Pura Vida! More than just a greeting, this iconic Costa Rican phrase defines the attitude and way of life in Costa Rica. Literally translated, it means “Pure Life” and it is used as a greeting, a farewell, and a general expression to express that life is good and everything is fine.
On our recent family trip to Costa Rica, we experienced Pura Vida up close and personal. We saw sandy beaches, tropical rain forests, cloud forests, jungle, rivers, volcanoes, and a lot of exotic wildlife. We met friendly people, anxious to share the beauty and history of their country. We tasted many different preparations of gallo pinto (traditional rice and beans), delicious seafood, and innovative cuisine. Pura Vida for sure!
We were able to visit several distinct areas of the country in a relatively short time by using a mix of drivers, guides, and shared transport. We choose to not rent a car since many of the roads are dirt and gravel and we had heard, correctly it turns out, that the road signage is quite poor in Costa Rica.
If you are planning a family trip to Costa Rica, here is a suggested itinerary that highlights our favorite places:
Fly to Juan Santamaria Airport (SJO) in Alajuela, near the capital city of San Jose. Arrive at hotel in mid-afternoon. Flying from the Bay Area, we connected from San Francisco to Houston to San Jose, Costa Rica.
Recommendation: Stay at the Hotel Real Intercontinental at Multiplaza Mall., which is part of the IHG/Holiday Inn family. Relax by the lovely pool, enjoy the delicious onsite restaurants, or head across the parking lot to do some local shopping at the large Multiplaza Mall.
Get to know San Jose and the surrounding area. Take a taxi downtown. Although the Central Market is a bit underwhelming, it is a great place to use as a base for a walking tour. Within a few blocks, you can buy souvenirs, view historic colonial architecture, visit the gold and jade museums, or head to the zoo to see native animals and birds. Alternately, you can ask the staff at your hotel to arrange a tour to Sarchi (wooden ox cart factory), Poas (volcano), or Lankester Gardens (large orchid collection). Although San Jose has a relatively low crime rate, use normal precautions, such as not leaving your valuables in the car, locking hotel room door, and using your hotel safe to protect your passport and extra cash. Children should of course be kept within sight at all times.
Head to Tortugeuro National Park on the northeast Caribbean side of the country. This is truly a case where the journey is as much fun as the destination! There are no roads to Tortuguero so you need to travel by land from San Jose and then transfer to a boat. On the way, you will go through the Braulio Carrillo National Park and cross the Continental Divide. It takes about three hours to travel from San Jose to Tortuguero.
Recommendation: Families will find it convenient to arrange a package that includes lodging, food, transportation, and a local guide. We like the Mawamba Lodge, a small-ish lodge with 68 rooms, very good food, and knowledgeable guides. Our guide, Sebastian, did a great job of finding monkeys and sloths in the trees as we floated along the canals.
Take a 15-mintue walk along the coast trail to the neighboring village and the Sea Turtle Conservancy. Explore the canals of Tortugeruo from a small boat. The local guides are great at sighting and pointing out animals, such as caiman, toucans, sloths, spider monkeys, and iguanas.
Recommendation: The nice thing about staying at Mawamba Lodge is that there are two butterfly gardens and a frog habitat right on the property.
Leave Tortugero and go to the town of La Fortuna, home of Arenal Volcano. This makes for a bit of a long day as the travel time (by boat through the canals and on land) is about five hours. Luckily, the scenery along the way is breathtaking. We even saw a few sloths in the trees along the roadway as we got close to La Fortuna.
Due to the geothermal activity from Arenal, several local resorts feature hot springs. The eco-minded Tabacon Grand Spa Resort is a well-appointed resort that is built on the river that flows from the volcano so it features natural hot mineral pools, meandering thermal-heated springs, and waterfalls surrounded by lush rain forest plants and birds.
Enjoy the hot springs or take advantage of the activities in the area.
Recommendation: If you have not pre-arranged an activity, your hotel staff should be able to book something fun for your family, such as hiking over hanging bridges, horseback rides, zip lines, canopy tours, spelunking, whitewater rafting, and more.
Head to the town of Santa Elena, home of the Monteverde Cloud Forest. You can either go by land (4-5 hours) or by a combination of land or boat transfers (includes crossing Lake Arenal and takes about 3 hours total). If you leave La Fortuna early in the day, you will arrive in Santa Elena in time for an interesting coffee/cocoa tour at either Don Juan or El Trapiche.
Recommendation: The combination land and boat transfer was quite scenic. The road to Monteverde is not paved so a 4×4 would be needed for the rough, rocky terrain. We stayed at Hotel Poco a Poco, which was conveniently located across the street from a grocery store and a short walk to town.
Visit the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. We opted for a guided tour since the guides are adept at spotting animals and birds. They can also tell you about the importance of cloud forests and point out specific plants and describe their uses. After spending the morning at the Cloud Forest Preserve, you can use your afternoon to walk around the shops of Santa Elena, go on a zip line adventure, or enjoy the pool at your hotel.
Recommendation: Go on a night hike to get different perspective of the cloud forest. We saved this for the last night since we did not want to know too much about the night time bugs and creepy crawlers until it was almost time to go home! Although we were a bit freaked out at first, we were glad we took the tour as we saw a 6’ long viper snake, huge tarantulas, bats, and a slow-moving sloth. Be sure to save time for a meal at The Tree House, a multi-level restaurant that is popular with families since it is literally built around a huge ficus tree.
Reality hits and it is time to head home. It takes about three hours to drive from Monteverde to the Juan Santamaria Airport (SJO) in Alajuela, near San Jose so it is best to book a late afternoon flight.
Hope you are lucky enough to have a family adventure in Costa Rica in the near future. Pura Vida!