How to Plan your Family Adventure
So you’re thinking about taking the family to Costa Rica? Great choice! This small Central American country is a wonderful destination for families. From beautiful beaches, an abundant wildlife, countless outdoor activities all along with a safe and clean Latin American experience, it doesn’t get better than Costa Rica.
Our family picture at sunset - three generations!
Our family of four (plus the grandparents) recently returned from a week-long vacation to Costa Rica. Although this was our second trip there, it was the first time we did all the planning on our own. On our first trip, we went through a tour operator that coordinated our transportation, lodging and activities. It was a wonderful trip, but we didn’t always feel like we experienced the full Costa Rican culture as we were mainly “sheltered” at the resort. We mostly ate American-style food and only interacted with people who spoke perfect English. For this second trip, we were looking for a more authentic experience. In this post I’ll share what we learned and how we put it all together.
Choose a Location
Although Costa Rica is a small country, there are many different provinces to choose from. Costa Rica has two airports, San Jose (the capital) and Liberia. If you have a week to spent I would recommend choosing one or two locations to visit. Then consider what activities you like best in order to choose the best location for your family. Costa Rica has over 100 protected areas to visit and 25% of the country is in a protected forest or preserve. The Tamarindo area is very popular with families, surfers and expats. It has a casual and friendly vibe that feels welcoming the moment you arrive. If your family loves the beach, this might be your best bet. Liberia is the closer airport to Tamarindo (Guanacaste Province). The drive takes approximately one hour. Some families visit Costa Rica and never even see the beach. If your family is more interested in volcanoes, lush rain forest, and experiencing big adventures, then consider visiting the La Fortuna area. Arenal is one of the most active volcanoes in the world, and the La Fortuna area boasts incredible scenery and activities. I like to use Pinterest for ideas on where to go and what to see when exploring the possibilities of a new destination. Simply visit Pinterest, and in this case type “Costa Rica family travel” into the search bar and see what comes up! I love seeing what other traveling families have enjoyed. So now that you’ve decided what area you want to visit, the next step will be choosing your accommodations.
Surfing in Grande Playa
Costa Rica has a number of lodging options at many different price points. I would suggest using a site such as TripAdvisor if you’re considering a hotel, boutique hotel or eco-lodge. Concierge services, daily housekeeping, onsite restaurants and activities are some of the advantages of staying in a hotel. The other lodging choice is renting your own private home or condo. This was the route we went for this trip. Not only was this a big cost saver, it also allowed us privacy and more space. We enjoyed having a kitchen to prepare some light meals and having a common area like a living room where we could lounge in our pajamas in the morning and evening. Websites such as Airbnb, Home Away or Vacation Rental by Owner (VRBO) make it easier than ever. You can use their search engines to find the perfect property based on location, size and price. I recommend only renting places that have positive reviews from other guests. That gives you the comfort of knowing you’re actually getting what is advertised.
A private home rental offers a lot of room and privacy
The first time we went to Costa Rica we didn’t do any of our own driving. We used tourism taxi services and were completely dependent on others. For this recent trip, we decided to drive ourselves and we’re glad we did. I will say, however, there are some things to be careful of. Here’s what we learned. The rental car companies will try to overcharge you on everything. Choose your car company carefully when making your reservation. Check for online reviews and benefit from the misfortunes of others. When we first made our car reservation, we booked through Expedia, but found that we didn’t have control over who we would actually be getting the car from. We were delighted by the $6 per day price, but soon found out that price didn’t include lots of extra charges. After looking at online reviews we found that Dollar Rental at the Liberia airport had the best reviews and so we called them directly and booked our rental with them. We also contacted our credit card company to find out what coverage they provided. We wanted to arrive prepared because we read that others were talked into and charged lots of extra insurance charges. When we arrived, that’s exactly what we experienced. We politely declined and got out the door for what we agreed to ahead of time. Now that the hard part was over, the actual driving in Costa Rica was easy! Most of the roads we were on were in good condition and drivers were friendly. Even sharing the road with a herd of cows on several occasions was part of the fun! Although there are few street signs, finding our way around was easy with the Waze app. Download it before you go, and use it for your navigation. We found it to be very reliable for every place we visited.
Book Tours Privately
This means not letting a third party company book for you. This has become our best practice anywhere we travel. When you let a third party book your excursions, you are paying extra and not in control of what you’re getting. For example, let’s say there is a sunset catamaran cruise you’re interested in. There are probably only a handful of companies doing the same exact tour every day. If you let your hotel or property manager book for you, they are adding their fee to your cost which means you are paying extra. In addition, they are picking the company you will cruise with. When you use an online review website like TripAdvisor you can read what other guests have said about their experience. Once you decide which excursion or tour company you’d like to book, you can contact them directly through their website. We wanted to be busy, but not too busy on our trip. We scheduled one activity a day during our week stay. We did an estuary river cruise, a sunset catamaran cruise, a nesting sea turtle experience, deep-sea fishing trip, and a zip line. That left us plenty of time to explore our own beach and drive to other beaches to enjoy.
Grandpa caught the biggest fish!
Whether you have a kitchen of your own or not, visiting a grocery store in a foreign country is always a must. We think it’s so interesting to walk down the aisles and see the products that line their shelves and we always enjoy tasting the local snacks and candies. If you do have a kitchen, load up on breakfast fare and easy fixings for lunches that will make your beach days or car trips to the rain forest more enjoyable. Every mom who travels with her kids knows that you have to have snacks on hand and I always prefer to buy the snacks one we arrive rather than fill our suitcases with stuff from home. In addition to the reasons mentioned above, I also like to purchase items to take home to remember our trip by. In Costa Rica, the obvious choice is coffee and chocolate!
Eat Like a Local!
Casada is the traditional dish in Costa Rica. It’s a plate that consists of grilled chicken or fish, black beans, rice, and fried plantains. Look for places that are busy with locals and ask around. We discovered there was no Yelp in Costa Rica, but we could look at online reviews through TripAdvisor or Google reviews. But our best suggestions were made by local people we met. We enjoyed some very delicious meals! To keep cost down and quality up, consider eating outside of the tourist areas.
Water, Safety and Other Concerns
Since we live in southern California and Mexico is our neighbor to the south, we have taken a number of trips to Mexico over the years. Certain concerns present themselves when traveling in Mexico and many people may think the concerns in Costa Rica are the same. Clean water is a big issue in Mexico and even just brushing your teeth with the tap water can cause an intestinal calamity that will soon make you regret your decision to brush at all. This is NOT the case in Costa Rica. You can drink water right out of the tap if you want to. We were never concerned about consuming ice or fresh vegetables.
We have heard people express concern over safety and crime in Costa Rica. In our experience, it is a very safe place. Theft is probably the biggest problem and a little common sense goes a long way. We kept our valuables stowed away, put our passports in a safe, locked up our car and house and always kept our kids within eyesight.
Other Interesting Facts about Costa Rica
Did you know that Costa Rica is one of the few countries in the world without an army? In 1948, Costa Rica abolished their army after a civil war ended. They have invested great resources in education and boast a 96% literacy rate. Even in rural areas where children don’t have access to school, literacy programs are broadcasted over the radio. The people of Costa Rica are happy and warm-hearted. It’s common to hear “pura vida” as a greeting, which basically means “pure life” and is a happy, feel-good expression. Costa Rica also has one of the highest life expectancy rates in the world. And when it comes to diverse wild life, Costa Rica is abundant! It’s not uncommon to see monkeys in the trees overhead, iguanas crossing the street or spy a coati! Costa Rica could be named the unofficial hummingbird capital of the world as there are over 52 species of hummingbirds.
Sunset at Playa Grande
So, time to get planning! Costa Rica is a great destination for families that offers wonderful outdoor experiences and unparalleled beauty.
Click HERE for FREE Journal Pages for Costa Rica - make a travel journal that your kids can enjoy while on the trip and have a special keepsake for when you return home.
Click HERE for Costa Rica - Books for kids