We lucked out this year because the kids’ holiday break from school was 2 full weeks. That meant we could squeeze in another adventure style trip. Belize had been on my list for a while and 9 days seemed to be enough time to explore both the interior, rainforest area and one of the islands.

The planning

Similar to last year’s trip to Costa Rica, because we were going to be traveling over the Holiday break, flights were going to be expensive, even with points. Flights from Newark to Belize on AA leaving the day after Christmas were 37,500 miles each, one way. I booked those, spending a total of 150,000 AA miles. Yes that is a lot of miles, but when you want flights to a tropical destination on one of the busiest days of the year, you bite the bullet and spend the points.

After that I was out of miles, however I did have a $750 AA voucher from volunteering to give up my seat and take a later flight on a work trip to DC a few months prior. I used that to book mine and one of my kid’s flights home (plus $98 to make up the difference). I then bought the two other return tickets through the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel site using about 56,000 Ultimate Rewards Points.

I bought these tickets around February 2019 and a month or so later my husband was chosen to receive free Platinum Pro status from AA for 4 months. They do this about once a year, where they choose some AAdvantage members and give them status temporarily, hoping to entice them to book enough flights to keep their status for the rest of the year. Since I had received this the before, I knew that we could go into our flights online and upgrade our seat assignments to “main cabin extra,” for free because of his status. These are the seats in the front of economy and they come with priority boarding, a designated carry-on spot for your luggage, and free booze on the flight. So we did that and were able to snag those seats for free. Pro tip – if you do this while you have PP status, the seats will stay there even once your status expires.

For the flights home since we were on 2 separate tickets only my husband and son received the premium seating. However this fall my husband upgraded his Hilton Honors card to the Aspire for a 150,000 point bonus. This card comes with a $250 a year airline credit. You choose your preferred airline and then use the credit to pay for things like seat assignments and checked luggage fees. We needed to spend the $250 by the end of the year so I made his preferred airline AA and I purchased seats in main cabin extra for about $80 each for my son and I so we could be closer to the other two. These fees were then reimbursed by Amex for the credit.

For the lodging, I chose a small local hotel in San Ignacio called the Rainforest Haven Inn. Standard rooms were about $60 a night, so I chose a 2 bedroom apartment for $75 a night! That way we would have more space and the boys could have their own room. In my research on this part of Belize it seemed like there were some swank but pricey jungle lodges away from town or these inexpensive, but nice local hotels in town. I liked the idea of staying in town so we could walk to things, so I chose the inexpensive, in-town option.

For Caye Caulker, I chose a 2 bedroom Airbnb cabana that got good reviews that had a small pool shared with a few other cabanas. For more about how to book Airbnbs and not get scammed, check out this article I wrote for FinanceBuzz.

The trip

Our flight left Newark, NJ at 6am, which meant we needed to get to the airport around 4 or earlier. I chose to get there earlier because we couldn’t check in online since we were traveling internationally with kids. I also had a bag to check full of donations for kids in Belize through the Pack for a Purpose program.

We took an Uber from my mom’s house at 3am and got to the airport at 3:45. When we checked in, the AA rep asked for the kids’ birth certificates. Luckily I had them! This is really important to know if you are bringing kids to Belize and something I only knew through the many travel online groups I am in. Each country has different requirements for this and Belize is very strict that you prove your kids are yours, or that they have permission to travel with you, because at one point there were a lot of child abductions from the US to Belize. This is especially important if your kids have a different last name than you. I have heard stories of people being stopped from boarding their flight because they didn’t bring documentation such as birth certificates.

Luckily check in was smooth and with TSA precheck we got through the security line in 5 minutes. Our flight to Miami was on time and we landed early. Our layover was short but fortunately the Centurion Lounge at Miami airport was right across from our gate. Since my husband has cancelled his Amex platinum card and you can only guest 2 people in per card, I took the kids over there for a quick breakfast. It was so ridiculously crowded though! We could barely find a place to sit to eat our food. In fact the table only had one chair and I had to stand and eat. These lounges have becoming more and more crowded over the years as people get more into credit card points and miles. We quickly ate and went back to the gate where we boarded our flight and took off.

My husband still had about $48 to spend for his recently acquired American Express Hilton Honors Aspire Card airline credit after we paid $30 to check the bag with the donations. In order to use up the credit we bought a bunch of snacks on the plane to bring with us to San Ignacio.

We landed in Belize on time and spent about 45 mins going through immigration and customs. I had set up a shuttle service through our hotel in San Ignacio and the driver was a very nice Dutch guy who has lived in Belize for 11 years. It was a 2 hour drive to San Ignacio but we got to see some of the countryside. We got to town around 3:30 and checked into our room/apt. It was nice and spacious.

We had no idea that the Belizeans celebrate Boxing Day on 12/26, so most shops and restaurants were closed. Belize has an interesting mix of British and American influence. For example they drive on the right, and they use pounds, miles, and Fahrenheit. But then they maintain some British traditions such as this. Luckily there were a couple restaurants open so we got some dinner and headed back to our apt to get to bed early since we had been up since 2:30am.

The next day after breakfast we started our first tour which was a trip to the Belize zoo and then cave tubing. We went to the zoo first. It is very well done and features most of the native animals of Belize in the natural habitat. We got to see spider and howler monkeys, tapirs, peccaries, leopards, pumas, ocelots, margays, pelicans, a scarlet macaw, a toucan, and more. One of the zookeepers hung out with us and brought meat for some of the cats so we could see them up close while he fed him. And we got to hold a boa constrictor at the end!

After this our guide took us to a local restaurant where we had a traditional Belizean lunch of rice and beans, stewed chicken, and potato salad. Plus we got to try soursop juice (a local fruit) and their local beer, Belikin.

Next we headed over to the cave tubing place which is in a national park. We geared up with our life vests, helmets, and tubes and did a 45 minute hike through the jungle while our guide told us about the various fauna.

Pro-tip: our guide told us never to do this activity on a Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday because that’s when the cruise ships come in and they take people on excursions to go cave tubing. He said it is so busy the river becomes like a freeway of people in tubes. It was already pretty busy given that it was high season so I imagine had there been a cruise excursion it would have really impacted the experience in a negative way.

The river and jungle were beautiful and we splashed around at the mouth of the cave while our guide hooked our tubes together and waited for a time to go in where there were less people. As we floated through the cave he told us about how the Mayans used to use the caves for ceremonies and sacrifices and they would smash their clay pots when they were done as part of the ritual. The stalactites and stalagmites were so cool and you could see lots of shimmering crystals on them.

About halfway through he pulled us over to a spot where we got out of our rafts to go on a little spelunking adventure. We walked in the dark with our headlamps through the cave and walked over to an open ring with stairs. He pointed out some ancient petroglyphs carved into the stalagmites – a spooky face!

He then took us to a spot where the guides had brought over some shards of ancient Mayan pottery and we got to pick them up and look at them closely. The next part was our favorite. We swam back to where the tubes were in the dark river of the cave. He took us to a little semi-enclosed grotto and had us turn our headlamps off for the full experience. It was pretty epic!

We got back to the tubes and floated out of the cave and then down the river through the jungle for a bit, seeing orange iguanas along the way. The kids hopped out of their tubes and swam along side of us. When we were done we got some fresh coconuts from a guy selling them at the entrance and mom got a little rum in hers 😊

We headed back to San Ignacio and had a nice dinner at a really good restaurant in town, Cenaida’s. We were pretty tired after all the day’s adventures so we went back to the room and chilled out.

The next morning we decided to do a cooking class at our hotel. The person leading it took us over to the San Ignacio market. Saturday was their busiest day and it was buzzing with activity. He showed us some of the native fruits, vegetables, and spices and talked about how they use them in their cooking. We also got some freshly made pupusas and soursop ice cream!

Afterwards we walked back to the hotel and started class. We spent the morning learning to make the classic Belizean dishes of stew chicken, rice and beans (cooked in coconut milk), potato salad, fried plantains, fry jacks, and bread pudding. Then we got to eat it all for lunch and try various hot sauces. The company that makes a lot of the hot sauce here is called “Marie Sharp’s” and the hotel sells all of their products. The food was delicious and the kids had a blast learning how to make it. My husband even got to practice his kneading technique from watching the Great British Baking Show on Netflix.

We needed to rest after that huge meal but after that we walked uphill to a fancy hotel that houses the Green Iguana Project – an iguana sanctuary. The guide taught us about their work trying to help the Iguana population that gets hurt when hunters hunt pregnant mothers, and then we got to feed some iguanas in their enclosure.

After this we trekked uphill some more to the Cahal Pech Mayan ruins. The park was very quiet with only a handful of people but the ruins were pretty large and we had fun exploring and climbing all around them, trying to imagine what they used each structure for.

Later that evening my husband and I walked 20 feet across from our room where the hotel does rum tastings. Unfortunately about 10, very inebriated twenty-somethings joined us for the tasting. We still had fun and our host didn’t charge us since he said they usually like to offer a better experience.

The next morning we got up super early to meet our tour group for a day trip into Guatemala to see the ancient Mayan ruins at Tikal. We took a 15 minute bus ride to the border where we had to wait in line for about an hour to pay the exit fees to leave Belize and enter Guatemala. After that we took an hour and 45 minute bus ride up to Tikal. It was cool to see the Guatemalan countryside as went. It was very lush and green and we passed by a large, beautiful lake called Peten Itza.

At Tikal we met our local guide who took us through the site and taught us about the ruins. Tikal is pretty extensive. They started uncovering in about 1955 and they believe it was built around 300 BC. It is currently a UNESCO world heritage site.

I liked that for some of the structures you could climb they put up wooden stairs so you didn’t have to try to climb the original Mayan stone steps. It seems like that will preserve them more and also the guide said too many people were falling off the steps. It was fairly crowded, probably because it was the holiday week. However they also really limited the vending, unlike the large site, Chichen Itza, which is overrun with hawkers.

We spent about 3 hours exploring the ruins and then on the way back stopped for lunch in a small town nearby. We were starving after all that walking and climbing! We headed back to Belize and getting through the border took another hour.

After buying our hot sauce souvenirs from the hotel we decided to do a street food dinner. We got tacos, salbutes, tamales, and stuffed jacks for four people, all for $7 USD! Plus they were delicious!

Caye Caulker

The next morning we got up early for our 8am ride back to Belize City to catch the 10:30am water taxi. The taxi took off on time and we were all excited for the island part of our trip. When we landed in Caye Caulker we were hungry and tired, and the sun was very hot. We walked with our luggage in the heat about 15 minutes to our Airbnb. When we arrived, there was a large family there with about 4 kids, drinking and partying around the pool. The Airbnb was made up of 4 cabanas around a shared pool and patio area. The housekeepers were getting our cabana ready and told us it would be about 2-3 hours before it was ready. We decided to go for some lunch while we waited and we asked them where we could drop off our laundry. The housekeeper then told us there was no water but it would be back on around 5 or 6. We figured this may have been a routine thing, and didn’t think too much of it. After all, the water main by our house breaks about once every year in the summer, and we are used to being without water for 3-4 hours while they fix it.

We dropped off our laundry at a local woman’s house who also told us to check back around 5 or 6 when the water would come back on. We walked back to the middle of town and found a restaurant to eat lunch. It took forever to get our food but we tried to stay in a good mood. After lunch we walked up to the area called “The Split,” where I had heard most people go swimming and snorkeling. At this point I was starting to sour a little on Caye Caulker. The split was not what I had imagined. It was mostly taken over by a beach bar with a loud DJ and it seemed like in order to hang out there you had to order food and drinks from them. Plus it wasn’t really a beach, just a concrete area with sand on it with no shade, and you had to climb down a ladder, like into a pool, to go into the water. We walked around a little more and didn’t see any other promising areas for beach swimming.

Back at our Airbnb the cleaners were almost done and we talked to them a bit more. They told us the kids of the other family were really loud and that they were also staying through the end of the week. Great. They had left for the afternoon though, so we got on our bathing suits and took a dip in the pool. A little while later the cleaners told us that they had heard that the water pump for the entire island’s water supply was broken, and they needed a part from the States, which would not arrive until at least the end of the week. “So we may not have water for a week?” I asked the cleaning lady. She nodded. At this point I started to freak out. No water at all on an island for a week did not seem like a good idea. At the same time the owner of the Airbnb, who was off site, sent us a copy of the notification that the Belize Water Service had sent him, confirming that they were waiting for a part from the U.S. that wouldn’t come until the end of the week but they would try to fill the tank with some emergency water in the meantime.

I started panicking and thinking about how we could leave but my husband tried to keep me calm and that maybe we could wait it out. We went to the store and bought some extra water. The cleaning people gave us buckets to fill with the pool water to flush the toilet. I started to think about what the pool would be like after a few days with all these people who can’t shower using it and no fresh water to replenish it. I also read in the host’s guidebook that the only beach-like areas, were the Split, which we had seen, and another place north of the Split called Koko King, which was another beach club that you could use if you purchased food and drink. It said they had a sort of manufactured beach and they would ferry you across the split in their boat. At this point I was not thrilled that our only options for swimming were spending money at a beach club (likely lots of money as they are always over-priced), or crammed in a small pool with our boisterous neighbors. I looked up one way flights on AA (the airline we were using to fly home), and they were over $1000 each. This situation was bad but there was no way we were going to spend over $4000 to get home. It seemed like our best option was to wait it out and hope for the best.

We decided to head out for dinner and I tried to calm my anxiety and not think of all the Mad Max scenarios playing in my head about what this place would be like after 3 days with no water. We walked around the town a bit more. It was crowded and I didn’t feel the “laid back vibe” I had read about this place. Also I had heard Belize didn’t really have beaches but I figured they would at least have somewhere nice to swim. It wasn’t looking that way.

We made our way back to our Airbnb and found our neighbors on the patio in full-on party mode. This was not exactly the relaxing vacation we had hoped for. Inside the house I texted my friend who has traveled extensively to tell him about the water situation and ask his advice. He was pretty clear: “Get out. These things never go well. If you can leave do it.”

I went back on google flights to see what we could get to fly home. United had a one-way, nonstop flight back to Newark the next day for about $400. That wasn’t too bad. I checked what they were charging in miles. It was only 20k miles per ticket plus about $65 in taxes and fees. That was a really good deal. I looked at flights for the 1st and 2nd of January and they were over 40k miles each and had connections. If we were going to get out it had to be the next day. I only had about 2,000 United miles in my account, but Chase Ultimate Rewards will transfer to United at a 1:1 ratio and will post instantly. I had plenty of these points to transfer over to United to buy the tickets with miles.

I called my husband in from hanging out with the neighbors and we discussed our options. I even called my friend to talk it though. In the end we decided flushing the toilet with pool water, sharing this space with very nice but very loud neighbors, with a pool that was bound to get disgusting and no good beach to swim in, was just not worth it. We pulled the trigger and booked the flights for the next day.

The kids were very upset and we tried to explain that it wasn’t safe to be in a place without water for that long. We explained that at the restaurants they would not be able to wash dishes and food properly and there was a good chance we could get sick.

I also let our Airbnb host know we were leaving and I cancelled the one snorkeling excursion we had planned. Luckily that company refunded me because I canceled before 24 hours. I was pretty bummed to miss this because it seemed amazing and honestly the only reason to visit this area, but at this point it seemed like the right call.

I had difficulty sleeping because of the noisy neighbors and my nerves, and at one point in the middle of the night I got up to go to the bathroom and tried the faucet and some water came out. Now I was extra upset. Had they fixed it already? I just spent 80k miles on our plane tickets that could have been used for something else! I woke up my husband and showed him but he convinced me we should still leave. He said this was likely the emergency water they brought over to fill the reserve tank a little, but that would likely run out again soon as well.

The next morning we packed everything up and it started pouring rain, making the sandy roads filled with big grey puddles. We caught a golf cart taxi to the center of town and had breakfast a famous “stuffed jack” place. It was pretty good. We took some pictures of the island and then boarded the water taxi back to Belize City. Once there we took a cab for the airport and had a relatively easy time getting on our flight to Newark. We had a lot of Belizean dollars left but we spent a lot of them on the cab ride, lunch at the airport, some drinks, and some more hot sauce to take home.

Our impressions of Belize

We loved our time in San Ignacio. There were so many fun, adventure activities to do there, including exploring caves and ancient ruins. We also thought the people were nice, the food was good, and the town was very affordable.

We did not like Caye Caulker much at all. There is no beach for swimming or snorkeling and to hang out at the two beach-like areas you would have to spend money at the beach clubs. The food was also over-priced in much of the island. We had heard this was one of the nicest Cayes in Belize because of the “laid back vibe” with golf-carts and bicycles instead of cars. Well we didn’t think the vibe was laid back at all! Granted this was the busiest tourist week of the year so our impression could be skewed. But we also kept comparing it to another small, golf-cart island that we have been to several times –  Isla Mujeres, in Mexico. Isla  has gotten more crowded in recent years, but is still much nicer with a gorgeous beach and great, affordable food and lodging. In our opinion, they are similar locations, but Caye Caulker can’t hold a candle to Isla. It seems like Caye Caulker is best as a jumping off point for snorkeling and diving excursions out to the reef, rather than a tropical island destination in its own right. After doing some more reading, I found out that Caye Caulker, like so many places these days, has fallen prey to over-tourism. Apparently the Split used to be nicer until the bar took it over and started over-charging people for food and drinks.

Looking back, even if the water main break hadn’t happened, we would have liked to stay longer in the interior of the country. We probably would have done 4 days in San Ignacio and maybe 3 days in Guatemala near Tikal so we could do more than just a day trip there. Than we could have stayed 2 nights in Caye Caulker, just enough to have one full day for a boat trip snorkeling excursion before leaving the island. Hindsight is 20/20 but hopefully we can help someone else out who might be reading this when planning their trip to Belize.

We were definitely bummed that our trip took a turn for the worse at the end, but we had a great 4 days in San Ignacio and given that this was our 7th family trip of 2019 and the only one where something negative happened, we figured we had a good run! We feel lucky that we had the points to cover our trip home and that we didn’t have to stay and spend more money in a situation where we would have been miserable. It took a little leg work, but in the end we were able to get all of our money refunded for the cancelled Airbnb and cancelled flights home. Our Airbnb host refunded us for all the nights we didn’t use and 50% back for the first night since we didn’t have water. For our cancelled flights, I called and then sent a very nice letter to American Airlines, explaining the situation, and given that there was a disruption of an essential service they were super helpful and refunded both the voucher that I used and the points used through Chase. So in the end, we didn’t lose any money at all. My advice for trying to re-coup  from these situations is to be as nice as possible with the companies you are working with. It doesn’t always work out in your favor, but I have good luck being super nice and patient.

Costa Rica!

The planning

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 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.

The Traveling

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.

Going home…

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.