We had a fabulous trip to Costa Rica. It was a well-timed winter break to get a bit of sun and hiking in. While it was an enjoyable holiday, it had a different flavor from some of our past holidays. I think it is safe to say that this is the first holiday that we’ve been up at 6am every morning and in bed by 9pm.
It was a long travel day getting there from London and we were glad to have arrived in San Jose. We spent a day adjusting to the time change, resting and exploring San Jose. We got a real authentic feel for Costa Rica and an opportunity to practice our Spanish, which was harder to do in the more tourist-centric areas.
Following San Jose, we headed north to Volcán Arenal. We stayed on a farm B&B in our own little cottage backed by a spot of rainforest and a view of the volcano from our front porch. This active volcano is known for its nightly shows of red lava streaking down the side. Unfortunately, after about 50 years, the flows stopped last year. The view was stunning none-the-less and we were fortunate to have a clear day to see the steaming peak. The farm had horses, cows, pigs and chickens and sourced a good portion of the food served for breakfast and dinner on site. W loved watching the animals (both the four and two-legged kinds) while the other children collected eggs and milked the cow. I’m sure he will be keen to do the same when he is older.
We hiked most every day while in the North starting with Rio Celeste, a river that is made a vivid aqua blue from (safe) mineral deposits. We hiked up the mountain to the hot springs in the river and took a dip. W loved the water (a developing theme) which was like swimming in warm bath water, so much that we stayed in the River for 2 hours before calling it a day and hiking our way back. It was a bit like reaching a spa at the end of a mountain hike. We also hiked on the side of the volcano which had great views of the lake below, native orchids blooming along the trail and resident monkeys playing in the trees. And then, along a more manicured rainforest trail at the nearby Hanging Bridges–complete with sighting a baby Eyelash Pit Viper.
While driving back from Rio Celeste on a rural dirt road, we saw a group of people gathered alongside the road, so we stopped. We weren’t sure what was going on, but they appeared to be looking at something off the side of the road. Quickly, we discovered a sloth in the tree with a baby on its back. It was so close and we could clearly see its measured movements as it slowly moved along the branch. We chatted a bit with the kids in Spanish and they loved playing with W — “¡Qué lindo!” (how lovely/cute) we heard a lot on this trip in reference to W, a favourite expression of the locals. It was one of those authentic, non-tourist experiences that we love when we travel.
From Arenal, we drove down to Manuel Antonio, perhaps one of the most popular tourist destinations in Costa Rica. It’s a national park full of wildlife, such as sloths and monkeys, right on the beach. We stayed at a boutique hotel with monkeys in the surrounding trees. We’d spend the morning down on the beach and the afternoon on the terrace by the pool watching monkeys. We spent a day in the park itself which was great to see, but flooded with tourists which made it feel a bit more like Disney Land than a national park, but we were able to escape the crowds and find a nice section of beach within the park where iguanas would wander by. The waves were calm and there were plenty of Coco Palms to shade us from the bright sunshine. With a few animal crackers and a big picnic quilt thrown in for nap time, it was an ideal day.
And our other days there were spent watching the morning and evening parade of monkeys through the trees, paying a visit to the water-apple tree at our resort, hanging out on a tiny private beach below our B&B, swimming with W in the small pool, eating gorgeous fish tacos at the local taqueria (Sancho’s) and taking in the beautiful sunsets over the Pacific.
Our last stop was Playa Sámara, a small town with a long, gorgeous horseshoe beach. The flat beach made for a drastic contrast between high and low-tide leaving plenty of space for playing and activities. The quaint little town felt authentic despite being full of foreigners. All the restaurants, hotels and stores were mom-and-pop operations with the only chain in town a grocery that was brand new (and a bit controversial). We wondered how this beautiful spot had not been spoilt by tourism and big resorts. Apparently the town is very adamant about limiting development and has repeatedly turned away major resorts.
We quickly settled into a routine spending our days on the beach starting with a fresh papaya and pastry for breakfast every morning. Building sandcastles, playing in the waves (which W loved!) and taking regular naps. We found a great spot with palm trees to provide shade (paying close attention to the location of cocos overhead), though we’d have to move our blanket a couple times a day. We were very strict about protecting W from the sun and even with his 50 spf sun cream, we did our best to keep him in the shade at all times. He had his own personal umbrella carrier (aka Daddy) following him around as he crawled the beach to keep a spot of shade over him. He is not a fan of hats and found it a fun game to see how quickly he could remove it. It is a wonder that we got even one photo of him wearing it.
W loved the sand and waves. He wasn’t bothered at all by a splash of salt water or a mouthful of sand. His swim lessons for the last 5 months likely helped with him being comfortable in the water as he excitedly kicked to ‘swim’ back and forth between us. We’d also build a little pool surrounded by a sandcastle every day. The pool would naturally fill as the tide came in and the water table rose, he’d play in with his shovel and pale and ‘help’ us to put the finishing touches on the castle.
We loved Playa Sámara so much that we extended our stay there by an extra day before heading back to San Jose via the 5 hour-long public bus service (which left at 4am). We had one last day in San Jose and took in a few spots that we missed on the way in such as Hotel Grano de Oro and Cafe Mundo — both great restaurants. Then it was back on the plane and on our way home to London.
One travel tip about Costa Rica that caught us off-guard that is worth mentioning. Costa Rica has a departure tax when leaving the country. This isn’t unusual. However, in all of our years of traveling, this tax has always been included with the taxes and fees paid with the airfare — not in Costa Rica. You have to pay the tax personally in cash at the airport when departing, this was a surprise to us. While they do accept credit cards for the payment, the stinger is that it is charged as a cash advance so that you have to pay extra interest to the credit card company — ouch! I suppose it provides extra jobs for the people at the payment desk and the departures queue to check the receipts, but it all seems a bit inefficient and pointless. And most importantly leaves a bit of a sour aftertaste following a fantastic trip. So, if you head to Costa Rica, just be prepared for this and have cash ready.
Not to end on a sour note — the trip was fantastic. W had a great time playing on the beach, seeing monkeys, and meeting new people while we enjoyed the warm weather and a break from the hustle of life in London.