By Angela Sustaita-Ruiz
Co-Publisher, The Hispanic PR Blog
When my husband first suggested we take our three kids – ages nine, five and 10 months – to Costa Rica for our annual family vacation I thought that sounded like a recipe for one of those vacation disaster movies. Knowing that our definition of “vacation” really means big adventure and little relaxation, our family and friends joined the chorus of people who thought we were crazy.
The one factor we had in our favor, however, is that unless you’ve been there before (and my husband had), you can’t imagine how Costa Rica really is suited for the rugged family vacation we wanted. Upon visiting Costa Rica you quickly realize why in its topography, beauty and even its popular tagline, “Pura Vida,” (Pure Life), that it’s easy to compare this Central American oasis to Hawaii.
We knew that plenty of planning would be required to make this trip a success.
The first and most crucial decision we made was to work with one of the best Costa Rica-based travel agencies, il Viaggio (www.ilviaggiocr.com). Against our traditionally strong preference for driving ourselves, we heeded their advice to hire a full time driver/expert guide who provided us with a comfortable eight-passenger van fitted with a baby-seat.
Weeks before our trip we consulted closely with il Viaggio and warned them that contrary to conventional wisdom we wanted to map out an aggressive family vacation. Our travel plan was to include canopy tours, volcano watching, animal gazing, coffee plantations, river rafting, canyoning, butterfly gardens, family cooking classes and anything else they could dish out for a 10 day vacation.
Careful packing is also vital as the country is comprised of more than just beaches and rainforests. In addition to bathing suits and rain gear, your Must Take List should include sneakers with strong traction, mosquito spray, a small first aid kit, sun lotion, lip balm, motion sickness pills and yes, believe it or not, light-weight jackets and clothing for layering if you’re planning to visit one or both of Costa Rica’s best known volcanoes (Poás and Irazú). Most of these items can be purchased locally, but we recommend buying what you’ll need ahead of time.
After some hand twisting we also heeded our travel agency’s recommendation to include downtime. Our agency plotted hotel and resort stays, all of which proved top-notch, and in the general proximity of the destinations we planned to visit.
San José and vicinity
San José is not particularly special but the nation’s capital is a convenient launch pad for many of the of the nation’s best destinations, including our first major excursion to Volcán Irazú. We spent the first couple of nights on the outskirts of San José at the family friendly, five star boutique hotel Beacon Escazú (www.mybeaconescazu.com). Nestled in a picturesque mountainsides near San José, this quaint 27-room hotel boasts impressive Colonial architecture with very comfortable and spacious rooms. The friendly and attentive staff attended all our needs and even provided a clean crib complete with bedding for our baby.
The three-hour road trip to visit the country’s tallest – and coldest – volcano, the mighty Irazú was as scenic as it was winding through lush green mountainsides. The national park’s major attraction is the beautiful Diego de la Hoya crater that’s filled with a green lake at its center. This is the part of the trip that can be brutal without a lightweight, waterproof jacket as temperatures can dip into the 40s.
During our time near San José we also had a chance to visit two places that are highly recommended for the family: the Zamora Estate Hotel and the National Amusement Park’s Pueblo Antiguo.
If you’re a nature and bird lover, then you’ll love the Zamora Estate Hotel (www.zamoraestate.com), a virtual wildlife sanctuary that is known for luring thousands of birds every morning to its tranquil ponds and streams. The hotel has been part of the Zamora family for more than 100 years and has recently been renovated to include a restaurant and private bungalows. The place is so beautifully serene that it’s almost impossible to believe you’re not staying in the middle of a rainforest.
Another San José family favorite is the National Amusement Park’s Pueblo Antiguo, an amusement park that’s slightly smaller than a Six Flags. Even though we missed going to the theme park, we were able to catch the park’s popular dinner theater at the Pueblo Antiguo (Old Town). The attraction is located in a replica of a “turn-of-the-century” Costa Rican town that includes a historic museum, church, fire station and theater. The show itself features a wide variety of music from folk music to cumbia to marimba. The $45 price also includes a welcome cocktail, a traditional buffet dinner, a fireworks show, and a guided tour. All proceeds benefit the Costa Rican Children’s Hospital.
Poás and the coffee tour
Part two of our trip led us to the central part of the country near Poás Volcano and the coffee farms. We spent several of our most relaxing nights at the delightful Finca Rosa Blanca (www.fincarosablanca.com), a quaint, 13-unit, family-run hotel located on a lush green coffee farm in Santa Barbara de Heredia. Each room has its own unique look with Latin American décor and furnishings. The hotel staff catered to us with a flavorful family cooking class and top-notch horseback riding. The hotel also boasts a beautiful outdoor pool and even has its own coffee tour.
The drive to Poás is one of the easiest you’ll ever do within Costa Rica. While driving there is quick, walking from the volcano’s parking entrance to the crater is a 30-minute trip. Getting a clear view of any crater of Costa Rica’s most famous volcanoes is sometimes the luck of the draw and this time we weren’t lucky. Due to heavy cloud cover and rain we only got a 15-second glimpse of Poás.
On our way back to Finca Rosa Blanca we made a pit stop at one of Costa Rica’s most famous coffee farms, the Doka Estate (www.dokaestate.com). The coffee farm included a tour of the coffee plantation as well as an adjacent factory where the coffee is processed, packaged and then packaged for sale to Starbucks and other major resellers.
Canyoning and white water rafting
The next part of our journey featured the most action packed part of our trip and also the most awe-inspiring hotel stay and view of all my trips throughout the Americas.
By all standards Hacienda Tayutic (www.tayutic.com) is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever stayed at. The exclusive hacienda consists of seven comfortable wooden cabin rooms overlooking some of the most expansive hilltop views in all the Americas. Right outside the cabins are several English-style manicured gardens, and an 18th century wooden chapel. The view, rooms, food and service were so top rate that my husband and I swear this should be our new vacation hideout.
Our two-day stay in Turrialba also included ziplining, canyoning and river rafting. We enlisted Explonatura Tours (www.explornatura.com) to give us what turned out to be the region’s best excursion – canyoning. If you’re wondering what canyoning is it involves descending through the center of 25 to 50 foot waterfalls with ropes, belt harnesses and very steady feet. It’s not for the faint hearted and you will get very wet. A canopy part of the same tour was better than even the best one that my husband and I did in Hawaii.
On our way out of Turrialba my husband and I arranged to leave the kids with my sister, who joined us for part of the trip, and go on the Grade 4 rapids of the Pacuare River, one of the world’s top three for river rafting. The Pacuare tour, which also was arranged through Explornatura, was more than a half-day and included a delicious, riverside meal.
Arenal Volcano is one of the ten most active volcanoes in the world. If you’re lucky and you visit when it’s not covered with clouds, you will see lava dripping along the mountain rim. Unfortunately, we did not see the glowing orange lava that everyone raves about because it was cloudy, but nonetheless the drive to the top was spectacular.
Our family stayed at the centrally located Hotel Montana de Fuego (www.montanadefuego.com). The cabin-style hotel featured spacious twin bedrooms for our family and some of the best breakfast and lunch in all Costa Rica.
We salvaged our visit to Arenal by taking our kids on a wonderful Safari Float on the Peñas Blancas River, a half-day guided tour that gets you up close and personal with some of the country’s animals including monkeys, crocodiles, sloths, iguanas, and numerous bird species. Jacamar Naturalist Tours (www.arenaltours.com) is the local tour provider, and can coordinate a variety of tours to meet your interests.
Another not-to-be missed attraction in Arenal is the Tabacón Grand Spa Thermal Resort (www.tabacon.com) which is located at the foot of the volcano. The resort sits in a lush setting with 12 natural hot spring pools that are heated by the volcano and lagoons, surrounded by exotic gardens and trails. The resort’s Grand Spa offers an array of treatments, and is ranked one of the “Top 10 Mineral Spas” by SpaFinder.
Monteverde and the Cloud Forests
The crescendo of our symphonic Costa Rican journey was waiting for us in Monteverde, a nearly five-hour, bumpy van drive from Arenal that despite being a treacherous ordeal proved every bit worth it.
Selvatura Adventure Park (www.selvatura.com), located in the beautiful cloud forests of Monteverde, is the premier canopy tour operator in the area. This company offers the only canopy tour and hanging bridges that are located inside the cloud forest, providing spectacular once-in-a-lifetime views of the rainforest.
Monte Verde’s canopy tours are the most spectacular in all Costa Rica and likely the world, with ziplines rising hundreds of feet high above cloud covered forests and stretching thousands of feet long. The kids loved the three hour canopy ride so much that they even got daring enough to swing on the “Tarzan” cable that free falls for more than 100 feet. With an added trip to Selvatura’s world renown insect museum (none of the insects are alive) and its butterfly garden, my family and I returned to San Jose’s gorgeous new, 100-room Hotel Indigo San José (www.hotelindigo.com) for one last night of rest and relaxation. The Hotel Indigo is just 10 minutes from the airport and features large screen plasma cable TV and some of the best gallo pinto we had anywhere in Costa Rica.
If a nature-focused adventure vacation is what you think you’re looking for, put Costa Rica in your plans. As the Ticos like to say, to experience Costa Rica is “Pura Vida”.