Jaguars. Eye-lash pit vipers. Bullet ants. Hungry crocodiles. Poisonous Dart Frogs. The list of things that can harm you or your kids in Costa Rica is extensive. And that’s just the animals..….there are active volcanoes, dengue fever, mountainous winding roads, car-jacking’s, rampant petty theft, potent ‘happy cakes’ and a high-risk safety and security advisory on travel safe websites.
Despite all of this Costa Rica was one of the countries at the top of our list to visit. With active volcanoes, and rich primary rain forests, lush jungles, waterfalls, pristine beaches, and let’s not forget all-time favourites toucans and sloths. We wanted to experience the ‘Pura Vida’! The good life, the pure, simple life of the locals.
We knew if we didn’t show our vulnerabilities, and we respected the wildlife and nature that we would have an amazing enriching experience in Costa Rica. And that we did. We encountered a few hurdles, but only the kind that damaged our wallets and not our health or safety. Note: no matter what the locals are doing, and even if there is no logic to it, meticulously stick to the road rules! We were warned the police will target tourists in the easily recognisable, big white rental cars, and will demand $600US cash on the spot, for even the smallest traffic infringement! And yip, it happened to us.
Keep reading to see how we, and you, can survive Costa Rica with or without your kids.
Arrive in San Jose.
Although we were renting a car for most of our stay, our research led us to book a shuttle from the airport to our hotel, as by all accounts San Jose’s roads are a busy confusing jungle in themselves. The last thing we wanted on our arrival was the stress of navigating our way to our hotel at rush hour (which is every hour in San Jose).
We spent the night at the Aloft hotel. They had awesome added touches for the kids, with a tent set up, and toys delivered to the room.
Drive to Arenal.
After a delicious complimentary buffet breakfast and a quick morning dip in the pool, our rental car was delivered to our hotel and we set off on the three-hour drive to Arenal National Park, the location of one of the worlds most active volcanoes.
We were cautious of the steep sheer cliffs on the winding roads up to Arenal that we had read about. However, being kiwis and growing up on New Zealand’s roads we were pleasantly surprised that these roads were much safer and easier to drive than we had anticipated.
As we approached and got our first glimpse of the captivating volcano and heard the howler monkeys seemingly announcing our arrival at the Arenal Observatory Lodge, our reservations were put behind us. All we had now was excitement for the rain forest and wildlife that we would discover over the next few days.
Explore Arenal and La Fortuna
With the Howler Monkeys as our alarm clock each morning, we were up early enough for the complimentary guided morning walk through the rain forest. On these walks, we spotted Howler Monkeys, Spider Monkeys, Red-Eyed Tree Frogs, Toucans, Hummingbirds, beautiful big Blue Morpho Butterflies, and cascading waterfalls. We were even (lucky??) enough to find a bright yellow Eye-lash Pit Viper curled up under a handrail, that miraculously no one was holding on to. We later found out that they rank second on Costa Rica’s most deadly snakes!
Arenal Observatory Lodge offers an array of activities to fill the rest of your days, whether you are staying there or not. Such as hiking further into the untouched primary rain forests, or ascending the volcano. With our young kids the hour and a half guided morning walk was enough for us. After a wee rest, we spent the day, in the natural spring-fed swimming pool and hot spring. (Which I might add, was amazing for mine and Bodie’s curls!) In the evening we would enjoy a drink on the large deck watching the sunset, dramatically changing the colour of the volcano looming above us, and the lake below.
Although the volcano has not had any activity since 2010, she is still active and until recently lava could be spotted running down the sides. Initially, Jono questioned my sanity in booking us and our precious children accommodation at the foot of the volcano, that in the 60s unexpectedly erupted and devastated nearby towns, but later was comforted by the fact that a deep valley between the volcano and hotel was a guaranteed safety barrier if an eruption was to happen. The closest town, La Fortuna 15 mins down the road miraculously escaped the fiery eruption of the 60s, hence the towns name.
La Fortuna is an adventurer’s playground, with zip lining, rafting, ATV rides, hanging bridges and natural hot springs to relax at after a long day hiking. We ventured out one day to La Fortuna Waterfall. The waterfall cascades 61 metres (200ft) equivalent to almost 20 stories high! There is a well-maintained staircase the whole way down, with the rewarding cool fresh water to swim in at the bottom of the waterfall. This does mean you need to climb the whole way back up, but if our three and five-year-olds managed it, you can too! There is also a lovely butterfly garden at the top to explore.
Back at Arenal Observatory Lodge during sunset, the Spider Monkeys would come out in large groups swinging around the trees right outside our room. The best thing about Arenal is that the staff strictly enforce that you do not feed the wildlife, therefore unlike the monkeys of Thailand and Bali, and even other parts of Costa Rica, they do not scavenge from humans, or aggressively try to steal your food and belongings. Unlike at a zoo, you get to see the monkeys in their true environment, fending for themselves and being and doing exactly what they should be, naturally. We found this be very cultural, authentic experience, however if you are looking to be even more off the grid, check out this post on Rancho Margot Eco Lodge.
Drive to Puerto Viejo.
After an amazing few days in the rain forest, we headed to the beach. After all, we are beach lovers at heart, and it had been a whole week since we’d seen the ocean!
Deciding which beach town to visit was hard. Costa Rica offers so many stunning beaches, from the Pacific to the Caribbean coasts. After a little research, we decided that we were looking for a cultural, locals experience. We felt the Pacific Coast couldn’t quite offer this, with its large American style resorts, and seemingly more tourist-filled beaches, so we ended up opting for the small Caribbean, rustic town of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, whose inhabitants are a unique blend of Latino, Afro-Caribbean, and Bribri Indigenous cultures.
Now that we were more confident driving, we set off on the three-hour journey. Reviews of the drive promised amazing vistas. While it was a pleasantly scenic drive, coming from New Zealand, we weren’t blown away, or awestruck at the scenery. However, pulling up at the small, golden sand, palm tree-lined beach at Punta Uva was breath-taking. We settled into our accommodation at Cariblue Beach and Jungle Resort, where after a long drive, we enjoyed a swim in the pool and a nice meal at the restaurant.
Today was the day to immerse ourselves in the small town. See how the locals live, and of course, get back into the Caribbean Sea! Unfortunately, the beach of Playa Cocles directly across the road from our resort was quite rough and had the warning flags out. We didn’t feel comfortable swimming here, but we did watch some brave locals surf and chatted to the Bob Marley look-a-like surfboard stall operator, all while relaxing under a palm tree.
At lunchtime, we strolled around the small village and found a smoothie store run by a family with a little girl who wanted to show our kids how she had been learning to ride her bike around the front of the shop. We wandered around the town beachfront and found a beach swing to play on. Puerto Viejo is a sleepy town during the day, perhaps because it is a popular party town, with the young hip crowd. by night. We were recommended this town by friends, that in their early twenties spent time backpacking through here and had some wild stories to tell. We certainly had the feeling that this town may have been a better pick for those without kids, who were chasing fine white powder not only found between your toes at the beach if you get my drift……….. however only a few kilometres away the atmosphere completely changed, at the fantastic, family-friendly beach Punta Uva. We spent the rest of the day swimming, swinging and playing soccer with a coconut in the waves with the local kids.
Unfortunately, Costa Rica’s beautiful wildlife is under threat. There are more than 200 species that are endangered. Many factors contribute to this, including, deforestation, human development, unsustainable fishing and hunting practices, and the illegal pet trade. Fortunately, many sanctuaries have been established and Puerto Viejo is home to the Jaguar Rescue Center. We spent our last day doing a tour here, and learning how the volunteer staff, are treating and rehabilitating up to 400 mammals, birds and reptiles a year, and assisting them in getting back out into the wild. We saw macaws and toucans, who were blind or had injured wings. Orphaned baby sloths, whose parents had been run over or electrocuted by power lines. Crocodiles and caimans, who had been hunted and harmed, while in search of food in human-inhabited areas, because poisonous pesticides used in banana and other fruit plantations are polluting the rivers and killing the fish. The most disturbing a story was that of a caiman who had been hunted and hung up in the town, as a display of some sort of archaic man vs beast challenge! Although there were many sad stories here, you leave feeling happy and proud of the work that these amazing volunteers are doing. It is a very educational, eye-opening experience that the whole family got something out of.
Today we completed our triangular road trip around Costa Rica and drove four easy hours back to San Jose, where we spent one more night at the Aloft Hotel, before our flight out in the morning. We didn’t spend any time exploring San Jose, but you could easily spend a day visiting the sites this vibrant city has to offer.
As the aircraft wheels lifted off the runway, and we soared over a country full of diversity within its people, landscapes and wildlife, Jono and I looked at each other, breathed a sigh of relief and exclaimed: “We survived Costa Rica”. Most probably due to the fact that we ‘over googled’ and frightened ourselves with stories of car-jacking’s, crime, and animal attacks, we honestly did feel quite on edge for most of our stay in Costa Rica. We got in, we got everything and more out of it than we had expected, and we got out! We felt safe, we felt unsafe. We were overwhelmed, we were underwhelmed. We felt naive, we were educated. We were awestruck and we were dumbstruck. This is as honest and apt of a description of Costa as we can give you. It is hard to explain the feelings we have, as we equally want to return as we don’t!
Below are some tips on getting to Costa Rica, where to stay and how to stay safe.
HOW TO STAY SAFE
Only use ATMs inside of banks, in daylight hours.
Only use official red taxi’s, or pre-booked orange airport taxis. Better yet, book a private shuttle.
Beware of ‘friendly’ locals offering to help with flat tyres, particularly if in pairs. Chances are they’ve slashed your tyres, and will distract you while robbing you. Therefore keep your car in eyesight, if stopping at roadside cafes, and always park in official attractions car parks.
Invest in high concentration DEET insect repellent. Wear long sleeves and pants, to minimise the risk of mosquito bites. (Although dengue was one of my biggest concerns in Costa Rica, none of us got bitten at all! - Bodie is particularly susceptible to insect bites, so we were amazed by this! And Summer being only 6 months could only use natural repellents and patches.
We always search Skyscanner for the best airfares, and routes.
WHERE TO STAY/HOW TO BOOK
We highly recommend all three hotels we stayed at so, click here to book your stay at the Aloft Hotel, Arenal Observatory Lodge, and Cariblue Beach and Jungle Resort and save big with Hotels.com. (We always use Hotels.com for our accommodation bookings. We’ve even earned free nights with their stay 10, get 1 free deal!
This article contains affiliate links. If you book by clicking through our site, we may receive a small commission, at no extra cost to you.