“May your adventures bring you closer together even as they take you far away from home.” – Trenton Lee Stewart
Planning our first big family adventure was no easy feat. Despite my Type-A personality, usually when I travel solo I just sign up for a trip and go. I rarely do any pre-trip planning except for the bare minimums. Traveling without everything planned in advance feels much more adventurous and liberating for me. It is the one or two weeks of my life that is not confined to a strictly organized schedule, and as the trip unravels there are often many unexpected delights that make it even more pleasurable.
This style of on the fly planning however was obviously not going to work for an eight-day family trip driving all over Costa Rica. Instead, it required a fair amount of pre-trip planning and organization. My husband and I had to nail down all hotels, transportation and daily excursions beforehand especially since we were traveling during high season. Luckily, I have three friends who had already done the trip with their families so I basically was able to hijack their itinerary with a few tweaks here and there. As always, I bought a travel guide and we researched online perusing TripAdvisor and other resourceful sights to make this trip as easy and fun as possible.
We knew that we didn’t want to just go to an all-inclusive resort and stay on the beach for a week. Instead, we wanted adventure and we wanted to see as much of the country as we could squeeze in. During my past visit to the Osa Peninsula, I learned that driving in Costa Rica is no easy undertaking. There are relatively few roads signs, addresses are unusual, and most roads are unpaved requiring a 4WD SUV with GPS so you don’t get too lost (even with GPS you often find yourself going the wrong way!).
After much research, we found that the lowest price to rent a 4WD SUV with GPS and insurance for a week was an outrageous $1,000! Apparently car insurance in Costa Rica is extremely expensive given how difficult the driving is in country and our normal procedure of using the extra insurance on our credit card when renting out of the US would not work. We shopped around but still could not find a better deal.
I’m not sure if it was showing my husband the pictures of the crazy roads we drove on in the Osa Peninsula or if he simply wanted to sit back and relax not worrying about the driving. A week before the trip, we decided to go to Plan B: We canceled the car reservation (except for two days of the trip when we stayed at a farm) and hired a driver.
Our trip required a ton of driving and the last thing we wanted to do was stress out about it. We also realized that in most of our destinations we would not need a car and our expensive rental would just be sitting in the parking lot gathering dust. Almost all of the excursions we did included transportation so we decided to rent a car only once during our trip when we needed it most and hire drivers for the rest. It was the best decision we ever made.
My husband researched online and found a transportation company called Morpho Vans and we ended up using their service for almost all the driving on the trip. Not only was it less expensive than renting a car, it was so much easier. There was peace of mind knowing we wouldn’t get lost, and we would know where to stop along the way for food and the bathroom. Best of all, we had our own local tour guide along with us to tell us all about Costa Rica.
An overview of our route:
I am a map freak and always want to know where places are on the map. So I thought I’d provide this google map below outlining our entire driving route. We went from A to B all in the first day after landing in Liberia at 11 am.
The adventure begins
We woke up Friday morning at 3:30 am to catch a 6 am non-stop flight from Minneapolis to Liberia. I couldn’t believe my luck at finding a direct flight that didn’t cost an arm and a leg. With tax included we were able to get our tickets for roughly $500 per person which is less money than we have to normally shell out during Christmas when we travel to either Arizona or Virginia to see our extended family. The only downside of the cheaper airfare was that it was on Sun Country, a Minnesota-based airline that provides the bare minimums meaning no meals (yet you can buy junk food), horrible seats and odd flight times. They also do not fly into centrally located San Jose but only to Liberia in the north. Liberia is great if you want to go straight to the beaches on the Nicoya Peninsula but not so wonderful if you want to see Manuel Antonio, which is either another flight on a tiny plane or a four and a half hour drive from Liberia. My lack of pre-trip planning definitely messed this one up! But I had to go to Manuel Antonio as I have always dreamed of seeing it since I first visited Costa Rica years ago.
It takes a short five hours of flying time to reach Liberia, Costa Rica from Minneapolis, a far cry from my last trip in January when it took all day to get to Costa Rica on American Airlines connecting through Miami. The good thing about leaving so stinking early is that you land in Costa Rica well before noon and if you are heading to Tamarindo or another beach town nearby, you can be there in less than an hour from the airport. Based on the attire of the passengers, it was obvious that was where most people on our plane were headed save the few families dressed like us in cargo pants and holding maps. For a split second I enviously watched the families dressed in flip-flops and shorts that would be sitting on the beach sipping a margarita in less than an hour. We had over four hours more to go, not including stops.
As promised our driver Henry from Morpho Vans was waiting for us outside of customs with a big sign with our name. We loaded up our luggage into a spacious 6-person van and were on our way south to Quepos. Like always, I sat up front right next to the driver with my notepad and camera in hand, ready to ask Henry everything I wanted to know about Costa Rica. He was extremely friendly, knowledgable and spoke perfect English teaching me the meaning behind some of the Spanish words I’d see or hear along the way.
I didn’t take many pictures (shocking isn’t it?) as I was too busy chatting with Henry about Costa Rica. I learned all about the funny Tico names for the various road conditions throughout the country such as “pista” which means “airplane runway” for paved roads and “carreteras sin pavimentar” for the traditional, infamous gravel roads. Henry also told me that “soda” did not refer to soda pop but to the numerous roadside local restaurants along the way that served home-cooked Costa Rican food for a few bucks. We saw tons of signs for “vino coyol“, a sweet, strong alcoholic drink made from palm trees. When Henry offered to stop and buy one, I quickly declined. The last thing I needed was to fall asleep and miss the drive.
Around 1 o’clock, we arrived at the port town of Puntarenas where we stopped for lunch at a local Tico seafood restaurant. We finally saw the deep blue waters of the Pacific ocean and it was mesmerizing. I could smell the sea salt in the humid air and with delight, I inhaled my first of many arroz con camerones. I even had an icy cold Imperial.
We had three more hours to go and did a quick stop in the small town of Tarcoles to stretch our legs and see the crocodiles that hang out under the bridge. According to Henry, the dozens of crocodiles have become permanent residents ever since they were offered food. Sadly they don’t return to their natural habitat since it is much easier living under the bridge.
We reluctantly got back into the car. My husband and the kids all listened to their books on tape while I continued to chat away with Henry. My bones were beginning to ache from so much time in the car and I also was getting a bit restless and carsick from the windy roads. We slugged through beach town after beach town along the coast until we finally reached our destination. And, we had made it just in time for sunset. What a delight! We were in for an amazing adventure.
A sneak peak of sunset from the balcony of our room on our first night in Manuel Antonio.