My husband and I traveled to Costa Rica for honeymoon in 1994. Characteristic of the way we travel and make decisions, we changed our mind about where we wanted to go 30 days from our departure. Hawaii was our original destination, but as we calculated the collateral damage of a visit to Hawaii, it became obvious that the Aloha State was not in our budget.
I had planned to go to Costa Rica with some work colleagues the year before, but a hurricane hit, so the trip was cancelled. With enough literature to make our decision, we scrapped our trip to Hawaii and headed to the Pacific Coast to a town called Manuel Antonio.
Fast forward 23 years, with three daughters in tow, we headed there for our Christmas break.
Costa Rica is the perfect place for a family vacation for so many reasons. It is safe and inexpensive with tons of natural beauty and outdoors activities. In 1994, we roamed the countryside at will with no hotel reservations, only to find incredible finds both with hotel and amenities. Those days are long gone as Costa Rica is one of the popular destinations with about 4.6 million tourists in 2017. It is still a bargain when you consider vacation spots that have been so Americanized, you wonder if you ever left the country.
When I saw Manuel Antonio in December, it was obvious it was no longer a quaint, sleepy fishing town. Instead, it was bustling with tourists, jet ski rentals and lots and lots of restaurants. I, for one, longed to experience Costa Rica the way it was 20 years ago. Sorry, I can’t help my nostalgic nature.
If you do want to stay in Manuel Antonio, as many do, the place we stayed as newlyweds, La Mariposa, continues to offer great food, gorgeous views and lots of amenities.
Heading South will give you a glimpse of what Costa Rica offers to the tourist looking for the road less traveled. We drove from San Jose to Uvita, and area that is known but not as popular as other towns. Uvita offers breathtaking views, expansive beaches and great dining options.
Uvita feels and looks like a small fishing village. It is about 2 miles long with a number of different beaches to select from and is part of the Marino Ballena National Park, better known as the Whale Marine Park, duly named as a gathering place for humpback whales that mate in the winter and spring. We stayed in the private home of Marcia and Craig Jervis, beloved owners of the Mad Platter in Nashville, which is called Casa Moonvine. The home has a breathtaking view of the famous “Whales Tale” — truly a natural phenomenon.
Access to the beach is easy as you can drive your car in, park under the mango trees and enjoy the warm Pacific Ocean. We packed our coolers after visiting one of the two grocery stores in Uvita, and we were set for the entire afternoon. Most of the beaches have no lifeguards, so you do need to swim with a buddy as the tides are dramatic and change quickly. Each beach gives you a different experience — Marino Balleno National Park is busy and where the locals go to hang out. It has showers, a variety of food vendors selling coconut water, empanadas and fresh fruit. Uvita Beach is part of the national park and the beach we loved the most as it was not so crowded and an easy walk to the Flutterby House. More about Flutterby later …
Where to Stay
Kura is by far one of the most exclusive resorts in the country. The views are spectacular as it is perched at one of the highest points in Uvita. The amenities are plentiful, from their handmade cocktails to their renowned Spa Sha. Dining is top-notch with local, organic tropical ingredients and a greenhouse on the premises. The simplicity of the fresh-caught fish can be found in one of their signature dishes: Ginger and Lemongrass Beurre Blanc marinated with miso paste, lemongrass, wine and coconut milk.
Since both Condé Nast and Travel + Leisure have featured Oxygen Jungle Villas, it got my immediate attention as it’s one of the top resorts in Costa Rica with its 12 stunning, all-glass villas and lush jungle setting. The villas offer privacy, luxury and an experience that is simply unforgettable. Expensive, yes, but truly a unique experience.
Rancho Pacifico continues to wow visitors who stay at this adults-only luxury boutique. Located in a the pristine tropical rain forest almost 2,000 feet above sea level, Rancho Pacifica has dramatic views of the Pacific Ocean. This world-class property offers guests a spa, exceptional cuisine and a waterfall on the property!
Nice and affordable
Hacienda Baru feels like a throwback from the ’60s, but in a good way. The property is massive as it is a nature reserve with over 815 acres that includes walking trails, forest, beach and wildlife galore. If you start reading the blog on the site, you will be captivated by the wildlife that is being preserved in the park. Welcoming cabins are clean and simple. The restaurant on the premise is bustling, offering a wonderful breakfast buffet and typical Costa Rican food. The beach is gorgeous and virtually deserted, so it’s important to swim with a friend.
Location is everything for this affordable hotel as it is approximately four miles to Playa Hermosa. Hotel Luz De Luna offers a year-round outdoor pool and lively bar to quench your thirst. As with so many local hotels, they will help your book your tours and have bikes for hire.
Hotel Vista Bellena
This quaint hotel was once named “Whales and Dolphins” since its location in Uvita lends itself to whale watching tours. With only 20 rooms, each with a balcony and stunning views of the Pacific Ocean, you will enjoy the amenities of Hotel Vista Bellena like the infinity pool, sunset bar and restaurant. You’ll get to hang out with local wildlife like toucans and sloths.
This 10-acre property is nestled on the side of a mountain with views that are awesome! Only open since 2017, the proprietors, Michelle Simpson and Fabiana Varela, want their guests to escape the hustle and bustle of everyday life. The B&B concept offers visitors a different experience from meeting other guests to cooking local meals at your leisure. Truly, they have thought of everything from private terraces, king-sized beds and decadent linens. Did we mention that it’s affordable?
From the moment I walked in Flutterby, I wanted to stay there. It is a world-class hostel located about five minutes from Uvita Beach. Owned by sisters, Pam and Kim, who were raised with a sense of social consciousness about sustainability and environmental awareness, Flutterby House encompasses their passion. They wanted to create an experience that was unique for young and old. Mission accomplished! If you are traveling alone, the vibe at Flutterby is casual and welcoming.
There are a variety of accommodations from a penthouse treehouse to more affordable dormitory housing. The food in incredible — fresh locally sourced organic eggs, fruit, smoothies and a full lunch and dinner menu. The bar rocks pretty much all day and night. The word magical comes to mind when I think Flutterby House.
What to Do
Craig and Marcia, who moved from Nashville to Uvita, insisted that we try surfing lessons from Rama Surf. Secretly I thought, “That’s an awful idea! Who (me with bad knees) gets up on a surfboard in one lesson?” I did! Surfing is a ton of fun and got the whole family grinning from ear to ear. There were five of us, and we all got up in no time. The instructors were great and patient. After the lesson, the guys will bring you a chilled coconut filled with delicious coconut milk. Our lesson begins at Flutterby, which is a throwback from Christiania in Copenhagen. Our lesson ends at Flutterby as they have incredible cocktails.
There are waterfalls all over Costa Rica, from the one off the road to our house to one considered the most popular tourist destination in Costa Rica. Hanging out at the falls is a great way to spend the afternoon, especially if it is super hot. Here are our three favorite waterfalls in and around Uvita:
Uvita Waterfall is by far one of the main attractions in town. Uvita gives visitors a two-punch win as it is a fun waterfall to visit and also offers a natural slide. When we arrived, I saw a man climbing up and thought, “He is certifiably insane.” About 20 minutes later, I was doing the same thing. In fact, our entire family went down the waterfall in true style.
Nauyaca Falls is a big deal as it in one of the most popular in the country. A steep drive up curvy Route 243 from Dominical, the waterfall is over 200 feet tall, and the swimming hole at the bottom is magical. You will see crazies diving off some of the highest points of the fall, so prepare yourself. Note to reader: you may be tempted as I was to hike to the waterfall. I found myself trying to negotiate for my daughter and I to hike down and get a ride back up. I was willing to pay for both ways but that did NOT translate. As with many things you decide with traveling, “just let it go.” So glad that I did. The hike was a huge undertaking, lots of uphill climbing, especially in the sordid heat. We jumped on in the bed of a truck and arrived at the falls ready to go!
Cascada El Pavon requires a further drive south, but it is worth it. The road to the fall is unpaved and will take a good 10-15 minutes to get there. Once you see the sign, then go park. Its charm comes from the huge rock wedged in between the fall and the lovely setting.
I wasn’t as suspect of ziplining as I was of surf lessons, but I had never done that either. Ziplining through the canopies of the rain forest is both exhilarating and educational.
We drove to Hacienda Baru and met our guides to begin the fun. Hacienda Baru is an 800-acre National Wildlife Refuge. It is one of the few places on the Pacific Coast where a strip of forest comes down to a protected beach. Hacienda Baru is about 10 minutes north of Uvita and a rare find. The surrounding property was reforested to protect the rainforest, and the property houses a series of small cabins, a restaurant, pool and lovely beach. Like many beaches in Costa Rica, you need to be aware of the riptide as the beaches are basically deserted. Be sure to enjoy one of their Guanabana fruit milkshakes. The fruit tastes like a melding of many tropical fruits — pineapple, banana and strawberry.
As we ziplined, the guides pointed out sloths, butterflies, native birds and insects. The coolness of the rain forest was a great respite from the heat and the perfect family activity.
Whitewater Rafting/Snorkeling/Mangrove Boat Tours and More …
It is hard to believe that Uvita and Domenical offer Class 2-Class 4 whitewater rafting. It is one of the highlights for many tourists who go to Costa Rica. There are a number of tour operators, and we were advised to book with the Uvita main tourist bureau in Costa Rica, which is where you can also book snorkeling excursions, boat tours and other fun activities. This is good advice as they have their eye out for your safety and well-being. We booked three tours through them with great results.
Where to Eat
Sibu is known as a coffee shop with darn good. The day we lunched there, they were serving a gorgeous whole snapper with all the fixings. If you want more casual fare, then try their pizza or quesadilla. Sibu offers a nice assortment of craft beers and cocktails. You’ll love their Wi-Fi!
El Toro Loco is owned by a young Texas couple now living in Uvita. They offer smoked meats and fried pickles, and locals say the food is amazing. Be sure to try the pineapple slaw!
If you love paninis, Mosaic is the place to go. Try the Caprese panini and, believe it or not, sushi. Their rosemary popcorn continues to wow tourists and locals alike.
Sushi Green (attached to Mosaic) is where sushi truly meets the road. All the seafood is incredible fresh (remember Uvita is on the ocean), and they will make you rolls to order.
Osa Thyme continues to get rave reviews as one of the best new restaurants in Uvita. It is run by a young couple making interesting fusion food. The setting is magical and one that you won’t easily forget.
Los Laureles is a family-owned property known for its Costa Rican and Mexican cuisine. The menu is presented on an iPad and then described by the owner. The open air restaurants offers a wonderful dining experience on a nice night.
It is important to give credit where credit is due. Thanks to the sage advice of Craig and Marcia Jervis, the owners of Casa Moonvine, our trip was marvelous. At every turn from, “You might want to watch out for snakes” to “Don’t forget to get the ice cream at this grocery store,” they had our best interests in mind.
A little bird tells me that they are the new owners and operators of Diablo Sportfishing. Pura Vida goes a long way when you’re with good friends!
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