We just got back from Costa Rica! It was my second time, and the first for my boys. I had gone last year for a conference, and was able to do some excursions, but I was determined that this trip would be all about family travel fun, especially for parents of tween and teen kids. After lots of planning, I really feel like we were able to see a huge part of the country in only 10 days. We missed Tortuguero National Park on the east side, but it just was too far to go out of our loop. (So keep that in mind as you look through our itinerary, if that is really important to you.)
A few disclaimers: We were hosted by both Tabacon Resort and Hotel Parador during our trip. They will be mentioned in this post and many other posts to come. But while, yes, they hosted us, I can absolutely recommend these hotels as terrific choices to stay in the Arenal and Manuel Antonio areas respectively. I also talk about Sky Adventures and Marlin Del Rey, who did not sponsor us – they just had several excursions we wanted to do, and we liked them both a lot. Point being, all words and photos in this post are from us unless noted.
On to the fun! Your vacation in Costa Rica!
Below is a map of your round-trip via Google Maps. It is not our exact route because we stayed with friends in Tamarindo for a few days, but it is the route I would recommend.
Click here to see (and save) a large JPG of the map.
Day One: Get To San Jose, Costa Rica
Assuming you are coming from the United States or Canada, it should take you about a day to get there, with layovers. Even though people say that San Jose is better than it used to be (as in, it used to be a big, gross city you flew into and got out of), I still didn’t feel the need to explore when all the beauty of the country awaited us. So, we flew in, rented our car, and stayed at an airport hotel for the night.
A few tips about driving: When renting a car, full insurance coverage can be as much (or more) than the cost of your rental. The roads have VASTLY improved in Costa Rica over the past few years, and we had zero issues driving… but better safe than sorry. Also, the sun sets around 5:30-6pm every day of the year because the country is so close to the equator. In general, it is hard to drive at night because of the lack of light and numerous motorcycles. Basically: avoid driving in the dark if possible.
We got lucky on this one, but something one of the owners Hotel Parador said struck me as important: “Lots of people come out from San Jose to the beaches over the weekend, so the roads can be crazy.” Meaning this – think about local traffic on Fridays and Sundays when planning the dates of your trip.
Day Two: Arenal Area, Hot Springs
Driving time: Approximately 2 hours, 30 minutes (without stops). Use this day to get to the La Fortuna/Arenal area. As I mentioned, we stayed at the Tabacon Resort (my second time there). It is quite a posh resort, but worth every penny, particularly because access to their amazing hot springs are included. However, there are many other places to stay in the area, as the Arenal volcano (featured photo above) is one of Costa Rica’s biggest tourist attractions. I have been very lucky both times to have clear skies, but was asked many times, “Did you see the volcano???” Apparently it is common to be covered in clouds, so don’t be disappointed – it’s the rain forest! Also, the volcano became dormant in 2010, so there are no more night-time lava flows. No matter – there is still plenty to do in the region!
Day Three: Zipline (and maybe River Drift)
Below is a video from my ziplining experience last year with Sky Adventures. The second time around was just as awesome, professional and fun.
This year we added on their “river drift” excursion and that was also a blast. I would say it was maybe a bit much to do both in one day, but definitely fine for people in much better shape than me. (Translation: “Drift” is a bit misleading. “Battle with the river on a tube” is probably more accurate.) But seriously… if I can do it, I bet you can too!
Day Four: Hanging Bridges
This park was recently purchased by Mistico and they have been making some improvements (including adding the cheesy/funny signage area at the entrance for tourists to take photos).
But the walk is still the same: about two-three hours through the rain forest via a series of suspension bridges. Most of the walk is really easy, a few sections are difficult; wear tennis shoes or hiking boots. You will hear a lot of animals, but mostly they stay deep in the leaves. To me, the most amazing part was all the foliage – and, of course, the views from the bridges.
Day Five: Tamarindo Area, Sunset Dinner On The Beach
Driving time: Approximately 4 hours (without stops). The Tamarindo area has a plethora of places to stay, and lots of beaches. Some to consider: Playa Conchal, Playa Viejo, Playa Grande. Las Catalinas is a new “town” being developed right now but you can do there for meals, or to stay. We enjoyed the sunset, dinner and a swim at the Mar Vista Club (open to the public). Basically, there are so many options here, you will have a tough time picking!
Day 6: Snorkeling
Costa Rica isn’t hugely known for snorkeling, but we enjoy it so much, we go whenever we can. The great thing about Marlin Del Rey, is that the whole experience is worth it, even if you don’t see a ton of fish. A lovely boat ride on a catamaran, swimming, drinks and food on board… then a ride back during the sunset. And we got lucky! We saw dolphins, turtles, sting rays, puffers, and much more.
Day 7: Beach and Pool Day
I always try and schedule some down time for my family to just BE. This is a great day to enjoy the beach and/or pool of the place you are staying… and maybe grab a siesta after all these activities! Or, if you are still feeling adventurous, take a surfing lesson! Bonus: If you would like to check out other towns, here is Travel Channel’s list of best Costa Rican surfing towns.
Day 8: Monteverde
Driving time: Approximately 3 hours 30 minutes (without stops). This was the one attraction we missed because we stayed an extra day with friends in Tamarindo. But plenty of people have told us it is plenty worth it! Depending on how important it is to you, you may even skip to previous beach day to have extra time here or in Manuel Antonio (below). Here are recommendations from Trip Advisor as to what to do in Monteverde, and notice there is a Sky Tram from Sky Adventures.
Day 9: Manuel Antonio
Driving time: Approximately 3 hours (without stops). We stayed with Hotel Parador in Quepos and they also had excursions available that we took advantage of. Get there as early as possible and head over to Manuel Antonio National Park. (Or again, if you shift any days around, add time here – it’s amazing.) You definitely should get a guide for the park because they were very good at spotting the animals and carried scopes to be able to look closely.
We saw two kinds of sloth, three kinds of monkey, many different birds, and a pit viper! On top of that, we were able to play on the beach in the park and just happened to be there when a nest of baby sea turtles hatched. No kidding! Our guide, who lived there his whole life, had never seen this before! The walk is very easy, flat and only takes a few hours. What an amazing day.
Day 10: Head to SJO, Fly Home
Driving time: Approximately 2 hours, 30 minutes (without stops). Hopefully, you can make your flight in the evening to take advantage of a morning swim in the pool and leisurely breakfast, then head back to the San Jose airport. Or maybe you can even get a horseback ride in? We also had lunch at El Avion which was fun! Remember: Costa Rica has a departure fee, which takes extra time at the airport, although some airlines are now including it in their tickets.