Costa Rica’s Hotel Aguas Claras: Two Hotels in One
How a mother-daughter duo combined two distinct design aesthetics to transform an aging property into an ecologically minded, luxury boutique hotel
by Jess Swanson
March 20, 2023
Some mothers and daughters enjoy shopping together. Others prefer afternoon tea. But Elizabeth Steinvorth and her daughter, Elena Rohrmoser, settled on the ultimate mother-daughter project: to turn Hotel Aguas Claras, an aging property in Costa Rica, into an ecologically minded, luxury boutique hotel. “We had never run a hotel before in our lives,” says Rohrmoser, “and had no real hospitality experience apart from loving to travel, and loving to travel together.”
The pair had been visiting Puerto Viejo, on the country’s Caribbean coast, for more than 30 years. Back then, Rohrmoser was just a baby, and there weren’t streetlights or plumbing. But there was something simple and exquisite in the way the sandy beaches touched the lush rainforest. “We wanted to share this beautiful place with the world,” Steinvorth says.
In 2016, Steinvorth, a multimedia artist based in the country’s capital, San José, purchased the property with the intention of showcasing her floral watercolor paintings, bright mosaics and other artworks. Around this time, her daughter, who had studied art history, fashion and marketing, graduated and moved back to Costa Rica to join her mother during the hotel renovation. But they soon learned that, at least in their case, the interior design apple did fall far from the tree: Rohrmoser’s vision for the hotel was more modern and whimsical, whereas Steinvorth’s was classic and Victorian.
“When Elena came to Costa Rica I had a hard time because we had different ideas,” admits Steinvorth. “She wanted to put all these modern things in the rooms, and I thought, Oh, my God, this is horrible. What is going to happen?”
Rather than compromise, the duo took the King Solomon approach and decided to split the hotel: Steinvorth would oversee the six bungalows and Rohrmoser the six suites. “It’s been an interesting experience,” Rohrmoser says. “We ended up going to therapy to talk about it because we automatically talk about work. We had to learn to set that working relationship apart from our personal relationship.”
Fortunately, Steinvorth and Rohrmoser’s bond had been forged by a shared appreciation of art and history, and by the time the hotel opened, their two seemingly mutually exclusive ideas began to converge. The lobby, located inside a white house with a wraparound porch, evokes the traditional banana plantations that were once common in the region in the late 19th and 20th centuries. They were even able to acquire two pillars, located in the porte cochere, which had been imported from France during the construction of the National Theater of Costa Rica in San José in the late 19th century. A lamp embellished with shells, beads and seeds that once belonged to Steinvorth’s maternal grandmother is perched behind the bar at the property’s pink-hued Papaya restaurant. There are so many historical curios and storied antiques that a local curator was hired to archive all the pieces displayed throughout the property.
“Mom is a perfectionist, and that’s why the hotel is so beautiful and thoughtful,” says Rohrmoser. “The hotel was like an artwork that she was working on slowly.”
A winding maze leads from the common areas by the lobby and pool through a verdant garden past spouting fountains, coqui frogs and bright hibiscus flowers. The bungalows, which are discreetly positioned off these paths, feel secluded and immersed in nature. Some are the original Playa Chiquita houses that have been refurbished with open-air living rooms, private verandas and air conditioning. Eclectic chandeliers, bold prints and fresh flowers reveal Steinvorth’s keen eye for detail.
“Honestly, the bungalows have Mom’s signature, like her pieces of art,” Rohrmoser says. “There’s a hint of color but always timeless and classic Victorian-Caribbean, with an elegant touch.”
Rohrmoser took a different approach to the suites. Though each of the six accommodations features an outdoor shower and bold, geometric furniture, no two are alike, with themes inspired by film, music and travel. For example, Rohrmoser’s fondness for Wes Anderson films inspired the Belafonte suite, which is named after the ship in The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou and decked with a retro gallery wall and mismatched chandeliers. The Tropicana suite, with its banana-leaf print and checkerboard tile, is an homage to 1950s Havana.
“I love movies and travel and I wanted to represent that with each theme—a little bit, nothing crazy,” Rohrmoser says. “My style is more hippy and colorful than my mother’s, but it worked.”
Steinvorth agrees. “I was surprised. We really do have two styles at the hotel, and people like both.”