A senior trip is a tradition in our family, and when we asked our daughter where she wanted to go (within reason), there were two things topping the list: beach + adventure. Few places offer that as well as Costa Rica. It is a natural choice for those seeking the sun, but who also want to experience culture, wildlife, and eco-adventure.
Having lived in Costa Rica for a year in my twenties, I can attest to the friendliness of the people and the safely of the country. Unlike some of its surrounding neighbors, Costa Rica boasts fairly good roads, emergency services, infrastructure, and a booming tourism industry, making it a great choice for families. While you still have to be smart and use common sense, overall you will feel very at home and safe in the country.
Because we had only 9 days, we decided to stay in Guanacaste for the entirety of our trip. The last time I took our family there, we stayed almost a month and were able to see a large part of the country, as well as visit my host family. But consider that it takes a long time to get anywhere. The roads wind over mountains, and up and down ravines. It made sense when we had more time to do that, but since this trip had a limited amount of time, we decided to use Playa Hermosa as our base and adventure out from there. We were very happy with that decision and would do it the same way again.
While the questions below will be helpful for any traveler, the itinerary is geared for families who have children ages roughly 8-18.
Let’s cover some of the basic questions before I get into our itinerary.
What is the best airport to fly into?
The Liberia airport is new and beautiful. It’s become so popular for beach travelers, that most major airports have flights going directly to Liberia. Do not fly into San Jose. Even if you have to pay a little bit more, flying into Liberia is worth it. The drive was only about 35 minutes to the house where we stayed.
Tip: Airfares are cheapest on Tuesdays – often by a hundred dollars or more!
Should we rent a car?
The excursions are expensive. While you may want to hire out one or two, most you can do on your own if you have a vehicle. You will pay for excursions per person. For example, if you drive yourself to Rincon de la Vieja, you will simply pay the 700 colones ($1.50) for entry per person, plus the entry fee to hike through the volcanic activity (about $12 per person). That is a big savings from what you would pay a tour company to take you there. We also like the freedom of being able to visit beaches off the beaten path, and get ourselves around. On some beaches you can actually drive on the beach as well. So, in our opinion, yes, rent a car with a family.
Where should we stay?
The Guanacaste coast is beautiful and there are many options. While you can’t go wrong overall, some are better than others. Playa Hermosa is where we stayed and we were so glad that is the place we chose. It is quiet, clean, and beautiful. We also liked that most adventures that we wanted to do were within an hour or hour and a half of Playa Hermosa. If you stay further out it will take you longer to drive anywhere.
Here is a bit of a profile on the beaches (our opinion):
Hermosa – close to the town of Coco (5 min.), but much quieter and more laid back. Clean beach. And bonus! Howler monkeys in the trees nearly every morning and night. It sits next door to Playa Penca (see more about this beach in itinerary), which is going down as one of my favorite beaches in Costa Rica. It is a hidden gem that requires a bit of walking to get to. Well worth the effort. The water is warm and a crystal turquoise. We rented snorkels and brought them down to snorkel near the edge where there is a reef. You can find out more by visiting the blog twoweeksincostarica.com, which we found to be very informative and helpful.
We rented this house through VRBO. The only disappointment was construction was going on in the lot below the house and a steel saw cut sharply into the relaxation and ambiance. TIP: Make sure you ask if construction will be happening during your stay, whether it be a private house or hotel. If so, find another spot.
Coco – While Coco is nice, it is extremely tourist heavy. Signs are in English, and in the souvenir stores they have dollar prices on the items rather than colones (bad sign). There is even a Hard Rock Café. If you want to feel like a tourist and speak English, go here. If not, look elsewhere.
Playa Panama – This beach was dirty when we were there. While it would have been beautiful, the trash shadowed its appeal. There is an all-inclusive resort (Casa Conde) on this beach that our friends stayed at. They enjoyed it very much, but they wished the resort would have been on Playa Hermosa.
Playa Conchal – There is much hype over this beach made of shells, and we felt too much hype after seeing it. SOME of the beach is crushed shells, and that part was so crowded we couldn’t even find a good spot. It was a long drive for unimpressive results.
Playa Flamingo – The sand is not pink, though we tried to will it to be in our heads. Soft and white, it is a nice place to relax and enjoy the Pacific Coast. While not my favorite, it is a good, solid option.
Tamarindo – Tamarindo is far from the adventuring we wanted to do, so it make it a lesser choice to stay for the week. Pair this with heavy-tourism and we didn’t even consider it. It is, however, beautiful and has fancy resorts to offer those seeking luxury and a more sedentary vacation.
Where do we buy food?
If you are traveling with a family, you will want to get comfortable with the grocery stores in Costa Rica. The prices are surprisingly high. Do not expect “good deals.” Coco had two grocery stores that we used: The Max Super and Auto Mercado. The Max was much lower prices and more geared toward the local Costa Rican population. The Auto Mercado is beautiful, but definitely higher priced and meant for the tourist. I’d recommend getting the bulk of your groceries at the SuperMax, and doing the rest of your shopping at the AM. We also bought coffee and vanilla to take home from the AM.
Items to consider bringing for the family from home (if you have room):
What month is the best time to travel to Guanacaste?
June is probably the best month. The rainy season begins in May, so by June everything is green again, but the full rains have not started. The rainiest months are Aug, Sept, and Oct. according to a local I spoke with in Liberia. Another woman who lives in Costa Rica part-time said that January and February are the windy months. We went at the end of March/beginning of April. It was HOT, HOT, HOT. We hit about 93-97 degrees F every day plus humidity. We would start very early in the morning to try to avoid the heat in the middle of the day.
What should we pack?
*Dry wicking clothes
*Sunglasses (even for kids – my son’s green eyes were burned)
*Strong sunscreen (the spray kind does not work in this intense heat)
*Off – especially for no see-ums
*Water shoes (such as Chocos – tip: check Sierra Trading Post or the REI garage for deals)
*A waterproof cover for your phone and a way to attach it to your body – we like carabiners (we used this on the zip line and river tubing and didn’t have to pay the extra money to hire a photographer)
*Imodium (just in case)
*Water Bottle (one for every person). I like these that keep the water cold even in hot temps.
*Bandaids or First Aid Kit
*Crazy Creeks or comparable chairs (if your lodging does not have chairs for you to use)
*Two-way Radios (if you are going to be splitting up) – great for kids
*Hats – for hiking and the beach
Will I get sick if I drink the water?
Possibly. The safest course of action is to drink bottled water for sure. Some say it is safe to drink the water in Costa Rica, but I did get sick while I was there and so did two of my children. A vegetable peeler is a good idea to remove the skins of the vegetables where the bacteria lie. That precaution plus washing all fruits in clean water and drinking bottled water will most likely keep you safe while traveling. The house we were staying at had clean drinking water so we felt comfortable using the ice as well. If you go out, you may want to stay away from the ice (including pina coladas, which have blended ice), and ordering cooked food is better than ordering raw food if you are trying to prevent sickness.
Web MD says Pepto Bismol may help prevent Traveler’s Diarrhea but I haven’t tried it so I can’t speak to it myself.
Don’t worry too much about this. It really isn’t that big of a deal even if you do get a little stomach bug. Mine lasted less than 24 hours and I still did all of our activities. Sometimes the stress of getting sick prevents us from enjoying the journey, and that’s no fun.
Where should I exchange money?
Most bigger banks stateside will exchange money for you before you go, but you have to put in an “order” up to a week ahead of time so plan ahead. The airport is also a great place to exchange money and their exchange rate is usually very fair. It’s much less hassle to change money one of these ways instead of waiting for the bank to open in town.
Should I get an international phone plan?
In our party we had two people who had international phone plans and it was very helpful. Some phone companies (like Verizon) offer the same plan as the US for $10 more a day. The maps feature was the most helpful as we navigated the country by car.
Some things not to forget:
*call your credit card company to tell them you will be traveling out of the country and where
*Call your bank and tell them the same
*Find out the emergency phone numbers for the area in which you will be staying
*Call your insurance company to see if it covers international car rental. We worked out our insurance with our Signature Visa from Alaska Air.
Ok, let’s get to the main part of this post…. THE ITINERARY!
We were going for a balance of rest and relaxation and adventure. In this itinerary we really felt that we struck that balance and enjoyed the rhythm of both. There was plenty of adventure, while also allowing for reading a good book and laying on the beach. This is a 7 day itinerary with 2 travel days (one on each side).
**I also put what we had for dinner in case you want to steal our menu!**
Arrival Day: Get settled, unpack, go to the grocery store
Day #1: Playa Conchal, Flamingo, or Tamarindo
We kicked off our vacay with a beach day. If your day #1 is on a Saturday or Sunday, you may want to move things around. The beaches tend to be much more crowded on weekends.
We chose to go to Playa Conchal and Playa Flamingo. The first day was filled with getting our tan on (wear a ton of sunscreen). We were thawing out from our long winter in Idaho. We brought a frisbee along, walked down the beach, and had a late lunch at The Beach House Bar & Restaurant.
Dinner: Tacos in the casa with Costa Rican tortillas (which are sooo yummy), beans, ground beef, cheese, lettuce, sour cream and salsa.
Day #2: Rio Celeste
Cost: $12 for foreigners
Tenorio Volcano National Park is open daily, 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Important: Even though the park is open until 4 p.m., last admission is at 2 p.m.
This destination is a must-see. We’ve never seen anything quite like it. Two rivers come together with underground minerals and sulfur and create a magical turquoise blue. This hike in the rainy season is very muddy, so be prepared for that. We went at the end of the dry season and it was still a bit muddy. Hike to the end of the trail before turning around and going down to the waterfall. At the very end is a great viewing spot to see where the water turns color, and there is a hanging bridge as well that is a fantastic picture spot. The waterfall itself is a steep downhill climb but well maintained. The park is open from 8am-4pm. As with every destination, getting an early start will offer fewer crowds and more wildlife.
While you aren’t allowed to swim inside of the park, we drove upriver outside the park about 4 minutes and found a perfect swimming hole. Magical!
Bring binoculars. The birds are beautiful in this area which is a more lush, traditional rainforest. Everything is green and teeming with life. The town that sits just outside of the park, Bijajua, is one of the most quaint you will see and more “traditional Costa Rican” than the coastal towns, so this is a great place to stop and engage in local culture.
Directions: From Liberia, head south along the Inter-Americana Highway (Route 1). About 6 km (3.7 miles) before the town of Canas, take the off-ramp and go under the highway, connecting with Route 6 toward Upala. Follow Route 6 for about 22 km (13.6 miles) to Bijagua. Route 6 is a well paved road. Once you enter the small town of Bijagua, look for a sign for Tenorio Volcano National Park. Take a right onto the dirt road at the sign.
Dinner: Chicken Teriyaki with coconut cilantro rice
Day #3: Playa Penca
This was our favorite beach day, as we discovered the unspoiled and pristine Playa Penca. We rented snorkel gear from the local dive shop in Playa Hermosa for about $14 a set. It is a short hike down to the beach, and there is great shade to set up camp. The snorkeling is along the rocks at the end of the beach. While it’s not Hawaii as far as snorkeling goes, you will see a wide array of fish, including needle nose, eels, and possibly even turtles. The water is so warm and calm that you may want to bring something you can float on. That was one of our favorite parts. Bring lunch as you will want to stay all day. The white sand and small, safe swimming cove is just dreamy.
Tip: Check the tide and plan accordingly so you visit the beach during low tide. The tide begins to come in around 3 hours before high tide. We did stay after the tide started coming in and it did bring different fish to the reef so that was a fun surprise.
Directions: Here is a map. There is a guard at the “gate” (not sure why since you don’t have to pay). Give him your name and head on in!
**This was the day we chose to do family pictures since we were at a close beach and dinner out (since everyone was dressed up anyway).
Plan to start taking pictures around 5:00pm. You will lose light quickly once the sun starts to go down. By 6:00 it is getting too dark.
Dinner Out: La Casita de Mariscos. We asked them to set up a table close to the beach since we were celebrating two birthdays and they were very accommodating.
Day #4: Rincon De La Vieja Hiking Day
Cost: $15 adults, $5 children under 12
Hiring a Guide: $40-60
One of the most unique parts of Costa Rica is the active volcanoes. While it doesn’t spout like the neighboring Arenal Volcano, it is still an impressive sight and is surrounded by mud pits and hot springs.
There is a very nice 2 mile trail around various mud pits and water pools. We hired a guide for this part of educate the kids on the flora and fauna, the science behind the mud pits, and to point out wildlife we otherwise would not see. We did see all three different types of monkeys on this 2 mile trail: white faced, spider, and howler. Our guide took us “off trail” a bit too see the monkeys and we were rewarded.
The most impressive sighting of the entire trip was on this day. We spotted a tapir! In all of my previous travels in Costa Rica, I never saw one and never expected to. They are extremely private and secretive, so seeing this animal is rare at best. Somehow we managed to catch a glimpse of this strange looking creature before it disappeared again into the jungle. Amazing! I describe it as a cross between an elephant, a horse, and an anteater.
Tip: When hiring a guide (which we would recommend), ask for one that specializes in the area you are most interested in (animals, science, flora and fauna, etc.)
There is a longer hike in this park to a waterfall called Catarata La Cangreja. It is a 6 mile trek. If you choose to do this option then arrive as soon as the park opens or you will be hiking in full sun in the hottest part of the day.
Dinner: Pasta with garlic cream sauce and Costa Rican traditional sausage
Day #5: Everyone Gets to Choose Day
Cost: Free (Massages $50)
Children of all ages have varying tolerances for activity, so we like to plan a “do what you choose” day in the middle. Everyone gets to choose their activity of choice. Here are some examples of what people chose:
The Moms – massages on the beach (it was my sister’s birthday)
The youngest – pool day at the house then sand castles
The boys – ultimate frisbee at the beach and a giant sand castle, along with burying each other
The girls – reading beachside on the lounge chairs
The Dad- helping everyone do what they want to do!
Dinner: Nachos & Quesadillas
Day #6: Rincon De La Vieja Adventure Pass
Cost: $90 a person
This day was a true highlight of the trip. Packed full of activity, it is a lot of bang for your buck. The tour begins on horseback at 8am. The horseback ride lasts about 45 min., then it’s onto the tubes for class 1 and 2 river tubing. This was SO MUCH FUN! It felt like the longest Disneyland ride ever, as the Morpho butterflies and singing forest gave it a truly magical feel. The guides help you through the river canyon and stand at any place that might get dicey. I felt the children were very safe in their own tubes.
After tubing is a buffet lunch on the deck.
Then…. Zip lining! It was a fairly intense course, but the guides were very helpful and there was one optional spot that younger children or reluctant adults can opt out of (it’s a big drop). My cautious 11 year old did great if that gives you any measure for your own family.
Zip lining is the end of the time with the guides. After that you are on your own. We proceeded by car to the nearby waterfall. Don’t miss this! It is a gorgeous swimming hole and there is a safe rock jumping spot that’s fun for the kids. It feels so refreshing to cool off after zip lining as well.
We finished with the famous mud baths, a short drive from the waterfall. People literally paint mud on their bodies and let it dry. It is supposed to have great benefits for your skin. True? Not sure, but why not! There are also several pools to soak in – beautiful natural hot springs!
We returned home late, but with full hearts after such a fun day!
Tip: We did not find the private tour to be worth the extra money. The private tours end up with the general group, they just get private cars to the various activities. Seems like a bit of an upsell.
Dinner: Pizza from Bocelli’s in Playa Hermosa (take out)
Day #7: Shopping in Coco plus Playa Hermosa Beach Day
We had really hoped to find an open air market, but to no avail. Unlike other Central American countries, Costa Rica is not known for their open air markets (though the one in San Jose is great). The town of Coco has many souvenir shops and the kids wanted to get a couple of
Items to take home.
*a hand made chess set
*a hand made cribbage board
*coffee (buy at the grocery store or at Tio Leo’s – see last day)
*a wooden cross
*a stuffed monkey
After some shopping we set up camp on Playa Hermosa for a relaxing day at the beach. Then we went home and enjoyed the infinity pool and played Marco Polo.
Dinner: Hamburgers and potato fries
Day #8: Mini Golf, Pool, Tio Leo’s, Airport
There is a great mini golf course at Hermosa Heights (next to the town cinema) that the kids played a few times during the week. They wanted to end with this, so mini golf was on the final day’s agenda.
After a dip in the pool, we packed up and headed toward the airport.
On our way we stopped for a coffee tour at Tio Leo’s. Leo happened to be there and generously offered his time to show us around and educate the kids on the country’s main export. He was the most darling man and had so much fun with the kids. This was not a stop we had planned, but one that we are SO GLAD we didn’t miss! It was a truly memorable experience. We bought Leo’s delicious roast and he even signed our bags. LOVE supporting a local coffee farmer and they make great gifts to take home. We would highly recommend this stop either when you come in, or when you are on your way home.
That is it! A full week of sun, fun, and adventure. None of us wanted to go home.
Until next time Costa Rica…PURA VIDA!!!!!
Here is our 2-minute video of our itinerary.
What about you? Where are you planning to go?
What are your favorite spots in Guanacaste?