We love Costa Rica! There is plenty of adventure (hiking, zip-lining, kayaking), relaxation (gorgeous beaches & pools), and wildlife (so much wildlife!). Whatever you’re looking for in a vacation, Costa Rica probably has it!
I have never been one to go on vacation as part of a tour group. I always picture people riding around in a big tour bus, getting out at tourist spots to take a photo and then getting back on the bus. That’s not the way we travel – we want to be out doing and experiencing things!
Our first exposure to a tour was when we went to Ecuador & The Galapagos in 2017. We felt that to get the most out of our Galapagos experience we should book with an expert who could help us maximize our time and ensure that we experienced the most we could. We ended up having them book our entire itinerary and we had private guides the entire time. I loved it! So when I heard great things about Thomson Family Adventures, specifically that they customize family itineraries around school vacations (!!!) I was really intrigued. The kids had been asking to return to Costa Rica and I found a great multi-sport itinerary during our President’s Week holiday so we decided to go for it. We were paired up with one other family of 3 (they had a 7-year-old son just like us), we had a guide and a Rafiki (she wasn’t a nanny or babysitter, but was basically someone who was there to entertain the kids on long bus rides, answer their questions on hikes, and get the kids to bond through games & crafts). It was awesome! So awesome, in fact, that we decided to book with them again next month for the same school break – this time to Panama!
Day 1 (Friday/Saturday): Getting There
Our tour began in San Jose. We needed to arrive sometime on Saturday as we were leaving as a group early Sunday morning. Originally I had wanted to arrive in San Jose a few days early to explore on our own before our tour started. This would have meant the kids would miss a few days of school (which I was fine with) except I learned that my 13-year-old’s class was going to be at Outdoor Ed the entire week before our trip not returning to school until late Friday afternoon. This left us few options to get to San Jose in time!
Costa Rica is such a popular vacation destination for people in the Bay Area and I can’t figure out why there are no direct flights! We flew United and decided to take the red-eye through Houston Friday night so we would arrive in San Jose Saturday morning and have the day to explore. Our other option was traveling basically all day Saturday and we decided not to waste a day.
We arrived at our hotel around 1pm on Saturday and I’d like to say we did lots of exploring. But by the time we finished lunch it was around 3pm and we were all just exhausted – especially our 13-year-old who had basically been away at a weeklong sleepover and had lost his voice. So we decided to rest in our hotel so we’d be ready for the week ahead!
We stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn in San Jose. The hotel was on the upper levels of the building. On the ground level there were restaurants and retail and on the lower levels, there were probably offices. The views of the surrounding mountains were great. Beyond the stadium, there was a park that we intended to explore but didn’t. There was also an outdoor pool which looked nice, but given San Jose’s elevation, it was a bit cool (and windy!) when we were there. Our kids dressed in their bathing suits and went outside for 2 minutes before turning around and declaring the weather unsuitable for swimming! We had two adjoining rooms which is always a bonus. For a one night pit stop, the hotel was fine. Had we stayed longer, I would have looked for a more upscale/boutique hotel with more character than this one.
Day 2 (Sunday): San Jose to Tortuguero
At breakfast, we met our guide, Jose, and our Rafiki, Lizette, as well as the other family we’d be traveling with. Then we quickly boarded our bus and were on our way to Tortuguero. The bus ride was about 3 hours and when the road ended in Caño Blanco we boarded a riverboat to our hotel, Mawamba Lodge (Tortuguero is only accessible by boat or plane).
Located in a tropical lowland forest with a system of rivers and man-made channels running through, Tortuguero National Park is named for the Atlantic green sea turtles who nest here from July to September. The park is well populated with caiman, sloths, monkeys and a variety of tropical birds.
We spent a lot of time walking up & down Playa Tortuguero. It was a beautiful (and mostly empty) beach, but unsuitable for swimming (too dangerous). Our kids still managed to get completely soaked and covered in sand each time we were there.
Sea Turtle Conservancy
At the Sea Turtle Conservancy, we learned about their efforts to protect sea turtles. Tortuguero was declared a national park in 1975 to help protect the sea turtles which were being killed en mass for their meat, eggs, and shells. The Conservancy monitors nesting trends, growth rates, and reproductive success. The kids even adopted a sea turtle named Phish!
Our last stop of the day before heading back to our hotel for dinner was a cacao tour at Casa Cecropia. We learned about the history and production of cacao beans into chocolate and got to participate the whole way through.
Mawamba Lodge was lush, beautiful and well manicured. Our kids loved the hammocks on our porch and around the property. We had two side-by-side rooms which were comfortable and a good size without excess furniture like desks & TVs. There was wi-fi in the common areas (pool, restaurant, bar, lobby), but not in the rooms. Our meals were all included – the only thing we paid extra for was drinks from the bar. We loved the location too. The narrow island (not much wider than the length of a football field) is bordered by the canal on one side and the Caribbean Sea on the other and we were on the island with the main town. Other hotels were on islands/land bordered on both sides by the canals so a boat was required to get to the sea.
Read all the details of our first day here.
Day 3 (Monday): Tortuguero National Park
Our second day consisted of two excursions through the Tortuguero canals in the hopes of sighting lots of wildlife! The canal system was built from 1966 to 1974 and its four canals together create a 65 mile aquatic highway. The Tortuguero National Park covers 14 miles of shoreline and extends 19 miles out to sea. We skipped the Amazon when we went to Ecuador and that was part of the reason we wanted to come here. Many people we spoke to said Tortuguero is very similar to the Amazon – not having been there ourselves we can only take their word for it!
Exploring The Canals by Boat & Canoe
Boat tours are the primary way to see wildlife and learn about this lowland tropical rain forest. Eleven habitats are found in the park. Three species of monkeys (spider, howler, and white-faced), three-toed sloths, and river otters are frequently seen along the natural inland waterways and canals. Caiman, iguanas, river turtles, basilisk lizards, and poison dart frogs inhabit the area, along with more than 320 species of birds including all six species of kingfishers found in the new world, three species of toucans, eight species of parrots, and other neotropical species.
Despite the abundance of wildlife, we did feel like we had to work for our sightings! Luckily our guide was skilled at finding hard-to-find wildlife and actually so were the kids who naturally made it into a competition.
Exploring Tortuguero Town
Between our two water excursions, we explored the colorful town of Tortuguero and enjoyed drinking coconut water right out of the fruit!
Friends Across Borders
A memorable experience for our kids was the Friends Across Borders program that Thomson coordinates. Months before we even left on our trip, our kids were paired up with students from Tortuguero who shared similar interests and they became pen pals. They wrote back & forth in the months leading up to our trip and then had the opportunity to meet each other. We walked over to their school where they introduced themselves. The children from Tortuguero practiced their English while our kids practiced their Spanish. Then they played a game where they all had to work together and learned some new English & Spanish words in the process. It was a really fun experience!
Read about our entire day here
Day 4 (Tuesday): Tortuguero to Manuel Antonio
This day was mostly a travel day, but it was quite an adventure! We woke up really early (before the sun rose) and commuted to the airport by boat. Despite the early hour, it was hard not to be excited about riding to the airport on a river boat!
The airport was not much more than a landing strip along the beach. Over the span of about 45 minutes, three planes arrived and we seemed to be randomly assigned to the third one – although there was probably some logic that went into it. I’m not a fan of small planes so I was looking forward to getting this part of the trip over with. Although once we took off, we were rewarded with amazing views of the water, the mountain we had driven down just days before and a very smooth ride!
Once we landed in San Jose, our driver (who had driven back from Caño Blanco where he left us at the boat to Tortuguero) was waiting for us. We all boarded and began the drive to Quepos near Manual Antonio National Park.
Before we got to Quepos, we stopped for a canopy tour. This was a fun one with monkeys scurrying around in the trees above us and sloths hanging from branches. At the very end of the course, we got to do some repelling and then a free-fall swing. The swing was the highlight for our 11-year-old who snuck back for another turn and dazzled everyone by hanging upside down as she swung back & forth.
Hotel Parador was my favorite hotel we stayed at during this trip. The beautiful Spanish-style buildings were set up on a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean. From our balconies, we could see monkeys and colorful parrots in the trees. The kids spent much of our first afternoon/evening in the pool and hot tub. We were on our own for dinner that night and chose to stay and eat at the hotel restaurant. We sat in an open-air patio with a view of the ocean. It was nice to have a chance for the 5 of us to have dinner alone and catch up on everything we’d done up to this point – and talk about the adventures still to come!
Day 5 (Wednesday): Manuel Antonio National Park
Hiking Through the Park
I almost hate to say this, but I was not a fan of Manual Antonio Park – or at least the part we saw. We got there early to avoid the crowds, but it was still quite crowded when we arrived. I wanted it to feel more remote & national-park-like like in Tortuguero, but instead, it almost felt like we were at a zoo, except it was hard to find the animals. As we walked through the park to the beach, we did see some cool spiders, birds, and sloths (but we always viewed them in a large crowd of people). Quite honestly, we walked fairly quickly through the park to get to the beach.
Before entering the park, there were many vendors offering to guide people through the park. We had our Thomson guide (which was great), but he told us that many of these guides will promise 2 to 3 hours of a guided walk through the park, but they end up spending most of their time hunting for wildlife and then stall & talk for long periods once they find something just to take up the promised time. If you have patience then this might be worth it, but I think my kids would have been bored and antsy.
Manuel Antonio Beach
The best part of the park was the beach at the end of the path. Here we saw many many white-faced monkeys. They are cute and entertaining, but very bold and will quickly grab backpacks, food, or anything they find unattended. We were lucky because our guides guarded our stuff while we played at the beach, but we saw the monkeys running off with quite a few items.
The kids loved the beach and it was worth it just to swim here. The water was really calm and perfect for young kids. There were also hiking trails which Mike tried out. He hiked all the way to the top of the hill below (where he said there were incredible views) and back – it took him about 45 minutes round trip.
I was really happy we got there early as we had the beach mostly to ourselves for the first hour. By the time we left, it was quite crowded and it was very hot.
Surfing at Espadilla Beach
After a quick lunch and pit stop back at the hotel, we headed to Espadilla Beach for surfing lessons. This was an optional activity during our tour and we paid separately for this. The other family we were with did not surf, but they came and spent the afternoon playing at the beach.
Mike and the kids are all pretty comfortable surfers at this point. They know how to catch a wave and stand up, but are always looking for pointers on how to get better. I usually hang back when it comes to surfing, but decided to try it this time. We took turns with the kids – first, they went out with the instructors for an hour and then Mike & I went. After what felt like a good hour (it had been 30 minutes), I was exhausted and ready to come in. Surfing is a lot of work, but also lots of fun – I’ll definitely try again.
Our instructors had boogie boards for the kids to use after they were done surfing – I think this was their favorite part of the afternoon! They rode waves until the sun set!
Day 6 (Thursday): Manuel Antonio to San Jose
We woke up early the next morning to head back to San Jose. Along the way, we stopped in a coastal town to enjoy one last adventure: paddling an outrigger canoe into the Pacific Ocean! The Hawaiian style canoes are more efficient than kayaks and paddling is easier for groups of all abilities to explore together.
I don’t remember exactly how far we went – it felt like miles, but was probably only half a mile. Our guide was a hero because every time I looked around my kids were “taking breaks” from paddling and the family in front was taking selfies or filming with their GoPro. If it weren’t for our guide we’d probably still be drifting around the Pacific Ocean.
Our destination was a remote beach. The kids played soccer with our guide, explored the rocks, and went swimming & snorkeling.
After the outrigger, we piled back in our bus and continued on to San Jose. We had a little down time at the hotel before our closing dinner with our guide and Rafiki.
Hilton Garden Inn (same one we stayed at the first night)
Day 7 (Friday): Return Home
This was the view from the other side of our hotel! It really had spectacular views!
Our flight home connected through Houston which I knew would be a pain. I do not like the customs & connecting flight process at Houston as it’s terribly inefficient and slow. After our first trip to Costa Rica we didn’t allow enough time between flights and we would have missed our connection if it hadn’t been delayed. So this time I booked an extra long layover (3 hours) and figured we could eat dinner before our flight to SFO. The process still was long, but I at least wasn’t stressed, and we had plenty of time to eat dinner and then *wait* for our flight. For our upcoming trip to Panama, I paid more for a direct flight home so we could avoid a connection in Houston.
At first, I was a little disappointed when I saw that our itinerary ended on Friday – why not keep exploring through the weekend? However, by the time Friday rolled around, I felt like we had packed so much in during our trip that we were ready to have a couple of days to unwind at home before starting school/work again.
Our upcoming trip to Panama with Thomson goes an extra day and we fly home on Saturday – I’ll be interested to see how it compares to ending on Friday.
Reasons to Travel with TFA
- They specifically plan trips during school holidays and with families in mind.
- So many itineraries to choose from. Not just many destinations, but types of trips (active, multi-sport, site-seeing, kids, teens, millennials, multi-generational, solo parent).
- Very clear expectations about what is included and what is not. Basically our cost included everything except roundtrip airfare to Costa Rica, tips & gratuities to our guide/driver/Rafiki, incidentals, alcohol (some of our meals did include one alcoholic drink), surfing (optional activity), one or two meals.
- Though tips & gratuities mentioned above were not included, they did include tip envelopes for each person with suggested tip amounts in our welcome packet that we received before leaving for Costa Rica. I loved this because I am often unsure how much to tip! We were able to prepare the envelopes before we left and it was so easy! Also, tips for guides we had on excursions during our trip were included – for example, our zip lining guides and boat drivers – I went to tip them and was told it was already covered.
- I wasn’t really sure what to expect with a Rafiki, but it was amazing having her along. They make it clear that the Rafiki is NOT a nanny or a babysitter which we weren’t looking for anyway. She came with so many activities to keep the kids entertained on long bus rides or anytime we had downtime. She brought crafts (the kids made necklaces, bracelets & dream catchers), they played games and cards on the bus and she brought some costumes (crazy hats, sunglasses, etc). Our 13-year-old did not participate much – he preferred to sit with the adults or sleep on the bus! But for our 11-year-old and the two 7-year-olds she was wonderful – and they really bonded with her during the course of the trip.
- Our guide was fabulous. He was so knowledgeable and friendly. Going into a guided trip, I really wondered if we’d like everyone enough so spend a week with them! But it was great. Jose was a great photographer and brought lots of equipment. He took a ton of great photos and shared them all with us after the trip. He gave my 13-year-old lots of tips about photography, spoke Spanish with him, and was skilled at finding wildlife hiding in the water, trees, etc. It’s also fun to get to know locals and learn about their life in Costa Rica.
- Everything was seamless. I love planning travel, especially researching hotels, restaurants & activities and putting together an itinerary that I’m excited about! But that also comes with some stress during the trip: making sure we have transportation at our destination, not getting lost, confirming flights/excursions, getting places on time, keeping everyone excited, etc. But with Thomson, I didn’t have to do any of that! I was just along for the ride. I didn’t worry about anything.
Read about our first Costa Rica trip to Peninsula Papagayo here.