Have you heard the Spanish expression pura vida? Literally translated, it means “simple life” or “pure life.” But in Costa Rica, it’s used more like hello, goodbye or — in my case — “I don’t speak Spanish, but thanks for being so nice!”
Costa Rica has been on my travel wish list for decades — since I first heard about this country making a concerted effort to develop eco-tourism in the 1990s. Friends and neighbors who had visited with their kids raved about its beauty and adventures. So this spring, I took my hard-to-impress 15-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter on a weeklong trip to Costa Rica. They did not want to leave.
Costa Rica is all about good vibes and good times. A stable Central American democracy south of Nicaragua, Costa Rica abolished its army in 1949, boosted spending on education and welcomed tourists. The U.S. Department of State gives Costa Rica its safest travel ranking.
Logistics: First off, you will need passports for everyone in your family. Visas are not required for American citizens who visit Costa Rica for fewer than 90 days. Getting a passport routinely takes at least four to six weeks, so plan ahead.
Costa Rica has two main airports — Liberia in the north, near the beaches of Guanacaste and Papagayo, and San Juan, more centrally located in the capital city. You’ll find direct flights to San Juan, but we flew to Liberia through Charlotte, with a massive layover. I splurged on a day pass for the American Airlines lounge, and it was the best $59 I ever spent (kids were free!) thanks to the big cozy chairs and complimentary snacks (made-to-order avocado toast!), drinks and newspapers.
Language: I’m a firm believer that it’s important to try speaking the language of the country you’re visiting — even if it’s only a few words. I brought a Costa Rica Spanish phrasebook, and my kids used their phones to quickly look up Spanish words when needed. I had to prompt them a few times to try it, and the reaction was always positive. My kids came away from the experience wanting to study Spanish.
Lodging: We started our stay with two nights at Andaz Costa Rica Resort at Peninsula Papagayo, using Hyatt points for one of the nights. A young woman greeted us at the resort with cold towels and glasses of delicious green juice. While we were sipping, another guest called us over to see monkeys swinging through the trees, including two babies. During our stay, we saw coatis (similar to racoons), iguanas, birds and unusual insects.
The Andaz Papagayo is great for families, with large, modern rooms featuring a free minibar stocked with drinks and snacks, swimming pools overlooking the bay, and even fedoras and flip flops for guests to use. The Andaz also has a kids club and an exceptional breakfast buffet featuring tropical fruit and Costa Rican specialties like cooked plantains, yucca with spicy salsas and plenty of Costa Rican coffee and chocolate.
After two nights in Papagayo and Playa Hermosa beach, we hopped in our rental car — a mini 4×4 SUV — and headed toward Lake Arenal and Arenal Volcano. (Note: most rental cars are manual transmission, so if you want automatic be sure to specify this ahead of time) The dry coastal climate and paved freeways gradually gave way to lush rainforest, then unpaved roads leading to our eco-lodge, Rancho Margot, a sustainable ranch that produces its own energy and food, and our own simple but comfortable cabin with a beautiful deck nestled in the thick of the jungle.
We ended our trip at Tabacon Resort, a half-hour drive from the eco-lodge. Tabacon is known for its labyrinth of thermal hot springs, heated from the Arenal Volcano, of which we had an amazing view from our room. The restaurant was incredible — with steaks you sizzle on your own lava rock and Instagram-worthy desserts. The hot springs are a five-minute walk from the resort.
My kids had a blast at the springs, climbing the waterfalls and playing hide-and-seek in the many pools. In an adults-only area called Shangri-la, I played a little hide-and-seek of my own, escaping to a cabana with a rum and fresh pineapple drink. My daughter and I got massages in an outdoor cabana, where we were rubbed with all kinds of honey concoctions while listening to the sounds of the rushing river and hundreds of birds.
Adventures: We had some pretty crazy adventures. Please be smarter than I was and turn around when Google Maps tells you to drive through a river. (A kind man waded out and helped me get unstuck by showing me that my four-wheel drive feature wasn’t activated!) And do not attempt a day trip from the Arenal/La Fortuna area to Monteverde. The roads to Monteverde are ridiculously rough, winding and steep — especially in a car that stalls on hills. We drove there to go ziplining, but in hindsight, I would have chosen Sky Adventures ziplining near Arenal or hired one of the many day-excursion vans. And while I swore I would never go bungee jumping, the final “surprise” they touted throughout our ziplining adventure was a backward freefall bungee jump.
Costa Rica offers many other family adventures, including whitewater rafting, horseback riding, waterfall hikes, chocolate farm tours and traversing hanging bridges through the rainforest.
Even if you opt for resort stays, be sure to get out and experience Costa Rican culture. We had fun eating at the sodas. That’s what they call family-owned restaurants that serve typical Costa Rican food like grilled meats, rice and vegetables. Be sure to try the fruit juices, too.
There is so much to see and do in Costa Rica, there is no way to do all in one week. My kids and I would happily return!