Lovin' Costa Rica with Kids

May 20th, 2013, 12:21 PM
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Join Date: Apr 2005
Posts: 120
Lovin' Costa Rica with Kids

Hello to All!

Well, first a big thank you to all who take the time to answer questions, give advice, and post your own trip reports. Know that your efforts have helped shape this fantastic trip that follows… If you have any questions, I’d of course love to help answer them as well.

My husband, myself, and our 2 daughters, ages 6 and 3.5 traveled to Costa Rica this past April to celebrate my husband and I’s 10th wedding anniversary (and also my birthday which is one in the same day). My husband and I had been to Costa Rica once before (pre-kids) for our 2nd wedding anniversary, but knew even then we had to bring our children-to-be back to this magical place, to share it with them, and see it through their eyes.

Looking back, I am sure that is the exact experience we loved most from our trip, sharing it and experiencing it with our children. It was as if we could just see them growing right before our eyes; their self-esteem and confidence growing exponentially with each new experience and adventure they took on. When we look back, and think, "Gosh when did they grow up?" I'll remember, oh yeah, Costa Rica. They were really living life here – Pura Vida indeed! But I digress, on to the details…

We traveled on a red-eye via American Airlines from Seattle to Miami, and arrived in San Jose on Easter Sunday morning. Going through customs… was a breeze! Shortly after stepping into a very long line, we were taken out of line and taken to the front of the line! Why you ask? Because we were traveling with VIP’s (Very Impatient People = the kids). This seems to be a universal accommodation they make for those traveling with young children, as we had the same experience when going back through customs in the US.

We chose to rent a car through Wild Rider, who although weren’t the very cheapest have unanimously fantastic ratings and reviews from ALL of their clients, and that just couldn’t be said for any other company. The peace of mind of knowing that you are dealing with an honest and well run company up front I feel is worth it. Jose and Thorsten (the owner) were right there waiting for us when we exited the airport. Jose gave us an excellent map of Costa Rica, and highlighted our whole route for us, along with a few personal recommendations of things not to miss. We used this map faithfully during our entire trip! Now off to La Fortuna…

We had a nice drive to La Fortuna welcoming us back to Costa Rica. It took us roughly 3 hours (with one potty stop for the kids), and that included about 15 minutes of driving through some pretty thick pea soup fog.

We arrived at Hotel El Silencio Del Campo, where we were welcomed by the reception with 4 frozen fruity drinks! Those were one of those times, where you just couldn’t imagine anything tasting better! We loved our stay here. I took advantage of their free facial they offer (for those who might also want to take advantage of this, know you have to have the facial done on the day of your arrival or the very next day). I chose to have it that very evening, and wow, what a welcome to paradise!

Breakfast was included in our stay and offered about 6 options (which were constant) throughout our stay. Everything was wonderfully and deliciously prepared, and we couldn’t have asked for more, including our super great waiter, Junior. He was so attentive and kind. I had made up travel journals for our daughters to work on during our trip, and for my oldest daughter included a “Be a Reporter” section were she had a list of questions to ask a question about Costa Rica (i.e. What three colors are in the Costa Rican flag?) to someone we encountered during our day. Junior was eager each morning to answer her questions about his home. He was a true example of wonderful hospitality.

La Fortuna Activities…

Proyecto Asis – it is short drive from La Fortuna and we chose to take their 1 o’clock tour and volunteer (advance reservations are required, and we did this directly with them, through their website/email). This was a great experience for all of us! Adriana was our guide, and was such a wonderful teacher, impressing upon the children why it is never okay to have wild animals as pets, and excitedly told the children when we came to an animal that would soon be able to be released (which is their goal). Here, we had the opportunity to hold hands with monkeys, hold a pair of baby monkeys, feed toucans, macaws, monkeys, peccaries, and others. We loved the snack time between the tour and volunteer portion, when we had the chance to sit down and visit with and connect with Adriana, to learn about her life, share things about ours, talk about Costa Rica, etc. They also have some resident sloths in the trees, which we saw from afar, but we saw another sloth up close using the power lines as his freeway on the drive home from Proyecto Asis.

Catarata Rio Fortuna – aka La Fortuna Waterfall - This was a great walk/hike with lots of stairs to the waterfall, which we took a chilly swim in at the base, followed by a small picnic. Just heaven! Note: A special thanks to the stairmaster at the Y making this trek with a 3 year old on my back no problem. When we reached the bottom of the falls, (about 12:30pm) all of the people who were brought in by the buses were gathering and heading back up to leave, and that left the entire place to us, along with a few others.

Arenal EcoZoo - (as it is now called) in El Castillo (about 12 km from La Fortuna). When we visited 8 years ago, it was simply known as the Serpenteria, but it has had a great deal of expansion, and houses many more species, a collection of spiders and insects, a butterfly garden, turtles, a small crocodile, along with others (and even has a restaurant). It is a nice and scenic drive – you will find the animal encounters are as plentiful as the education you receive. The kids were so brave, and held every snake, lizard, frog, etc. they were offered, minus the tarantula. I guess even 6 and 3 year olds have to draw the line somewhere. Loved “tickling” the blue morpho chrysalis, and watching it wiggle (their defense against predators). Thumbs up from everyone!

Hot Springs – we went to the hot springs (some cold, some warm, and some hot) at the hotel every night we were there – the children love swimming, and for all of us it was a great way to relax from our full day’s adventure, and take in the night time sounds and sights (keep your eyes peeled for the fireflys).

La Fortuna Eats… (in order of like)

Soda Viquez – this was our favorite place to eat in La Fortuna, so much so we ate here twice! Not touristy, not expensive, and real authentic food that was DELICIOUS! Choose any of their casado’s here, and you can’t go wrong! Very friendly staff too.

El Novillo Steak House – the ceviche! You have to order the ceviche! Very friendly waiter here, Jaro, who took great care of us, and we enjoyed great steak here, of course!

Rain Forest Coffee House – we went here for lunch, which I thought was an imperative being that they were #1 on Tripadvisor, but left wondering how they got to be #1? The food was unmemorable; the waitress forgot my husband’s coffee to accompany our dessert, just ho-hum here.

On our way to La Carolina Lodge next… And also working on a photo album of pictures to share!
coryandcarissa is offline  
May 20th, 2013, 01:29 PM
Join Date: Dec 2007
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What an excellent start of a great trip report! Glad to notice that Wild Rider's fame has spilled over from TA also to Fodors. Looking forward with anticipation the La Carolina chapter; still remembering our perfect stay there.
xelas is offline  
May 21st, 2013, 05:45 AM
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You are off to a great start and your kids sounds like great little travelers. Looking forward to La Carolina - we just loved it there!

We used Wild Rider, too, and had absolutely no problems, very helpful.
colibri is offline  
May 23rd, 2013, 08:58 PM
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On our way to La Carolina Lodge – Jose from Wild Rider had highlighted two options for us to make our way to La Carolina. Option #1 was a shortcut which was a gravel road taken from La Fortuna (which then connected to a paved road, then back to gravel). Option #2 was the long way around, but a paved option most of the way, then gravel. We chose option #1, and I have to say the “shortcut” portion of our drive was my most favorite in all of the driving we did through Costa Rica. Cows in the roads, lush green hillsides, crossing beautiful rivers (with bridges), it was just beautiful! And hey, if you’re headed to La Carolina, you’re in for an adventure already, so by all means take the shortcut!

I learned a few days prior to our arrival at La Carolina that the owners (who are the only English speaking residents of the ranch) were departing for a stay in the U.S., so I knew my memory would be put to the test as I tried my best to recall my years in high school learning Spanish. I was a Communication major in college and remember learning that “70% of communication is non-verbal.” That was my fail-safe. Well, I am proud to say that I surprised myself on my ability to not only communicate basic necessities, but in some cases have meaningful conversations with the staff at La Carolina! Senor Martinez would be so proud!

The best of the best! There is not one part of our Costa Rican vacation that we could have ever done without. We loved everywhere we went. However, we have to say that we loved La Carolina the most! This place is so magical, from the wonderful staff, to the wood fired hot tub, to the amazing meals, to the horse back riding, I could go on and on, this is Costa Rica, right here! It is completely off the grid, and the animals you will see there will be a reflection of that. We had toucans (and a variety of other birds that I do not know their names) visit us during breakfast, white faced capuchin monkeys roaming through the trees at the back of our house in the afternoon, blue morphos floating by the riverside, blue jeans frogs, I could go on… and a sloth in a tree that true to its character didn’t move once the whole time we were there.

We stayed in the “House on the Hill” which was ample room for our family of four, had a great big hammock for swingin’ in, a front deck with rocking chairs that overlooked the horse stables, and the sound of the rushing river at the rear of the house. These are not lush accommodations here, but they were in every way perfect for us.

La Carolina Activities

Horseback Riding – shortly after arriving were we asked if we’d like to go on a ride. Yes, we would! So after a quick costume change we set out with other guests from the lodge along with Alejandro (the resident cowboy at La Carolina) and Wendy (a daughter of one of the women who work in the kitchen) for a wonderful trail ride on the property. My husband and I each had one of our daughters, who shared a saddle with us. What an exciting yet peaceful way to begin our stay!

Rio Celeste – This was my reason for coming to La Carolina – I just had to see this place. Local legend says that when God was finished painting the skies blue, he washed out his paintbrushes here, in the Rio Celeste, and to see it, is to believe it! It is a spectacular place, with a great hike in and out (I think it was about 4.5 miles round trip?) which will be muddy, even without any rain, but so much fun, and the sights you will see are such a reward! The first stop is at the Rio Celeste Waterfall, then if you continue on up the trail you will come to the Blue Lagoon, and then finally to where the “magic” happens – where the rivers meet and form the most beautiful celestial blue color. Alejandro from La Carolina went with us as our guide and taught us a great deal about the flora and fauna (in Spanish) along the way. He was particularly impressed by our 6 year old’s stamina and positive attitude along the trail. I really think he thought she wouldn’t make it the whole way, let alone is such good spirits without even an ounce of complaint. Again, growing up right before our eyes. Alejandro nicknamed her “the jungle goat” because of the way she went hopping up and down the steep inclines of the trail. Our 3 year old rode happily on the back the whole way.

Along our hike we told Alejandro how our daughter had just began horseback riding lessons at home in the states. So, later that afternoon Alejandro after taking the rest of the guests on the trail ride we had done the day before, then took us (along with a few of the girls whose mother’s work in the kitchen at La Carolina) on our own private ride. He outfitted our 6 year old with her own horse, Tigre, which she rode by herself, and quickly put her lessons to the test. She did great all on her own; you would have thought she had been in lessons for a year, rather than just a few weeks. We were so proud! Alejandro took us all over the property, seeking out white-faced capuchin monkeys and howler monkeys for us to see. We were gone over an hour on our ride, and just loved every minute of it!

All the other great things – The kids (and us) loved going to milk the cows in the morning. If you’ve never done it, it’s a lot harder than you’d think! Everyday we were there we went swimming in the river and the wood fired hot tub both. The community dining is an activity in itself – not only will you eat your best and most authentic Costa Rican meals here, (they are plentiful and sooo delicious) but you’ll have the opportunity to meet and get to know other travelers from all over the world. We could have been happy here for many more days, but… on to Playa Samara!
coryandcarissa is offline  
May 24th, 2013, 08:45 AM
Join Date: Aug 2007
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Oh, yes, you loved La Carolina and soaked up its essence and atmosphere!! Isn't the staff just wonderful? Bill and Karien were there during our our visit, but we spent a lot of time with Justin and Juan Carlos. As you said, it surely helps to have some Spanish language skills as this is a pure Costa Rican experience. Tigre was my horse, too, and my riding skills are probably about the level of your daughter. All the horses were so mild and well behaved. Your report makes me wish I was back there right now!!
colibri is offline  
May 24th, 2013, 10:12 AM
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What a fun report, c - enjoying reading it!
volcanogirl is online now  
May 28th, 2013, 01:27 PM
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Colibri, yes, I suppose that's the beauty of writing a trip report - just for a moment you feel like you're back in Costa Rica! You get to relive the vacation, just a little bit!
coryandcarissa is offline  
May 28th, 2013, 01:40 PM
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Playa Samara - What originally steered me towards Playa Samara was (well Fodors), but also its child friendly swimming beaches, and nearby Wing Nuts Canopy tours that has ziplining open to all ages. My husband was also anxious for some surfing time, but our stay happened to fall in between the swells at Playa Samara. We were so content where we were though, that my husband couldn’t reason driving in search of breaking waves. Next time…

We stayed at Villas Kalimba – a perfect stay! The Villas are right across the street from Playa Samara, and have a full kitchen, so you are free to make your own schedule as much as you are your own meals, which was wonderful for us at the end of a long vacation, especially with the kids. Thus, we have no restaurant recommends for you in Playa Samara, other than our one night in which we ate at Villas Kalimba. When the owner Roberto feels inspired he will host a fabulous 5-course Italian dinner, which he prepares himself. This meal really felt like the grand finale to our amazing Costa Rican vacation.

The Italian owners deserve a paragraph all their own! Roberto (who is very hands on, and is at the Villas every day) and Mara are the most wonderfully gracious and heartwarming people. I had contacted Roberto ahead of our arrival and mentioned that my husband and I were interested in renewing our wedding vows on our anniversary (and my birthday - April 7th), and was wondering if he could help us in coordinating this. Well, to make a long story short, April 7th also happens to be Roberto’s birthday as well – what are the odds? As well, his mother-in-law who happened to be visiting from Italy at the time, offered to renew our wedding vows for us (in Italian – because she does not speak English) which she had done a couple years prior for Roberto and Mara for their own wedding anniversary. So, on April 7th, on our 10th wedding anniversary, we renewed our wedding vows, in Italian, in Costa Rica, on a nearby beach, Playa Carrillo. It was so beautiful! Mara and her mother had taken the time to decorate a section of the beach with flowers and other embellishments, had laminated our vows for us to follow along with an Italian- English translation, and even made us homemade individual wedding cakes to enjoy after the wedding. Out of the kindness of their hearts they did this for us, and made it so special you would have thought that it was our 1st wedding! We were absolutely humbled by their generosity and thoughtfulness. It was truly a blessed day!

Playa Samara Activities – Wing Nuts Canopy Tour – We took the 7am tour, (beating a bit of the heat) meeting at their nearby offices (about a 5 minute drive from our Villa), and met up with our super amazing guides Freddy and Manu. They were both so personable, were a pleasure to get to know, and made the whole experience lots of fun! We also went with two German girls who we became fast friends with, and had the greatest morning flying through the treetops! About half way through you stop for a picnic in the treetops, which overlooks a beautiful section of ocean, getting a chance to visit with everyone while enjoying fresh pineapple, watermelon, cookies and juice. What a memorable experience this was! Our 6 year old was in love with ziplining from the very beginning, and insisted upon going first every time thereafter. Our 3 year old had to go tandem for a few of the ziplines just for the simple fact that her weight wasn’t enough to get her to the other side, but she made fast friends with Manu, who was so kind to her, putting her at ease chatting her up, and ever so gently boosting her confidence, that when she was able, she was ziplining by herself! So amazing to see our little girls not only soaring, but their confidence too!

Besides ziplining, our days in Playa Samara were a real rest and relaxation stay. We alternated throughout the day with being at the beach, building sand castles, soaking up the sun, playing in the waves and boogie boarding, with time back at the Villa playing in the pool, swinging in the hammock, and playing games. We really got the chance to unwind here.

Ugh, I can feel the heartbreak as if I am back in Costa Rica realizing that our magnificent vacation is nearing its end. Headed back towards San Jose for a night before departure stay…
coryandcarissa is offline  
May 28th, 2013, 05:30 PM
Join Date: Dec 2006
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Thanks for posting your trip report. It's so fun to read. I'm convinced that we need to head to La Carolina with our kids someday, and also Playa Samara. How long did it take to get to Playa Samara from La Carolina?
janenicole is offline  
May 29th, 2013, 10:46 AM
Join Date: May 2013
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I agree with everything you have said about Villas Kalimba...Awesome hosts, perfect location, nice rooms w/ kitchens and porches...we loved it also! Including the italian dinner with wine, so yummy.
rlpatterson05 is offline  
May 29th, 2013, 02:07 PM
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Hi Janenicole,

I'm pretty sure it took us about 3.5 hours (max 3.75) to get from La Carolina to Playa Samara. However, under normal circumstances, I think it would be more like 3 hours. We ran into a good amount of road construction, (they are in the process of adding a 2nd lane to the highway) and then the standard of being stuck in a long line of cars all leap frogging to pass the same slow truck. Once completed, not only will you not have the road construction to deal with, but the 2nd lane will send you sailing by those slow moving vehicles. Hope you get to make the trip yourself with your family - you'll love it!
coryandcarissa is offline  
May 30th, 2013, 06:13 AM
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That doesn't sound too bad. Thanks, c!
janenicole is offline  
May 30th, 2013, 01:31 PM
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Final Night – for our final night in Costa Rica we stayed at Casa Bella Rita, a bed and breakfast about 15 minutes from the airport, with our hosts/owners, Steve and Rita, who were instantly like old friends. Rita had asked where we would be coming from, and emailed us detailed directions from Playa Samara to their B&B (about a 4.5 hr. drive), which was very helpful. Our stay here was quick but very pleasant. Breakfast was wonderful on their deck overlooking a picturesque canyon. The B&B is decorated so beautifully too – I told Rita I wish their was a pocket size version of her I could take back to the States to help me decorate my own home! With Rita’s detailed directions back to the airport, we said our Costa Rica farewells, and were on our way… We pulled in to the airport where a nice gentleman from Wild Rider was there to greet us, and take back our trusty Bego. Super easy return, and on our way to pay our exit tax.

Layover in Miami – We had an overnight layover in Miami and selected the Comfort Suites Miami Airport North on Minola Dr. as the place to rest our heads. They offer a free shuttle to and from the airport (which runs 24/7), which was exactly what I wanted in a hotel, and I wouldn’t hesitate to stay here again if an overnight layover was in our travel plans.

Reflections – When I was initially planning this trip I was a little hesitant being gone so long with the children (13 days). I recall asking my husband more than once, “Are you sure its not too long?” Well, as we were departing Casa Bella Rita, the kids wanted to know what hotel we would be going to next. When we reminded them that we were going home, they both started whining that they didn’t want to leave Costa Rica, that they wanted to stay longer! Well, if that isn’t the best endorsement you can have from a 6 and 3 year old, I don’t know what is!

My husband and I both agreed that without a doubt this was the best trip either one of us had been on in our entire lives. It’ll be hard to plan our next “Big Trip” with some much to live up to with Costa Rica!!! Suggestions??? We feel so blessed to have been able to create these fantastic memories as a family. I know and am excited by the fact that the experiences our children had in Costa Rica have had an impact on not only the person they are, but the person they will become, and that makes a great vacation for anyone!
coryandcarissa is offline  
May 31st, 2013, 07:43 AM
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FAQS and Travel Tips – A list of answers to questions which I see often on the boards...

We drank the water everywhere; the children included and never once had any problems.

To rent a car or be driven, that is the question. RENT A CAR!!! If I could encourage people to do one thing, it would be to rent a car – be independent, explore, make your own schedule, and “pave” your own way! The roads and potholes are not that bad, and they are only getting better. It seemed everywhere we went they were updating a road, putting in a new highway, lane, etc. I mentioned to my husband that it seemed the best job you could have in CR is with the road crew.

We chose not to have GPS, quite honestly I’ve heard just as many positive as negative reviews, so I think, better to just have good directions and a map. And, hey if you get turned around, everyone is so nice and eager to help you in Costa Rica, you’ll soon be on your way (in the right direction) again!

We chose not to get a cell phone, and never felt as though we needed one.

We never changed any of our money into colones – dollars are readily accepted everywhere (and sometimes preferred). We just used what we got back in change to save for the tolls, or other small items.

We purchased Trip Insurance through TravelGuard (since we didn’t have the cost of airfare to insure it was super cheap – for all 4 of us it was $66). Covers you for trip cancellation, interruption, luggage, and most importantly (I think) medically.

I wore a money belt with our cash in it (Rick Steve’s Silk Money Belt), which worked great and was very comfortable.

We used the ATM in Playa Samara to get US dollars (avoided a foreign transaction fee withdrawing dollars, so it was just like using an ATM in the states – zero additional fees).

Vaccinations – my husband and I chose to get a Hepatitis A vaccine (although we didn’t do this 8 years ago when we went), mostly because the children are already vaccinated against this, and we thought we should be too. Also, we were both (over)due for our tetanus shots, so we took care of those as well.

We packed a large stash of snacks (granola bars, Nugo bars, goldfish, almonds, etc.) and found these to be some of our most valuable items – great for tiding the kids over to our next stop, hiking on the trails, etc. And, I know we saved a bunch of money bringing them from home too!

Will have the picture link next!
coryandcarissa is offline  
May 31st, 2013, 03:19 PM
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Loved your photos - what a great time you had!!!
colibri is offline  
Jun 10th, 2013, 05:00 PM
Join Date: Sep 2011
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Great trip report, made me feel I was back there! We visited in 2011 and also went to La Fortuna/Arenal and loved the Proyecto Asis visit! We didn't go to Rio Celeste but I kind of wish we had - next time, perhaps! We also used Wild Rider for our rental car and were very happy with them.
Jane62 is offline  
Jun 16th, 2013, 10:32 AM
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Thanks!! excellent report!
mick675 is offline  
Jun 18th, 2013, 08:06 PM
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Great trip report. Carolina Lodge is awesome and check out Playa Carrillo just south of Samara on your next visit!
kherman7 is offline  
Oct 16th, 2014, 03:56 PM
Join Date: Oct 2014
Posts: 5
coryandcarissa, Wondering how long your drive from Samara back to San Jose was. We are headed to Costa Rica with our two boys, who will be 4 and 7 when we travel at the end of February 2015. We are starting our trip with 3 nights in the Arenal area (staying at Tree Houses Hotel in Santa Clara) and then hope to spend our remaining 5 at the beach. It seems like everyone is recommending Manuel Antonio and is telling us it's too far to drive outside of the central valley. Thoughts about driving back to San Jose from Samara in one day, with young kids?
homeaway is offline  

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