Traveling in Costa Rica with your parents can be very rewarding. A country that offers everything in wildlife and nature. A full guide with things to see and places to stay.
Before we even left for our trip around the world, we were talking with Michael's parents about their plans to visit us on our almost last stop, in Costa Rica. Once they booked their tickets and we knew they would come to visit us, there was quite a lot to organize for us. Rental car, accommodation and obviously we had to figure out our route. The country is big, and there are so many national parks and things to do and see it is quite difficult to squeeze it all into three weeks. Costa Rica is an amazing country for a road trip as it offers everything you want. You can pick your own adventure, whether it's relaxing at beautiful sand beaches, jump into the water at huge waterfalls, walk through rainforest, explore great surfspots, or see wildlife, practice yoga, and last, but not least, enjoy the delicious local cuisine.
This is a full guide on what we did and what we saw. Depending on the age of your parents, the route you choose and the 'to do' list could vary highly. We had to consider that Michael's dad was 68 and his mum 63. That was also the reason why we never did too many activities. They came straight out of the Austrian winter and it wasn't always easy for them to adapt to the different climates. While the Caribbean side was much easier with a climate like the European summer, Guanacaste was very hot and dry and thus more difficult to adapt for them. The time we traveled was between January and February.
Day 1: Póas volcano
Michael's parents arrived early in the morning in San José. They were so excited to see everything and not tired at all. First we went to our hotel, where Michael and I had spent the night to have some breakfast. From there we left to the Póas volcano. First we were a bit unlucky as the volcano was completely covered in clouds and it was misty. We decided to walk to the lake first, which took us around an hour. It's an easy walk, also for seniors and we enjoyed it a lot. The sun was shining and we had a great view. As we went back to the volcano, we waited a while until the clouds moved away and we were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the volcano. It's such a beautiful landscape. The volcano crater offers a view of its lake which has the craziest blue color I have ever seen. The landscape is so beautiful, it's even too difficult to describe. Absolutely a must on your road trip.
After the waterfall, we drove towards Arenal National Park. On the way there we passed La Paz Gardens which is quite expensive (considering $40 per person). We didn't go there and drove further instead. A few minutes later we saw another waterfall at a bridge. And, best of it all, this one was for free and it's worth the stop. It's gigantic and you can even go behind the waterfall to take pictures. Be careful, there a few slippery steps. It was finally my first time that I was behind a waterfall. A wonderful feeling!
For lunch, we stopped at Mi Cafecito on the right side, before San Miguel. They have a restaurant and offer coffee tours. The food was great, service was fantastic and the ambiance very special.
Hotel Pacande, Alajuela - Póas: 29.5 km - approx. 55 min
Póas - La Paz free waterfall: 22 km - approx. 36 min (1 km after La Paz Waterfall Gardens)
Waterfall - Nepenthe B&B: 110 km - approx. 3 hours
Our stay at the Nepenthe B&B
After a long day, we had a tough ride up to Nepenthe B&B but it was absolutely worth it. This place is a true hidden gem. From our room, we had a spectacular view over the Arenal lake and the whole area. We were a bit unlucky with the clouds, but, usually, you could also see the volcano from the accommodation. The rooms are big and spacious, a kitchen is provided, there's a table in the room and a spacious terrace with hanging chairs. From there we watched Colibris who flew from one flower to the next. There was enough space for both of us to practice yoga and get some work done. On top of the big property is a beautiful pool where you find one of the best views over the Arenal lake. Breakfast is served on top of the hill, with a view over the pool and the lake. This place offers a lot of privacy and if you'd wish you can book a massage at the Blue Lagoon Spa after a long day of exploring the area. Even more so, there's a whirlpool where you can relax. It was the perfect place for us as we could all relax and the it had a great spirit.
After a long day of driving, we were simply happy to take a shower and eat on site at the Augustin restaurant which serves delicious food and offers a relaxing atmosphere. The staff was very friendly and helpful in helping me to create delicious, vegetarian dishes for me.
Day 2: Arenal waterfall and free hot springs
After a delicious breakfast with pancakes, fresh fruits, and enough coffee at the Nepenthe B&B, we headed towards Arenal waterfall. The walk goes over a canopy bridge to the viewpoint of the waterfall. Walk down the trail on the left side until you reach the waterfall. It's possible to swim there, so you can take your swimwear with you.
Entrance fee: $ 12
There are many other things you can do around Arenal national park. Horseback rides, nature walks, visit a butterfly conservatory, and canopy zip line rides are just a few. After a long flight and a quite exhausting first day, we decided to take it easy.
After the waterfall, we wanted to experience the hot springs. Now, if you want to go to one of the hot springs around Arenal, there are plenty to choose from. From super expensive ones in hotels to normal prices and even one option that is in the middle of nature and for free. We decided we wanted to sit in the river, surrounded by pure nature. The way to the river is quite easy. Head towards the Tabacon hotel, on the opposite side of the street there's a parking lot. Walk down the path towards the river. Walk further up left and there you'll find little pools where you can relax. At night, we decided to have dinner again in the hotel's restaurant. It's quite convenient to only walk a few steps back to your room.
Day 3: Rio Celeste
The next day we headed to our next destination, the magical Rio Celeste, located in Tenorio Volcano National Park. Our way there took us longer than expected as we had to fill up gas, but there was no gas station to find along the way. That's the reason why we had to drive to San Rafael de Guatuso. The whole road up to Tenorio Volcano National Park was the roughest we experienced on our entire trip. There's no way you could go up there without a 4 x 4. We started to get into the park around 1:45 PM. It wasn't as busy as we expected it to be. The whole walk to the waterfall, to the point where the two rivers meet and back to our car took us around three hours.
Rio Celeste turns blue at the point where two clear-water streams come together. The reason why the river has such an intense, blue color is that the rocks at the bottom have a mineral coating that contains silicon, oxygen, and aluminium. Together with the reflection of the sunlight, it turns into such a bright blue. The water looks very inviting but because of the minerals, it's not allowed to enter the water.
After the waterfall, the path gets more muddy with every step. If you find any wooden sticks, take at least one for your parents, depending on their age and fitness. Michael's mum was happy someone offered it to her and she used it for the whole path.
Entrance fee: $12
We didn't plan to sleep in Liberia but as the streets were rough and the accommodation around Tenorio quite expensive, we stopped there as it was getting dark and we were all quite tired. We stayed at Hotel El Bramadero in a family room. It's just fine for traveling through and it has a pool which was great to jump into the next morning.
Nepenthe B&B - Rio Celeste (via San Rafael): 82 km - approx. 2:20 hours
Rio Celeste - Liberia: 88 km - approx. 2 hours
Day 4: Liberia - Guanacaste
Our next stop was in Guanacaste. It was time to go to the beach. We headed off to see a completely different part of Costa Rica. The landscape changed completely from the lush and green Arenal area to the dry Gaucho countryside. Oh, and the beaches were beautiful. My favorite was Playa Flamingo, but we also enjoyed the beach towards the end of Tamarindo.
Liberia - Casa Mapache: 110 km - approx. 1:20 hours
Our stay at Casa Mapache
A perfect place for families and couples. Casa Mapache, located in Garita, is a very laid-back, and charming place. Although it's not close at the beach, we liked it a lot. From there several beaches are within same distance which was quite comfortable for us.
The family room was big and spacious with a little kitchen area, a fridge and a surprisingly big bathroom with two sinks and two showers. That was perfect for us and Michael's parents and it sped up the process of getting ready in the morning and evening. The entire property is beautiful, with a big pool, a beautiful garden, and a sitting area in front of the room.
Well, obviously, staying with a French family, we were excited to hear that they offer a French breakfast. It was pure heaven. Fresh bread, with banana cinnamon, papaya and pineapple coconut jam and a fresh juice. Yumm! Not to forget the view over the pool. No wonder we stayed there for three days.
The next two days we spent lying around on the beach of Playa Flamingo and Playa Tamarindo. The restaurant Coco Loco at Playa Flamingo served delicious food. After long days at the beach, we jumped into the pool and swam a few rounds.
Day 7 Driving towards Manuel Antonio
Before you type Quepos in your navigation system, make sure to stop at the river Tarcoles, before Jáco. It's best to park on the right or left side and then enter the bridge by foot. You might wonder why there are so many people standing on the bridge and stare down? This is the reason. If someone tries to sell you a ticket to enter the bridge, don't get fooled, there is no entrance fee.
After a long drive, and a fantastic route through different landscapes we arrived in the area of Quepos, close to the Manuel Antonio national park.
Casa Mapache - Rio Tarcoles: 218 km - approx. 4 hours
Rio Tarcoles - Quepos: 87 km - approx. 1:30 hours
Our stay at Hotel La Colina
La Colina is situated very close to the entrance of the national park up on the hill. The family room offers a fantastic view over the ocean and the landscape from the balcony. We arrived just in time for the happy hour so we hung out at the pool, cooled down and enjoyed a tasty Sangria. We decided to stay in the La Colina steak house, the hotel's own restaurant to have pizza. My favourite was the vegetarian pizza, with a fluffy but not too fluffy dough. Just perfect.
Day 8: Manuel Antonio Nationalpark
Manuel Antonio is located south of Quepos on the Pacific Coast. It is very popular because of its white sand beaches. The park has many species of mammals and birds. Unfortunately we only happened to see some monkeys and squirrels. The most spectacular part of Manuel Antonio is not the park itself, it's the beach. Unfortunately, due to a little accident we were not even able to take pictures, but it's totally worth it to walk there. Pack some snacks, but don't leave any trash in the park. Once you're in the water, turn around and you'll have one of the most amazing beach views.
Entrance fee: $16
Our stay at La Kukula Lodge
Since we both fell in love with the caribbean side during our stay at the jungle hotel La Kukula Lodge in beautiful Playa Chiquita, we wanted to take Michael's parents there. Since that trip, Playa Chiquita has a special place in my heart and I consider it one of my happy places. I was able to completely relax, unwind and simply enjoyed every single minute in the hotel's garden. Also, the wildlife we have seen on the property of the lodge was by far more than we saw in some parks. Butterflies, tucans, sloths, agoutis, are just a few. That was the reason why we drove through the whole country. After 8 hours we finally arrived, to check into our own house at the La Kukula Lodge, called 'La Casa'.
Quepos - Playa Chiquita: 387 km - 8 hours
Checking in at 'La Casa' was amazing. Pepo, the owner, showed us around. If you want to impress your parents or in-laws, look no further, this is the place you should go. Michael's parents were impressed. The house is big and spacious with a lot of room. It offers two bedrooms downstairs with each a double and a single bed and a shared bathroom. Upstairs the house provides a big and spacious kitchen with all the equipment you need to cook if you feel like it. The master bedroom offers a larger double bed with an en-suite bathroom. Outside there's plenty of seating possibilities for the whole family. A nice area to work with a view over the pool and the jungle, a dining table and a couch to hang out with a glass of wine after dinner.
The 'La Casa' comes with an own, big pool and lying chairs. At the porch downstairs are two hammocks with a view over the pool and an additional table. Even if you travel with friends, there is enough room for everyone to relax. If you'd like the tables are big enough to sit together and also if you need some privacy, the house is big enough to find a place where you're for yourself.
Day 11: Playa Chiquita
The climate at the Caribbean side is perfect. We mostly had below 30 °C which was just right for Michael's parents. The beach is only a short walk away from the lodge and I loved it. Playa Chiquita is not busy at all. There are only a few tourists and if you have the chance to go there, I would highly recommend it. The area is very laid-back and relaxed and you can explore it best by bike. Here you can read more about our first time in Playa Chiquita.
Day 12: Cahuita
Cahuita is a small, easygoing town at the beach. It's known for its beaches, dessert crepes, and it's Afro-Caribbean influence on the food and local culture.
Playa Chiquita - Cahuita: 17.2 km - approx. 25 min
Our stay at Costa Azul Lodge
We checked in at the Costa Azul Lodge in the afternoon and were welcomed by the lovely dogs of Franco, the owner. We had a family room with an en-suite bathroom and a kitchen in the back. The property is big with a beautiful garden where you can spot many different kinds of birds, amongst Colibris. In the back of the lodge is a private forest that Franco owns and he invited us to take a walk there. Michael's parents went into the woods, while we chose to do some yoga at the pool.
Day 13: Cahuita National Park
It was quite a rainy day and we decided to take a walk in the national park. We saw a small group of the Capuchin monkeys, howler monkeys, lots of crabs, many butterflies, and also one of my favorites, the blue morpho. Bring your swimwear with you and take a dip into the water at Cahuita beach.
Entrance: donation based
Day 14: Cahuita - San José
We left the Casa Azul Lodge in the morning to have breakfast in Cahuita and then headed towards San José as we had to bring back our rental car. We just planned a short stop in Alajuela, bought bus tickets to Santa Teresa for the next day, had dinner and left early the next day towards Guanacaste.
Cahuita - La Guaria Inn, Alajuela: 222 km - approx. 5 hours
Day 15: San José - Santa Teresa, Guanacaste
From San José we left the Terminal Atlántico Norte towards Puntarenas. From there we had to get out of the bus to buy our ticket for the ferry. Next stop was Paquera from where we hopped on our bus again and drove to Cobano and took a cab from there to Santa Teresa. Depending on how fit your parents are, I would either recommend taking a bus or just keep the rental car. With a rental car you're more flexible and you can go to any beach you'd like as transport in Santa Teresa is quite expensive.
Our stay at Maoritsio Garden Studios
After a long journey, we checked in at Maoritsio Garden Studios. The location in Santa Teresa is perfect, right next to a supermarket and close to a few restaurants. The family apartment offers enough space for the entire family. And, after traveling so long, we loved the living room and the couch. There are bikes and surfboards to rent and if you feel more like relaxing, the pool is quite convenient too. WIFI at Maoritsio is fast and it's a great place to get some work done.
The next days were spent at Banana beach and also at Playa Hermosa. Michael went surfing while I and Michael's parents enjoyed our time at the beach, we ate our way through Santa Teresa's restaurants and relaxed for the last couple of days before we had to get back to San José. It's crazy how time flies and it was soon time to head back.
Day 17: Santa Teresa - Alajuela
The days were getting hotter and hotter and exactly at that day where we wanted to catch the bus back to Alajuela the heat was at its peak. To catch the bus at 2 PM seemed like a nightmare to us and even more so, for Michael's parents. In the morning Michael's mom and us went to some shops to buy some presents (don't forget to take Costa Rica coffee with you). Walking around was already exhausting and we decided to stop by at Alamo and got a deal for $62 for 24 hours. We were so relieved. The whole journey was super easy with an own car and if it's too hot or you want to take it easy with your parents, I can only recommend to go with a rental car.
In Alajuela we had dinner again at Jalapenos Central where we ate already last time and it was just around the corner from our hotel La Guaria Inn.
Maoritsio Garden Studios, Santa Teresa - La Guaria Inn, Alajuela: 173 km - approx. 5 hours
If you travel with parents who have never been to an exotic country before, there are a few things you need to check with them before they fly. Here is a list of what we had to consider:
- Language check: Do your parents speak English at all? If not, or if they are not secure enough, make sure they don't fly over the US. In our case they flew from Germany to Dominican Republic and then to San José. We helped them at the airport in San José to check in the luggage and fill out all their forms. If you fly together with them, you can take care of everything.
- Vaccination: Make sure which ones you all have and which ones are missing.
- Drinks: On a road trip in Costa Rica the climate changes several times. While Michael's parents did really well at the Caribbean side, it was more difficult in Guanacaste. We had to remind them several times to drink more water. It's tempting to drink coffee in the land of coffee and a beer is tempting in your holidays. There's nothing wrong with that but it all dehydrates our body. Drinking coconuts is the perfect way to help your body to get hydrated and fit again. At lunch time, a short rest in the room is also a good idea to have more energy later.
- Safety: Your parents might be super excited and adventurous because they will see so many things in Costa Rica which they have never seen before. But, a few things are also more dangerous than back home. Rocks at the waterfall are slippery and while young people can step on it much easier, for elderly people it's much more difficult to hold the balance. Sidewalks sometimes don't exist or if, there are big holes in them, or big rocks lie around where you could hit your toes. When you walk at night, tell your parents to bring their own flashlight with them and look always on the ground. Also the ocean is completely different here. There are currents and you need to be careful where to enter the water. Again, younger people won't have problems when touch a rock under water or have to walk over rocks but for elderly people this is really tricky and was also the way, Michael's dad had an injury in Manuel Antonio national park. Be careful, ask locals where the rocks are if it's high tide, and go into the water first to see what it's like.
- Packing: Tell them not to pack too much as they need to carry their suitcase out of the car into the hotel rooms. Clothes are easily washed and dry in a short time again. Your parents should pack one good pair of walking shoes where they feel comfortable in it and one pair of closed sandals so they don't tilt sideways as lots of paths are uneven and not too easy to walk on. If you plan to visit lots of waterfalls or even for entering the ocean where there are rocks, I would recommend to wear a pair of water sport shoes. When you pick those, make sure they are also good for hiking. It's something which is very useful when traveling through Costa Rica and we would highly recommend it for older people.
Traveling with your parents
Traveling with your in-laws or your parents can be very rewarding. After traveling for 11 months I enjoyed spending some family time together with Michael and his parents. I was able to get to know them from a very different perspective. Back home, where we all get stuck in our daily life, I realized we are all in different roles and a vacation atmosphere allows you to get to know your partner's parents better. I loved how they were blown away by the wildlife and nature in Costa Rica. They were looking up into the trees like kids and I loved to see them so happy and relaxed. I was able to practice yoga with them, we did many adventures together but also relaxed a lot. To make your travels a success, the key is probably planning. The right combination of adventure and relaxing time is significant.
Have you ever done a road trip with your parents or in-laws in a country that was far away from home? What was it like for them and for you? Tell me your experiences or your thoughts. If you liked this post, please share it. Travel more, smile more.
A big thank you for our hosts at Nepenthe B&B, Hotel La Colina, La Kukula Lodge, Costa Azul Lodge, and Maoritsio Garden Studios for having us. All pictures are provided by Nussbaumer Photography.