Ahhh – Costa Rica! An amazing destination when you start to discover it – piece by piece. And there are a lot of pieces to it. You want adventure? They got it! You want relaxation? They got that too! You want volcanoes? Got ‘em! You want rainforests? Check!
So, I recently went back to Costa Rica for the second time – for a total of thirteen days over both trips – and I still haven’t seen or experienced everything that there is to – well – see and experience! My third trip – which I am already starting to map out – will be another two weeks at least. I am guessing you may now get the idea about how much this fabulous county offers. And to give you some more insight into that I present to you my Costa Rica overview.
Now – this isn’t a typical overview because I am actually incorporating three separate pieces. First there’s a fabulous chat I had with Stephanie Sheehy the owner of il Viaggio Travel – a dear colleague of mine from the Family Travel Association – whose company focuses not only on family travel – but on accessible travel as well. She and her team at il Viaggio Travel are local experts – they know the real Costa Rica – not just tourist attractions – and they love to get you off the beaten path and away from the crowds!
And speaking of accessible travel – as I was doing this write-up, I received word that Costa Rica was named The Most Accessible Destination for 2021 by Lonely Planet! And Stephanie was quoted in the article as such: “Costa Rica is the best destination for travelers with disabilities because locals are always delighted to help, learn, and improve the travel experience wherever possible. It’s the pura vida (pure life) way of life.” Pretty cool, huh?
Second – there is information below from a conversation I had with another fabulous colleague – Jackie Roby – who oversees sales and marketing for The Retreat Costa Rica – an amazing wellness resort there. Jackie is also the owner of her own business – Inspired Journey Consulting – which she recently started due to her focus on – and dedication to – wellness tourism after being in travel and hospitality sales for 18 years.
And last but not least – I have included highlights from my most recent trip to Costa Rica – which was in November 2020 and hosted by the destination management company Human Pride. This second trip to this remarkable country really opened up my eyes to how transformational it really is. In addition to being up close and personal to cloud forests, rainforests and volcanoes – there’s also everyday sights like seeing monkeys swinging from trees, spotting sloths resting on tree limbs, crocodiles and lizards crawling around – it’s all awe inspiring to say the least.
So, that being said – get your tray tables stored, seats in an upright position, all electronic devises on airplane mode and its wheels up!
Getting There: Costa Rica is located in Central America with Nicaragua to the north of them and Panama to the south. It is not an island but does have two coast lines – one on the Pacific side and one on the Caribbean. And lucky for us Costa Rica is relatively close to the US and there are plenty of direct flights to get you there. In fact – I just took a non-stop flight from Dallas into San Jose as American just started that route up again after a COVID-19 inspired temporary halt. There are two main airports in Costa Rica – Juan Santamaria International Airport (SJO) in San Jose and Daniel Oduber Quirós International Airport (LIR) also known as the Liberia International Airport in Liberia.
Accommodations: You can find everything from all-inclusives to boutique hotels to wellness retreats as options to stay at while you are in Costa Rica. Here’s a sampling – starting with my talk with Jackie on The Retreat Costa Rica and then on to the ones that I stayed at or visited on my most recent trip. (Yes, I moved to a new property every night! What an experience!)
- The Retreat Costa Rica: Situated a top Crystal Mountain in Atenas the retreat – which sits on 60 acres – is quite easy to get to as it is just a 40-minute drive from the San Jose airport. I can book you a car – it’s a nice peaceful drive – or can arrange for transfers – whichever you prefer. The retreat is the brainchild of Diana Stobo who healed herself through food and has transformed her skills into a healing experience at The Retreat – a thirteen room four-star boutique property. This is a great place kickstart your wellness experience if it’s your first time as it is truly immersive – mentally, physically and spiritually.
The wellness experience starts with the food – an anti-inflammatory menu – meaning gluten free, no refined sugar or refined carbs and dairy free with the exception of goat cheese and goat yogurt. It’s all farm to table and sea to table and a whopping 80 % of the food is taken from the properties garden with everything else is sourced locally and sustainably.
And what do you do here? Well, there is the phenomenal Vida Mia Healing Center and Spa – featuring a pool (one of two on the property), crystal healing, inferred sauna treatments a meditation deck and more. There’s also yoga classes, daily guided hikes and cooking classes.
The resort is for ages 16 and up and most rooms are for two guests but there are a few that will hold up to five. And since there are only 13 rooms – yet so much land – social distancing is very easy to accomplish here!
- Secrets Papagayo Costa Rica: Located on the Papagayo Peninsula in Guanacaste this all-inclusive adult only property boasts pure serenity. Standing on my balcony I was delighted to hear nothing but silence – and the peaceful sounds of the Pacific Ocean and soft animal noises! This resort is just twenty minutes from the Liberia International Airport and is located on top of a hill overlooking Arenilla Beach.
- Dreams Las Mareas Costa Rica: This Dreams property is located on El Jobo beach on the Northern coast of Guanacaste. Since it is an incredibly spacious property once again there is a lot of room to social distance! Its grounds are stunning and include a huge infinity pool right by the ocean and a spa by Pevonia. This one is ideal for families, couples and friends.
- El Silencio Lodge & Spa: When you want to escape the world, this is the place to be! You will find this upscale hotel in the enchanting cloud forest highlands in Sarchi Norte. Featuring a spa and wellness center, a stream running through the grounds, a pond to reflect by and a warm and inviting lobby with a fireplace – plus fabulous food and drink – you won’t want to bring your head down out of this cloud! This family friendly property is perfect for travel as a living classroom as the kids can collect eggs for the day, visit the greenhouse and see how what is grown there is used – in a cooking class!
- Nayara Springs: This property in the heart of Arenal Volcano National Park in La Fortuna is glamping in style! It truly is such an amazing property – it sits in a rainforest (!) – and its more than just glamping! The villas look like suites yet feature an open-air bathtub, outside dual shower head showers and an awesome in room coffee station. There’s also a marvelous pool that features tables and seats right in water shaded by umbrellas. Oh, and did I mention views of the volcano everywhere? (PS – This one is adults only.)
- Peace Lodge at La Paz Waterfall Gardens: Be one with Mother Nature at this resort that is also a wildlife refuge! Located on the grounds of La Paz Waterfall Gardens Nature Park and just one hour from the San José International Airport – pictures do not do it justice – you must see it to believe it. Featuring five waterfalls, a cloud AND a rain forest and wildlife galore! The best part? None of animals were taken out of their natural habitat. They were entrusted to their care by the Cost Rican Wildlife Ministry as most were found illegally held as pets and cannot be released back into the wild for various reasons.
- Los Altos Resort: This boutique property is family friendly, but I do feel it trends more towards adults. Located near the Quepos Region – outside the Manuel Antonio National Park and overlooking the ocean with its own secluded, private beach – it’s a lovely option especially for that all important social distancing aspect.
- Bahia del Sol: Located in the North Pacific region in Guanacaste – this hotel has a very bohemian feel to it. It is a beach front property with lush gardens throughout. It is family friendly although its romantic vibe definitely lends it to honeymoons and destination weddings.
Family and Accessible Travel: Here is where we get into the details of our chat with Stephanie. As I said in the intro – and even though Costa Rica is great for all kinds of travelers – her company’s focus is on family and accessibility. (And she is quick to note that family can be a couple, a honeymoon, travel with aunts, uncles or cousins – it’s all family!) And through that focus she has made Costa Rica accessible to everyone – with trips all over the country – no matter what your handicap – no matter if you are in a wheelchair or not – she’s making it all easier for everyone. As she stated – she feels everyone should be able to experience it – and that the elderly family members should be next to their offspring enjoying the rainforest right along with them. It doesn’t matter your age or disability – you share it equally. They also accommodate children with disabilities – such as those on the spectrum or with Downs Syndrome. And taking them into places such as the rainforest is always an amazing experience – as they can feel the powerful energy of the forest, they can see it, they can hear it and ultimately live that feeling.
A perfect example of how they accommodate families? They offer what they call the First Encounter Package which is a Costa Rican experience for families with babies! It includes a welcome kit with bottle heaters, bottle cleaners, diapers and more. And the excursions are planned around when the baby is sleeping! So while the baby naps you are typically in the van in route to the destination and when the baby awakens you have arrived and started the activities – whether be on the beach, in the rainforest or even river rafting. And Stephanie and her family try all of the services they offer to you – as a family – including kids and grandparents – to ensure everyone can do them.
Another fun family feature is the Treasure Hunt Experience. This is designed for children between the ages of 5 and 11. The guide – who is referred to as the captain and will be dressed like a pirate – will present the little ones with a message in a bottle. He will read it to the children and instruct them that they have to find one treasure per day. And to the parents? He advises them they have to send one picture a day to him with the best memory they had that day. The captain will be with your family the entire vacation – taking care of you, playing with the kids and teaching you about the areas you visit. Of course, he is a local – and ultimately becomes a friend of the family. And if the parents want a little relaxation time, he is there to occupy the kiddos with hermit crab races and other fun activities. This way not only do the parents and children get to bond – but they also have that all important time on their own.
Sightseeing and Activities: So very much to see and do – but this section highlights not only some of the most popular – but also those off the beaten path.
- Tortuguero: Tortuguero which is known as the “Amazon of Costa Rica” is only accessible by boat or air. So, you would travel there by boat in the mangroves and through the canals taking in all the amazing wildlife as you go along. Tortuguero means “region of turtles” in Spanish and it was so named because in the evenings – from August to December – its turtle nesting season! Here you would take a walk on the beautiful beach – it’s a protected area – and see the turtles laying their eggs. What a fabulous look at a species in their natural habitat!
- Arenal Volcano National Park: Home to Arenal Volcano – an active volcano that’s actually shaped like a perfect cone – and a stunning destination in itself where there are plenty of activities for everyone! There are waterfalls to hike to, horseback riding, hot springs (thanks to the volcanic areas!), hanging bridges, caves, white water rafting, a forest canopy that you can see via an aerial tram or a zipline – and more! Soft adventures or more daring ones – you pick your comfort zone and your experience in the shadow of a stunning volcano.
- Monte Verde: Famous for its cloud forests due to its high elevation – most visitors come here to see the Resplendant Quetzal which is a stunning bird in the trogon family. And in particular they want to see the male – as he is a picturesque green bird with a red chest and long tail and is remarkably colorful.
- Chirripo National Park: This national park is home to the highest peak in Costa Rica – and a very tough hike so only recommended for experienced hikers – but there are plenty of other things to see and do here! Such as? I’m glad you asked! There are cloud forests and coffee fields to explore, there are food tours to participate in and there’s bird watching galore!
- Doka Estate Coffee Tour: This delightful tour is one that I took on my latest trip to Costa Rica – in Sabanilla specifically. It tells the story of the art of coffee picking right through to the art of making coffee. It is a must for all coffee drinkers and aficionados!
- Zip Lining: There are opportunities all over the country for zip lining – in the cloud forests, rainforests and the dry forests. And whether it’s your first time or you are a pro, they have them for all skill levels. Plus – they have accessible canopies – so even if you are handicapped – they will help you fly around the trees and experience the same adventure as everyone else – as they can take you no matter what your disability!
- Beaches: You can take your pick of the type of beaches you want to visit in Costa Rica! For instance – on the Caribbean coast you will find white sand beaches and on the Pacific coast you can see black sand beaches. The Pacific coast is also home to pink sand beaches too. Pick a beach…any beach!
Cultural Experiences: Cultural immersion opportunities abound in Costa Rica! And these off the beaten path adventures are another fabulous opportunity where you and your children will experience travel as a living classroom.
Mascaradas is a unique tradition where the locals will go out to streets with large masks made with layers of clay, paper, aluminum, paint and have a parade. Every town has its holiday where they do this, and the parades are always accompanied by small bands known as cimarronas. As part of this experience you will also be invited to an artisan’s house to see how these masks are created and stay to have a meal with the family for a full cultural immersion and truly authentic experience.
Costa Rica is well known as a coffee country and a long time ago the coffee was brought from the central valleys to the port by ox cart. Each ox cart sported its own painting and a unique sound to its wheels – with the reason being – that is how the wife would be alerted that her husband was on his way! And since those paintings are such a huge part of the culture – there are opportunities to paint your own ox cart wheels.
Costa Rica is home to indigenous tribes that keep their own culture, language, religions and legends. One such tribe is the Maleku people who reside on a reserve on the north side of the country near the Arenal Volcano. On this experience Stephanie’s team will take you into their little town where you will witness how they make masks out of wood, you will be able to go fishing with them and then return and cook the fish they caught over a fire and end the visit by lunching with them. Another authentic adventure!
You can also visit Ujarras – a culturally historical site in Orosi Valley of Cartago Province in Central Costa Rica. It is near Cartago which was actually the first capital city of Costa Rica – until 1824.
And finally – soccer is huge in Costa Rica and you can actually do an immersion trip to a local school where the kids will be able to play soccer with local children. What an amazing experience for them!
Paying for Your Trip: Since the pandemic il Viaggio Travel has become very flexible with their payment, modification and cancel policies (as you will find with a lot of travel and tourism businesses from now on). Payment used to be due 30 to 60 days prior to departure but now that has been cut down to just 15 days. This means you can change your itinerary, modify your dates or even cancel up to 15 days prior to departure – making this a no brainer to plan your trip now for travel – and payment – later! Stephanie noted that this is the way they are going to work from now on so there is no hassle of asking for and getting refunds. And she noted that they are very flexible if you want to change your itinerary, as they have a special connection with their suppliers and think of them like family.
Updated COVID-19 Information: As of this writing there were no requirements regarding COVID testing. The only requirement when I travelled was that I purchase travel insurance that covered my accommodations in case of quarantine and medical expenses due to COVID-19 illness – which was a quite simple process to obtain.
So that concludes this overview of Costa Rica. Hopefully, you can now see how I fell in love with it two years ago – and got over my fear of zip lining! As you can see it is a country filled with off the beaten path opportunities, nature, wellness, adventure and gastronomy – including a lot of farm to table food.
As Stephanie noted – and I wholeheartedly agree – after the pandemic is over the majority of people are going to want these kind of experiences – off the beaten path – just you and nature in a rainforest or a cloud forest – any place to avoid crowds and go within. And what a picturesque place to do that in! Stephanie and her team want to give you something else in addition to the tourist spots you have heard of and want to see – something that no one else would be doing – and as locals they know their country and can take you to those places. I work with closely with Stephanie as my local contact to help me plan the trips for you and I know you are being well taken care of. And not just Stephanie – Jackie from The Retreat Costa Rica and all of my other wonderful partners that I have gotten to know over the past two trips are my eyes and ears on the ground and help me to curate the perfect experience for you!
For more details on things to see and do in Costa Rica, where to stay, it’s price points and more – contact your Travel Guru! Oh, and if you need a payment plan to fund your travel adventure – we got those too!