Costa Rica Vacation. Part 2: Planning Tips
We FELL IN LOVE with Costa Rica during our recent family vacations and here is why:
√ Uncrowded ocean beaches
√ Warm weather year-round
√ Unusual flora and fauna- easily accessible for exploration via paved trails and hanging bridges at the parks
√ Natural hot springs
√ abundance of flavorful tropical fruits
√ Teen Appeal (if you you have teenagers in the family who cannot take yet “another European art museum” – you will understand!)
√ Adventure Activities (for us, these were hanging bridges, driving on monkey trails, and jet skiing, but you may want to add jungle zip lining or something even more adventurous to your itinerary)
If you can relate to our reasons, follow our TIPS to start planning your own Costa Rica escape.
Car Rental. Roadtripping is our preferred way to explore a new country, but driving in Costa Rica is not for the faint of heart! That said (and looking back), we would not have done this trip any other way! Drivers, beware of dusty unmarked roads almost everywhere outside the central highways. Four-Wheel drive class cars are the only way to go (we ended up upgrading to Toyota Fortuna (Toyota 4Runner). Even with pre-reservation, be ready for your car pick up to take a bit of time, and if you think you already have car insurance coverage via your credit card (we do, through Amex), check with the rental company to make sure they will accept it. Bring your printed insurance agreement with you and be sure to actually read it. You will probably notice that some issues (e.g. personal liability, beach and river driving) have no coverage at all so you may have to buy an extra protection for these at the time of car pick up. We ended up buying an additional personal liability insurance (mandatory) and tire insurance (optional) from the rental office. Note that car seats or boosters are required for kids under 11, so either bring one from home or be prepared to pay extra at the rental.
When to Go. We visited Costa Rica at the end of June which is considered a beginning of the rain season. Dry summer typically lasts from November through April with heaviest of rains falling in September-October. During our coastal stay in Guanacaste, aside from one tropical downpour (in seven days), it rained for thirty minutes or so each afternoon which did not significantly interfere with our activities. On the bright side, the rainy season brings out special beauty and colors to the normally dry region of Guanacaste.
In La Fortuna’s tropical forest, rain was more of a presence on our trip. It rained every morning during our nature activities, we then had a break to enjoy the hot springs early in the afternoon to have the rain comeback again later in the day.
Note that Costa Rica days start early (sunrises are around 5:30am) and end early (sunsets are around 6pm) year-round. We decided to stay connected with the nature while on the coast and were up at 6 am on most days to enjoy early mornings on the beautiful Guanacaste beaches (East Coast “two-hours ahead” jet leg helped!).
Where to Stay. Costa Rica is not cheap for tourists, so don’t expect to find any major “deals”. During our off-season stay in June, we had experience with three types of lodging: house rental, boutique hotels and all-inclusive beach-front resort.
For our stay on the Northern Pacific coast in Guanacaste, we rented a stand-alone house Casa Cerca del Mar (property #80803 on homeaway website). We shared this four-bedroom four-bath house with friends – there were seven of us in the house. We paid a little over $300 a day total for the house and it pretty much met our (very high) expectations. We loved the spacious comfort of the newly renovated indoors of the house and cherished our morning coffee ritual on the lovely second story deck with an ocean view (the house came with the pool, but frankly we were too busy exploring the coast to spend any real time in our backyard).
One day while beach hopping in Guanacaste we bought day passes at an all-inclusive Occidental Tamarindo on Playa Langosta in Tamarindo (as we visited with our friends who stayed there). It is a beach-front, slightly older property with beautiful vistas from every room onto the Pacific Ocean and the forests (two-story suites are available). Kids played at their large pool, while we enjoyed tropical drinks by the beach (we do have a “built-on” babysitter in the family). Lunch, dinner and unlimited cocktails were included in our reasonably priced day passes (you can also enjoy nightly live entertainment but we retired early back to our rental house).
A nice small beach front boutique hotel Bahia del Sol near our rental house in Portrero was priced at about $150/day. Portrero beach was not our favorite beach on this coast, but this hotel had a very relaxing tropical ambience and we enjoyed lunches there several times during our stay in Portrero.
We saw some local cheap finds, too ($50/day in Portrero and Brazilitto, but we cannot attest to the quality of those rentals).
Finally, in La Fortuna we booked a stay at a boutique style hotel Volcano Lodge & Springs for close to $200 a night. The grounds are lushly colored in tropical greens and orange, and volcano Arenal is a welcome background in your hot springs pictures.
We made several reservations with Anywhere Costa Rica for our activities before we left for the trip (they have an all-over the country network of activities). A local representative of our landlord in Portrero was also very helpful in connecting us with local providers (we went on several fishing trips with them) and giving us beach and restaurant recommendations. Most hotels can also connect you with an organized tour so that you could see a lot in one day.
Food: You can’t love everything. One thing we had some difficulty with during our trip was finding reasonably priced eating out options. We found several beautiful ocean view gems during our Guanacaste coastal stay but prices were similar to what you would pay at a downtown restaurant in Boston which I just don’t find reasonable in rural Costa Rica. In La Fortuna, we had even less luck than on the coast, despite searching through reviews on popular online sites. (The best food we had in La Fortuna was a buffet at Tabagon spa; we did find a gem of a coffee shop in La Fortuna with amazing home-made desserts called Orchid Coffee Shop.) If you had a different experience with Costa Rica food during your stay, please share your opinions in the comments.
What to Pack. If you are going to Costa Rica during the rainy season, good quality rain jackets and waterproof pants and shoes are a must, especially if you plan to do nature activities (close-toe hiking shoes are required on many jungle trails in the parks- rain or no rain!). On the coast, it is comfortably warm even in the evenings (so the “coastal” sweaters that I packed for the evenings went unused.)
Final Thoughts. While we fell in love with Costa Rica, for us – it was not love from first sight. We had a chance to immerse into local culture a bit as we lived in a coastal neighborhood for a week in the rental house and did a lot of driving around in our rental car (Liberia-Portrero-La Fortuna-San Jose). It took us some time to adjust to a standard of living that was different from what we are used to in our Massachusetts suburbia. At the end we came to see that it was indeed a much more relaxed style of living – pura vida, as locals say!
I was not happy however with how expensive Costa Rica is for tourists, as far as food, activities and lodging are concerned. There are some options (especially if you are brave enough to eat at local sodas), but in general, hotel and food prices were close to those you would pay at major U.S. cities, and prices for activities – (e.g. boating excursions and park entrances) are often even higher.
Have you been to Costa Rica? Share your own TIPS in the comments.
Read here our article Costa Rica Vacations. Part 1: Our Itinerary.
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