Since 1992, when the Spanish hotel group Barceló unveiled its 400-room Hotel de Playa Tambor, the small village of TAMBOR has become synonymous with large-scale tourist-resort development. The hotel has been plagued by controversy since before it even opened, and throughout its construction the backers at times seemed willfully bent on acting out every environmental and social gaffe possible. Barceló was convicted of both illegally draining and filling ecologically valuable mangrove swamps, similar to those protected by the nearby Curú Wildlife Refuge. They were also accused of violating Costa Rican law dictating that the first 50m of any beach is public property, with no development or habitation allowed. Despite an order ruling that the project be stopped, the government, in the end, appeared unwilling to close them down. Grupo Barceló now owns several other hotels throughout Costa Rica.
Despite the presence of the mega-hotel – set off by itself, with its own road, grounds and guards – the whole area remains rather remote. The village, surrounded on two sides by thickly forested hills, exudes a friendly, laid-back vibe. A grey, sandy beach stretches along a narrow horseshoe strip at the western end of the sheltered Bahía Ballena where, true to its name, you can sometimes spot ballenas (whales). If you fancy a trip out to Isla Tortuga, enquire at the hotels or ask one of the local boatmen.
Used by the guests at the Hotel de Playa Tambor, both Sansa ($130 return from San José) and NatureAir ($159 return from San José) fly into Tambor's airstrip. The bus that runs six times daily between Montezuma and Paquera stops in the village.
A block back from the beach, chilled-out Cabinas Cristina (Tel:683-0028, email@example.com; Price: $21-30) is the best budget accommodation in town, with nine basic but clean rooms, most with private bathroom and one with kitchen (Price: $76-100). The Tico owners dish up lovingly prepared seafood at the popular on-site restaurant and can arrange bike hire and tours. Nearby, the beachside Hotel Tambor Tropical (Tel:683-0011, Web: www.tambortropical.com ; Price: $151 and above) is set on scenic grounds with a pool, hot tub and comfortable hexagonal cabinas with kitchen; no children under 16 are accepted and the rate includes breakfast. Three kilometres south of the village, the large and beachside Hotel Tango Mar Beach Resort (Tel:683-0001, Web: www.tangomar.com ; Price: $151 and above) has comfortable cabins with private bath and a swimming pool and tennis courts. A small golf course (open to the public) unfolds behind one of the area's nicest stretches of sand. At the mealtime, dine on fresh fish directly hauled in from the incoming boats at the pleasant Restaurant Bahía Ballena Yacht Club in the village centre; cocktails are served at their lively bar, which has a pool table.