Many Coronado families have shared their amazing trips to Costa Rica with us over the years. In fact, we chatted with three different families to get their tips on visiting Central America and specifically if our kids (ages 11 and 13) would enjoy it as much as their kids had. The combination of jungles, beaches and volcanos definitely piqued our interest and moved Costa Rica higher on our “places to visit” list.
The deciding factor was learning that Southwest Airlines was going to begin flying direct from Los Angeles (LAX) to Liberia/Guanacaste (LIR) for introductory rates. We found tickets for $350 round trip (yes round trip!) and booked them for July. Compared to flying to Hawaii or other domestic destinations, this was a sweet deal. “Rich Coast“, here we come!
The Coronado Library has lots of travel books on Costa Rica. A great resource is Frommer’s Costa Rica 2016. We did end up buying two items off Amazon.com so we could mark them up and travel with them: Fodor’s Costa Rica 2016 and Waterproof Travel Map of Costa Rica (more on this very important map later). After more research and plotting out our ideal itinerary, we packed our bags and headed over the bridge to LAX. It’s good to note that Southwest Airlines allows for two checked bags absolutely free (as long as they are under 50 lbs). Of course, you also are allowed to carry on a bag and personal item as well.
The flight from LAX takes about 5.5 hours. While over the United States, Southwest offers free TV shows which helped to pass the time (movies are available for $5). Remember to buy something to eat at the airport as Southwest only offers light snacks and drinks – no meals. Hey, that’s why the price is so low, right?
We arrived at the Liberia airport in Costa Rica which is a much smaller airport than the more popular one in San Jose. Since our first stop was only an hour away from Liberia, this airport worked out very well to get the trip started. Our shuttle service was right on time and after a leisurely drive via a two-lane road, we reached our first stop, Tamarindo. Note, if you get in later at night to Liberia, consider staying at the Hilton Garden Inn – right across the street.
Tamarindo, Costa Rico
Tamarindo is sometimes called “Tama-GRINGO” by the locals since this beach town is heavily traveled by tourists. We mentioned this to a few Ticos (Costa Ricans) in town and they explained that it’s said with love and that tourists are the lifeblood of Tamarindo.
We stayed at the Hotel Tamarindo Diria which offers rooms that are just steps from the 85 degree Pacific Ocean. Since we were traveling with two kids, we wanted to get a room that had two queen beds and was easy to get to the beach. This hotel was in the perfect location for our stay.
In Tamarindo, the best way to spend your time is surfing. No need to bring your surfboard as many rental shops are found up and down the main drag. We rented boards and booked a few lessons with Iguana Surf.
The instructors were very helpful with explaining the break and the best places and times to enjoy the waves.
The sandy bottom beaches can get a little crowded in late morning, but if you get there early, you will have most of the waves to yourself. Be sure to hit up a local “Soda” dining spot for some authentic food. If you are missing American food, head to the Surf Shack for an amazing burger.
In this great little surf town we heard the phrase “Pura Vida” often. It translates to “pure life” and can be used in many different ways: hello, goodbye, nice wave, beautiful sunset, etc. Watch the below video and you’ll get an idea of what we mean:
If you want to explore a bigger break, you can take a bus or hire a driver to take you to Playa Avellanas. It’s “right around the bend” but takes a good hour to get there. The roads in Costa Rica have improved over the years, but the road to Avellanas is anything but smooth. This beach is much less crowded and not as touristy. There is one restaurant, Lola’s, and it’s worth going there just for the food.
After a few days in Tamarindo, we rented a car in town and prepared for driving to our next destination. It’s extremely important to add GPS to your car rental. Having a phone app just won’t cut it. Hardly any roads are marked with signs. Pay the extra money for GPS and make sure you have insurance for your car. As we pointed out earlier, most of the roads are good, but many are still dirt roads full of rocks. One other driving tip: don’t drive at night. Not only is it easier to see the big rocks or potholes in the daylight, but the roads are much safer (in every way) as well.
Manuel Antonio, Costa Rico
If you look at the map above, the distance is only 311km (193 miles) from Tamarindo to Manuel Antonio, but it says it will take just over five hours. Trust your GPS because it takes longer to get around Costa Rica than you might think. Smaller roads, dirt roads, stuck behind a truck roads, livestock crossing roads, etc., do yourself a favor and enjoy the scenery while you are driving.
It’s absolutely beautiful. Many times it reminded us of Hawaii and more specifically, the jungles of Jurassic Park.
On the drive south to Manuel Antonio, you must stop to walk over the bridge spanning the Tarcoles River. Just be careful of the cars zooming across the bridge as you peer over the side to take in the view of hundreds of crocodiles. If you want to get real close, take the tour with Jose.
Here is a short video from Animal Planet about this location:
The photos of the 360 degree lodging, private beach and daily sloth tours made it an easy decision. Yes, it was a little more pricey, but well worth staying there. Plus, they offer onsite car service and all meals can be taken at the restaurant, pool or the room.
Another benefit of Tulemar was the tour connections. We used their services to book our white water rafting tour and our guided tour of the national park.
It cannot be stressed enough to use a licensed guide to see Manuel Antonio National Park so that you don’t miss seeing all the animals and insects that are so easy to miss.
Be sure to bring your bathing suit so that you can enjoy the Playa Manuel Antonio beach at the end of your tour.
For some great views, be sure to get a drink or dine at El Avion (picture below). They actually brought in a C-123 Fairchild cargo plane and converted it into a large pub.
Our best meal in town was at Cafe Milagro (be sure to grab a few bags of coffee on the way out).
Ok, if you look at the map above, you’ll notice we did a lot of driving. We had about 15 days in total on this trip and we wanted to explore Costa Rica as much as we could – the country is the size of West Virginia. Of course, we could have been more efficient with the order of our stops, but it actually didn’t feel like that much driving. Plus, road trips are good for family connecting time…right?
Our next stop was an eco lodge called La Carolina Lodge. The kids were a little concerned about this part of the trip as we explained to them that this lodge had no electricity. All meals, lights and even the hot tub was powered by fire.
As it turned out, there were some areas of the lodge that offered electricity (and spotty wifi), but we did our best not to use it.
All meals were included in the room price and all were taken at the community dining area with the other guests. This was a great opportunity to meet other travelers and hear about their Costa Rica adventures. We met groups and families from all over the world.
La Carolina Lodge was one of our favorite places to unplug, relax and truly have some downtime. We rode horses, went hiking, explored waterfalls and enjoyed delicious and fresh traditional Costa Rican meals.
Arenal Volcano, Costa Rica
Our last stop was staying near the Arenal Volcano. This is where we encountered some of the most primitive roads and were very happy to have the 4WD along with the GPS guidance. We made it to Leaves and Lizards and took a dip in their brand new pool to wash off the bumpy ride. The room here was very rustic, but met our basic needs. The view of the Arenal volcano from the patio was incredible. We took an entire afternoon to go zip lining and it was awesome.
The below video isn’t from our trip, but we are sharing it to give you a first-person view of zip lining in Costa Rica:
We made the “mistake” of discovering a jaw-dropping 5-star resort just a few miles away from Leaves and Lizards hotel. This was an unbelievable beautiful resort called The Springs (shown below):
Honestly, you have never seen such an amazing resort that included its own natural hot springs and wildlife preserve. (Yes, it was also the location of The Bachelor episode a few years ago.)
Since we already had accommodations, we decided to get a day-pass to explore some of the activities that the resort offered. We highly recommend Club Rio at The Springs if you can only spend a day there:
Your Club Rio Multi-Adventure Package includes Hot Springs, an authentic Costa Rican Lunch, Hiking Trails, River Pools, Tour of our Jungle Cat and Wildlife Sanctuary and your choice of 2 of the following Activities:
- Inflatable Kayaking
- River Tubing
- Horseback Riding
- Guided Nature Tour
- Climbing/Rappel Wall
The highlight of Club Rio was the wildlife sanctuary and the natural hot springs. We could have easily spent another two days exploring this resort and the surrounding activities.