In February we went to Costa Rica for two weeks with our 4 year old son Huxley and our one year old daughter California. Costa Rica had always been on our ‘bucket list’ but it had kind of been pushed to the back of our minds on the assumption that it would always be quite expensive. However, casually surfing Skyscanner one day, I came across an UNREAL deal on direct flights to Liberia with TUI. We managed to get direct flights for all four of us for less than £1,200 return for two weeks. Insane right?!? We figured we’d be completely crazy to let this opportunity slide so we bit the bullet and went for it. (Not to mention, anyone that knows anything about Huxley will know that animals are his absolute top priority in life and so visiting what is basically one giant natural zoo is pretty much a dream come true for him). After studying the map and researching some of the best areas to visit, we decided that a trip around the whole of Costa Rica might prove a bit much with two small children and two short weeks so we decided to stick to the Nicoya Peninsula which is super close to Liberia and where a lot of the best surf is anyway. (The Instagram account Sambatothesea is amazing and is great for providing maximum Costa Rican wanderlust!)
With only 23 days until we were due to depart we quickly cobbled together some hotel and Airbnb bookings and secured ourselves an epic hire car (which basically HAS to be a 4×4 otherwise you’ll never survive!). We even had an extremely panicky moment a few days before we left with one of our Airbnb bookings cancelling at the last minute but thankfully in the end I think we ended up staying somewhere nicer than we’d originally booked anyway so you know, silver linings!
We started our stay with a two-night stay in Tamarindo, the ‘tourist hub’ of the Nicoya Peninsula. We had been warned that Tamarindo would be brash, noisy and touristy so braced ourselves for the worst, expecting a full-blown tacky Costa Del Sol experience, but it was definitely way more toned down than that and actually, when travelling with kids, it’s quite nice to have a touch of slightly Western familiarity while you get used to your new surroundings. I don’t remember seeing any recognisable chain restaurants (apart from maybe one Subway?) but there were several upmarket pizza restaurants, fancy yoga studios, expansive surf shops, hipster-looking coffee shops, typical touristy trinket shops and plenty of beach bars that charged more than average for drinks.
We stayed at Hotel Nahua which was £148 for 2 nights and we LOVED it. The lady that runs it is super friendly and as it’s a little tucked away from the main drag we didn’t have any trouble with nighttime noise (or maybe we did but the jetlag had just knocked us out!)
We spent our (very early!) mornings watching the pelicans diving into the sea for fish while the sun rose before eating plates of gallo pinto (the national dish of rice and beans – sometimes with scrambled egg and avocado) and drinking freshly squeezed juices. It was far too hot to sit on the beach during the day so we’d hide out in the cafe or head back to the hotel for a little siesta. While we were there we caught (a very brief!) sight of our first howler monkey and plenty of black vultures circling the overflowing bins! We’d highly recommend La Bodega for food, which luckily for us was right outside our hotel! We also enjoyed Green Papaya with it’s quirky bar swings (queues can be hefty in the evenings!), The Garden Cafe, La Oveja Negra and Sprout Cafe.
After leaving Tamarindo, our next destination was Nosara, a beautiful sleepy community full of laid-back surfers and chilled yoga enthusiasts. While we were still in the UK, we’d discovered a beach bar on Instagram called Lola’s at Playa Avellanas, that looked amazing and even had it’s own enormous pig that they allowed to run free on the beach and swim in the sea so we decided to stop there on the way down. We’d heard people saying before about the condition of the roads in Costa Rica but we naively assumed that they’d been exaggerating. They weren’t. Google reckons Lola’s is a 38 minute drive from Tamarindo, which may be true if you were driving on a paved highway, but this was a truly bone-crunching drive down pot-holed dirt roads in the middle of nowhere. We only passed through one or two sections that could possibly have passed as being described as a ‘town’ but definitely looked deserted and we were starting to get a bit worried about the elaborate route that we had planned for the rest of our trip. (Important life lesson: always make sure you have plenty of water & snacks!). As it turned out, Lola’s wasn’t really our scene but we spent a good hour or so there stretching our legs and mentally preparing ourselves for the rest of the drive down to Nosara (another two hours away!)
We arrived at Nosara to discover that although the entire area is known as ‘Nosara’, we were actually staying in Playa Guiones, which is located directly on the coast. (Side note: as well as dreadful road conditions, the signposting in Costa Rica isn’t brilliant either so it’s not always easy to find where you’re going.) We stopped in Playa Pelada for some ice cream at Sekreet Spot, a much needed treat after that long drive and found shelter from the midday heat in a cool undercover ‘square’ with some shops and a play area so the kids could burn off some energy. Our Airbnb was the last minute one we’d booked after the cancellation we had and it was one room with a tiny bathroom and a lovely outdoor area with hammocks and a huge palapa. Although the accommodation wasn’t ideal – we had to store our milk in the middle of the sink filled with water to stop the ants getting it – it actually ended up being a really amazing stay and at £142 for 3 nights it was hard to be disappointed. The location was fantastic, really close to the shops and restaurants and a short 10-minute walk down to the beach. We really, really loved the vibe in Nosara and we’d definitely love to go back one day. There’s an incredible super swanky hotel there called The Harmony Hotel which is owned by the heir to the Johnson & Johnson empire and it’s a little piece of chilled out paradise. We went for breakfast one day and it was so lovely and nowhere near as expensive as we thought it would be. We’d also recommend the hole-in-the-wall pizza place in Playa Pelada, Beach Dog Cafe (which is also an awesome boutique hostel) and the surf-shop-come-coffee-shop Olo Alaia. Also, the clothing store Love Nosara is basically an Instagrammers dream.
The only downside of Playa Guiones for us was the limited shade available on the beach. This meant that we kept our beach visits to early morning and late afternoon and spent most of our days mooching around the shops, slurping more freshly squeezed juices and chilling in the hammocks. Lots of chilling in the hammocks. It should be noted that if you are one of those parents who hate their kids getting dirty and messy that the sand at Playa Guiones is black(ish) so your kids get filthy immediately! One evening I spotted a huge whale way off in the distance on the horizon and I don’t think I’ve ever been so excited in my life.
Another weird thing we had noticed was that nearly all the restaurants up our end of town (the Cafe de Paris end) shut extremely early so there was one night where we really struggled to find something to eat without having to get the kids in the car – especially as we had no fridge in our room. Thankfully the Organico Deli Market just up the road was open and I managed to cobble together some random elements (hummus, tortilla chips, empanadas, salad wrap & juice) and had a makeshift picnic under the stars which was actually pretty fun.
We were a little sad to leave Nosara and wondered if our next destination, Santa Teresa, would meet our expectations in the same way. The drive was a whopping five hour trip which made us a little nervous but thankfully, just before we left, we spoke to an American who had been living in Nosara for many years. We had been planning to take the coastal road down to Nosara as Google reckoned it was an hour faster and we imagined it would be more scenic. However, the guy we spoke to said we could end up driving through the sea, being stranded on the beach and waiting for the tides to change on the coastal road and advised us to drive back inland and take the main highway (21) down to Santa Teresa. Geographically, it’s a pretty massive detour and kind of threw the flow of our road trip out the window as it meant we’d be driving through our final, southern most destination Montezuma in order to get back round up the coast to Santa Teresa but neither of us fancied being washed out to sea in the hire car so we took the guys advice. In all honesty, it was a bit of a relief because the 21 was actually quite highway-like for the large majority of our drive. It was really, really fun to drive through all the towns and see the locals getting on with day to day life. Everything out there seemed so lush and green, even in the depths of the dry season.
After about 3 hours we stopped in Paquera for some lunch, a nice cold juice and to stretch our legs and then bundled back in the car to continue our drive. There’s not a lot in Paquera itself but it has a ferry terminal which people use to get to and from Puntarenas
The roads definitely went downhill from there and got so ridiculously bumpy on the drive down into Santa Teresa that we couldn’t help but laugh as we all bounced about comically at 10mph. Santa Teresa has a distinctly different vibe to Nosara. I’m pretty sure we were the oldest people there and probably one of the few families with kids. Everyone there is in their early 20s, tall, toned and tanned and probably works as an Instagram influencer or is just bumming around doing a surf season working in bars and partying hard. It’s much bigger and busier than Nosara and the ‘high street’ seems to stretch on for ages – although part of this is probably Mal Pais but I couldn’t tell where one ended and the other began. We had, by a completely happy accident, arrived on a Monday which just so happened to be ‘all you can eat’ pizza night at The Bakery. It was epic. (For some reason, there is A LOT of pizza in Costa Rica.)
The beach at Santa Teresa was like actual paradise and reminded me a lot of North Shore on Oahu, Hawaii. Nick had a lot of fun surfing in the mornings and the sunsets in the evenings were just incredible. It was definitely the most picturesque place we visited in Costa Rica. Our favourite spot was Rocamar Beach, a super chilled cafe right on the beach serving a really basic but delicious menu with loads of big, comfy beds nestled in the shade. We spent a lot of time here during our stay. On Sunday nights they have a huge community get together with fires on the beach and music and dancing and a BBQ. There was a swing and a trampoline for the kids too. We were sat chilling there one evening when a huge family of howler monkeys made its way through the trees above our heads with several babies clinging on to their mums.
We were staying in an awesome little cottage in Santa Teresa called Maoritsio Garden Studios (£310 for 4 nights), which had 5 or 6 bungalows situated around a central swimming pool. The other bungalows were mainly occupied by surfers and it turns out surfer schedules and baby schedules are perfectly aligned – no late nights and lots of early mornings – so it worked out really well!
While we loved our accommodation, another family we bumped into tipped us off about a slightly swankier hotel down the road called Hotel Tropical Latino which was situated right on the beach with plenty of hammocks and a much nicer pool than ours which you were allowed to use if you bought drinks at the bar. We would highly recommend it along with Earth Cafe and Zwart Art Cafe but to be honest there’s no shortage of places to eat in Santa Teresa.
After four dreamy days in Santa Teresa we headed to our final destination, Montezuma, which was around 40 minutes away. Arriving in Montezuma was a really strange experience because we both knew instantly that we didn’t like it. Considering how much we’d been warned about how touristy Tamarindo was, we found Montezuma to be far more touristy but in a much worse way. We got ripped off at several bars in the town (The Bakery Cafe being the worst) and just weren’t digging the unwashed, drug-addict vibe that the tiny town had, no matter how much they try to cover it up and sell it as ‘artsy’ and ‘boho’.
Our first stop was the brewery, Clandestina, right at the top of the hill and a visit to the attached Butterfly Garden which was really lovely and sold delicious passionfruit sorbet. Although the waterfall is one of the main draws to Montezuma, being the height of dry season it was fairly small so we gave it a miss.
We were staying at a really lovely place called Casa Colores (£177 for 3 nights) which was a secure, enclosed area of jungle a little way out of town full of brightly coloured cabanas with a communal pool area. The owner Catrine and her husband were seriously lovely and went out of their way to come and get us early one morning when a family of howler monkeys and capuchins were hanging out by the pool area because they knew that Huxley loved animals. We were even given a banana to feed the wild capuchin which was definitely a highlight of the trip for me. We also spotted several agoutis roaming the gardens and a huge iguana that lived by the pool.
There weren’t really any proper beaches to be found in Montezuma as it’s at the end of a rocky peninsula and since we had no interest in the waterfall and didn’t want to spend any time in the town itself we found ourselves at a bit of a loss of what to do. (Thankfully the pool at our accommodation had a covered area with free coffee all day which we had to ourselves most of the time so that was really nice to hang out at). We had already seen a huge range of wildlife without even really trying but after an evening of internet researching I found that we were quite close to a place called the Curu Wildlife Refuge.
There is quite limited information available about the Curu Wildlife Refuge online as it’s not one of the most popular or most visited refuges in Costa Rica by oh my goodness – what a hidden gem! The entry fee turned out to be almost double the figure I had found online but it still wasn’t much. Within literally 30 seconds of entering the gate we spotted a ring-tailed coati, a deer and a raccoon. Our plan was to do one or two of the trails through the jungle before it got too hot and then have lunch on the beach and spend the afternoon paddling around and playing on the beach there. The guy in the visitor centre advised us on the best trails to tackle to see wildlife (I’d recommend asking about this because some of the trails are quite full on and may not be suitable for everyone! One of them is called Killer!) It was a little while ago now but I have a feeling we did the Ceibu and Finca de Monos trails back to back as they kind of link into each other and take you in a loop back to the car park. The park is incredibly well kept and we saw several maintenance guys sweeping the paths. We went over a ridiculously rickety bridge over a river which had loads of warning signs for crocodiles and had a wonderful trek through the jungle spotting more coatis and hundreds of capuchin monkeys. It was fantastic.
There’s also a cafe, a small gift shop and I think you can even stay within the wildlife refuge but we didn’t look into either of these options so I don’t know much about them.
The picnic didn’t really go to plan as we were hounded rather aggressively by an overly friendly raccoon which frightened the life out of Huxley and the beach didn’t appear to have much shade anyway so we just headed home and sat round the pool instead.
After our time in Montezuma came to an end we drove back up to Tamarindo so we were closer to the airport so there was no panic when we came to leave.
All in all our holiday was amazing. Weirdly, while we saw loads of wildlife, I didn’t see as many birds as I was expecting – I was thinking I’d spot toucans and macaws but didn’t see any. Also, definitely no sloths in that part of Costa Rica but we knew that before we went.
And don’t forget that you have to pay to leave Costa Rica! We had no idea about this and it held us up at the airport and got us stuck in a massive queue full of package holiday tourists! It’s not much – I think $29 each but it’s cash only and there’s always a hefty queue for the cash machine (which is debit only – no credit cards), a temperamental ATM as well as a queue to pay so it’s worth bearing this in mind!
Here’s a video of our trip: