My Epic Family Travel Guide to Costa Rica

“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.”
— St. Augustine

Last Spring, we did our first big family adventure trip to Costa Rica and it was one of our best family trips ever. Trying to figure out the best place to bring two kids, ages 10 and 12, was a bit of a challenge but after researching Costa Rica I knew it would be the perfect place for an unforgettable family adventure and I was right.

Since our trip, many friends of mine have been asking for advice on how to plan the perfect Costa Rica trip so I decided to put together a Family Travel Guide and am hoping this will become a new series of mine as I begin to bring my children out into the world. There is so much I want them to see and explore!

A family shot at Arenal Volcano.

Why Chose Costa Rica?

Costa Rica continues to be one of the hottest destinations in Central America for nature loving and thrill-seeking tourists. Not only is this small country one of the safest in Central America, Costa Rica’s well-developed tourism industry affords numerous options for all different kinds of travelers: Eco, Adventure, Luxury, Beach, Solo and Family. Furthermore, Costa Rica’s insane biodiversity makes it a place where nature enthusiasts can see some of the most unique species of flora and fauna on the planet, a lot of which is endemic to the country. To put it simply, Costa Rica offers the perfect combination of awe-inspiring beauty, nature, beaches, rainforests, volcanoes, culture and adventure for people with all sorts of interests. It is an amazing place!

Where to go with older kids in Costa Rica:

Costa Rica is home to tons of beautiful beaches and resorts along the Guanacaste coastline which is ideal for families especially with younger children. You can make it really easy by staying in an all-inclusive resort offering children clubs, childcare and as many activities as your heart desires. Plus most of the resorts are just a hop, skip and a jump from Liberia International Airport making it a very easy beach and sun vacation. However, our two kids, ages 10 and 12, are not into laying around the beach and swimming all day. Nor are we!

Instead, we wanted to give them a more cultural view of this amazing place and seek adventure as well. We didn’t want to stay in just one location and preferred to move around a bit to give them a real feel of the different parts of the country. That was the hardest part with the planning as we didn’t want to move too much as that would be stressful for everyone. With nine days, we decided on three unique places staying three days each per place and allowing travel time: Manuel Antonio, Arenal and Rio Celeste. We felt these three destinations would each have something a little different and unique to explore and we were right.

Getting around:

Costa Rica is home to two international airports, centrally located San Jose and Liberia in the north which is only an hour drive from the beaches of Guanacaste. Unfortunately we made the mistake of purchasing our tickets based on price and chose Liberia which would have been fine if we stayed in Guanacaste. Little did we know, it was going to be a long haul (about four and a half hours driving time without stops) down to Manual Antonio where we began our trip.

Flying internally in Costa Rica is easy but not cheap and it is on small planes which I try to avoid. Initially we were going to rent a car for the entire trip but decided to break it up by using a driver for part of it and minimizing the stress. We hired Morpho Vans for a few of the long legs of our trip and it ended up being fantastic. We loved kicking back and having a local driver who could tell us all about Costa Rica and do the driving for us. One word of caution: Be sure to rent a car with all-wheel drive so you can handle some of the bumpy gravel roads and water crossing in some areas. Also, get a GPS!

An overview of our route:

We landed in Liberia at 11 am and had to make it all the way down to Manuel Antonio that day (from A to B). It was a long day but we made it just in time for sunset. We spent two full days in Quepos/Manuel Antonio, then drove back up to Arenal/La Fortuna with Morpho Vans, rented a car and spent two days at Arenal. We dropped off the car in La Fortuna, and had Morpho Vans pick us up to bring us to Rio Celeste where we spent the next two days before returning back to Liberia to catch our flight home.

All in all, our trip gave us an amazing overview of the country and each place offered unique things to see and do. We did not visit the beach area of Guanacaste or the Osa Peninsula. You could easily add on one of these destinations if you have another 2-3 days to spare.

Our route

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Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge, Costa Rica

An Afternoon Birdwatching at the Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge

“Every ending is a beginning. We just don’t know it at the time.” -Mitch Albom

For our very last day in Costa Rica, we decided to take a full day tour to the Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge, a remote wetland known for its incredible wildlife, located about 12 miles south of Los Chiles and near the Nicaraguan border. We arranged for our guide, wildlife specialist Odir Rojas to pick us up at our hotel early in the morning to avoid the high heat and humidity of the afternoon. We also knew that the kids would rather spend the day at the pool instead of doing another long tour so this was our compromise.

Our two-hour drive to the refuge took us north through beautiful lush Costa Rican countryside, passing through tiny farming pueblos (“villages”) and along many gravel roads. Apparently most tours that leave from La Fortuna don’t go all the way into the reserve but only on the edge. Since we were staying in Rio Celeste and had our own private tour, we were able to go all the way in. It was definitely worth the effort!

Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge, Costa Rica

Heading out to the Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge, passing through beautiful farmland.

The Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge is wetlands area consisting of a vast network of marshes and streams that drain into the Lago Caño Negro during the wet season. Given its unique ecosystem, the reserve is world renown for its excellent bird-watching especially the many species of migratory birds that seek sanctuary in this magical place. It is very remote and there are no public facilities at refuge, only a small family owned farm where we met our boat driver for the tour and were able to use the toilet.

I confess to being a bit surprised by the lack of development at the reserve but by this point nothing should have surprised me. It is rural, local tourism at its finest and thankfully there has been little adverse impact to this fragile ecosystem caused by tourism. The refuge remains hard to reach, off the beaten path and undeveloped. It is a true treasure.

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Odir parked the Four-Wheel Drive in the shade under a tree. We were the only ones there. A young Tico walked up to greet us and we followed him a few steps to the river to board our boat.  We had the entire boat to ourselves so we were able to move around and get pretty close to observe wildlife. Our driver was very good at spotting birds from a distance and would cut the engine so we could quietly glide in without disturbing them. 

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Tubing in Rio Frio, Costa Rica

Tubing Down the Rio Frio in Costa Rica

“We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures that we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open”. –  Jawaharlal Nehru

We decided on a whim to do something different and spend the afternoon tubing down the Rio Frio in Costa Rica. It wasn’t the first adventurous thing we had done since we were there. We went canyoning and zip lining in the jungle near Manuel Antonio. However, that adventure actually ended up feeling tame after our experience tubing down the Rio Frio.It was by no means the leisurely gliding down the river, enjoying the beautiful scenery go by. Instead, it ended up being a pretty wild and crazy thrill ride. We honestly had no idea what we were getting into when we signed up to go with our guide Wilson who had spent the morning with us touring Tenorio Volcano National Park. I guess that is what made the whole experience so memorable.

We met Wilson after lunch for our forty-five minute drive to the river. Along the way, we picked up his son as well as his partner who would be our river guide and safety man along the two-hour ride. We stopped briefly at the “Abrol de la Paz” (the tree of peace), perhaps the biggest tree I had ever seen in my life, and took some pictures. I didn’t catch the type of tree but it had to be hundreds of years old. It was magnificent!

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We drove over bumpy gravel roads, passed a few cowboys along the way and ended up at our destination, a fenced in pasture and farm with grazing horses. There were no tourist signs, no buildings or anything in sight except the endless gravel road and the barbed wire fence. It was nothing like I had expected or conjured up in my head.

We got out of the car and Wilson inflated our tubes and grabbed us helmets. I looked around us a little confused. We were in the middle of nowhere and there was no river in sight. Wilson signaled to follow him. We ducked under the barbed wire fence, and began walking through the grassy pasture avoiding cow dung and snakes along the way. It felt like a moment out of an odd dream or a movie. We were lost in translation, not really understanding why we were hiking through a private farm carrying inner tubes and wearing our bathing suits, to get to the river. Apparently Wilson has a deal with the owners who let him use his property to do his tubing tours. We were the only guests.

Tubing in Costa Rica

Driving down the gravel country road to our tubing launch

Rio Celeste, Costa Rica

Tubing in Costa Rica

Inflating the Tubes

Rio Celeste, Costa Rica

Setting off to find the river

Rio Celeste, Costa Rica

Walking through the pasture avoiding manure and snakes

Rio Celeste, Costa Rica

Getting ready to launch

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Tenorio Volcano National Park/Parque Nacional Volcan Tenorio, Costa Rica

Exploring the Rio Celeste at Tenorio Volcano National Park

We met out guide Wilson early in the morning at our hotel and were on our way to Tenorio Volcano National Park. Although the park is only about a fifteen minute walk from our hotel, the Rio Celeste Hideaway, we drove and in the end it was a good decision due to the high heat and humidity that day.  It was overcast and had just rained that morning leaving a thick humid mist to the air and lots of mud.

Wilson recommended we pay the $4 to rent a pair of mid-length plastic mud boots and despite the discomfort it ended up being an excellent decision. The trails were slick in fresh, thick mud and my new hiking shoes would have been ruined had I worn them. The only downside was the boots were too big, a bit cumbersome and needed knee-high socks to avoid rubbing. I clumsily walked last in line during our three hour hike but at least I saved my shoes.

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Tenorio Volcano National Park (Parque Nacional Volcan Tenorio) was created in 1995 and encompasses over 18,400 hectares of rainforest and cloud forest as well as the Tenorio Volcano itself. Although the volcano is no longer active, there is still a large amount of volcanic activity present. There are hot springs and bubbling water within the river where the volcanic gases are released way below the ground.

The prize possession of the Tenorio Volcano National Park is the Rio Celeste “Blue River” that meanders through the jungle. As you hike along the trail, you can visit a spectacular waterfall as well as see where two rivers converge to create the celestial blue Rio Celeste, a natural phenomenon.

As we entered the park, the first thing Wilson pointed out was the green walking trees which are endemic in this park. They can live in water because it passes through them and a special sap drops off the ends for animals and birds to eat. Although they don’t actually walk the trees do move a small amount each year.

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Rio Celeste Hideaway, Costa Rica

Our Costa Rica Family Adventure: Rio Celeste Hideaway

“The clearest way into the universe is through a forest wilderness”. – John Muir

After two absolutely fantastic days in Arenal, it was time to head to our last destination for our week-long family adventure in Costa Rica: Rio Celeste. We had heard about the Rio Celeste Hideway, a gorgeous resort tucked away within the jungle surrounding the Rio Celeste, from a good friend of mine who spent a year living in Costa Rica with her family. This part of Costa Rica is not as well known however the Rio Celeste is world famous for its magical technicolor turquoise waters. The color of the river is like nothing I have ever seen anywhere on earth. It is so brilliantly blue that it looks surreal or like something out of a Disney movie.  Just to see the Rio Celeste is worth the drive north.

We rose early on the farm not sleeping too well due to the rumbling of the guests above us. I didn’t realize how paper thin the floor was at our Air B&B rental until a family of five arrived the night before. Unfortunately every movement above us was amplified and it sounded like they were playing musical chairs all night with the furniture. I made a mental note to write in my review to not stay in the bottom unit unless you wear ear plugs.

We left Parrot Hill Ranch after breakfast and drove back to La Fortuna to drop off the rental car. We would not be needing it for the rest of our trip as we had a driver picking us up for the short 2 hour ride to Rio Celeste. We were happy to leave the car and not have to worry about driving anymore. (Our route below: We traveled from E to F).

Our route

We drove through the lush green countryside of Northern Costa Rica passing pineapple farm after pineapple farm. Our driver Alfredo told us that Costa Rica is now the top exporter of pineapples in the world supplying over half of all pineapples imported to the US. Alfredo said that ten years ago the land was filled with cows and pasture for them to graze on. Once farmers realized that they could make more money in pineapples the farms were converted over and pineapples became the largest exported agricultural product in Costa Rica. Concerns about poor labor conditions and environmental issues have left a bittersweet taste to Costa Rica’s pineapple industry. I must confess that Tico pineapples are amazingly juicy and delicious though. Just like their coffee, they are something special.

Our drive took us through many small towns, farms and tiny roadside markets. As we approached the long drive up the hill to our hotel, Alfredo pulled over and bought us some fresh coconut milk to try. The farmer opened it on the spot and stuck a couple straws inside for us to drink. Its creamy watery taste hit the spot.

We arrived at Rio Celeste Hideaway just in time for lunch. Since we would not have a car for the rest of our stay and we were staying in a fairly remote location we were beyond pleased that the food at the resort was absolutely delightful. We always had service with a smile, and ate breakfast, lunch and dinner at the gorgeous open-air restaurant. Besides standard American fare, they also served Tico food and I enjoyed my rice and beans each morning with eggs and fresh sour cream.

The Rio Celeste Hideaway is built within the verdant thick rainforest that surrounds Rio Celeste and borders Volcan Tenorio National Park. It is a spectacular place! There are 26 spacious, beautifully appointed casitas (little houses) that literally are tucked up into the jungle. Each casita is decorated immaculately with hand-carved wood furniture, high-pitched ceilings made from sugar cane, open-air showers and a large balcony jutting out into the jungle. There is nice pool with a swim up bar, a hot-tub, game room, and their own little hiking trail that leads you to the “blue river” (Rio Celeste). It truly is a gem of a find. I fell in love with this place and wish we could have stayed longer than three short days.

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Mistical Hanging Bridges Park, Arenal, Costa Rica

A Day Exploring Mistical Arenal Hanging Bridges Park

“Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go”. – T.S. Eliot

After our horseback ride and lunch, it was time for our next adventure: A two-hour guided tour of Mistical Arenal Hanging Bridges Park with a naturalist. The trail is about two miles long, and follows a footpath through the innermost parts of the rainforest as well as passes high up through the jungle canopy over 6 hanging bridges (the highest one being 148 feet/45 m above ground) and four lower bridges. You can do the walk without a guide however having a trained eye and a professional naturalist was amazing as we learned a ton about the diverse flora and fauna in the area and saw lots of interesting things we would have missed on our own.

We met our guide, Gustavo at the entrance and were on our way. As we were walking, Gustavo told us a little history about the park. The park was built on the property of the Castillo Rodriguez family who had inherited this pristine land from their family.  Wanting to share its immense value and beauty, the land owners formed a partnership with Los Puentes Colgantes de Arenal to develop the land with the mission of preserving this unique ecosystem while also opening it up for sustainable tourism. Construction on the park began in 2000 and Mistical Arenal Hanging Bridges Park was opened in 2002 with complete transfer of management back to the Castillo Rodriguez family in 2014.

Mistical Arenal Hanging Bridges Park, Arenal Costa Rica

The view of Arenal Volcano at Mistical Arenal Hanging Bridges Park is fabulous

Mistical Hanging Bridges Park, Arenal, Costa Rica

Heading to the start of the trail

As we left the beautiful gardens surrounding the entrance of the park, we were mesmerized by the almost deafening sound of cicadas. Unlike where we live, cicadas live year round in this part of Costa Rica thanks to its ideal climate. Gustavo told us that after the cicadas hatch from their shells, they live for only 5-6 weeks and it is a 9 and 13 year cycle. That is why they lay eggs all the time since it takes so many years to hatch. The magic of nature never ceases to amaze me.

While we were walking, I stopped to ask Gustavo about the importance of colors. Many of the most brilliant colored insects in Costa Rica are poisonous (such as the “Blue Jeans Poison Dart Frog) and the brilliant colors are a warning to predators or else a way to attract them. Flowers also have an interesting role in colors. For instance, the Heliconia flowers which are common throughout Costa Rica are fuzzy and look like a bird of paradise. Most people mistake the large, red pieces as the flowers. However, the small yellow parts are the actual flower and the red part is a modified leaf. It is a natural way of attracting pollinators.

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Mistical Arenal Hanging Bridges Park, Costa Rica

Costa Rica Family Adventure: Horseback Riding at the Foothills of Arenal Volcano

“Live, travel, adventure, bless, and don’t be sorry.” – Jack Kerouac

We woke up early to the sound of chickens and life on the farm at our stay in El Castillo at Parrot Hill Ranch. The morning fog was rising over Arenal and the surrounding jungle was coming to life with the roar of howler monkeys and constant squawking of scarlet macaws. Outside, morning dew caressed the closed petals of flowers and the ground was wet and moist. It had rained hard last night.

We only had one full day in Arenal and with so many exciting, adventurous options, we had to make a family decision on how to best use our time. Besides the volcano, Arenal is known for its hot springs and spas as well as its incredible zip line park and aerial tram that sweeps you hundreds of feet above the jungle. Since we had already done zip lining and canyoning in Manuel Antonio, we opted to spend the day at Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park, a stunning property on the foothills of Arenal filled with lush tropical rainforest where you can hike, horseback ride, go birding and more. If we had time, we’d go for an afternoon swim at one of the many hot springs.

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Before breakfast, we made the mistake of attempting a morning hike on a makeshift path near the farm called the “Monkey Trail”. We heard about it from the American neighbors who also run an Air B&B just down the gravel road from Parrot Hill Ranch. The owner boasted how he made the trail by hand and it was almost complete. He told us to go early in the morning for a chance to see howler monkeys and other nature. We were unable to convince our 12-year-old son Max to get out of bed however 10-year-old Sophia was game for the hike. Thankfully so were the farm’s two dogs, one of them a tiny Chihuahua named Bobby who was spirited and had a big dog personality.

Parrot Hill Ranch, El Castillo , Costa Rica

Our morning hike

Parrot Hill Ranch, El Castillo , Costa Rica

The homemade path

In my eyes, a morning hike with monkeys sounded like a dream come true!  Yet little did we know, the trail would be very dark, narrow and literally inside the thick of the jungle. With a hesitant start, we entered the dark,deep jungle and the first thought that came to mind was I hope we wouldn’t see any snakes. The dogs went first and it made me feel a little better (I jokingly thought of them as “snake bait”) yet after about twenty minutes we turned around not wanting to take a chance with fate. Costa Rica has many species of venomous snakes, spiders, frogs, and other insects. Oftentimes you cannot see them until it is too late. If you are attacked and can’t reach medical attention soon, it can be fatal. We heard way too many spooky stories to mess around so we decided to hold off our hiking until we were at the park with an experienced guide. Looking back, I’m glad that we trusted our instincts as our guide pointed out three highly poisonous snakes at the park later that day and we never would have seen them due to their meticulous camouflage.

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Parrot Hill Ranch, El Castillo, Arenal, Costa Rica

Our Family Costa Rican Adventure: A Stay at a Farm near Arenal

“And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.”  -Roald Dahl

As we inched up the gravel road at a snail’s speed, we admired the sensational beauty of our surroundings. Lake Arenal was off in the horizon, and the farm was surrounded by lush, thick jungle. The sounds of birds and a group of dogs greeted our arrival while a group of distant howler monkeys warded off their turf with their deep throaty howls. The masterpiece of all however was the piercing view of Arenal Volcano. It was literally right in your face begging not be ignored. As we unpacked our bags, we knew that this was going to be one place that we would never forget. A place of dreams and fairytales. A place of magical mystique.

El Castillo, Arenal, Costa Rica

Heading up the gravel road to the farm

El Castillo, Arenal, Costa Rica

Lake Arenal beckons

Parrot Hill Ranch, El Castillo, Arenal, Costa Rica

The mighty omnipresent Arenal Volcano is literally right in your face

We had found the Parrot Hill Ranch through good friends of ours back home in Minneapolis who had stayed at this remote Air B&B property back in February. They have children the same age as ours – 10 and 12- and informed us that the farm was quite a memorable, unique experience. It was an opportunity for the kids to fully integrate and immerse themselves with Costa Rican life and stay at a very different kind of lodging on a working farm. I secretly liked as well that this is the way to travel sustainably. To support the local community and get a taste of their culture. It would not at all be luxurious like our last place however it would certainly be unique.

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El Castillo, Arenal, Costa Rica

Our Family Costa Rican Adventure: Drive to Arenal

“Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.” – Jack Kerouac 

We rose early on our last morning at Manuel Antonio not really wanting to leave but ready for our next adventure. We had planned a morning sloth tour at the Tulemar property before heading north to Arenal. We were grateful that we had forgone the idea of driving ourselves and instead hired a driver again from Morpho Vans to take us there. Our driver was to meet us immediately after the sloth tour and it was going to be another very long day on the road again.

Tulemar Vacation Rentals, Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica

Morning breakfast on the veranda of our villa at Tulemar

The sloth walk is one of the benefits of staying at Tulemar as it is only offered to guests of the property. Over the course of 90 minutes you have the opportunity to see a ton of sloths, monkeys and birds right in the heart of Tulemar’s own private reserve. The sloth walk is offered every day except Tuesdays at 9 am and books up fast given its popularity. The tour begins up at the top of Tulemar and meanders down the steep road towards the beach.

Each sloth walk is hosted by a Sloth Institute Researcher who carries binoculars for guests to get an up close view of both two and three-toed sloths. Over the course of the next hour and a half we saw a total of 12 sloths including a few babies. It was a cool experience but nothing could ever beat our private tour at Manuel Antonio National Park. Still, I’m glad we did it.

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By 11 am, our driver Juan Carlos was waiting with a 12-person van for our family of four. It ended up being a good thing that we had an extra large van given how carsick we all were on our five-hour bumpy, winding drive from Manuel Antonio to La Fortuna. Little did I know, I’d be using the entire back row to lay down and try to sleep away the Dramamine and the feeling of unease. (On map below, we traveled from B to D, a total of over six hours).

Our route

The drive was long and arduous yet fascinating given how much the landscape and topography changed. We left the hot tropical jungle of Manuel Antonio, passing through the beach town of Jaco and then headed north to the mountain town of San Ramon and the cloud forest near Los Angeles where we were engulfed in misty cool fog. It was such a dramatic difference from where we had just been that it seemed unimaginable that we were only about three hours away from where we left that morning.

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Tulemar Vacation Rentals, Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica

A Villa of our own at Tulemar in Manuel Antonio

“Family: Like branches in a tree we all grow in different directions but our roots remain as one.” – Unknown

After a fabulous morning exploring Manuel Antonio National Park, it was time to head back to our villa at Tulemar, a thirty-three acre residential resort located right in the heart of Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica.  After thorough research of all the options of where to stay with a family of four near the park, we chose to rent a villa on the Tulemar property and we could not have been more pleased. The beautiful property is home to its own private reserve of all sorts of wildlife, has its own private beach, several pools and a wide variety of accommodation choices depending upon your needs. It is the perfect place to create beloved family memories for our first big adventure abroad.

We selected a two-room villa that was perched high above the jungle overlooking the ocean below and not a far walk from the beach. It was a cozy home away from home and perhaps one of the most lovely accommodations we have ever stayed at. My kids were going to get a little spoiled having the best accommodations first however each place we stayed at during our week in Costa Rica proved to be special and unique.

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The Tulemar resort is so large that they offer a free shuttle service to get around and as much as I love to walk, the paved roads are very steep so we appreciated the van service. Thankfully we were not a very far walk from the best place of all on the property, the beach. Having a private beach was one of the main reasons why we chose to stay here. The beaches at Manuel Antonio are quite crowded and after our three hour morning tour, we were so hungry and tired that the last thing we wanted to do was hang out at the beach. Instead, we grabbed lunch at a local restaurant and then went back to relax a bit at Tulemar. We could visit the beach on our own time and best of all, watch the sunset there each night.

There are three ways to get to the beach. You can either take the shuttle, walk down the paved road or else explore the jungle trail that leads down to the beach. Dressed in our swim suits, sun hats and flip-flops, me and my daughter Sophia of course chose the more scenic, adventurous route. We didn’t see any of the resident monkeys or sloths but we heard lots of birds and kept our eyes out for snakes.

Tulemar Vacation Rentals, Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica

Taking the scenic trail down to the beach

The property has its own reserve where monkeys, sloths, and other wildlife live within the high canopy of the trees. In June of 2015, the Board of Directors of Tulemar approved a partnership with the Sloth Institute of Costa Rica (TSI), a non-profit organization based in town whose mission is to enhance the well-being and conservation of wild and captive sloths through research and education. TSI staff live on the grounds of Tulemar where they work with injured or orphaned sloths on a rescue, release and research program. Since the onset of the program, Tulemar has seen a healthy increase in its sloth population and guests can sign up for a one-hour sloth walk throughout the property. We did the sloth walk and saw over 10 sloths!

However, you don’t need to do the sloth walk to see them in the wild. All you need to do is keep alert and look up in the trees and you may find a surprise like we did: A mama and baby sloth literally only ten feet above me resting in a tree right on the beach!

Tulemar Vacation Rentals, Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica

Mama and baby sloth only a few feet up above in the tree on the beach

They were only there for a day so we were so lucky to see them. I couldn’t resist taking a short video of the mama and baby sloth resting near the beach.

As a conscious and sustainable traveler, I was a little concerned about how the property manages to coexist with the wildlife. I contacted a member of the Tulemar Board of Directors who told me that the resort follows very strict building guidelines and consults with wildlife, forestry and other groups to help with conservation of the property. Manuel Antonio and the surrounding town of Quepos has exploded with growth and development over the past 20 years and resorts like Tulemar are working hard to maintain a good balance between growth and conservation. Only time will tell if their efforts pay off.

By far, the beach was one of my favorite things about Tulemar. The jungle literally tumbles down the hill to the edge of the sea. There are monkeys, sloths, scarlet macaws and tons of hermit crabs to see moving slowly across the sand. Guests have access to all sorts of water toys such as paddleboards, kayaks and boogie boards.  There is also a bar and small restaurant if you want to grab a bite to eat.

Tulemar Vacation Rentals, Manuel Antonio, Costa RicaTulemar Vacation Rentals, Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica

Tulemar Vacation Rentals, Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica

Tulemar Vacation Rentals, Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica

My son riding a wave

Tulemar Vacation Rentals, Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica

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Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica

A Guided Tour of Manuel Antonio National Park with Naturalist Johan Chaves

“In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks”. –  John Muir

Our villa at Tulemar was like a treehouse, perched high above the jungle and surrounded by nature.  I woke at 5:30 am to the sound of the birds greeting the day and went out to watch the tropical rainforest come to life. Two pairs of scarlet macaws flew poignantly overhead and settled in a neighboring tree where they squawked a bit before taking flight. Kingfishers, warblers, rose-breasted grosbeaks, and tiny hummingbirds enjoyed their breakfast in the morning light. I could have laid here all morning but alas I had to get everyone else up for our seven am tour of Manuel Antonio National Park.

Tulemar Vacation Rentals, Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica

My favorite place of all – the hammock

Tulemar Vacation Rentals, Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica

Morning sunrise from the balcony at Tulemar

Visting Manuel Antonio had been a dream of mine ever since I first visited Costa Rica on a volunteer trip in 2011. Today I would finally see one of Costa Rica’s most popular and beloved parks and I could hardly wait.

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Tulemar Vacation Rentals, Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica

Off to a Great Adventure: Arriving in Manuel Antonio at Sunset

“Every sunset is an opportunity to reset”. – Richie Norton

Exhausted and achy after 13 hours of travel, we finally arrived at our hotel in Manuel Antonio. It had been an extremely long day, especially for the kids, but we were all in high spirits to finally arrive at our much-awaited destination. I had been wanting to go to Manuel Antonio ever since I first visited Costa Rica in 2011 on a volunteer trip. A group of fellow volunteers had went for a weekend but as a mother of young children, I could not afford to be gone any longer than a week. I had to go home despite a deep unfilled wish of seeing it.

Fast forward 6 years, in the midst of planning our 9 day family adventure in Costa Rica that long seeded desire to visit Manual Antonio National Park arose from hibernation and a little voice kept telling me I had to finally go see it even if it would require a significant amount of time spent in the car driving. As I mentioned in my past post, we flew into Liberia Airport in the north of the country and to reach Manuel Antonio required a long five hour drive down a one-way highway snaking in and out of little beach towns. Yet I had my heart set on seeing Manuel Antonio so the plan was made to get the long drive out of the way immediately on the front end of our trip. I can thank my husband for his wise thinking.

Our route

The entire drive down to Manuel Antonio I secretly wondered if I would truly be satisfied by visiting. I had just spent a week in the remote, undeveloped Osa Peninsula in January and literally had the place to myself. Its raw, untouched beauty and lack of mass tourism made it a paradise on earth and supported my mission to travel responsibly by engaging in sustainable, ethical travel. Manuel Antonio would be quite different as it is known as the first ecotourism destination in Costa Rica so the area has suffered over the years with mass tourism, overdevelopment, and unsustainable practices that have negatively impacted the culture, environment and wildlife of this magical place. A complicated feeling of guilt mixed with pleasure swirled around inside my head.

When we arrived in Quepos, the bustling town located right outside of the park, it was clear that it was nothing at all like Puerto Jimenez in the Osa Peninsula. Street after street was packed with souvenir shops, restaurants and an overwhelmingly amount of tourists. My stomach dropped in initial disappointment yet I should not have been surprised based on all I had read.

We drove the 4 1/2 miles (7 km) through town, constantly avoiding cars and people, climbing up the lush green rain forested hills of Manuel Antonio. Resort after resort dotted the tiny road with gates and security guards and pristine landscaping. I confess it was beautiful yet a stark difference between the tiny town of Drake Bay in the Osa whose sweeping views of rainforest and jungle are unobstructed.

We pulled into the gates of our resort and were relieved to finally be there. After much research and careful consideration, we decided to stay at one of the best resorts in town, Tulemar Vacation Rentals. It would be a far cry from my cheap, local lodging in the Osa and would not exactly follow my mission of staying and supporting local travel. Yet it would have some clear advantages over some of the other choices in the area. First, we would have our own private villa with one large bedroom, a large balcony and a kitchen. Second, we would be in walking distance to all the restaurants so we did not need to rent a car. And lastly and perhaps the most essential is that the resort has its own private beach and park reserve. Unfortunately the beautiful beaches of Manuel Antonio are very small, overcrowded with hardly a place to relax. Having our own beach away from all the crowds to relax and unwind sounded amazing. I just had to fight with that little voice inside my head reminding me I was staying at a gated compound instead of at a locally-owned ecolodge. (Side note: After thinking about this issue extensively, I contacted Tulemar via email with a list of questions about their sustainability practices. I got some excellent information which I will share in my next post on Tulemar). 

We checked in, and loaded our luggage into one of Tulemar’s vans to bring us to our Villa. I naively thought we could walk but the complex is huge and the roads throughout it are extremely steep. So steep that my calves ached walking to and from the beach (you can of course take the van but I preferred to walk). It is also quite large with lots of different accommodations and even a few privately owned homes. I hadn’t expected it to be so big! There are even a few different pools within the complex depending on your need (a family, adults only, and the sunset pool).

We reached our villa just as the sun was beginning to make its initial descent. We walked out on the large balcony and were rewarded with an astounding view of the jungle and sea below. It made our long day of travel completely worth the effort.

Tulemar Vacation Rentals

The view from our balcony

Tulemar Vacation Rentals, Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica

The balcony is huge with a couch, dining table and best of all a hammock with an unbelievably gorgeous view.

Tulemar Vacation Rentals, Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica

The view

Tulemar Vacation Rentals, Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica

My favorite place of all – the hammock

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