This winter, my family and I headed south to Costa Rica for vacation. Initially we weren’t going to go on a family vacation this winter but it turned out we had enough points to cover hotel and flight, so the decision was easy. Here’s all of the details about our stay and adventure and my thoughts about the million dollar question – is this a good spot for a family vacation?
Our decision to stay here was based on the fact that we had Marriott points. This is how we were able to afford this trip on an otherwise cash-strapped year. However, we knew that it had an amazing pool and was located on the beach. Those two factors alone sold us and we knew we would figure out the rest later. And what a pool it was!
The pool wraps around the grounds giving you tons of space to swim and play. We went on daily “swims” around the entire pool as it was the boy’s favourite thing to do. There’s also a rectangular “kid” pool with shallow water.
Next to the kid pool is a small playground with swings, slides and a kid-club room. The room is great and has tons of toys for your kids. My boys preferred to relax in there and play Mario Wii, which was fine to get them out of the sun for a bit. John and I would often still sit outside the door of the club, facing the water and relaxing. It was a win-win for everyone.
We stayed in one of their Garden Terrace rooms, and even as a family of 5, it was spacious enough. We had two Double beds and a crib for Nate. The bathroom was large and the room itself was big too. The boys would often play with their toys on the floor and not be “in the way”. The best part was our terrace.
We were located on the bottom floor so we had access to the gardens. We loved sitting outside in the morning, facing the ocean, talking, playing, eating, etc… It was a great way to start the day with some fresh air, warm breeze, and the sound of the waves. The room came with a small bar fridge and we often filled it with water bottles, beer, milk and a few other dairy snacks we bought for the kids. There is no microwave but there is a coffee pot and you receive two coffee packs per day (you can always ask your cleaning lady for more, politely).
We had to pay extra for food, but I believe there is an option to make your stay “all-inclusive”. For breakfast you can order from the buffet or from the menu. There are 4 restaurants in the hotel each one offering a variety of options and food preferences. We purchased some food from the local grocery stores (Jimmy T’s Provisions is located in the marina by the hotel or you can go for a quick drive and shop at a Maxi Pali – their main grocery store chain). However, the food at the grocery stores aren’t that much cheaper, especially when you convert everything to US dollars. That said, it was nice to have a few quick and easy options in the room for when the kids were super hungry or wanted a snack. I’m sure we saved a few dollars by eating a few meals in the room versus going out all the time. The other nice thing about not doing all-inclusive is that it does force you to eat out and I would highly recommend it. The food in Costa Rica is delicious and it’s a very safe country. So rent a car and venture out to a local town and enjoy the local food while supporting small business.
You’re in Costa Rica – so you have to check out the beaches. If you’re not familiar with the country, you might be surprised to find the beach sand to be dark, but that’s because of the volcano. Some beaches are almost black, but others are just dark. Either way, you won’t find much white sand here, but it doesn’t take away from the beauty of the beach and it’s just as soft and fun to play in.
Jaco, which was the main town we stayed near, is known for its surfing. That’s because the waves are perfect for beginners. You can find local vendors set up along the beach ready to rent out their surf boards or provide you with surf lessons. They even rent out chairs and umbrellas. You will need cash though. Of course, you can have just as much fun people watching, swimming in the ocean or playing in the sand (which is what we did). But watch out for the undertow, even in the shallow waters as you enter the ocean.
After or before you visit to the beach, take the time to walk around the main strip of this quaint beach town. There are a lot of cute shops and everyone is super friendly. I would highly recommend eating at the Green Room. It had a hippy / surfer vibe to it and the food was delicious (and they had a kid menu). You can sit outside in their “living room” or by the big outdoor swing. We brought a pack of cards with us that the kids played with while we enjoyed some craft beer. Thee’s also a little table for colouring, which the boys did after their meal. We had a whole adventure just eating here!
Costa Rica is a beautiful country that I would highly recommend that you explore. There are rain forests, volcanoes, amazing wildlife, beaches and culture. Having said that, we only had 5 full days here and we’ve been spoiled in that we experienced a lot of what Costa Rica has to offer during our visits to Hawaii. That’s why we opted to only spending 1 day exploring so we can “relax” the other days. Besides, the boys don’t like sitting in the car for a long period of time, so it was a no-brainer as most attractions were a good 2 hours drive away. We did however visit a local national park (‘humid’ forest).
Manuel Antonio National Park
Manuel Antonio National Park is located just south of Jaco and is well known for its easy hikes, beautiful beaches and amazing wildlife. There is a $16 fee to enter the park (per adult) and you will see that a lot of people use a tour guide during their hike. It is not needed, but they are very knowledgeable and can help you spot wildlife that you would never notice otherwise.
We got a private tour guide for our family for $80 and we spent a good hour + walking with him and getting to the beach. The walk back (alone) took about 15 minutes. So there is definitely value there, but it’s not necessary. The guides also bring a telescope with them but Ryan didn’t know how to use it and got very frustrated. So the benefit of having a guide is really only great for older kids and adults. For more information, check out this blog post from My Tan Feet which gives you a lot of details about the park and what to expect and do there.
If you can, I would highly recommend that you fly direct. It’s a long flight from Toronto taking over 5 hours. With the time difference, you will most likely lose out on a full day just traveling down here.
We rented a car and car seats but be aware that the infant car seat buckle system is different and the car seats that we received seemed “older”. They didn’t feel as safe as our car seats from home, but we made it work. Also, if you can, rent a 4X4 which is necessary for the hills and main roads.
If you plan on going on hikes with an infant, bring a carrier as it will be easier to maneuver versus a stroller.
Bring US $ with you. While you can use your credit card at most restaurants and shops, you will need cash for other stuff too. Scotiabank seems to be very popular in Costa Rica and there are ATM machines all over.
Overall, I would say that it is a very family-friendly destination and you can make it as relaxing or as adventures as you want it to be. Whether you go all-inclusive, or just rent out a house, you will enjoy your vacation no matter what. There’s so much to see and do, that you can’t go wrong with taking a family trip down here!