A few years ago I bought the Lonely Planet travel guide on Costa Rica, more-so out of curiosity than initiating a trip at that time. Olivia must’ve been around 16 months then, perhaps a few months too soon to take on the natural wonders of the Central American country. In late 2018, the talk of a mid-winter trip was brewing with our friends Jason and Jessica (and son Jasper). We had previously traveled together to St. Martin and Mexico, Jasper and Olivia being tried and true travel buddies, were excited about venturing to a new destination (and so were we, the parents)! This time however, we would be going as a group of seven as Luna (our 14-month old), joined the ranks. This was Luna’s second trip out of the country.
La Fortuna, Arenal & the Jungle
Costa Rica is not a very big country (relative to the US), but it is quite diverse and itineraries can vary based on points of interest. Beaches and coast lines serve as the country’s western and eastern frontiers while mountains and valleys, volcanoes, rain and cloud forests dot the country’s interior. The capital, San José, is somewhat at center of it all and it served as the point of origin for our trip. We flew into San Jose and spent the night at a nearby airport hotel (highly recommended if arriving in the evening as to avoid driving the roads, some parts unlit at night). The following morning we set out towards the region of La Fortuna, which is host to one of country’s famed and still active volcanos (Arenal, 5,300 feet high — last erupted in 2010), about a 2+ hour drive from San José. Although considered young by experts, Arenal is one of the most active volcanoes in the world. Its most destructive eruption occurred in 1968 when lava blanketed an area of 15 square kilometers destroying 3 nearby villages and killing 87 people. Photocopies of pictures and newspaper clippings of the incident could still be seen in various coffee shops and restaurants in La Fortuna, serving a reminder of mother nature’s delicate yet ominous unpredictability. During our visit, Arenal stood as a permanent and quiet fixture in the beautiful backdrop, attracting clouds around the tip, perhaps concealing it’s true intentions.
With 3 days in La Fortuna we had time to explore the area’s natural wonders, kicking off with the thick, lush and humid rain forests around Arenal, home to myriads of birds and other animals whose omnipresence brought the sounds of the forest to life. The La Fortuna Waterfall was a key and scenic point of interest, set within the verdant green forest and defined by the water’s 75 meter plunge into the emerald pool beneath. A few swimmers were scattered in pool cooling off from the humidity. The surrounding forests were teeming with peculiar trees and plants, insects and other animals like the coatis.
Before our next excursion into the rain forest the following day, we filled our bellies with exotic fruit and chocolate at Don Olivo, one of the local plantations. Most of us in the US have at one point or another eaten bananas or pineapples from Costa Rica, but as we soon learned the best and most exotic fruit stays in the country. Star apple, guana, guanabana (or soursop), were among some of the fresh fruit we tasted straight from the trees or respective plants. It’s always fun to try new fruit especially with kids and seeing their silly reactions. But the thing that excited Olivia and Jasper most was the chocolate. After a tour of the cacao trees and a lick of the fruit itself, we were treated to a more formal tasting of chocolate made that very morning. Needless to say the kids packed the pieces away, although I think the adults lost track of how many squares we had also.
All the fruit and chocolate consumed that morning was enough to power us through the afternoon’s visit to Arenal’s Mistico Park known for its hanging bridges. A sprawling area of protected rainforest laid ahead, as we took off on a 2-hour hike. The paved walkway traversed through the forest and all in we crossed 6 hanging bridges. The longest was about a football field’s length, and the drop down was about 60 meters, offering us the feeling of being one with the rain forest. It almost felt unnatural to be so integrated within nature. The canopy from the trees shielded us form the sun and kept the area cool, although the humidity begged of us consistent sips of water. Spotting various animals became an activity and we were lucky to encounter a few of them, including a dart frog and a coral snake, both bright and beautiful yet capable of killing their foes and prey in a moment’s strike. We were all in awe of the rain forest’s givings and its great biodiversity.
Our last morning at La Fortuna presented itself as an opportunity to take a dip in the natural hot springs, where there are volcanoes there shall be hot springs! Jason, Jessica, Jasper, Olivia and I enjoyed what seemed to the most scenic bath ever taken, in a relaxing and beautiful setting.
Manuel Antonio National Park & the Pacific Coast
The second part of our trip was devoted to spending time on the beach and doing day trips to the Manuel Antonio national park. Our home for the next 4 days was the Clandestino Beach Resort. Situated off the beaten path, the 15 minute drive down the unpaved road delivered us to a remote and uncluttered location with full access to the vast beaches of the Pacific Coast. Time here seemed to take a backseat approach, while relaxing by the pool and on the beach quickly became the new norm. We alternated days between chilling on the property and visiting the Manuel Antonio National Park, which was about an hour’s drive further south.
The park is one of the most popular Costa Rica destinations known for its beautiful tropical plants, it’s white sand beaches, and rich wildlife. We arranged for a morning tour lasting 2-3 hours, with numerous animal sightings including the beloved sloth, snakes, 3 or 4 different types of monkeys, tropical birds, and insects. The place seemed to have it all, and apparently it frequently plays as the subject of National Geographic documentaries. Aside its beauty and richness, I vividly recall how oppressively hot the day was. As the tour ended, I was very pleased as the jungle ushered us towards the beach for a much needed cool off in the ocean.
On the way back to the Clandestino we stopped for lunch at El Avion in the town of Quepos. Perched atop a hill with expansive views of the Pacific, El Avion was host to one of our tastiest meals in Costa Rica, and also gave us the opportunity to learn more about the actual airplane (and its history), within the restaurant.
With two days remaining on our trip, we set out for one last adventure and saw Manuel Antonio one more time, but this time by water. We had signed up for an afternoon catamaran tour, venturing into the waters of Manuel Antonio and offering perspective of its scenic coastline. We also sailed in search of dolphins and found several pods, driving the kids’ excitement to another level. A snorkeling session was built into the tour which took us in close proximity of dozens of sergeant major damselfish, the curious yellow & black striped and always seemingly hungry fish. To complete the fun, the catamaran was equipped with a couple of slides, that Jasper, Jason and Brigitte put to good use time and time again. As we sailed back to the marina the fiery red sunset closed the curtains to a fun and adventurous day.
We spent the good part of our last day driving back to San José but stopped for lunch in the popular surfing town of Jaco. The frequent road signs for “killer tacos” had their effect, as we stopped at Tacobar for a yummy lunch and threw back fish tacos while slurping on fruit smoothies. From there it was about another 3-4 hours to San José, where we enjoyed one last tropical evening before our morning return flight to New York.
Pura Vida, as the locals call it, is meant for everyone in life, from the youngest of travelers (like Luna), to those who make Costa Rica a permanent and final home.