Costa Rica

Costa Rica is Pura Vida! I kept hearing this phrase before and during our trip and wondered exactly what it meant. The literal translation is the Pure Life and indeed, Costa Rica lived up to its reputation as the Pure Life.

We ventured to this tropical wonderland over the kids' two week spring break at the end of April. Costa Rica is located near the equator so they basically only have two seasons: dry and wet. The dry season in most parts is December to April and the wet season May to November.  We'd heard a lot about the eco tourism in Costa Rica and were excited to explore the beautiful beaches and give the kids a taste of a verdant rainforest.

There are many options in visiting Costa Rica. There's beaches on the Pacific Ocean side, beaches on the Carribbean Ocean side, and rainforests in different parts of the country. Since this was our first trip there, we decided to keep things simple and go to two destinations: a beachfront hotel on the Pacific Ocean and the rainforest at an active volcano called Arenal.

Samara Beach
Costa Rica is known for its great surf and in reading the travel books, we chose to avoid the more popular surf spots with its rowdier party crowds and found the perfect family location called Samara Beach in the Guanacasta Region (4 hr drive from San Jose airport, 2 hr drive from Liberia airport). Samara Beach is a marvelous crescent shaped beach with a reef that keeps larger surf at bay, so the warm waters were safe and perfect for boogie boarding and body surfing. We found the ideal beachfront hotel located about a mile out of town. Owned by an American couple, transplants from Seattle, the small 6 room hotel was a locals favorite. We loved staying among locals and found them very friendly. In Costa Rica, spring break is their biggest holiday and the whole country takes the week off.

horseback riding
on the beach

Waterfall near Samara Beach
The owner of the hotel gave us a few tips for exploring the area and besides hanging out boogie boarding (hotel had boogie boards) and soaking up the sun, we went on great adventures to local tidepools and a waterfall. The highlight of my daughter's stay at Samara was the horseback riding on the beach.  We enjoyed the food in town and the locally caught red snapper was the best fish I've ever had.  The town itself wasn't much to brag home about. It was a dusty street with some touristy shops and a few restaurants. Along the beach near downtown, were some great beachbar restaurants. One thing that surprised us was the supermarket in town was surrounded by a fence topped with barbed wire.

Our second stop was the Arenal Volcano. Arenal was a four hour drive from Samara in which we got lost only once with the GPS leading us to a dirt road. After asking for directions and driving in circles for an hour we finally found where we missed our turn. A friend recommended the Arenal Observatory Hotel, a former Smithsonian Observatory. We were happy for the recommendation as the grounds were in a rainforest at the foot of the Volcano. They had free daily nature walks through the rainforest where the guide pointed out Toucans and various insects, and a yellow venemous snake that I chose not to get close to.
Rainforest trail

While at Arenal, we did the ziplines through the rainsforest canopy - amazing time and loved by all! We also went river rafting on class 3 rapids which was the perfect adventure for the kids. On Easter Sunday we ventured out to the free hot springs located near the more expensive resort hot springs. The free hot springs are located across from the Tabacon Resort. Just look for the cars parked on the side of the road and take a walk down the driveway. There's a gate there from a closed down resort. Go to the left of the gate into the opening and walk down. The place was filled with locals and we enjoyed some time under the trees in the hot natural pools.


Samara Beach:

Hotel Fenix. $135  for a one bedroom studio w/kitchen (sleeps 4). Only one room has air conditioning. Our room did not and it was fine.

Restaurants in Samara:

Pizza and Pasta a Go-Go. On the main street. Great fresh fish.
La Brasas - on the main drag. A little overpriced but good.
All of the beach bars seemed fine.

Arenal Observatory Lodge. Amazing place. We got the Smithsonian volcano view rooms and it was well worth it. $169 for 4 people (includes breakfast). The lodge is 6 miles on a dirt road. The only food is the lodge's restaurant which was fine for breakfast but overpriced and not that good for dinner. We had a car and ate in La Fortuna, the nearest town (30 minutes) most nights.

Restaurants near Arenal:
Soda Viquez in La Fortuna. Off the main road next to the Rainforest Cafe (not the American Rainforest Cafe chain).  A soda is the word for a small restaurant. We LOVED this place. The waitress (may have been the owner) was really nice and the casadas were great!! (Casada is a local meal that includes rice, beans, and fish, chicken, or meat).

Rainforest Cafe - GREAT coffee place - yum! Costa Rica has the best coffee!


Food: If you like fresh fish than you're in luck. The fish was great. Casadas, which I mentioned earlier are a dish that includes fish, chicken, or meat, rice, beans, and usually some kind of salad.  Make sure you try a salsa called Lizano that's on the tables in restaurants. It's great on fish, chicken, or meat. I bought a small bottle and brought it back with me. I had it in with my liquids and going through airport security the TSA worker in Houston said, "What's this, salsa??" I said, "Yes, it's the best! Please don't take my Lizano." He laughed and let me through.

Crime: Costa Rica is not for the faint of heart. It's third world. The people are very nice, but theft seems rampant though and you need to watch your stuff at all times. The service agent at our car rental place told us not to leave ANYTHING in the car because car windows are broken all the time and things taken. They also had a lock on the gear shift that we had to use.

To Rent a Car or Hire a Shuttle?

We went back and forth on this. Hiring a shuttle is very common for tourists. Costa Rica has a bad reputation for driving and we can see why now. We opted to rent a car to have more mobility and flexibility and I'm glad we did BUT I can see the advantages to hiring a shuttle in not having to worry about directions or other problems. There aren't any street signs in Costa Rica, so having a GPS is very helpful. We brought our own and downloaded maps beforehand ($60). Even with the GPS, we got lost, so have back up directions. This site is great for directions: http://www.yourtravelmap.com/costarica/travelmap/index.php?&width=1920
DO NOT USE HERTZ RENT-A-CAR at the San Jose Airport - we booked through Hertz in the U.S. and when we got there, they wanted to charge us an extra $300 for insurance. We told them that we were covered by our credit card and they said they wouldn't accept that and if we didn't pay for the insurance they would charge our credit card $7,000 (yes $7,000) as a deposit. Anyway, it's the law that you have to pay for insurance, so be aware that what you're quoted may not include the added insurance. We ran into other people who had the same thing happen with it doubling the price they thought they were going to pay. If I were booking a car again, I  would book directly through rental car company in  Costa Rica and ask for the exact amount including everything.

Flying: For most flights from the West Coast, you need to go through Houston or Miami. Allow plenty of time between flights for your connection as they are often running late. We met a few unhappy, tired people who'd missed their connections.