If I had to name the one place that my friends and family ask about the most when planning a trip, it would be Costa Rica. Costa Rica has the wonderful white sand beaches and surf that people imagine when they think of a tropical vacation, but it also has the adrenaline junkie adventure activities and wildlife that other people prefer. And for my friends that are looking for it "all" in one vacation, Costa Rica is the perfect place. The problem is- you can't possibly do it "all" in a one week vacation. So what do I say when they ask? I answer them with these questions!
See our Trip Reports: (more reports to come...Osa Penisula,Drake Bay, Golfito in 2016)
(Click on title to open)
So, What Do You Want To Do?!
To start with, I always ask (if I don't know already!) what interests my friends and their family. One couple was looking for a romantic 25th anniversary location with great nature hiking, another active family who participate in paddle boarding racing were looking for action, and the opportunity to try their favorite hobby in Costa Rica. Another family wanted a relaxing lodge based vacation, where the young sons could be active while their mom could rest if her chronic illness bothered her.
It's a good idea to think about what your family likes to do and make a list of activities you would enjoy most. Think about the pace, do you wants lots of time to rest on the beach, or do you want spend time ziplining and rafting? If you have certain wildlife you'd like to see on your bucket list, such as seeing sea turtles nesting, or whales in the Pacific, you'Il want to consider what areas and seasons they are around. I like to start with a colorful guidebook full of photos, and go to a user generated review site and look over reviews and photos there. Usually, something will spark your interest and you'll see all kinds of activities and when and where they are usually offered. What you'll find is that where you should go withing Costa Rica is dependent on what you want to do in Costa Rica!
Relaxing on the Beach? Wildlife Watching? Adrenaline Junkie?
Manual Antonio Totuguero Arenal
Who Do You Want to Travel With?
Another thing to consider is whether you prefer to go with a group go, on your own, or have a travel agent plan an itinerary for you. There are many ways to plan a trip to Costa Rica, so I've summarized our experiences.
- Group Trips: Groups can be more expensive, but they are usually seamless (all inclusive, with transportation, lodging, meals, expertly guided activities, tips and services included) There are many top US companies that offer trips. Our Adventures By Disney trip was offering a rare special- kids travel free with parents, and for us at the time, with two young children, enjoying a seamless vacation with expert guides accompanying our group at every step, was well worth it.
- Travel Agent Independent Organized Itineraries: A travel agent planned, but independent trip, works great for us now and for anyone who doesn't like groups. Many eco lodges in Costa Rica run on an all inclusive model, so although the initial price tag may look high, because it often includes your lodging, many meals and usually at least one activity per day, and they can roll in the cost of transporting your from place to place by private or shared transfers. In almost every case I recommended a Costa Rican travel agency that has provided great independent trips for my own family and some of the friends I advised...mostly because they ask these same questions and know well which areas will meet the needs of their clients. Costa Rica Expeditions has provided us and my friends with memorable trips (and have not provided any compensation to us for the plug!) We have been so happy we've also planned another trip with them this winter, as well as recommended them to organize our group for an independent shore excursion on an upcoming cruise we will take to Costa Rica.
- Go On Your Own: Lastly, you can just book a hotel room or one of the lodges for yourself, and rent a car, but you might not save that much money compared to the deals the agent can get for you, and you'll be responsible to get yourself where you need to go. Traveling around the rough roads can be challenging in a rental car and take far longer than the distances on the map would appear to take. (see the river below for an example of what you night face!) For some people, that adventure is the whole point of travel, and for those folks, Costa Rica could not be easier to plan. Despite being a Spanish speaking country, the tourist infrastructure is well connected to the web in English, the US dollar is used, and almost everyone in the tourism industry has been educated to speak multiple languages. With some leg work you put the components together yourself for a wonderful, safe trip!
But for most of my friends, the level of research required to plan a completely "on your own" trip is something they don't have time for (which is why they asked me in the first place!) and they don't want to spend their vacation arguing in a rental car about which way to go!
What Do You Want To Spend?
Its also a good idea to think about budget. Luckily, travel in Latin America is still relatively affordable compared to some destinations. But the popularity and development of Costa Rica means you can have a top shelf luxury experience and it will cost you a top shelf price. But there are also ways to make a trip more affordable. With a number in mind a good specialist travel agent can work with that. Sometimes they know of a more rustic lodge in a great location that might cost less, or can suggest areas that are more easily accessible to each other to save on travel costs. For our family, we could afford a pricier group trip by traveling during the shoulder season! We also scored a better room on an independent trip by traveling on the shoulder season (we were expecting a little rain in the rain forest anyway!)
If you've thought a bit about what you want, and what your budget is, you can usually plan a great trip for everyone in the family with some research. If that seems like too much work, a group trip or independent travel agent planned trip could be the perfect answer! But you'll likely find Costa Rica has something for everyone, and every budget, which must be why everyone asks me about it!