Our family went to Costa Rica for 7 days and had a great time. There are a few things we learned though that might help you if you’re planning on going there for your next vacation. Since we were travelling with a baby, we couldn’t join a regular tour group as planned, so we met with a travel agent and arranged our own. We traveled in March with 10 of us, including our 18 month old and it worked out very well.
We used US money everywhere but wish we had brought smaller bills. If you pay in dollars you get back their money as change. We didn’t shop much, so my hopes of getting Retina A without a prescription were dashed. I bought some Costa Rican instruments, a dress for little miss and some chocolate covered fruit. People from Costa Rica are known as Ticas (isn’t that fun?) and for the most part they were laid back and happy to serve us, as if we were all their amigos. We truly felt welcomed and that people cared about us having a good time.
Bring snacks with you because getting food can take FOREVER. No one is in a hurry to seat you at a restaurant, give you menus, or get your bill (which you have to ask for). Plan on going to a restaurant at least an hour before you get hungry. This was throughout the country. Also, they usually add gratuity into your bill, so don’t pay double. No one will tell you even if you ask, hoping to get a bit extra.
We had vouchers for all of our activities but they weren’t complete, some of them were missing. I talked to another person with the same story. Still, we called the places we were scheduled and as long as we had our itinerary with our confirmation numbers it all worked out.
Here’s where we went:
Guanacaste - the Riu resort. It was all inclusive and that meant you could swim over to the bar while in the pool and order all the slushies you want! Plus you could eat at just about any hour. The fancier restaurants weren’t that great. The buffets were. Especially (everywhere we went) the fruit, the yogurt and the shrimp. Oh, and beans and rice. Best of all, no wait!
Stephen got really sick, probably the sickest I’ve ever seen him, probably from food poisoning. They had a clinic on site that he went to and for $175 he was seen by a doctor, given Pediasure and medicine, and was better within an hour. Tums wouldn’t have cut it. I wish we had brought some medicine from home and saved the pain to his body and our pocketbook. But the healthcare system there is very good, and the water is safe to drink everywhere we went.
The water aerobics are a cultural experience that I enjoyed and we also participated in the ping pong tournament. At night they had shows, which were a lot of fun, mostly lip syncing dance groups.
You can walk to the ocean from the hotel (expect people to try to sell you things) and it’s beautiful everywhere. We traveled through some pretty poor towns to get there though. The beach has dark sand and isn’t the best beach I’ve ever been to, but they had massages right there for $35/hour. Not bad. We were in Guanacaste for 3 days, which was just about right. I felt like I was in Mexico. You could only get internet in the lobby so I wasn’t online very often. In this photo, I’d just returned from the gym…
This was what I called the hippie town because there were several hostels and college students. We stayed at the Quaker hotel El Establo. The style was spartan but stylish. One problem, the electricity only worked with your room key, there is no air conditioning and you can hear everyone talking in the rooms around you. But they are environmentally conscious, clean and the food was healthy and delicious. It’s about a 15 min. walk into the small town. We ate at a coffee shop that had the best strawberry nutella crepes.
The view out our window was pretty, but you had to hike practically straight up for 15-20 mins. to get there from the hotel lobby. Next time I’d stay at the bottom of the hill but some people will think it’s worth the hikes (I did see monkeys and hummingbirds). We only stayed a day and did a night hike which was a real racket. It was a super small place with a lot of people hoping to see some wildlife. We did see a tarantula and some lightening bugs, but it wasn’t what we expected. Tourist trap. We saw more animals on the side of the road while driving by. It was pretty but not lush. I would’ve probably skipped it if it weren’t for the skywalk with hanging bridges. Only one of them really freaked me out because it was so long (3 football fields) and high. That took about an hour and was beautiful.
We stayed at Arenal Manoa, which we loved. This is what we imagined Costa Rica to look like. Rainforest, lush. Every single room had a sliding glass door and a small sitting area that had a view of the volcano. The restaurant was open to the birds and gentle wind. I could’ve stayed a few more days. We took a boat to the other side of a lake and on this particular stop they charged to use the restrooms, but given how basic everything was, I think they needed the money (it was about 50 cents). There was no one else around and we drove through very small towns.
We went to the Arenal Reserve for the Sky Trek (zip lines) tour. They are some of the most safe zip lines in the area. I still about lost it from the heights and after the 2 practice runs, decided to opt out. But everyone else did it, even my 76 year old father-in-law. If it weren’t over an hour long and making me petrified with fear I would’ve tried it too. The questions I asked in English weren’t understood by the guides, so they answered incorrectly on a few key things and that really scared me. Heights up to 700 feet. There isn’t a Tarzan swing at the end. They snap your picture which you can buy back at headquarters. Still, I toured the orchid and butterfly gardens (pretty and don’t cost).
People were always on time to pick us up but otherwise it could take much longer than planned to get back. We had to divide our group in half so the adults could trade off watching the kids and we barely made it back in time for the next group to go. No one is in any hurry, which is fine, unless you are running out of time.
General Tips/Observations about Costa Rica
1. The roads are terrible in small towns and away from major cities. They are narrow and full of potholes. Avoid travelling them for hours. We spent a lot of long stretches in a van and while I liked seeing more of the country, some of the family sitting in the back got headaches. The locals call driving the roads a “Costa Rican massage.”
2. Request a driver who speaks English. Our favorite driver was a lot of fun. He sang us a song in Spanish, stopped by a roadside fruit stand to get us a bag of mangoes and showed us how to eat them like a native, and answered all of our questions. He even pointed out a cashew and noni tree and let me pick some fruit.
Did you know that cashew grow on top of a fruit? The fruit itself tastes bad, but the seed is roasted and delicious. Don’t ever eat noni plain either. It’s a weird fruit more for medicine than eating. I worked for Tahitian Noni for a few years and studied how noni fruit was used and we used the stories as part of our product branding. Since I had never seen noni in the wild I was elated and wanted to worship it. I got sunburned pretty bad in the pool the first day and when I rubbed the flesh of noni on it the sting went away and it never peeled. So the what I read was true!
4. It gets dark fast and early. It was dark by 6pm. Pitch black except for where there were lights. So we started going to sleep at about 9 and waking up early. I have a flashlight on my phone and enjoyed looking at the stars, but consider that it will be dark earlier than expected when making your plans. I liked eating when we could see the volcano.
5. The airport takes a long time to get through. You’ve got to wait in line to pay exit taxes and then to check your bags, then security. It was really crowded. Note that they didn’t make us get rid of our water until we got on the plane, not before going through security like in the US.
If anything I wish I’d taken more pictures. Looking back I realize I missed some of the memories I could’ve captured. The jungle was so gorgeous and something I’ve always dreamed about seeing. Too bad we couldn’t take the tropical fruit home with us. I know this was super long, but hopefully helpful. I know it helps me remember the good time we had in Costa Rica.
Buena Vida everyone!