I have been wanting to go to Costa Rica for years. I can’t pinpoint exactly what attracted me to the country. I do remember learning about Costa Rica in high school Spanish and thinking it was cool that they didn’t have an army. As an adult looking at traveling internationally for the first time, it helped that it’s a relatively safe and very peaceful country. Being gorgeous and warm didn’t hurt either.
We thought about going for our five year anniversary, but ended up having a baby instead. Then, we thought about going for our 10 year anniversary, but that was the year we cared for Glenna before she passed away. At some point, we changed the idea of the trip from a romantic getaway (which are logistically difficult to plan) to a family trip. We talked about the idea with the kids for about two years, sometimes bringing it up when they wanted to do something expensive (ie Disneyland) and asking what they would rather do. Monkeys or roller coasters? Monkeys won every time. Last winter is what finally pushed us over the edge. That winter dragged on forever and was just relentless. The idea of escaping to a tropical paradise was all too inviting. We didn’t actually bite the bullet and buy tickets until last September though. We played around with several dates like Thanksgiving, Christmas, Martin Luther King Day, or President’s Day, so the kids wouldn’t miss as much school, but flights around those days were pretty pricey. As we played around with Southwest’s low fare calendar we narrowed in on a trip that would go through Groundhog Day. What better way to celebrate my favorite holiday than to go to the beach?!? Plus, in case we got stuck in some sort of a time loop who wouldn’t want to relive that day over and over again? With the flights booked, we began the phase where we obsessively read guide books, blog posts, practiced Duolingo, and made sure our immunizations were all up to date. We looked at resort style or pre-planned trips, but ultimately decided planning the whole thing was more our style.
Flight to San Jose
Finally, the day of our flight arrived. It’s worth mentioning that none of us have ever been out of the country. (Unless you count that time I went to Tiajuana when I was 15, before you needed a passport to go there.) International travel just hadn’t previously been a very attainable goal. In college we were so poor (and sensible about it), then there were all the baby years, and of course that rough year we took care of and then lost Glenna. We finally felt like we were in an emotional and financial space to make something like this work. We’d gotten our passports in March of 2018 right before the price went up, but this was the first time we used them. Because this was our first time traveling outside the US I was a little anxious, but probably the most prepared person at the airport because I had researched the topic to death.
We flew from Denver to Houston and then from Houston to San Jose, Costa Rica. The flight had bilingual flight attendants and they made all their announcements in Spanish and English which was fun. Going through customs in San Jose was very easy and just like that we were in Costa Rica. We took a shuttle to pick up our rental car and then drove to our hotel. Our hotel ended up being overbooked, so they sent us to another hotel. (They comped the room for us and gave us free breakfast, so no complaints here. Thanks, Marriott!)
By this point it was after 11 and we were starving. The only restaurant open anywhere near us was Hooters. So, off we went with our kids late at night to eat at Hooters. A lot of Ticos (Costa Rican people) speak English, but our waitress did not. I’d hoped to ease into my rusty Spanish (I did take 5 years of high school Spanish and 2 years of college, but never studied abroad so never came close to fluency), but here we were diving into the deep end with my foggy night brain. We managed to order dinner, eat it, and pay for it without any major international incidents. The kids were also completely oblivious to what type of a restaurant Hooter’s is, which we’ll count as a blessing. We laughed about how funny it was that we’d flown all the way to Costa Rica to eat at Hooters. It was also our first time to that fine establishment, so lots of firsts happening. The next morning we woke up, ate our free breakfast (enjoying our first of many fresh squeezed orange juices), and headed to our first destination.
Monteverde means green mountain. The area is lush and green and constantly has clouds hugging the mountain. The town as it is today was settled by Quakers escaping the US draft for the Korean war. To get there, we took a very windy road up a mountain. The road previously wasn’t paved, but increased tourism has led to a lot better road conditions. Still, we found it useful to have a 4-wheel drive vehicle. They build much steeper roads in Costa Rica then they do in Colorado. We could never get away with that because of snow, ice, sleet, and general fun weather. The roads are also really narrow and its completely fine to just park in the road wherever you feel like it. Noel did a very good job of safely navigating us during the trip.
Our first stop in Monteverde was Sabor Tico’s for lunch where we had our first traditional meal. We had bebidas naturelezas (kind of like smoothies) and casados (a set meal of rice, beans, plantains, and protein – typically the best deal on the menu). Lunch lasted about 2 hours which is not atypical for restaurants in Costa Rica. No one is ever in a hurry which was sometimes a little hard for our American brains.
After lunch, we went to check into our hotel – Hotel Claro de Luna. The hotel was very charming. I could have been content for quite awhile just sitting on the porch rocking and looking at all the plants. After settling in, we went to the Monteverde Cheese Factory and got ice cream cones. Now, I’ve been to a few large cheese factories (Tillamook, Gossners) so I’ll admit to being sort of disappointed by the size of it. The ice cream however was delicious. (They had flavors like strawberry lemon and macadamia.) Then we walked around the small town. We thought about picking up some food at the grocery store so we could do a picnic lunch the next day, but honestly were at a little bit of a loss at the grocery store. I hadn’t realized how different the food at the grocery store was going to be. There literally wasn’t bread or crackers so we left empty handed. We ate dinner at a Soda (a small mom and pop restaurant) down the street and then retired for the night, but not before killing a gigantic spider in the bathroom. I generally have no fear of spiders, but I let Noel kill this one.
The next day, we ate breakfast, packed the car, and headed to the Monteverede Cloud Forest Reserve. The cloud forest was the main reason we’d made the trek to Monteverde. The first thing we encountered in the park was a group of Howler monkeys making a ruckus in a tree. (I tried taking pictures, but they were so high up.) We opted to do a self-guided tour, even though I’d read so many things that pushed how amazing tours are. We still had a great time walking through the park on our own and never got lost. We probably saw less birds though.
The paths through the park didn’t create a terribly long hike, but it still took us a few hours because of how awe-struck we were. The foliage was so thick and every tree had orchids and moss growing on them. We also saw a waterfall and crossed our first hanging bridge. There was an overlook at the continental divide where you can see both the Pacific and the Caribbean on a clear day, but it was not a clear day. We came upon a tour group that had spotted a sloth and stood there long enough that we were able to see it too. Sloths just look like balls of moss, so they can be really hard to see. After getting our fill of the cloud forest we got back in the car and headed to our next location.
Google Maps took us through the Monteverde countryside to get to our next location. We drove along dirt roads marveling at the view.
Our next stop was La Fortuna, home of the Arenal volcano. The volcano is active. It hasn’t spewed lava in several years, but it’s still smoking. The volcano erupted unexpectedly in 1968 after 300 years of dormancy and destroyed three towns. One town in the surrounding area was safe and was renamed La Fortuna (the fortunate). I’m not going to lie, a bit of nervousness crossed my mind about staying so close to a volcano, but Noel pointed out that these days they generally watch seismic activity and give people warning if they think a volcano is going to erupt.
We quickly checked into our hotel – Hotel Los Lagos and headed off to a Chocolate Tour I’d arranged the day before. We choose the Don Olivio Chocolate Tour because it was mentioned in our guidebook and also because they were the first of the two tour companies I’d emailed to respond to me. The tour took place on a family farm and involved more than just the process of making chocolate. We tried all kinds of fruit (different types of bananas, star fruit, papaya, this fruit that was a cross between a cucumber and kumquat, and more), pressed sugar cane into juice, and learned about how cacao is turned into chocolate. We also could have tried some rum and coffee, but declined. The sister-in-law who prepared all the taste testing was perplexed and asked us in exasperation if we drank water. Then the tour guide put two and two together and asked if we were Mormon. He then told us Mormons really love chocolate, ha, ha.
The tour was really great. We learned a lot, including that the cousin of mosquitoes pollinates cacao, so maybe even mosquitoes (or at least their cousins) serve a useful purpose. Afterward, we headed back to the hotel to do some relaxing.
Our hotel was really more like a resort which is something I wasn’t expecting. The “hotel” consisted of multiple buildings spread out across a huge property. Our room was a 10-15 minute walk from the main building. A bus constantly drove around picking people up and driving them to the main building and the hot springs. I’d done a lot of research about where to stay in La Foruna. There are a few big “hotels” with hot springs and crazy water parks. The more well known ones are expensive and also very busy. I decided on Los Lagos because it was less expensive and lesser known, but still seemed to have a lot to offer. Los Lagos has seven different pools and three different slides. They also have a swim up bar which the kids thought was really cool. We ended up eating dinner at the bar, but made the kids get out and eat at a table which they were very disappointed about.
The next day, our main event was seeing the La Fortuna waterfall. The guy at the ticket office was really nice. He asked how old the kids were and I told him 7 and 9 he said, “You mean 8” since that meant both of the kids would get in free. It’s hard to capture in pictures, but this waterfall is HUGE. The waterfall is 70 meters (~230 feet) tall. The picture above is taken from an observation deck. To get the waterfall itself, you descend down 530 steps. You can get in the water at the base of the waterfall as long as you stay far away from where it cascades. The water was so powerful. I don’t know how a person could survive if they tried to swim into it.
After checking out the waterfall, we went downstream where swimming was safer. Then we checked out the orchid garden. I love orchids, but have never gotten any of my plants to rebloom despite my best efforts. As a gardener, it was almost frustrating how easily things grow there. It wasn’t really orchid blooming season, but there were still several gorgeous orchids. After that, we checked out the butterfly garden.
We ate lunch at the Rainforest Cafe. The food, especially the desserts, was so good. (I’ve already recreated choco flan at home.) I was getting a little crabby before lunch, but eating really improved my mood. Before heading back to the hotel, we checked out the downtown. They had a cute little square with a park and a church in the background.
Once back at the hotel, we headed back to the hot springs and pools. Now, lets talk about the slides. Safety standards are different in Costa Rica than the US. When we go to the pool at the Rec Center where I work, Ellen frequently gets pulled by a lifeguard to check her height before she goes down a slide. In Costa Rica, the signs by the slide simply recommend you be able to swim. The slides themselves can be steep. They shoot you out of bottom of the slide like you’re being shot out of a cannon. It’s exhilarating and a little terrifying.
The most exciting slide at Los Lagos required climbing a series of steps up a large hill. The slide made a few turns before you went through a cascade of water that left you a bit blinded. You’d barely cleared your eyes when you were plunged into an underground tunnel where you’d pop out of the bottom of hill into the swimming pool. This slide was an adrenaline rush. This slide also terrified Cooper. I spent 10 minutes trying to talk him into going down. Finally I told him, you’re going to regret it if you don’t try it and I don’t want you crying about it tomorrow. (This wasn’t just me being mean, it really would have happened.) He reluctantly sat down in the slide, but as he rounded the first turn he wedged himself in the slide just like in a Christmas story (I don’t know how he did this, I’d tried to slow myself down on the slide and it seemed impossible) and came to a complete stop. At that point he started to cry and said he didn’t want to do it anymore. I told him there was no turning back now, which only made him more frantic. So, I got into the slide and ran into him to unwedge him. The whole thing was hilarious and probably slightly traumatic, BUT after that first run he went down the slide again and again and again.
After we got our fill of hot springs and water slides, we went back to our room to get ready for our Night Tour. Everything I read and everyone I talked to kept telling me that if we didn’t go on tours we wouldn’t see any animals and we wouldn’t learn anything. I felt really conflicted about it because going on tours isn’t really our style, plus it costs extra money. Most of the places we went on our trip we opted to do self-guided, but I wanted to go on at least one tour to see if people were right. I ended up booking a night walk tour through our hotel (one of the safer ways to book tours) because there are some animals that are easier to see at night and there was no way I was going to walk through the jungle looking for animals at night on my own. We went to the front desk to check in for our tour and were told to wait and someone would be there for us soon. After waiting 20 minutes we asked if the tour was still happening. The employee got on the phone and talked rapidly in Spanish to someone. I was only able to decipher random words that didn’t give me any context as to what was happening. She then told us, ” They’re running late, but should be here soon.” After a few minutes the girl from the front desk called us over and pointed to a taxi cab driver. She said, “You go with him, you don’t need to pay him” and she went back to work. Most tours transport people in vans that say “Turismo” on the side, but we obediently loaded into the taxi without question. The driver didn’t say a word to us, not hello or do you speak Spanish or anything, and just sped through the dark at top speeds in silence. Everything had happened so fast we just sat there mutely processing. I realized I didn’t have the slightest idea where we were going. The hotel description of the tour had not actually said where it took place or what organization they were working with. We’d grown accustomed to minimal amounts of information being given so I hadn’t really thought twice about everything. Ticos are a bit more concise in their descriptions and don’t feel like they need to have long explanations about what is happening or what protocol to follow. For example, when we went to one of the National Parks there was a bridge that simply said “Capacidad 1 Persona” (capacity one person). A tour guide came by and noticed people were aimlessly walking across the bridge multiple people at a time (not us), shook his head and said, “Uno, por uno” (one by one). Hand gestures helped the tourists realize only one person should be on the bridge at a time and that if there were people on both sides of the bridge each side should alternate taking turns. If this had been a National Park in the US, I feel like there would have been a detailed sign explaining the process, probably in multiple languages. There may have even been a person there monitoring the whole process or perhaps you wouldn’t have even been allowed to go on the hike without a ranger doing a little orientation. Maybe we’ve just given up on people in the US and realized that they won’t be able to just figure out what’s appropriate. Anyway, back to us hurtling deeper into the jungle in the dark. I had felt entirely safe the entire rest of the trip, but suddenly I began to worry that we were going to be murdered in the jungle. I began cursing myself for not sending our itinerary to any family members. If we disappeared, how would people even know where to look for us? I reasoned with myself that was ridiculous, but was also more legitimately worried that we were going to get into a horrible car accident as we careened across narrow bridges and around winding roads. Noel later admitted to worrying about the same things. Fifteen minutes later, the taxi stopped at a place with an official sign and a man came over greeting us and profusely apologizing in English. It turns out there had been some sort of a miscommunication between our hotel and his tour company. They weren’t expecting us and thus had not arranged to come pick us up. There was a lovely couple there (who ended up being from Colorado) who were also going on the tour.
We quickly discovered that the name of the location was Eco Garden Arenal. It was a family run reserve. Jose, the founder and guide, had gone to school to become a zoologist, but discovered he had more of a passion for conservation. He took us through the tropical forest with flashlights and pointed out various plants and animals. In addition to the animals above, we saw toads, birds, and a female sloth with two babies. It was impossible to take pictures of the sloths, but really cool to see the babies stretching. Ellen and I also startled a crocodile which was exciting to say the least. Afterward we ate delicious empanadas and agua dulce tea made by Jose’s wife. We talked for awhile with the wife (whose name I sadly forgot). She was timid to speak to us at first saying her English wasn’t great, but when I told her (in Spanish) that it was better than my Spanish she opened up and talked about being a kindergarten teacher, about their family, and the importance of education. They were really lovely people. Then, Jose drove us back to our hotel in their family car. The evening ended much more pleasantly than I’d feared earlier on.
The next morning it was time to move on from La Fortuna. We ate our fill at breakfast (savoring the fresh squeezed orange juice especially) and then took a few final pictures with the volcano.
Before we left the area, we went to Mistico Hanging Bridges Park. The park has 6 hanging bridges with the tallest one standing 148 feet above the ground. Now, Noel suffers from acrophobia and Cooper does a bit too, so I was a little worried about this venture. I envisioned one or both of them freaking out midway through a bridge and causing a huge scene as well as a traffic jam. I shouldn’t have worried. They both maintained their composure and crossed all the bridges without incident.
The views were amazing and we enjoyed taking our time walking through the park. I thought the bridges were really cool and Noel and Cooper were just so proud of themselves.
We then loaded back into the car and headed to our final destination. Along the way, we saw a pack of Coati which I dubbed the “squirrel of Central America” due to their friendly, begging-for-food nature. We also stopped at a German bakery along the way because why not?
Playas del Coco
Our final destination was Playas del Coco. Coco is in a deserty part of Costa Rica, so it was hot and drier than other areas. Coco was on a list of beaches I’d come across which were “family friendly.” Honestly, I hardly saw any kids there or anywhere we went. We stayed at an incredibly fancy Airbnb. This was our most expensive accommodation and was definitely one of our splurges. The property had a gated entrance and an onsite maintenance worker. The properties to each side were much more humble, which made the house feel that much more opulent. I’ll admit it was kind of a weird feeling to realize we were the fancy-pants tourists and wonder what the locals thought of us. We checked in and then went to the grocery store. Our grocery store trip this time was much more successful. (It didn’t hurt that Coco has a strong ex-pat community so there were more things we recognized at the store.) It was nice to have a kitchen where we could eat meals in a timely manner (and save some money).
We wasted no time making ourselves at home – the kids immediately jumping into the pool, Noel grilling some steaks, and me doing some much needed laundry. The house was also nice because everyone got their own rooms which was much appreciated.
The next morning we walked down to the beach. Playas del Coco (Coconut beach) is not a white sandy beach like we’d seen in pictures. I hadn’t thought about it deeply beforehand, but it makes sense since it’s named after a coconut. The kids had a grand time jumping in the waves. We walked along the beach checking out the workout station (more cardio based than ones I’ve encountered in the US), park, and downtown. Then we headed back to the house for a quick lunch. We’d all put on mineral sunscreen before heading out (we were trying to be conscious of the coral reefs) and unfortunately it was not very effective. We were out for less than two hours and everyone got burned.
One of my good friends went to Costa Rica in November for an entire month. When she came back, her one recommendation to me was that I MUST go on a sunset cruise. We decided to go on a Sunset Cruise on February 2nd, Groundhog Day. It just seemed fitting to ignore the very existence of winter. We drove ourselves down to the beach which was slightly stressful for me, which made it slightly stressful for Noel. (Sorry!) The streets are just so narrow and people park in ways that block traffic and we almost went down a one way street because it wasn’t clear which road the sign was talking about. But, Noel handled it well and parked the car without incident.
The cruise took us to a beach where you could snorkel or explore the small island complete with sea cave. I partnered with Ellen and we snorkeled for a little bit, until she began to freak out. (This wasn’t the child I expected to freak out.) I dragged her to shore and she happily played on the beach. Noel and Cooper joined us a little later. Then everyone got back on the boat and they served dinner. We headed back to port as the sun set. The view was gorgeous and we even saw a ray fly out of the water. It was an unconventional way to celebrate Groundhog Day, but I liked it.
We’d thought about going on a day trip the next day, but decided to stay in town and just enjoy the Pura Vida (pure life – this is supposedly a common saying in Costa Rica, but I feel like it’s been hyped up for tourism). We enjoyed more beach time (a stingray swam like three feet away from Ellen and I), tried pipas frias (cold coconuts, not papas frias – cold potatoes or pipas fritas – fried coconuts as Noel amusingly called them), bought some souvenirs, enjoyed more pool time, and ate out for dinner. Noel and I were feeling a little bummed because the next day we were heading back to San Jose to fly home. It felt like the vacation was over. But, we decided to stop moping and have one last hurrah. I’d wanted to see a place called Rio Celeste. We’d tried to fit it into the trip a few different ways, but never quite had time for it. We decided to make a slight detour on our way to San Jose.
After packing up the next morning and returning the keys, we drove to Rio Celeste. (Rio Celeste is pretty close to Nicaragua because our phones freaked us out for a moment and announced “Welcome to Nicaragua.”) Legend says that Rio Celeste got it’s gorgeous blue hue when God dipped his paint brush in the river while painting the sky. Science says it has to do with the minerals in two converging rivers combining. Either way, it was gorgeous.
I’m really glad we made this detour as it ended up being one of my favorite places we visited. It also ended up being one of the kids favorite places because we saw two spider monkeys playing in the trees.
After all that beauty, we drove back to San Jose where our adventure started. Along the way, we got stuck behind a line of slow trucks on curvy narrow roads and enjoyed the aggressive driving of San Jose. We checked into our hotel, ate dinner at a Costa Rican tapas place (we book ended our trip with waitresses that didn’t speak English, but performed much better this time), and bought some snacks at Walmart. Yes, Walmart. The next morning we returned our car and headed to the airport. We reflected on how much more confident we’d gotten with our Spanish, what an adept driver Noel was, and how good we’d gotten at understanding kilometers, celsius, and colones (Costa Rican dollars). I’ll admit I almost cried as we sat waiting for our flight. The winter back home had led to late starts at school and although the day we flew back was okay, more snow was expected in the future. Our trip felt like we’d been plopped into someone else’s much fancier life and it was honestly really nice even if we sometimes felt like imposters. There was definitely some post vacation blues as we returned to our regular responsibilities in the land of Narnia. (Really though, our second day back school closed because of how much snow we were getting.) Here’s to hoping I took in enough sunshine and color to get me through the rest of this winter! If you ever want to go to Costa Rica, I have so much I’d love to share, and maybe I’ll just come along too.