We had 3 wonderful weeks in Costa Rica with our kids in August 2017. It was really hot and yet, we enjoyed it a lot. We did have some problems with FedEx, the internet, and car rental, but other than that, it was beautiful. Below is our guide.
The best of Costa Rica for families with kids
We had a week in Manuel Antonio, where we visited the National Park and saw sloths, monkeys, and many lizards and beautiful insects. We have a complete post about Manuel Antonio here! We loved it, the park is definitely a must for animal lovers. Another great thing there is the food – awesome food everywhere!
Then we had a week in Punta Uva, where we found the best beach in the world and caught a sloth crossing the road. We loved it a lot and it was one of the best places for us to see wildlife. We did rent an Airbnb in the middle of the bush, though, so that was the reason for it.
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Our week in San Jose was for rest, mostly due to the rain. It seriously rained while we were there, and some heavy rain that prevented us from going out and exploring. But it was still fun. San Jose was renamed by us as the capital of international food. Oh, we ate a lot there.
What not to miss in Costa Rica
– Don’t miss the wildlife! It’s just everywhere and it’s an incredible opportunity for learning and seeing the real stuff. It’s very unlike zoos and rescue centers! It’s also not guaranteed. You may or may not see what you want to, but it’s all part of the deal.
– The beaches! Most beaches are great there, the waters are warm and yes, you need to be careful with the RIP currents, but it’s still delightful! Our favorite beach is in Punta Uva, though. We found the Caribbean beach there to be just perfect.
– The great food, because it’s really great. It’s expensive, though. Very expensive.
– The forest meets the sea setting! It’s pretty, and it’s amazing, and it’s different!
– Zip lining! It was one of my family’s favorite activity ever and they still ask for it. They are very safe and they’re great fun!
Tips for families going to Costa Rica
– It’s hot, very hot. Luckily, there are beaches – good ones.
– Bring along some mosquito repellent. You won’t need it all the way, but in some places, they’re essential.
– Britt’s known for its coffee, but the chocolate, my friends… The chocolate is divine.
– Although coffee is offered everywhere, tea isn’t. Every place we stayed had free coffee, but not tea. Wonder why.
– We had a lot of problems with our credit card there. None of them worked in a lot of the machines. My tip here is always bringing some cash, at least enough to pay for a meal.
– Try the local fruits! We’d never seen mamones injertados, and we tried it there. It was good, tasted somewhat like grape or lichees. It wasn’t expensive.
– Be ready to haggle, more so if you’re doing something expensive, like zip lining, kayaking, or any tours.
– The internet is often not the best.
– SHOWERS ARE COLD. In some places, very few of them, the water can be hot. In most cases, the shower is cold. It may not be a problem because it’s a hot country, but for hot shower loving people like myself, it’s bad enough. Taking showers on the afternoons often worked out best.
– Be alert! If you hear a rustling in the trees when it’s not windy, or if you hear splashing on the water when it’s only you swimming, there may be something there. We loved looking out for monkeys and fishes! They rarely disappointed us! And also be aware because, you know, there may be poisonous stuff, or stingrays, or something that can hurt.
– If you’re driving, be always aware: people don’t care about rules or kindness while driving. Seriously. Plus there are holes (including open potholes) that can be dangerous.
Renting a car and driving in Costa Rica
Some of the benefits of having your own wheels are obvious: you can dictate the course of your day, your week or your whole trip, and not be confined to shuttle or bus schedules. Having a car will allow you to explore lesser-visited places that many tourists miss and will give you the freedom to change your plans if something comes up. And who doesn’t like controlling the radio on a road trip?
However, driving in Costa Rica is no piece of cake. The roads can be long, curvy and in poor shape. Traffic can be bad in cities or on mountainous roads, and signs are sometimes non-existent. It can be easy to get lost (especially if you don’t have GPS) and is tough to get back on track if you aren’t comfortable handling directions from a local. There are other things to consider as well, including traffic laws, the price of gasoline, and driving time.
We’ve rented a car, even if it was not recommended for first-time visitors to Costa Rica due to the hassle and potential confusion is usually not worth the effort. However, travelers that are adventurous enough or have been to the country before may want to consider renting a car.
Costa Rica is a tough place to drive in during the day. At night, it’s even worse. Road signs (which are already shoddy in some places) can be difficult to see in the dark. It’s common to pass by the road or hotel you were looking for several times. Roads may also have poor reflectors between the lanes or line the side of the road, and very often have little room to pass. People sometimes walk near the edge as well, which means you’ll need to exercise even more caution while driving at night.
Although Costa Rica is relatively small, the driving time between destinations can be long. Again, this is largely a result of the country’s poor road system. With this in mind, it’s advisable to plan on trips taking longer than you may have expected. As a general rule, expect to travel at a rate of 50 km/h, sometimes on mountainous roads will be less due to a number of heavy trucks.
What type of car to rent
The type of car you choose depends on what you plan to do during your trip. If you’re going to be driving in the mountains, along rural roads, or in certain coastal areas, you will want a 4WD vehicle. But, if your plans are to stay along fairly well-traveled routes, a compact or full-size car will be fine. Main cities and locations are good to go with any car, so it is up to you.
Together with your rental, some must have articles: GPS, Waze or any navigation system you prefer. Find places in Costa Rica are very hard, especially if you are told a location like “300 meters west from a park”. There is no way to search that in a GPS. Most of the attractions, famous places or points of interest are loaded in the GPS or Waze, so use it. Some places even give you the geolocation, so you can just enter it in your device.
Rental negotiation, Contract, Conditions and Companies
Rent a car in Costa Rica is cheap, but you are mandatory to choose a coverage, which brings the price up. Companies will try their best to sell you a full coverage. It brings the liability to almost zero, but you pay 3 or 4 times more than the original quoted price. If you don’t mind to have a hold on your card, you can go for the basics and have a $2000-$2500 held on your card until car returns. But remember, the held amount won’t be available straight away, will take a week to be released.
If you don’t have a booking or don’t need a big car like us, you will be fine to rent directly at the counter at the airport. There are plenty of companies to rent from, for all kind of tastes, just chose wisely. As previously said, prices can vary a lot. Big brands charge more, but you’ll probably have none or fewer issues. Smaller or local companies are better priced, it helps locals but will have limited availability of models and dates.
We’ve chosen a middle US company, Fox Rent a Car, first and last time to rent from them. Booking was confirmed but when we arrived at San Jose airport, the car was not available and we had to find another company on the spot.
Here is the tricky part, if you are comfortable negotiating, under pressure and tired from your trip, that’s your chance to find a good deal, probably not good as the original booking you have, but you can, at least, reduce the price you have to pay. There will be many rental operators trying to convince you to rent from them. It is more like a rental mafia. At this stage, pretty most all companies will try to charge you same rate and full insurance. Tell them your price, try your best price, including coverage, so they know what to offer. Don’t worry, they speak English, so negotiation will be ok. Also, they are employed by none of the companies, they work on commissions, so put aside the tip for the guys helping you! If you know a bit of Spanish, it helps a lot. But if you don’t want to negotiate, you can go to big companies front-0desk and rent directly in there. Pay extra and have no headaches.
Renting a car in Costa Rica has the potential to create a unique trip for travelers. You can seek out little-known places, stop when you want, and craft your own adventure from scratch. However, driving in Costa Rica is serious. Road conditions can be difficult and driving times can be long. Before getting behind the wheel, think about what it requires and how you want your trip to unfold. Your experience in Costa Rica will be fantastic no matter what direction you steer your adventure.
Overall, a review of Costa Rica for families
It’s a beautiful and family-friendly place BUT it’s super expensive. For big families, this is a huge minus.
We found it to be safe – we had no trouble with anything, not even leaving stuff unattended at the beach. We even went to lunch with the car packed with all our stuff. No problem at all.
But, you don’t need to be us. You can be aware of things without going paranoid – if going for a swim, you can always ask one fellow tourist to watch your stuff, you can just take nothing at all, enjoy your swim and go back to the hotel. We’ve seen people using this fabric bracelet thing with the cash and passport copies inside a ziplock bag, but we’ve never really bothered. When we go, we take everything we need (towels, a bit of cash, scarf (we use ours as a mat at the beach) inside a supermarket plastic bag. People rarely take a second glance at our stuff. Plus, we don’t wear anything flashy, we’re low budget when it comes to clothing items too.
If you take all things into consideration, I’m not really sure we’d go back. It was amazing, but it was way too expensive for us.
Have you ever been to Costa Rica? Did you, like us, think it was too expensive? Comment below!