Costa Rica Family Adventure Diaries #3 – Arenal

So… finally… hello from beautiful Costa Rica! My last two posts were all about the planning process – why and how we chose to come here and the whys and whats of our itinerary. But now, more importantly, blog posts from hereon in will all be about our experiences here, written as I’m sat here in sweltering heat, reeking of citronella and with momumentally shit hair.

I won’t go into huge detail about our journey here – which consisted of a 3.5 hour drive to London, a further 1 hour drive to Gatwick courtesy of Adam’s uncle Francis (thank you Francis!), an overnight stay in an Airbnb near the airport and an 11 hour flight from Gatwick to San José – mainly because I’m trying to block it out. I’d love to say that the flight was a doddle, but I don’t like to lie. Our 2 year old, Huey, who I was told would definitely sleep for at least part of the flight – er, didn’t. Not a wink. Too old to stay still and be fed and rocked to sleep like a baby, too young to be reasoned with and zone into full films and puzzles etc, Huey was in near constant motion for the duration, spurning all food, standing on the seats and gesticulating like a maniac at the people behind, changing his mind about what he wanted to do every 3.5 minutes, charging up and down the aisle repeatedly trying to gatecrash business class and doing a massive, odious turd just as everyone’s dinner was served.

Anyway, we did reach Costa Rica without being ejected from the plane, with one very sweaty, very tired 2 year old (with a matching sweaty, tired family). I’d booked us into a hotel near the airport in San José just for that first night – it was 4pm Costa Rican time when we arrived, but 11pm for our bodies still in UK time, and we’d been up since 6am. We all just collapsed into bed and slept right through to the next morning. To be honest, the jet lag was absolutely fine on this journey out – Costa Rica is 7 hours behind the UK, so all it means is that we had an extra long sleep on the first night to heal ourselves from the trauma of the plane journey, and from that point on we just wake really early and go to bed really early, which seems to be what everyone does here in any case. It’s hard to sleep past 6am in Costa Rica, mainly because of the dawn chorus, which in some places is loud enough to raise the dead, and while we were at Arenal, the multitude of bolshy roosters patrolling under our window. This aside, mornings are glorious and everyone’s up and about at dawn – plus in the rainy season mornings are usually the sunniest and driest part of the day, so you want to be up early to make the most of it. The afternoons sometimes bring heavy rain (often with incredible eye-and-ear-popping thunder and lightning of biblical proportions), and it gets suddenly and very promptly dark at about 6pm, so you naturally just turn in earlier for the night anyway. For the whole time here, we’ve generally risen around 5.30am, done most of our main activities in the mornings, chilled and played in the afternoons, then got Huey to bed just after 6pm, Joe to bed an hour or so later, and ourselves pretty reliably by 9pm.

Anyway, after a much needed mega-sleep that first night, we collected our hire car, a 4×4 Hyundai Tucson from Wild Rider (highly recommended – I wrote about them in my previous post), and hit the road for the first leg of the trip to La Fortuna in the Arenal area, 3 hours north west of San José. Well, 3 hours in theory, 5.5 hours in practice, due to a combination of bad traffic leaving San José, us granny-driving a third of the speed the sat nav expected us to, thanks to 2 hours of incredibly beautiful but terrifying hairpin bends above sheer drops into massive gorges (at one point the sat nav was unnervingly plastered with about 20 bright red exclamation marks), and us getting completely lost when we arrived at La Fortuna and not being able to find our Airbnb. Very few roads other than the larger main roads are named in Costa Rica, there are huge amounts of unmarked, unpaved tracks, so we didn’t actually have an address as such, just directions relating to landmarks, translated from Spanish. In retrospect, we missed a fairly obvious turning, but by this point it was nearing the evening and in our anxiety to find it before it got dark (we’d been warned not to drive at night here as it’s hard to see where you’re going) we got a bit muddled. Thankfully, just as the sun set, we found the right road, a bumpy dirt track up a hill to farmland to find our beautiful cottage, with our smiling host Lidiana waiting for us like an angel bearing fresh guanabana juice (yes, guanabana – I’d not heard of it either).

I can’t recommend Lidiana’s home enough. It was absolute paradise. Nestled on a farm just outside the cute little town of La Fortuna, you can see Arenal volcano (or ‘The Holcano’ as Huey calls it) right from your front door, and are surrounded on all sides by lush, green garden, farmland and jungle, full of brightly coloured wildlife – birds, insects, mammals, the lot. Our particular favourite were hummingbirds and the huge butterflies and dragonflies that constantly danced around the gardens, and Huey loved the massive crickets. One of said crickets took up residence on the wall inside the house, which unnerved Joe at first. I advised him to give it a name and think of it as a pet, so it seemed less scary. So, in this way, ‘Jeremy’ became one of the family, chatted to over breakfast, waved at when passed… until the day we sadly found him expired on the floor. RIP Jeremy. For a couple of days we were slightly weirded out to keep finding small dead creatures in the exact same spot on the floor of the house… until we realised there was a little hole in the roof through which birds must have been dropping their unwanted leftovers – worms, dessicated lizards, insects etc. Once we caught on, we just made sure not to stand in the ‘disposal’ spot lest some half-eaten dinner landed on our bonces, and kept a broom handy for prompt evacuations.

After a first day settling into our new home, chilling in the garden and around La Fortuna, doing a grocery shop and recovering from the previous day’s journey, on the second day we got stuck right in. Joe and I went white water rafting on the Rio Balsa with the fantastic Wave Rafting, while Adam and Huey visited the lovely Ecocentro Danaus wildlife sanctuary to see butterflies, frogs, caimans, monkeys, sloths and turtles. The Rio Balsa is a perfect river to raft with kids, as it’s all class II and III rapids – enough crazy white water to give you a reliably bumpy, exciting, hair-raising ride and to ensure that you’re drenched head to foot from start to finish (think the Alton Towers rapids/log flume on crack), but not so insane that you worry about your kids disappearing into the whirlpools never to be seen again. There were so many wonderful things about it – the white water rafting itself which was SO much fun, the beautiful river (you felt like you were floating down the set of some kind of Indiana Jones film), and particularly the incredible wildlife. From the raft you could see sloths and monkeys in the trees, herons in the water, and at one point the guide pulled up the raft to the shore and went rummaging in the jungle for a beautiful blue jeans poison dart frog, which he carried out to us so we could all hold him (apparently as long as you don’t have cuts or scratches on your hands you’re ok to hold them). Not quite so welcome was the jumping water spider that landed on the leg of a 12 year old boy in our raft, but other than that it was bliss. Mine and Joe’s favourite part was when the river calmed down and they said we could jump overboard if we wanted to and be carried downstream by the current instead of the raft – it felt amazing, lying on your back in your lifejacket, whizzing down the river at a fair old whack. We stopped at the shore for some fresh pineapple and mango, then finished the day with a delicious typical Costa Rican meal with locally grown coffee at a little rural farm.

On the third day we had a beautiful walk around the volcano, starting at Arenal Observatory Lodge. As mentioned in my previous itinerary post, Arenal was earmarked as the ‘volcanoes and adrenaline’ leg of the trip. The dormant Arenal volcano is absolutely beautiful – occasionally totally obscured by clouds, often cloaked in swirling mist, and sometimes 100% visible. Regularly you’re treated to little puffs of steam coming out of the top. On this particular morning our neighbour came round gesticulating wildly, pointing at the top of the volcano, which was belching out much huger amounts of steam than previously, telling us it hadn’t done that for years. Slightly unnerved as we had a lovely hike planned for that day in the National Park around it, we decided to press on with our plans anyway, assuming we’d be told when we got there if we shouldn’t be there. No need to worry, on arrival, the guards were completely complacent about it, saying it was nothing out of the ordinary. I wasn’t sure if I was relieved or disappointed, but needless to say, the volcano didn’t devour us and we survived the hike unscathed.

The fourth day was probably my favourite day in the whole of the Arenal leg of the trip. Joe and I wanted to go ziplining (basically being harnessed onto and whizzing along at high speed on huge cables high up in the rainforest canopy). We chose to do this at Los Cañones, as it’s based at Los Lagos hotel, where there are also lots of swimming pools and hot springs, so that Adam and Huey could be happily occupied while we were ziplining (I hope it’s not lost on you here that it’s mother here who’s been doing the scarier stuff and Adam who, despite first appearances as an adventurous surfer, is actually El Wimpo when it comes to anything involving heights). It was AMAZING. Pretty hairy at times, as you’d be whizzing through lots of foliage, feeling pretty safe, only to suddenly fly out over a massive open gorge with the ground falling away below you. But it was as exhilarating for this exact same reason, and easily the most incredible way to experience these beautiful forests, right up there in the canopy, grazing branches with howler monkeys perched on them and looking down on the beautiful streams and trees below.

The most memorable part of the day was when the guides stopped two thirds of the way through the cables (there were 12 in total over nearly 3km of cable), and said, “There’s a little bonus here if you want to do it – but it’s optional, you DON’T have to do it,” and gestured towards a massive ‘tarzan swing’ hanging from the platform we’d just ziplined to. Joe immediately shot forward, “I’LL DO IT!!!” which meant that I’d feel like a big fanny if I didn’t… basically just jumping off a platform the height of at least two or three houses, right into the jungle, attached to the end of one rope that swings around for a while until they haul you in – basically the same as a bungee jump but rather than it being elastic tethered above you so when you hit the bottom you bounce up and down, it’s tethered away from you so when you hit the bottom you swing back and forth (you can see this exact same tarzan swing here – watch from 01:02) I’m not sure what scared me most – doing it myself or watching Joe do it. But we both loved it, even if I did nearly vomit just before being pushed off, and despite involuntarily making the kind of primal mooing noises I’ve only ever heard come out of myself during labour.

We rounded off the Arenal leg of the trip with our final day at Baldi water park for some R&R in pools and hot springs, with lots of crazy slides for Joe the Mentalist to hurl himself down. The kids absolutely loved it. Adam not so much after getting second degree burns trying to impress Joe on the waterslide… But all in all, another ace day.

I’ll finish this entry with easily my favourite part of the whole stay in Arenal – meeting and stroking a 6 month old sloth called Bodoque. On the second night, just as we were getting the kids ready for bed, there was a little knock on the door. At no point when we opened that door did we expect to be greeted by a sloth. They are far and away my all-time favourite animal, and one of the things I’d been most excited about visiting Costa Rica for was to see these beautiful creatures in the wild – we’d been assured that we’d see lots of them, but that we’d not be able to handle them. However, it transpired that Lidiana (our host) had a baby sloth living in a tree in their back garden. He’s wild but as he’s so used to Lidiana and her husband Eddie, he’d allow them to pick him up, and us to stroke him. The only stipulation was that Bodoque would need to be eating while we did it (apparently he gets so ‘in the zone’ and chilled out while eating that he doesn’t notice or mind too much else – another thing firmly cementing sloths as my kindred spirit animal). So while Bodoque happily hung upside down on our bench on those incredible legs of his, munching on juicy red flowers that Eddie and the kids chain-fed him, we all sat next to him and stroked his lovely soft legs. It was beyond magical. Lots of the Costa Ricans we’ve spoke to since then have expressed real surprise that we were able to handle one – apparently it’s very rare that you can do this with a wild sloth – and I’ll be forever grateful to Lidiana and Eddie for giving us this unforgettable experience.

We were so sad to leave – Lidiana and Eddie couldn’t have been more helpful and welcoming, the house couldn’t have been in a more beautiful setting, the kids were in their element 100% of the time, and Huey loved playing most days with our neighbour’s little son Miguel, neither of them caring for one second that they couldn’t speak the same language. I’d recommend this special place to anyone in a heartbeat, we didn’t want to leave! But it was time for the next leg of the journey up into the beautiful cloud forest of Monteverde… which I’ll cover next 🙂



  1. LOVE reading these. Hope you’re having an incredible time x

  2. Looks great Anna! Hope you guys are good and having fun! X

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