Going to Costa Rica with teens? Here’s our itinerary, what I’m glad we did, and what I’d do differently next time.
Is Costa Rica on your bucket list? It was on mine for a long time. So after two years with little travel, I was ready to go big and finally make it happen.
I’m happy to report that Costa Rica was everything I’d hoped it would be: lush, gorgeous, and full of new wildlife, flavors, and culture. Leading up to our trip, I promised/warned my family, “It’s going to be an adventure!” and it absolutely was.
We spent a week in Costa Rica with our kids, ages 13 and 17, and I wanted to share our itinerary, as well as what I’m glad we did AND what I’d do differently next time. I hope this is helpful to you.
You can get around Costa Rica with private shuttles or public transportation. But I loved having the freedom to explore on our own, stopping at overlooks or markets along the way. Our travel agency booked our car through Mapache, and we had no problems. It was a newish Suzuki 4X4, a must for the bumpy, unpaved roads. It was small but comfortable for our family of four.
Keep in mind that many of the roads in Costa Rica are narrow and windy, so you need to be a confident driver. Since I planned the trip, my husband did all the driving. That was a relief to me.
We did all of our driving in daylight hours and gave ourselves plenty of time. Speed limits are low to account for the twisty roads, so short distances can take much longer than you think (a 100-mile trip from Manuel Antonio to the San Jose airport took nearly three hours).
For navigation, we used Google Maps offline since we didn’t have data outside the hotels. We made a few wrong turns along the way but never got completely lost.
My favorite part of the trip was driving around as a family, stopping at small restaurants, scenic overlooks, small markets to buy popsicles and tortilla chips, and fruit stands for fresh mango and watermelon. We also drove through many small towns and beautiful rural areas. If we had stayed put at hotels and resorts with other tourists, we wouldn’t have experienced that.
You don’t technically need guides when visiting the rainforest and national park. But I’m glad we did because we would never have seen the wildlife on our own. The guides know how to spot sloths hanging in trees, which hole the tarantula is living in (yep!), and what leaf the poison dart frog is perching on. They’re also a wealth of knowledge about the vegetation and history of the area.
Even armed with advice from friends who had traveled to Costa Rica, I still felt overwhelmed planning the trip. So I used a travel agency a friend recommended called Pacific Trade Winds. They were so patient with the majillion emails I sent and all of my questions and last-minute worries. They answered every message promptly, and each step of our itinerary went off without a hitch.
We were also upgraded at two of the hotels to suites and given rooms with especially lovely views (we had one of the few rooms at Tabacon with a volcano view), which I’ve heard can happen when you book through an agency.
For trip planning, I also highly recommend the Facebook group Costa Rica Travel. You can ask questions, search for topics, and get itineraries, tips, and inspiration there.
Teenagers are ALWAYS HUNGRY, which can be especially tricky when you’re traveling. We spent a lot of money on food, and I think we could’ve been smarter about it. My advice:
Every kid is different, but I found that mine enjoyed having something to do every day of our trip. Some downtime to rest and recharge was necessary, but my kids were bored when we had a day without plans.
We did four tours in all–Mistico Hanging Bridges, Coffee & Chocolate Tour, Forest Night Hike, and Manuel Antonio National Park Tour–but I wish I had booked some active, adventurous tours as well, like waterfall rappelling, kayaking, or pedal-boarding on Lake Arenal, which a friend recommended.
Frankly, I was nervous about being in a new-to-me country, so I wanted to stick with hotels. But now that I’ve visited, I would feel great about renting a well-rated Airbnb or Vrbo to save money, have a complete kitchen, and get more room to spread out.
For example, a friend of mine stayed in this Vrbo in Monteverde with her family, and the owner arranged to have a local cook prepare a traditional dinner for them!
I scheduled a lot for one week, and I think I pushed us a bit too much. If I could do it over, I’d stay at just two places instead of four, so we could spend more time in each spot. Here was our itinerary:
Cafe y Macademia: We stopped here for frosty fruit drinks, pizza, awesome views of Lake Arenal, plus fun souvenirs on the way out. It’s worth the long, windy drive.
La Vendanita: A reader recommended this small, family-owned restaurant near La Fortuna, and my 17 year old declared it “the coolest restaurant he’s ever been to”. Owned by an ex-pat from California and his Costa Rican wife, it’s got fresh, affordable food with amazing views of the volcano.
Coffee & Chocolate Tour: I was worried my kids would be bored learning about coffee, but we all liked this tour, which starts in a small farm and ends with tastings of coffee and chocolate. My kids also got to press juice from raw sugarcane. We learned a lot!
Our travel agent booked this tour through Canoa Aventura. but I’ve read great things about the Don Olivio Chocolate Tour too.
Mistico Hanging Bridges Tour: We traversed six hanging bridges with our guide, who pointed out monkeys, sloths, spiders, tarantulas, snakes, and frogs along the way.
Manuel Antonio National Park Beaches: I wish we had more time at these beautiful beaches, which look like slices of paradise. These beaches are inside the national park, and tickets to the park sell out, so book yours in advance.
Yes! We did not experience anything that felt dangerous. That being said, it’s important to know that car break-ins are common. When we stopped at a Wal-Mart, security guards patrolled the lots, and at Cafe y Macademia, you tip the parking lot attendants to keep an eye on your car. We also stashed our passports and valuables in the hotel safes when out of our room, which is wise no matter where you travel.
Yes. I did a lot of research before going, and the consensus was that the water is safe to drink. However, I did come down with some kind of food poisoning that landed me in bed for about 36 hours in the middle of our trip. It’s impossible to know what caused it, but nobody else in the family got sick while we were there even though we all ate and drank the same things.
At hotels and resorts, you can easily find familiar fare. At the small local restaurants (called sodas), you’ll find menu items like gallo pinto (rice and beans), arroz con pollo (chicken and rice), casado (rice, beans, vegetables, and plantains), and lots of fresh fruit juices. And the pineapple! Oh the pineapple! It’s everywhere and it’s FABULOUS.
We also ate plenty of tacos, burritos, quesadillas, and nachos. My kids had no problem finding items on every menu that they liked.
The currency of Costa Rica is the colon. When we arrived, we exchanged $200 for colones and brought $200 worth of dollars in small bills for tips. We paid in colones, dollars, and with our Visa (there is a small fee for using Visa).
Currently, the exchange rate is about 660 colones per $1. Don’t exchange your money at the airport like we did–their rate was much lower!
Yes, in some places they ask you to place used toilet paper in a can beside the toilet.
Most of the people we encountered working in tourism spoke English. But we also met many “Ticos” (that’s what Costa Ricans call themselves) who didn’t speak much or any English at all, like the proprietors at the fruit stands and markets we visited and the cashier at Wal-Mart. But through hand gestures and the Google Translate app, we were able to work it out!
I think it’s respectful to try and speak the native language, so we used simple Spanish phrases wherever we went, and my kids got to practice the Spanish they’ve learned in school, translating menu items and road signs. Basic words & phrases we used:
You’ll see and hear this expression in Costa Rica. The literal translation is “pure life” or “simple life” and it embodies the laid-back vibe of the country. As one of our tour guides explained to me, it can be used for everything from a greeting, a good-bye, an answer to “how are you?” and even a “no worries” when something goes wrong.
Since returning home, we’ve tried to keep the relaxed, worry-less “Pura Vida” vibe going!
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By: SallyTitle: One Amazing Week in Costa Rica With TeensSourced From: www.realmomnutrition.com/costa-rica-with-teens/Published Date: Tue, 03 May 2022 12:34:39 +0000