A firm Stubborn Mule favourite and one of our most popular countries, child-friendly Costa Rica is the ideal destination for active families who love the open road. So when travel consultant and mum, Charlotte Hamilton, was asked to pack her bags for a trip self-driving in Costa Rica she was cock-a-hoop.
Here Charlotte reports on her big adventure as she explores some of the country’s more hidden corners and assesses her experience of self-driving in Costa Rica, one of the most laid-back destinations in Latin America.
Charlotte’s adventure self-driving in Costa Rica
As soon as I heard I was going to be self-driving in Costa Rica, I knew immediately who the ideal travelling companion would be – my Dad! He’s a sprightly 70 year-old, (shh that bit is a secret…), who loves to hike and has a keen interest in wildlife and birding. I decided to keep quiet about the many exciting adrenalin-fuelled activities I was planning until nearer the time. Once we were there I was sure he’d give everything a go.
With some new hotels opening and several lesser-visited areas on our radar, Liddy, Stubborn Mule’s MD, wanted me to take a more unusual route. I’d be visiting both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts as well as exploring plenty of hidden corners along the way.
Little did I know that we would cover 800 miles in total and that Dad, who had happily promised to share the driving, would become quite accustomed to being chauffeur driven by his daughter. At the final count, he drove a total of one hour over the course of 12 days – thanks Dad!
Looking back, I loved the freedom of self-driving in Costa Rica. And with pre-programmed sat-nav, navigating was a synch, with even the most out of the way places easy to locate. We always added an extra hour or so to our journey time so that we could stop along the way to visit a picturesque waterfall or stop for a drink and snack at a local soda (café).
Corcovado – Osa Peninsula
Our first stop was the wildlife haven of Corcovado. We picked up our car in the airport at San Jose and drove at a relaxed pace for a little over 4 hours to the small harbour town of Sierpe. This sleepy town is home to a cluster of restaurants and from here we were met and taken by boat to our lodge. Our excitement grew as our speedboat whizzed down the wide mangrove-lined river into the estuary and then along the coastline to Drake Bay.
Drake Bay is home to a wide variety of jungle lodges from simple to uber luxurious. We were based at Pirate Cove, a wonderful mid-range option with lovely rooms reached by wooden walkways and surrounded by lush vegetation. Each has a fantastic balcony equipped with hammocks and spectacular views of the ocean and surrounding rainforest.
After a good night’s sleep, we were woken by one of nature’s early morning alarm clocks… the deep throaty hoot of a local howler monkey, staking out his territory. Perfect timing though as we wanted to get an early start for our trip to Corcovado National Park itself.
We travelled to the park by boat and you really need to be happy on water to enjoy a trip here. It seems everywhere in Costa Rica involves a boat trip and this means you are likely to get soaked on a daily basis from the spray!
Exploring the national park
We met our guide (known simply as B), at San Pedrillo Ranger Station and set off on a hike into the jungle to spot wildlife. It felt as if we had arrived on the set of Jurassic Park but without the dinosaurs! My Dad was in heaven. We saw everything from coatis, Howler and Spider monkeys to Scarlet macaws and crocodiles. But best of all, we were lucky enough to see a tapir wallowing in the mud. This felt very special.
B’s knowledge of the wildlife and the rainforest habitat was fascinating and added another whole dimension to the experience. A cooling swim in the pool beneath a waterfall was the icing on the cake for me.
It felt all the more special when signing the guestbook and noting that the number of daily visitors was about 20 people. Somewhere like Manuel Antonio National Park receives more like 800 visits per day in high season. It’s more of a trek to reach Corcovado, but if you are looking to immerse yourselves in untouched nature away from the crowds, this is for you and the kids.
Corcovado is not only about the pristine rainforest. Water babies will love the marine reserve at Cano Island, reached by boat from Drake’s Bay. It’s the perfect place for snorkelling and diving and from here you can swim alongside all manner of marine wildlife, from turtles to (friendly) sharks!
Uvita – Marino Ballena National Marine Park
Our next destination was Uvita, home to the Marino Ballena National Marine Park. Whale watching was right at the top of our ‘must do’ list. Boat trips are year-round as you can also see dolphins at any time. But the main draw is the Humpback whales that visit from December to April and from July to November.
Outdoor activities abound with hikes to picturesque waterfalls, horse riding and sea kayaking all popular. At low tide you can walk from the spectacular beaches along this coastline to the famous Whale’s Tail, a promontory where kids will enjoy rock pooling. You can also visit Cano Island for snorkelling and diving from here, although at 1.5 hours this is a longer trip than it is from Corcovado’s Drake Bay.
There are lots of excellent places to stay including the fabulous La Cusinga Eco-Lodge, which has its own private trails to the beach. For an economic option choose Rio Tico Safari Lodge where you can stay in tents. The kids will love it.
Isla Chiquita – Nicoya Peninsula
Driving north from Uvita our destination was the port of Puntarenas. From here, ferries cross the Gulf of Nicoya to the Nicoya Peninsula and Pacific coast beaches, such as peaceful Samara and bustling Manzanillo. However, we were heading to somewhere entirely different and quite unique. It’s a secret though as I don’t want other people to find out about it…. Well ok, I will let on, but shhhhhh, keep it to yourselves!
Isla Chiquita is a new ‘glamping’ resort located on a tiny private island reached by private boat, just a 10-minute ride from Paquera on the tip of the Nicoya Peninsula. This fabulous tented accommodation gives a whole new meaning to the word glamping, with the emphasis firmly on the GLAM! Raised up on wooden platforms, the tents have a huge double bed (plus a day bed for kids), luxury bathroom fittings complete with gorgeous products and outdoor lounge area on a private balcony – all with stunning views of the ocean. Heaven!
An attractive restaurant, cocktail bar, chill out areas and gardens with big canopy beds where you can relax or sunbathe complete the picture. Oh, I almost forgot the spa with hot tub at the highest point of the island, an amazing location where parents can indulge in a massage while the kids play on the small beach below.
Bioluminescence, kayaks and much more…
Free kayaks and stand up paddle boards are available and I’d highly recommend the Bioluminescence experience, a spellbinding natural phenomena. Kids and parents alike will be thrilled by this night boat trip into the calm waters around the island, watching as the water begins to glow as living creatures emit light. Look for stingrays, jumping fish and all manner of wildlife.
During our stay Dad and I also enjoyed a guided kayaking trip where we learnt that we have zero communication skills and not much more in the way of coordination! Our ever-patient guide tried to instruct us as best he could while we paddled furiously round and round in circles shouting, “left” and “right” to each other with no luck at all!
Other fun activities include a farm tour, trying out Artisanal fishing, beach hopping and visiting Isla Tortuga with its fabulous white sand beaches.
Bijagua – Volcan Tenorio National Park
Once we could tear ourselves away from Isla Chiquita, our next destination was the small village of Bijagua, located near the Volcan Tenorio National Park in the north of the country. Driving here was fascinating as the scenery changed quite dramatically from lush jungle to agricultural landscapes, more typical of the Guanacaste province.
Today was also our first introduction to driving on un-made gravel roads. Until this point the roads had been in great condition, with relatively little traffic. I found the short stretch of around 6km quite fun and all part of the self-driving in Costa Rica experience. If you do choose to self-drive in Costa Rica you need to think of it as a road trip, and enjoy all the various challenges along the way.
Bijagua is a great spot to relax for a few days. It’s gateway to the lush, wildlife-rich Volcan Tenorio National Park and stunning Rio Celeste with its famous waterfall. Rio Celeste turned out to a real highlight as the river tubing was brilliant, even if my poor old Dad looked a bag of nerves! But after the first 10 minutes you get used to the rapids and learn the knack of lifting your bottom in the air so as not to catch it on the rocks, and even he admitted that it was fabulous fun.
You have to hold tight as you swoosh through the rapids but can then relax in the warm gentle waters before you hit the next section of turbulent white water. Thrilling but also safe, you have lovely guides with you the whole time in case you get stuck by a log or on the bank as we often did! Most kids and parents alike will love this.
B&B perfect for families
Our favourite place to stay here is a B&B set on a working organic farm. It’s ideal for families, particular those self-driving in Costa Rica with younger children. They will love meeting the resident rabbits, guinea pigs, sheep and goats as well as helping to milk the cows and collecting eggs from the chickens for breakfast! This is an ideal option for families with more than two children, as several of the casitas dotted around the grounds have two bedrooms.
La Fortuna – Arenal
La Fortuna is Costa Rica’s adventure activity hub, where you’ll find the largest concentration of tourists and resort-style hotels, although there are also some fabulous boutique style properties, which we favour. There’s everything here from white-water rafting, zip wiring, hanging bridges and horse riding, to waterfall hikes and chocolate tours. After a day of activity we loved soaking in the natural hot springs and waterfalls, set in lush jungle surroundings.
The luxurious Tabacon Resort was my favourite – maybe it was the delicious cocktails that influenced my judgement – but there are a number of options to choose from, some with child-friendly water slides and play areas for the younger ones. Think Center Parcs in genuine rainforest, outdoors and delightfully atmospheric at night, surrounded by jungle. Fairy lights and the steamy humidity all add to the experience.
One of the best family-friendly activities we have found here is the safari river float trip where you take a raft down the Penas Blancas River with a guide, who helps you to spot masses of wildlife en route. This is a calm and peaceful activity, ideal for younger kids too. We saw crocodiles, sloths, monkeys, toucans, Jesus Christ lizards (which really can walk on water…), otters and much more.
Afterwards you visit a small local farm where you can learn how coffee is traditionally brewed and have a go at making tortillas before devouring them for lunch. Great fun for all!
Cahuita – Caribbean Coast
From La Fortuna it was a fairly long drive of around 4 hours to the Caribbean Coast but it was well worth it. Cahuita has a distinctive culture, with a mix of reggae influences, Spanish heritage and indigenous customs. The beaches here are less developed than those on the Pacific Coast… think vast wide beaches with swaying palms and the occasional reggae themed beach bar where you can enjoy a cocktail while the kids play on the sand.
The coral reefs in Cahuita National Park are great for snorkelling in the dry season and you can also look for many brightly coloured birds on the walking trails through the forest. Kids will love the sloth sanctuary in Cahuita where they’ll learn about their habitat and wellbeing as well as getting the chance to spot wild ones on a canoe trip.
Accommodation here tends to be simple. There are no plush 5-star resorts but if you want something more upmarket, there’s a good option in Puerto Viejo.
Top tips on self-driving in Costa Rica
My top tip with the driving is to relax and enjoy it! Look on the holiday as part road- trip adventure if you choose this option. The scenery is so spectacular, longer drives don’t seem anywhere near as long as they would in the UK. It’s pretty hard to get lost, as there are so few main roads in the country and the GPS is very accurate. I didn’t have any trouble at all finding my way around.
Local sodas are a godsend when you’re hungry and looking for a quick refuel. These are traditional cafés, frequented by the locals (known as Ticos) and are often very busy at lunchtime when the workers down tools. The menu isn’t extensive… you can choose rice and beans with fish, rice and beans with chicken, rice and beans with beef or rice and beans with pork! But they do often serve hamburgers, which will help to keep kids with plainer tastes happy.
You’ll also find roadside stalls selling all sorts of fruit and snacks to keep the wolf from the door between meals.
Be prepared to get wet but know that it won’t spoil your holiday! The country wouldn’t look this lush and tropical if it didn’t rain a lot, but it rarely rains all day, every day unless you go in September or October. Everybody carries on completely as normal when the rain comes down. It’s so warm anyway that it’s often a welcome relief to get a little shower! Almost all the activities can be done in the rain so it really won’t matter.
Costa Rica is amazing if you love the water! You can spend almost an entire two-week itinerary immersed if this appeals, whether you want to kayak, raft, canoe, tube down river, swim in waterfalls, spot dolphin and snorkel. Water babies would be hard pushed to find a better destination.
Remember your clothes and shoes will not dry! Bring plenty of changes or make use of the laundry facilities at your hotel. Even if it doesn’t rain, you’ll be hopping in and out of boats and it’s so humid you can’t dry trainers or heavier items of clothing at all. Thin fabrics are best and waterproof footwear a must. And bring carrier bags to store your smelly wet clothes until you can get them laundered! Stinky trainers in the back of the car do not make for a pleasant 4-hour drive!
Self-driving in Costa Rica extras
If you enjoyed Charlotte’s self-driving in Costa Rica blog and would like to start planning a trip, do ring her or get in touch via our website contact form… we’d love to hear from you.
Also check out our Costa Rica family holiday section for itinerary examples, pricing guide, places to visit and when to go. And don’t miss our Top 10 activities in Costa Rica with kids blog, packed with ideas and photos.
Stubborn Mule Travel
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