Explore: Costa Rica
Costa Rica. This country has been on our family’s travel bucket list for sometime. With two active teenage kids, we are definitely in the market for a vacation packed with adventure. And Costa Rica delivered! But this country is so diverse in topography and activity (or lack there of!) that you really can tailor it to your own vacation needs!
I built this family vacation around two goals: deep sea fishing (for the boys!) and as mentioned, adventure. The recap I am taking you through focuses on two regions that reflect that, including how we got there, where we stayed, and what we did! I will do an additional post of what we packed (all in a carry-on) next!
La Fortuna and the Arenal Volcano
Personally, I could not imagine coming to Costa Rica without visiting the rainforest. While the country boasts more then one, having the Arenal volcano as our background and base, made this area an easy pick for us.
Chicago offers a direct flight to San Jose, Costa Rica (the main international airport) twice a week with a flying time just under five hours. You also can connect through Charlotte, Miami and Dallas on AA. From there, the transfer to La Fortuna takes about three hours by car. When we first planned our trip, we booked a car rental. But after talking with some well seasoned travel friends, we hired a driver. That was GREAT advice! The roads in Costa Rica are not great. And with lots of rain in this region, they easily wash out. As we made our way to La Fortuna after a long flight, we could not say enough how thankful we were that we were not behind the wheel!
I booked all of our transfers with ILT Costa Rica.I simply emailed them our pick up dates, times and destinations. They emailed me back a quote and it was booked! Our transfers were private, clean, comfortable and safe. On our way to La Fortuna, our driver kept offering to stop for us to take in a sight, eat at a restaurant or to stretch and rest. There is no sense of hurry! I will mention throughout this recap that the people of Costa Rica are perhaps the most wonderful you will ever encounter. They take great pride in their country and go out of their way to make you feel welcome.
Where We Stayed
can you spot the iguana?
There is nothing I love more then to discover hidden travel treasures, especially when it comes to lodging. I really strive to find places that are special and intimate. Places that feel connected to where we are at. I fell upon Hotel El Selencio del Campo after researching on a Facebook travel group, and I immediately knew I had to book my family here!
El Selencio del Campo is utterly charming!. The rooms are spacious individual cottages nicely separated from one another. While simply appointed they are comfortable and meticulously clean. What you experience outside of your cabin though is truly what makes this place so special. The grounds and hot springs are a tropical paradise. We sat on our front porch with our coffee every morning enjoying the view of the volcano while watching all the birds. And after a long day of activity, there was nothing more satisfying then coming back to your own private hot springs to soak in. While hot springs are prevalent in the area, many resorts share their’s with the public. But at El Selencio they are only enjoyed by hotel guests!
There is also a small farm on the property. Horses, cows, chickens and even peacocks are at this working farm where you can collect eggs and learn to milk a cow. My teenagers loved it! Rob and I truly envisioned bringing our grandkids back here one day!
But really it was the staff that made this stay a first class experience. From booking all of our excursions to going out of their way to be friendly, accommodating and courteous, I cannot say enough wonderful things about them.
I also want add that the food and spa are exceptional! Breakfast is included in your stay (I still dream about the fresh fruit served every morning!) but we also ate at the restaurant for most dinners. So much comes from their farm and garden there-eggs, cheese and vegetables-it is truly farm to table!
What We Did
There is so much to do in La Fortuna! And while there is something for everyone, our family was interested in the active (and challenging) activities. We booked all of our excursions through the hotel but I will link the tour operators we went with below. The price of your excursion most always includes roundtrip transfers and lunch. You can even tie on another activity for the day. Whatever we wanted our custom itinerary to look like, everyone worked with us to make it happen!
Waterfall Rappelling and Canyoning
Our tour was booked with Desafio. They were awesome! We rappelled down huge waterfalls, jumped into pools, down-climbed the canyon walls, and hiked up through the rainforest. They took pictures for us all along the way with their devices so you do not have to worry about bringing yours (you do pay for them later but worth every penny!)
I think this is the adventure activity everyone has in mind when they come to Costa Rica. There are a ton of tour operators throughout the country so you can experience this just about anywhere. Of course my kids picked one of the most extreme zip lines in La Fortuna, booked through SkyAdventures. This circuit is located in the rainforest right next to the volcano. You take a sky tram to the top of the rainforest which is your starting point. You then make your way down the mountain over the course of seven lines. This tour is not for the faint hearted! It is extreme but the views are breathtaking! I still cannot believe I did this!
Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges
Because we were in the area, we headed to the Mistico Hanging Bridges after the ziplining tour. A series of trails and bridges form a loop through a 250 acre rainforest situated right next to the volcano. While you can take a self-guided tour, I highly recommend booking a guide if you want to spot wildlife!
Note: While our original ziplining tour included a transfer back to the hotel, our concierge and SkyAdventures worked it out so that our transfer dropped us off at Mistico instead. We ended up having a private van take us. Along the way our driver spotted toucans in the trees. He pulled over, took out a telescope and captured the moment for us! This is Costa Rica!
White Water Rafting
On our last day we white water rafted! We had this day open until the night before but our wonderful concierge was able to book us through Arenal Rafting last minute. I am so glad we did this! The rapids were about a 2 -3. Challenging us (we did flip) but plenty of time to float and enjoy the beautiful scenery. Our guide was incredible! After the tour we were taken back to base camp (the owners home!) for lunch. Here we met the owner of the company and were introduced to his new litter of dachshund puppies!
Guanacaste Province and Playa Hermosa
After four days of adventure and rain, I knew we needed to dry out and relax for a few days! There were many ways we could have executed our stay on the coast but my priority was choosing a place that was relatively close by car transfer as well as a great spot for the boys to do their deep sea fishing.
We again arranged with ILT Costa Rica to take us from La Fortuna to Playa Hermosa. The drive was just under three hours. Leaving La Fortuna and heading to the coast there is a noticeable change in topography! The air is drier as well as the vegetation. It definitely reminded us of southern California!
Another reason I chose Playa Hermosa is because it was just under a thirty minute drive to Liberia International airport, the other major airport in Costa Rica. Although it does not offer a direct flight black to Chicago on AA, you can connect through Charlotte, Miami and Dallas. I set our departure back to the US from here (although it did not end up this way due to a flight cancellation!)
Where We Stayed
I booked at us Hotel Bosque del Mar. I choose this hotel for several reasons. One, we had our own beach. Playa Hermosa is mostly a residential town so the beach stays relatively quiet. Two, the boys fishing expedition could be arranged for pick-up at our beach. Third, there were several fantastic restaurants on our beach and in “town”. Finally, it was a thirty minute transfer to the Libera airport.
In terms of the hotel, there were positives and negatives. In addition to above, the positives were spacious and comfortable rooms, a very fun second floor bar and restaurant that looked over the beach and amazing views of the sunset. The negatives were the grounds and outer buildings were a bit run down. The pool area is small and completely covered in shade and the hotel front staff was not nearly as friendly (however we loved the concierge and bonded with our bartender!). Finally, the beach chairs are in serious need of an upgrade.
Another thing to note about the beaches along the Pacific coast is that once you choose your beach, you pretty much are stuck there. It is not easy to get from beach to beach unless you have a car (but the driving conditions still are not great) or you hire a private driver (which we did but it was costly). Even to get to our town required a lift from the hotel. It is not a walkable region.
What We Did
Deep Sea Fishing
Costa Rica has some of the best sport fishing in the world pretty much all year round. But the Pacific Coast is mostly known for marlin fishing in June and July. I booked the boys with Papagayo Sports Fishing for a full day excursion. They picked up and dropped off the boys right at our beach. Also, they had a great time and would highly recommend them. They almost snagged a 15 foot marlin! But in the end caught a ton of mahi-mahi!
Exploring: Playa del Coco, Playa Conchal and Tamarindo
Like I mentioned it is not easy to get from beach to beach but we did it anyway! We hired a private driver through our hotel on both days to take us to them.
Playa del Coco
While the boys fished Madeline and I headed to the next beach town, Playas del Coco. It had everything we needed to restock. ATM, grocery store and plenty of beach shops. From there we went to Playa Ocotal, a very pretty serene beach and snorkeling destination. On our way home, we stopped back at Playas del Coco for a lunch at a great Greek restaurant, Santorini.
Note: I uploaded more restaurants we liked while in Costa Rica on the Out of Office app.
Playa Conchal and Tamarindo
On our last full day the kids really wanted to check out Tamarindo-the liveliest beach town on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. But before we did that we spent the morning in Playa Conchal for some more snorkeling. I loved this beach! Beautiful sand and good snorkeling! Plus they have vendors selling fun drinks and offering horse back rides and massages! Twenty minutes from here is Tamarindo-a popular surfing and tourist destination. Tamarindo beach itself though is what vacation nightmares are made of for me. Lol! It is packed with people and vendors! Think Cancun and Miami rolled up into one. However, the ocean is awesome here! Rolling waves perfect for surfing which Robert took advantage of all afternoon. Surf lessons are abundant too! Plus there are plenty of opportunities to horseback ride on the beach which Madeline and I did!
Additional Info: Guanacaste Province
A few pieces of advice. There is still plenty of adventure activity and excursions to do in the Guanacaste Province but this leg of the trip was R&R for us. If you do ever head to Tamarindo, make sure to ask ahead what time of day is best to surf based on the tides. Each day is different! Finally, while it is definitely more drivable in this region, I am still so glad we hired drivers. Case in point. A huge rainstorm came through the area as we were making our way back from Tamarindo. Along the way, a road completely flooded out. Our driver had a four wheel drive SUV and knew she could get through it as it happens often. However if it was just us, we never would have attempted it and would have been forced to turn around, adding another two hours to our trip!
When to Visit
Costa Rica boasts a micro-climate that sits close to the equator! That means moderate temperatures all year round. Their summer starts in December and goes through April. This is their dry (and most popular) season but also the season packed with tourists. Which of course means higher prices and more crowds. We chose to go during the start of the green season, visiting in June. The green season of course means rain. And it does. Everyday. But usually not until the afternoon. We planned all of our excursions in the morning and never got caught in the rain. But even if we did, you still go! The positive side to the green season is that the crowds are much smaller, the prices are lower and the country is lush and verdant. And to tell you the truth, going during the green season is getting very popular!
Packing for Costa Rica took a lot of thought and planning. I learned so much before and during the trip! So next up will be my post on all that we packed for this trip—-in a carry-on!
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