Costa Rica With Kids

Costa Rica with kids is totally worth it…depending on your attitude, and your kids.

costa rica with kids fishing lake arenal text

Fishing on Lake Arenal in Costa Rica. That’s a volcano behind them!

Back in March we got our boys’ first passports. I thought I was preparing us well ahead of time, but it turned out I should have started the process much earlier. In the end, the passports came safe and sound, in plenty of time for us to travel to Costa Rica with the kids!

This was our first international trip as a family. In fact, it was the first really big vacation that we took as a family. We often travel short distances by car, and for the past few years we have traveled to Connecticut to visit grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends. But for us to fly to Central America and explore places none of us have ever been was a true adventure, a first for the Princes.

costa rica with kids map

As it turns out, even though being in a Spanish-speaking country whose customs and general way of living are very different from our own, travel to and within Costa Rica was very easy. That newness and difference was the whole reason I wanted to take my family there. Everything we did felt new and adventurous.

Directions and Driving

People warned us about driving at night, and there are certainly hazards to be aware of: un-illuminated bicyclists and pedestrians walking or cycling too close to the road, livestock, poorly marked or missing signs, etc. Maybe I’m remembering it a little more fondly because my husband was the one driving I was mainly the navigator. Or at least, I was reading the crazy treasure-map directions!

costa rica with kids spanish road sign

People in Costa Rica give you directions like this: “Over the bridge, 3 speed bumps through the town, ocean to the left… Tikis to the right. CONTINUE on paved road and take a right.” This goes on for an entire page, with gas stations, banks, and cow pastures as landmarks, but no names of roads at all. We rented a GPS unit to go in our rental car (a tiny Hyundai economy sized car) but it was basically useless, because it used the numbers of roads, and barely ever showed us the names of the towns we passed through, much less the locations of banks and bridges and speed bumps!

You can hire shuttles to get from the airports to where you are going, but it was easy and safe, at least in our experience, to drive a rental car, once you let go of feeling like you have to be anywhere “on time.” Ours ran us about $450 for the entire week.

Cell Phone and Wifi

Most hotels and even restaurants have free wifi, so if you don’t feel like you need to call anyone when you’re on the road, you don’t need to worry about having cell service when in Costa Rica. You can keep in touch with family and friends back in the States (like the people who are feeding your cat) using email or Facebook messenger. However, I wanted to make sure my husband and I could reach each other, and that we could call our friends who lived in Costa Rica at the time, in the event of an emergency. That was one extra step I really wanted to make because we had our children with us.


Depending on your phone, all you have to do is unlock your SIM card (the process varies by carrier, but with AT&T I just had to fill out a request form online and receive the confirmation that it was done). Then when you get to Costa Rica, go to any super, or little grocery market, and they all sell SIM cards and pre-paid phone cards to load minutes onto the SIM card. With a little help with the language from the hotel front desk clerk, I was able to set up my SIM card on my phone, while my husband’s was much easier. I wasn’t very good at calculating the exchange rate, but I’m going to estimate that I spent about $15 US to get both my husband’s and my cell phones working and able to call each other and our in-country friends.


The exchange rate changes, but it was about 520 colones per dollar back in June. That means a $1,000 colones bill is worth just over $2. I kept getting it backwards and overtipping wait staff and hotel helpers, but I didn’t mind. Everywhere we went, the local economy is supported by tourism, so I was happy to help with my bad math.

Costa Rican businesses accept both US dollars and colones, which was lucky, because both my credit card and debit card were newly issued chip cards, and our first hotel and a few restaurants were not reading them correctly, so we wound up paying for that first hotel stay in cash!



Complimentary breakfast includes guayabana jelly for your toast.

Typical Costa Rican food is rice and beans, chicken, and fried plantains. In fact “típica Costa Rican” breakfast, lunch, or dinner is something you’ll find on many restaurant menus, because tourists want to sample the local food. When you’re driving around in Costa Rica, you’ll see sodas in any town, or small cafes that serve up quick homemade delicious plates.

costa rica with kids soda

Being in the tourism industry, though, they all have hamburgers on the menu, but those might come with actual ham or ham and bacon on them too! My kids pretty much ate a hamburger wherever we went. Actually my younger son got sick of them after a while so he started ordering spaghetti and meatballs if he saw that on the menu. A beachside tiki bar made him a plate of fettucini at 2PM because he was so hungry and serious looking!

costa rica with kids típica costa rican meal

I loved ordering the típica meal, and sampling the different fruity blends of beverages, and drinking the Coca Cola Light (vs. Diet Coke). The boys liked the boxed chocolate milk with Spanish labels because they were so foreign looking. One favorite activity they enjoyed was strolling to the Super Wendy and getting chocolate milk and packaged cinnamon rolls, then chasing sand crabs down the street.


Every eatery has fresh fruit: watermelon, papaya, pineapple, bananas and more. It was sweet and juicy and delicious, and probably grew within a mile of where we ate it. We also liked going into the markets and looking at all the different packaged foods, fresh meats and freshly baked breads. At a bakery in La Fortuna near Lake Arenal, we spent about $7 US on fresh breads and loaded up 2 big bags because everything smelled and looked so good.

costa rica with kids hamburger

We mostly stuck to simple family restaurants, but the funny thing is that the best food we ate in all of our travels was at the Hilton Garden Inn across from the airport in Liberia on our last night. Best hamburger, best spaghetti, best BLT (for my husband), and the best Costa Rican rice and beans with chicken. Or maybe we were just so hungry after the day’s adventures that it sat better. Either way, that’s how we remember it.


We traveled to two different areas: Playa Potrero with a day trip to Playa Tamarindo, and Lake Arenal. At Playa Potrero, we mostly hung out with our friends who were living there at the time, so we got a warm welcome and a friendly guide to the local activities. At Las Catalinas, a beach resort area, we hiked, played in the sand, swam, swung in hammocks, and found a geocache (naturally!). Every day we strolled down to the beach and the kids frolicked in the waves, and we spent plenty of time in the pool.


See more photos on my personal blog, where I’ll be sharing more pics of our vacation in the weeks to come.

After three nights at the beach we headed inland to Lake Arenal. This popular area for tourists features the Arenal Volcano and the lake, and hot springs that flow from the mountainous area, heated by the volcano itself. We enjoyed those hot springs, and also went ziplining, horseback riding, fishing, shopping, geocaching (that was just me), and exploring.




Many of these activities had a cost, but we had saved money for them in anticipation. While we certainly could have spent the entire time sitting in our chalet at Arenal Lodge watching the clouds, sun, or lightning over the volcano, we also wanted to seize the day and have as much fun as we could.

IMG_6765Waiting for our flight

Even our last day, when we were supposed to depart at 9:30 AM, was an adventure. An intense thunderstorm on the previous night had knocked out the airport’s runway lights, so the incoming flight was re-routed to San Jose. When we checked in for our flight, we learned there was a 5-hour delay because the plane had to come all the way back! Instead of waiting all day at the airport, I insisted that we go back across the street and wait it out by the hotel pool. The Hilton staff was nice enough to allow it. We basically sat there all day playing on our various electronics.

Kids’ Activities

A note about the electronics. We traveled with 2 smart phones, 2 iPads, and 2 Nintendo 3DS units with plenty of games. We brought multiple charging cords and portable charging sticks. All of this came in handy on the 5.5-hour flight. That is a LONG flight, and I didn’t mind having the kids’ heads buried in screens. (They did bring along other things to do. Books, notebooks, playing cards, and small toys.)

costa rica with kids arenal lodge bedroom

Since I was so entranced by the beauty and adventure that awaited us, however, I did not want to spend my entire time in Costa Rica with kids obsessed with their video games. So after a few days of them heading straight for the tablet or even turning on the TV as soon as we got into the hotel room, we made a pact: if we’re in the room resting between activities, your screens are fine. But “hanging around the hotel room playing on the iPad” cannot be the default activity on our vacation! Given a stretch of a few hours between lunch and a party we were attending later, I rounded them all up and led them on a walk to the beach. It was gorgeous, strange, new, and relaxing. No charging cord necessary.

Sun and bugs

Bring sunscreen with you, because it’s super expensive in Costa Rica, but if you’re stuck, you can always buy some. We got long-sleeved rash guards for each kid and brought floppy hats and made them wear them. They have fair skin and the sun is very strong closer to the equator. In the rainforest it wasn’t as sunny but there were still plenty of moments when we needed sun protection.

costa rica with kids side by side

Okay the bugs are for real in Costa Rica, both by the beach and in the rainforest. We applied insect repellent whenever we stepped outside, because the hype about the Zika virus was on the upswing. In fact, we were greeted in the Liberia airport by a giant poster with the silhouette of a deadly mosquito.

Despite our precautions, our older son got bit up pretty badly. He counted over 20 bites on his back one morning. I had brought along hydrocortisone cream, but that wasn’t helping him, so when we got to La Fortuna (the bigger town near Lake Arenal) my husband and I made pilgrimage to a farmaceria, where through a combination of bad Spanish and sign language, we managed to convince the pharmacist that we needed “strong cream for the itching.”

Moral of the story: get the strongest bug spray you can find, but don’t panic. There are places where you can buy what you forgot or didn’t think to bring.

A Dream Come True

When people ask me “how was Costa Rica?” I always say the typical thing. “It was amazing,” or “we had lots of fun,” or those easy things to say. But the truth is it really was a dream come true for me to go to Costa Rica with kids. And husband. Yes, the husband too. He really wants to return there without the children, and I do too, but since they’re getting older so quickly, and they’re finally at an age when they can remember and appreciate our experiences together, I am eager to have as many of those experiences as we can before this brief window closes. Family travel can be truly magical. We have to do it while we can!


Sunset on our last evening

The special thing about Costa Rica was the relaxed wonder we all felt while exploring there. There is a saying, “Pura Vida!” that locals say to each other and to visitors. It is a way of life, a greeting, and a wish. It translates to “pure life,” but what it really means is, “I’m doing okay and you’re going to be okay too.” At least that’s how I interpret it, after listening to so many locals tell me what it means to them. How can you not feel that way, when you’re surrounded by so much beauty?

Pura vida!

LEGOLAND: the Adventure Continues


Last month our family visited LEGOLAND California again. Even though we’ve been there a few times before, it felt new because it’s been three years since we went as a family, and our boys are 3 years older, so it’s like bringing new kids! We know what to expect, but that gives us the comfort to look for new experiences in this fun familiar place.

The Drive: Coming from Agoura Hills, the drive can take a while, especially in traffic, so we wait until after dinner to get on the road. This time we set out around 8pm and checked into our hotel at 11pm.

The Hotel: Sure, you can drive down to Carlsbad, spend the day at LEGOLAND, and then hop back in the car after closing, but that would just be crazy. So we like to drive down the night before, stay in a hotel, spend the next day (or two) at the park, have a nice dinner, then spend a second night. On this second evening the kids can play in the pool and we parents can relax and stretch out our sore legs. Our hotel of choice has been the Best Western Encinitas, which is far less expensive than closer lodging options, and it’s only a 15-minute drive from the park. Free continental breakfast every morning and a nice little pool with a hot tub, plus it’s right near the beach.


The Park: LEGOLAND has expanded since we last visited in 2013, with its newest attraction, Ninjago World, still not even open when we were here this time! (It’s open now, though!)

We stopped at all of the tried and true attractions we remember from when the kids were younger, but it’s kind of hilarious to see their bigger bodies in these settings:


Upgraded shark mouth, 2016


Original shark mouth, 2013




Driving School, 2016


He fit better in 2013

We took the time to marvel at the LEGO creations, things we may not have paused to consider in earlier years when kids were rushing to the rides:



I was delighted to discover that they have added a new section to the water park, which is CHIMA themed.


Pro tip for the water park: you should definitely pay the extra money to rent a locker for the time you are here. This keeps your valuables safe and dry, and frees up your hands so that you can run around the water park with your kids. You are given a wristband that you scan to open the locker, so you don’t even need to find a place to carry a key.



Among the new features at LEGOLAND is a new 4D movie, LEGO® NEXO KNIGHTS™: The Book of Creativity! But it’s not just a movie – it’s an app too! You can download it before you visit the park, and use it to locate six shields hidden throughout the Park. Interactive!

legoland nexo knights

This trip to LEGOLAND was special for me because we did it to celebrate my kids’ 9th and 11th birthdays. They are old enough now that I don’t have to worry about them running off and getting lost. They are much more patient waiting in lines, and more responsible. My 9-year-old still takes forever to pick out a souvenir (we limit each child to a $15 bill to keep this expense reasonable), so some things never change. That, plus the fact that their favorite attraction in all of the park is the Fun Town Driving School, where, without lines on a gray April day, my kids drove those cars again and again and again.

Our family’s favorite ride, collectively, has always been Pirate’s Reef, where you get absolutely drenched, but that was closed during this visit. The kids made up for it by getting soaked on Splash Battle.



Look at those happy faces. Totally worth it.

During the summer season, LEGOLAND CA and its Water Park and SEA LIFE Aquarium are all open later and later, plus they have special events happening all the time. To check out the schedule and to learn about discount ticket options, visit their website.

As an official LEGOLAND blogger, I received two complimentary admission tickets for this trip.