By Claire Parsons
Senior Travel Consultant at Travel Nation
Posts (9) See Claires profile
Poor Costa Rica has been bumped off the number one spot for our next holiday several times over the years. First, it was usurped by a work trip to Australia, then a friend’s wedding in Thailand and now, we are at every travelling parent’s worst stage… restricted by the school holiday dates!
Technically, August is rainy season in the Caribbean and Central America area, so off the list Costa Rica went again. However, last year our summer holiday plans went sideways at the last minute, so I started looking into our Costa Rica options in more detail. Boy, am I glad I did!
It turns out that August is a wonderful time to explore, and our Costa Rica family holiday will always be one of my favourite trips. You can read all about my experience of travelling in Costa Rica in August here. Green season is wonderful, so don’t let the potential of rain put you off!
You can read more about visiting Costa Rica in August here.
When most people think of visiting Costa Rica, they think of self-drive - and rightly so. The whole country has excellent roads and renting a car gives you the flexibility to do what you want, when you want. If you’re travelling as a family, this extra layer of freedom is always a bonus.
However, my husband would have been the only driver for us and this seemed a bit unfair. In the end, we decided to arrange transfers rather than drive. It was slightly more costly than hiring a car but, for our family, it was totally worth it.
With transfers, all of us could sit back and enjoy the scenery, and this felt like a real luxury. The views were endless, and we gazed out of the window in wonder on every single journey. Even mile upon mile of banana plantations never became boring! Costa Rica really is a tropical paradise.
The transfers meant that we all arrived at each destination feeling energised and ready to explore. My husband wasn’t tired from driving, and I wasn’t exhausted from providing entertainment for my daughter in the back.
All our drivers doubled up as excellent guides, and there’s no better way to understand a country than chatting with locals. Our journeys were full of wildlife facts, debates over coffee vs pineapple green tea (both excellent Costa Rican exports), and learning about the eco-politics of the country, as well as recommended stops for the best coffee/cake/ice cream.
For some journeys, we opted for private transfers so that we could depart at a particular time. For others, we took shared transfers to keep costs down. Most of our vans had WIFI onboard, which is always handy. We could plan where to eat dinner during the drives and our daughter could use her devices to stay occupied.
If you’re planning to drive in Costa Rica, there are a few key things to keep in mind. For example, I would definitely recommend a 4WD for certain areas of the country, especially if you are travelling in the rainy season.
Also, it’s important to consider the destinations that you plan to visit. For example, you won’t use your car in Tortuguero National Park, so you would need to secure parking for a few days.
We arranged a private transfer from the airport straight to Monteverde so that we could maximise our time away. Unless you plan to spend some time in San Jose, I’d highly recommend doing this, as it means that you’re in your first destination ready to do something amazing the next day.
There’s something really special about Monteverde. As the cloud lifts over the rolling hills, it’s just tropical greenery as far as the eye can see. I loved nothing more first thing in the morning than sitting on our cabin deck wrapped in a blanket with a cup of tea, my eyes darting between the hummingbirds and butterflies all around and agouti dashing between the bushes. Even as you walk around the town butterflies flutter past, giving it a whimsical feel.
We chose to visit Selvatura Park as it offered free transfers from our accommodation. This worked perfectly as we didn’t have a car. The park offers a range of activities including the hanging bridges, Costa Rica’s famous zipline, and both a reptile centre and sloth centre.
The hanging bridges were an excellent family adventure. They are high enough to be exciting but an easy, leisurely walk that most people could manage. There are photo opportunities all around you, with stunning backdrops on every bridge. It was a wonderful way to spend our first full day in Costa Rica.
The following day, we went on a chocolate tour (often combined with coffee tours), which was really informative. The adults enjoyed learning about the process and why it’s so important to buy ethical chocolate, and my daughter loved the tasting - of course!
It was fun seeing the wonder in her eyes as she worked out that her favourite chocolate bars come from the cacao beans we saw on the trees. However, she has now developed very expensive taste in chocolate!
From Monteverde, we headed to Arenal, where we stayed at the Arenal Lodge. The journey from Monteverde to Arenal by bus and boat became one of the highlights of our whole trip. This is because it doubles up as a brilliant day tour! The drive is just stunning.
We began by winding downhill towards Arenal Lake, where we boarded our private boat for the crossing to Arenal. As Arenal volcano dramatically came into view, our captain stopped so that we could see howler monkeys, kingfishers, and a heron!
On the short drive from the lakeshore to our hotel we made a brief stop to see some coatis (small mammals which are part of the raccoon family) on the roadside. The wildlife never stops in Costa Rica!
Our 2-bedroom family suite was one of the older rooms at the property, but this was more than made up for by the spectacular view of Arenal volcano from the infinity pool. We often had the pool to ourselves, and the lodge also has two secluded hot tubs which you can book after a long day exploring the area.
Swimming some lengths overlooking the beautiful gardens was one of those moments where I felt all my worries melting away. The restaurant and staff were excellent too, even rushing to get my daughter one evening to show her the tree frog which had just hopped in and settled on a plant.
We did a brilliant half-day tour to hike around the base of Arenal, as you can’t climb the volcano itself. I really would recommend a guide for most tours in Costa Rica. Having someone local to explain the history of the volcano, as well as the flora and fauna, was invaluable. Plus, the guides all seem to have magic eyes that can spot wildlife the average tourist eye would never see!
The walk was tough in the heat, but not too difficult for a six-year-old. The landscape was ever-changing, from bamboo arches to dense tropical rainforest. We even walked on lava beds from the last eruption in 1968! After a very sweaty uphill walk to a lookout point, we were rewarded with spectacular panoramic views.
After an early morning pick-up, our next stop was Tortuguero National Park. We stopped for lunch on the way at a central meeting point for all the travellers, before hopping on a coach for the hour-long drive to the boat dock. The dock is one of the places where you honestly have no idea how anyone gets to the right hotel, but somehow it just works! We grabbed a bag of rambutan from a little stall, clambered onto our boat and we were off.
The hotels and town of Tortuguero are both accessed by river, so getting to your lodge is an adventure in itself. We stayed at Evergreen Lodge on a full-board package which included all our meals and activities. It’s a simple lodge but the rooms are clean with sweet little decks and rocking chairs out front. The cabins have screens at the windows instead of glass, and going to bed to the noise of howler monkeys is an experience that none of us will forget!
At breakfast the next morning, I felt a pair of eyes on me and, as I looked to my left, a capuchin monkey was eyeing up my fruit bowl. Then, when we left our cabin, we were greeted by a dozen of the little fellows! As we stood watching the capuchins play in the trees, a red brocket deer bounded past us, through a clearing, and into the river. It was like a moment from a Disney film!
The list of wildlife we saw around our lodge just goes on and on. We spotted a paca in the bushes as we walked back from the pool, a tiny and very cute red frog (which I later found out was a poison dart frog!), and plenty of rather large spiders.
Our full-board package included a guided walking tour, where we saw two sloths lazing in the trees. However, my absolute highlight was seeing the small but terrifying bullet ants. Apparently, being bitten by a bullet ant is just as painful as being shot!
On our early morning tour of the canals, we saw spectacled caiman, iguanas, and a Jesus Christ lizard (unfortunately in a tree and not, famously, walking on water). Among the copious amounts of bird species we saw, we were lucky enough to spot several boat-billed herons. The boat-billed heron is regarded by twitchers as the ‘Ferrari of Birdlife’, due to its nocturnal and shy nature.
We paid extra for a trip to watch the sea turtles lay eggs at night. After a boat ride in the dark, we sat and watched fireflies dance in the nearby grass. Our guides went ahead to the beach in search of the green sea turtles.
I’m pleased to say the viewing of these animals is taken very seriously here. The groups are kept very small, you’re told to stay silent, and the only light emitted comes from the special red torches of the guides. You aren’t taken near the laying females until they are in their trance-like laying state. Watching the huge creatures lay egg after egg before covering slowly with sand is something that I’ll never forget.
After a string of early mornings, our final stop was our chance to relax. We chose Puerto Viejo, on the Caribbean Coast, which is dry and sunny in August. I was drawn here by the beaches, the laid-back vibe, and the promise of excellent Costa Rican and Caribbean food. We arrived to find open-fronted restaurants and bars along the beach road, and tanned carefree people cycling through the streets.
I knew that we were sandwiched between Gandoca-Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge and Cahuita National Park, but I wasn’t ready for the abundance of wildlife everywhere in Puerto Viejo! We saw sloths chilling out in the trees by the beach, toucans flying overhead, and howler monkeys calling as we relaxed by our hotel pool. We were constantly surrounded by nature in Costa Rica, and we loved it!
Then it was time to come home, and we flew back via New York. For the transatlantic flight, we travelled with United Airlines in their new Premium Economy cabin. I was highly impressed. Our flight was a 2-2-2 configuration, with only five rows of seats. It was completely separate from the Economy cabin and felt like a real step up.
The seat pitch was excellent; more than enough for my little girl to completely curl up and sleep in her seat when it was reclined. The TV screen was much bigger, which is always a bonus, and the entertainment system is comparable with the Middle Eastern airlines. It was also great to be able to use the fast-track check-in and security lines in New York.
This was our first multi-generational holiday, as my mum joined us for her first long-haul holiday in over thirty years. Costa Rica turned out to be the perfect destination for both my mum and my six-year-old. Travelling around Costa Rica with a family is easy and, despite its popularity, there are still plenty of opportunities to get away from the crowds.
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