Once we’d fixed on Costa Rica for our month-long family trip (I wrote about why and how we chose it here), the next step was planning the itinerary – one of my favourite parts of travelling as my dorky approach involves (for me, probably not for you) near orgasmic levels of notepad, list and colour coding use.
Our main priority was to try to get a good balance between exploration and relaxation. In those heady days of pre-kids travelling, I’d often stay in each place for only a day or two before moving on, trying to explore as many places as possible in the time available; easy enough when you have only yourself and one backpack to worry about, and even then, you’re not actually that worried about either. You can read in peace on a coach (bliss) and sleep in and completely please yourself at each destination. Not quite so easy with two kids in tow, one of them a toddler, dawn wake-ups and the caravan of crap you all bring with you. Not just this, but in pre-kids times I was never really that knackered to begin with anyway; I never really felt like I needed to relax… Whereas nowadays, when I drag my wrinkly husk out of Manchester, the relaxation part is SO important. Plus, more importantly, it just wouldn’t be fair to make Huey spend hours in transit every couple of days, he’s only two and, as anyone who’s had a two year old can attest, car journeys are something you definitely want to keep to a minimum.
For the same reason, we decided we’d hire a 4×4 instead of getting public transport – it actually worked out not much different price-wise once you factor in four lots of coach fares. Plus the prospect of Huey having a tantrum / exploding nappy / motion sickness / constant whining on several 4 hour coach journeys full of disapproving adult travellers didn’t feel too appealing. Having our own car also meant that we could stay in more remote, independent locations rather than having to stay in central hotels, and that we could stop en route if we passed anything of interest. I hired our 4×4 from Wild Rider, who specialise in off-road vehicles, 4x4s and motorbikes; I can’t recommend them highly enough and I’d advise you to use any day over the larger chain car rental companies. It’s run by a small, friendly, super-helpful team of people who really know their stuff, do all their own mechanics, and can also organise surf board rental, GPS (which you REALLY need!) and child car seats along with your car rental.
We decided that rather than covering large areas of Costa Rica, moving on every few days (adventurous but tiring), and rather than staying in one place for the whole time (relaxing but unadventurous), we’d compromise and instead have decent chunks in each place, with only 4 or 5 locations over the whole month, each offering a markedly different type of experience and aspect of Costa Rica. There are plenty of fantastic tour/travel companies who can design and arrange a bespoke itinerary for you, or you can buy a ready-made itinerary off-the-peg, but I really wanted to plan it all independently, partly because it’s more fun that way, partly because it’s really easy to do, and mainly because it’s a hell of a lot cheaper!
First I just sat down with a Costa Rica Lonely Planet over several evenings and circled on a map all the places that sounded great for us, writing next to them their main attraction(s). Then I grabbed a laptop and spent some more evenings doing further internet research, basically just googling ‘suggested Costa Rica itineraries’ and ‘Costa Rica with kids’ to find more recommendations for the best places to go. I added these to the map and then had a good look to see if a route suggested itself that would hit as many of these spots as possible with the greatest variety in terms of landscape and experience. Obviously at this point I had to face up to the fact that there were lots of places circled that we’d not be able to get to without making the journey too exhausting, and that we simply wouldn’t be able to see everywhere we wanted to. But one route jumped out as being an absolute belter, with four main ‘legs’ of the trip (averaging out as staying in one place a week), all very different, with 3-4 hour journeys in between each one.
Once we’d decided on locations, I just booked all the accommodation via Airbnb – they are really reasonably priced and it gave us so many more interesting options and much more authentic ‘home from home’ experiences than the standard hotels and guesthouses. So… itinerary coming up!
DAY 1 – SAN JOSE
Just one night in the capital, to sleep off the plane journey. Collection of 4×4 in the morning for immediate travel to Arenal.
Drive 3 hours north west to…
DAYS 2-7 – ARENAL (aka the ‘volcano & adrenaline’ leg)
6 days, 7 nights on a little cottage on a farm near La Fortuna, next to Arenal Volcano. Plan to do lots of outdoor adventure activities.
Drive 3 hours west to…
DAYS 8-10 – MONTEVERDE (aka the ‘creepy crawly cloud forest’ leg)
2 days, 3 nights in a wooden cabin on a farm up in the cloud forest. Plan to explore the rainforest and check out all the wildlife, bugs & creepy crawlies.
Drive 4 hours south west to…
DAYS 11-21 – SAMARA (aka the ‘surf & beach bum’ leg)
10 days, 11 nights in a beach house on the Nicoya Peninsula. Plan to properly chill and relax, do lots of surfing, laze on lots of different beaches and check out the sea creatures, hopefully turtles and whales.
Drive 2.5 hours south east to…
DAY 22 – PUNTA MORALES
Just one night in a cliffside apartment with a swimming pool to break up the longer trip from Samara to Manuel Antonio
Drive 2.5 hours south east to…
DAYS 23-27 – MANUEL ANTONIO (the ‘wildlife & water sports’ leg)
5 days, 6 nights in an apartment in Quepos, just down the road from Manuel Antonio National Park. Plan to do lots of water sports and explore the wildlife.
Drive 4 hours north east to…
DAY 28 – SAN JOSE
Our final night back in the capital ready to get our flight home the following day.
Our time in Arenal coming up next….!