My husband, Adam, and I have discussed a move overseas for many years (and continue to discuss it). I don’t expect the U.S. to rebound to its former glory any time soon (however undeserved it was), but I digress. We decided to spend four weeks in Costa Rica this summer as an experiment for what that could look like in the future. Costa Rica had been on the list of travel destinations for years.
I spent three of those four weeks working remotely from a co-working space in Sámara (more details on that below) while Adam was the full-time parent with the boys while I did that.
I throw myself into gazillions of hours of research any time we plan a trip. And this was a big one. This was our first time on a plane as a family since pre-pandemic and our longest time as a family outside of the country. I had a really difficult time deciding where to go and where to plant short-term roots as a home base. Fast internet was key as I needed to work while we were gone. I wanted a good mix of beach and rainforest. And I wanted our family to be in a place with local culture and not exclusively tourists.
As I searched around the map, blogs, and Airbnb listings, I came across Playa Sámara, a small Pacific coast town on the Nicoya peninsula. When I saw nearby Playa and Río Buena Vista, the decision was made (we live in Buena Vista, CO). I booked direct flights on Southwest out of Denver to Liberia (two hours by car to Sámara) and found a great Airbnb, Casa Begonia, which happened to be owned by a former Coloradoan.
We had an early enough flight that trying to leave from our home that morning would have been quite risky (2 and 1/2 hours away from the airport under the best of circumstances). So we booked a room at the Staybridge Suites Denver International Airport the night before and had a yummy dinner at Moonlight Diner & Bar. (No affiliate marketing here, folks, just sharing the details of our trip so I remember, and in case it saves time and makes a better trip for anyone who happens to land on my blog.)
We arrived on time to Liberia, but several other flights happened to also land around the same time, overwhelming the immigration queue. It was a long and hot wait to get out of the airport. We were in line for immigration for around an hour, and thankfully less than that to x-ray our bags on the way out of the airport. Our private shuttle driver from Sámara Adventures was just outside the airport with a sign, just as we’d been told by the company that booked our reservation, Sámara Info Center. The shuttle was equipped with wifi, A/C, and cold water.
The World Bank labels Costa Rica an “upper middle income country.” They have no army, maternal mortality just slightly higher than the U.S., and free and mandatory education.
All of that said, while you might be expecting developing economy prices, everything will likely be more expensive than you expect, and will compare with and often be more expensive than prices in North American cities.
Photo Gallery (The following photos may not be used without permission.)
We rented our Airbnb for four full weeks to take advantage of the long-term discount. We spent our first, third, and fourth weeks in Sámara and our second week traveling.
Our favorite places in Sámara included the following:
- Everyday Life and Work
- Super New China for all the groceries we needed (better stocked and more spacious than our local rural Kroger)
- Super Iguana Verde was a mini super market that was a much closer walk and had most things we needed
- I rented a tiny private office at LoCoworking as I spend much of my tech consulting day on client calls and needed a quiet space. This was pricy at $550 for a ~30 sq. ft. space, but a necessary investment and the woman who runs it, Stéphanie, was fantastic!
- The weekly Saturday féria (farmers market) is really amazing and worth repeated visits
- Horses, dogs, chickens, and vultures are plentiful and roam freely. There are a ton of dogs around, mostly off-leash, some with collars, and they mostly get along. We’ve had way more aggressive dog encounters at home in the mountains of Colorado than we did in Costa Rica (zero aggressive dog encounters in Costa Rica).
- Car Rental
- Alamo booked through Sámara Info Center to get a corporate rate. We rented a small 4×4 SUV and paid just under $600 for eight days including full coverage insurance. (Note that trying to understand insurance requirements there is a huge PITA. We never buy insurance through rental agencies, but this seemed like the least risky path on this one.)
- Pato’s Surf School | Our whole family took a 90-minute lesson with Marcelo, who was absolutely fantastic. This was my third surfing lesson, having first surfed in Byron Bay, Australia 20 years ago, and secondly at Rincón, Puerto Rico 15 years ago. Marcelo was the best instructor and provided the clearest direction and path to success. Three of us stood up and caught a wave the first time and all four of us caught multiple waves during the lesson. (Note we have three snowboarders and a skier in the family and get out on paddleboards each summer, so if you’ve never surfed before and don’t have translatable skills from other sports, standing up the very first wave just might not happen. Don’t be discouraged!)
- Intercultura Spanish School | We booked a week for the kids in their camp program and they had a great time. For four hours each day, they played games and participated in other immersive Spanish language activities. If you’re thinking about signing up, note that their schedule alternated each day, which was a surprise to us, but not ultimately a big deal. (Morning session one day, afternoon session the next, etc.) At least two other families who stayed in the same condo building coincidentally also went to Intercultura and described positive experiences there.
- Stéphanie at LoCoworking arranged for us to go on the Natural Center Tours Turtle Tour, which was around an hour’s drive away in Playa Corozalito. It was a long, hot, late night, but well worth the adventure. Fantastic guides and overall experience.
- Eats (we had great experiences at all of these)
- Cantina de Baco | beautiful ambience and tapas made with love
- Mar & Fuego | nice patio and great variety
- Natural Center Sámara
- +Q Pollo | awesome and affordable fried chicken
- Roots Panadería | bakery
- Soda La Perla | delicious and local
- Street Food | great vibe and delicious burgers and fries
- The Lamb Chop | farm-to-table
Driving to Manuel Antonio
- Jacó is much more developed than Sámara but was interesting to pass through briefly. The kids said they wish we were staying there, FWIW.
- Made a stop at Green Room for a nice lunch
- Manuel Antonio is not super walkable and is only walkable for the not so faint of heart. There is no central downtown, but rather businesses scattered along the windy road up and down the hillsides. That said, we did walk from the National Park back up to our hotel. It was a strenuous slog uphill for around a mile and got our hearts pumping and bodies sweating for sure. And it’s an absolutely beautiful area.
- Stay | The Falls Resort Manuel Antonio
- Lovely staff. Incredible breakfast included with the room. Beautiful grounds. Good value. Downside: VERY thin walls. Of our three nights, the first we had a group of four young women who were VERY loud well into the wee hours. This was super disappointing, but thankfully they left the next day. Night two we had no neighbor and night three, a very respectful and not loud family of five.
- National Park guided tour with Josué (note this site is for a private tour operator and not the government-run site for the park itself.) You can buy a ticket to the park only and don’t have to go with a guide. As you’ll see in countless reviews, it is worth it, because spotting the animals on your own is a tricky endeavor. We would have never found the half a dozen sloths the guide spotted. And fortunately, the guides communicate with each other around the park and share locations for sloth spotting. Note that at the time of our visit, the cafe inside was closed for renovation and you aren’t allowed to bring in outside food/snacks and plastic bottles of any kind. They do check bags (and passports) up front.
- Ziplining at El Santuario Canopy Adventure Tour. This adventure was fantastic with ten different zip lines and one at more than a mile long (note this is owned by the same people as the hotel we stayed at, but I only learned that after the fact – guests can book through the hotel for a solid discount). Super awesome staff, really cool facilities, great lunch. Buying photos from one of the guide/photographers was worth the small investment. Follow guidance and leave the backpack in the box before you hop on the tractor. As they will tell you, you will sweat, and will wish you didn’t have your bag with you as you go along.
- El Avión | an experience built around an old spy plane!
- Emilio’s Cafe | really great desserts with a view (they have a full menu, but we only ate dessert there)
- Falafel Bar Manuel Antonio | one of the best and most beautiful meals we had in Costa Rica
- La Lambretta Pizza | another great view and tasty Italian food
Starbucks owns only one coffee farm globally and it’s just outside of San José. All of the coffee they sell in stores is actually sourced from other producers. I learned about this farm through the Starbucks Odyssey Beta. Fortunately, it was on the way between Manuel Antonio and La Fortuna.
I rarely drink coffee and I don’t really have any loyalty to any brands. The nearest Starbucks location is 30 minutes away, and it’s just of the grocery store variety. But, I was intrigued about this being a sustainable R&D effort, with learnings open-sourced to coffee farmers around the globe, so we booked a coffee tour.
The tour was informative, but it’s worth a visit just to sit in the beautiful open-air cafe, even without the tour.
- Stay | Hotel El Silencio del Campo
- I spent some hours researching hot springs in the area. (I am a huge hot springs connoisseur, so this was very important.) It took a map search before I stumbled upon El Silencio del Campo. This is a small hotel with individual casitas and a great view of Arenal (when it’s not being moody, that is), hot springs pools not open to the public, a small farm, spa, and a restaurant. Given prices for day passes at some of the larger hot springs, it made more sense to splurge a bit for a hotel that had them onsite. We were so glad we made this choice.
- We didn’t do a whole lot of shopping in Costa Rica, but La Fortuna was the place for souvenirs. We started at the giant souvenir shop on the main road to get a baseline (you can’t miss it as you head to the hot springs resorts). After that we wandered into probably 10 different shops comparing products and prices. This is a game of economics – remember your time is valuable. Prices were largely in the same ballpark, with some shops charging more for certain things and less for others.
- Medical Care
- Unimed Urgent Care | I had a pretty scary allergic reaction to something I ate. The hotel called this urgent care and for an extra $50, a doctor and medic came to our casita. I ended up with two shots in the butt and a $250 bill for services, but was in recovery after a couple of hours and fine the next day. They spoke great English, were very professional, and treated me promptly.
Driving back to Sámara
- We stopped in Nuevo Arenal just because it was a town along Lake Arenal and made sense for a lunch stop. It’s a chill litlle town where apparently Americans and Canadians retire. Los Platillos Voladores caught our eye and was an incredible stop for authentic Italian fare. Loved chatting with the owner there. And check out the story of the UFO/USO (Unidentified Submersible Object). Fascinating history.
- Tipping – we went with 10% most of the time
- We were often the only people in restaurants from 5:30-7 p.m. This worked out great for our family!
Bug Bites and Sweating
- We went without bug spray for all but the turtle tour when we borrowed some. The bugs are fierce.
- Sweating is real. Drink up on the water and electrolytes and make sure the kids stay hydrated especially.
English was widely spoken just about everywhere we traveled (we spent time in fairly and very touristy areas), but I made a dedicated effort to speak in Spanish most of the time as it was important to me to show that respect and practice.
Internet and Power Outages, Phone Stuff
- Power flickered occasionally and went out a few times, but only once did it stay out for more than a few minutes. Similar story with internet connection.
- WhatsApp is widely used
- We opted for Verizon’s Travel Pass on one of our phones and wifi-only on the other three. At $10/day, for a trip this long, it was expensive, but worked well and we generally had coverage, even when driving around other parts of the country.
- Patience, grasshopper. We spent a week on the road. Driving around 500 miles in total took ~18 hours. Roads are one-and-a-half lanes mostly with zero shoulder. Getting stuck behind trucks can make the journey super slow. Waze was accurate and available for our drives.
- We opted for this reef-safe sunscreen, Maui Surfer Honey, from Maui Rain. We went through 2 1/2 tubes for four of us, spending quite a bit of time in the sun at the beach and in the pool. (Sunscreen is plentiful in town, so no worries if you forget.)
- There are wild differences between tides for how much beach there is. Adam clocked a tenth of a mile from the pier to the water when it was at its furthest out and conversely, at times, there was no beach at all. There are no services at Cangrejal, but it’s a lovely family beach. When the tides are out, you can walk into town in about 15 minutes. At other times, the river connects to the ocean and you could be up to your waist in water.
- Leave the shells, coral, and rocks on the beach. It’s apparently illegal to take them.
- The water temp was warm but not too warm. It was easy to walk in without cringing and felt slightly refreshing on the way out.
- Sámara is a cove and protected from some of the wild Pacific currents and rip tides, but the waves still slosh you around, at times making you feel like you’re in a washing machine while they crash on the beach from various directions. We had some days that were great for surfing and boogie boarding and others when the ocean was best observed from the shore. No lifeguards at Cangrejal, and not sure about Playa Sámara. There was a lifeguard stand, but we didn’t see any guards.
Random Things I Didn’t Know I Needed to Worry About
- In the bathroom at the co-working space, a large moth flew out of the toilet paper holder once AND toward the end of my stay, there were three BATS. They’d occasionally fly from the bathroom to the top of the ceiling in the hallway and back.
- A small frog once jumped on my head in our bedroom. (Yep, we had a frog in our condo. And a lizard.)
- Our departure experience was way better than our arrival experience. We got there three hours early and had to wait a bit for the Southwest counter to open up, but once it did, the process went quickly.
- I read on one of the blogs that we couldn’t bring any liquids on the plane, even if purchased after security, but that turned out not to be the case. Don’t buy Gatorade at Cafe Players. It will cost you almost $8, but only $4 if you walk a little bit to Xplora.
- This is a clean, cool, comfortable, and compact airport.
Other Helpful Resources
- Trip Advisor
- Google Maps and Reviews | It was fun to poke around the map and look for well-rated places. That’s how our son, Jasper, found Noa’s Rolled Ice Cream in La Fortuna, how I came across Hotel El Silencio del Campo, and how we found Harmony.