Traveling to Costa Rica with a Big Group: Our Favorite Excursions & Where We Stayed

Poas Volcano, Costa RicaI’m sure all of you who follow me on Instagram are like yeahhhh I’ve seen enough of this trip thank you very much (pretty sure I ‘grammed like three times a day haha), but I want to share the highlights from my amazing week in Costa Rica with everyone else.

My grandparents on my mom’s side are celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary this year and wanted to get the family together for a big trip–no small undertaking considering they have four children and nine grandchildren. It’s a rare, beautiful gift to have both your grandparents in your life as long as I have, and I’m so beyond thankful for the trip. I hate to get sappy, but it really did fill me with so much gratitude for my Mimi and Papa and the crazy big family with which they’ve blessed me.

Before this turns into an overly emotional hashtag-blessed tumblr rant, let’s get to the travel guide. Hopefully it’ll give you some good ideas if you ever plan a trip to Costa Rica because we did A LOT. My aunt planned the whole thing and did a great job of progressing it from jam-packed days of activity at the beginning to relaxing days at the beach at the week’s end. It was perfect!

Throughout this post, I’ll be linking to the Trip Advisor pages for the hotels we stayed at and excursions we did so that you can read others’ reviews of them as well if you’re considering adding anything to your own travels. Full disclosure, I’m part of the Trip Advisor affiliate program, so if you were to click over to them using any of the following links and book an activity or stay through their site, I’d get like a solid 5-15 cents. Holl-er! 🙂

Expediciones Tropicales

Because we were such a large group and ages varied from 20 to 83 and we were hopping around to various parts of the country, we used Expediciones Tropicales to guide us through the trip. They provided us with a shuttle bus and Misa, who was THE BEST, acted as our guide throughout the week. I highly recommend them if you’re with a big group (or want to be part of one) and want to hit some of the major “touristy” attractions CR has to offer.

To give you a general idea of our trip, we started towards the center of the country and slowly made our way to the west coast.

Crowne Plaza Corobici

The first two nights, we stayed at the Crowne Plaza Corobici which was a nice hotel in San Jose, but we really just used it as a place to crash at night after a long day of activities outside the city so I don’t have too much to say about it. The breakfast and dinner buffets were great and they had a small casino which was a pretty hilarious scene (picture my 6′ 6″ dad in a touristy straw hat playing poker next to a chain-smoking, 4-foot-nothing elderly Costa Rican woman).

Zip Lining & Rainforest Aerial Tram in Braulio Carrillo National Park

Braulio Carrillo National Park, Costa Rica -- zip lining

Braulio Carrillo National Park was a 40ish-minute drive from San Jose. When we got there for our rainforest adventure, we had the option to go zip-lining or do the Aerial Tram (a gondola that takes you up through the rainforest canopies. My grandparents opted for the tram ride and the rest of us went for zip-lining. I loved it! There are a dozen or so lines throughout the forest canopies, and you hike in between some of them, while you perch in a tree house platform while you hook off and on in between others. The rides start short and the lines gradually get longer and more daring as you go.  Braulio Carrillo National Park, Costa Rica -- zip lining Braulio Carrillo National Park, Costa Rica -- zip lining Braulio Carrillo National Park, Costa Rica -- zip lining

I so desperately wish I hadn’t lost my GoPro on this trip! I luckily had downloaded a few pictures beforehand, but the helmut video footage I took while zip-lining is all lost. 🙁

Sarapiquí River Boat Tour

Sarapiqui River Boat Tour, Costa RicaAfter zip lining and lunch, we went to the nearby Sarapiquí River for a boat ride. I wouldn’t say this is a must-do, but we spotted some awesome wildlife while slowly riding up and down the river–sloths, exotic birds, massive iguanas, a crocodile. There’s a little open-air building with a bar by the dock where we enjoyed some fresh fruit and coffee afterwards.

We returned to our hotel in San Jose at the end of the day. It was a bit of a drive back–about an hour and a half on the bus. The next morning we checked out and headed out for another busy day of activities …

Doka Estate Coffee Tour

Doka Estate Coffee Tour, Costa RicaWe took off bright an early and (fittingly) started the day with a tour of the Doka Estate coffee plantation and processing plant. They served us breakfast and then gave us a tour of the whole coffee process–from growing the plants to processing them in the wet mill to brewing the final bean. I like learning about stuff like this and seeing how foods are made so I really enjoyed the tour. It’s short and sweet so I’d recommend pairing the activity with another nearby excursion (there are tons in the Poas Volcano region) like we did. Doka Estate Coffee Tour, Costa Rica Doka Estate Coffee Tour, Costa RicaI bought a couple bags of Doka coffee at the end of the tour that I gave as a gift–highly recommend their house blend if you go!

Poás Volcano

Poas Volcano, Costa RicaPoás Volcano was a smelly hike (the sulfur from the volcano smells like farts) but worth it–the view was amazing! From where you park, it’s a quick walk up along a paved path to see the main crater. From there, you can continue the hike into a forested area up another 15 minutes or so to another beautiful view of a lake formed out of another volcano crater. Poas Volcano, Costa Rica

If you take the hike to this second spot, it doesn’t smell like farts. Important information, I know.

La Paz Waterfall Gardens

La Paz Waterfall Gardens, Costa RicaLa Paz Waterfall Gardens are one part hike through the jungle along several waterfalls and one part zoo. There are bird cages you can walk through, a butterfly garden, and bigger animal exhibits. La Paz Waterfall Gardens, Costa Rica La Paz Waterfall Gardens, Costa Rica La Paz Waterfall Gardens, Costa Rica

By the animal exhibits is a big dining area where we had a buffet-style lunch. The food here was more “Americanized” and less authentic (french fries and pizza instead of rice and beans) but there were some healthy options to be found as well. From there, you can take a hiking trail along the several nearby waterfalls. La Paz Waterfall Gardens, Costa RicaSick of looking at pictures of me and Joe standing in front of things? Too bad. From here we traveled to our second hotel where we’d stay two nights …

Hotel Arenal Manoa

Arenal Manoa Hotel & Spa, Costa RicaLike our first stop in San Jose, Hotel Arenal Manoa was really just a place for us to rest our head at night. We didn’t spend too much time at the resort because we were so busy with excursions, something I actually regret looking at the reviews of this place on Trip Advisor–why the hell didn’t I take advantage of that pool?! The suites are spread throughout Hotel Arenal’s grounds in a sort of duplex set-up. The rooms were spacious, although a tad outdated if I have to be critical, and each had a backyard. The restaurant/bar area was also spacious and open to the outdoors which made for an awesome atmosphere. Arenal Manoa Hotel & Spa, Costa Rica Arenal Manoa Hotel & Spa, Costa Rica

If you want a lot of nature and a quieter vibe, this is the place for you.

Arenal Hanging Bridges

Arenal Hanging Bridges Park , Costa RicaThe Arenal Hanging Bridges was the only activity that we all agreed we could have done without. Not because it was bad–we’d just already done similar activities the day before. Located in the Arenal Volcano National Park, it’s a nature hike through the rainforest with a dozen hanging bridges throughout the trail. At one point there’s a waterfall you can walk down to, and there’s an opportunity to see wildlife, although we weren’t so lucky. Crossing the longer bridges was really cool (they sway and rock as you all walk across them), but I wouldn’t say this is a must-do activity. Arenal Hanging Bridges Park , Costa Rica Arenal Hanging Bridges Park , Costa RicaArenal Hanging Bridges Park , Costa Rica Arenal Hanging Bridges Park , Costa Rica This took up a good chunk of the morning and we followed it up with a lunch organized by our tour company.

Tabacon Grand Spa Hot Springs

Tabacon Grand Spa Thermal Springs in Arenal, Costa Rica.I think this was my favorite afternoon of the whole trip! The Tabacon Thermal Resort was located right by our hotel. Although we weren’t guests (I’d imagine this would be a heavenly place to stay if you travel to the Arenal area!), we had wristbands through our tour group to access the spa for the day (anyone can purchase a day pass). Naturally heated by the nearby Arenal Volcano, Tabacon Spa is an enchanting, sprawling garden of hot pools, rivers and small, cascading waterfalls weaving through what can best be described as one-part jungle, one-part resort pool area. You can wander along the paths until you find a calm spring to soak in, or you can treat the maze of springs like a jungle gym, swim/climbing from one to the next. I did my fair share of both! Tabacon Grand Spa Thermal Springs in Arenal, Costa Rica Tabacon Grand Spa Thermal Springs in Arenal, Costa Rica

In addition to the natural springs, there are several small (manmade) tubs and one larger pool area equipped with a waterslide and swim-up, tiki-style bar. At one point in the afternoon, it started raining so we huddled under the bar roof sitting in the warm water and sipping on frozen margaritas. It was perfect! Tabacon Grand Spa Thermal Springs in Arenal, Costa Rica Tabacon Grand Spa Thermal Springs in Arenal, Costa Rica

WEARING | Crochet High Neck Bikini Top by Bettinis c/o Shopbop

We also had dinner at the spa which was was a sprawling buffet with plenty of healthy options. After dinner, we spent a final night at Arenal Manoa Hotel. The next morning, we headed to the coast (a 5-hour drive) to finish out our vacation at the beach.

The Westin Playa Conchal The Westin Playa Conchal, Costa Rica

The Westin Playa Conchal is an all-inclusive resort on the western coast of Costa Rica. We all LOVED it. The resort is sprawling–there’s a golf course, tennis courts, a (small) gym, little shops, multiple restaurants and buffet-style dining areas, two huge pool areas and, of course, the beach. After the go-go-go pace of the first half of our trip, lounging at the Westin for three days was the PERFECT way to end our vacation.

The Westin Playa Conchal, Costa Rica The Westin Playa Conchal, Costa RicaWEARING | MIKOH Banyans String Racerback Bikini Top c/o Shopbop

The food. All inclusive can be hit-or-miss, but I was beyond impressed by the food at the Westin. First of all, 24/7 room service is included and the menu is delicious. I had the portobello mushroom wrap delivered to the room like four times in the three days. Judge me!

Next up, the restaurants. They don’t seem to have names (they do, but I don’t know what they are), everyone–staff included–refers to them by the cuisine: The French Restaurant, The Italian Restaurant, etc. You have to make reservations to eat at these, and it seems they limit this each night (do it in advance!), but the meal is also included in your stay. Everything I got was amazing. The portion sizes are on the smaller size, but you are getting top notch dishes. We ate at the French place one night and the Italian place the other–both get an A+. The Westin Playa Conchal, Costa Rica

The main buffet dining area that’s open for breakfast and lunch is huge–plenty of options to satisfy you regardless of dietary preferences. They have this one area called “Superfoods” that is pretty hilarious–picture random bowls of healthy foods that have nothing to do with each other (baby carrots, raisins, quinoa)–but they also have non-comical healthy options. 🙂

The pool & beach. The main pool area is huge. I don’t know where mid December ranks in tourist season, but it didn’t feel overcrowded at all. There’s a swim-up pool bar (get a frozen mojito!) and an area with ping pong and other games next to one of the lounge chair areas. From this pool area, you can walk onto the beach. The Westin Playa Conchal, Costa Rica

The beach feels somewhat separate from the resort. You walk through a fence by the pool area and then down a little path to the beach. Along the path are local vendors selling trinkets out of their trunk and offering cheap massages (GET ONE! $20 for an hour long massage on the beach–and it’s a GOOD massage). The beach is a secluded cove so the water is calm and perfect for swimming. If you want to surf, do a day trip to Tamarindo, a nearby surf town. The Westin Playa Conchal, Costa Rica The Westin Playa Conchal, Costa Rica

This sounds weird to mention, but the only downside to the resort is how slippery the pool area is. I felt like I was going to wipe out every time I got out of the water. Also, the drinks are weak, but that’s to be expected at an all-inclusive resort. 😉

The rooms. LOVED the rooms. Each two-story condo building is divided into eight (ish?) suites. You walk onto a deck and then through big glass doors, which open up into a living area with kitchenette, dining table, couch, desk, ottoman. Up a couple steps is an elevated bedroom section that looks out over the couch (kinda pictured below). I had all these cool wide angle pictures of the room but … RIP GoPro.

The Westin Playa Conchal, Costa Rica WEARING | MINKPINK Indigo Waters Halter Dress c/o Shopbop (currently on sale!!)

And that was the trip! I had been to Costa Rica once before in high school (Mal Pais area) and really love the country. I can’t recommend it enough for your next vacation!

Have you been to Costa Rica before? Where’d you go? What’d you do?

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Comments

  1. I’m so sad about your GoPro! The pictures you managed to get are pretty amazing though. Looks like you had a blast!

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  3. Ok, I’m ready to go back!

  4. Planning on a girls trip for April and your post got me so excited. Now I have to purchase a GoPro for the cool ventures. Thanks for the info.

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