- Adobe Rental Car
- Rio Celeste Hideaway
- Spring Paradise Bijagua
- Onca Tours Rio Celeste Tubing
- Parque National Tenorio Volcano & Catarata Rio Celeste
- Eden Chocolate Tour
- Arenal Observatory Lodge
- La Fortuna Falls
- Mistico Hanging Bridges
- Jacamar Safari Float on the Rio Peñas Blancas
- Surfing at Playa Grande
- Hotel Bosque del Mar
- Palo Verde Boat Tours
- Eating casado at sodas
- All the awesome animals: monkeys, sloths, toucans, and more
- Los Lagos Resort Hot Springs
- Margaritaville Resort
- Credit card fraud issue
- Kid puking in car
- Not being able to explore even more of CR further south
- Having to take a stupid covid test to fly home
- Day 1/2: Houston
- Day 1: From Houston to Rio Celeste
- Day 2: Rio Celeste and Bijagua
- Day 3: Tenorio Volcano to Arenal
- Day 4: Arenal and La Fortuna
- Day 5: Arenal to Playa Flamingo
- Day 6: Playa Flamingo and Playa Grande
- Day 7: Playa Hermosa
- Day 8: Palo Verde and Playa Hermosa
- Day 9: Playa Hermosa and Departure
Traveling to Costa Rica was for a long time high on my must-do list. Finally in May of 2022 we followed through and embarked on quite an adventure.
I never put so much time into planning a vacation. There were just many more challenges involved in this international trip with my family and the risks were greater. I had looked over maps many hundreds of times and spent a great deal of time going over potential itineraries until finally settling on a plan only in the final two months before traveling.
We had originally planned to go in May of 2020 but the covid shutdowns scuttled our plans. In August of 2021 we recommitted to going and made flight reservations using free United Mileage Plus tickets at a time when flights were significantly cheaper and required fewer miles to book.
I then made and revised itineraries, trying to balance all the various circumstances and interests of our family members, as well as knowing that we would be going at a time when the US still stubbornly required a ridiculous covid antigen test to return.
Day 1/2: Houston
When we first booked our flight to Liberia (more on that in a bit) we had a direct flight from Denver to Liberia departing at 7am and arriving just after noon. A month later United changed our flight to a departure at 5am with a very rapid connection in Houston to arrive in Liberia at around noon.
There were a couple of problems with that revised schedule:
- I had severe doubts about whether we could land in Houston and make it to the connecting gate in time in 30 minutes. If the flight was delayed even a little we were going to be getting in on the next flight which effectively meant spending a night in Liberia (something I didn’t want)
- We would have to leave for the airport at 2am to arrive and park at 3am (which is hard when you are traveling with kids). Red-eye flights departing at midnight are actually easier than a flight departing at 5AM.
- Even if the above to items went ok, by the time we arrived in Costa Rica we would be tired zombies with a drive ahead of us.
Fortunately we had the option of changing to a flight that departed Denver at 7PM the night before and connecting in Houston the next day at 9AM, to arrive in Liberia at the originally planned time of 12:00PM. Effectively an 11 hour layover. The real benefit of this would be we could get a hotel near the airport in Houston and sleep comfortably, then just arrive back at the airport to go through security to fly on to Liberia.
And so we did. My only concern was our checked luggage. Would it arrive on time after the long layover? If it didn’t, we’d be stuck returning to the airport to fetch the luggage another day or do without much of our stuff. In the end it was checked and we wouldn’t see it again until we arrived in Liberia.
We arrived in Houston and made our way to ground transportation to get a Lyft ride to the Holiday Inn. After a longer than necessary ride (the driver apparently missed a turn) we arrived at the hotel and when quickly to sleep.
Day 1: From Houston to Rio Celeste
The next day we woke up at 6 am for the 9am flight from Houston to Liberia, Costa Rica. The plane departed an hour and forty minutes late, however, due to a storm in the Gulf of Mexico and a delay waiting for the plane to arrive from a prior airport, and then because of a diverted flight path we ended up adding yet another hour to the flight duration.
We did see a cool view of an erupting volcano in Nicaragua on the flight.
Instead of 12PM we landed at about 2:30 PM, which would mean not doing any activities on the drive to the hotel. It didn’t matter. It was pouring rain when we landed.
But we arrived and luckily so did our luggage. Next we went rather quickly through customs. We found the car rental associate and we were driven to the Adobe car rental location. The car rental process went fairly easily due to all of my reading and planning in advance.
Renting a Car in Costa Rica
Renting a car in Costa Rica is complicated. Way more than renting a car in the US. First, the rental agencies aren’t all completely forthright about the cost of the rental. Costa Rican law requires that the LDI insurance be purchased as part of the rental contract. Usually however, the insurance is left off the quoted amount to make it appear that the rental is cheaper than it really is.
Second, the CDW insurance that is usually never purchased in the States is sometimes necessary if the credit card company doesn’t cover rentals in a foreign country like CR. In our case, our credit card, Chase Sapphire Preferred, covered it and provided a letter that saved me about $150 dollars.
On top of that is an optional coverage for various things like flat tires, etc. That insurance is usually declined but it also waves a 20% deductible on the LDI (that can get expensive). It came out to $10/day. I didn’t pay for it, although I nearly did.
Because I reserved the rental early and used the code provided by MyTanFeet (look for their highly useful blogs and videos) I was able to get a good automatic Hyundai Tuscan SUV with Adobe. Rather than pay the $1000+ that many were stuck with by waiting, I paid $560 total including LDI. They also gave us a luggage cover and we paid for the optional WIFI for $10/day.
Be very careful with rental car agencies in CR. I was originally going to rent with Avis who we are typical customers of in the US. But when I read the fine print of the contract I canceled it (always read the fine print!). Adobe only charged $750 as a deposit which they quickly refunded when I returned the vehicle.
Renting a car in Costa Rica is complicated enough that many elect to just use drivers, but that is more expensive and requires a lot of time coordinating pickups and drop-offs. It also isn’t as much fun as exploring the roads gives you freedom.
I do recommend Adobe after having renting from them. Very helpful, forthright and gave us everything we requested with a simple return of the vehicle.
With all of our luggage in the car we were almost ready to hit the road and seek adventure. First we had a planned stop at the Walmart right outside of Liberia on the road from the airport to stock up on some water, snacks, cheap beach towels, and anything else we might need. Once that was concluded, we headed out toward our first hotel: Rio Celeste Hideaway, about 2 hours away.
The rains came to a stop after our shopping trip and our thoughts were on where to stop for dinner on the way. I had already looked at potential lunch spots but now the hour was much later due to the delays and the longer than expected car rental pickup process and Walmart trip. It was now already approaching 4 PM.
We drove down the Inter-American Highway and finally decided to stop at a place called ‘Bar y Restaurant El Recreo‘. We slowed down to follow the Waze directions and drove right by it. And then drive right by it again. And again. Finally we saw the big sign we somehow missed and arrived at the first soda of our trip.
We were tired and hungry and the place was empty except for us. But we settled in and had our first Costa Rican dinner. I didn’t go out of my way planning to eat mostly Costa Rican casado, but that is what happened. It is also now much appreciated in our household.
The bill came out to $26 for four plates (Evan’s hamburger was a puzzling combination of a slice of ham with a burger patty – after that we ordered everyone CR food at the sodas). I don’t often pay that even at the cheapest fast food places for all four of us. Also we got to sit outdoors and enjoy the warm weather and verdant surroundings.
Now satiated we continued on our way on roads that got narrower and ever more scenic. By the time we passed from Bijagua on our way to around Tenorio volcano to the hotel the tropical rainforest plant life and surroundings was becoming jaw-droppingly beautiful.
I have to also say something about driving in CR. The roads are narrow and more often than not the bridges are one-lane. Costa Rican drivers are also impatient and will pass you no matter what. Just let them and enjoy the drive. Driving in Costa Rica didn’t turn out to be a big deal at all and I’m glad we took that gamble. In fact, I only regretted we didn’t have the confidence to drive further. But hindsight is always 20-20.
Finally we arrived at the Rio Celeste Hideaway and my wife Shelley said “If this is where we are staying I’m never leaving”. Not joking, it is the most beautiful hotel I’ve ever stayed at. We were graciously met and taken our casita. The grounds were a tropical forest wonderland with trails leading to the Rio Celeste and into a private rainforest reserve. The pool was nearly always unoccupied and had three hot tubs. Our room was huge and beautiful with big beds and indoor and outdoor showers.
After all the planning and stress of worrying about so many things including the covid test at the end of the trip, to arrive at this oasis of amazing beauty was a relief beyond belief. We went to the pool and I laid back in the warm water looking up at the sky and listened to the sounds of the rainforest. After everything, this felt like heaven.
Day 2: Rio Celeste and Bijagua
The first sound I heard in the morning was a howler monkey. And I sure wanted to find him.
I woke up before the rest of the family eager to traverse many of the trails on the property. As I made my way toward the river I could hear and at last see the howler in a towering tree at least a hundred feet away.
I had brought with me a special 800mm lens that I called the super zoom that had a mounting missing some screws. The end result was that its a pain in the neck to get attached and by the time I did the monkey was no longer in view.
I continued on and to my astonishment I saw Shelley coming up the trail from the river. Somehow in my wandering around the grounds she had also been waken by the monkey and also wanted to see it. Her normally straight hair was twisted up by the insane humidity.
She said she had seen him but was scared by the sound of it, thinking it might be a dangerously mad monkey, and retreated to the room. With daylight now illuminating things far more (it was still only around 7AM) I proceeded to the riverside and into the surrounding rainforest along the trails.
I wasn’t wearing sandals so I didn’t enter the river but the blue river was certainly as advertised (the pictures don’t do it justice). I also wasn’t wearing the rubber shoe covers I brought for traversing through mud and standing water so I stopped at a stream crossing.
I thoroughly enjoyed this morning hike in the rainforest but something else was painfully obvious. We are usually really good at spotting wildlife, but I could only hear the wildlife. I was struggling to see anything in the mass of vegetation. If we were going to see things in this area we needed to take a guided walk.
When we got back to the room we made final plans for the day. We had a previously booked float trip planned for noon but had the morning open between breakfast and the float trip. I suggested a place for a wildlife walk that I had read about previously and after our breakfast at the hotel we drove back up the road north to Bijagua and Spring Paradise Bijagua.
There are a few must-see animals that are high on everyone’s wish list when visiting Costa Rica. Sloths are one. As are toucans. We saw both the three and two-toed sloths right away at SPB and then also found the red-eyed tree frog, a blue-jeans poison arrow frog, a keel-billed toucan, termites, and more.
The two hour tour ran a little longer than I realized after we spent too much time trying to collect mangoes from a tree and by the time we were in the car I realized it was 11:30 and we still had to drive to a remote spot outside Katira for the float tour.
I had booked the tubing tour by Onca Tours before we left and was glad that we arrived on time. We were dehydrated and hot but the tour guide gave us time to fill water bottles before we started on the tubing trip (there were actually two others who arrived even later so it was no worries).
Other than getting stuck on the rocks too many times to count, the tubing trip was a fun a refreshing trip down the Rio Celeste. Everyone had a great time even if a couple other guests on the float were a tad annoying. We also saw bats up close hanging from the interior roof of a shelter at the exit point.
After the float the guide took us to the second soda of the trip. This one had the best food of any soda we went to on the entire trip. It was called Soda Toya and is near Katira. My kids who have been finicky eaters their whole lives were really getting into casado. We also had some good desert empanadas.
We drove back after a thoroughly enjoyable day. I mentioned earlier that I couldn’t find the howler monkey earlier in the day. Well, now there were about a dozen howler monkeys right in the hotel grounds near the entrance. One was a baby. I got several photos (as if today needed to get any better).
We decided not to eat another expensive dinner at the hotel restaurant. If there is one negative about RCH it is that the restaurant Kantala has A+ atmosphere but grade C food. We didn’t want to drive far but found yet another soda half a kilometer away called Finca Garza del Sol.
The food at Garza del Sol was pretty good as well, but did take a while and when sitting outside in the evening you have to apply mosquito repellent to stay sane. Having done that we ate and retired for the night.
Day 3: Tenorio Volcano to Arenal
I told my family that the Rio Celeste waterfall hike was non-negotiable and I was doing it no matter what. My eldest son Daniel was eager to go, while Shelley wasn’t feeling up to it and elected to stay at the hotel. My nine-year-old son Evan wasn’t eager to go hiking but we encouraged him to go anyway so mom could get a morning at the hotel spa.
We left the hotel for the short 1 kilometer drive to the entrance to Tenorio Volcano National Park. We pulled into the closest parking lot which was almost empty, avoiding the lot across the street that a woman tried to force us into. Exiting the vehicle a man approached looking for payment to park.
It was I think 8000 colones or about $2 which I was fortunately able to pay with credit since we still had no colones. While my kids thought he was a scammer I said let’s just pay it and go. “He’ll keep our car safe because we paid him”.
We paid the entrance fee and set off on the trail with bug spray and the rubber shoe covers I bought before we came (amazon link) . If you don’t know, the trail is notorious for being muddy because of the frequent rainfall. You can either accept the mud and hope your shoes aren’t wrecked, rent boots at the entrance, or be smart like us.
I have no idea why we didn’t bring water with us and it would have helped my youngest especially. The humidity was insane. I’ve never encountered air that humid in my life. But the trail to the falls was only 1.5 kilometers so we all were able to at least get that far. My youngest was really struggling because of the heat so he didn’t descend all the way to the falls.
After the falls both my eldest son and I wanted to continue on to more locations on the trail including where the waters converge to create the blue color. My youngest, however, was hot and we finally decided that Daniel and Evan would start back and I would go a short distance onward. We did find that the huge leaves make excellent fans – seriously.
Trail was a steep uphill ascent but most of the hikers turned around at the falls so it was even more enjoyable. I made it to an overlook and along the way took a few pictures of butterflies. The hikers on the trail were all really friendly. Hikers are usually friendly, but the hikers on this trail were the type that would hike with you if you wanted.
I headed down the trail and met my kids at the entrance. We were only there a little over an hour, but it was a great hour nonetheless. After the quick drive back to the hotel the kids were able to get something to drink. Shelley had an appointment at the spa so we had another hour and a half to enjoy the pool, all by ourselves. Never crowded at the Hideaway.
After Shelley finished at the spa it was time to check out and head toward our next stop, Arenal. On the way we would look for lunch and hopefully stop off for a chocolate tour.
But wait. Just after checking out we have the whole howler monkey troop right above our car. Only about 15 feet away. One threw a stick playfully at my youngest son Evan.
We said our goodbye to the Hideaway and headed southeast on Highway 4. We had no idea where to stop and eat other than to trust Google reviews for places along the way.
We ended up stopping at Soda Oasis near San Antonio. One of the advantages of the outdoor sodas, especially while traveling with a car full of luggage (I’ll get to that in a minute) is you are right near your car and can keep an eye on it.
This soda was the only one we went to that I wouldn’t go back to, however. The food was decent (the macaroni salad was too sour for us) but there were real questions about how sanitary things were. There was dog poop on the floor of the dining area and flies buzzing around. We just decided to eat and leave quickly. It was the $17 for the four of us.
The Risk of Petty Theft
Now about the whole luggage thing. One thing we were warned about was theft of luggage from cars. I read horror stories about people losing all their possessions, sometimes while just at a roadside stop.
I kept all the expensive and important stuff in one backpack that I carried with me. I also brought with us a bicycle lock and a lockbox and a few luggage locks. None of the of them got used. It just wasn’t that bad.
At one point we even had a car door left open accidentally while parked at Playa Grande. The parking attendant just said “You left your car door open” when we got back to the car. We had paid 1000 C to park in the “secure” lot and they did their job.
Basically, theft is something that happens to people who aren’t careful and naively leave things unattended, but it isn’t something to let control you. Just carry the important stuff, lock up your passports at the hotel, and have fun.
There was one thing to watch out for though which I’ll get to later in the travelogue.
So the only hesitation I had about going to the chocolate tour was the luggage in the car, but I quickly got over it. 1) I had all the important stuff with me 2) it was in a remote area owned by the people that run the chocolate plantation and 3) if we lose some stinky clothes the jokes on them.
So we pulled into Eden Chocolate tours and met the owner at the entrance. As was the case many times in this low season, we got a great private tour.
We went through the farm starting with the cocoa pods and walked through the process of drying, grinding and eventually making edible chocolates, which we did. The tour was relaxed and enjoyable (even the tour guide said she preferred a few people over the big groups in the high season). Finally she took us to see a baby sloth on the property.
After departing we drove through La Fortuna and around to our lodging for the next two days, Arenal Observatory Lodge.
The drive up to the lodge was on a rather rough road for a non-SUV but we had no issue. Our room was one of the junior suites with two king-sized beds and views of the volcano and Lago Arenal from the porch. Animals, particularly birds, were literally everywhere.
The room was a step down in luxury from Rio Celeste Hideaway with a simple bathroom and no air conditioning. But the views and the wildlife at AOL were outstanding. We made our way to the restaurant right near our room for dinner and for a few relaxing alcoholic drinks.
We went to bed knowing the next day was already planned out as the busiest of the trip.
Day 4: Arenal and La Fortuna
Every day I woke up at dawn (which was generally 5 am and went out to look for wildlife and scenic views). Arenal Observatory Lodge brought that in spades.
I never saw so many different types of birds. They were everywhere, wandering around the grounds and making every conceivable call from the trees. There were also dozens of coatimundis roaming everywhere.
I knew the rest of the family would want to do the ascent to The Nest so I walked the trail to the waterfall and around to where the trails diverge to the farther reaches of the lodge properties. The lodge is the only hotel actually in Arenal National Park. Because it was the rainy season and a La Nina year the waterfall was gushing.
Just before returning to our room I stopped by the viewing platform by the restaurant and saw movement in the trees nearby. Sure enough there were monkeys. But this time they were Geoffrey’s spider monkeys. I had heard that of the four types of monkeys in Costa Rica the spider monkey was the least frequently seen, so I was quite happy and snapped as many photos as I could.
Breakfast at AOL is pretty good and you definitely want to have your camera with you while you eat because they set out fruit on feeders to attract birds. As we sat we saw oropendolas, aracaris and more come to the feeders.
Our first activity of the day was Mistico Hanging Bridges which I had reserved for 8 am. We left and arrived there to find that even at that early hour we were hardly the only ones there. Tour groups were arriving at the same time making it a bit ore crowded than I had hoped for. Still, as with most places where there is any hiking involved, the crowds lessened the further we went on the trails.
Once we were reasonably free of the slower moving tour groups we were able to casually proceed and enjoy the views, the bridges, and the wildlife (mostly little things that people often miss like snails, butterflies, and wasps). Toward the end of the trail, however, we came upon an animal that I never seriously thought we’d see on the trip, and one that I probably would have been alright with not seeing: the fer-de-lance viper.
I had read about the fer-de-lance years ago in a book about an archaeological dig inHonduras and knew that it was a much-feared rainforest denizen of Costa Rica. It’s easily one of the most dangerous animals in all of the Americas. But seeing and photographing one was quite the accomplishment.
A guide for a small group of people that were just ahead of us on the trail pointed it out and even staring right at it it was hard to distinguish from the surrounding leaves and plants. It would be very easy to accidentally step on one if one hiked off trail in any rainforest areas.
After a visit to the souvenir shop we left to go to La Fortuna falls and then lunch. We had another tour scheduled for 2 PM in La Fortuna town so we had a few free hours to use.
We knew in advance that La Fortuna Falls was straight up-and-down hike of 500 steps. It costs $18 to get in and with rain clouds forming we decided that only my 15-year-old son Daniel and I would enter while my wife and 9-year-old Evan waited in the car.
Being the rainy season and a La Nina year, the falls was gushing at a torrid rate. We started down quickly and about halfway down the skies opened up and we were hit by a torrential downpour. At first we halted and I took refuge in a tree trunk (seriously), before we reasoned that we had dry clothes in the car and we would just proceed in the rain, because getting wet wasn’t a big deal anyway.
We were to the bottom in minutes and took some pictures. Many people were swimming but we didn’t have time since the others were waiting in the car. We started back up and being that we are avid hikers and in good shape we ascended the stairs in less than 5 minutes. $36 for two people in about 15 minutes but totally worth it.
For lunch we decided it was time to give casado a break and stopped at the Pizza Ranch in La Fortuna. The pizza was good and it gave us time to get dried off and ready for the 2 pm tour. We also finally made our way to the bank in La Fortuna and got some much needed colones to spend.
At 2PM it was time for our safari float tour on the Peñas Blancas with Jacamar that we had reserved in advance. We met the tour guide and hopped in the van to head off to the river.
We saw a lot of animals on the Safari float and the tour guide went to great lengths to help us find the one monkey we had not yet seen: a capuchin. We did find one (actually I did) and the guide pointed out a caiman (sorry no photo), a sloth, howlers, tiger herons, a basilisk, and more. Afterward we were taken to a family finca for snacks at another soda.
So far, the trip was one home run after another. Everything we did and saw was better than I hoped for. Everyone was having a great time and the only thing that was a negative (other than the kids fighting over stupid things) was we didn’t have more time to do more.
We wanted to go to a hot springs before we left La Fortuna and the guide suggested Los Lagos Spa as a medium-priced option that had water slides for kids. So we went there planning to enjoy the hot springs and had the dinner with the day pass.
Los Lagos was the first thing in the entire trip that left us feeling a little disappointed. The hot springs were a tad crowded and we never really got comfortably relaxed while the kids debated which slide to go down into cold water pools.
When we went to dinner they first gave us incorrectly the good menu with many delicious menu choices before realizing we were on the day pass and gave us the slimmed down menu with little to choose from. The food was good but not great. We wished we had gone to either Ecotermales or Paradise Hot Springs instead.
Returning to AOL at night we went to bed ready for another busy day tomorrow. We wanted to enjoy the trails of the lodge together as a family before departing for the coast.
Day 5: Arenal to Playa Flamingo
In the early morning my teenager Daniel and I set out to traverse the trails of the lodge. We started at The Nest and then continued onto the finca which was farmland owned by the lodge.
We saw many more toucans, this time the yellow-throated toucan, and many more birds and coatis. We burned through the two hours quickly on our hike before realizing we were about to be late for the 9am breakfast reservation. We ran from the farthest reaches on the trails to hurry back to the room to meet my wife and son.
During breakfast we resolved as a family to go to The Nest and the Frog Pond before checking out. After a quick game of chess with my son Evan in the restaurant, we headed down the trails and made our way to the top of the nest, which is above the canopy tops.
Standing at the top with Evan I saw a spider monkey and then what I was sure was a capuchin, a monkey we had just only glimpsed and photographed in a rush from the safari boat. I dropped my lens cap from the top of the Nest to get down to traverse the trails to where the monkeys were.
We then found ourselves standing alone beneath spider and capuchin monkeys frolicking in the trees above us. It was the coolest moment. I had never seen monkeys in the wild before going to Costa Rica and now we were watching them alone in the forest, playing, jumping, hanging by the tails and being, well monkeys.
With time running short we made our way to the frog pond and then the museum and smoothy bar. A cold smoothy on a hot day after so much excitement was the best way to end our time at AOL.
We now had a three hour drive ahead of us around Lago Arenal and onward to Playa Flamingo. Thus far the trip had been better than I could have hoped for and gone flawlessly. The tow hotels I had chosen were total home runs.
We stopped in Canas at Rio Corobici Restaurant for lunch. I had previously found the restaurant online and decided it looked like a good place to enjoy some scenic river views while we ate. The food was decent and the river views were certainly good, even if we saw no wildlife on the river (which was running full and swift).
After debating whether to take the longer, more interesting trip south to cross the La Amistad bridge or the shorter path back through Liberia, we decided to save time and mostly retrace our path through Liberia to Playa Flamingo. After a brief downpour we made our way around through Brasilito and entered Playa Flamingo.
Let me be honest now about the plans we had made for the trip. I had really wanted to do one of two things after departing La Fortuna: 1) drive south to Manuel Antonio or 2) Proceed to Monteverde and the Playa Samara. Playa Flamingo was chosen because it seemed easier.
I didn’t know how easy it would be to drive in CR and the 6 hour drive to Manuel Antonio would eat up an entire day. I still had made a plan to go there for three days after Arenal with a last night in Canas. The second plan was to go to Monteverde and then Samara, which also involved a lot of driving but also potentially very wet weather that would limit want we could do. I also could have had us go straight to Samara after La Fortuna but that was also close to five hours.
I had a choice also between Tamarindo and Playa Flamingo if we didn’t do one of the two options above. Playa Flamingo was supposed to be quieter. So I booked two nights at Margaritaville. And we…. hated it.
I think the biggest issue was it just wasn’t where we really wanted to be. It was too loud, too Americanized, too lacking in nature, and too full of loud, rude people. The place didn’t even have signage for Costa Rica. It was full of art featuring the Caribbean. Look, it’s great to have your hotels all over the world, but make them unique to where they are.
When we checked in there was loud music in the lobby and loud music and voices at the pool. The room was a family studio but the beds were tiny doubles with a tiny pull out couch. The price we paid was almost that of the Rio Celeste Hideaway. But comparing the two is laughable.
Everyone was in a dour mood once we settled into our room. We got into our swim suits to go to the beach, hoping it would be better.
Playa Flamingo is often rated as one of the best beaches in Costa Rica. Yeah, it’s nice with whiter sand and warm water, but we also found it rather crowded, the surf was rather rough and not suitable for swimming, and there was a weird odor to the water. By the time we saw the sunset we all felt worn out and rather disappointed. The hermit crabs were at least entertaining.
We made our way back to the room but we really didn’t want to eat at a hotel restaurant but wanted to get away from Margaritaville. I was mad at myself for not choosing a VRBO/Airbnb at least where we could wash our huge, growing laundry and have a balcony to sit on.
We wound our way to Brasilito and ended up at a place called the Whiskey Howler. The food was decent and they gave us a second beer without asking since I think they could tell we were kind of bummed out. Tomorrow we’d make a plan to get away and surfing was one option.
Day 6: Playa Flamingo and Playa Grande
In the early morning I made my way back onto Playa Flamingo and it was a more relaxed experience. The beach is beautiful. The smells were gone for the most part but I didn’t enter the water. There were only a handful of people at this early hour and plenty of crabs. Still, I kind of wanted to get anyway to a more remote spot.
Breakfast was free at Margaritaville and we ate quickly there. The breakfast options were typical buffet, although it wasn’t as good as the prior two hotels. Still it was free and saved us some time looking for somewhere to eat.
We decided to drive south to Playa Grande where my wife found surfing lessons at a place called Frijoli Loco. We reserved surf lessons for 10 AM and had 45 minutes to spend on the nearby Playa Grande.
Playa Grande was beautiful and free of the condos that back the shore of Playa Flamingo. The water was crystal clear and warm. Everything felt great here. We hoped to find turtles, but instead found shells and hermit crabs.
Our surfing lesson at Playa Grande was a blast. We had two hours of surfing and we all stood up at least once. My teenager did the best and went further out in the surf with the instructor at the end as we were all tiring out. We had good conversations with the instructor who had moved down from the states (we talked a lot about whether we could move to CR throughout the trip). My only regret is we have no photos from surfing because we had to leave the cameras back at the car.
After surfing we decided to try a restaurant in Brasilito called Patagonia. Here is where my warning I mention earlier comes into play. The restaurant seemed nice at first and we were enjoying ourselves, even though the prices were higher and this was clearly a touristy place.
Halfway through our lunch our waitress seemed to lose interest in our table and we ended up asking other people for help. Finally we were done and I went to pay. I used a credit card I used only once on the entire trip to pay for the meal.
The next day I got a fraud alert on my card and the credit card company contacted me about a mystery charge of just over $5. I said it wasn’t legit and they told me they would close the account and send a new card. I asked them about it and they said that someone had copied the card. There is just no other place that could have done this and they did it right in front of me while I was paying our bill.
We had no other issue using our credit cards on the trip, but the entire country was hacked recently and there are more reports of credit card fraud in the country. My advice is to get colones and pay more often with these and maybe use prepaid gift cards which have balances up to $500.
This was the worst thing to happen on our trip other than to be bummed about the third hotel and maybe the itinerary, but we didn’t lose any money and I left a negative review on Trip Advisor to warn others about this potential fraud. In the end they didn’t gain anything but a damaged reputation.
After surfing we were pretty tired and decided that since we had spent the money for the Margaritaville pool we should use it. The pool area was large and there is a nice swim-up bar which we enjoyed. Most of the other guests were fairly nice around the hotel but we also encountered some really unhappy rude people. I suspect many were unhappy because they paid for the all-inclusive and felt obligated to be there all day. Their loss.
Finally we went to dinner at what is supposed to be the nicest restaurant in Margaritaville, the Italian restaurant. At first, though we were tired it was generally relaxed and pleasant. Then a group came in and literally took over the small restaurant space. They were so loud that no one else in the restaurant could hear anything and we decided to box up our food and leave.
I guess we are all just realizing that we don’t fit in with that type of crowd and we want quieter more relaxed spaces. Margaritaville was just an overall bad fit for us.
To be honest, I wish I could have done these days over. We never made it to Playa Conchal but I think it would have been less fun than I was hoping for. It was the weekend and things were busier and people in that area of Guanacaste are more geared toward partying. I think Manuel Antonio or Samara were just better fits for these days on the beach, or Monteverde or even more time at Arenal.
There are some nice things about Margaritaville. The bracelets that allow everyone to access the rooms was handy. No needing to hand over the key card. There is a tennis court which might have been fun if we had time. But I could do that at home. Moving on…
Day 7: Playa Hermosa
We ate our free breakfast and checked out of the hotel. We made reservations for a boat trip with Palo Verde Boat Tours but as we were leaving we decided that we had time to go all the way to the next hotel, drop off the luggage in our room, and the drive down to the tour (we never would have made it, but I’ll get into that).
The drive from Playa Flamingo to Playa Hermosa is one of two routes. One is the long way around that we took when we arrived. The shorter, more interesting way is the Route 911 or the Monkey Trail. Since we were short on time we decided to take the Monkey Trail and wound our way up the road. The road was certainly windy, but slow.
Near the end my youngest son said he didn’t feel well and before we had time to pull over he threw up his breakfast. Now I’ve got to say. If your kid throws up his food you are lucky if it includes mostly fruit (he ate mostly the mango and banana for breakfast) because it doesn’t smell that bad. We still had to get him and the car cleaned up on the roadside and abandoned the idea of doing anything more than taking a rest day at the next hotel.
We arrived at 10AM at Hotel Bosque del Mar and it was fortunately just what we all needed, especially Evan. Big suite rooms with air conditioning and television. We were able to get in and decided that other than wandering the beach and maybe my teenager and I kayaking, we would just call it a day. We were getting pretty tired and I think that was partly why Evan got sick.
We let Evan rest in the hotel (he was feeling better quite quickly) while we walked a short way up the sand to Aquasport. I knew the restaurant also rented water sports equipment so my thought was that my teenager and I could get a kayak and snorkel gear and head out after eating.
Lunch seemed slow and though the ceviche (first I ever had) was good I didn’t feel like renting water equipment there any longer. This was yet another of the ‘recommended’ restaurants that kind of seemed geared toward the ‘look-at-me’ Instagram crowd that had mediocre food and service. I decided that we could rent a kayak at our hotel or one of the vendors in between.
We walked back and because I didn’t have enough colones to rent from a vendor offering kayaks for $20 I rented from the hotel a single double-person kayak. Unfortunately, we got hit with more bad luck.
Daniel hurt his index finger trying to get into the kayak as we were launching against the surf (the surf was unusually strong at that moment and wasn’t that way again until the last moment).
He was in a lot of pain and we were concerned his finger was broken. He tried to gut it out and go, but we decided to rest and wait. If he felt good enough to go later we would. Unfortunately that time never came. No paddling to the hidden beaches for us 😦 Fortunately his finger wasn’t broken and he had just jammed it really badly.
With our family getting tired and banged up we decided it would just be a day to rest in the room, go to the pool, and try to figure out how to get our massive abundance of laundry cleaned. For the latter issue I went to a cleaners a couple blocks away with Shelley and we were able to get a big load of laundry done by the next day.
Looming the next day was the stupid covid test necessary to fly back to the United States. We brought with us a few extra tests and I took them with the kids to feel confident we would have no issues the next morning. All of us were negative.
With everyone needing a rest and an uncomplicated dinner we went to the hotel bar on the second floor of Hotel Bosque del Mar. The food was good and the drinks were 2-for-1 for happy hour. Best of all we saw the sunset through the trees.
We made a new reservation with Palo Verde Boat Tours for 11am the next day which would be our last full day in Costa Rica and last adventure of the trip.
Day 8: Palo Verde and Playa Hermosa
The next morning the first order of business was the stupid covid test. We had made appointments with Azova for proctored Flowflex tests that we could do from the hotel room.
I really don’t understand why some people, particularly adherents of the Democrat party in the US, are in love with all manner of covid nonsense. Whether it be masking or these stupid flight tests, they are nothing but a nuisance and headache for everyone and don’t matter one iota for public health. This stupid test requirement actually almost had me rescheduling our trip out of fear that we would be stuck for any number of days in Costa Rica. Since we work full-time and have pets boarded at home this would be a disaster.
We had finally decided to gamble and just go, knowing that the odds were significantly in our favor. Still we were stressed about this until the very end.
I took my test first and passed. Got my letter for the airline. My sons would do their tests together and my wife would do hers in the other room of the suite.
Other than losing the connection and having a longer test process than was expected, we passed and breathed a sigh of relief. I genuinely hope that all this stupidity comes to a close soon and we can all resume life completely free of all this BS soon. Unfortunately, I think as long as there are political groups and pharmaceutical companies pulling the strings, this will get dragged out as long as possible.
Now we could focus on closing out our trip on a high note. We didn’t have free breakfast at the hotel and we were in a hurry to pick up our laundry and make the drive to Ortega for the boat tour, we decided to go to a coffee shop in Playa Hermosa.
The coffee house called Paw House was ideally right across the street from the cleaners.
I ordered a macchiato not realizing it was a very different thing than an American caramel macchiato. After realizing that the tiny espresso wasn’t a mistake they gave me a cafe con leche.
After getting some colones and our clothes we set off on the very bumpy gravel and dirt roads to Ortega for the boat tour of Palo Verde National Park. We made it their just after 11AM. The distance to travel from Playa Hermosa wasn’t long but the roadways, even with an SUV, slowed us considerably.
We paid for the tour and the lunch at the tour and set off following the tour guide along more winding dirt roads to the boat launch on the Tempisque River.
The boat tour allowed us to see crocodiles for the first time, as well as a jabiru stork, bats and a great close-up look at a capuchin. It more or less filled in our goals for wildlife viewing on the trip. It was a non-physically intensive activity which helped our weakened family, despite the 90+ degree Fahrenheit weather.
We returned to the tour office and sat down for our last good Tican meal of the trip. Very good casado and well as some home-made ice cream.
We drove back through Santa Barbara which is a much smoother and faster road despite the longer distance. We made our way up and around getting a good look at the Gulf of Papagayo and some more interesting birds.
By now my oldest son was starting to feel ill so we let him stay back at the hotel at dinner time while Shelley, Evan, and I tried the much-recommended Ginger restaurant in Playa Hermosa.
While I think we all wanted Ginger to be as great as advertised, it wasn’t as good as the homemade casado we had for lunch on the boat tour. The whole Asian fusion thing in Costa Rica just didn’t inspire us that much. The ginger tuna was decent, but I’ve had better elsewhere. Usually we have more than one drink for dinner but after one margarita we were done. The crowd also seemed to be an affluent set of expatriates rather than Ticos, which made sense.
We brought back some food for Daniel but he wasn’t feeling up to eating it. We were by this time all starting to have stomach issues that were forcing us to go to the bathroom. We had drunk the tap water all trip without issue but whether it be a case of food poisoning or drinking sea water while surfing or just general fatigue we were all having some minot stomach issues.
Day 9: Playa Hermosa and Departure
The last morning before we packed up to leave I walked the beach one last time and got some photos of the sea birds. The sea was a bit rougher this morning and I saw dead and dying pufferfish on shore. I walked up one of the steep roads to where there were condos and decided that next time we would definitely stay in a rental at least part of the time.
We packed up everything that we could fit in suitcases and left the beach towels and stuff we didn’t need behind. We drove back to the Adobe rental office and the return process was easy. They cleared the deposit credit and we went on our way back to the airport and the USA.
We all had a great time on this trip and it was quite an experience. Would I do anything differently? Yeah. I would probably have changed the last four days as I mentioned before. But that isn’t to say that those days didn’t include fun and memorable experiences including surfing which the kids enjoyed the most.
Would I like to go back to CR? Heck yes. We’d do a trip to the southwest coast including Manuel Antonio and even Corcovado. I’d like to see Monteverde too. I’d even like to go to the Caribbean side which is supposed to have the best beaches and tons of wildlife. I just have no idea when that will be. We have a lot of other plans ahead and of course, even with free flights and basically free hotels we booked knowing we have Chase points, it still was expensive (boarding the dogs included).
Overall this was a great trip and with so many things that I had to plan for and possible pitfalls, whether it be driving, or the covid tests, or not having a good mixture of activities that the kids could do, or just not seeing animals I really wanted to see, it was a completely awesome success.
I read a lot of travelogues and used them to help me plan for this trip so hopefully whoever the reader is will find this one useful.