Ah, family vacations, what great memories they can create. I can recall many from my childhood, including a trip to Hawaii, driving cross-country to visit Disney World and Busch Gardens in Florida, and visiting family in Taiwan.
I remember the delicious food, beautiful beaches, exotic animals, thrilling amusement park rides and laughing with my parents, sisters, family and good friends. My parents did a pretty good job with our vacations, and we had a great time together wherever we went (we were generally a pretty amiable bunch).
The difference between a miserable vacation or a great one is in no small part a result of the planning, knowing what you want, knowing who you are traveling with (and taking them into consideration), and having a good attitude.
One of the great things about Costa Rica, whether it is rainy (aka “green”) season or dry season, is you can enjoy whatever environment you are in, rain or shine, because of the stunning beauty and generally mild climate of the country (even when it’s raining, it’s not really cold). So don’t be too concerned about what season it is, just come prepared with the proper clothes, shoes, and disposition, and you will have a great time no matter what. July is considered to be part of the rainy season, but the weather did not put a dent in our plans with our visitors.
Only have a week in Costa Rica and want to get a good taste of what it has to offer? It is possible to visit the mountains/volcanoes, hot springs, cloud forest, rain forest, and beach in one week, well, because that is exactly what we did recently when family visited us. Our traveling crew included me and my husband Scott, Scott’s cousin Jim and his wife Denise, their 14 year old boy Sebastian, 11 year old girl Anastasia, and Denise’s father Wayne, who is a vigorous 74 year old.
Based on the area of the country where we live as well as a moderate budget, we decided that the Poas Volcano/Alajuela area, La Fortuna, Manuel Antonio National Park, and a catamaran tour to Tortuga Island would be perfect for our guests, keep them well-entertained (and not stressed out trying to do too much), and fascinated by the diversity of Costa Rica. We also chose areas and activities that would easily accommodate the whole family, from Grandpa to kids.
Rent a Car
Our guests flew into Juan Santamaría International Airport (SJO), located in Alajuela. For a vacation like this, the best option to save time and have independence is to rent a car. They reserved a car with Enterprise ahead of time online in the states. All car rental companies at the airport have a shuttle that will take you to and from the airport terminal to their rental locations. Here are some car rental tidbits and tips:
- If you are leaving the urban area (the city of Alajuela/San Jose), it is best to rent a vehicle that has 4 wheel drive (especially during the rainy season).
- You can drive with your current driver’s license from the U.S.
- Costa Ricans drive on the right side, just like in the U.S.
- One important thing visiting drivers need to know is that there are one lane bridges over creeks and rivers all over Costa Rica. Look for the “Ceda El Paso” (Yield) sign. If it is on your side, you must yield to the oncoming traffic. If you don’t see it, but there is a “Ceda El Paso” sign on the other side, you have the right of way (it’s not a guarantee, but Tico driver’s are typically pretty courteous). In more rural areas where there may not be a sign, be cautious, patient and courteous in this situation before driving forward onto the bridge.
Day 1 & 2: Poas/Alajuela Area
This area of Costa Rica encompasses the mountains/volcano, cloud forest, and rain forest. Also there is quite a bit of terrain at the right altitude for growing coffee, so you will see plenty of coffee fields as you drive through this part of the country. If you want to go into town, the city of Alajuela has many modern conveniences, stores and dining options to offer. Here is a list of attractions that you can easily visit in the area in two days:
Territorio de Zaguates (aka Land of the Strays): Located in the mountains of Alajuela, Territorio de Zaguates is the largest no-kill dog shelter in the world and is home to 700+ dogs (for more information, read my blog post about our visit in May) . Luckily it happened that Territorio was conducting their once-a-month dog hike while our guests were here. I told them that this was probably a once in a lifetime opportunity for them, considering the infrequency of the public dog walks. It was a perfect outing for the family as the grandfather was a veterinarian and the children were dog fanatics. It was raining like crazy that day, but most people were prepared with rain gear and the dogs didn’t mind at all. They were enjoying the company and attention from their visitors! If you are a dog lover, and your timing is right, you can visit this very special sanctuary for Costa Rica’s canine friends. Be aware though, this can involve a pretty steep and strenuous hike up and back down again, and in the rain it can get slippery too. It didn’t seem to deter many people the day we went.
Doka Coffee Tour: There are many coffee tours in Costa Rica, and this is an excellent one conveniently located in the Alajuela/Poas area. Their brand of coffee is named Tres Generaciones (Three Generations) and is our favorite Costa Rican coffee, especially the Peaberry AA. Conducted on their beautiful grounds, the Doka Coffee Tour is educational and interactive. If the weather is nice, the coffee beans will be drying outside and you give a try at raking it. They also have a restaurant there with a delicious buffet (breakfast or lunch), which I highly recommend, especially if you have a lot on your itinerary and need to “refuel” quickly. Saving time, without wandering aimlessly trying to find a place to eat, is extremely valuable when you are on vacation. Of course the abundantly flowing coffee is free with the tour. That should help tremendously with re-energizing! By the way, Doka’s guides speak a multitude of languages, so they are able to accommodate most tourists who are visiting.
La Paz Wildlife Refuge & Waterfall Garden: Fun for the whole family can be found here! The privately owned wildlife refuge features most of the animals that Costa Rica is famous for, such as toucans, green-eyed tree frogs, capuchin monkeys, and jaguars. Many of these animals were rescued from being owned illegally and some were neglected or abused. As a result, the majority of them cannot be released back into the wild. The grounds are beautifully landscaped with all the flora Costa Rica has to offer. The waterfalls are some of the most beautiful in Costa Rica, and the trail exploring them is well thought-out to safely maximize your experience. With just one visit here you can check so many things off of your Costa Rican bucket list! La Paz also has a great buffet which I highly recommend. For finer dining, there is also a restaurant in the Peace Lodge, a gorgeous hotel connected to the Waterfall Gardens and Wildlife Sanctuary.
Poas Volcano National Park: This is Costa Rica’s most visited national park. The short hike to the main crater of this active volcano is pleasant and not difficult. On a clear day with good visibility you will see steam rising from the crater filled with a chemically-rich mud. There is also a lake that has filled the second caldera or crater – Lago Botos – located a little less than a mile away from the main crater. The hike to the lake can be a little challenging for those who are out of shape, older, or challenged by high altitudes (8885 ft). If possible do not pass up the chance to see Lake Botos. I recommend taking a break here and there on the hike if you need to. The lake is stunning and not to be missed! It is best to visit in the morning, when the weather is most likely to cooperate for good visibility. The park rangers at the admission gate will let you know of the visibility status as you drive up so you can decide whether or not you want to visit before you pay admission. There is a cafeteria, gift shop and auditorium for interactive educational activities on site as well.
Dining: There are many options in this area for dining, from touristy restaurants to local sodas (little local restaurants), all of which serve typical Costa Rican dishes or “Comidas Tipicas.” I have always found Trip Advisor to be a good source of finding decent to really good places to eat while traveling. If you have a packed itinerary, I highly recommend taking advantage of on-site dining of some of these destinations to better save precious time and replenish your energy with minimum effort.
One of the great things about Costa Rica, whether it is rainy season or dry season, is you can enjoy whatever environment you are in, rain or shine, because of the stunning beauty and generally mild climate of the country.
Day 3 & 4: La Fortuna and Arenal Volcano
La Fortuna/Arenal was next on our agenda. It is about a 2 hour drive from the city of Alajuela (about a 3 hour drive from San Jose). Known as the “adventure center” of Costa Rica, there are also opportunities to relax (for the non-thrill seekers), especially in the natural hot springs that are abundant in the area. We woke up early on Day 3 and drove to La Fortuna, had lunch at the Lava Lounge, an affordable restaurant and bar in town, and then checked into the Baldi Hotel and Hot Springs.
To start, I got a massage at the spa which was in the most beautiful indoor-outdoor setting while the rest of the family immediately enjoyed the volcano-warmed springs. We checked out of our hotel after breakfast at the Hotel on Day 4, went zip lining, had lunch at Inspira Cafe located across the church in La Fortuna, and then drove back home to Alajuela.
Baldi Hotel & Hot Springs: Baldi is a great place for families. Parents can enjoy the relaxing hot springs while children have fun in the kids’s area, on the waterslides and exploring the 25 pools. The spa experience, although on the pricey side, is pretty amazing, and completely worth it if you really need to relax, be pampered and unwind. Baldi’s hot spring pools vary in size, temperature, and styles. We played in the hot springs until dusk, cleaned up and ate dinner at La Virgita, their Italian restaurant. We stuck to the Italian dishes, which were more affordable, delicious and satisfying, especially after a long day of driving and soaking for hours in over 100°F water. For more details about Baldi, read my post on our previous stay.
Sky Trek Zipline: I had never ziplined in my life. I was a little apprehensive, but I told myself, “Heck, at least it’s not sky diving!” It was exhilarating – it feels like you are flying. The kids, who were 11 and 14, were all about it. Even Wayne, who is 74, ziplined! Sky Trek’s Arenal Zip Line has one of the most gorgeous views in all of Costa Rica – the canopy, Lake Arenal and Arenal Volcano. The staff is friendly, professional, speaks English and puts safety first. It’s quite an experience, not to be missed if you are in the area.
Dining: While in the area, we dined at the Lava Lounge, La Virigita (Baldi’s Italian Restaurant), and Inspira Cafe. Each restaurant had a different vibe, but all of them were reasonably priced, with good service and tasty food.
Costa Rica is a little country with big adventures!
Day 5 & 6: Manuel Antonio National Park
Manuel Antonio/Quepos is one of the loveliest areas to visit on the Southern Pacific Coast of Costa Rica. Manuel Antonio National Park, despite being one of the smallest national parks in Costa Rica, is one of the most frequently visited by tourists and Ticos alike. We set out from Alajuela early on Day 5. It was about a 3 hour drive from our front door to our hotel, and we made one stop on the way.
Crocodiles at Rio Tarcoles: On the way to Manuel Antonio we stopped briefly to see the crocodiles who hang out underneath the highway bridge. It is a major tourist attraction because of the sheer number of crocodiles that live there. You can’t miss it. There are souvenir shops, restaurants, juice and smoothie stands on one side of the bridge and usually several tourists on the bridge itself, looking over the side. Most of the time we break up the drive to Jaco Beach or Manuel Antonio by stopping there for a fruit smoothie and to use the restroom.
Manuel Antonio Beach: We got to Hotel Manuel Antonio around noon, checked in and grabbed some lunch at El Sol Restaurant, which is located across from the main public beach. After lunch we changed into our bathing suits and caught some waves. There was light rain, but that did not deter us from enjoying the ocean. Although our hotel was not fancy, the rooms were comfortable and clean, and it was conveniently located directly across from beach and practically at the entrance of the national park. The front desk staff was friendly and very helpful. They got us in touch with a certified tour guide so that we could arrange a tour with him for the next morning.
Manuel Antonio National Park: The next day (Day 6) we went to Manuel Antonio National Park, which is Costa Rica’s second most visited national park, following Poas Volcano National Park. It is highly recommended to get a certified tour guide (if you can, get your hotel to recommend one). These certified guides are very familiar with the park and have eagle eyes for spotting the camouflaged wildlife you would otherwise miss. Most of them carry small telescopes with them and they will help you take pictures or videos with it using your camera or smart phone. Our guide Ray was very friendly and knowledgeable. We did a 3 hour tour with him from 9:00 am to 12:00 pm, sticking to one of the main trails because we had to check out of our hotel before noon. We had so much fun seeing all the wildlife there, and actually got to see a sloth, howler monkey and capuchin monkey all in the same tree! There are also beautiful beaches within the park itself, so you may want to wear a bathing suit under your clothes. Please note that the park is closed on Mondays, so plan your trip to the area accordingly.
Dining: El Sol Restaurant and Sports Bar is a favorite place of ours to eat lunch with a fabulous ocean view. We recommend having dinner at La Gondola, a quaint restaurant featuring gourmet Italian food by an Italian chef. On the way home we ate lunch at El Avion, the famous restaurant with an historic airplane at the entrance, a beautiful indoor-outdoor dining experience with an amazing view.
If you cannot spare a 6-8 hour round trip, consider visiting Jaco Beach, which is a little over an hour away from San Jose (if there’s no traffic). It is not as quite as nice as the beach at Manuel Antonio, but it is still enjoyable, especially for surfers.
On our drive back home we made a brief stop at Los Suenos Resort and Marina to check out the amazing view, buy a few cigars from the cigar store, and get coffee and desserts from Dolce Vita, a coffee shop/bakery. There is a also golf course and a Marriott Hotel on the property, for those who are interested in staying there.
Day 7: Tortuga Island Tour
On Day 7, we woke up really early to head to the SJO Airport where the The Tortuga Island Tour (Calypso Cruises) bus picked us up for a day of fun on the white sand beaches of Isla Tortuga, located off of the east coast of the Nicoya Peninsula.
We parked our car in the airport parking garage and then caught the Calypso Cruises bus at the bus stop in front of the airport. The main guide is already on the bus to greet you and brief you on the trip itinerary. It is about a 1 hour ride to the catamaran docked in Puntarenas. Don’t worry about eating breakfast at home before hand because they feed you a hearty breakfast before boarding the catamaran. It takes about another hour to get to Isla Tortuga.
Calypso Cruises provides a full staff that mans the catamaran, cooks and serves the excellent four course gourmet lunch on the beach, makes drinks, as well as takes you out on the activities (snorkeling and banana boat rides) that are provided on the island. There is a souvenir shop on the beach where you can rent a locker for the day. Don’t forget to visit with the scarlet macaws and friendly javelina hog (a much beloved island pet) while you are there.
Guests are also welcome to hang out and play on the beach (volleyball, hammocks, etc.) instead of going snorkeling or riding the banana boat. The beach is beautiful, with white sands and calm clear blue waters. The day ended with a catamaran trip back to Puntarenas, which was about an hour long, and then we took the bus transport back to the airport, arriving around 6:30 pm.
Dining: Breakfast and lunch was provided by the tour. On our way home we stopped at El Mirador Restaurant and Bar, a local favorite because of the spectacular view of the central valley. The food there is typical Costa Rican and very affordable. Tired and happy, our guests commented on how this was a perfect way to end their trip as they stared at the twinkling lights of Alajuela and San Jose in the near distance.
Mission Accomplished . . .
As relatively new expats, Scott and I are only beginning to explore the diversity of Costa Rica’s culture and climates. We had so much fun sharing Costa Rica with Scott’s family as well as trying new things. It was a good mix of seeing the variety that Costa Rica has to offer and creating fun memories to last a lifetime. And it was achieved in only one week!
Even though we visited the mountains, rain forest, cloud forest, and the beach, we just scratched the surface. Geographically speaking, Costa Rica can be considered a “small” country (about the size of West Virginia), but it is impossible to see and do everything in a one week, let alone in several vacations. This is the reason why people from all over the world constantly revisit. Costa Rica is a little country with big adventures!
Please note that the family allotted travel days into their schedule, so if you add their arrival day and departure day (flying), this trip actually took 9 days, which is what I recommend in order to visit all or most of the places that we did on this trip. Otherwise, you can adjust your itinerary by hitting the ground running, or eliminate a couple of adventures. A week is just enough to get a taste, but of course each area we visited has so much more to offer. If you can afford more than an overnight stay, do it!
The next morning we took our family to drop off their rental car. We said our long goodbyes (the kids did not want to leave!) and they took the rental car shuttle back to the terminal to fly home.
We thoroughly enjoyed their company and loved discovering new things with them. We hope that not only will they carry the memory of their trip here for years to come, but perhaps they may consider another visit to explore and laugh more! Until we meet again . . .