Costa Rica is an incredible place to visit, especially for families. Our family of 7 adults traveled to the Pacific side of Costa Rica in November for American Thanksgiving and it was the perfect place to suit all of our different travel preferences. Some of us wanted time to relax while some of us wanted to do every activity Costa Rica had to offer.
Our 10-day vacation in Costa Rica ensured time for both relaxation and adventure in La Fortuna and Manuel Antonio. We loved breaking up our time between these two locations since they each offered totally different activities, landscapes, and weather.
So when is the best time to go? How do you get between these two locations? Where should you stay? Read on, my Costa Rica bound friend!
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The Perfect Costa Rica Travel Planning Guide
Costa Rica Travel Planning Logistics
We traveled to Costa Rica in November and it was perfect. While the weather didn’t cooperate the entire time, our 10 days in Costa Rica allowed us enough time to experience both sunshine and rain. La Fortuna was rainy and cloudy the entire time, but that was to be expected. However, we had perfect weather in Manuel Antonio almost the entire time. If you’re looking to escape with the best chances for perfect weather, the peak season for Costa Rica is December through April during their dry season.
You will absolutely need to rent a car. There’s no way around it, especially if you’ll be visiting multiple cities. Make sure the car you rent has four-wheel drive (4X4). The hills in Costa Rica are brutal and without 4X4, you will not get far. We witnessed several people stall out on very steep hills which made us so thankful for our 4X4 vehicles. The roads are not forgiving either. We drove down many dirt roads and paved roads that might as well have been dirt.
You will be driving a lot. On a map, places in Costa Rica don’t look very far from each other. But with Costa Rica’s dramatic landscapes, the routes become tricky and long. Make sure you check Google Maps for route timing and don’t assume something will be close because it probably won’t be. To make it easier, I’ve already mapped out our routes for you complete with any stops we made below.
Costa Rica primarily uses USD. They have their own currency (colónes) but it’s rarely used. However, you might receive some small change in colónes. Our Chase Saphire Reserve card doesn’t charge any foreign transaction fees when used abroad, so it’s the card we always use while traveling. We always get the best exchange rate when we ask that the transactions be processed in the home currency (i.e. colónes). So if you have a similar credit card, make sure you have them process the transactions in colónes to ensure you get the best exchange rate. If you’re not sure if your credit card charges foreign transaction fees, make sure you check with your bank before you leave.
The official language of Costa Rica is Spanish. With it being a big tourist spot, I thought most people would speak English. However, there were many times we encountered locals who did not speak a word of English. Knowing a little Spanish will go a long way for you.
Looking to learn a new language? Duolingo is my favorite app. It makes learning a new language fun! Even if you just need to learn a few key words and phrases, I highly recommend downloading this app.
Overall, we felt very safe in Costa Rica. However, that doesn’t mean it’s crime-free. As with anywhere, you travel, make sure you’re being cautious. Don’t leave valuables out in the open in your hotel or Airbnb while you are out, keep your wallet and phone in your front pockets, and never walk around at night alone. This is advice I would give to anyone no matter where they are going. There are thieves and criminals everywhere in the world.
Driving from San Jose to La Fortuna
The closest airport to La Fortuna is San Jose. Because of this, you’ll have to drive 2.5 hours to reach La Fortuna. After flying for several hours (depending on where you’re coming from), this drive won’t be too appealing, but it’s worth it. If you arrive late, I suggest spending the night in San Jose. The roads in Costa Rica can be dangerous at night because they can turn rugged at a moments notice with very few street lights.
Spend 2 – 3 days in La Fortuna, Costa Rica
The main feature of La Fortuna is the majestic Arenal Volcano and most of the activities are centered around that. Our favorite activities were the hanging bridges and visiting a hot spring resort.
Unfortunately, it rained almost the entire time we were there. La Fortuna was beautiful, but the rain made it hard for us to go on hikes and enjoy the outdoors. We didn’t even get to see the iconic Arenal Volcano because clouds covered it the entire time! Just keep this in mind if you decide to go during the rainy season.
Read this post to build your perfect La Fortuna itinerary: 10 Best Things to do in La Fortuna
Where to stay in La Fortuna
La Fortuna is a very small town so staying right in the center of it isn’t necessary. In fact, most of the luxury resorts are outside of town since many of them feature the volcanic hot springs. We stayed in an Airbnb a short drive away from the city center and had no issues. However, having a car was essential since we had to drive everywhere we needed to go.
We loved staying in an Airbnb with access to a kitchen. It was close enough to town, but in a residential area that was quiet at night. My absolute favorite thing about our Airbnb was that we were able to hire our hosts to cook us dinner one night. They did not speak English and we did not speak Spanish, yet we were still able to have an incredible evening with them eating the most delicious home-cooked Costa Rican food. Check out our Airbnb here: Arenal Family Home Rental – 5 bedrooms, 3.5 baths, full kitchen, gated, AC, private pool
If you’re looking for something a bit smaller, here are a few other budget-friendly options:
- Casita Blue – 2 bedrooms, 1 bath, full kitchen
- Casita Green – 2 bedrooms, 1 bath, full kitchen
- Boutique hotel (Airbnb) – 1 bed, 1 bath, shared areas (pool, yoga room, bar)
- Heliconias Apartment (city center) – 1 bed, 1 bath, kitchenette
For more luxurious accommodations, check out these beautiful resorts:
- Nayara Hotel & Spa – Nayara is a jungle oasis in the middle of the jungle. When you’re not getting pampered at the spa, you can enjoy a spacious villa complete with an outdoor jacuzzi! This is truly a luxury jungle retreat.
- Arenal Observatory Lodge & Spa – We actually visited this resort as a day trip in order to hike and enjoy lunch in the shadow of the volcano. The grounds were immaculate and the trails were so beautiful to hike on. If you have the chance to stay there, I highly recommend it. However, if you can only swing a day trip like us check out my tips for your visit in this post.
- Tabacón Thermal Resort & Spa – This is another resort that we were fortunate enough to visit, but we didn’t stay there. Tabacon is one of the best hot spring resorts in La Fortuna. If your goal is to relax while you’re in La Fortuna, I highly recommend this resort. Guests have free access to the beautiful natural hot springs at the resort which is a huge plus.
Where to eat in La Fortuna
We didn’t go out to eat much in La Fortuna because we didn’t have as many days there. Also, we were lucky enough to enjoy a home-cooked Costa Rican dinner one night made by our Airbnb hosts. Here are a couple of places we did enjoy while we were there:
- La Parada – Family friendly and great for an inexpensive local meal. We ate here our first night because we just wanted something simple and quick.
- Restaurante Cafe Mediterraneo – This was a nicer dinner option right around the corner from our Airbnb. They served delicious Italian food in a beautiful open-air setting. We really enjoyed our dinner here.
Driving from La Fortuna to Manuel Antonio
This is the day you’ll be so happy to have rented a vehicle with 4X4. The drive from La Fortuna to Manuel Antonio was absolutely beautiful, but not the most comfortable. At times, the road was steep and very bumpy. We encountered unpaved, narrow roads that looked like they should not have been roads. It was all part of the adventure! If you are prone to car sickness, I’d suggest taking Dramamine or another type of motion sickness medication.
For lunch, we made a stop in Playa Hermosa at a restaurant on the beach. We were very hungry by the time we reached the restaurant, but it was well worth the wait. The view was incredible and the food was so fresh!
Here is our route including the stop at Vida Hermosa Bar Y Restaurante:
Spend 5 – 7 days in Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica
Most people stay in Manuel Antonio for its proximity to the beach as well as the incredible national park with abundant wildlife. I can almost guarantee you’ll see monkeys every day (we did!). If you are in search of incredible views and the chance to see tons of animals, Manuel Antonio is a must-visit.
You’ll experience the iconic Pura Vida as soon as you arrive. The vibe of Manuel Antonio is laid-back and no one takes themselves very seriously. You won’t see anyone dressed up since casual beachwear is the norm. It’s amazing and perfect for a relaxing getaway from the hustle and bustle of everyday life back home.
Read this post to build your perfect Manuel Antonio itinerary: 10 Best Things to do in Manuel Antonio
Where to stay in Manuel Antonio
I’d highly recommend staying in the Manuel Antonio area away from Quepos. This is where you’ll have the best views and easy access to great restaurants. We stayed in the most incredible place simply called The Tree House overlooking the Pacific Ocean thanks to my amazing in-laws. It was the most beautiful place I’ve ever stayed in and I highly recommend it if you’re traveling in Costa Rica with a large group looking for more luxurious accommodations. The view alone made me want to stay forever. This home has 6 bedrooms all with their own bathroom and king bed. The VRBO listing says 4, but the reservation can be altered to suit the size of the group. There’s also an option to hire a private chef to cook some or all meals for you during your stay.
If you don’t have as many people in your group or need something a little more budget-friendly, I’ve listed a few more options below. I’m only listing Airbnb’s because, in my opinion, the Airbnb’s in Manuel Antonio are way better than the hotel options. Not only can you have incredible views of Manuel Antonio National Park and the ocean, but you’ll also have a kitchen where you can make some of your own meals. The Airbnb’s listed below are a mix of both high-end budget-friendly options:
- Beach Access & Views – 5 bedrooms, 7 beds, 5.5 baths (new as of 2019)
- Shana Condo – 3 bedrooms, 3 beds, 3.5 baths
- Ocean View Penthouse – 1 bedroom, 1 bed, 1 bath
- Big Ocean, Park View – 1 bedroom, 1 bed, 1 bath
- Cabin in the Jungle – 1 bedroom, 1 bed, 1 bath
- El Perezoso – 1 bedroom, 1 bed, 1 bath
Where to eat in Manuel Antonio
We cooked many of our meals at our house while we were in Manuel Antonio but we did eat out for many of our dinners. If you are planning on cooking your own meals, you’ll want to shop at Super Joseth. They will even deliver your groceries to you (ask your Airbnb host about this).
For a list of some of our favorite Manuel Antonio restaurants plus a few more we wish we had time for, check out this post: The Best Restaurants in Manuel Antonio.
Driving from Manuel Antonio to San Jose
The drive from Manuel Antonio to San Jose will take roughly 3 hours, so if your flight home leaves really early you might want to consider spending the night in San Jose the night before. Otherwise, make sure you leave Manuel Antonio at least 5 hours before your flight to ensure you have enough time to return your rental car.
What to pack
The weather in Costa Rica was warm for the most part, but being prepared for rain was a must.
Here are some items I was glad to have with me:
- Rain jacket: I have an older version of the jacket linked here and I love it! It’s lasted over 8 years and keeps me dry even in the pouring rain.
- Trail shoes: These are my favorite shoes for hiking. They aren’t hiking shoes, but they have enough traction to keep me steady on slick trails. They are versatile and can be worn for other purposes than hiking as well.
- Day pack: Make sure you have a bag with you that zips, can get wet, and can hold a good amount of things (like a camera, water, and snacks). This day pack is great for all of this! Bonus: It’s only $15.99
- Water sandals: I was so happy to have these with me for our day at the hot springs in La Fortuna. The ground of all the hot springs was gravel, so wearing shoes really made a difference.
- Bug Repellant Wipes: When you’re in the rainforest, there will be mosquitos. I purchased mosquito repellant wipes so I could take them in my carry-on.
- Camera: I am not a professional photographer, but I also love having good quality photos from our travels. The kit linked here is the perfect way to be introduced to the world of DSLR photography. There is so much wildlife in Costa Rica, you’ll want to make sure you have a decent camera to capture everything around you!
Our trip lasted 10 days and in my opinion, this was the perfect amount of time in order to get the full experience of both La Fortuna and Manuel Antonio. Although, I was so glad to have more time in Manuel Antonio since the weather was so much better there and I loved being near the ocean.
Have you been to Costa Rica? What was your favorite city or thing you did there?
If you want even more information on Costa Rica, check out my top pick for guidebooks:
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