When we decided on short notice to head out on vacation in March, we knew we wanted somewhere warm and sunny. A long, hard Midwest winter was starting to drive us all crazy, and we were craving sun and heat and, if possible, beaches.
We were originally thinking of going to Hawaii, which is our go-to stress-free beach destination. But since we were so late in starting our planning, all of our favorite places in Hawaii were booked or outrageously expensive. So we started looking farther afield, and we stumbled on Costa Rica. Warm, tropical, safe, clean, and best of all, within reach of our Frequent Flier miles. So off we set for our first family Central American adventure.
I didn’t have time to plan this trip as thoroughly as I usually do, so it was a bit stressful getting everything settled, but it turned out brilliantly.
Day One: Arrive in Liberia, drive to Fortuna, near Arenal Volcano. We spent our first two nights at Hotel Lavas del Arenal, a very fun little family run hotel in the little town of Fortuna. The hotel, though very basic in its amenities (hot water was hit and miss and the shower was fairly primitive) was charming and the owner, Mario, was delightful. Very helpful, with lots of advice about which activities we should try, he also made us a fantastic “typical” Costa Rican dinner one night for a very reasonable price (about $8 US per person) when we were too exhausted to head out to a restaurant. Homemade breakfast was also included in the rate, and the hotel has a lovely garden and a small pool. It even has a playground where our kids spent a few happy hours after dinner swinging and watching the fascinating antics of the leaf-cutter ants that were systematically destroying a nearby bush.
Day Two: Visit Mundo Aventura, a great nature preserve that does zip-lining, canopy walks and has a frog house, a butterfly house, and lots of beautiful gardens. None of us were brave enough to try the zip lining (Cletus thought he would, but one look at the first line dangling hundreds of feet off the ground put an end to that), but we all enjoyed the beautiful grounds. Our main reason for going, though, was the alternate entrance through the reserve to Fortuna Waterfall.
Though you can get to the waterfall from the other side, the entrance fee is about the same as the park, and you get access to all the other attractions as well. Plus, our hike was nearly deserted–a beautiful, if steep and bit treacherous, trek down lots of stairs and trails to a stunning waterfall completely surrounded by rainforest.
This was the highlight of the day for the kids. You can swim right under the falls, either in the deep pool at the bottom or around the bend of the river in the calm shallows, and it felt like something out of an adventure book. We spent most of the day here enjoying the water, then hiked back out to the reserve, where we were picked up by a truck from Mundo Aventura.
On the way down, the driver asked if we’d like to stop and learn more about the Maleku people, the indigenous people of Costa Rica. We agreed, so we stopped for a quick 30 minute visit to the “home” of native Maleku residents. Though this was obviously designed as a shopping opportunity for tourists, we still enjoyed the welcome ceremony, the mini lesson in the language of the Maleku people, and even bought a lovely carved souvenir. (It’s hanging on the wall by my desk as we speak!) Though it might be hard for younger kids to sit through, our boys loved it and were very interested in the whole experience.
One warning, though, the free drink offered is (probably very lightly) alcoholic, which might not be mentioned in the translation to English. (Luckily, Matthew speaks fluent Spanish and was able to give me a heads up since we don’t drink.)
Day Three: Drive over the mountain to Monteverde. This might sound like a minor thing. It’s not. There’s a reason all the guidebooks warn you to rent an SUV when you come to Costa Rica. That was, by far, the craziest road we’ve ever been on. And we’ve been on some crazy roads. Rocks the size of small boulders, giant ditches, crazy hairpin turns, and the most gorgeous views ever. Completely doable, but do not under any circumstances try it in the dark, or the rain, or without four wheel drive. Plan on several hours to finish the drive. It might look half an inch away on the map, but that trip is a doozy.
On our arrival at Monteverde, we checked in to the Hotel El Viandante, another family run hotel. A bit tricky to find and located on a crazy steep hill (but so is all of Monteverde), the hotel was another great find. The rooms were huge, clean and comfortable, and the owner, Grace, was amazingly helpful. She guided us through the array of options for activities, was very honest in her assessment of what would and would not work for our kids, and helped us book a fantastic Night Hike to view the amazing wildlife in the area. When we ran out of time before our hike, she even arranged for them to pick us up at a local restaurant so we would have time to eat dinner.
Grace was a prime example of another golden rule of travel with kids. Hotel owners with kids themselves can become your best ally. They know what it’s like to deal with exhausted and grouchy kids, and they can give honest and accurate answers about the level of interest any activity might hold based on your kids’ age and interest. Plus, her breakfast cornbread was out of this world. She even shared the recipe.
Day Four: Here’s where things got tricky. I had planned for us to spend the day exploring the Monteverde Cloud Forest, in fact, that’s why we had stopped our trip in Monteverde instead of driving further along the way to our last destination, the Manuel Antonio Park. However, the kids had different ideas. They had been promised The Beach and they were anxious to get there. After three days of hiking through rainforests (gorgeous though they might be), they were ready for the main event.
This led to a brief conference between the grown-ups. Sure, we could drag them through the Monteverde forest if we were really intent on it. But we decided to invoke another of the 80 Diapers Rules for Successful Travel: It’s Not Worth It. At least once in every vacation, your well-laid plans are going to come up against the Will of your Offspring. And most of the time, it’s not worth it. Had we insisted on going to the Cloud Forest, I’m pretty sure nobody would have had a good time. Three whining, grumbling kids can ruin a Peaceful Nature Experience pretty dang fast.
So, while there are plenty of times when we decide that our wishes override those of the kids (“Yes, we WILL be going to see the Acropolis today” is a pretty reasonable demand), this was not one of them. The beach they wanted, so to the beach we would go. We packed up quickly, piled in the SUV, white-knuckled it down the
cliff of death street to the road out of town and we were at the beach by three. Success.
Day Five (and Six, and Seven, and Eight): These days were pretty identical. After checking in to our great vacation rental at Hacienda Pacifica in Quepos, we headed to the beautiful beach just outside the Manuel Antonio National Park. This was where we spent every afternoon in Quepos, playing on the nearly-deserted beach and swimming in the ocean. The kids especially loved the cave they found on the beach which made for a perfect swimming pool at low tide. (Safety-conscious mom banned it at high tide, much to their disgust.) After several hours baking in the heat and humidity (nearly 100 degrees–roasty!) we would head back to our condo to eat dinner and flop in the shade on the pool chairs to read (parents) or swim in the gorgeous hotel pool (kids) till bedtime.
Mornings were spent watching the Discovery Channel, reading in the hammock and, a special treat on Saturday, shopping at the local vegetable market. Mom, especially, was getting a bit veggie-starved after a week of delicious but heavy fish tacos and rotisserie chicken, and MAY have gone a bit overboard on her produce purchases. Maybe.
We also loved hiking through the gorgeous Manuel Antonio Park, adding to our already-impressive list of animals we had seen, and were especially delighted to see all three of Manuel Antonio’s native monkey species: the Mantled Howler monkey, Central American Squirrel Monkey, and the endangered White-headed Capuchin. We even ended up surrounded by an entire family of Capuchins jumping from tree to tree over our heads. Delightful.
One last adventure I must mention. On the way from Monteverde to Manuel Antonio, you pass through a little town called Tarcoles. Tarcoles is famous for one thing. You can see that thing from the bridge over the river, if you are brave enough.
But don’t leave your car unattended. Thieves here are fast and fearless. As you would have to be, if you shared your home with these.
Want more? Check out the Highchair Travelers Pinterest page for more about Costa Rica.
Need to Know Before You Go
|Visas needed? (US Passport holders)||no|
|Best time to visit||Nov-Apr|
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