Whew, we’re back from our 2 week Costa Rica vacation. It was a great trip, but we were getting worn out by the end. Fourteen days is a long time for a 4 year old kid. Toward the end, he was getting really homesick. And the best part about any vacation is coming home. Nothing makes you appreciate what you have more than traveling in a developing country.
Actually, Costa Rica has a pretty high standard of living from what we saw. The roads were pretty good, the exception being around Monteverde. Cars and modern appliances were available. You could buy pretty much anything you needed from the grocery store. The internet connection was solid and hikers were talking on their cell phones in the middle of the rain forest. The infrastructure seems pretty modern overall. Anyway, let’s start with the locations we visited and then I’ll just write about whatever topics come to mind.
4 Locations in 13 days
This was RB40Jr’s first trip outside of the United States so I wanted to make it relatively easy. If I traveled alone, I’d probably try to cram in more places. Mrs. RB40 likes traveling at a relaxed pace and I’m okay with that. We don’t like spending most of our vacation on a bus so we usually avoid vacation packages.
1 night near San Jose airport
After 15 hours on the plane and in airports, we arrived in Costa Rica around midnight on Friday and got through immigration very quickly. I booked us a room at the Holiday Inn Express ($103/night) because it was very close to the airport and they had a free shuttle service. This turned out to be RB40Jr’s favorite hotel in Costa Rica. Throughout the trip, he kept saying let’s go back to the first hotel. The reason was he liked breakfast – they had Cheerios. We left the next day at 2pm and headed to La Fortuna to visit Arenal Volcano. September was the rainy season so it was pouring when the shuttle van picked us up. I was glad I didn’t rent a car because the driving conditions were tougher than what I’m used to. The roads were okay, but I’d have gotten lost very quickly if I was driving.
4 nights in La Fortuna near Arenal Volcano
I booked us a nice little resort about 2 miles out of La Fortuna. The hotels/hostels in town catered toward backpackers and budget travelers. The Casa Luna hotel ($75/night) had a nice pool with a swim-up bar and 4 hot tubs. Being out of town was a bit inconvenient, though. The taxi ride to La Fortuna cost around $4 and we took many trips to eat in town. Casa Luna had a restaurant, but it was more expensive than the places in town.
La Fortuna town – La Fortuna is a small town. There is a nice central park next to a church. There are many restaurants and hotels catering to the tourists as well. There really isn’t much to do in town itself. The main street has about 6 blocks and all the restaurants, tour operators, hostels, and hostels were concentrated in that area.
Chocolate tour – There was a cacao plantation right near our hotel so we decided to take a chocolate tour. This tour cost $22 each and Jr got in for free. He did not have to pay any fees on all the tours we took so that’s one good thing about being 4. The chocolate tour was pretty interesting. I’ve seen the cacao fruit before, but I didn’t know how they were processed. The tour went through the each of the processing steps and we tasted the cocoa beans and cocoa power at various stages. We also had cocoa drinks and some chocolate. I liked the tour and would recommend it if you have extra time in La Fortuna.
Arenal Volcano tour – I wasn’t sure if we wanted to take an Arenal Volcano tour because we didn’t want to hike much. The Lonely Planet said we could get to the park by taking the bus so we went to bus station to investigate. It turns out that you’d have to get off at the park entrance and walk many kilometers just to get to the trails. This didn’t sound very attractive so we signed up for a tour instead. We paid $35 each for this tour. The bus picked us up at our hotel the next day and we headed off to the volcano. We got off at the Observatory Lodge, enjoyed the great view, and hike around the park for a few hours. This trip was actually the perfect fit for us. We saw a toucan, a family of coati, a little yellow snake, and a margay cat. We hiked to a waterfall and walked over 2 suspension bridges. Afterward, the guide took us to a free hot spring and gave everyone a volcanic mud facial. Well, the facial was just the mud our guide collected on the hike. It worked really well, though. Our faces felt nice and smooth afterward. RB40Jr skipped out on the mud facial because he said his face is already soft. All in all, I was pretty happy with this inexpensive tour. I saw other tours that cost from $60 to $250. They get more expensive as you add longer hikes, entry to very nice hot spring resorts, and/or meals.
La Fortuna waterfall – We decided to visit the La Fortuna waterfall on our last day. We took a taxi over and paid $11 each to get in. You start near the top of a canyon and hike your way down. The waterfall was quite nice and we spent about an hour hanging out at the bottom. We didn’t bring our swimsuits because I read that the water was cold. The water was actually pretty comfortable and we would have enjoyed a swim there. Oh well, I guess you can’t trust everything you read on the internet.
Overall, we enjoyed our time in La Fortuna. Our hotel was pretty nice and RB40Jr spent a lot of time at the pool and hot tubs. Arenal Volcano was nice, but the lava stopped flowing since 2010 so it’s not that exciting. The next stop on the trip was Monteverde, the famous cloud forest. The bus picked us up from our hotel and dropped us off to take a boat across the Lake Arenal. This was RB40Jr’s first boat ride so he enjoyed it. After the boat ride, we continued on a bus toward Monteverde. From this point on, the road became pretty bad. It was a mud/gravel road for about 2 hours until we reach Monteverde.
4 nights in Monteverde
We stayed at Camino Verde Bed & Breakfast ($52/night) in Santa Elena. Our room has a bunk bed and a full size bed. RB40Jr had a huge meltdown because he wanted to sleep on the top bunk and we wouldn’t let him. He is a restless sleeper and falls out of bed regularly. The top bunk didn’t have any railing so it’s just not safe. The accommodation was basic, but it was fine for 4 nights. The B&B is within walking distance to town so at least we didn’t have to keep taking taxis anymore.
Santa Elena town – Santa Elena was even smaller than La Fortuna. The main street is paved, but all the side streets are dirt/gravel roads. The whole town catered to the tourists. It felt like an eco Disneyland. Most tourists stay for 2 nights and try to cram in as much activities as possible. The main street was just a few blocks full of tour companies, restaurants, and hostels. It felt very touristy to me.
Monteverde preserve tour – $42 each. The Monteverde cloud forest was pretty interesting. The guide told us all about the cloud forest eco system, but we didn’t see much wildlife here. He found one tarantula and a hummingbird nest for us and that was about it. Also, it was a rare sunny day so we didn’t even “see” the clouds as one of our tour mates complained to me.
Canopy bridges – $17 each. This one was pretty good. We went to Selvatura, one of the adventure parks. RB40Jr isn’t quite ready for the zipline so we just took the canopy bridges tour. This self guided tour includes 8 hanging bridges that go over the canopy of the cloud forest. We liked this tour because we could go at our own pace and it offered a unique perspective of the forest.
Free tree! – Andres at our B&B recommended a free tree for us to climb. At first I was skeptical, but we had a free day so we went to check it out. This was actually a great experience. We hiked through the town and walked through some local streets to get there. It was nice to see the side of Santa Elena that most tourists never see. The tree itself was really cool too. We learned from the cloud forest tour that a fig tree can start growing on top of another tree. The roots from the fig tree will seek out the ground and eventually envelope the old tree completely. The old tree will then die out and the center of the new tree will be hollow. This tree has an accessible hollow trunk and you can climb up on the inside. I only went up about 25 feet before I got scared, but you can climb up more than 100 feet. Also, I liked that this was free. I was getting tired of paying for every activity.
Monteverde was pretty, but we probably won’t go back. The roads were bad and it was just too touristy. It’s time to move on to the beach!
4 nights in Manuel Antonio
The main town near Manuel Antonio Park was Quepos, a real Tico (Costa Rican) town. Quepos is a bigger town with many businesses. The accommodations in Quepos were more affordable, but the downside was you’d have to take bus/taxi to the beach. We opted to stay at Hotel Verde Mars ($86/night) closer to Manuel Antonio. This hotel has seen better days, but the location can’t be beat. The beach was right behind the hotel. They also had a pool which we used extensively. The wildlife was pretty good in this area. A sloth lived in the tree next to the hotel and many capuchin monkeys roamed the area.
Manuel Antonio Park – $17 entry fee each. We decided not go with a guide on this trip. We wanted to go at our own pace and had enough of guided tours. We saw plenty of wildlife on our own, though. A deer wandered right into our path. We saw another sloth. Not really exciting because they are just sleeping in the day time. We also saw howler monkeys, capuchin monkeys, and squirrel monkeys. The beaches in the park were beautiful and we hung out for over 3 hours. The raccoons were a huge nuisance, though. One big bold raccoon came right up to grab our bags. Mrs. RB40 tried to shoo it away, but she wasn’t very good at it. A guide had to come running over to yell at it to go away. You have to stand up and yell loudly at it. Mrs. RB40 wasn’t loud or aggressive enough.
Espadilla Beach – Playa Espadilla was right behind our hotel and we hung out here the rest of the time. RB40Jr had a great time climbing trees, finding shells, chasing crabs, and playing in the surf. The sun was brutal and we had to take breaks in the shade very often. It was awesome to be able to play in the surf. Oregon’s beaches are too cold and you rarely see anyone in the water. The best part about staying near the beach is that after 5pm, most of the tourists and touters are gone and the beautiful beach was almost empty. The beach was really great at night too. We saw a few great lighting shows in the evening.
Staying near the beach was the favorite part of our trip. The mountains were nice too, but I should have scheduled more time on the beach. It’s so relaxing and we didn’t have to pay any money to go to the beach. Well, you could rent an umbrella and a couple of beach chairs for $10/day, but we skipped on that. I like sitting on the sand. Sadly our time at the beach came to an end and we had to head home.
San Jose/Bizarre travel day
We took the direct bus from Manuel Antonio to San Jose. This cost $10 each and the ride was very comfortable. Next time, I’ll use more public buses rather than private shuttles. We left at 9:30 am and got to San Jose around 1pm. We asked the taxi to take us to the Jade Museum, but the guy said it’s better to walk. Okay… I guess we’ll walk. RB40Jr had to go to the restroom so we ducked into a conveniently placed McDonald’s. The rain started pouring down so we hung out there for about an hour. Thanks goodness for McDonald’s. When the rain let up a bit, we continued to the Gold Museum. This was a pretty nice museum and we learned about how gold was used in the Pre-Columbian Era. The Jade Museum was closed by the time we got out so we went to the Artesanias Market instead. You can buy all kinds of souvenirs here. We escaped with just one big hacky sack that RB40Jr has been begging for. We decided to head to the airport at this point because we didn’t want to walk around in the rain.
We got to the airport around 6 pm, but our flight wasn’t scheduled to leave until 1 am. It turned out that we had to wait until 9 pm for the United Airlines counter to open. I was hoping to get into the terminal early, but I should have known better. The Juan Santamaria airport is pretty small and there were only a few United Airline flights scheduled. We took this opportunity to pay the airport tax and grab a bite to eat.
When 9 pm rolled around, we went to the United counter and was informed that we needed to fill out some departure paperwork even though we already paid the airport tax. But, they didn’t have a pen we could use. Mrs. RB40’s pen ran out of ink a few days ago so that was unfortunate. I asked an airport worker if I could borrow her pen and she said no. Really? You’re just standing around twirling a pen and telling people to go pay the departure tax and fill out forms. Do you think I would steal your pen? I had to go to the departure tax counter and ask to borrow the pen there. Which I had to share when a guy needed to sign for his Visa payment. Note to self: bring 2 pens when taking an international trip. After we got our boarding passes, we went to get in line to go through security and were pulled out of the line. The police informed us that we need to talk to immigration because we have a kid with us. Okay, why didn’t you tell us earlier when there were actually people at the immigration counter and when it wasn’t 10 pm? We had to wait around until one worker came back who asked us why we were waiting for him. Finally we were able to get into the terminal.
We arrived at Houston at 6 am and had a 3 hour layover. We went through US immigration (Mrs. RB40 was really impressed with the new Homeland Security scanners) and through airport security again. RB40Jr brushed his hand against the side of the scanner and it beeped. He had to do it over again and at this point he put his face in his hands, cried and refused to move through the scanner. He had napped on the plane, but he was exhausted by this point. After a bit of cajoling, the TSA lady motioned for me to come through with him. I suspect this is highly irregular, but at least we got through the check point. After that, we took the plane to Portland, MAX to downtown, and lastly the streetcar home. We finally arrived home after more than 24 hours on the road. Whew, what an exhausting travel day.
Traveling with a 4 year old
Oh man, traveling is much more high maintenance with a kid. He had a lot more meltdowns than usual and he was missing Portland a lot by the end of the trip. Costa Rica was too hot and humid for him. When the temperature passed a certain point, he just shut down. He’d say “I’m too tired” and couldn’t really do anything. Eating was also a big problem for us. He’d only eat a little during the meals and then he’d be hungry two hours later. It’s tough for a kid to adjust to new surroundings.
In Manuel Antonio, we had a kitchenette so I got us cornflakes for breakfast. RB40Jr had a huge meltdown because I didn’t get Cheerios for him. We had to explain over and over again that the grocery store didn’t have Cheerios. I think he had fun overall, though. He enjoyed playing at the beach, seeing various animals, watching a long line of ants carrying leaves, and taking some light hikes. We’ll have to keep traveling so he’ll learn to adjust better.
Packing and electronic items
We packed very light on this trip. I had 4 shirts, a pair of pants, a pair of shorts, a swimming trunk, and underclothes. We had a laundry service after a week and it worked out pretty well. I didn’t bring a laptop on this trip. Instead, I brought my cell phone and my Amazon Kindle Fire HD 6. Our hotels had internet so I was able to connect and keep an eye on the website. The tablet was very useful and I occasionally used it to check email and do minor site maintenance. My Republic Wireless phone was pretty useful too. I called my mom a couple of times and it worked perfectly. The phone uses internet to call so I didn’t have to pay anything extra.
The Costa Rican food was okay. We had many plates of casado. This dish typically consists of rice, beans, vegetables, meat (chicken, fish, or beef), and a fried plantain. Ceviche was delicious. Don’t order a burger at a soda (local restaurant) because it won’t be very good. Eating out seemed expensive too. A casado plate usually cost 3,000 to 4,000 colones. Add a drink and you’ll pay $8-10 per person for an ordinary meal. I didn’t see many ethnic restaurants while we were there. That’s another minus.
Retire in Costa Rica?
I don’t think I could retire in Costa Rica. I would love to live there for 6 months or so and explore the country more. The people are friendly and the infrastructure is good. I’m sure I could brush up on my Spanish so we could at least have simple conversation. I couldn’t live in the small towns in the mountains, though. I’d probably choose to live near the beach. The cost of living in Costa Rica feels high. Labor is cheap, but food and groceries are pretty expensive. One of my college roommates is from Nicaragua so maybe I’ll look into that. I’m sure it’s much cheaper there, but it’s probably safer in Costa Rica.
Our visit during the rainy season turned out much better than I thought. It was nice in the morning and then the heavy rain dumped down in the afternoon. We scheduled all our activities in the morning and took the afternoon off. The rain also cooled things down. I suspect the afternoon would have been too hot to do anything and we’d have to take a break anyway.
Overall, we like Costa Rica very much. We’d love to visit again someday and check out the Caribbean side. The beaches were awesome and the laid back vibe was great. I imagine California would have looked like this 50 years ago. Lastly, we spent less than $3,000 on this trip as budgeted. That’s not too bad for an international vacation, right?
Have you been to Costa Rica? Do you think you can retire there?