Tickets for four to Costa Rica and hotel accommodations for a week for under $2500? It’s possible, and it’s exactly what my family and I were able to do with some careful planning. The travel lesson learned in taking this spectacular vacation was that patience pays off.

First, after weeks of trolling the web, we got lucky with extremely low airfare to San Jose, the country’s capital. We continuously monitored sites such as Expedia and Travelocity, as well as TACA Airlines, and were amazed late one night when we spotted a price of $320 per ticket roundtrip. We seized the opportunity and booked immediately. The dates were ideal — they matched up with our kids’ Spring break from school.

From there, we scanned sites such as TripAdvisor to get lodging and itinerary ideas. We decided to focus on three regions of the country, all north or west of the capital. And, while many people hire a driver or fly to their various destinations across the rugged terrain of Costa Rica, we took the plunge and saved a few bucks by renting a car from Alamo at a very good weekly rate. We made our way without a problem through rain, canyons, mountains and even a little traffic. The roads were quite good, actually.

In Arenal, the site of the country’s mildly active volcano, we stayed at the Arenal Paraiso Resort & Spa. Our “cabina” (shown in photo below) featured beautiful native wood and was a standalone structure with a spectacular view facing the volcano, which spewed out smoke throughout our two-night stay. This was not luxury lodging, but still very nice and very representative of the local culture. It was clean and comfortable, with beautiful gardens, thermal pools and a location adjacent to the area’s renowned zip lines. And riding those zip lines was, to this day, one of the most exciting moments of my life. 

Even more memorable was our stay at La Carolina Lodge, in a remote town in the northerly region of San Miguel, Bijagua. We stayed in a rustic family cabin (with complete bathroom/shower facilities) adjacent to a rushing river and in a jungle-like setting where creatures such as the sloth roam. An extremely pleasant staff prepared us three delicious meals a day, and a guide took us on a day-long hike to a beautiful aquamarine-blue waterfall and lake (see photo at top). We swam and enjoyed a picnic lunch. The overall cost was extremely affordable at well under $200/night for a rate that included all of our meals, the waterfall hike, as well as a guided horseback ride around the expansive grounds for the entire family. I had tears in my eyes when we left — the owner and his staff took such great care of us and were such amazing people. This lodge, which we have since recommended to others who concur wholeheartedly that it is a true gem, was found through tedious searches on TripAdvisor forums.

Lastly, we drove to the beach town of Nosara in the Guanacaste region, which is on Costa Rica’s northwest Pacific Ocean coast. We stayed at a lovely small inn, Casa Romantica, run by a European couple. Iguanas abounded. Monkeys jumped through the trees. And the ocean water was perfect for swimming and surfing. The inn was a short trail walk to the beach (see photo at left) and close to the quaint town, which had a number of restaurants and surf shops to offer. We stayed in a simple, small and affordable family-size room that was perfect for our stay.

The time and effort for researching this trip really paid off. It was an unforgettable adventure and we came back knowing that we had cut corners where we could while experiencing the full flavor of the country and all that it has to offer.