Livin’ La Vida Pura! Who needs the crazy life when you can have plenty of life or “pura vida” as Costa Ricans would say?
In short, Costa Rica has it all. Outdoor adventure, thrills galore, beautiful beaches, delicious food, friendly people all wrapped up in a safe and relatively easy country to navigate. After taking our two kids on a couple Caribbean beach vacations we decided at ages 9 and almost 8 that they could handle something less predictable, more adventurous and a bit further outside their comfort zones. None of us speaks fluent Spanish and luckily we didn’t find this to be a problem. Of course, it pays to master the basics so that you can be a polite and hospitable traveler.
A couple pieces of advice. American friends who lived in Costa Rica said that you can use US dollars everywhere and there’s no need to change money. While we found this to mostly be true, there were a few roadside stands and toll plazas for which having some colones would have been helpful. I feel more comfortable paying in local currency in some situations, as not to appear an “ugly American” who expects the world to speak English and accept dollars.
The second piece of advice is about driving and using a GPS. We rented a car for our vacation and drove everywhere, which is a fun and mostly hassle-free way to see the country. We brought our own GPS fresh with updated maps of the country. However, my husband, whose job is navigation in these situations, had heard not to completely trust everything the GPS says. It couldn’t have been more true! We even had a large map that we would use to double-check the route. The only real problem we encountered was that the GPS took us on a road that, according to the map, was not really a main road. It appeared to be a much more direct route, so we decided to listen to the GPS. Mistake. Huge.
Neither the GPS nor the map showed the elevation of the road. This was a terribly steep mountain pass. There were times when our little car, with a manual transmission, seemed to be going almost vertical. There were few houses up in these parts and the weather started to turn into misty mountain cloud cover and rain. We were scared out of our wits! In retrospect, we saved no time on this “short cut” since after making it up a seemingly endless vertical assent, we had to descend and then we weren’t even sure the GPS was working. Upon reaching our destination we could almost laugh about it. In fact, we weren’t alone. Almost everyone we met who drove had a similarly harrowing journey at some point!
We drove directly from SJO in San Jose in our rental car to Manuel Antonio, a surfers paradise. A relaxed beach town with a casual surfer vibe, this is a wonderful part of the country to spend some time. We opted to rent a villa at the Tulemar Bungalows & Villas, which was super luxurious. The resort is built into the hillside and affords spectacular views of the surrounding mountains and beach. It’s a long way down to the beach on the property, so be prepared. The only other slight drawback is the food on the property is just average. Opt to go out instead, as there are plenty of great places to dine within walking distance. We tried Café Milagro for breakfast, Kapi Kapi for a fancy night out dinner (don’t leave without trying the molten chocolate soufflé!) and Barba Roja, which has great food, the best views and live music. We loved all of these places, and learned about them from the locals.
Manuel Antonio Nature Park & Wildlife Refuge
It would be a shame to get to this part of Costa Rica and not see the National Park. If you go, hire a registered guide; they have all the knowledge and eyes to see things you would certainly miss on your own. They also carry a scope, so you can see animals near and far. It’s an easy hike, although you will by no means be alone. This is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country, but the best place to see wildlife in the area in a few hours time. The Park also boasts one of, if not THE, most beautiful beach in all of Costa Rica. You can finish you day there if you want, but keep in mind that the park closes at 4pm.
Manuel Antonio Surf School
Known simply as MASS, our family, with two kids ages 7 and 9 had an absolutely awesome experience with these guys. I had read about them and booked when we arrived at our hotel in Manuel Antonio. The beach is beautiful, clean and perfect for beginner surfers. Even better, the instructors were long on patience and personality and seemed to be enjoying getting beaten up by the surf for our sake. This mom could not be more please, both with myself for standing up on that board, and for MASS, as they are known. Pura Vida!
ARENAL VOLCANO & LA FORTUNA
Next stop – The Interior.
[If you are driving from Manuel Antonio, as we did, beware of the mountain passes – don’t take them even if the GPS tells you to! Keep your eyes peeled for the crocs basking on the banks of the Tarcoles River. You can pull over and park the car and get out to get a better view. You also may want to stop for a cold one at Volcano Brewing Company.]
We stayed at The Springs Resort & Spa in La Fortuna. This is another gorgeous luxury resort. We did have some confusion over the reservation, and the road leading to the resort is unpaved (as of August 2013) which makes for a less than desirable first impression. Once on the property though, your cares are sure to melt away. The grounds are beautifully landscaped with more swimming pools than you can count. If you are lucky, as we were, the clouds will part and you’ll have the absolute best view of the conical-shaped active Arenal Volcano around. You could stay put for several days and have a very fun and relaxing time. But why would you? There’s too much to do!
Ziplining, a river rafting safari and horseback riding were our choice activities given the ages of our two kids. The resort offers the horseback riding on the property, and my daughter and husband enjoyed that while my son and I, thrill seekers of the family, opted for the zipline. If you are in the area and want to go ziplining, it is imperative that you book with a reputable company. According to our research the more expensive ones are the best and our opinion is that Sky Trek by Costa Rica Sky Adventures was THE best! They are a first class operation, and as first time zipliners, we were glad we chose them.
First, the system they use has a device you use to brake. [I talked to one guy who told me one place he went you had to use your gloved hand on the line to brake. Well, at 40 miles and hour I’d rather not have to grab the line to slow down]. This is super safe operation. Second, there are several lines, and they are all different, some faster, some higher and some longer than other. There’s a lot of variety. From start to finish it takes about 2.5 hours. Third, the staff are super friendly and very professional. Just watching them makes you feel comfortable. They are great teachers and comforters of the nervous types. If you are an adventurous first timer like me, or even a bit scared, I’d say the first real line (you get two practice runs here) is the most intimidating. At the point I let go and there was no turning back, I thought I’m either going to love this or hate it. Glad to report that I felt like a superhero zipping through the sky and I’d do it all over again!
[NOTE: All the activities mentioned above, even the ones offered on the resort property, are at an added expense. We found it very easy to spend a handsome sum on optional activities while in Costa Rica. Swimming in the ocean was the only thing that was free!]
Last Stop – The Pacific.
Playa Hermosa is a laid back beach town on the Pacific Coast in the Guanacaste area of Costa Rica. Easily accessible from Liberia Airport, the region has become a popular beach destination for many North Americans. We rented a beach house for the week taking in our last days relaxing by the pool or on the water. This also meant that we could go grocery shopping and prepare food in the comfort of our own beach house, which was a welcome change from eating out all the time.
If you’re not much in the mood for cooking try these places: Restaurante y Pizzeria Bocelli (for wood fired pizza), Mario’s Cuisine (as personal guests of Chef Mario and his family, advance reservation required) Hotel El Velero (a must for sunset cocktails and beach BBQ) and Citron Restaurante (excellent place in the shopping plaza) in neighboring beach town Playas del Coco.
Aside from a deep-sea fishing excursion, the other noteworthy activity was learning to stand up paddle. Our entire family had a blast with Pacific Coast Stand Up Paddle & Surf. A company owned by a Costa Rican couple, Eddie, the owner instructed us first time paddlers. We were all able to get up and mostly stay up! Our 9-year-old son looked like he’d been doing it forever and even our daughter, at 7, who went on the board with Eddie, eventually tried her hand at the paddling. Playa Hermosa is a calm and quiet beach so it is perfect for SUP. Eddie said he can also arrange activities on his boat, and even offered to cook us a beach BBQ!
Costa Rica clearly has something for everyone from the solo traveler to the honeymooners from the destination wedding guest to the large family with abuelas in tow. ¡Pura Vida indeed!