As if calling from its tropical clime at the southern end of Central America, Costa Rica welcomed a huge number of Greenbrier Valley visitors this past winter. An ideal family adventure vacation, the friendly country is perfect for vacationing Americans, in particular those looking to immerse themselves in a different culture.
In many ways, Costa Rica offers some of the same outdoor adventures we find right here in West Virginia—white water rafting, ziplines, horseback riding, and fishing, to name a few. But its tropical topography and wondrous beaches, along with its hot, dry season during our cold winter, provide a stunning backdrop for family memories.
The country’s tagline is “Pura Vida,” meaning “the simple life” or “the pure life.” Costa Ricans, known colloquially as “Ticos,” use the term for hellos, goodbyes, welcomes, and thank you’s. For them, it is a way of life.
Having visited the country nearly fifteen years ago, my wife and I knew it would be great for our three kids. Its safe reputation and friendliness towards Americans (the entire country pretty much accepts American Dollars, meaning there is very little reason to exchange money) makes it ideal for those looking to stretch out their family travel portfolio beyond Caribbean beach resorts and cruises.
Most visitors simply use the country’s capital, San Jose, as an arrival city.
It makes for an exciting urban experience the night of arrival or before departure at the end of your stay. But Costa Rica’s real magic happens out in the countryside, jungles, and beach towns.
Costa Rica’s famous rainforests boast some of the densest biodiversity on the planet. Covering only .03 percent of the Earth’s surface, the country contains 5% of the entire planet’s known plant and animal species. A stroll through any jungle might bring you face-to-face with four different species of monkey, two-toed and three-toed sloths, tarantulas, lizards, and more.
Our first trip to the country landed us in Monteverde—a lush cloud rainforest in the middle of the country, and a great stop if headed towards the Nicoya Peninsula (more on that later). This year, we opted for a wonderful resort at the base of the Arenal Volcano called The Springs Resort and Spa at Arenal. The resort boasted spectacular views of Arenal along with 28 hot springs peppered throughout the resort grounds. Our kids especially enjoyed the “Monkey Slide”—a short, speedy waterslide that led to a 90-degree pool. The resort’s adventure club, Club Rio, provided a safe place for our kids to enjoy quite a few adventures.
Our youngest caught his first fish in Costa Rica—four Machacas in a row. And this was a day after he and I took two tubing trips down the Arenal River, a 30-minute rollercoaster ride down mostly-Class II rapids, with little break between the waves.
Mary (my wife and the magazine’s creative director) and our daughters enjoyed horseback riding through the surrounding countryside and jungles, including a number of river crossings. We spent the rest of the afternoon in the surrounding hills exploring hot springs along the well-established trail that looped above the rumbling river.
Everett O’Flaherty, of Swift Level Fine Meats in Fairlea, was part of a group of 18 people from West Virginia who travelled to Costa Rica for a friend and family celebration. He and his girlfriend, along with two other friends, opted to stay in the country a little longer to explore the lush Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve near Monteverde, just west of where we were along Lake Arenal.
“There are three cloud forest parks lumped together in the region,” says O’Flaherty. “We loved the dirt graveled road that led into the park. We chose Santa Elena because Monteverde was always so crowded. We wound up only seeing around five people in the forest the whole time we were exploring.”
One of the best ways to see the rainforests of Costa Rica are with guides. Usually charging around $50 per person, these guides often know where hard-to-find animals are in the park—including sloths, rare birds, and camouflaged lizards.
Many that travel to Costa Rica are looking to hit one of the country’s beautiful beaches. The country enjoys two coasts—the Pacific and Caribbean. The Pacific Coast has a longer shoreline, is more developed, has the best surf waves, and is also home to 11 national parks. While the Caribbean side is more natural, less touristy, and retains a more tropical vibe.
On the Pacific Coast, many head for Nicoya Peninsula, located in the northwestern part of the country and about a seven-hour drive from San Jose. Many of Costa Rica’s most popular beach destinations can be found here—Tamarindo, Nosara, Samara, and Islita to name a few.
“We found the coastline to be really beautiful in Nosara,” says O’Flaherty. “Costa Rica doesn’t develop their beachfront like we do in America, so the beaches often run right up against the jungle. We found a great diversity of international cuisine with local flair throughout the peninsula.”
Clay Elkins and Suzanne Fry of Greenbrier County also ventured to the country to meet up with old friends.
“We choose Santa Teresa on the Nicoya peninsula because of the touted laid-back, surfer, artsy vibe,” says Frye. “It’s also more remote and harder to get to, so it cuts down on the number of people there. It was truly fabulous—one of our best trips ever, really, because of where we stayed at the Hotel Tropico Latino in their beachfront suite with a private pool. We could be in the pool looking at the ocean waves. Steps away were two open-air beachfront yoga studios, outdoor restaurant, and massage huts.
“Another highlight was a horseback riding tour, which was simply incredible! Their driver drove us through stunning scenery to reach the 4000-acre working farm. Our guide was fun and knowledgeable, sharing about the trees, plants, landscape, culture, and sustainability projects along the way. We rode horses through the countryside, crossed a river, and rode on the beach. At one point, we were handed freshly cut coconuts so that we could drink the coconut water.”
A bit further south, Mary and the rest of my family found ourselves just down the hill from Quepos (the supporting town for the famous Manuel Antonio National Park) for an entire week after our stay at Springs Arenal. We rented a small house set about fifty yards back from the beach and spent four straight days lounging on Espidilla Beach where we could do anything from parasailing to pick-up soccer games.
At the southern end of the beach was the entrance to the renowned Manuel Antonio National Park, the most visited park in Central America. Lining up at 7 a.m. got us into the park two hours later, but the wait was well worth it as the kids got to sight seven sloths in the couple hours we explored the park with our guide. We also saw the elusive Jesus Christ Lizard, named so for its ability to run across water. Having been woken by a number of howler monkeys (which, by the way, can be a frightening and extremely loud “alarm clock”), we got to spot our first one in the wild. We also spotted capuchin monkeys (which were everywhere) and squirrel monkeys.
After a few days at the beach we headed to the top of the mountain to a resort called Si Como No. The resort showcased awesome views to the beach below and gave us spectacular sunsets. On the second day Mary found some info on a “secret beach” in the adjacent cove from Espidilla Beach. We ventured there via taxi and after a quarter mile hike through the jungle the trail opened up into a pristine beach where two to three vendors had set up with food, cocktails, kayaks, and snorkeling gear. My daughter and I rented some snorkels and explored the cove before ordering a large casado (a typical Costa Rican dish of rice, black beans, plantains, salad, and a protein) for the entire family.
In the evenings we enjoyed the varied restaurants along the mountain road, many of which featured some modern variations on Latin food. In particular we liked Z Poolside Bistro, which featured some fun plates along with its pool, which the kids enjoyed while waiting on our food.
On the other side of the country, Shannon and Byron Rausenberger of Lewisburg travelled with seven fellow GES (Greenbrier Episcopal School) families to the Caribbean coast.
“We stayed at Villa McCaw in Punta Uva, outside of Puerto Viejo,” says Shannon Rausenberger. “We chose the Caribbean coast because we wanted the chill, local beach scene it’s known for and one of the couples had been there before and loved it. The beaches were really amazing.”
The beaches on this side of the country are known for the natural beauty and Rausenberger notes they did not disappoint. The beaches were half beach and half jungle, so they were a lot of fun to explore. Our family got to see tons of wild life—sloths, toucans and six wild green macaws that actually lived on our property.
The group stayed in a large communal house where they cooked and ate large family meals cooked with local foods. “The best part was all the local fruits and veggies that grew everywhere. Our property even had its own chicken coup so we had fresh eggs every morning,” says Rausenberger.
Overall, Costa Rica is a great country that offers families and couples a chance to reconnect with nature, often in comfortable, and spectacular, settings. You will definitely find a lot of Americans there and many of the resorts cater to the Western traveler’s needs. That being said, the real Costa Rica, the one makes you understand the idea of Pura Vida, lies deep in the jungle, or paddling out to the waves, or watching the big pink sun settle behind the ocean.
Contributors: Anna Stout-Tuckwiller, Suzanne Fry, Clay Elkins, Shannon Rausenberger, Laura Lee, Everett O’Flaherty