Sunday, May 29, 2011

Costa Rican Guaro! Belly up to the Bar and Party!!

Popular throughout Central American countries, though not readily available in the USA, “Guaro” is a distilled liquor originating in Costa Rica. Manufactured from sugar cane juice, Guaro has a high alcohol content, clear coloring and a strong but slightly sweet flavor. Most commonly mixed with fruit juice or soda (Fresca being a favorite), few people choose to consume this liquor in straight shots. Referred to as an “aguardiente,” the words “agua” and “ardiente” when combined translate to basically mean Guaro is “burning water”. A fairly accurate description if you ask me! Once considered the “moonshine” or “chicha” of Central America, Guaro is no longer a product of homemade stills, but an almost patriotic part of Costa Rican popular culture.

In an attempt to end the kitchen sink production of clandestine “Guaro”, the Costa Rican government approved the manufacturing and eventual bottling of the clear liquor by Costa Rica’s National Liquor Factory (la Fábrica Nacional de Licores or “FANAL”) back in 1851. At that time it was sold in barrels via “liquor agencies”, with the clients providing their own container. Starting in 1980, a new division was created in FANAL, with "Cacique" becoming the official Guaro brand name in Costa Rica. With it’s distinctive red label and iconic Indian Chief (that’s what “Cacique” means….Chief), Cacique quickly became the more commonly used name, since “Guaro” can often times refer to almost any distilled spirit. Easily one of Costa Rica’s most popular “beverages”, bottles of Cacique line the shelves of every Costa Rican grocery store and bar in even the most remote corner of this country, including every Costa Rican Hotel and Restaurant.

FANAL originally decided to market this popular liquor in 1 liter glass bottles containing a lower alcoholic content then vodka, but with the continued growth in popularity, they later began providing consumers with the options of 750 ml glass bottles and 365 ml “pachitas”….or plastic bottles (the handy travel size!). FANAL takes great pride in producing a high quality product of licensed ethyl alcohol, guaranteeing a high purity for “safe” drinking. The brand has proven so popular, that over the years it hs expanded from only 60 proof Guaro Cacique (with the red label) to the 70 proof Cacique Superior (with the black label), the latter offering an even higher purity of “rubbing alcohol”via further filtered purification through activated carbon and increasing not only it’s purity, but perfecting it’s mostly neutral aroma. They also produce a lesser know black label, offering a whopping 80 proof and referred to as “Super Caňita” (Super Cane)!

Origin of the Name:
The present name of Guaro as “Cacique” (or “Chief”) is thought to originate from FANAL. Since several circumstances. Between 1977 and 1980 an excavation made by the Costa Rica National Museum revealed on of the largest indigenous settlements to date near the town of Grecia on land that occupied by the liquor had remained for decades as one of Costa Rica’s most enduring and popular products, indigenous societies considered their “leaders” to be their “Chiefs”, thus the name “Cacique” stuck. Often times referred to as “Cuatro Plumas” in joking reference to the Four Feathers on the chief’s headress found on the ubiquitous red labels, just saying the word “Guaro” brings smiles to almost every Tico’s face!

Guaro Recipes & Purchasing:
Over the years, Guaro’s popularity has reached international proportions. New companies have opened making their own brands of “pirated” Guaro recipes and attempting to market this “poor man’s vodka”, as the newest upscale spirit. No worries though!! With the ease of the internet you can now buy the “real” Costa Rican Guaro and not at over inflated prices! Check out the website for puchasing details, as well as their page dedicated to some of the best Guaro recipes I have found. (Not that I haven’t invented a few of my own over the years!)

Now, some 160 years later, Guaro continues to be as popular as ever! In fact, this liquor is such an integral part of Costa Rican culture that a recent exhibit at the Museos del Banco Central (Central Bank Museum) featured one work representing three icons of daily Costa Rican life; Cacique Guaro, a Soccer Ball and a representation of the celebrated Black Virgin!

For those of you lucky enough to be visiting beautiful Costa Rica, a little word of warning….. the pronunciation of “water” has been known to be misinterpreted as “guaro” by eager waiters not completely versed in the English language. This has led to incidences where thirsty American tourists having asked their waiter for a glass of water and the waiter, ever so happy that the tourists wanted to try his country’s famous Guaro returned from the kitchen with a glass of the clear beverage. The tourist innocently takes a generous swallow and have experienced a coughing and sputtering surprise in Costa Rican thirst-quenching!! Consider yourself warned!!

Kimberly Barron, originally from Malibu, California has lived in Parismina and Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica for 20 years. Starting as a certified tour guide, she spent 15 years managing fishing lodges on the Caribbean Coast and later 4* & 5* Hotels on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica. Currently semi-retired, Kimberly still works as the Marketing Director for Byblos Resort & Casino and Hotel Makanda by the Sea.


Monday, May 9, 2011

Boutique Hotels in Costa Rica? Should they be Added to the Endangered List?

Walking down memory lane to the 1990’s, Costa Rica welcomed their first world class hotel chain, the Spanish firm known as Barceló. Specializing in the “All Inclusive” style of lodging, this style of travel did not take much of a foothold in this country, and the Boutique Hotel market remained the most popular choice for tourist accommodations. Now we fast forward some 20 years and Costa Rica hosts some 9 major hotel chains! Everything from Marriott, to Best Western, Intercontinental, Hilton, Choice, Wyndham, Four Seasons and the most recent group….Riu, now serve as the main players, with more jumping in each year. Does this mean the Boutique Hotel concept is ready for the endangered list in Costa Rica?

The "boutique" style is said to have been created in New York back in 1984, though there are valid arguments that in 1981 both London and San Francisco boasted the first boutique sized hotels. Most likely, 1984 might be when the term “boutique hotel” actually was coined, with the term coming into more mainstream use. Entrepreneurs Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell opened the boutique Morgans New York on Madison Avenue in the heart of Manhattan, and the concept grew by leaps and bounds from there. Morgans was small, stylish and unique, unlike the big brand-name hotels that predominated the markets at that time. The actual term "boutique hotel" was said to be coined by Rubell himself, who described their new hotel venture as being like a boutique as opposed to a department store. A very succinct analogy if you ask me!

The most defining characteristics of boutique style hotels are that they are generally small properties, with less than 100 rooms and more often averaging between 3 and 50 rooms total. They take great pride in offering a super chic atmosphere, unique design and décor, contemporary styling and quite popular these days, a rich historical value or background. Most boutique hotels provide highly personalized service, with very hands-on staff, management and/or ownership, offering a genuine personality that just can’t be found in the large hotel chains. Services can be limited depending on the size and luxury level of the property or you can often find some of the most dynamic local and gourmet restaurants, world class spas, and other unique features that make them stand out from the standard hotel offering. The concept has been so successful, that most multi-national hotel corporations have begun to brand their own chains of boutique resorts in order to try to capture a share of this huge market.

Still a popular choice for hotels in Costa Rica, the concept of “boutique”, “design” or “lifestyle” hotels, as they are often referred, has spread throughout the world, to include European & East Asian countries, appearing in such places as Indonesia, mainland China, Japan, Iceland, Turkey, India & the Middle East, just to name a few. They continue to remain popular options throughout Central and South America as well or basically anywhere that provides a desirable destination for travel. I am fairly certain that you will find some sort of boutique hotel in almost any corner of the world these days!

Target Market:
There are no longer cookie cutter molds for guests seeking the “Boutique experience”. Travelers are constantly looking for something new and different, while definitely expecting more than the simple comforts once acceptable to the average vacationista. Whether planning a business trip, destination wedding, honeymoon getaway, adults only escape, or just an overdue vacation, when planning travel, guests more often than not seek properties that are noticeably different in look and feel from the large branded hotels. Boutique hotels now even present a certain level of social branding. Those staying at these establishments are often considered as trendy, daring, fashionable, hip travelers that are quite often more ecologically minded. Since boutique facilities and their pricing can vary dramatically, there are now boutique properties designed to suit every demographic, any price range or social class, always with the idea of creating an unforgettable “guest experience” that just cannot be found in the larger hotel properties.

Boutique hotels retain certain benefits when it comes to cost of operations and overall profitability. They often have a large customer base to work with, as well as being favored by smaller travel agencies or tour operators that are looking to sell the “experiential” concept that the boutique hotel property has to offer. Since boutique hotel owners do not have to pay a franchise fee to be part of a larger chain, the hotel can often operate with a lower overhead that adding costly amenities such as restaurants, spas and convention & meeting spaces would create. However, these added amenities can generate significant profitability and appeal to the hotel's bottom line, so more often than not you will find every sort of amenity imaginable in todays boutique hotel properties. Another benefit for boutique hotel owners is that well established small properties tend to have a higher rate of repeat and word of mouth business compared to normal industry standards, which can save on boutique sized marketing budgets rarely able to compete with the huge marketing budgets of large branded properties. Nevertheless, successful boutique hotels must continually adapt to the constantly changing trends, needs, tastes, preferences, and technology in order to remain competitive in this cut throat hotel market.

In the end, whether it's the most isolated green hotel getaway, the most unique historical location, the most private white sand beach, impeccable five-star white glove service, or you are just looking for that travel environment that loans their son’s boogey board, gives you cookies from their kitchen, offers the most incredible personalized guest services, or located in the most super chic locale, boutique hotels in every instance cater to their guests every need and whim. Who doesn’t want that kind of attention on their hard earned vacation?

So for your next Costa Rica vacation, bypass that mega chain hotel and try one of the many Costa Rican Boutique Hotels, you will be personally helping keep these unique properties off Costa Rica’s endangered list!!

If you have a favorite boutique hotel you have visited, please feel free to share it with us in the comments section!!

Author: Kimberly Barron, originally from Malibu, California has lived in Parismina and Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica for 20 years. Starting as a certified tour guide, she spent 15 years managing fishing lodges on the Caribbean Coast and later 4* & 5* Hotels on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica. Currently semi-retired, Kimberly still works as the Marketing Director for Byblos Resort & Casino and Hotel Makanda by the Sea.