I debated whether I should even share this on my blog or not. I realize some will probably judge us for leaving the country right now, but traveling is my passion and IT WAS SO GOOD to go on a super fun spring break adventure with my favorite people after so many canceled trips over the past year. We followed all the rules (including being masked up when close to others), felt safe, got COVID tested (twice), spent the majority of our time there outdoors, and honestly, we wanted to avoid the spring break crowds we kept hearing about in Florida.
What You’ll Find in This Post
- Why Costa Rica?
- Things to Do in Costa Rica…
- Trip Details
- COVID and Traveling
- Costa Rican Rice & Beans (Gallo Pinto) Recipe
Ultimately, I decided sharing our experience could likely (hopefully?) do more good than harm. In fact, it was another friend’s trip to Costa Rica that she shared on Facebook that inspired us to go. With COVID numbers down and vaccines up, I know people are wondering about traveling again (especially those with a die-hard travel bug like me!), so I wanted to share our experience and what it’s like to venture outside of your bubble these days. For so many places like Costa Rica, tourism is their livelihood. We felt like they did a great job welcoming everyone back safely, and we were glad to support this great country with our visit!
In addition to all the details about our trip, I’m going to share a homemade version of a classic Costa Rican dish we had almost every day while we were there … Gallo Pinto (down below)! We eat rice and beans often at home, but we don’t usually mix the rice and beans. It’s amazing how one tiny change like that could make it seem like a whole new dish. This was the “Tico Breakfast” offering we had while glamping (included with your stay!). And, in case you’re wondering, that’s cheese on the tortilla, not butter (although that would’ve been fine, too. Haha).
Why Costa Rica?
First of all, if I’m being honest, there are not very many places you can travel to out of the country right now (due to border closures and quarantine requirements). So, inspired by the friend who went right before us, and also the amount of adventure I knew this country offered (we’re not ones to sit still for too long on vacation), it really seemed like a good fit for our family.
I feel like the older our kids get the harder it is to really WOW them with activities and such, but Costa Rica really knocked it out of the park!
Things to Do in Costa Rica…
So Much Wildlife!
Monkeys and iguanas are as common there as our birds and squirrels! One time an iguana was chilling right on the sidewalk leading back to our room and our girls got a pretty big kick out of me making my husband give me a piggyback ride to get past it, haha. 🤦🏻♀️ I am not so good with reptiles, but they are fun to see (including the huge crocodiles that one spectator fed a chicken bone to … WOW)! On our tour of Manuel Antonio Park, we also saw sloths, lizards, crabs, toucans, and adorable baby monkeys hitching a ride on their mothers’ backs! ♥️ We got this picture through our guide’s scope…
This was especially fun for us because my kids had never been deep-sea fishing before, and they were really excited to try it! Can you tell from the picture that my daughter thought it was pretty fun? Haha. And not only that, she also caught a mackerel that the hotel restaurant made for us for dinner! She was VERY proud, and it was very yummy. Talk about fresh catch of the day. :)
This was a truly magical experience that I’ve always wanted to try, and one of the main reasons I picked our second destination. The water literally LIGHTS UPS in the dark when you splash it. Think of fireflies, but with a blueish greenish tint that you can control yourself in the ocean. It was amazing and far exceeded all of our expectations! It was kind of hard to get a picture at first with my phone, but look how well it finally showed up on the boat ride back from kayaking … that color is all completely natural!
This was another “first” for my kids, driving and honestly probably even riding wave runners, so my 13-year-old especially thought it was the coolest thing since sliced bread. I think we would have normally tried to be more budget-friendly and only gotten two wave runners and shared, but something about almost a year of lockdown makes you want to splurge on fun activities a little. Both my girls told me they were literally giggling to themselves with glee while driving! I’d say that was totally worth it.
Glamping (on an island)
This is something else I’ve been wanting to try. We’re already big campers, but how fun to sleep in the outdoors with all the nice amenities of a regular hotel room? It was a little warm (I had a “duh” moment when we got there and remembered camping/glamping meant no A/C!), but we managed and really enjoyed all the activities they had to offer (including the bioluminescence!).
This was just a quick stop-off on the way to another island, but we saw a surprising amount of different types of really colorful fish for such a short outing!
Costa Rica is definitely mountainous, there were hikes we could go on straight from the front door of our hotel rooms. It was so nice! This picture was taken at the Glamping place that’s in a “dry forest” area (blooms in the wet season) … something totally new to me.
One Unbelievable Sunset after Another
I don’t know if the sunsets are always amazing in Costa Rica, but they sure were showing off for us when we were there! This picture was taken literally 5 minutes after we arrived to our first hotel room … NO FILTER if you can believe it!
Swimming in the Ocean
We often visit the gulf (since my parents live there), so getting to swim in the big waves was really fun for us. After our morning tour of Manuel Antonio park, the guide showed us the beaches the park has to offer as we walked by. We weren’t prepared with bathing suits and such, but it was so pretty and inviting (and also a little hot) so we all just decided to get in the water in our clothes, haha (this picture was just before we made that decision). I have a feeling that’s a moment my kids will remember!
Normally we like a little more downtime in-between all the activities on our trips, but after so many cancellations this past year we were all very happy to just go, go, go!
We stayed in two different locations while in Costa Rica, and here are the details in case you’re feeling inspired to plan your own adventure!
Manuel Antonio Area (first stop) – Tulemar Resort
I honestly just copied my friend who went to CR right before us and stayed at Tulemar Resort. I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve spent planning trips that we never went on this past year (including a different 2021 spring break trip that was canceled the week before our departure), so I was running out of energy and time to do a bunch of new research, LOL. Anyway, my friend apparently has good taste because we loved it and everyone we encountered while doing our activities complimented what a good choice it was!!
- We stayed in their cheapest offering (non-renovated 2-room bungalow), and it was honestly perfect. My one daughter stayed on the pull-out couch in the living area so my other daughter had a bed to herself.
- The surrounding jungle setting (acres and acres with winding sidewalks and trails) full of animals and the beautiful swimming pools and nice beach area didn’t hurt!
- For ease, and again being last minute and out of energy for doing research, I just booked all our activities through our hotel, and we were super pleased with everything we did.
- I wish I would’ve had more time to do restaurant research for this portion of the trip because we did end up somewhere super touristy one night (suggested by the concierge) while I was hoping for a more authentic experience. But hey, I’m into food if you can’t tell! We liked the hotel restaurant but didn’t love it as much as the restaurant at the next place.
Isla Chiquita Glamping Hotel (second/final stop)
If I’m being honest, I googled “glamping in Costa Rica” and saw this place come up, which showed the bioluminescence experience and a super yummy-looking restaurant, so I just booked it! I’ve never done such little research before, but since we only had a few days before our departure I went with it. And it turned out great!
- The four of us could comfortably fit in one tent, with the provided sofa bed and the extra little cot they gave us upon request. I was glad my oldest daughter is kind of petite so she could fit in the cot, haha. The tents were really nice and clean, and I’m sure the girls would’ve loved to have their own, but I didn’t want to spend the extra money on that after all the extra COVID travel expenses (that I explain below)!
- The tents were also set on a really big piece of private land with a pretty good short hike right from our front door, and had some really fun offerings for their activities. In addition to the bioluminescence kayaking (their standard offering is actually a boating experience, but they were able to arrange it in kayaks for us), they also offered daytime kayaks and paddle boards that you could use free of charge anytime. We paddled all the way around the island—pictured below! And we also did the snorkeling and deep-sea fishing excursions from there.
- The restaurant served all our meals, which was really convenient, and it was super tasty with excellent ambiance (see picture at one of the tables down below just above the recipe). Everything was made from scratch and full service, and as I mentioned they even cooked the fish for us that we caught!
- It was a little toasty at times without any A/C, but I did feel like I got more used to it after the first day.
- This is not the place to go for the pool or the beach. I think to be eco-friendly (i.e. leave no footprint with their tents and everything else) they have a fairly small above-ground pool my girls swam in for all of five minutes. The beaches, in general, are not what attracts people to Costa Rica (there are many other better places to go if you’re seeking soft white sand and crystal clear blue waters!), and this glamping area was protected so it was honestly a lot more like a calm lake with a nothing-to-write-home-about beach. We kept feeling like we were on a lake and forgetting it was actually the ocean! But we were there more for the activities and the experience, and between activities, we really enjoyed just chilling, reading, drinking (yummy made-from-scratch Piña Coladas from the restaurant!), etc. in the lounge chairs all around the property even if we weren’t on the beach.
COVID and Traveling
Okay, let’s talk about the not-so-glamorous part of traveling right now.
Our flight there was completely full, although there were empty seats on the way home. I don’t think airlines are really leaving the middle seats open anymore, and I’m not sure if American Airlines ever did.
One trick I’ve learned is, I try to book aisle and window seats (2 on each row). I figure they’ll likely not add someone to the middle seat if the flight isn’t full so you end up with the whole row to yourselves. This worked on the way home when there was room to spare.
The Vibe in Costa Rica (COVID-Wise)
When friends have been asking me about what it was like COVID-wise in Costa Rica, I’m learning some mean, “How safe did it feel?” and others mean, “How open was it?” So, let me answer both.
- From a safety perspective
It honestly felt a lot like it does here in NC, where we have a mask mandate and various capacity limits. We did not do a single thing indoors (you’d be hard-pressed to even find a truly indoor restaurant since everything is open-air there) other than briefly checking into our hotel at the reception and getting a ride to/from activities. Everyone was masked up in these instances and so were we, including when we walked up to the outdoor restaurants just before being seated. This was the norm there for both the natives and tourists, and it felt just as safe (if not safer, due to the nature of everything being outdoors) as it does at home.
- From a “how open” perspective
Now, we were there at the start of Easter weekend, which is a huge holiday in Costa Rica when shops and things close, but we didn’t run into anything we wanted to do not being available or open. All the tours we signed up for were running with lots of options (albeit a reduced capacity in some cases), and plenty of people seemed out and about. We did not personally run into any restrictions that put a damper on our trip.
There are some new protocols if you leave the country right now, depending on where you’re going!
For Travel to Costa Rica (and other destinations, I’ve heard):
- REQUIRED TRAVEL INSURANCE: This is a requirement for Costa Rica right now, and it covers costs incurred (medical or for an extended quarantine) if you were to get COVID on your trip. The cost for this insurance for our family of four was about $300. You have to show proof of your policy to get your QR code (next bullet).
- QR CODE: You need to show a unique QR code for each passenger upon check-in at your home airport. I was a little worried about these new extra requirements and to-dos at the airport, but it really turned out to be no big deal other than just taking an extra few minutes for the gate agents to scan everyone’s code before allowing them to board.
To get the QR code (you can do this 48 hours in advance), you fill out an online questionnaire provided by the airline, where you enter your required insurance policy (bullet above) along with other pertinent info. That immediately generates the QR code that you can print or save on your phone. I did hear about another country in the Caribbean that doesn’t generate the QR code immediately so I wouldn’t wait until the night before to figure this out.
- NO COVID TEST NECESSARY: Some countries require a negative COVID PCR test (not the rapid ones), even if you’re vaccinated. Costa Rica is not one of those places, but we got tested before leaving home anyway. I’ve heard too many stories about someone being unknowingly asymptomatic for months and getting a surprise test result after close contact. I did not want any surprises once we left the country because then we might not be able to get back!
For Travel Back Home to the US:
- COVID TEST REQUIRED: You must show you’re negative before you can return home. You can submit negative results from either a PCR or Antigen (rapid) test that’s taken up to 3 days before your flight home. (The US doesn’t state this in hours like other countries so I had to do a little digging to make sure we followed the protocol. “For example, if a passenger’s flight is at 1pm on a Friday, the passenger could board with a negative test that was taken any time on the prior Tuesday or after.“).
We found the only thing really offered in Costa Rica was a PCR test, and luckily the local authorities and hotels have adapted quickly. It was very easy to schedule a test through the concierge, and the clinician actually came to us at our hotel with results sent via email the next day. Now I said it was EASY, but I didn’t say it was CHEAP … $150 per person! UGH. That plus the insurance meant $900 of required “extras” due to COVID, which was honestly a real bummer. We don’t know how many spring breaks we’re gonna have left with our kids though so we just sucked it up and also justified these extra expenses with all the money we “saved” from a canceled spring break trip last year.
- PASSENGER DISCLOSURE FORM: This was also provided by our airline, and I printed out multiple copies of different versions, when come to find out, the airport in San Jose, Costa Rica had plenty of copies there for travelers. When we arrived to the airport there was an airline agent at the self-check-in computers that gave you the form and put her key into the computer when it asked about your test results (you could show her either a printout or electronic version of your results). It literally took two seconds and was so simple … it immediately eased my anxiety about getting stuck in a foreign country! I asked her what you do if you had COVID and were still testing positive (but had recovered). She said you just show a doctor’s letter instead of the results. This could be from your doctor at home or on your trip, depending on where you got sick.
I hope this long explanation removes some of the mystery around what you have to do to get in and out of the country right now. Adhering to all of the new protocols was not as complicated as I was fearing so I am glad we didn’t let any of this steer us away from going on a super-fun and adventurous trip together!
Costa Rican Rice & Beans (Gallo Pinto) Recipe
Now here’s that recipe I promised you … it takes me right back to Costa Rica, and was also a great option leftover in my kids’ lunchbox the other day (as I discovered our first week back home!) :)
Costa Rican Rice & Beans (Gallo Pinto)
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1/2 yellow onion peeled and diced
- 1 red bell pepper seeded, cored, and diced
- 4 cloves garlic minced
- 1 15 ounce can black beans (both the beans and liquid)
- 4 servings cooked brown rice
- 2 tablespoons salsa (any type, see note at end of recipe)
- 1/2 cup chicken broth or vegetable broth
- 1 tablespoon honey
- 1/2 cup fresh cilantro leaves chopped
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- pepper to taste
- Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion, bell pepper, and garlic. Cook while stirring occasionally until the veggies begin to soften but not brown, 4 to 5 minutes.
- Add in the can of black beans (beans and liquid), cooked rice, salsa, broth, honey, and cilantro. Season with salt and pepper and simmer until the liquid absorbs, 5 or 10 minutes. Serve as a side item to breakfast, dinner, or lunch.
- You can use your favorite salsa (we used a green tomatillo salsa from Trader Joes). Lizano Salsa/Sauce is typically used in Costa Rica for this recipe, but since it is high in sugar content you should omit the honey if you use it.
- Can be made vegetarian using vegetable broth instead of chicken broth.
- We recommend organic ingredients when feasible.