May 22, 2017

Costa Rica Itinerary: Our Seven Day Family Adventure

It’s hard to believe we’ve already been back from our Costa Rica family vacation a month now. We had such a great time and I’d go back to Costa Rica in a heartbeat, even if it did cost me a fortune to pick up a few snacks at the airport.

The zip line near Arenal Volcano was a favorite with the kids.

If you’re planning a trip to Costa Rica, I hope you’ll take a look at my Costa Rica itinerary from our Spring Break adventure last month. We had a great time and I’d recommend Costa Rica to any adventurous family. Pura Vida!

Day One

We landed in San Jose, Costa Rica and were met by our driver, Juve, once we picked up our luggage. Honestly, I’d never had a driver before (he was also our personal guide for the week), so I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect.

The baggage carousel at the airport in San Jose. So cute.

We arranged our Costa Rica family vacation with Il Viaggio Travel, which can arrange travel within Costa Rica for all types of groups, but their real strength is with families.

They offer several customizable Costa Rica itineraries for families, like “Treasure Hunt,” which engages children by encouraging them to seek out one natural treasure each day of the trip, like leaves and flowers.

There are lots of stray dogs in Costa Rica and we loved all of them!

In addition to finding daily treasures, we took photos of our favorite family moments and submitted one or two each day using the WhatsApp app on my iPhone.

Another Costa Rica itinerary offered by Il Viaggio Travel is called “Peace Seekers” and is designed for families interested in low impact activities, like exploring waterfalls and visiting iguanas.

There are loads of beautiful waterfalls in Costa Rica.

Once we were loaded up in the tourism van, Juve drove us away, first making a stop for us at the McDonald’s about five minutes from the airport. Here, I noted three things:

1) English is not spoken everywhere, certainly not at this McDonald’s. Fortunately, my 8th grader proved to be a massive help with her level II Spanish.

2) Sizes differ from sizes in the U.S. As in, a medium in the U.S. is more like a small in Costa Rica.

3) You need to stress that you want ice when you order a drink. Otherwise, you’ll get just a few small cubes that will melt quickly. We Americans do like our iced drinks.

We got our food to-go and we were on our way to Poas Volcano Lodge in Vara Blanca, which is about 90 minutes northwest of San Jose. It was a long travel day for us (our first flight departed at 5:50 am), so we were definitely ready to reach our final destination.

Poas Volcano Lodge was a lovely hotel in a rural setting.

Vara Blanca is in the mountains of Alajuela, so it was cooler than San Jose, which can be hot and relatively humid, so you’ll definitely want to bring a jacket. Also, it rains, even when it’s not the rainy season, though it only rained at night while we were sleeping when we were there.

When Juve left us for the day, it wasn’t quite 3 pm, and we were eager to explore. I was worried because Poas Volcano Lodge did not have a pool, but the hiking trails more than made up for splashing around in a swimming pool.

The Quetzal Trail was a fun hike, even if filled with blood, sweat and tears.

We picked up a map at the front desk and began our hike along the Quetzal Trail, which begins right next to the hotel rooms. The trail is relatively well-marked, but we picked one of the longer trails, which was not quite as well-kept toward the end (as in, lots of high grasses to manage).

As my kids like to say, there was blood, sweat and tears (literally) during that hike, but it made for a good story. Plus, we got to see lots of cows since there was a dairy on-property.

We saw lots of cows along our hike (courtesy of the on-property dairy).

In the evening, we ate dinner at the on-site restaurant, which was quite nice and incredibly convenient. Since we did not have a car of our own, we really had no other options. There is no kids menu at the restaurant, but my kids managed with the spaghetti, so all was good.

Day Two

On our second day of our Costa Rica family vacation, we were up early for breakfast. Another quick note that most hotels in Costa Rica offer free breakfast, but not like a free breakfast offered at one of the budget hotel chains in the U.S.

At Poas Volcano Lodge, the free breakfast was sit-down (not buffet) and included incredible made-to-order pancakes and omelets. It was quite a treat. The dining room was also quite lovely.

The waterfalls at La Paz Waterfall Gardens were so beautiful.

Juve picked us up at 8 am to start our day with a visit to La Paz Waterfall Gardens, which was no more than 15 minutes away by car.

It’s a beautiful nature park and animal sanctuary, so we were able to check out several waterfalls and visit with loads of animals, like butterflies, macaws, white faced monkeys, and of course, sloths.

While one of the staff members at La Paz Waterfall Gardens can give you a tour, Juve served as our guide at the animal sanctuary, telling us all about the different animals and birds. We learned so much about morpho butterflies, ocelots and the chestnut-mandibled toucan.

We spent time with the toucans inside the aviary at La Paz Waterfall Gardens.

La Paz Waterfall Gardens is adjacent to Peace Lodge, which is very well-known among the hotels in Costa Rica and incredibly beautiful. It was also a lot more expensive than Poas Volcano Lodge, so we couldn’t quite fit a stay here on our Costa Rica itinerary.

It would have been nice to stay in one of the family suites at Peace Lodge. At Poas Volcano Lodge, we split up and stayed in two separate rooms (three in each room) and that as just fine.

Once we ate lunch (there’s a fantastic all-you-can-eat buffet lunch at La Paz Waterfall Gardens), we were off to explore Poas Volcano National Park. But not before watching a tarantula cross the street. Seriously. Thank goodness we were inside the tourism van.

Poas Volcano is the largest active volcano in the world.

At Poas Volcano National Park, we checked out Poas Volcano, of course, which is the largest active volcano in the world. It had just erupted a few days before we arrived to vacation in Costa Rica.

There’s a lovely overlook at Poas Volcano, providing lots of great opportunities for photos. There are also several nature trails at Poas Volcano National Park, including the Botos Trail, an easy, shaded trail that leads to Botos Lagoon, a blue-green lake set in an inactive crater.

We also hiked to Botos Lagoon at Poas Volcano National Park.

Most people say to visit volcanoes in the early morning because clouds can roll in after noon and obstruct your views, but we went after lunch and there were no problems.

By mid-afternoon, our Costa Rica itinerary called for us to make our way back to our hotel, but only to relax for a little while before heading back to La Paz Waterfall Gardens for a very cool Nocturnal Frog Tour.

The Nocturnal Frog Tour was incredible. Just look at this little guy.

Given the red-eyed tree frog is one of the most famous animals in Costa Rica (more or less the symbol for the country), it was a must to do a flashlight tour to see the leaf and tree frogs at night when they are most active.

My son literally had three frogs on his arm all at once. Just be careful where you step since some of the frog are very, very small.

Day Three

After two nights spent at the Poas Volcano Lodge, our Costa Rica itinerary had us heading northwest once again to La Fortuna, but not without a first stop in Sarchi, a small village known for the brightly colored handcrafted ox carts.

We learned about ox carts in Sarchi, a small artisan village.

We saw the artisans making and painting the ox carts, as well as other decoratives. As a bonus, there was a playground in the middle of town. Plus, there was a beautiful church to explore in Sarchi.

Once we got back in the tourism van, we continued north to La Fortuna to explore La Fortuna Waterfall, but not before stopping for lunch at a “soda tipico,” a small restaurant serving up local foods, like empanadas and casados.

Soda tipicos pretty much never have air-conditioning, but the food is delicious and very well-priced. We also had great views of Arenal Volcano. The view of this volcano was easily my favorite part of our Costa Rica family vacation.

I could never tire of looking at Arenal Volcano.

Once we re-fueled, we were off to La Fortuna Waterfall. I wish I could remember the number of steps down to the waterfall because it felt like more on the way back up (definitely a good workout).

Juve stayed with the van (and all of our luggage) while we cooled off at the waterfall. There were lots of people swimming and splashing in the water, but we mostly scrambled the rocks and enjoyed the water from the edges.

La Fortuna Waterfall is so beautiful. Totally worth the walk down (and back up).

After the waterfall hike, we were ready to relax, so we checked in to the Mountain Paradise Hotel. One word: amazing.

We had a family suite at Mountain Paradise Hotel with our own private splash pool and incredible views of Arenal Volcano. I’d love to wake up to that view every day.

While the kids loved the splash pool, they may have loved the hotel pool with the swim-up bar even more. Virgin Pina Coladas for everyone! They also had nachos, so that was dinner. Yum.

The swim-up bar at Mountain Paradise Hotel in La Fortuna was a major hit with the kids.

Day Four

Day Four of our Costa Rica itinerary was the day I’d been waiting for since I started planning out our vacation in Costa Rica. Juve met us at 8 am for the drive to Sky Adventures Arenal Park for zip lines and a walk along the hanging bridges. These are two must-do’s when planning a vacation to Costa Rica, at least on your first visit, and I was all in.

Of course, we get there, and it’s raining. Not sprinkling, but full on raining. We had originally planned to do the hanging bridges first, which would have been perfect, since they’re deep within the trees anyway, so rain is no big deal.

Ready to take on the zip lines at Sky Adventures Arenal Park.

But everyone wanted to do the hanging bridges first, so we had to suit up for zip lines.

I was so disappointed. We were cold and wet and gearing up to zip line in the rain. This was not the vision I had in my head after watching YouTube videos of this same zip line ride through the rainforest. But then, the rain stopped (for the most part) and the sun came out.

Now these zip lines at Sky Adventures Arenal Park are high, as in, you can’t see the bottom. They’re also long and fast, so I really I wasn’t sure what my 7 y.o. son, Paul, was going to think.

My 12 y.o. took on the zip lines like a pro.

My girls (ages 9, 12 & 13) took off no problem but then Paul did not want to go. He was so scared. All tears. But I knew that he’d love it if he just did it (at least I hoped that was the case).

Paul got hooked up three times, then got un-hooked. He couldn’t do it. Then a boy maybe a year or two older than Paul got hooked up to the zip line.

I was hoping that this little boy would go, Paul would get the courage to go on his own, and the day would go on. But then that little boy got spooked and he got un-hooked.

By the time we got to the hanging bridges, the sun had come back out.

I thought it was over, but then Paul decided he was ready (for real, this time). Somehow just the other little boy getting ready to go was enough for him, and he was off, speeding along the zip line. And, as I suspected, he loved the experience.

Once we finished the seven zip lines, it was time to walk along the hanging bridges. I hate to say that the hanging bridges were just okay, but it’s tough to compete with zip lines over rainforests with scenic views of Arenal Volcano.

After taking a bit of time to rest, our Costa Rica itinerary led us to The Springs Resort & Spa. They have more than a few relaxing mineral springs to soak and splash in, as well as a super fast water slide. My kids went down the water slide at least a dozen times each.

The mineral springs at The Springs Resort and Spa were fantastic (and so relaxing).

While The Springs Resort & Spa is a full-service hotel, you can also purchase a day pass to enjoy the on-site activities, including the mineral springs and water slide, as well as the wildlife sanctuary. We were able to join one of the last wildlife tours of the day, visiting with jungle cats, monkeys and sloths.

Our day pass also included fixed-price dinner options at the on-site restaurant. For those staying at the hotel, there are plenty of other activities at the Club Rio Outdoor Center, including tubing, hiking and kayaking. It’s definitely a good base and one to consider adding to your own Costa Rica itinerary.

The guide at the wildlife sanctuary at The Springs tried to wake up the sloth with a treat.

Day Five

This day was a long day because we needed to drive from La Fortuna in the north to Quepos in the central Pacific. Quepos is home to Manuel Antonio National Park, one of the most well-known national parks in the world and a true must-visit when considering where to go in Costa Rica.

The drive took a good five or six hours, and I was so glad that Juve was driving because the infrastructure in Costa Rica is not great. The roads are bumpy and windy, there are no sidewalks (you’ll frequently encounter people walking along the roads) and you may encounter construction delays lasting well over an hour.

Manuel Antonio National Park is an absolute must-visit while in Costa Rica.

Oh, and there are no street signs. At some point during this drive, we even came to a road closure. I was so thankful that a) Juve was driving, b) Juve spoke the local language and c) Juve knew his way around the country. I would have been so lost. It would have been horrible.

Eventually we made it to Quepos and checked in to the Karahe Beach Hotel, which was conveniently right on the beach. There was also a nice pool and plenty of white faced monkeys running around the property. Iguanas too. So we made lots of new friends.

There were loads of white faced monkeys outside our room at the Karahe Beach Hotel.

For dinner, we ate at Parador Resort & Spa, which was just down the road from Karahe Beach Hotel. The resort is completely beautiful and even has its own private beach. As a bonus, we even saw a sloth hanging from a utility wire as we drove in. You won’t see that in America!

Day Six

So this is Monday and we were supposed to go to Manuel Antonio National Park, but nope, it was not meant to be. Fortunately, we realized before we drove over that it’s closed on Mondays.

Juve to the rescue on our Costa Rica family vacation. Our back-up plan was to go to Marino Ballena National Park. It was maybe 45 minutes due south from Quepos. While the changing area was not fabulous (hello, leaf cutter ants), the beach definitely was fabulous.

Juve pointed out lots of wildlife to us at Marino Ballena National Park.

Again, Juve stayed with our belongings, helping to ensure they’d actually be there when we got out of the water. Even better, Juve moved my tote bag after I had inadvertently placed it on an ant hill. Yikes.

Our Costa Rica itinerary was packed with driving and touring, so it was nice to just chill for a day. While most days we ate our meals at soda tipicos, this day we opted for lunch at El Avion Restaurant, a restaurant in Quepos that houses the sister plane of a C-123 that was shot down in Nicaragua in the 1980s.

Eating lunch at El Avion Restaurant in Quepos was very cool.

Even more cool, this restaurant was written up on Atlas Obscura, one of my favorite go-to sites for random and obscure information and fun facts about places and attractions around the world. Plus, the breeze coming off the water was fantastic.

Day Seven

On the last full day of our Costa Rica itinerary, we finally made it to Manuel Antonio National Park. Note to self, the park is small and the crowds are big, so get there early, like really early.

The beaches at Manuel Antonio National Park were so beautiful.

Manuel Antonio National Park has beautiful beaches (we splashed around at two of them) but it’s more well-known for its wildlife. In fact, we saw lots of white faced monkeys. We also saw a couple of raccoons steal a loaf of bread from someone’s picnic basket.

However, if you’re going just for the beach, go find another beach because it’s a long walk to the beach, like 20-25 minutes. That was definitely our downfall when we were walking back to the tourism van after spending time on the beach.

As you enter Manuel Antonio National Park, it’s easy to hook up with a guide who will show you wildlife in the park. Another great thing about having Juve with us is that he was our personal guide and we could ask him about anything or just keep walking. No need for multiple stops.

Juve was very helpful, pointing out different trails to take in Manuel Antonio National Park.

Once we left the beach, we headed back to the Karahe Beach Hotel for quick showers and we were off to San Jose in advance of our flight home the next day.

Day Eight

This was our last morning of our Costa Rica family vacation. So bittersweet. We spent the night at the Villas del Rio in Escazu in a two-story penthouse suite. The breezes were fantastic and cannonballs into the swimming pool were the perfect end to our stay in Costa Rica.

The kids loved splashing in the pool at Villas del Rio in Escazu.

Juve drove us to the airport mid-morning. We had a great time with him during the week and it was sad to leave this new member of our family.

However, he did have one fun memento from our trip. Actually we received it the night before. Since we’d been sending in photos from each day, the photos were printed out and we were presented with a photo album from our trip. Such a fun way to remember our Costa Rica family vacation.

Someone else had written this on the beach and I couldn’t not take a quick photo.

Costa Rica Travel Tips

If you’re considering a family vacation to Costa Rica, here are a few parting tips from me to you:

1. Don’t drive on your own. If you don’t get a personal driver, look to one of many point-to-point shuttle services that take travelers to different parts of the country. I never would have made it in a rental car. Il Viaggio Travel also offers a stand-alone van and guide service.

2. Get serious about sunblock. We all wore sunblock, of course, but the sun is more intense than you think. I’d go with SPF 75 or 100. We used SPF 60 and all burned at least a little bit.

The sun is more intense than you think in Costa Rica, so go with SPF 75 or higher.

3. Petty theft is fairly common. Costa Rica is a very safe country, but there was a lot of peace of mind in having Juve stay with the van or with our belongings on the beach. There are few violent crimes, but petty theft, like breaking into rental cars, is a thing in Costa Rica.

4. Costa Rica is not as affordable as it once was. When my parents went to Costa Rica a few years ago, they raved about how affordable Costa Rica was (at least compared to a week in Aspen). However, I paid $42 at the Quiznos at the airport for a meal and two kids sandwiches.

There are lots of soda tipicos in Costa Rica offering good and inexpensive meals.

That noted, look to sodas for inexpensive meals. They’ll be far less costly than tourist restaurants. We also traveled during Holy Week, so naturally it was more pricey to stay and play then too.

5. English is not spoken everywhere. As I noted above, English is not especially common in Costa Rica, at least not outside of tourism businesses, like hotels. With this in mind, I loved having Juve there to translate and even order for us in some restaurants. It was immensely helpful.

Are you thinking about traveling to Costa Rica as a family? I’d love to hear your plans, and please feel free to reach out with any questions about your own Costa Rica itinerary.

We loved Costa Rica and would go back in a second.

If you like fun, family adventures with your kids, here are a few more posts you might like:

25 Most Instagram-Worthy Roadside Attractions

5 Things You Must Do Near the Grand Canyon

Shenandoah Hikes: Best Hiking Trails in Virginia for Kids

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