I have wanted to travel to Costa Rica for many years, but we decided to wait until both of the kids were at least 8 year old so they could do some of the adventure activities that CR is famous for.
I started planning our trip for winter break 2018-2019 about 2 years in advance. I needed to know which airline we were likely to take so I could start accruing miles for it. I eventually settled on American Airlines. My family really wanted to leave the day after Christmas so that we got the maximum amount of time in Costa Rica over winter break. The problem with leaving the day after Christmas to a warm and popular location is that flights are notoriously expensive, even with miles. No problem, I was up for the challenge!
I opened two Barclays Aviator cards (business and personal), which were offering 60k points once you make one purchase of any amount, and pay the annual fee of $95. That brought me to 120k AA miles. I think transferred some of my SPG points to AA when they were having a bonus deal. You can transfer SPG points to many airlines and get a 5,000 point bonus for every 20,000 points transferred, and AA was running a deal where they added another 25% on top of that, so for 20k SPG miles you got 30k AA miles. I did this twice I think and with some of our pre-existing AA miles we had enough to book our flights!
For the lodging, I was very specific about places I wanted to stay, and none of them were bookable using points. I did book some places using hotels.com to add to my reward night count, however. I booked most of the places in February (10 months in advance), because the week between Christmas and New Years is one of the most popular times to travel and I wanted to make sure we got our choice of accommodations. You normally don’t need to book your lodging this early, however some of the places I wanted to stay had only 3-5 options, so they were sure to book up. For example, the tree house hotel only had 3 or 4 tree houses that would make sense for us, and one of them was already booked! Likewise, for Airbnb, if you see a property you are dying to stay in, book it ASAP. Chances are it is very popular and since there is only one of it, you could lose it later.
For the itinerary, we decided to do the rainforest activities for the first week, and the beach for the 2nd week. Since all of our locations were in the Northern part of the country, we decided to fly in and out of Liberia airport.
We left my mom’s house in NJ at 2:30am the morning after Christmas to drive down to Philadelphia airport. Even though technically they live closer to EWR (Newark Airport), we tend to prefer PHL (Philadelphia). It’s just nicer and less congested with traffic. From my mom’s house it’s a straight shot down 95, we have a park-and-fly place we use that we really like, and PHL has a Centurion Lounge (an Amex lounge for Platinum card holders) that we love. We arrived at the airport around 4:20 and had to wait for the lounge to open at 5am. After a bite to eat there we headed to the gate and boarded the plane to Miami.
At Miami we hit Centurion lounge #2 for a delicious breakfast of ricotta pancakes, Spanish style tortilla, potato and sausage hash, fresh fruit, mimosas, and espresso (Membership does have its privileges!), and then we boarded the flight to Liberia. We had seats in the bulkhead in main cabin extra. This is because last year I received AA Platinum Pro status for four months as a promotion. With that status you can choose the main cabin extra seats for free, so since I booked these tickets when I had that status we had those seats that have extra leg room and free adult beverages. It’s nice to be in the front of the plane when traveling internationally because you get to the immigration line first 😉.
Our flight was great. We sat near a group of 4 families who are all neighbors in Chicago and vacation together. We also vacation with our neighbors although we only do a yearly camping trip so far…I think we need to step it up a notch!!!
Customs and immigration in Costa Rica was smooth as was our car rental. We got our little SUV and took off for our first lodging which was near Tenorio National Park and Rio Celeste; a little over an hour from Liberia airport.
The drive was beautiful. We passed farmland with volcanos in the distance and then in the last half hour climbed a bit up into the mountains through denser vegetation until we got to the little village of Bijuagua. The colors of the landscape were so vividly green it was hard for my eyes to take everything in.
We turned onto a dirt road and about 2 miles up we made it to our lodging. They weren’t kidding when they said the roads in CR are bad! The main roads were paved and fine but as soon as you turn off onto a side road, it’s rock city! I can’t imagine how difficult it is to navigate during the rainy season with all the mud. Our hotel was actually a group of small little cabins (casitas) in the forest. Our casita had a long porch overlooking the forest, and within about 15 minutes we spotted about 6 monkeys! 🐒🐒🐒🐒🐒🐒 The binoculars my son got for Christmas came in very handy as we watched them scramble through the tree tops. I couldn’t believe how quickly and easily we spotted the wildlife!
We made it an early night after we went to a restaurant for some comida tipica (typical Costa Rican food) and headed in to bed.
Day 2: Rio Celeste and Night Hike
As I lay in bed early in the morning, I kept wondering whose phone was going off making Chewbacca noises. Only later did I realize it was the howler monkeys waking us up! After some coffee in the casita we headed over to the main dining area. The BnB served a farm fresh breakfast in an outside area overlooking the forest, and we were able to see Toucans and other exotic birds as we ate. We took a tour of the farm that is part of the BnB, although my youngest and I got some ant bites and had to cut it short to go back to our casita and put on socks!
After breakfast we drove over to Tenorio National Park and did the hike out to Rio Celeste waterfall. The color of the water is this amazing bright sky blue. We ended up splitting up because my youngest had an issue halfway through the hike that needed to be taken care of in a bathroom. So my husband took him back. My oldest son and I hiked out to the lookout tower and then turned around because we were unsure how much further the other points in the hike were and we had no water with us. Come to find out they were pretty close to where we were. Oh well, it turned out my husband and other son made had hiked out to the waterfall too and we met up with them at the little restaurant near the entrance. After some refreshing batidos (Costa Rican smoothies) and tasty empanadas for a snack, we headed over to a little mom and pop restaurant on the side of the road and had a larger lunch of casados (typical Costa Rican plate of a meat, rice, beans, salad, plantains, and macaroni salad).
We headed back to our casita to rest and explore the property a little more. Around 5:30pm we headed out for a night hike with a local guide named Miguel. He took us on a 2.5 hour hike with flashlights through his property and we were able to see many local fauna, including a sloth, the red-eyed tree frog, the strawberry poison dart frog (or blue jean frog), a huge bull frog, a basilisk lizard, a kinkaju, several birds, many insects, and more. It was pretty special and the boys were amazed. Everyone agrees this was our favorite activity of the whole trip.
It was about 8pm by the time we were done and there weren’t many restaurants to choose from in the sleepy little village we were staying in. We ended up at a Costa Rican Chinese food restaurant kind of by accident. The food was actually decent and we ate well and went straight to bed.
I loved this part of the trip. We were in a quiet small town that had few tourists, so it was great to see a lot of every day Tico life. The BnB we stayed in was really nice and the staff was great. I would highly recommend it to anyone who wants to get a little off the beaten path.
Day 3: Drive to Arenal
The next morning we had another delicious breakfast and saw toucans, monkeys, and sloths right outside the dining area! We then checked out and drove about 2 hours to the town of La Fortuna near the Arenal volcano and national park. La Fortuna was very busy and touristy compared to the little town of Bijauga that we had just left.
After some lunch at a soda (small Costa Rican restaurant, like a diner) in town, we drove up towards the Arenal volcano to stay at the Arenal Observatory Lodge. This is a large property close to the volcano with views of the Arenal lake. We swam in the pool and hot tub and then explored their large property which had some trails, a frog pond, a small “museum” about the volcano, it’s eruptions, and local wildlife, and a restaurant. We had dinner at the lodge restaurant mainly because we didn’t want to drive all the way back down the mountain to La Fortuna in the dark.
The lodge was pretty cool because it was so close to the volcano. I probably could have stayed one more day because we didn’t get to do a lot of the hikes. But I wouldn’t have wanted to eat at their restaurant every night and driving back and forth to La Fortuna in the dark to eat would have been a pain, so overall I think one night was fine.
Day 4: Arenal and drive to Treehouses!
The next morning we woke up early and had a buffet breakfast at the lodge. They had a huge spread with lots of different Costa Rican food, such as a corn pudding (my husband thought it tasted like kugel). Afterwards we headed over to Sky Adventures, a tour company within the park that has zip-lines, hanging bridges, and a gondola up the side of the mountain. Since we are all scared of heights, we skipped the zip lines and did the sky trek and sky tram, which is a 2.5 hour guided hike through the rainforest followed by the 10 minute tram ride. The trek was pretty amazing, as we walked over four hanging bridges and saw two waterfalls. We also saw some howler monkeys and two vipers!
Afterwards we went back to the lodge to check out and then we headed back into La Fortuna for lunch at Don Rufino, one of the best restaurants in town. It did not disappoint…the food was incredible!!!
Following lunch we drove about 40 minutes through the beautiful countryside and a couple small towns until we landed at our next lodging, Treehouses Hotel Costa Rica. We checked into our treehouse, The Sloth (or Perezoso). It was about 40 feet off the ground and had a queen size bed on the first “floor” and two twin beds up in the loft. It also had a/c, a fridge, and a bathroom with shower!
The property has trails to a local river for swimming, so before it got dark we trekked down to the river for a quick dip. It was a little cold but so refreshing!!! We were pretty tuckered out by the time we got back to the treehouse so we ordered pizza (yes they delivered it to the treehouse!) and had a quiet night in.
Day 5: Quiet day at the Treehouses
Today we took it easy after so many adventures. In the morning we got to have our coffee on the treehouse balcony and watch the birds. The hotel made us a delicious Costa Rican breakfast at their outdoor dining area. After we rested a bit we walked on their private trail to a small waterfall and then went for some more floats in the river. I had considered driving back to La Fortuna to go to the La Fortuna waterfall, but my sense is it would be very crowded and having an entire riverside area to ourselves to play around in seemed so much nicer. We also saw a three-toed sloth in a tree and a group of howler monkeys later when we returned to our treehouse.
We went to a small little restaurant for lunch and tried some Costa Rican tacos. They’re kind of like large taquitos in that the tortillas are wrapped around the meant and/or cheese and deep fried.
Afterwards we came back to the Treehouses and had a private chocolate making workshop. The chocolatier was a local guy who has a small craft chocolate business. He taught us the history of chocolate and then we made fresh chocolate from the nibs! My husband and I were able to try the ancient chocolate drink the Aztecs and Mayans drank from fermented cacao (no sugar or milk), and the kids had one that was sweeter. Then, after some rendering of the chocolate we got to pour it into to the molds. It was delicious and so much fun!!! The kids had a blast grinding and pouring and picking out what flavors to make. We had a great time talking to the guy and learning about chocolate and Costa Rica in general.
Day 6: Whitewater rafting!
On this day we had another delicious home cooked breakfast at the Treehouses and then just rested around our treehouse until 11am when the whitewater rafting company came and picked us up in a van with a bunch of other people. We drove about 15 minutes to the put in, and everything started moving really fast. This was not like WWR in the states where they take 45 minutes to give you a lesson and sign paperwork. After a quick lesson we were in the water and hit many class III rapids in a row. It was super exciting and luckily no one fell out! About halfway through the trip the river became muy tranquilo and we only had a few class II rapids. We were able to take it slow and see some wildlife including monkeys, sloths, and iguanas. The guides gave us a fruit snack and the trip was over after about 2 hours.
We were starving since we hadn’t eaten lunch so we went to a restaurant called “Happyland” for an early dinner. I have to say, I was so hungry I actually enjoyed my tilapia stuffed with ham, American cheese, and shrimp – a combo that I questioned later. That night back at the Treehouses we did another night hike with the caretaker and saw some more insects and frogs. It was New Years Eve but we were so exhausted we fell asleep at 10pm!
Overall, I loved the treehouse resort. It was really relaxing, and again, I liked that we were in a smaller town away from the crowds. I loved that they had the private river to swim in, and they had a lot of wildlife right there on the property. The staff was wonderful as well. I would highly recommend staying in this place if you are in the area. It’s close enough to La Fortuna to do the activities there, but away from the hustle and bustle.
Day 7: Wildlife Refuge and Hot springs
On this day after breakfast we checked out of the treehouse and drove about 5 minutes to the Proyecto Asis Wildlife Refuge. We took a private tour of the facility that rehabilitates animals that were either hurt from cars or had other accidents, or were taken as pets and domesticated when they shouldn’t have been. They help the domesticated animals learn to be wild again so they can release them back into the jungle, however some of the animals have been so injured they will have to stay there forever. After our tour we were able to prepare lunch for the animals and feed many of them, including spider monkeys, white faced capuchin monkeys, toucans, parrots, and peccarry pigs. The kids loved handing the monkeys pieces of banana and having them grab them out of their hands, and the alpha capuchin monkey even got a little aggressive with my husband, grabbing his hand and pulling it close to bite it before my husband got away. The guide said he probably thought my husband was another alpha monkey because of his beard 🤷🏻♀️.
We finished up around lunch time and headed into La Fortuna for lunch. On the way we stopped at a little souvenir shop the Treehouses staff recommended, run by a husband and wife. He carves little wood sculptures and she paints them. The owners were super nice and had us walk around their property a bit. The wife showed us all of her birds and the husband cut open some fresh coconuts for us. We did buy a couple souvenirs and they also gave us one as a gift.
When we got to La Fortuna many stores and restaurants were closed because it was New Year’s Day, but we ended up eating some empanadas and finding a great little gelato place. We then drove over to the hot springs resort, Los Lagos.
Our room was not ready yet to check in and change, so we walked around the property for a bit. They actually had a little “zoo” of sorts, with a huge crocodile, a butterfly house, a frog pond, a turtle pond, and an ant house with lots of leaf cutter ants. After we got changed we explored all the pools and hot springs. The hot springs varied in size and temperature and the largest one had a swim up bar! There were slides in several of them. Some of the hot springs pools were small, fitting only a few people at a time in a man made cave. We spent the rest of the afternoon and evening swimming around until we wrinkled up like prunes and then went to bed.
I’m glad we stayed one night at the hot springs resort rather than doing a day trip because we could have some drinks and stay until it got dark and not have to worry about driving back to our hotel. I probably wouldn’t have stayed more than one night there because it was kind of resort-y. It was big and touristy and the rooms were just ok. But it was really fun to spend the afternoon and evening soaking and swimming in the hot springs.
Day 8: Waterfall swim and drive out to Nicoya Peninsula
After a buffet breakfast at the resort we checked out and drove all along Lake Arenal (a man-made lake along the side of the volcano) for about 2 and a half hours until we got near Canas. The road was very twisty and turny but the views were incredible. We drove out to a waterfall I had heard of called Llanos de Cortes. You can swim at the base of it and they had lifeguards and lots of people picnicking.
It reminded me a lot of the waterfalls near us in Ithaca, NY, where you can also swim, however those are always freezing cold, even in August! The nice thing about this one was the water was pretty warm and made for comfortable swimming. We also got to see a bunch more howler monkeys and a monitor lizard! We had a really nice lunch in the nearby town and then got on the road again to drive out to the beach.
Waze had us go up through Liberia and then out to the Nicoya Peninsula where many of the beach towns are along the Pacific. The last part of the drive was gorgeous through lush rolling hills. We made it to our Airbnb around dinner time and after a swim in our private pool we went over to a beach restaurant for a late dinner.
Day 9: Playa Sámara – Beach day!
The nice thing about being at an Airbnb finally (besides a washing machine for laundry!) is that we could make our own food. We picked some things up at the grocery store and had a home cooked breakfast. We then headed out to the beach which was gorgeous. The water was so warm, I couldn’t believe this was the Pacific Ocean. The kids and my husband were having so much fun playing in the waves that they stayed in a little too long, and despite having put on a lot of sunscreen they all got sunburned on their faces. So we spent a quiet evening at home making our own dinner and relaxing.
Days 10-17: Time to chillax…
It took us a little while to get used the laid back vibe in Samara after the go-go-go of all the rainforest adventures. It was a kind of like driving at 60 miles an hour and going into a 25 mph zone. On our second day we spent a lot of time in the house and our pool since my littlest had such bad sunburn. We also had a chance to eat some more meals at home, saving some money.
I also started going to yoga at the beach! The instructor is actually a massage therapist who’s office is connected to our Airbnb. She offered a very similar practice to what I do at home in the hot yoga studio – only you don’t need to turn up the heat here! There’s nothing like taking a yoga class while looking out onto the beautiful ocean to get your namaste on!
There’s no coastal road connecting all of the beaches and beach towns along the Nicoya Peninsula, so you can’t beach hop without lots of driving. Fortunately, there is a paved road connecting Samara to one of the most beautiful beaches in Costa Rica, Playa Carillo, only 10 minutes away! Carillo has no development on the beach, it’s like a park, and so amazingly beautiful! There are palm trees along the road where you can tie your hammock, and then the beach itself of huge and uncrowded with white sand. Along the sides there is a bit of a coral reef for snorkeling (I saw some incredible sea life!) and it faces west for amazing sunsets. We hung out here about three times and the rest of the time we went to Samara since it was a 5 minute walk from our house.
We also did two tours in Samara, one was a boat tour to see dolphins and go snorkeling. We set out early and the guides found a bunch of dolphins pretty quickly. We sat on the front of the boat and the water was so clear you saw them swimming literally right below your toes! We even saw one flip in the air! After that we went over to a reef for about 40 minutes of snorkeling. The reef wasn’t as colorful as some in the Caribbean, but there were many varied fish.
Our second tour was through a all woman-run company called “Horse jungle” for a horseback riding tour through the jungle and then out to a remote beach called Playa Buena Vista. The ride was about two and a half hours long and so beautiful. Our horses were very tame but our guide’s horse was skittish and actually threw her off at the beginning of the ride! She assured us it was just her horse but it made the kids nervous for a while after that. My favorite part was riding along the beach, which I have never done before. I also just loved getting to see the countryside in this part of Costa Rica.
Other than going to the beach, doing yoga (me), these two tours, and swimming in our pool, we tried some local restaurants and hung out with friends of a friend who are live in NYC but just bought some property in Samara and were putting a container house on their land!
After 9 days we definitely got into the (slow) rhythm of things in Samara but we were also ready to go home. If I had to do the trip over we probably would have gone to another destination for some of that time, like Monteverde cloud forest or a different beach town, and had less time at the one place. However it was nice to have so many days there because you really could only be at the beach for 1-2 hours a day or risk getting sunburned, so this definitely gave us ample beach time.
If you are considering a beach destination in CR, I would definitely recommend Samara and Carrillo. The beaches are gorgeous and the ocean has waves that are big enough for playing in but not too rough. It is not over-touristed or over-crowded and you can really feel that laid back, low key beach vibe. There are also enough activities to do if it gets too laid back, and it is close to the airport.
The drive to the Liberia airport was pretty and uneventful. When we dropped the rental car off they started giving us a hard time about some pre-existing damage that the person who checked us out had shown me and told me he recorded. I always take pictures and video of the car when I rent it to have it time-stamped, and of course this was the one time out of 20 that I’d didn’t, so I started to panic that they were going to charge us. Luckily after the clerk searched the system she found that the damage had been recorded and she apologized for insinuating that we had caused it.
We brought our own lunch to the airport because we had heard that the restaurants there were crazy expensive (and the rumors were true – a plain bagel without cream cheese was $7.95 USD!!!)
After cleaning security we headed to our gate and right next to it there was a sign that said “VIP lounge.” I had checked my lounge apps and both said there was no lounge at LIR, but my husband went and asked if they took priority pass and they did! It turns out the lounge is brand new and so the apps didn’t even have it listed yet! Everything was sparkling new and clean. They had tamales, meatballs, soup, mini-quiches, some salads, and complimentary wine, beer, soft drinks, and tea and coffee. Even though we had just had lunch it was nice to pack in a little more food because our connection was so tight in Miami we knew we wouldn’t have a chance to eat again until after 11pm.
We again had the main cabin extra seats, and although our flight landed in Miami 45 minutes early, they had no open gates so we sat on the tarmac until one opened up. That gave us only 90 minutes to clear customs and immigration. Thank goodness we had global entry and did not have to get any checked bags, otherwise we would not have made it. Also my husband just received the same AA promotion for platinum status a few days before, and that helped us skip ahead in the TSA line, because they had no separate pre-check line. We made it to our gate with only 10 minutes to spare. We finally landed in PHL around 11pm and drove an hour to my mom’s house in NJ to crash. Back to reality!
So, overall the trip was pretty epic. I think my itinerary worked very well although like I said if I had to do it over we would have added one more destination and take away a few days from the beach. Costa Rica is such a beautiful country with an incredible diversity of flora and fauna. The people are super nice and welcoming and the food, while often simple, is delicious. I will definitely put it on my list to return, especially since I feel we only scratched the surface.