We recently returned from a long-anticipated vacation to Costa Rica, where we spent three nights a stone’s throw from the Arenal Volcano in the center of the country, and four nights on the Pacific coast in Manuel Antonio. As I reflect on our experience, I am so thankful that we treated ourselves and our kids to this week of nature and adventure. Immediately below is a short summary of our trip. Read on for the uncut version.
Duration: 7 nights over spring break from school (March)
Airline: United Airlines nonstop from Newark to San Jose – approx. 5 hours
Arenal Hanging Bridges walk with Jacamar Tours, arranged by hotel
Arenal Volcano Walk with Jacamar Tours, arranged by hotel
Tabacon All Natural Mineral Hot Springs (http://www.tabacon.com/costa-rica-resort-thermal-springs-1.html)
Arenal Natura Ecological Park (http://www.arenalnatura.com/)
Manuel Antonio National Park Tour (http://www.manuelantoniopark.com/mapk/aboutus.asp), arranged by hotel
Dinner at Gaia Hotel (http://www.gaiahr.com/)
Tortilla-making class (at Arenas Del Mar)
Activities we would have loved to do but did not have time for or decided against because of our kids’ ages – Cano Negro Wildlife Tour, ATV/Quads Adventure Tour, Zip Lining, White Water Rafting
Added Perk – The locals were super friendly, knowledgeable about their country’s history and its indigenous wildlife, and they all spoke English.
To note – Although our hotels were great, I found that the BEST small, luxury hotels in Costa Rica are adults-only.
Pura vida is a very popular term in Costa Rica. Literally, it means “pure life”, but it is often used when greeting or bidding farewell to people, or anytime things are going well….which is almost always in Costa Rica. We arrived in San Jose to sunshine and friendly, smiling faces after a smooth flight of just over five hours from NY. We then “transferred” to the domestic airport, which consisted of walking a few blocks with a porter and our luggage in tow. We arrived at a single airstrip with a single airplane – our airplane – and two pilots. After checking out the wings, the tires and the cockpit on the 10 seater, we were ready to roll. The 25 minute flight was thrilling – to fly through the clouds and over the lush, mountainous countryside in a tiny aircraft gave us all the sense that we were “driving” in the sky. Before we knew it, we were landing in Arenal on another small landing strip with a stunning view of the Arenal Volcano. A pre-arranged van was waiting to bring us to Arenal Nayara (http://arenalnayara.com/), our first hotel.
Arenal Nayara is a small luxury boutique hotel located close to the base of the Arenal Volcano. It offers breathtaking views of the volcano from almost anywhere on the hotel grounds, including our suite, or “casita”. The hotel looks like it was built with the utmost respect for the land on which it sits. It has two restaurants – one that serves Latin-American inspired fare as well as an American buffet breakfast, and another that serves Asian-inspired fare, including sushi. There is also a very pretty wine bar on the property. Overall I was very impressed with the hotel. It was well-maintained and authentic. The staff was friendly and helpful. With its intimate pool, secluded spa and multiple jacuzzis tucked privately among the lush landscape, I would say it catered to couples. That didn’t bother us though….the entire staff was very kid-friendly and we were perfectly happy taking a dip in one of the jacuzzis every evening before heading in for showers! There were several other families at the hotel as well.
Our casita was a free-standing structure set in the midst of the tropical rainforest. It was spacious and private. We had a great outdoor shower (in addition to our indoor shower). The only disadvantage was the layout – since it was a large square shaped room, it was not the best set-up for our family, as all five of us were sleeping in the same room. Our terrace had a jacuzzi and a hammock, from which we could see the Arenal Volcano in the distance.
On our first full day we went on a guided hanging bridges tour about 15 minutes from the hotel. It was spectacular. The walk/hike lasted for about three hours and, as the name indicates, included a number of bridge crossings including 15 hanging bridges (note to those afraid of heights: some of these bridges were 30 meters high). Between the lush surroundings and all of the wildlife we saw, it was a serious feast for the eyes. The animal sightings were incredible – we saw a toucan, a snake, howler monkeys, a sloth, an owl, and plenty of leaf-cutter ants and other insects, to name a few. It felt amazing to walk along narrow dirt paths in the midst of the forest for several hours without even a hint of civilization nearby. Our guide was incredibly knowledgable and patient. After the tour we returned to the hotel for lunch and to swim and relax by the pool for the afternoon. We were all asleep by 9pm that night!
The next day we went on a guided walk at the base of the volcano, which also lasted about three hours. Again, our guide was excellent. We learned about the history of the volcano and all about the flora and fauna around us. Like the prior day, we headed back to the hotel afterward for an afternoon around the pool. The hotel had a resident macaw, Carlota, who provided hours of entertainment for the kids each day. They loved watching her and she often “dined” with us, as the kids were eager to feed her tortilla chips from our table.
The next day we went to the Tabacon Hot Springs, which are a series of natural mineral hot springs about ten minutes from the hotel. They were amazing and beautifully designed for guests’ use. If you walk to the top of the hot springs, the temperature of the water is so hot that even I could not handle it. In this area there was a very zen, adults-only garden and seating area which seemed unbelievably peaceful. As you walk further from the source, the water temperature becomes increasingly cooler (but by no means cool – think jacuzzi temperature) and it’s fun to take a dip in the many different pools and explore the lava rocks, waterfalls and stunning landscape. At the very bottom of the springs, there is a pool with a water slide – super fun for the kids. That evening we had dinner at the sushi restaurant back at the hotel. The food was excellent and the view even better as we watched the sun set behind the volcano while we ate. A guitarist played in the background and Carlota the macaw kept us company as well.
On our final day in Arenal we went to the Arenal Ecological Park (http://www.arenalnatura.com), a five minute walk from our hotel. What a treat – not only did we see more native wildlife in their natural habitat, the kids got to hold an adorable little red-eyed leaf frog! And the kids ate termites for the second time on our vacation. Apparently they are completely edible and high in protein!
That afternoon we flew to Quepos, near the southwestern coast. The flight was about 30 minutes, followed by a 15 minute drive to our hotel, Arenes Del Mar, located in Manuel Antonio. Arenas Del Mar was another wonderful spot, built into a cliffside along the Pacific Ocean. Here we had a two bedroom, two bathroom suite, which was more suitable for our family. The view from our enormous terrace was one of raw beauty – a steep cliff and the Pacific Ocean. We spent the first afternoon exploring around the hotel and discovering all the wildlife right outside our doorstep. We saw tons of different types of lizards and iguanas each day on property, as well as white-faced monkeys, howler monkeys and squirrel monkeys. Instead of daily outings here, we chose only one day trip, which was a guided tour through Manuel Antonio National Park. Our terrific tour guide was equipped with a tripod and telescope and constantly set them up to show us sloths and various other wildlife hiding in the trees beside our path. The guides have an expert eye for scouting out animals! The tour culminated in a swim at the beach inside the park. The day we went was very hot and the park was filled with tourists so those circumstances definitely put a damper on the tour, although the kids did not seem to mind much. That said, we were all ready to get back to our hotel where a huge plate of delicious fresh fruit awaited us at a table overlooking the Pacific and one of the hotel’s two pools. We spent the afternoon playing and swimming in that pool.
The next day we participated in a tortilla making activity run by the hotel. We walked down to the hotel staff’s quarters where we were greeted by a lovely woman named “Mama Elissa” who gave us a hands-on lesson on how to make corn tortillas. It was a blast! That evening my husband and I took turns getting massages in the hotel spa. We each emerged completely refreshed from our hour of relaxation.
We spent our last day at the hotel swimming in the pools and playing on the beach. The hotel has two beaches – one is a public beach that can be reached by a short path along the bottom of the property, and the other is a small “playita”, reachable on the opposite side of the property. That evening we took the children to a beautiful adults-only hotel, the Gaia, for dinner. We dined on wonderful, fresh, local fare as we watched the sun set over the Pacific to one side and were serenaded by the sweet sounds of a Costa Rican band playing on our other side. It doesn’t get much better than that…