This year we traveled to Costa Rica for Spring Break, April 12-21, 2014. April 20 was Easter, so we were prepared for big crowds and premium pricing. I knew this would be a very expensive vacation with all of the activities, so I booked 5 round-trip Saver Level Mileage Plus flights on United for a total of 175,000 United Miles, which saved us quite a bit of money.
Day 1: After an uneventful cab ride to Dulles, we departed on time at 9:00 am on a direct United flight to San Jose. Arrived at 12:00 pm and moved through customs relatively quickly. Each of us brought one carry-on, so we didn’t have to retrieve bags. Easily found the rental car counter and were immediately escorted to a shuttle that drove us to the off-site rental facility. First thought on stepping outside the airport – wow, is it hot and humid here! I arranged our rental car (a Rav 4) through 4×4 Rental Car . When renting a car in Costa Rica, be very careful that your quote includes the mandatory insurance. Most don’t. I went with this company based on recommendations on TripAdvisor and their assurance that it included all required fees. Turns out this was more of a booking agency, and the car rental was actually through Budget, but we had no issues and weren’t charged for anything extra. We did use our AmEx to purchase the American Express $25 supplemental no-liability insurance just in case, since we were aware that there can be issues in Costa Rica. For GPS, we downloaded the free map from www.crmap.com onto our Garmin Nuvi, which actually worked very well with one minor issue, which I’ll cover later.
We hit the road and my kids were immediately struck by the ramshackle nature of the houses along the road. At first glance, this appears to be a very poor country, although we would come to learn through the week that houses are just different here. There are very few “American” styles houses. Most are open to the outdoors, and near cities they are behind high barbed-wire fences. We were all starving, and it took some time before we came to a shopping center area with some sort of food court. I’m sure we passed a few sodas (local restaurants) along the road, but we weren’t yet adventurous enough to give them a try. The total drive time to our first stop was 2 ½ hours. We were definitely all a little weary when we finally arrived at the Treehouses Hotel, about 20 minutes outside of La Fortuna. I was very excited to stay here in a tree house. I hadn’t told my husband or kids about this ahead of time, and the boys loved the surprise. “Really, we are staying in a treehouse???” They are huge Treehouse Masters fans! It was a bit outside of La Fortuna, so I strategically planned our excursions for the first 2 days to things close by, so it didn’t bother us at all. We loved this place! There are 6 treehouses and one more under construction. Our treehouse had a queen-sized bed, a small area with a refrigerator, safe, and storage, and a small bathroom with a shower partially screened to the outside. There was a ladder that went up to a loft with 3 twin mattresses for the kids. The whole thing had a full wrap-around porch. It was a little cramped for 5 of us, but totally worth it for the novelty.
As soon as we checked in, we set out to explore the grounds, which were great. There were several trails for walking. One led to a waterfall/swimming hole and another to a river where you could also swim. The boys played in the water for a while, but we kept a close eye on the time because it gets dark in Costa Rica year-round at 5:45 and we didn’t want to be down some long path in the jungle with no lights. Once we got back to the treehouse, Mark, the manager, told us he was ordering pizzas to be delivered for some of the other treehouses and asked us if we were interested. We were. So we enjoyed pizza on our deck and waited for the 8:00 pm complimentary night hike with the night watchman. Unfortunately, the kids didn’t make it and were sound asleep by 8:00. My husband and I went, however, and it really enjoyed it. Rolando was an expert at pointing out wildlife. Among the highlights we saw were a red-eyed tree frog, a blue jeans frog, and a tarantula in its nest. By 9:15 pm we were back in the treehouse, exhausted, and in bed. I would call Day 1 a success!
Day 2: I didn’t want to have to get everyone up super early on our first vacation day, so I chose white water rafting as the day’s activity, as the pick up was not until 11:00 am. Little did I know that the jungle gets up very early and we were awakened by the monkeys starting at 4:30 am! I had brought ear plugs, and was able to get back to sleep for a little while, but this was consistent for the whole trip no matter where we were. Wake up to howler monkeys at 4:30, fall back asleep until about 5:30 am, go to bed exhausted no later than 9:00pm!
Everyone was up and dressed by 6:30 am. The Treehouses staff delivers coffee to your porch each morning, so we enjoyed some time relaxing outside. Breakfast was included, but didn’t start until 8:00 am and the kids were very antsy, so we headed out to explore the grounds while we waited. We saw a tree porcupine, a sloth, a blue jeans frog, some lizards, an aguti (which looked like a giant guinea pig), and an armadillo. We were at breakfast right at 8:00, which included fruit, scrambled eggs, bacon, and a whipped bean dish that some of us loved and others (me) didn’t. Mark and his wife Lucy served the breakfast and were very chatty and helped point out animals nearby, including the sloth right above our heads!
At 11:00, our whitewater rafting company, Aguas Bravas, picked us up and drove us in a school bus down a very bumpy road to the river. You could definitely get sick on this ride if you are sensitive to motion. We got our life jackets and helmets and were assigned our guide. Our raft was just the 5 of us. This trip was so much fun! It lasted about 2 hours and was just the right amount of rapids for us. My 9 year old was nervous about falling out at first, but he got into the swing of things pretty quickly. Half way down we stopped and got out and had a quick snack of fresh pineapple and watermelon. The tour finished right down the road from the Treehouses, but it included lunch (although it was about 4:30 by the time we ate, so more like dinner!) and then a demonstration of the sugar making process, which included tasting the sugar cane and rum made from the cane. They dropped us back at the Treehouses to get our car and follow the bus because everyone else was staying in LaFortuna and the company didn’t want to come back out to drop us off again. The lunch (a traditional Costa Rican lunch) was very good and the sugar cane demonstration was interesting. It was by far the strongest rum I’ve ever tasted in my life. By the time we got back to the Treehouses, everyone was exhausted. Despite our best efforts, no one was awake for the night hike at 8:00!
Day 3: Up with the monkeys again, and walked around the grounds while we waited for breakfast. Today it was a rolled French toast, which was really delicious. We reluctantly said goodbye to the Treehouses Hotel and headed to Proyecto Asis just down the road. This is a wildlife rehab center that I had booked from home. Our tour started at 8:30 am and included 2 other families. Our guide explained that keeping wild animals is illegal in Costa Rica, and most of the animals brought there were confiscated from homes. They try to release them back to the wild, but those that can’t be released live at the center for the rest of their lives. We had signed up for the “volunteer” part of the tour, so we also got to participate in feeding the animals at the end of the regular tour. It was a fun activity and we finished up around 12:00.
I had made reservations for horseback riding to the La Fortuna waterfall with Alberto’s horses at 1:30 from home, so we drove to LaFortuna, which took about 20 minutes. We had lunch at Lava Café in downtown LaFortuna, which was good. At Alberto’s, Alberto himself matched us up with horses based on our astrological signs. I knew my own “sign” but I had no idea what my kids’ “signs” were! We were joined by one other woman, a French student named Magdalena, and our guide was Alberto’s son, Edson, who was very personable. We changed into jeans and shoes and carried our swim suits. We set out across farmland, down a road, and finally arrived at the entrance to the waterfall. Wow, was this a steep climb down a lot of stairs! But the waterfall was beautiful and we got to swim at the bottom. The climb back up is definitely not for the out-of-shape, but we did just fine. Edson took several photos of us on the horses, which was nice.
After the horseback riding, we drove a few miles down the road to Los Lagos Resort where we would spend the next 2 nights. Even though we could have gotten one superior room for 5 people, we preferred to have our own space and spread out so we booked 2 standard rooms, which were located in a 3-room building just a short walk from the pool. This resort is really spread out with a shuttle to take you to the pool and restaurants. The standard rooms, however, all appear to have the best (closest) locations and we easily walked everywhere. By the time we checked in it was dark and we were tired from our long and busy day, so we opted to eat in the hotel restaurant. It was really good. In planning the trip I thought maybe we would use the pool in the evening, but everyone was so tired after dinner (a recurring theme!) we all went to bed instead.
Day 4: No monkeys, but up early again thanks to some birds right outside our door. We got ready and walked to breakfast, included with the room. It was a buffet, and got very high points with the kids. After breakfast we drove to SkyTrek down an insanely bumpy road for our ziplining at 9:00 am. K and I had ziplined before in Whistler, BC and loved it, but this was the first time for the kids. After checking in and watching the monkeys in the trees, got suited up and boarded the Ariel Tram for the scenic ride up the mountain. They have free lockers that you can use for your stuff, and I put my camera in there. I regretted it, though, as everyone seemed to be ziplinging just fine with cameras and I would have loved to take some pictures. The ziplines here are extremely long and crazy high up. We are all daredevils, so no one was scared. They made my two youngest boys go together on the first few runs because they were concerned they didn’t weigh enough to make it across, which they were NOT happy about, but the last few runs they were able to do by themselves. My only complaint here is that it went way too fast. They really keep it moving. As soon as you land at one station they have you off to the next before the person behind you even gets to your platform. My oldest son went first, then I went, then the two younger boys, then my husband, but we never saw each other until the bottom. I was a little concerned in case the boys were scared or had issues (they didn’t). But it went so fast, I would have preferred if there was a little more waiting to regroup with your family. I think it makes it a little more fun. We passed on the professional photos and stopped on our way back to Los Lagos for lunch at an Italian restaurant right outside the entrance to Los Lagos. The rest of the afternoon was spent enjoying Los Lagos’ awesome pools, hot springs, and animals (a nice walking area with alligators, a butterfly enclosure, and a frog area). We decided we needed some more cash so we headed out for dinner and an ATM. Dinner at the Lava Lounge, which was good, then back to the resort and early to bed. This was our only 2 nights of the entire trip with a television, but the English-language options were very limited.
Day 5: After the buffet breakfast, we checked out of Los Lagos and headed to an 8:30 am tour at Rainforest Chocolate. The tour was very informative and fun for the kids. We got to make our own chocolate concoctions and eat lots of chocolate here. Finished the tour at 10:30, and we were on our way to Manuel Antonio for the second part of the trip. When planning our itinerary, I was really torn between Guanacaste, which would have been much closer, or Manuel Antonio which required a long drive, but in the end the animals won out and I thought we would all enjoy it more. So we set out for Manuel Antonio, and here is where things went a little wrong with the GPS. I had not mapped out the route ahead of time, and the GPS took us on the most direct route, which involved about an hour on some absolutely insane bumpy dirt road up and down hills. My husband was not a happy camper and was getting progressively agitated. Not that I could blame him, we had no idea when/if we would ever find civilization again. We were literally in the middle of nowhere. Eventually, though, we merged back onto a highway. We were starving, and stopped for a late lunch at a roadside soda, which was good. We stopped at the famous Tarcoles Bridge to see the crocodiles, but spent all of about 2 minutes outside the car as it was packed and there were many questionable characters trying to sell us stuff or “guard” our car for us. Finally, after a 6 hour day in the car, we arrived at our next stop, a villa rental called Espadilla Ocean Club that I found online. I originally booked a hotel using AmEx points through AmEx Travel, but 3 MONTHS after the booking was complete they told me the hotel was oversold and they could not complete the reservation. In the end, it all worked out as we loved Espadilla Ocean Club. Our villa had 2 bedrooms and a bath upstairs, and a kitchen/living room and bath downstairs. It was great to have our own kitchen. This little villa was one of the few places in Manuel Antonio that was literally on the beach, and it was brand new and very modern. The owner of the rental, who lives onsite, asked me if I wanted the place stocked with food, which we took advantage of. She also collected our dirty laundry and had it back to us the next day for $10, and she even ordered in pizza for us on our first night, because of course we were exhausted!
Day 6: Up at 4:30 am to the sound of howler monkeys, but managed to fall back asleep until 5:45. The villa had floor to ceiling windows, which was great for the view but not so great for sleeping in. We enjoyed breakfast in the villa and then headed out for our 7:45 pick up by Luis of Vacation Buggies for a trek into the rainforest. This was a ½ day trip up a mountain into the jungle, stopping at a waterfall and crossing a suspension bridge, all in a vehicle that was a cross between a golf cart and a dune buggie. I was really on the fence about booking this activity because it was really expensive, but the TripAdvisor reviews were literally perfect with people raving about it, and I finally decided to just do it. In the end, we thought it was fun, but it didn’t really live up to the hype. Maybe had the owner Don given us the tour (most of the rave reviews were about what a character her was) it would have been better. After getting dropped back at the Villa, we spent the afternoon on the beach. This beach is supposedly deserted most of the year, but most certainly not the week before Easter. It was packed elbow to elbow with locals. The Villa owner arranged for us to have rental chairs, an umbrella, and boogie boards, so we made the best of it and the kids had a blast boogie boarding until it got so crowded it was impossible for them not to crash into anyone. We ended the day by making dinner in our Villa and a taking a quick dip in our plunge pool.
Day 7: Up early and breakfast in the Villa again. Then we headed out and drove about a half hour to meet up with Jose, a local, for a full-day adventure. Jose and his son (age 10) took us to private Damas Island, not accessible to the public, but he knows the family that lives there and is allowed to bring guests. We headed out by boat through the mangroves where Jose pointed out lots of interesting wildlife along the way. The island itself was great. Only one family lives on it, and we got up close and personal with cows, chickens, horses, goats, pigs, and more. We spent a few hours on the amazing private beach boogie boarding, and the kids rode a horse on the beach. Then went to the family’s house (which was almost completely outdoors!) where we were served a great traditional lunch. After lunch, we just hung out for a few hours on the property. The kids had a great time knocking mangoes and other fruit off the trees and eating it. Not something they get to do at home! This isn’t really a commercial tour, but something Jose does on the side that I learned about on TripAdvisor. We had to get back before the tide got too low, so headed back through the mangroves. On the way back to the Villa we stopped at a grocery store and picked up a few items so we could make dinner again.
Day 8: This morning we were taking a private tour of Manuel Antonio National Park with Johan Chavez, a guide I picked from his great TripAdvisor reviews. We had agreed on 7:15 am for starting, but Johan emailed me the day before to see if I might want to start earlier since the crowds were so crazy. I gladly agreed and he was at our villa at 6:45 am. We followed him in our car and he showed us where to park. He had pre-purchased our park tickets and we got to the gate just as they opened it at 7:00 am. From the beginning, I knew Johan was a great choice. He was very personable, great with the kids, and had an amazing scope that you could take pictures through with even a basic iPhone. I am so glad I left my big DSLR lens at home. Using my very basic Nikon J1, I got some really amazing pictures. He showed us so much wildlife and it was just the right pace. The trail to the beach is really long and if you aren’t stopping along the way to see animals I’m sure it seems even longer. We saw sloths, lizards, crabs, birds, raccoons, and other things I’m forgetting, but the most memorable were the monkeys. All different kinds and so many of them. It was really amazing. When we got to the beach Johan’s wife was waiting for us with a very nice fresh fruit snack with water and juice. She had saved us a table, so we were able to sit and rest and watch the monkeys come right up to unsuspecting visitors and steal food from them! After the snack, Johan asked us if we wanted to stay on the main beach, or head to the second more secluded beach. We choose the more secluded beach so he walked us over. Wow. This beach was gorgeous and we practically had it to ourselves. So different from the public beach crowds. He also gave us a tip about which trees NOT to sit under for shade, as some will give you a rash. Johan explained a shortcut to get back to our car when we were ready to leave, told us to be careful of roaming raccoons that will come right up to you (and they did!), then said goodbye to us. We headed down the beach to find a shady spot and saw a sloth so close we didn’t even need Johan’s scope. We spent the next few hours playing in the beautiful and warm water. The waves on this beach are much bigger than the main beach in the park, and really knocked you around, but it was fun. Finally after I was concerned everyone had gotten way too much sun (we are a very fair-skinned family) we headed out of the park. Johan had recommended a nice spot for lunch so we stopped before returning to the car. His suggestion was great and lunch was delicious. We hung out for a few hours back at the Villa. A whole troop of monkeys were in the trees right outside, and we had fun watching them. I took tons of photos. Tonight we decided to go out for dinner, so we headed up the hill from the Villa and went to el Wagon. Doesn’t seem like much on the outside, but the atmosphere was great in this open-air restaurant. We all ordered different pizzas and enjoyed them quite a bit. Another early evening and we were all exhausted.
Day 9: Today was Easter Sunday AND my husband’s 44th birthday! Originally I thought we would just get up and check out, but since we were up early again (surprise!) we decided to spend some time on the beach in front of the villa. First thing we noticed when we looked out at the parking lot was that it was empty! I think many of the local families had returned home for Easter. We spent several hours on the beach and had it mostly to ourselves. We didn’t have boogie boards at this point, but we all enjoyed just playing in the waves and the kids played a little frisbie on the beach until a dog came by and stole the frisbie. The poor dog’s owner spent about 20 minutes trying to get the frisbie back from the dog, but he was quick. The kids thought this was great as they love dogs. Around 10:30 am we headed back in to shower and pack and said goodbye to the Espadilla Ocean Club around. We left about 11:30, then stopped for lunch at one of the hotels in town. The food was ok, but the view from this place was amazing!
Our next and final stop with the Marriott in Heredia outside of San Jose where we would spend our last night before our 6:00 am flight home. It took about 3 hours to get there. The traffic was very heavy as we got closer to San Jose, and my Garmin GPS device died (permanently) on the way. Glad it wasn’t earlier in the week! But the hotel did not disappoint. Originally I was going to book someplace cheap near the airport, but ultimately decided to finish on a high note and booked a 2-room suite using 40,000 Marriott Rewards points at this resort. I had read such great things about this hotel and it was gorgeous. Very Spanish style and our suite was beautiful. The room description said it had a pull-out sofa, but the women checking us in took one look at the kids and said “I think you are going to need some rollaways.” Turns out they replaced the sofas and they were no longer sofa beds! This actually worked out better, because the rollaways (no charge) were nice and my youngest son chose to sleep on the sofa, so no one had to share a bed. The suite came with access to the Executive Lounge. Wow, this was quite a spread. It was a buffet that was easily a full meal and desserts, so we didn’t have to go for dinner, which was a big savings. We walked around the grounds which included a driving range and pool (no one wanted to swim), and then I surprised my husband with spa treatments for the evening to celebrate his birthday, so we left the kids in the room at 7:00 pm and headed to the beautiful spa. What a great way to celebrate his birthday and end this awesome week!
Day 10: Because our flight for home departed at 6:00 am, we were up and out of the room by 3:30 am! Kids were bummed not to get to go to the lounge for breakfast, but it didn’t open until 6:00 am. We stopped by the rental car place and returned the car with no problems, and were quickly at the airport. I expected the airport to be deserted at 4:30 am, but was I wrong! The whole departure thing was a little confusing. First we got in line to pay the departure tax, which was easy and quick enough. There was the option of paying this at the Marriott, but it was $5 extra per person so we didn’t do it. Had our flights been later in the day I would have, though, because of the crowds. Then we headed to security. The line was fairly short, but when we got to the front we were told that we had to first check in with the airline at the counter even though we had boarding passes and weren’t checking bags. Apparently that’s where you turn in the departure tax cards. So we headed back across the airport and waited in a massive line that took forever, before heading back to security. At this point, huge lines had formed. There were two lines, one for adults only and one for families. The one for families was much shorter, but it took so much longer. The only guy working it was ridiculously slow. But we finally made it through all of this and to the gate just in time to grab a really quick breakfast. The airport food prices were the most expensive I have ever seen in an airport. $6 for a small muffin? $12 for a bagel sandwich? Did I mention that the whole airport was crazy busy and chaotic? Finally boarded the Copa flight to Panama where we would connect back to Dulles. The flight was fine and they even served a nice breakfast. We landed in Panama and had to go through a security screen at the gate for our next flight, which I wasn’t expecting, but soon enough we were in the air and headed home.
Final Thoughts: This was truly an amazing trip. We loved Costa Rica and really did not encounter any problems or have any negative experiences. The people were all very friendly and the food was delicious. I encourage everyone to try the local sodas. I was a little worried because so many activities required cash, rather than credit cards, but ATMs were plentiful and gave money in either Colones or Dollars. We always chose dollars and never once needed Colones. Driving was not a big deal at all – rent a car! Most of the roads are perfectly fine. A few times we were on bumpy dirt roads, but nothing that was really challenging. You will probably be happier with the freedom you have with a car, I know we were. Going to La Fortuna and Manuel Antonio was a perfect combination for us. Having a Villa with a kitchen for the last few days was great, as everyone was getting tired of going to restaurants for every meal and it was nice to be able to enjoy a few meals we made ourselves. The kids loved everything we did and I think it was a great mix of animals, adventure, action, and relaxation. When asked, they all said their favorite activity was white water rafting. My advice would be to not plan more than one activity per day. We stuck to that schedule for every day except one, when we went to Proyecto Asis wildlife refuge in the morning and horseback riding in the afternoon, and we were all pretty exhausted that day.
How crowded is it in Costa Rica the week leading up to Easter? We found the answer to be “not at all” in LaFortuna, and “very” in Manuel Antonio. But that might also just be because we were in Manuel Antonio for Thursday, Friday, Saturday before Easter, which are probably the busiest of the week. We found the public beach in Manuel Antonio to be unbearable those days, but the second beach inside MA National Park to be nearly deserted. So my advice would be to pay the fee and go into the park, you will have a much more enjoyable time. I think it is mostly locals that create the crowds on the public beach, because we didn’t have a hard time booking tours or going to restaurants. The crowds were pretty much limited to the beach. So don’t be deterred. If this is when you can go, go!
Since I am the trip planner and my family usually just shows up with no idea where we are staying or what we are doing, my husband asked me if there was anything I would do differently or anything that didn’t work out like I thought, and honestly I couldn’t think of anything. That’s the sign of a great vacation! Would we go back? Absolutely! But we probably won’t because the world is a very big place and there are so many places we want to see!