I spent Christmas with my family in Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica and had the most amazing time. It is definitely somewhere I recommend visiting because it is great for a family like mine that likes to do activities as well as lounge on the beach. This post and my next will probably be my longest to date, but I want you to be informed about your trip and give you a few tips along the way.
Costa Rica seems like many countries in one. Though it’s only about the size of the state of Washington, every area is different. In San Jose, the location of the international airport, is the capital of the country and where all of the city folk live. If you head to the Caribbean side, it has more of a Jamaican and Rastafarian influence and tends to be the more dangerous side. The police on that side of the country tend to be more response-based, whereas the ones on the Pacific side, like in Manuel Antonio, are more preventative-based. On my way to Manuel Antonio, I noticed so many cops and ambulances all traveling with their lights on. In America, this would be a bad thing, but here it just means that they are on official business rather than just going to or from the “office.” Everything on the Pacific side is much more laid back and you will constantly hear the locals saying “pura vida,” but because of their accents, I thought they were saying “puda vida.” Nonetheless, it translates to “pure life,” but it used for a variety of meanings; it’s all good, good morning, I’m ready, how’s your day – all of these!
In Costa Rica, the currency is colones and 500 colones equates to $1USD. Most things are in increments of thousand, so 1000 colones was $2. To simplify, essentially just double every price then take off the extra zeros.
Everything in Manuel Antonio was pretty expensive, but that is because it is the tourist destination for Ticos (Costa Ricans) and international visitors. Even though it was pricey, I was a huge fan of the food in Costa Rica! Their traditional dish is called casado, which translates to “married.” The dish is made up of rice, beans, meat, potato, salad, and vegetables. It gets its name because a worker who brings that for lunch has to be married; the single ones have just rice and beans with tortillas. Rice and beans is a part of nearly every meal, along with the fresh fruit. When I visited in December, mango, watermelon, and 4 types of cantaloupe were in season. January through April, their summer, is the main export time. During the high time, they will export 5000 containers of bananas per week to England! From April to June there will be mangoes everywhere, completely covering the ground. June through December is the rainy season, but in August the humpback whales come for about 75 days to have their babies in the ocean because it is the coldest at that time of the year, but still not too cold for them. Throughout the rainy season, the rains will typically only come in the afternoons or at night. If you visit during that time, plan activities for the morning and you’ll be back to your hotel by the time it rains. This season causes a lot of rock slides on the road, but because they are common, the locals are quite excellent at cleaning them up promptly so it does not effect their tourism.
A little fun fact about Costa Rica: Chiquita Bananas used to be on Pacific side in early 1900s, but when they tried to modify them to make them larger, they instead became infected with a fungus that wiped out ALL of the crops, so they moved to the Caribbean side, where they still operate today. Those farms turned into palm oil plantations, which is a vast and expensive export for Costa Rica. Another big money maker is teak wood; teak trees grow rapidly here and will sell for a lot of money if you allow them to grow to full maturity, but they kill the soil so nothing around it will grow and you won’t be able to grow another tree in it’s place once you finally harvest the wood.
I flew Alaska Airlines the whole way because it is my absolute favorite American airline and they just started flying to Costa Rica in November. Because I was flying the weekend before Christmas, I wanted to make it easy on myself. I packed light, arrived early, and checked my bag because I knew most flights would be full so there would be minimal overhead space. I’m a frequent traveler, so I’m easily frustrated by those that fly only fly for the holidays and aren’t prepared in security lines. Check out my other post about what not to do at the airport, but also, have your liquids on the top of your bag to easily pull out, don’t have anything in your pockets, and don’t wear any items that will set off the metal detectors or be a hassle to remove. Arriving early made it so I didn’t feel rushed and was okay with waiting behind the slow travelers in the security lines.
My flight leaving Seattle was on time, which is always nice. The flight to Costa Rica left LAX early the next morning, so I chose to fly to LAX a day early and stay the night at the Sheraton Gateway rather than leave Seattle at zero dark thirty and worry about a quick connection.
The hotel was rather nice; beautifully decorated for the holidays, courtesy airport shuttle which runs about every 15 minutes, and 24-hour room service. There were only a handful of us on the shuttle since it was so late, but everyone but me was apparently a Sheraton Preferred Guest, who get a special line and get the next available attendant for check in, even though I was the first one off the bus and into the lobby. This was rather irritating after an evening of traveling and my need for sleep, and definitely not how you treat a non-SGP guest because I hardly wanted to stay there again, let alone join their rewards program. Once I finally checked in and settled into my room, the bed was as plush and comfortable as ever, but the bathroom needs updating. The shower tiles looked as though they had been re-spackled to stay in place and residue was starting to build up. It was actually odd to me because it seemed like this bathroom did not live up to the rest of my room or even the hotel for that matter, as if they had upgraded the entire hotel except for the bathrooms. This may very well be the case because it’s expensive to renovate bathrooms, but it’s a necessity. There was also some plane noise, but that’s what you get, and what you pay for, at a hotel just down the street from one of America’s busiest airports.
The next morning, I allowed for some wiggle room when I left the hotel because I wasn’t sure how long I’d have to wait for the shuttle. With my luck, I would have just missed it and would have to wait another 15 minutes, which could’ve thrown off my entire timing for the morning, but the shuttle gods were on my side and I saw the bus had just pulled up when I came out of the elevator. I popped my room key into the express check out box near the elevators and scurried to the bus. Even at 5am, LAX traffic is absolutely crazy, though it looks worse than it actually is because it took no time at all to get through. The line for Southwest Airlines curbside bag drop was nearly the whole length of their terminal, but lucky for me, Alaska isn’t a popular airline there, or even a popular terminal for that matter, so the bag drop line only took a few minutes, as did the security line. Once through security, Starbucks was the only thing open until Wolfgang Pucks opened at 7:30am. The line was long, but once again went rather quickly. It is a Starbucks Reserve location, so they serve wine and beer for those that are interested.
If you were to take the early flight from Seattle to connect through LAX, the gates are very close to each other so it is definitely possible, plus Alaska has been holding the Costa Rica flight if the Seattle flight is delayed because the early SEA-LAX flight was created specifically for this new Costa Rica route.
The flight from LAX to Costa Rica is about 6 hours. There are no monitors in the headrests or that drop down from the ceiling. If you didn’t bring your own entertainment, you can rent a Digi Player from Alaska for $10 and it comes with numerous shows and movies already on it, so there is no extra rental fee for those. The seats also have chargers, for both USB and regular outlets, to keep your iPads and Kindles charged for the entire length of the flight.
My parents had arranged for a driver to pick me up, so once I had gone through border control, picked up my bags, and scanned it at customs, I bypassed all of the drivers offering taxi rides to the man holding a sign with my name. Olman, my driver, charged $180 for the 3-hour drive to Manuel Antonio. The average price is about $150, but can vary, and they prefer American USD. My parents found this driver through the concierge at our hotel, which is what I recommend doing because arranging it ahead of time takes a lot of hassle and stress out of your arrival. Olman grew up in Manuel Antonio but his wife is from Texas so his English was very understandable, which was nice. He was quite the talker, but since I had never been to Costa Rica before, everything he was telling me was fascinating new learning. He pointed out different sites along the way and told me about the cities we were passing, which really made the 3 hours go by quickly. Soon enough, we were at the hotel and I was finally greeting my family in the 90° heat at 8pm with 75% humidity.
We left the day after Christmas, which in the states is a typically busy travel day, so my dad was stressed out and wanted us to leave extra early. My parents were being dropped off at their next stop, just one hour north, on the way to the airport, in Jaco, and my brother and I wanted to stop and see the crocodiles (look up bridge name), and even with all of that, we made it to the airport in 3 hours. Traffic going the other way, though, was truly terrible because the locals who live in San Jose, where the airport is, stay in town for Christmas with family, then head out to the beach the next morning. Based on the traffic I saw, it would easily have taken 5 hours to get back to Manuel Antonio, so do keep that in mind if you are coming after the holiday.
When leaving Costa Rica, you need to pay an exit tax. It is in the far right corner of the airport and costs $29USD cash per person. There are ATMs available, but who knows what the fee would be, so it’s better just to keep a stash of this money separate from your spending money on your trip. After paying this tax, you will get a customs form from the airline and you need to fill that out before you can get your boarding pass or check your bag. All of these lines, and even the security line after checking in, weren’t long at all. My brother and I had almost too much time to kill before our flight so we thought we’d get proper food beforehand rather than airplane food. We ate at Brioche Doree, which had great flatbreads and baguette sandwiches, but there was also a Smashburger and a few other quick to-go cafes. There were many souvenir shops, but of course everything was an expensive airport price that makes you regret not buying it from the stand on the beach. When doing shopping in the terminal before your flight, make sure you do not buy any beverages, or if you do, you must finish them before the flight. You cannot carry on any liquid over the typical 3.4oz size, even if it’s a water bottle purchased after security. I’m no 100% sure of the reason, but I think it has something to do with being international and the whole customs issues behind food and drink.
Our flight ended up leaving Costa Rica an hour late because, according to the pilot, we had to take off the opposite direction of everyone else due to our weight, so it was hard to get that worked into the flight pattern. Luckily, we made up the time in the air and arrived nearly on time. Because we arrived at our gate in LAX after 7pm, that customs clearance had closed, so we were all shuttled over to the international terminal to go through all of that late-night excitement. Because we were arriving at such a late time, we were the only international flight at the time, so it was all very efficient and quick.
My brother and I again stayed at the Sheraton Gateway then woke up early for our connecting flight back to Seattle. This time, going into Terminal 6 at 8am on the Sunday of Christmas weekend was a bit more busy than it had been before on a random weekday at 5am. Checking our bags took much longer than expected, but I think that’s due to numerous large families checking 10+ bags that happened to get in line ahead of us, which I think was just our luck rather than a typical occurrence. Once we checked our bags, there was not one person in front of us in line at security. We then killed time at Wolfgang Pucks for breakfast, which was expensive, but delicious and filling. We even saw Carl Reiner! This terminal was under construction, so there is only one women’s bathroom for about 10 departure gates, which was not ideal, so be sure to plan ahead, though there were two for men. Besides that, the flight on Alaska was as lovely as usual then we were finally home to SeaTac, where we were off the plane, retrieved our bags, and arrived at the car park in 15 minutes. Alaska is already efficient with their 20-minute bag guarantee, but they really step it up for the home-town crowd in Seattle.
I hope this helped you get a better understanding of what to expect for your trip to Costa Rica! If you still have questions, you can email me. My post about what we did during my week in Manuel Antonio will be up on Tuesday, until then, I hope these pictures from my trip suffice.