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Costa Rica with Kids

There has been a strong theme to our whirlwind Costa Rican journey, and that is its unbeatable wildlife. We have been lucky enough to have been on safari in Tanzania, hiked elephant jungles of Myanmar and Thailand and seen wild Komodo Dragons in the Indonesian national park, but hands down, Costa Rica has been the very best flora and fauna I’ve ever witnessed. There is no denying it, Costa Rica is one of the best countries. Full stop.

Capitalising on its natural beauty and biodiversity, Costa Rica embraced ecotourism as an alternative to mass tourism pretty early on in the game. Their globally significant conversation efforts of the 1960s-70s have paid off for them big! The national parks and designated protected areas, coupled with investment in education, ecosystem protection incentivisation schemes, a stable government with long-term planning and commitment to protecting the natural world have all combined to form the perfect sustainable tourism model - generating revenue while promoting conservation and respect for nature. Critically, this occurred before too much was lost, which is all the more impressive for a nation sitting in a wider subcontinent of forest exploitation. From the largest unbroken jaguar ranging territories in the world, to the beach rangers protecting turtle nests on the coast, Costa Rica does it right. We were genuinely inspired by the commitment of local communities in protecting their natural treasures.

 



Costa Rica would be the end of our Central American backpacking adventure, but it ensured we went out with a bang!


Day 1 (Friday 12th August/day 44 overall): Childrens Eternal Rainforest, Monteverde


We arrived via land crossing from the Nicaragua Peñas Blancas border. We collected our hire car and drove through the province to the lush and verdant Monteverde for our first few nights (staying at the tranquil and remote Vistaverde Lodge). We arrived on our smallest members 1st birthday and decided to celebrate with a night safari through the Childrens eternal rainforest!



We trekked for two hours (6pm-8pm) through a tiny slice of the thousands of protected hectares of pristine rainforest. Crazy bugs, spiders (multiple tarantulas!!) tree frogs, sleeping birds including toucans and my absolute favourite - a casual armadillo strolled out in front of us, and a porcupine (which has a prehensile tail) was just chilling in a tree. The kids really liked the quiz-plaques throughout the trail. They handled it very well (usually asleep by 7pm!) considering we didn’t get to even check in to the new place until 8:30pm!

 

Day 2 (Saturday 13th August/day 45 overall): Monteverde Cloud Forest! 


This hike was like nothing I’ve ever experienced. The photos don’t do it justice at all. Everything is soaking wet and bright green - every surface is covered with dripping soft mosses. We were walking through a cloud the entire time even though the sun was out blazing down on us, which was a strange feeling! After our 3.6 mile hike we celebrated in town (Santa Elena) with our first (and best) Costa Rican meal at Soda La Cocinita de Lety and grabbed a birthday cake from a local bakery.

 


We spent the afternoon relaxing at our accommodation which had some intense views from an elevation of 1,500m (enough to make vacuum sealed bags explode which the kids love love!). One second, it’s just clouds (what was I expecting staying in the cloud forest?!) and then out of nowhere they part and give way to the valley, lake and Arenal volcano (later!). What a place!

 

Day 3 (Sunday 14th August/day 46 overall): Butterfly house and onward travel to Manuel Antonio!

 

The morning was excellent; we visited Monteverde butterfly gardens and insect house. We’ve seen a lot of this sort, but I think this was the best insect related experience of our travels anywhere in the world (did you know that cockroaches actually have a sweet smile under the gross exterior and are actually…cute…?).



Sadly, the afternoon was not so pleasant as we undertook the gruelling 4-hour drive to Manuel Antonio, one of the most anticipated stops of the entire 2-months. We opted to take the way there in one go, saving the few stop-off points for our circle back north to La Fortuna later in the week. It pissed with that tropical armageddon level rain that you just don’t get in Europe, and the usual audiobooks and car games didn’t cut it - everyone bickered, it was shit. Every trip has that hellish journey, and this was that one. Worth it – yes!

 

Day 4 (Monday 15th August/day 47 overall): Manuel Antonio National Park

 

Manuel Antonio National Park is where pristine heavily protected rainforest meets the Pacific Ocean, it is frequently voted as the most beautiful national park in the world, and probably the thing I was looking forward to most. It did not disappoint, even better than I could imagine. Given the rain during the previous awful travel day that continued overnight, I was so stoked to wake up to the sunshine streaming in at 7am, gorgeous blue sky and 34 degrees.  We bolted out the door asap to take full advantage, which meant we made the absolute most of it and avoided the crowds (Costa Rica actually had tourists compared with the emptiness of the rest of the sub-continent apparently!). We arrived at Espadilla Beach, just outside the park for a few hours before heading into the Park Proper for our 10:30 ticket.



We parked at an authorised third-party off-road place, showed our prebooking and after a short 20 minute trek through the park, on beautifully maintained paths and boardwalks, the rainforest gives way to stunning beaches with animals crawling out of the forest every few seconds, thanks again to Costa Rica’s world beating environmental legislation and support. In just under 2 hours we saw;


  • White faced capuchin monkeys (around 20 in total including a baby!)

  • 2-toed sloth

  • Hermit crabs

  • Bright orange crabs

  • Howler monkeys

  • Agouti

  • 3-toed sloth

  • Basilisk lizard

  • Coati

  • Monitor lizards

  • Spider monkeys

  • Snakes

  • Raccoons

  • Iguanas

  • Flamingo

  • Toucans

 

And a tonne of other random lizards, insects and birds. Incredible place, we could have stayed here forever. After a picnic lunch in the beach and forest we headed back for a chill afternoon in the pool. One of those really special days.

 

Day 5 (Tuesday 16th August/day 48 overall): Utiva/Marino Ballena National Park


One of the most glorious coincidences on this planet is that this marine park is naturally shaped like a whales tail (due to converging currents on the pacific) AND it’s where humpback whales come to breed. We took a 1-hour (morning nap!) drive south and headed out on a boat for a three-hour excursion. We were privileged to see two mother and baby pairs, an unrivalled experience, but if that wasn’t awesome enough we saw baby turtles making their way to sea from the beach as well on the walk to the boat. Again, Dolphin Tours are a great example of a responsible tour operators with the utmost respect for nature – bring reusable bottles/no plastic snacks.



Day 6 (Wednesday 17th August/day 49 overall): Manuel Antonio chill day  


On big adventure trips, every few days we plan a chill day with nothing but swimming pool/beach and games. This one was particularly memorable because our youngest took her first steps in the hotel room (without any warning at all, and not much prior interest)!


Day 7 (Thursday 18th August/day 50 overall): Transit from Manuel Antonio to La Fortuna


The last dull travel day of our 2-month trip. We broke up our five-hour drive with two stops. The first was playa Hermosa beach, with not a soul on it. We spent an hour playing on the sand, despite the wonderful weather, we decided not to swim as there were 8ft waves, never seen anything like it! Our second stop was Crocodile Bridge which is kind of self-explanatory tbh! We ate at the restaurant on the bridge, which was pretty decent price/quality and we arrived in La Fortuna after a few hours for our biggest adrenaline fuelled adventure yet…!



Day 8 (Friday 19th August/day 51 overall): La Fortuna, Sky Adventures

 

This felt like the most touristy part of our entire trip; the town is full of holidaymakers, mostly Americans, tacky shops and expensive food - but if you can’t beat ’em, join ‘em and there isn’t any beating this! A rainforest canopy tour via some of the tallest zip lines in the world!!

 



Despite being so fast, they’re so long you have time to pretend to be a tropical bird flying high above the forest with the beautiful view of the lake and volcano behind. Max blew us away by his attitude - he was nervous but pushed himself to do it and loved it! The whole thing takes two hours, is an outrageous 300m off the ground and costs a metric-shit-tonne but totally worth it for another bucket list day. We also had a lovely jungle walk, saw our first pit viper, the most dangerous snake in the region - and have found the best air bnb in the world!

 

Day 9 (Saturday 20th August/day 52 overall): Mistico Hanging Bridges, Arenal National Park


We have entered the territory of “lasts” now and this would be our last rainforest hike as we approach the end of this amazing adventure. These 16 suspension bridges give a fairly unique perspective of the forest, allowing you to tour the canopy from above. We saw monkeys (which we wouldn’t have been able to glimpse through the dense leafy cover below) and eyelash viper (one of the most poisonous snakes in the world) among the “usual” amazing birds and bugs. It really brought to home how dangerous the forest can be as this deadly snake was literally 6 inches from the path. One of the constant battles I have EVERY DAMN SECOND OF EVERY DAY adventuring is literally begging the kids not to touch things. Yes, I am generally lucky they travel well, but jeez listening to simple instructions and to not pick up random bugs, leaves and fruit from the forest floor is a challenge!!



Day 10 (Sunday 21st August/day 53 overall): Hot springs and transit to Tortuguero


We spent the morning at the absolutely fabulous hot springs of La Fortuna. My expectations were low - there are hundreds of hot springs in the area and most have an outrageous $100 entrance fee, so we decided to go for a free dip at a spot popular with locals which we read about online. It was amazing!! So hot we couldn’t spend too long there (30 mins?), but it was incredible and had that thrill of a great freebie about it too. In the afternoon we drove to the Caribbean coast once more for our penultimate stop in Costa Rica - Tortuguero.



Day 11 (Monday 22nd August/day 54 overall): Turtle nesting in Tortuguero National Park


This whole region is only accessible by boat; there are no roads of any kind. We drove our hire car (for our last long drive of the trip) to a long-term car park in La Pavona and caught a long-tail to our Jungle lodge in the national park. The journey of an hour or so through the tangled mess of rivers and canals between tiny scraps of land was an event in itself. We spotted caimans, monkeys, and while we were checking into our room, a massive croc swam past! A true jungle lodge indeed! We chilled in paradise for the day and then took a water taxi to the “hub” and met our guide for the evening. After a presentation on the turtles and conservation projects, and a going over the rules, we picked our way through mounds and craters on Tortugero beach in pitch blackness to our destination on the beach. A mother Green Sea Turtle, roughly the same size as me, missioned up the beach, dug out her nest and laid her 100-120 eggs. We watched her, and a second mother nearby bury and camouflage the lot. We did this under faint red glow so as not to disturb her trance. It was an absolute highlight of the trip. Kids did well (1-year-old slept in carrier thankfully!), spurred on by seeing a porcupine, poison dart frogs and some raccoons on our walk back from the beach in the moonlight.



Day 12 (Tuesday 23rd August) day 55 overall). Canoe adventure in the Tortugero river system.


For our last excursion of our 2-month Central American adventure we spent the morning quietly paddling through the rivers and canals of the national park, absolutely amazed by the sheer number of dangerous things constantly lurking near us!! Crocs, poisonous bugs, boa constrictors and vipers…We saw five caimans in just half an hour, all to the sound of the howley monkeys! Max was absolutely thrilled to see FIVE basilisk lizards (the running on water kind!) before the heavens opened suddenly and we got utterly drenched!



Having completed the activities, we came for there was nothing else to do but eat, swim and sleep for the rest of the day and enjoy more of the 1-year olds early walking! We made a list of things we’re looking forward to about coming home to try and fight back the sadness.


Day 13 (Wednesday 24th August/day 56 overall): San Jose transit


We spent our last day in paradise driving inland from the Caribbean coast to the capital of San Jose, taking in the sights as we skirted around the city. Sadly, traffic was so bad we arrived too late to do much, so for an easy win we took the kids to a soft play. Buttering them up and letting them indulge in preparation for the hell that was to be the next 24 hours or so! We did accidentally stumble upon a cheap Chinese restaurant as our final meal (complete with Celine Dion blaring in fact!) which went down a treat as well.



Day 14 (Thursday 25th/day 27 overall) Goodbye Costa Rica (and Central America):


A brutal 3am flight to the USA for a mad 9-hour jaunt around Texas, before returning to the UK.


In Summary:


Costa Rica is unlike any other nation we’ve ever been to before. It has no standing army, ploughing the cash saved into environmental protection. Previously they cut down huge swaths of rainforest to graze beef to feed their neighbour to the north, but they woke up a few decades ago, started a huge reforestation and eco-tourism drive and are now one of the greenest nations on earth. They now have more territory protected via national parks than any in the world (26%), and regularly hit 100% electricity generation via renewables. Costa Rica is approx. 0.03% of the surface of the globe, yet it proudly shelters 5% of the existing biodiversity in the entire world. It is one of the happiest nations on earth. Pura Vida indeed.


Conversely compared to its neighbours, Costa Rica was far more abundant in tourists, which made it feel less genuine in terms of friendliness (not that it was in anyway unfriendly, just not overwhelmingly lovely like elsewhere in the region and throughout SE Asia). The roads were in worse shape too, I guess the food wasn’t outstanding and I suppose our itinerary wasn’t particularly diverse after the museums/cathedrals/ruins/conquest/revolution trail in surrounding nations.  


Despite this, I would of course recommend it to anyone! In terms of travel, developed tourism (widely spoken English) and accessibility (even the maintained boardwalks in the rainforest were pushchair/wheelchair friends) made it “easy”. I don’t believe the glories of the rainforest are quite as accessible and abundant as they are here anywhere else on earth (that we’ve been so far!). There were no scams/rip offs, it was much cleaner and well cared for and wildlife quite literally fell out of every crevice (we also noticed minimal stray dogs and cats compared with almost all other nations I’ve visited ever too). Above all it was supremely beautiful with an enormous list of natural spectacles to keep us busy - who needs cathedrals when surrounded by natures majesty anyway!


Total spend: coming soon

Total distance: 1,076 km

Number of National Parks: 29

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