioned earlier, tortilla chips came stale out of a bag.
The snack bar by the pool had some variety but nothing very tasty. The drinks were good!
I also want to mention the coffee shop / ice cream parlor. The ice cream was pretty good. The coffee – for an upscale hotel in Costa Rica – wasn’t too good (Costa Rica is well known for its amazing coffee!). And for a place that catered purely to American tastes, they did not brew any iced coffee or cold brew – just Americanos. And before you say “well, they don’t do iced coffee there” I have to point out that a place in Liberia had a billboard advertising their “cafe frio” which was prominent, popular, and delicious.
Oh, I almost forgot they have a dedicated Flor de Caña rum bar out in front of the hotel is that is your thing.
JW Marriott Guanacaste – Service
Service was a high point during our stay. We always found the staff super accommodating and friendly so absolutely no complaints there.
JW Marriott Guanacaste – Kid’s Club and Babysitting
Available for you to leave children 4 and up or stay with them if younger, it was a pretty small kids club and only open until 3:45pm each day. There was one large table for kids to sit at and draw, paint, or play with toys. And there is a very small playground outside as well for once the shade comes over the area. It was staffed by just one staff member at a time, occasionally leading to a bit of a hectic scene.
They do not offer babysitting at all, though they can put you in contact with a babysitting service in Tamarindo if needed. We didn’t do this as it was just too much hassle and it was also clear you would have to pay for transport to the property for the sitter.
Day Trip from the JW Marriott Guanacaste
I wanted to mention the one day trip we took from the JW. Note that with a 22 month old, there wasn’t too much we could do (or felt safe doing), but we did take a day trip up to the Diamante Ecopark. It was fun, though smaller than I expected. We saw these two guys:
The most interesting part of Diamante was probably the drive to and from. There are two ways to go – the long way which takes around 1 hour and 45 mins, and then this route below which is a half hour shorter.
What is completely not-obvious from the map is that, after some really steep and curvy mountain roads, you arrive at the point marked “The Congo Trail” – shown below.
Talk to the concierge first to be sure you fully understand, but here’s the deal. At this point you will get to a fork in the road. Left is marked as the “public road” and to the right is marked as private.
However, the public road to the left goes through a freaking river!
Really. Through a river. If you have a big 4×4 you can do it. But I don’t mean an SUV. I mean a real, big, 4×4 – which you probably didn’t rent (and rental car companies warn that going through rivers is a giant no-no).
So what you want to do is bear to the right and follow the signs. You’ll pay around $10 to pass on a small one lane wooden bridge over the river. Not only that, you’ll get a pass allowing you round trip passage at no additional charge.
Now I’ll admit, I crave this kind of adventure. You may not. So plan accordingly – and maybe just go the long way 😉
With our 5 day stay wrapped up (for sure, we won’t ever be back), we drove about 1.5 hours north to the renowned Andaz Papagayo… and it was like a new day dawned.
Andaz Papagayo – How I Booked
The Andaz was sold out from the time I started eyeing it in July for a Christmas-time vacation. But I stalked a room using maxmypoint.com and a few weeks later got notified of a standard room. I booked the 5 nights for 29,000 points a night vs a cash rate of $2,100 a night (crazy, I know – but they were sold out! Holiday pricing for sure).
This gave us 7.2 cents per Hyatt point (transferred from Chase Ultimate Rewards), an outstanding redemption. The cash rate worked out to $10,500 for the 5 nights had we been willing to pay it, though of course I would not have been!
Andaz Papagayo – Location
The Andaz Papagayo is located quite a bit further north on the same Pacific coast of Costa Rica. The location is on a cove of sorts, leading to slightly (slightly!) calmer ocean water.
It’s about 25 minutes from Liberia, and if you flew into LIR airport, you’d only be looking at 40 minutes tops from the airport.
Wheras the nearest town to the JW was Tamarindo, a fun surfing village, the nearest town to the Andaz is Liberia. While you can certainly do things in Liberia like a coffee plantation tour, etc, it’s a bigger sprawl and not nearly the kind of quaint town Tamarindo is by a long shot. You could spend several hours wandering in Tamardino, but you’d need to have a destination in Liberia – there is no cute walking area.
Andaz Papagayo – Check In
Since I booked this property in July, until we arrived in December, I checked every single day for an “Andaz Suite” to apply my Suite Upgrade Award. I was so fastidious because I know how much it helps to have two rooms with an infant, however at no point were any suites available for using an SUA or even straight up booking with points. Cash rates for suites were in the several thousand range per night so that was out of the question.
No Andaz Suite ever became available and no suites were available at check in. We were kindly upgraded to an oceanview room (the highest standard room type) but when we realized that meant stairs to the room from the main areas we asked for one in a stroller friendly (essentially, accessible) building. You see, the Andaz is built on a massive hill. And probably one of the very few downsides of the hotel with an infant is schlepping up and down those hills. They do have golf carts which whisk you up and down the hills, but with a stroller it’s a bit of a hassle.
Andaz Papagayo – The Room (Forest View)
Anyway, they were able to downgrade us back to a Forest View room with no stairs. All of the “view” rooms would have had them. Some lucky other guest got the upgrade 😉
For sure, it was harder to contain our rambunctious infant in this room, with lots going on in a bit over 500 sq ft. One thing I didn’t like right out of the gate was the glass / non-locking bathroom door. I don’t know how these ever became a thing.
But generally speaking, the room was beautiful as was the terrace giving you ample opportunity to try and spot a monkey hanging around outside.
The room came with a mini bar where only the alcohol was chargeable. Sodas and snacks were complimentary – a nice touch. Ice was available via phone call, quickly and at no charge. We also appreciated a separate and included large refrigerator – mainly for storing tons of the filtered water the hotel provided.
Overall, the room had a very modern and nice vibe to it and, if we had just been two, more than ample space.
The room also came well stocked with refillable bottles of filtered water.
Andaz Papagayo – The Pools and Beaches
While the JW may have had a large single pool, the Andaz had three pools all in one area with plenty of loungers and umbrellas. As one would expect in a fancy resort (and unlike the JW!), servers were in abundance and happy to deliver you food or drinks. They also had a daily freebie – things like churros or ice cream – around 3pm which made for a nice touch.
The uppermost pool seems to get the most sun, thereby staying slightly warmer than the other two.
The Andaz also has two beaches.
The first is on the property itself and requires *many* steps down to reach it. The beach is a bit of a jungly mess, but there are chairs scattered about and service available. I’ll take you to the “beach club” next but, as that involves transport, it was smart of the Andaz to make the best of the beach situation that could be reached directly on property.
If you really want a nicer beach, head to the Beach Club! The beach club, which even had massages available (for cash) and its own infinity style pool,. had a very nice sandy beach. Although we were told to watch out for sea urchins and jellyfish, thankfully neither made an appearance.
The Beach Club had its own menu and will eventually have an area with tables for dining, though during our visit it was only available for delivery to your chair, and is Mediterranean themed lighter fare.
Just like at the pool, there were plenty of staff on hand to help with whatever you needed and it’s shared with the Four Seasons.
The Beach Club does have one small drawback which is that you have to get there. Your options are by boat (about 10 minutes once you are aboard) from the main property beach, or a shuttle bus to a golf cart which takes 10-15 minutes. It’s worth it, but obviously not as perfect as having the good beach on-property.
Andaz Papagayo – Food
There were many stark differences between the properties, but the food was one of the most noticeable. It wasn’t all 5 start by any means, but let’s start with breakfast.
As a Globalist, you are allowed to choose from two venues for breakfast. Rio Bhongo is the main restaurant where everyone has breakfast. There is a full buffet as well as a full and extensive menu. The alternative for Globalists only is to dine at Ostra, where it’s menu service only. While we never took breakfast at Ostra, we were told it was a similar menu to Rio Bhongo, just without the buffet. Rio Bhongo also has a barista for espresso based coffee drinks while Ostra does not.
However, as a Globalist, if you take breakfast at Rio Bhongo, you get the best of both worlds. You can have the buffet and then also order anything you want off the menu. I generally had the buffet, a couple of iced mochas (there was cold brew out on the buffet as well), a main entree (usually something Costa Rican) and a side of chocolate chip pancakes. We also got sides of potatoes and fresh, crispy bacon each day. They were also very attentive to my son’s allergies and we got him a nice variety of food each day like fresh fruit, cereals, pancakes, etc.
I did a rough calculation and figure that based on menu prices I had around $80+ a day in breakfast and never needed lunch. As a Globalist, you are not even presented with a bill. You are simply thanked with a smile.
I know it’s not everyone’s experience, but more often than not, especially at high end resorts, this is the treatment I’m used to. And it’s a fabulous way to start the day.
For lunch, most people either went to Rio Bhongo or ordered pool or beachside. The food was pretty good – things like fresh chips and guac, a burger, and some amazing tostones with prosciutto, cheese, and onions. (Sad I forgot to take a picture of those tostones!)
For dinner the options were:
- Rio Bhongo
- Chao Pescao
- La Piazza
La Piazza is only open during the most crowded time for the resort which is November 18th to January 6th. They did serve excellent wood fired pizzas at La Piazza though I thought the pasta was a bit bland and the porchetta lacking in preparation. So stick to the pizza if you are there when it’s open.
The menu at Ostra didn’t suit our tastes and was as far as possible from our room, including stairs, so we never dined there.
We had 2 meals at Chao Pescao and while the food wasn’t 5 stars, it was pretty good and extremely diverse, featuring specialties of different countries all over Latin America. They also had an extensive cocktail list and a very fun vibe. Easily the most “happening” spot each night – for a secluded and family oriented resort, anyway 😉 The menu is below. It seems I was too busy enjoying the meals to take pictures of the food!
I highly suggest going on Open Table and making dining reservations before your stay. Especially at Chao Pescao, we had our pick of times a week in advance but when on property, it was hard even to adjust our dining times as it was 100% reserved every night of the stay.
We also had one dinner at Rio Bhongo. Don’t do it. Not good. Stick to breakfast there.
Andaz Papagayo – Service
Absolutely 5 star service from the staff, bar none. Everyone from the front desk to the restaurant servers to the golf cart drivers were super nice.
The golf cart drivers even gave us extra long rides when we requested it since my son loved the “green bus” 🙂 We also got a tour of the just-opened multi-million dollar residences that are part of the resort, located just up the hill. They can be rented out, but not on points.
Andaz Papagayo – Kid’s Club and Babysitting
Twice as big as the one at the JW Marriott including an indoor slide, it was easily the better Kid’s Club. It was also open until 5 (as opposed to 3:45 at the JW). Best of all we never coutned fewer than 3 staff members there at any time and there were usually more. Age-wise, the rules were the same regarding the child needing to be 4 to be left unattended….. unless….
The Andaz Papagayo does offer on-site babysitting services ($25 an hour plus 13% tax and 10% service plus optional direct gratuity) and we got a GREAT one.
We hired her for several hours on one day when I went zip lining at the closest spot just 10 minutes away (Witches’ Rock). She was so good with our son and so easy to get along with that we hired her on two additional days just to hang out with us and give my wife and I some time to relax without spending every second keeping our son out of harm’s way. You also have the option to leave your child in the kid’s club with a hired babysitter if you want some alone time. This is a fantastic feature and we really appreciated it. Given that the whole stay was on points, it was pretty easy to justify a few hundred dollars in babysitting expenses.
Andaz Papagayo – Nearby Activities
Not much. You could do what seemed to be a terribly boring sounding 3.5 hour coffee and chocolate tour in Liberia. Or you could go just 10 minutes from the Andaz and do some really nice zip-lining (and ATVing if you want) at a place (that I just mentioned above) called Witches’ Rock. Everything else would be a full day trip as the west coast of Costa Rica is not where the volcanoes and hot springs are.
While the concierge wanted me to pay $155 plus 10% service plus 13% tax to be taken there (and insisted I could not drive there), I hopped in the car and drove there.
10 minutes later I was asking the owner if I could do some zip-lining. $95 later I was on my own private zip-line tour. About half the price and on my own time. Super fun, friendly, and attentive to safety.
BTW, the owner said that if you are at the Andaz, just call them and they’ll send you a pick up – no extra charge. No need to pay a 100% markup to the Andaz.
I should also mention that at both the JW and the Andaz, the concierges were just tour operators. They had books of what they could sell and really had little advice if you weren’t buying one of their tours. I found that disappointing, but at least it was consistent. (Incidentally, we found exactly the same when we were in Peru).
So at this point, the question is…
Should I Choose the JW Marriott Guanacaste or the Andaz Papagayo?
If you really want to be within striking distance, though still 25 minutes away by car, or a walkable town, you might choose the JW.
If you want the least expensive option, especially when using points, you might choose the JW.
If you prefer “traditional” resort design vs. something a bit more design forward, you might choose the JW.
If you hate hotels built on hills where pretty much everything is up and down hills (even with provided golf carts) and/or loathe a boat or shuttle ride to the “nice beach,” you might choose the JW (although keep in mind the beach at the JW isn’t really serviced by staff and the current is rough).
If you want something close to the Liberia airport, you’d choose the Andaz.
If you want something that feels more “cool” than “stately and classic,” you’d choose the Andaz.
If you want to be able to relax at the pool or beach and have servers bring you food and drink, you would definitely choose the Andaz.
If you want a “beach club” vibe, where the boat or shuttle takes you, choose the Andaz.
If you want more dining options with higher quality food, you would choose the Andaz.
If you want more caring management, definitely choose the Andaz.
If you want a hotel with a nice kids club and on-site babysitting services, you’d choose the Andaz.
If you have top tier status and want a really amazing free breakfast vs. a very mediocre one, you’d choose the Andaz.
Staff at both hotels were equally great.
I hope that helps you choose between the JW Marriott and the Andaz Papagayo, if you have been researching both like I was (even though we ultimately chose both!).
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