Costa Rica Trip – Live La Pura Vida
Life is not all about finances and work. It’s about living and spending quality time with family, and there is no better way to do that than through travel. Last week I wrote about why you shouldn’t be a work martyr, and the need to take time off. This post on our recent Costa Rica trip is the first of the M.D. Travel Series. The perspective is skewed towards family travel with school-age children and moderate to high-moderate luxury accommodations .
What? Travel with Kids?
Anyone with kids knows traveling with young ones is challenging and a healthy dose of patience and tolerance is required. It’s always something in the form of a complaint; “I’m too hot”, “I’m too cold”, “I feel sick”, “My iPad is sticky”, “My foot is itchy”. Their food repertoire is limited to pizza, spaghetti, and chicken nuggets, and the parents end up eating their leftovers. Before having children, I used to travel a good amount. After having kids, the traveling stopped. Now that the kids are older, the traveling bug has bit again, so let the travel series begin.
This past week, we took off to Costa Rica. We’ve been planning this trip for a year and Costa Rica has been on our radar for much longer than that. For the M.D. household, our vacation destinations have been mostly to beaches and theme parks. We’ve done Hawaii, the Caribbean, Mexico, and Orlando. Now that the kids are older, we are branching out and taking traveling to the next level- a bit more adventure, but not too hardcore. Costa Rica fit that bill. It’s not too long of a flight, it’s outdoorsy, and there are beaches and animals. In other words, “kid-friendly”. It’s also a relatively safe country to visit.
The tagline of this blog is Invest in Life. Maybe it should be “Pura Vida”. In Costa Rica, this slogan literally means “Pure Life”. But it also means a “simple life”. Kind of like “hang loose” in Hawaii. For Costa Ricans (Ticos), the phrase is used to say “hello”, “goodbye”, or “everything is cool”. Pura Vida is the way Ticos live – they have a more relaxed and simple way of viewing life. It means being thankful for what you have and not dwelling on the negative. We all could use more Pure Vida.
I am the chief travel officer of the family- a very important title I bestowed on myself. In the planning phase, I looked at several escorted tours and reviewed each of their itinerary and pricing. Having been on big group tours in the past, I was a bit turned off by the hectic schedules, impersonal service, and most off all, traveling with a large group of strangers.
This led me to a tour company called Costa Rica Expeditions. The company has been in operation since 1978 and owns two lodges – one in Monteverde and one in Tortuga. They lead a group tour but their strength lies in custom planning. I filled out a short online questionnaire regarding choice of activities, pace of travel, locales to visit, lodging and meal preferences, and they put together a custom vacation. I indicated that I wanted to stay at least two days in no more than three locations. I wanted a medium pace of travel because of kids, and private transfers throughout the country. I requested kid-friendly rainforest, wildlife, beach, and volcano experiences. After given an initial itinerary, we went back and forth about 3 times, adding and taking out items, before arriving at the final version.
Costa Rica has two international airports, San Jose and Liberia. We flew into Liberia because that was closer to our Guanacaste beach destination. Since there were no direct flights from where we live, we connected at LAX for a five and a half hour flight to Liberia. After an overnight stay near the airport, we headed to our first destination.
The first destination of our trip was the Arenal Volcano area. Private ground transfer was contracted to a third party agent – we rode in a medium-sized van with a driver and a separate English speaking tour guide. The road from Liberia to Arenal took around 3.5 hours and the last half around Lake Arenal was quite winding. Everyone got a little car sick towards the end. Our guide had an eagle eye and pointed out wildlife for us along the way. We got lucky and saw a family of howler monkeys, a toucan, a sloth, and a myriad of bird species.
Arenal Volcano is the most famous Costa Rican volcano. It’s a stratovolcano- a tall symmetrical volcano built on successive layers of rocks, ash, and lava. The last eruption occurred in 1968 and it become dormant in 2010. Unfortunately, most of the time, the peak of the volcano is obscured by cloud cover, and nature did not make an exception for us during our visit. Thanks to Arenal Volcano’s geothermal activity, there are a number of hot springs which are a destination in their own right -great for a relaxing soak after a long hike.
The nearby town of La Fortuna is a tiny touristy town at the base of Arenal, filled with souvenir shops and restaurants. It serves as the base for the adventure tours that are popular in this area. Outdoor activities include touring ecological reserves, white-water rafting, waterfall rappelling, canyoning, zip-lining, and biking.
There are many hotels in the Arenal area ranging from spartan to luxurious. Our package included a two-night stay at Silencio del Campo Hotel. Set in a park-like environment, each room is an individual cabin with full amenities. There is a working farm where guests are invited to milk the cows and collect eggs from the 250 resident hens (and one lucky rooster). Great for kids as they were enamoured by the farm animals and making it hard to tear them away to the next destination.
Our first guided tour was the Danaus Ecological Reserve with hotel pickup. It’s a small private reserve with a 600 meter circular trail through natural jungle vegetation, a butterfly garden, and a natural lagoon. We got a close up look at a variety of native bird species and also the apouti, a common mammal that looks like a giant rodent. Our private guide concurrently took pictures (with telephoto lens) of the fauna we saw and AirDropped it to our iPhone afterwards. The tour was a hit with our kids, but towards the end, the younger one’s interest waned. A third grade boy’s attention span is about one hour and this would be confirmed throughout the rest of the trip.
Our second guided tour was of Don Juan’s Coffee and Chocolate plantation. We ended up doing just the chocolate tour because, you know, kids. But it was quite educational as the guide took us through the entire process of chocolate production from the cacao pod to retail chocolate bar. We tasted the product at each stage, and towards the end, we ground our own beans and made our own chocolate. Again, third-grader attention span – one hour.
Back at the hotel, the multiple hot springs pools were a welcome respite to the day’s adventure. Each pool was surrounded by jungle landscape giving a sense of seclusion. The springs were hands down the best part of the hotel.
Onward to Monteverde Cloud Forest:
The transfer from Arenal to Monteverde is typically a four hour drive on winding roads. Instead, a popular short-cut is the ‘taxi-boat-taxi’. The first leg is a 20 minute shuttle ride from La Fortuna to the Lake Arenal dam. The water route starts at the dam aboard a 22-passenger boat taxi that cuts lengthwise across the lake to Rio Chiquito dock (literally a dock that has a name). The final leg is a 1.5 hour shuttle ride from the dock to Monteverde on a steep, unpaved, and bumpy one lane road. To call it a road would be giving it too much credit. The drivers refer to it as “Flintstone Road”, or “car massage”. Imagine riding on bumpiest road ever… during a 6.0 earthquake. Trying to keep my butt on the seat was a workout in itself. Here, private transfer was a godsend. Normally the ride is in a fully packed minibus and water taxi with luggage. With our package, we had a private 4×4 vehicle on the ground legs and a private boat on the water leg. Privileged, I know.
Monteverde sits at the northwest part of Costa Rica at the top of the Continental Divide, some 4662 feet above sea level. Given it’s high elevation, it is enshrouded by clouds, giving it constant moisture and rain. It was also super windy when we visited.
The main reason for a trip to Monteverde is to visit the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. A private, non-profit reserve spanning 10,500 hectares, this massive reserve is composed of new and old forest and is enormously biodiverse. Located 20 minutes from our hotel, we arrived and met with our private guide, Samuel, who had over 20 years experience guiding tourists and birders in this rainforest. Armed with his spotting scope, we set out on a 2.5 hour nature walk. You can hike the trails without a guide but I wouldn’t recommend it. On our own, we would not have seen anything but trees and dirt. An experienced guide makes all the difference in the world. We saw a troop of howler monkeys, a couple of tree sloths, a dozen bird species, and the elusive Resplendent Quetzal. For the non-birders out there, the male Quetzal is one of the most beautiful birds due to its colorful plumage, elegance of ornamentation, symmetry in form and noble carriage. Many birders come to Monteverde in hopes of spotting this elusive bird. We lucked out when Samuel spotted our Quetzal not more than fifteen minutes into our hike. Again, our hike was cut a little short due to a certain member of our group.
The final tour was a 3-in-1 coffee, chocolate, and sugar tour.
After leaving Montverde, we spent the last two days at the Pacific Coast in a small beach town called Potrero in the Guanacaste province. These were do-nothing beach days which were perfect after the strenuous traveling.
So how much did all this cost? It wasn’t cheap, as this was not budget travel. For the frugalers out there, you might want to look away.
Total land package including lodging, tours, some meals, and private transfers came out to $6254 for four people. Other meals, tips, and a separate tour added up to around 500-$750, so the total cost was around $7000 for a land-only 7 day trip for four.
Airfare came out to around $3000 during peak season. Grand total was $10,000 for four people, or around $2500 per person. Again this was a custom, personalized package with private transfer.
Comparing this with other group tour packages from operators such as Caravan, Trafalgar, and Monkey Tours, the cost was comparable.
Caravan offers set group tours starting at $1395 + $299 fee for a total of $6776 for four people, land only.
Monkey Tours offers group tours starting at $1899 + $284 fee for a total of $8732 for four, land only.
Note that these group tours have a set itinerary and activity schedule so your choices and flexibility are limited. These other packages do include more activities and are probably a better value, but at the cost of flexibility and personalized service. Also the size of the group can number up to 30 or 40 people. Our package was just us. The benefit of a custom tour is you can build your own vacation and determine how much time you want to stay in one area and pick your own activities. The private transfer is also very convenient for families- you can tell the driver to stop for breaks or photo ops whenever you want. For us, we had to stop several times due to motion sickness.
The tour operator we went with- Costa Rica Expeditions – did a great job putting our trip together. They were very professional and responsive during the planning phase. All transfers and tour guides were punctual and very professional; and each day’s activities went off without a hitch. At Monteverde, we wanted to switch some activities around and they accommodated us promptly. If we were to encounter any problem, they were accessible by phone immediately. Overall, I recommend them highly and would use them again.
Yes, Costa Rica can be done on your own for much cheaper without a tour operator, but we did not want to “wing” it in a foreign country with kids in tow and chancing unreliable operators. Some people love that sense of adventure and uncertainty, but it would not be my idea of a good time.
Want to move there?
Costa Rica is also a popular destination for expats and retirees. If you are looking to stretch your nest egg, you can live there comfortably for about $3000 per month. Several expats write about their Costa Rica living experience.
On her travel blog, A Little Adrift, Shannon O’Donnell writes about Cost of Living, Costa Rica.
Nadine Hays Pisani wrote the book, Happier Than a Billionaire, and blogs about her expat experience at happierthanabillionaire.com
Greg Seymour and wife Jen are expats from Dallas, Texas. They write about their experience at costaricacurious.com.
Sammi lives in Costa Rica for under $2000 a month and talks about cost of living on this post- Living in Costa Rica on a Budget for $2000 a Month.
If you go:
I’ve negotiated a deal with Costa Rica Expeditions for a 10% discount for stay at their two lodges. I have no financial relationship with them- this is just a service I provide to my readers. To get this discount, email them at,
and mention ‘Millionaire Doc’ to get the discount. This offer expires December 15, 2019, and is not valid for peak demand dates (Christmas, New Years, Easter & Presidents Weeks).
Hope you enjoyed the post. If you did, comment below.
Invest In Life.