It’s nearly impossible to pick highlights from a country as wonderful and beautiful as Costa Rica — and don’t get me wrong, our month living there — our very first month after leaving the sweet comforts of home and family at Christmastime wasn’t always easy (read more on that here…) BUT in hindsight, there were SO many highlights. Here they are, in no particular order.
And if you would rather just watch our highlights, check them out in our highlight video here!
Arenal Volcano — Los Lagos Thermal Pools
We took a wild, wild 3 hour drive from where we were staying in Punta Leona to La Fortuna to see the Arenal Volcano. Colby and I had seen it shrouded in clouds when we visited 8 years ago and the kids were excited about seeing a “real” volcano. Unfortunately, the volcano was again shrouded mostly in clouds and no longer has lava oozing out of it, but we still thoroughly enjoyed our time splashing around in the naturally heated thermal pools at the Los Lagos resort we spent one night at. If we were going to do it again we would definitely get an earlier start to make the most of our time and probably would plan to spend 2 nights.
La Fortuna Waterfall
We don’t know how we missed the La Fortuna waterfall the first time Colby and I visited Costa Rica. It is breathtaking! The kids were all over the challenge of hiking (and counting) 500 steep steps down and back up to reach the waterfall. The picture of Crew above will forever immortalize the beloved shorts that were lost after he swam in the pool at the bottom of the falls with Colby.
Playa Mantas/Playa Blanca
Playa Mantas and Playa Blanca are two of the most beautiful beaches along the Pacific coastline of Costa Rica and we actually planned our stay in Punta Leona not even knowing about these two beautiful beaches. We totally struck gold with them. We quickly discovered that while Playa Mantas has a paid parking lot to access it, Playa Blanca is only accessible through a resort, or by crossing over the little strip of land shown above. Crew LOVED the thrill of using the rope to climb over to get to the other beach. We learned on Christmas Day that you definitely want to pay attention to the tide schedule because at very high tide you just might get stuck at Playa Blanca in the dark.
Read more here.
Jaco is a hopping touristy spot not far from Punta Leona. We liked visiting it, but ultimately were glad we weren’t staying in it. Colby loved going surfing there several times and loved that he could rent a board and then walk across the street to the beach. It also boasts some great restaurants (on the pricier side) a playground in the heart of town, and some fun and great places to shop. The street art picture is taken outside of a Max s Menos and we loved doing our Christmas gift shopping for some local families at the Ekono and Maxi Pali in Jaco. See why our Christmas was so special in our video here.
One random, fun thing that we stumbled upon was a HUGE (and super long) Christmas parade. We knew Costa Rica celebrated Christmas with parades but we hadn’t done any research as to when any parades would be when we first got there. I think it was during our first weekend there that we decided to venture into Jaco to get some dinner and we happened to walk right into the parade. It was a lot of fun to see… and hear…. even if it did replace any possibility of conversation at the dinner table.
What does that say about a person if one of your highlights of traveling to another country is the grocery store? Haha…. well, whatever it means about us we loved it. Auto Mercado felt a lot more familiar to us than a lot of the other grocery stores in Costa Rica, like Maxi Pali. One of the biggest conveniences about Auto Mercado was that it had food I could eat! Hooray for some gluten & dairy free options. It also has a lot more international foods than most of the other grocery stores in Costa Rica AND it’s air-conditioned! Plus, it just had clean, quality food. This Auto Mercado was located in Herradura, which was about 15 minutes from where we were staying. If we were to go to Costa Rica again we would totally give consideration to where the nearest Auto Mercado is located.
Have you seen a crocodile in real life before — I mean not in the zoo? It’s pretty wild to see them in the wild. And not just like “Oh, I spotted a crocodile” but “holy eyeballs there is like 20 crocodiles right below me!” Crocodile Bridge is another popular (and free) tourist spot along the road from San Jose south where the crocodiles congregate and live naturally. The walkways on both sides of the bridge where you can look down on them are quite narrow and huge trucks pass at full speed which can be a bit intimidating… especially with little kids, but we enjoyed it enough that we visited a few times.
Crew accidentally dropped one of his beloved little trains down below and we like to joke that he gifted it to a croc for Christmas. Rest in peace little buddy.
Herradura, where Auto Mercado is located, is just between Punta Leona and Jaco. We loved visiting Playa Herradura — a gorgeous bay and beach backdropped with boats speckling the water where you can watch the sun set. We went on a few occasions and never ran into big crowds, although we did avoid the weekends and holidays.
We also (maybe) spotted a shark. We were playing at the beach when everyone began to get frenzied and leave the water. We joined the crowd and tried to pick out some Spanish from the conversations and follow the pointing fingers until some kind souls told us a shark had been spotted. There was then a debate about whether it was a shark or a dolphin… but whatever it was, it got everyone out of the water.
Orotina Fruit Stands — Pipa Fria
Orotina, where we attended church, was also along the drive south to the coast from San Jose, and just a little ways from Crocodile Bridge. Orotina is famous for it’s Fruit Stands. We loved buying fresh mango, pineapple, coconuts, passionfruit, etc. whenever we passed.
If you travel to Costa Rica do NOT miss the Pipa Fria — the fresh coconuts being sold on the side of the road. They generally cost about 500–600 Colones, or about $1 USD. A local will cut the top right off for you, or puncture a hole and serve it to you with the straw. They are so delicious.
If you love animals and aren’t terrified of bugs you’ll love Costa Rica. Costa Rica boasts some really fun, amazing native animals. Watching and listening to the scarlet macaws in the trees all around our pool was one of my favorite things, and the kids loved leaving food in the drain pipe that went under our home for our resident iguana. We loved watching a Coati climb the banana tree in our yard to get a tasty banana too. We didn’t love the giant ants of the garden that came out in our house without fail every single night and even invaded our toilet, or the slow-moving worm-like centipedes all over our floor, or the big banana spiders in the corners, but I didn’t mind the lizards in the laundry room and fortunately we just saw one scorpion who we thwarted from invading mine and Colby’s hug in the kitchen. Read more about our thoughts on the BUGS of Costa Rica here. Or watch our cuties talk about them here.
Manuel Antonio — Falafel Bar
Manuel Antonio, a national park that is a protected natural habitat for hundreds of different animals — including monkeys, sloths, coatis, iguanas, lizards, birds, etc. is amazing and it was the highlight of our entire trip the last time Colby and I visited Costa Rica. Unfortunately our glorified memories (and a lot of development in the area since our last visit), plus the addition of 3 little kids, made us make some silly mistakes on our visit this time. That left us kicking ourselves about what we should have done, so I’ve written a separate post about that here. Check it out if you think you might visit — and you should, because it’s amazing. Just learn from our mistakes and read our tips before you go.