An Active Family Vacation In Costa Rica

An Active Family Vacation In Costa Rica

Early this summer, my husband and I decided to take our kids, both girls ages 4 and 7, on a trip to Costa Rica. Neither of us had been to Central America before, so we really didn't know where to go after we got there. I started looking around online and talking to a few people who had been to that neck of the world. We knew that August, the month we planned to travel, was also a rainy month - or the "Green Season." Despite the rain, we were told the country would be as green as ever, lush with incredible colors.

Santa Teresa Mal Pais Road Sign

The road to Santa Teresa, Costa Rica.

Ultimately we decided on the Pacific side of the country, and booked our hotel in the town of Santa Teresa, which sits on the southwest point of the Nicoya Peninsula. I have plenty of friends who have traveled to Costa Rica, many for no other reason than to practice yoga. I wanted to practice yoga, but also surf - one of the reasons many travel to Santa Teresa in the first place. Prior to our trip, I had never surfed before - but in my mind I was very good. With the exception of yoga, my husband and kids were raring to go for anything in the  beachy/jungle environment. We had a few activities on our bucket list we wanted to check off before our eight day trip was over:

  • Zip Lining
  • Horse Back Riding
  • Tortuga Island Snorkel Trip
  • Surfing
  • A Little Hiking
  • Checking Out Waterfalls

My husband and I are both really active people, so our kids - while young - are fairly active, too. I would say that neither my husband or I are afraid to get a little dirty, but we're not opposed to a little pampering either. Our destination in Santa Teresa was the Hotel Tropico Latino. The Tropico Latino had a pool, restaurant, spa, yoga and plenty of hammocks. It sat right on the beach and was nearby several restaurants and small grocery stores. In no way were we going to rough it.

Day 1: Travel

Ferry ride to peninsula costa rica

Ferry bound en route to the Nicoya Peninsula.

Our flight departed Chicago's O'Hare airport on August 16th at 5:30am! As early as it sounds to travel with two little kids, it was a great time to leave. After one layover in Florida, we were greeted by the driver of a private shuttle in San Jose, Costa Rica around 12:30pm. I wasn't brave enough to book a car to travel to the Nicoya Peninsula directly from the airport. I got the impression the roads were less-than-desireable on the far pacific side of the country.  The shuttle took us to a ferry that would get us to the peninsula. Our driver took us over the mountains of San Jose to the coastal town of Puntarenas - where an enormous car ferry awaited us. Our driver mentioned another driver would meet us at the other side, so we rolled our bags on board and settled in for the one hour (or so) ferry ride.

We missed the afternoon ferry and had to take the 5:00pm ride. The ferry finally arrived on the southeast tip of the Nicoya Peninsula at 6:15pm. My first surprise about Costa Rica was just how early it got dark. When I say dark, I mean dark. The second the sun left your line of sight, blackness took over. Guided by a thin row of lights on the walkway off the ferry, our driver met us, immediately loaded our bags into the back of a van and drove us to our hotel. After a few miles on a paved road, we were on a bumpy, winding, slow-going unpaved road. I remember reading in the directions that to drive 8 kilometers (5 miles) on this road would take about a half hour. I thought it was a typo. I was wrong! The short distance to our hotel in the nighttime rain took well over an hour. I was happy we had someone familiar with the roads doing the driving. From that moment on, I knew this would be a true adventure for my family.

Path at Tropico Latino Costa Rica

The pathway to rooms, reception and the pool at Tropico Latino.

We arrived at the Tropico Latino at 8:00pm. My oldest daughter was passed out in the back seat laying on my husband's lap, and my youngest daughter was wide awake sitting beside me. A security guard met us at the gate of the hotel and escorted us back to reception, where we were greeted, given our key and sent on our way. I immediately fell in love with the place. A tree-lined rocky path led us to our house, a small, two-bedroom bungalow with no TV. The bathroom was big, with two separate sinks and one giant rain shower which would later come in very handy. The kitchen had all the amenities we needed. We were set back in a jungle atmosphere, but close enough to the ocean to hear the waves crashing on the shore. It was perfect.

Day 2: Getting to Know Santa Teresa

Santa Teresa From The Road

The main road in Santa Teresa.

We spent the day going to the beach, checking out Santa Teresa and figuring out what we were going to do on Day 3. After breakfast, we walked up to a steep hill across the street from our resort. We passed a couple restaurants and a yoga studio as we made our way to the top. After a good ten or 15 minutes of walking up the hill, we were surrounded by nothing other than trees with long vines dangling down. From a distance, the ocean glimmered in the sun. We took pictures, let the kids rest their legs and contemplated climbing up the hill further...until we heard an incredibly loud and frightening growl come from the trees just behind us. It was then that I realized how far we were from anything other than, well, jungle. I was scared, my husband was scared and my oldest daughter was already running as fast as she could down the hill. "Sweet Jesus, don't run!" I whisper/shouted. "I think it's a mountain lion, mama," she said as she kept going. My youngest daughter held my hand tightly and kept her eyes on the hill and kept walking down tight-lipped. My husband nervously laughed unconsciously using the F-word several times in the presence of our kids.

Jungle swinging in Costa Rica

My guess is this is the Tarzan move my daughter pulled that really got the howler monkeys going. At the time it was taken, we thought it was cool. A couple minutes later, we thought we were damned by mother nature for messing with its vines.

After we got back to the resort (in one piece), I remembered reading about howler monkeys throughout the area. I grabbed my phone and did a quick search for a video of what a howler monkey sounds like. Take a listen here. Yes, this was the beast that threatened us. Actually, howler monkeys are around a foot tall, vegetarian and just make a lot of noise.

Day 3 - Tortuga Island Snorkel Tour

A van picked us up at the hotel the next morning at 8:00am for a Tortuga Island Snorkel Tour. We were dropped off about 20km away in Montezuma, where we were met by 15 (or so) other people who boarded a boat with us for the hour-long ride down the coast to the island. Along the way, we spotted dolphins and whales. It was beautiful. Even though surfing is more aggressive than snorkeling, it's closer to shore. At first, I was a little nervous about my kids snorkeling. But wearing life vests, neither one of them seemed to have a problem swimming alongside my husband or me. We spent about 90 minutes snorkeling before we were brought to the gorgeous beach of Tortuga Island, where lunch awaited us. A couple hours later, we boarded the boat again and made our way back to Montezuma.

whale watching tortuga island

This gorgeous whale was no more than 20 yards from our boat. I took this shot with iPhone and didn't need to zoom in. We loved watching them play.


Day 4 - Surfing at Playa Hermosa

We booked surf lessons for the fourth day of our trip at a surf shop called Adrenalina. Our lessons were with Lolo, the store owner, and Audrey, another surf instructor. Both hailed from France, but made Costa Rica their permanent home. Lolo worked with my kids, and Audrey worked with my husband and me.

ATVs are about as common in Santa Teresa as cars. The roads are dirt and often dusty. Lolo and Audrey met us at 8:30am with their ATVs and bandana-masked faces ready to go. We followed behind in a taxi with surf boards stacked on top.

We arrived at Playa Hermosa at 9:00am. Lolo had an easygoing, friendly attitude; my kids took to him right away. Audrey, working with two beginner adults, was more serious, but very kind. The twenty minutes of land training included simply getting acquainted with the board and finding balance going from a lying to standing position. This involved about 30 repetitions of pushing up to a standing position. The connection between yoga and surfing was immediately apparent. The pushup was similar to going into upward facing dog. From there, we leapt sideways to a low squat position. My husband was looking good, and I was managing. My kids had an absolute blast. The entire lesson was a great workout, too!

Unfortunately, I didn't bring a camera with me. Petty theft is quite common in Costa Rica, so we were encouraged to leave any personal belonging locked safely away at the hotel. All-in-all, it was a great lesson. Two hours of surfing can really sap energy - especially for a bunch of beginners. My kids were wiped out by bedtime.

Day 5 - Relax & Stay Local

Sometimes the best thing about a vacation is to do nothing at all. Staying at a resort with a pool, a sandy beach and plenty of hammocks, my husband and I were able to get in some R & R, while our kids played. One of the things I really enjoyed was the fresh pipa juice (or water from young coconuts). It's incredibly fresh and so healthy! I often drank it straight from the fruit. One cup is about 65 calories. This juice works wonders on improving digestion and hydrating the body.

young coconut juice

Pipa juice - yum!

We spent a lot of time by the pool as my kids splashed around, met other kids and generally had a good time. Every now and then the clouds would roll in, but for the most part, the rain held off until the evening. We walked the beach often, looking for crabs or fish in small rock pools that were left behind when the tide went out.

Rock pools crab costa rica

This little guy was caught by my daughter, then quickly released.

Day 6 - Horseback Riding

We met a tour guide named Joshua in Santa Teresa on Day 5 who offered horseback riding tours along the beach. My kids were excited to ride, and neither my husband or I had been on a horse in a while. Joshua met us on the beach outside of our resort at 8:00am. About 15 minutes later, our guide, a small-framed man named Juan Luis, walked up to us with five horses in tow. Within minutes, my kids were saddled up and my husband and I were in awe of their bravery. Horses are big animals, and my girls hadn't really ridden anything other than a pony prior to this. We spent the next two and a half hours with Juan Luis as he brought us to a couple remote, rocky, but gorgeous beaches. My kids got the hang of how to make the horses canter (think of a canter as faster than a trot, but slower than a gallop).

Horseback riding in costa rica

An easy ride from the jungle trail back to the beach.

Day 7 - Waterfalls

We rented a car and decided to head back to Montezuma to check out the waterfalls in that area. After a 40 minute car ride, we arrived at the waterfalls around 11:00am. We were at the base of the path the second we got out of the car. There were no well-developed paths, just rocks to maneuver up and over. Again, my husband and I were in awe of our kids' bravery. My oldest was like a little monkey jumping and leaping everywhere. A few other people were hiking around, but in no way was it crowded. Needless to say, shoes were an important part of the hike. That said, just as we got comfortable with the rocks closest to the river en route to the waterfall, a few local boys literally ran by us up the rugged terrain. I guess practice makes perfect. When we finally arrived at the waterfall, we saw what everyone was talking about. It was simply gorgeous. A few people sat on rocks facing the waterfall and a few were sitting behind the waterfall itself. The water was cold, but a welcome relief after the hike.


My husband diving in from the rocks at the base of the waterfall.

Day 8 - Back to San Jose

We departed from Santa Teresa in our rented car around 11:00am to make the ferry at 2:00pm. This gave us enough time to grab lunch, or so we thought. The road back to the ferry was just as windy as I remembered it a week earlier. The upside was that we had our own wheels. The downside is that we had our own wheels. My husband twisted and turned through the fairly unfamiliar territory. An hour and a half later, we made it. We knew that the 2:00pm ferry would get us back to port by 3:15pm, and from there would only take 90 minutes to get to San Jose. The problem is, the airport is west of San Jose in a city called Alejuela. We were coming in from the south of San Jose during rush hour in the rain. In an effort to prevent any unneeded stress, I'll just say that we arrived at our hotel for the one night stay before leaving Costa Rica at 10:00pm. Yes, this included dinner, but we spent far, far, too much time on the road. The traffic in some parts of San Jose during rush hour rivals that of Chicago.

At last, our trip was over. We had a great time, and would do it again in a heartbeat.

So what happened to all the zip lining and yoga? The day after we arrived I dislocated a rib just under my collar bone. How? you ask. Was it surfing? Was it horseback riding? Maybe it was running along the beach? No, I actually opened a stuck door with too much force at the wrong angle directly into a sweet spot on my rib. Everything I did (and still do right now) was at a very gentle pace. Unfortunately that meant no yoga and no more surfing.

For the future, this means my next trip to Costa Rica will be that much sweeter!


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Traci is a nationally recognized health and fitness expert who has been featured on The TODAY Show and Dr. Oz. Traci is available for corporate speaking events and wellness coaching, as well as private training. Contact Traci here.


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