The #1 question that I get from readers is looking for advice about traveling to Costa Rica. You all know that we absolutely love it, and having been traveling there for more than 15 years. It really is the perfect place to go with or without kids, and after trying out other places we always seem to find our way back there. As it stands now, we spend a month here in the Summer, and a few weeks in March, but as the boys get bigger I can absolutely see us extending our stay for the entire summer. It's that good.
Here is how we do Costa Rica. If anyone has anything to add, feel free to leave some suggestions in the comments section.
The town we stay in is called Nosara (technically Playa Guiones), on the Guanacaste Peninsula. It's a super small town that has an isolated feel, without being totally off the grid. It is mostly populated by ex-pats which makes communication super easy, and the only tourists are surfers, yogis, and families. There are two small markets that carry local food, along with some american food staples (essential for my guy and his favorite cereal) but they also sell diapers, sunscreen, bug spray, etc... which is incredibly helpful when traveling with little kids. Most importantly, there is a great health clinic which we have used more than once for those pesky bug bites and ear infections, and as of late for stitches (the LM last night) and for when poor Gray hit is eye in March. We have always received incredible care there, and a visit is pleasantly affordable and about 1/10th of the wait time compared to Boston.
There are two ways to get to Nosara. Our preferred airport is Liberia, but if you are flying from the West Coast, San Jose is usually the preferred destination of most airlines.
Flying into San Jose:
What we do when we used to fly into San Jose is hop a taxi after clearing customs (there are dozens of vans waiting outside the airport) to this place http://www.bed-and-breakfast.cr/. We spend the night there and it's perfect. It's a little B&B owned by a swedish family and the rooms are clean and beautiful. It's about 15 minutes from San Jose (about a 10-15 dollar cab ride) where you feel like you are middle of the country. San Jose is pretty gritty, and we try to book it out of there as soon as possible... especially when we are traveling with kids. You absolutely could go straight to Nosara from San Jose, and that is what we used to do pre-kids, but it is a 5 hour drive, and after a long day of flying , breaking up the journey has become essential for us.
The next morning we get a ride from a man named Wilson, who has been driving us for years. firstname.lastname@example.org He speaks perfect english, has large van, and is one of the kindest people we have ever met. If you use him make sure to let him know that you know us! It's a $220 dollar ride (plus tip) each way to Nosara, and takes about 5 hours. Rental cars are fairly expensive down there, and it is a very dangerous place to drive in. We have found that the van is the way to go, especially with kids and gear. We also have him stop at the "Costco" of costa rica on the way down, and there we load up on a month's worth of necessities, including diapers. If you do rent a car, DO NOT DRIVE AT NIGHT. Roads are not often labeled, if at all, and there is a considerable amount of people drinking and driving. We always plan on leaving a few hours before we need too, just in case, because you never want to be stuck on the road past dark.
In lieu of the drive, you can also take a small hopper plane (www.natureair.com) from San Jose, It is a VERY small aircraft (don't say I didn't warn you) and is not for the faint of heart. If you take the plane, luggage is limited to under 25 lbs and is strictly enforced. Smaller surfboards will be accommodated, but only if the weight allows. The views on the flight over are like nothing you've ever seen so if you are brave, you can't beat the 30 minute trip!
Flying into Liberia:
The liberia airport is only 2.5 hours from Nosara and has become our go-to destination for that reason. Again, we book a van through email@example.com and stop on the market on the way down to load up on supplies. During the high season, Jet Blue has a number of direct flights to Liberia, including one from Boston only on Saturdays, and this has been a game changer for us.
Once in Nosara we used to rent either a house or an apartment here. http://www.villatortuganosara.com/accommodations.php It's run by an American guy named Dave and he is awesome. There are condos, or you can rent the top or bottom of a house. It's super quiet, clean, and right near the beach. He has a business (http://www.thefrogpad.com/)that rents movies, bikes, and surfboards on the premises and there is also an internet/phone cafe as well. Wireless comes with most rentals. There are kitchens and a little supermarket around the corner. Dave will be able to help you arrange surf lessons, horseback rides, massages, etc... We use bikes to get around the town which is tiny.
More recently we've been renting homes through these companies www.surfingnosara.com and http://www.nosarahomerentals.com and have yet to be disappointed. We've mostly stayed in Concha, Olaje, and Casa Feliz, but love anywhere in the "K" or "G" areas of town. "G" has become our new favorite given its proximity to the skatepark and there are considerably more places to eat in that section of town. When renting we've found that the easiest way it to contact one of the above companies and basically if you give them your dates, and budget, they will send you what's available and we have found that it is all pretty negotiable. Always send back a counter offer, it's usually accepted!
This place is also great if you want a small hotel room, and we used to stay here all the time when we first started visiting. (http://www.harborreef.com)
There is one luxury hotel on the island, which as I've mentioned I'm dying to stay at, The Harmony Hotel. This celebrity hot spot is stunning, but is definitely for those of you with traveling without little kids. The atmosphere is very spa like, and quiet. Prefect if you need a place to get away from it all.
If you practice yoga, but there is an amazing yoga institute (http://www.nosarayoga.com) which offers drop in classes 5 times a day. The Harmony also has a number of yoga classes daily, including aerial yoga, and is my favorite place in town to practice.
Surfing is the big draw here, and you can arrange lessons at a number of places in town upon arrival. Most guarantee that they will get you standing on a board by the end of you lesson!
A few miles away is the best zip lining in costa rica (http://www.missskycanopytour.com). If it's your first trip to Costa Rica, and sitting on the beach isn't your thing, I cannot recommend a trip to the Arenal Volcano enough. We've stayed here, for a more authentic experience, and here for a some more luxury. Even if you don't stay at the Tabacon, you can still pay to use their hot springs which are a number of pools built around water heated by the volcano... an amazing experience.
If you are into offshore fishing, we have gone out with a local named Vibert for years. Every time we've caught a number of tuna, and a few years back I reeled in a sailfish that was larger than I am! Most local restaurants will cook up you haul for you, or if you go at the beginning of your trip you will hopefully have fresh fish for the rest of your stay!
There are a number of places to eat in town, and most are very good. Nosara isn't all that traditional, so you will most find american style eateries with a Costa Rican flair. Prices are definitely more first world, than third, but you won't leave disappointed... or hungry! Our favorite place (in the world) is La Luna, but we also love Rosie's Soda Tica for breakfast or lunch. Harbor Reef for taco tuesday, Macho for rotisserie chicken (we tend to back off on our vegetarianism down here a little) and Burgers and Beer (they make great sushi here ((random I know)) and also have veggie options.) Kaya Sol is also great, and Giordiano Tropical has the best wood fired pizza. Cafe Paris has amazing pastries, and if you get there at 7am you can get warm chocolate croissants. We've fallen into a routine where I take the boys to get pastries in the early morning before the beach, and then after I make a big breakfast (potatoes, eggs, pancakes, etc...) around noon. We then eat dinner out, making sure to walk the beach to get there so not to miss sunset. For us this works because I still feel like I'm on vacation, not cooking for every meal, but we also aren't eating out all the time. When dining out we prefer the local dish, a casado with fish, which is basically rice, beans, fish, a salad, some cooked veggies, and plantains. So so good.
As far as when to visit, we prefer "off peak times" i.e. the Summer, but pretty much year round, you can't beat it. The rainy season runs mid August- November, and it is no joke. Most of the people we know come state side around that time, and then go back in December. I've heard that it can rain for a month at a time although last year was very mild. Peak time is November- April and can be much more expensive, but the weather is pretty much perfect every day.
I hope this helps those of you who are looking to visit, if you have any questions please feel free to email me, or leave a comment and I'll get back to you!