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!

Get the Inside Scoop about LEGOLAND CA Right Here!

LEGO Ice Cream Pirate at LEGOLAND

As perpetual tourists in Los Angeles since we moved here many years ago, my husband and I have traveled all around Southern California. Now that we have children, it’s much more fun, because we have 2 built-in reasons to visit kid-friendly places. I recently asked our kids what their favorite trips have been, and aside from visiting their grandparents in Connecticut and Louisiana, they both said “LEGOLAND” without hesitation.

We have been to LEGOLAND as a family several times, and the kids even went with their great-aunts a few years ago (on an awesome kid-free weekend for me and the husband!). That’s a long way from our friends who are annual pass holders at other parks and pop in every time they get a free second (what fun!) but we are a good 3-hour drive from Carlsbad so we have to reserve our trips for sports-free weekends! With two active boys, our family doesn’t have a ton of those!

So why LEGOLAND? Well, it’s everyone’s favorite because:

The visitors are nice. Since the whole park is themed for kids and LEGO lovers, you’re less likely to have adults visiting without kids. And kids tend to make adults behave better.

The rides aren’t too scary. Even though my boys are getting older, they are still shy about braving the big thrill rides of other parks.

It’s not too big. Even with the water park, the SEA LIFE Aquarium, and LEGOLAND itself, a family can still go at a leisurely pace and have a great time without being overwhelmed.

We found a great place to stay. Instead of staying at the hotel on site (which is something we dream of doing one day!) we stay at the Best Western Encinitas, which is right near the beach and the groovy town of Encinitas. There is a small pool and hot tub, and continental breakfast every morning. It’s reasonably priced and only a short drive from LEGOLAND.


If you are planning a trip to LEGOLAND, keep your eyes on this site and social media channels, because I’m excited to say that Agoura Hills Mom is an official LEGOLAND insider! I’ll get first looks at new features and promotions from the park and I will share them here!

Road Trip Wish List: A Mazda CX-9

This post is sponsored content from BlogHer and Mazda CX-9.

Last weekend when we drove from Los Angeles to Big Bear Mountain for our first ski/snowboarding adventure, I found myself wishing we had a much bigger car so the kids didn’t even have to sit next to each other. And looking at the specs of the Mazda CX-9, I realize that as we start planning more road trips in our near future, a car that fits our growing family might be the difference between vacation hell and vacation bliss.

The vehicle size is priority number one. We still drive a boxy compact crossover with bucket seats in the back, allowing for only two kids. There’s (barely) enough cargo room for regular life, but limited space for all the stuff we want to bring on out-of-town trips: bikes (x4), food, clothing, camping gear for the mountains, boogie boards (x4) for the beach and, of course, the kitchen sink. We need more room, or we’ll start looking like the Griswolds on the way to Wally World.

With the CX-9’s 7-passenger interior and fold-down seats, we could even put each boy in his own row so they can’t keep trying to maim each other because they’re bored on a long ride. Or we could even (gasp!) bring along a friend for each brother.

Being well prepared for a car trip makes for a more enjoyable getaway, but this time I was more focused on borrowing the correct gear for the kids’ first snowboard lesson than prepping for the three-hour drive. We navigated up the mountain by using my phone’s map and trying to follow another family in their car. We would have been much better off with a dashboard navigation system, such as the CX-9’s TomTom, to help us with the most efficient route to our destination. After all, there are several ways to get through LA traffic and up to the mountains, and at one point my husband and I both said, “Where ARE we?!”

(Answer: Victorville, CA. The last big city before the mountains. Who knew?)

TomTom would have answered that question before we even asked it. Plus, the pleasant voice guidance would be better than my confused, too-late directions as I helped my husband figure out which way to go (and vice versa).

We love to leave on road trips after dinner and arrive the night before all the fun starts. That way, the boys can sleep on the ride. We avoid the fighting and the whining and the eleventy millionth, “Are we there yet?” coming from the back seat. But those times when we must travel while they are awake, we load up a bag or two of activities to keep them busy. Now that at least one of them can read, books are a natural addition, and I try to get new titles from the library for our older son to enjoy. The 5-year-old is happy to play with his handheld gaming system or, in a pinch, my phone.

Once upon a time I used to load kids’ music and audiobooks onto my iPod or CDs to play in the car, but then my husband let the kids play in the front seat while he was washing it one day. You can probably guess the rest of this story. The boys put pennies into the CD player and in every power outlet in the vehicle, so none of those features work anymore. The Mazda CX-9 comes with a standard USB audio input port, which would help me rekindle the kids’ love of audiobooks. It also offers available HD Radio, Pandora Internet radio connectivity and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. And now that the boys are listening to better music (farewell, Old MacDonald!), we could all rock out to our tunes of choice. Of course, my kids dream of “having a TV in the car,” and if I were a cooler mom, we would have at least gotten a portable DVD player by now. But with the CX-9’s optional Rear-Seat Entertainment System, we could have them watch their favorite videos on a 9″ LCD screen.

The price of the Mazda CX-9 makes me want to go get a new car right now. Today. Hold my calls. We paid $20,000 for our boxy crossover in 2005 because we financed it. At the time, my husband and I had one baby and one large dog. Now we have two gangly boys and a commitment to paying cash for our next car. At around $30,000 MSRP, the CX-9 seems like a reasonable upgrade to match the upgraded size of our family, which to be honest is growing as the boys get bigger.

We managed to make it up “to the snow,” as we say in Los Angeles, with no visible injuries on either of the boys. They took ski and snowboarding lessons, went sledding, and made snowmen and had snowball fights for the first time. They had a blast, and my husband and I enjoyed watching them and staying dry on the sidelines. We headed back down to sea level with a car full of sweaty gear and tired humans, wishing our car had a dashboard camera to better capture the beautiful sunset.

Overall, it was a great road trip. With a bit more room and more entertainment options, both of which are offered by the Mazda CX-9, there would have been a lot less whining, threatening and bargaining. And the kids would have been much quieter, too.