This post serves as a collaborative journal between the 4 of us (especially where food is concerned 😂), so may be a bit verbose in areas. Hopefully readers will find some of these details useful.
The Lead Up
After a crazy year, both from work & life perspective, the Heunis family needed a proper break to really recharge. We wanted to visit Central America especially after a “all-in” vacation to Mexico a few years ago. We had a great time in Mexico, but we wanted more of an authentic experience. However with Mexico’s drug & gang problems leaving the resorts are not recommended so we were on the lookout for an alternative.
When I then happened to see in a news feed that Costa Rica had re-opened their borders for visitors on 1 November, I thought this might be a great opportunity to go on this dream vacation, COVID-19 notwithstanding. And so, despite a minor complication with Cara’s passport, we booked the trip from Sunday, 20 Dec to Tuesday, 29 Dec. With regards to COVID-19, Costa Rica has eased restrictions to a large degree. Really you just require a Costa Rican Health Pass. To get the Health Pass takes 10 minutes but it requires you to have travel insurance.
Day 1 – Sunday
From a snowy New York, we flew with JetBlue from JFK’s Terminal 5 at 6pm. Our flight was delayed by about 40 minutes and the in-flight entertainment wasn’t working, but otherwise it was an uneventful 5-hour flight with everyone being very respectful and compliant with regards to the COVID-19 measures. We did have to show the Health Pass QR codes that are required before we were allowed to board the flight.
It’s so awesome when after 5 hours you leave the plane and it’s a warm 77F at 11pm! The San Jose Airport is small, but modern and clean. Going through immigrations and customs was a breeze. They did scan our QR codes though. I exchanged $50 for Colones (the Costa Rican currency), but honestly everyone takes the mighty Greenback (US Dollars for non-American readers).
We booked the Hampton Inn near the San Jose airport because it was such a late flight. Cara (11) felt it was “sketchy”, but it’s really just a place to catch up on some sleep before the adventure starts. It cost us a $110 for the 4 of us.
Day 2 – Monday
We took an Uber to Walmart. Uber operates just fine in San Jose but outside the capital is less predictable. Traffic in San Jose is W-I-L-D! The main reason for the Walmart trip was to purchase SIM cards (for cellphone service) and some groceries. The SIM card was $11 for 3GB and we got it mostly for Google Maps or Waze, which seems to be the preferred provider here mostly because of local community engagement. The staff were very friendly although not everyone could speak English.
We rented a very small car from Vamos Car Rental, across the street from the hotel, because they have better reviews than most car rental companies, but Car Rental in Costa Rica is not straightforward. See my Costa Rica car rental notes. We ended up paying $560 for the week with a $2,000 hold on my credit card!
Drive to Puerto Viejo
The drive down from the mountain and from Limon down the coast – the last part, are really beautiful. About an hour out from Puerto Viejo one begins to realize you’re entering a special part of the world. We left San Jose a bit later than we anticipated so we arrived at Puerto Viejo when it was already dark.
Driving in Costa Rica is quite challenging especially when you’ve rented a manual (stick), but you haven’t driven manual in 6 years! It’s a two-lane highway for most of the way with so many big trucks on the road. There are also disruptive roadworks for most of the journey not to mention pot holes that put even Pennsylvania to shame! Many traffic rules are also considered optional by much of the locals. Lene was a nervous wreck and took a few days to calm down after the 5-hour trip. Also Cara threw-up 🤮 from the windy road down the mountain! But despite the hair-raising moments and the threats of divorce🤭, it’s a very interesting drive.
Terrazas del Caribe
We checked in to Terrazas del Caribe at around 6pm. It’s a few miles outside of Puerto Viejo just behind Playa Cocles. (“Playa” means “Beach” in Spanish) and a ~3-minute drive up a steep gravel road away from the main road. Check-in was very easy and our room was great and the pool even better. There is a decent kitchen and a superb patio as well.
We were all tired from the day’s driving so we spent the rest of the evening at Terrazas.
Day 3 – Tuesday
Had brunch at Bread & Chocolate, a charming coffee shop with excellent service. Elke and Cara had French toast & Smoothies.
Afterward we explored downtown Puerto Viejo. It was very interesting with fishermen coming and going. Puerto Viejo was originally named Old Harbor and was founded as a fishing village.
It started to get hot and we went for our first swim at Playa Cocles.
After working up an appetite in the waves, we had dinner at La Nena’s. I had Ceviche and Sea Bass which were both delicious. Elke & Lene had Veggie Burritos and Cara had Chicken Fingers. Loved the Caribbean atmosphere.
Day 4 – Wednesday
Cahuita is a beautiful, albeit small, national park. It isn’t well marked and there are a few cagey folks hanging around the entrance, but we didn’t have any issues. You can take a guide at a steep price, but we passed on that. Especially when hearing that we’re from Africa, the guide seemed way more interested in discussing African wildlife then Costa Rican wildlife.
It’s a walking park with the trial starting at the entrance. We found our first sloth curled up in a ball before it started to bucket with rain, but we found shelter and hung out with some Ticos before eventually finding a beautiful beach under the mangroves where we took a swim in the Caribbean. Don’t be alarmed when folks switch their clothes for their swimsuits right there on the beach. We did the same!
Cara was afraid of the Yellow Pit Vipers on the way back, but we returned to the car without being bitten.
On the way back we stopped at the charming Aroma Coffee Bar & Restaurant. Delicious milkshakes, fries & cheesecake, but Cara’s French Toast didn’t cut the mustard. We all had a good laugh at her reaction. Elke had Crepes and I had a burger all while watching the pouring rain. Many Restaurants in Costa Rica only a roof with no walls because it’s always warm enough to be outside.
We all swam at Playa Cocles again. We were warned about the dangers of this beach due to rip tides and sadly someone drowned here during our stay. The vibe on the beach is really cool though with all the surfers and other alternative folks hanging out. I didn’t get any sense of sleaziness or feel threatened in any way. Elke took a bunch of photos and created a timeless BTS shrine in the Caribbean sand.
On the way back Lene shopped at the Super Cocles supermarket. We all wanted her to hurry up and she got mad at all of us for rushing her. The PTSD from the drive down was apparently still an issue! 🤐
Day 5 – Thursday
After making breakfast in the room we traded places and moved to Shawandha Lodge just behind Playa Chiquita. We were amazed by this place. All the lodges are inside of this stunning forest garden with numerous gigantic trees – some up to 70m! So many wild animals and birds live inside the grounds and the plant life is really just a tropical wonderland. There’s also an adequate pool although we didn’t spend much time there because of the proximity to the beaches. The lodges themselves are also superb. The only issue is that there are no kitchen amenities so if you stay here, you have to eat out which can get expensive.
After getting the paper work done we couldn’t check in just yet so we walked through a beautiful strip of forest on to the magical Chiquita Beach. We found paradise. The pictures don’t do it justice; so stunning. We all swam, despite the sea being a little rough.
Afterwards we had a wonderful dinner on the beach at Sol del Caribe. An awesome vibe looking at the sunset over Playa Cocles. I had the Caribbean chicken, Lene had Coconut Shrimp Curry. Cara had Burger with fries. Elke had Beans and Rice with Coconut milk with veggies. Simply brilliant!
We went for Ice Cream at Tsunami’s afterwards and chatted to the very friendly owner. He said beaches are totally safe, except for the rip currents.
My best day of the trip.
Day 6 – Friday (Christmas)
Woke up and opened Christmas presents. Had breakfast at Lodge which was tamales. I thought they were delicious, but not everyone thought so. We phoned family and friends.
We drove to Tarponville Lodge but we couldn’t quite find it. We found the spot, but there was nothing there! Also the area was very crowded with Christmas celebrators so we took a pass and moved on to lunch at a restaurant next to the Punta Uva Dive Centre. This is confusing because it’s not actually at the main Punta Uva beach. And although the location was excellent, the service was not. Cara struck out twice with OJ and Pizza. The only restaurant that didn’t deliver.
After that we drove to the real Punta Uva beach with the help of the guy running the Dive Centre, who gave us directions. Punta Uva is famous for it’s natural beauty and it didn’t disappoint. We walked on the beach, but decided to return for a swim the next day.
Later I went to Playa Chiquita on my own to photograph the sunset. I got a few good images – stoked!
For a late snack we had fries and smoothies at Soul Surfer, a restaurant with a stunning location and a wonderful service. The waitress was also an expat from Canada. She said that their sales were down 70% because of COVID-19.
Day 7 – Saturday (Boxing day)
Checked out from Shawandha Lodge and checked in to El Nido. We couldn’t go to our rooms yet so we went back to Punto Uvo for that swim.
It was a perfect day for swimming. We had coconut for the 1st time, Delicious, but we found out afterwards that they overcharged us. The going rate is 500 Colones and we paid $2 which is about 1200 CRCs – they saw us a mile away! I spoke to a local who said the beach was very dangerous. He said not to bring valuables and to avoid initiating conversation with locals. He said he was watching our bags, although we also never lost sight of them even as we were swimming. Although in hindsight I did flaunt my camera a lot with all the photos I was taking – yikes! 🤔
We couldn’t quite figure out why it’s so dangerous, but afterwards people said it’s an area controlled by “Narcos” so maybe that’s it. But there’s so many conflicting stories about safety, I’m still not sure what the exact state is. When we were there it was overwhelmingly families so the dangerous claims don’t quite add up.
We had a late lunch at Tasty Waves, an American / Canadian Cantina. Great food and vibe. The only place we found that showed US sports. Lot’s of super interesting, laid back characters. Cara had the Quesadilla, Elke and Lene shared Nachos and I had Pulled Pork Burrito. It was superb. We spoke with the waitress, a Canadian expat who has lived in Costa Rica for 4 years. She also said Playa Cocles was completely safe but that there were isolated instances of robbery in the past and that this was what drove an outdated narrative.
Lene and I went for a magical walk to Playa Chiquita where I swam in the channels. Lots of Ticans celebrating Boxing day.
We ate a late dinner of Ramen at home and sat on the porch until midnight appreciating the amazing nature around us. Was astonished to see every member of the neighboring lodge spend 4 hours on their mobiles without talking to each other or doing anything else all while in paradise! Teachable moment right there!
Day 8 – Sunday
Had very nice breakfast (included) at the Lodge.
Went to much renowned Jaguar Rescue Centre. Not super organized. We couldn’t get tickets because it was full.
Drove into downtown. Did some souvenir shopping and met the really nice San Francisco ex-pat owners from Sloth Toes (leave review). The owners gave us tons of background info about the whole area.
Light lunch at Bread & Chocolate.
Swam at Playa Chiquita. On the way back we saw a sloth get stuck in the power cables with a benevolent bystander trying to help the little guy down. Eventually the ER folks came to rescue him, but all the commotion was scaring him so we left to not aggravate the situation further.
Day 9 – Monday
We drove to Gandoca Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge, but they only allow 200 people in per day and when that number has entered they close down the park even if some of the initial entrants come back out. They say it’s a COVID-19 rule, but it makes no sense to not keep the numbers at that rate until closing time. Disappointing.
Having lucked out at Gandaco, we drove to the Panama/Costa Rica border post at Sixaola just to get a sense of the region away from the tourist areas and it was totally worthwhile. We saw a number of birds, raptors and even a dead snake with what seemed like some good primary forest although it changed to banana plantations half way there. The majority of the road was also not really suited to our vehicle 😂. We were the only vehicle on the road without 4×4 and folks were staring at us with WTF expressions!
The border post is very chaotic as it’s on a bridge which is closed due to construction. Lene also didn’t feel 100% safe so we took a quick snap for evidence and quickly moved on to Bribri, which was just a standard Central American town, and then returned to Puerto Viejo.
Day 10 – Tuesday
Went for one last treat at Gustibo’s in Puerto Viejo.
Drive back was very eventful. Saw multiple accidents on the way up the mountain as well the police going full SWAT on a guy in a pick-up. We have no idea why, but suspect it was related to drugs or car theft.
Checked in without any issues, but had to wait ~4 hours for the flight to board. Also someone arrested inside the airport, again with no idea why.
A fantastic vacation! 110% worth it despite the extra planning and execution required. The natural, cultural, adventure and relaxation requirements were all met for us and then some. Everything we had hoped for. As always we learned a few things which I mention below, but these were quite trivial compared to the awesome experience.
If you have kids, even better. They absolutely LOVED it. And it really is a superb way to reconnect with your kids. I just can’t imagine that we won’t come again! Pura Vida!!
Car rental is complicated in Costa Rico. It’s ultimately very expensive although it isn’t advertised that way. I took a lot of time to research It has to do with government-mandated 3rd party insurance called Liability Insurance, which is NOT covered by Credit Cards or your US insurance. The Car Rental companies all exploit consumers by adding massive non-transparent margins on this insurance. For a week or very small car cost us $560. They also added a $2,000 hold on my credit card for CDW coverage, which IS covered by your major credit card! Based on reviews some companies are very creative in trying to find ways of deducting payments after your vehicle is returned. So be very thorough when logging damage beforehand. Read more about Costa Rican car rental.
I will seriously consider another way next time. During our stay in PV someone said that folks fly in to Limos from San Jose so there may be options.
All accommodation prohibited one from flushing toilet paper. Instead you had to put it in a provided bin next to the toilet. It’s a little strange, but we all got used to it quickly – even the kids.
Best areas / accommodation
For families, I strongly recommend the area behind Playa Chiquita. It’s far enough from the nightlife which can get a little lewd in Puerto Viejo, but close to the best beach in the area in my opinion. The gardens and forest are also so intertwined that it’s choc full of interesting wildlife. The Howler Monkey “howls” are something to behold – scared the bejesus out of both Lene and I on the first night!
Contrary to my research, many people don’t speak or understand English. However I downloaded Google Translate app (and the Spanish data set) and that worked like an absolute charm when I needed it. Highly recommend it.
Driving is one of the things to be careful of in Costa Rica, especially in Puerto Viejo. Everything is very informal. There are no designated parking spots or lanes so people just drive and pull over next to the side of the road. And most people bike around so sometimes there’s only enough space for one vehicle at a time. It’s fine if you can “roll with it” and take it slow until you get the hang of it.
Shops and restaurants
There are plenty of well stocked supermarkets with fresh bread, fruit and veggies. Groceries is not an issue.
So many great great restaurants. Usually very small, but great food, service and atmosphere. Not super cheap, but not expensive either. Between $40 and $60 for a family of four. We only got a little ripped of once where the food didn’t quite match the price tag.
Packing for the trip
Bug spray & suntan lotion
Bring both. The bugs aren’t nearly as bad as in Outer Banks for example, but they are pesky in some areas. The sun is very harsh at the equator when it isn’t cloudy. Bring suntan stuff that isn’t harmful to the local reefs.
Cheap flip flops and one pair of hiking boots is all you need. Everything else is a waste.
I would recommend getting around $50 worth of Colones just for emergencies. We never needed any though. Everybody takes US Dollars and most places take the major Credit Cards.
Kid’s devices (electronics)
Don’t! It’s really pretty straightforward; just leave the kids’ devices at home. This is the kind of trip to appreciate the incredible surroundings and to break bad electronic habits. There is no reason for kids to have devices on this trip. Trust me on this!