After a week of non-stop activity in the central cloud forests and volcanoes of Costa Rica (see Adventures in Costa Rica Part 1), we needed our adventures to take on a more mellow vibe for the second week of our holiday: enter the Caribbean coast. Blessed with beautiful beaches, abundant wildlife, and an extremely relaxed feel, it’s the perfect spot for unwinding.
Many fewer tourists venture to this coast, which only increased its appeal to us! We decided to visit the very southern part of Cahuita, followed by a few days in the stunning Tortuguero National Park in the North. Both places felt much more off the beaten track than Monteverde and Arenal. And as we stayed in small local accommodation, most people we interacted with spoke no English. A fantastic opportunity then for us to practise our Spanish!
As with my last post, I’ve written this one in a way that shows our daily schedule. Reading other peoples’ posts massively helped our own planning process, and I’m hoping this too will help others design their ideal trip.
Day Eight – To the Caribbean!
Driving from Arenal down to Cahuita is a long and painfully slow journey (five hours), whilst they build the new road. Luckily, we had a riveting audiobook to listen to along the way – A Town Like Alice by Neville Shute. (Please note this is a book of its time. At times, the racist and misogynistic comments made my eyes water. But if you can get past that, it’s a powerful and fascinating story.)
So, carrying on from my last post, Day 8 was mostly a travelling day culminating with time on the beautiful Playa Negra.
We stayed at New Caribe Point, a small collection of villas around a pool, set in glorious gardens brimming with life! One afternoon, an entire troop of howler monkeys swung through its trees making an almighty racket! The lovely owners are also happy to point out wildlife, such as iguanas sunbathing high in the trees. And Harry spotted a very sleepy sloth snuggled up in the nook of a low branch, close enough to touch.
This accommodation is excellent unless you happen to be staying on a Fri/Sat night. It’s located behind a very lively reggae bar, and on both evenings, there was live music until gone midnight. Perfect if you fancy some exciting nightlife, but for a family, trying to get to sleep to the sounds of a banging base was somewhat tricky!
Day Nine – Surfing Adventures
We started the day with a delicious breakfast at Restaurante Las Olas (highly recommended). Once replete, we wandered around the pretty little town of Cahuita, watching as toucans flew across our path. This place felt completely different to the rest of Costa Rica – more like a Caribbean Island town. We quickly adapted to the relaxed local pace and spent the rest of the day at the Playa Negra under a hot sun.
In the afternoon, for a more chilled adventure – Caribbean style – James and the kids arranged a two-hour surfing lesson. It was a huge hit! We’d booked with the instructors on the beach, and the quality of their instruction turned out to be excellent. After an initial lesson on the sand, they hit the waves, with a 1:2 instructor to student ratio. It wasn’t long before the kids were up and riding the waves, beaming as they went!
The waves on this beach are perfect for beginner and intermediate surfers – constant and exciting but not overwhelmingly large like on the Pacific coast. All three loved their sessions and devoured the succulent fresh pineapple offered at the end!
Day Ten – Reef Sharks and Monkeys Galore
For a girls’ adventure, Rosie and I booked onto a snorkelling trip the following morning. This was not without its stresses. We’d booked with conservationist Fernando Brown (run from his restaurant Miss Edith’s), leaving at 9:30. I wandered down there early to check all was OK but there was no sign of him, and his friends had no idea of his whereabouts… Maybe he’d had a good time the night before at the reggae bar, but he wasn’t home! We were working – after all – on Caribbean time!
It was our last morning there though and I was keen to see the local reef. After some negligent tourists badly damaged the reef, it’s now illegal to snorkel it without an official guide. So, I needed to find one quickly. Luckily, I noticed some other tourists with snorkelling gear, and decided to follow them and we managed to blag our way onto their snorkelling trip instead.
This turned out to be an excellent option. The boat took us out to the reef and their guide showed us around a couple of different locations. He had amazing eyesight, spotting lionfish, sting rays, sea cucumbers, a lobster and even a reef shark, which was super special. The reef itself was teeming with fish although the corals weren’t as beautiful/diverse as those we saw in Indonesia.
We had a wonderful morning swimming amongst the hundreds of fish in delightfully warm waters. Then, the boat drove us back to shore for the obligatory fresh fruit end – always appreciated!
In the afternoon, the kids were keen for some more beach time, but I had itchy feet, so walked down to Parque Nacional Cahuita. This is a picturesque section of rainforest running alongside a stunning white sand beach (Playa Blanca) and turquoise sea. I could have spent all day here exploring the trails or relaxing on the beach.
But I only had a short time, so I hiked to Punta Cahuita, the tip of the Playa Blanca and back. It was a gorgeous walk. At times I was surrounded by rainforest, at others, the trail brought me alongside the beautiful beach. There were few people, so I had the sights, smells and sounds of the rainforest all to myself. The cicadas were certainly boisterous making an unbelievably loud shrieking sound. And there were white faced capuchins everywhere swinging in and out of the trees, along with giant spiders hanging in webs and brightly coloured crabs scuttling towards the shore.
One sign which made me slightly anxious – beware of the crocodiles in the lake, which skirted nearby the shore. I was sure to stay as far on the other side of the path as possible! But my favourite moment was seeing two little raccoons calmly wander towards me along the path. They were followed by a couple. It genuinely looked like the raccoons were taking them for a walk!
It’s a small but gorgeous park jam-packed with wildlife. I was sad to leave it behind. But it was time for dinner – I knew my little man’s tummy would be rumbling!
That evening we ventured into Puerto Viejo de Talamanca for a tasty dinner. Although there were more restaurant options here, it was much busier and more touristy than Cahuita. Despite the reggae bar, I was glad we’d stayed in the more chilled out smaller town.
Day Eleven – Tortuguero National Park
The day started with another long drive (around 3.5 hours) up to La Pavona. Here you can park your car safely (for a reasonable daily fee) and take the boat into Tortuguero National Park. There are no roads into the National Park. You can either fly on a small plane or get a boat along the winding mangrove-backed rivers. This latter option felt like much more of adventure to us!
The whole process was very slick. We arrived at La Pavona and were sold tickets on the gate. We parked our car, picked up our bags and were on a boat about 15 minutes later.
The ride into Tortuguero was magical. The sun shone down on us as we whizzed along the muddy rivers, with colourful birds flying around us, whilst turtles, crocodiles and caimans basked under the sun’s rays.
Despite the lack of rain, it wasn’t an entirely water-free ride, as water splashed over the sides of our long, skinny boat. I’d recommend taking a waterproof bag with you for all the valuables. Luckily our big bags were buried at the bottom of the pile so stayed dry!
It was just over an hour to the village of Tortuguero. But our stop was just across the river at the tiny village of San Francisco at the Chinitas Eco Lodge (highly recommended). We landed directly at the Lodge’s mooring and were met by the incredibly friendly owners and a fresh coconut to drink each. We dropped our bags and headed into the little village to find some lunch.
I’m so glad we stayed at this spot rather than one of the remoter, (posher) lodges, jam-packed with tourists. It was great to be able to wander into the little village of San Francisco. As there are no cars here, one little pathway forms the main street, with tiny mud tracks off this acting as side streets. A few shops, a couple of tiny places to eat, a collection of simple houses, a church and a school make up this village. Oh, and a heladería (ice cream shop), which seemed to be the place to hang out of an evening! This place has an incredibly welcoming and happy feel, with kids running around barefoot huge grins plastered on their faces.
After lunch and a wander around, we spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing in the hammocks at our guest house overlooking the peaceful river. Harry meanwhile perfected his table football skills, cajoling as many of us and other guests into playing with him!
Later, we dined in the restaurant of our hotel, which was delicious, poring over animal guides. The kids spotted a beautiful bare-throated tiger heron hanging out by the river’s edge.
And then we hit the sack early thanks to a 5:30am start planned for the following day.
Day Twelve – Exploring the Mangroves by Kayak
It was a painfully early start but worth it. We grabbed a quick brekkie and met our lovely guide from the village, Pedro. He spoke a little English and between this and our little bit of Spanish, we managed to get by. His keen eyes and abundant knowledge of the local fauna and flora more than made up for the slight language barrier.
We took a boat across to Tortuguero Village together and picked up two double and one single kayaks. And then we were off, with a child for each parent, headed across the open stretch of water to the tiny backwaters of the canal network.
Kayaking is in my opinion the best way to explore this natural beauty. It allows you to get extremely close to the wildlife along the shoreline, sometimes within touching distance. Gliding gently along the waterways, watching little blue-herons duck in and out of the reeds, parrots fly in front of us, or the anhinga (snakebird) dry its wings on a dead branch, was like therapy for the soul. Spider and howler monkeys crashed around in the branches on the shoreline, the latter’s low-pitched growls sounding like an early-morning Gregorian chant.
It turns out I’m fairly useless at animal spotting. But luckily Pedro was a pro. How he could make out the camouflaged shape of an iguana or green basilisk – known as the Jesus Christ lizard thanks to its skill of skipping across water – high up in the branches of a tree was beyond me. Or the eyes of a small caiman peering out, the remainder of its body hidden under the muddy water.
The best part of the experience was leaving behind the bigger boats to delve into some of the tiniest waterways. Here the jungle seemed to close in around us. Pushing deeper in, ducking under branches and navigating around sleeping caimans, we felt like real explorers. That is until the kids brought me promptly back to earth with an urgent toilet request… Always the best places!
I get the impression it’s heavily frowned upon to land the boats, but needs must and all. Pedro helped the kids onto the shore and into the jungle. Whilst I spent the next few minutes praying to God that their chosen toilet spots weren’t on top of a deadly snake… Thankfully my prayers were answered, and they made it back to the boats unscathed.
But it turns out my fears were over the wrong animal. Moments later, Pedro turns around to James with a smile on his face. “You know,” he said, “your impression of a jaguar is very realistic!”
“It wasn’t me,” James insisted, doing his best Shaggy impression. Pedro kept laughing, assuming James was joking – he’d been doing impressions of various animals throughout the trip. “No, seriously. I didn’t make that noise.”
His face dropped, turning from jovial to seemingly terrified in a matter of seconds as he realised our children had been merrily toileting near one of the rarest but most deadly creatures in Costa Rica!
“Can they swim?” piped up Harry.
“Yes, very well,” answered Pedro.
At this point, with one anxious little boy in our midst, we decided not to test our luck any further. It was time anyway to paddle our way back out of the swamps to Tortuguero village.
Back on dry land after a fabulous morning, Pedro joined us for a deliciously refreshing iced watermelon shake. These drinks are the best in the world! We had hundreds of them between us over the two weeks.
We spent the rest of the morning wandering around Tortuguero village and playing on the beach (note the sea is not safe to swim here due to the rip tides and sharks).
After all this activity, a hearty lunch was needed. El Patio served us well, and eaten against this stunning backdrop, can it get any better?
Completely stuffed, we took a water taxi back to our lodge for some more lazing in those hammocks. Oh, and table football of course! And then for the non-table variety, we walked into the village that evening and stumbled on a very competitive game of women’s football. A highly fitting activity given it was International Women’s Day.
Day Thirteen – Hiking an Inactive Volcano
The title of this day makes it sound much grander than it was! In reality, the inactive volcano, formed 1.8 billion years ago, was a small steep hill located behind San Francisco. But it made for a beautiful walk. Several dogs from the village joined us on our journey through the rainforest, panting alongside us in the heat!
The view from the top of Cerro Tortuguero is breath taking. From here, you can see the Caribbean Sea, alongside narrow strips of lushly forested land separated by sweeping bends of the muddy brown river. And in the background, the booming sounds of howler monkeys filled our ears.
After finishing the Cerro Tortuguero trail, we strolled along the beachfront for a while, past tiny shacks and many water birds, before returning home.
We were so impressed with the food at El Patio that we returned by water taxi for a second lunch at this excellent restaurant. And obviously more fresh fruit shakes!
The afternoon was time for more table football, reading in hammocks, wildlife-watching and sadly packing…
Day Fourteen – Heading Home
Our last day in Costa Rica ☹ We took an early boat back to La Pavona, relishing for one last time the beauty we were leaving behind. Again, there was wildlife everywhere from the brightly coloured Amazon kingfisher to the smelly remains of a giant crocodile being devoured by a kettle of vultures (yes, that is the correct collective noun!).
From La Pavona, we drove the long journey back to San Jose. We had an evening flight so, given how cheap the hotels were in SJ, we booked a room. Although we weren’t staying overnight, it was worth the money. It gave us a chance to properly sort out our luggage and spend the rest of the day in the pool, jacuzzi and the enormous gym (Harry was very keen to get fit for the upcoming cricket season!).
And then onto the airport for a return journey.
Two weeks in this amazing country wasn’t nearly long enough to explore all it has to offer. Which just means we’ll have to return another year!
If you’re looking for an exciting family holiday with adventures around every corner, this is one of the best places in the world. I hope you’ve found this and the Adventures (& Facing Our Fears) in Costa Rica, Part One post, helpful. And if you’re heading over to this special country, have the most wonderful trip!