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Beach Towns in Costa Rica with a Big Family
Our Big Family Taking in the Sunset at Playa Carillo, Costa Rica
Costa Rica's Playa Carillo, on the Nicoya Peninsula, in Guanacaste Province, has one of the country's most pristine, untouched beaches. It is popular with Costa Ricans, especially on weekends and holidays. Staying here, without a car, with a big family, can...

...present some challenges, and in this post we'll share our experiences there to help you plan your next big trip.

Where to Stay in Playa Carillo
When we went to Playa Carillo this summer with our Big Family, we looked in the village itself - called Puerto Carillo - for lodging. For the purposes of this article I refer to the whole area as Playa Carillo, but of course, you're really only at the Playa when you're at the playa (the beach). And one of the best things about this particular beach, unlike most other beaches in Costa Rica, is that there is nowhere to stay directly on the beach itself. Commercial development is nonexistent, and that includes a total lack of beachfront condos, hotels, resorts, houses, or even small bungalows. But the town and some rental properties are within an easy 5- to 10-minute walk of the beach. This lack of development is a good thing. It means it'll just be you and beach.

We ended up booking a whole-house rental online in advance, for an exorbitant price (plus cleaning fee, plus service fee). It wasn't cheap, but we had a pretty property that was very private and featured over 2 acres of land. Upon arrival we discovered that much of the property was steep and hilly, rendering it useless. We had use of the driveway, home, a covered sitting area, a deck, and a little strip of backyard. There was a huge mango tree loaded with mangoes but they weren't anywhere near ripe yet.

Traveling with a Big Family to Playa Carillo, Costa Rica
Red Land Crab in Our Yard in Playa Carillo, Costa Rica
The rental home we chose had a nice view of the bay, and of the gorgeous sunsets. There was a wonderful lack of visible and audible human presence near the house. It was quiet, except, this was the jungle, so there was also a riot of bird noises all day, particularly in the early mornings. But it was super quiet in terms of car traffic and people noise. We also didn't observe a single airplane in the sky all week, which was nice. It was the kind of place that makes you feel all alone, with the family. We like places like that.

While exploring the small fishing village we also saw three small hotels advertising A/C and pool, but all appeared to have no guests whatsoever, or to be closed for the low season. We passed by these places many times, and never observed a single human being at any of them. And, none of them looked like the type of place that would have a presence on the web to allow for advance booking, so the best way to try to book these would be to just show up and ask.

Traveling with a 6-person family, I don't generally try that method of securing lodging, for fear that we would find places sold out, or that we'd get last-minute sucker pricing, or that we'll all be told we need to share 2 beds for the 6 of us (and based on the number of kids in this family that have the jimmy legs, that ain't happening!).

Bird watching with a big family in Costa Rica
White-Throated Magpie-Jays in Playa Carillo, Costa Rica
A Non-Optional Luxury
All over Costa Rica, I had hosts telling me in various ways, "You don't really need air conditioning." This opinion was usually delivered to me shortly after explaining that their advertised air conditioning machine was out of order and couldn't be fixed until the next day at the soonest. This statement of non-need implies that 86F (30C) indoor temperatures in the daytime are tolerable. I'm from the hot southern part of the U.S. (often 95F or 35 C in summer). I also lived in South America for 2 years, and I'm here to tell you, if you are from the U.S., you will need A/C in Costa Rica, no matter what you are told about it being unnecessary. It's worth paying the extra price to have a room with A/C, and it is not unreasonable to expect this advertised amenity to be functional when you check in to the property.

Wildlife in Playa Carillo
During our 7 nights in Playa Carillo, we saw fireflies, mosquitoes, two kinds of crabs, 3 or 4 kinds of interesting tropical birds, and 2 ctenosaurs (which I thought were iguanas at the time) on the property. Inside there were plenty of squeaky geckos.

A small river empties directly into the eastern/southern end of the beach closest to the village, and there are posted signs warning of crocodiles in the estuary, though we saw none. It's wise to obey these signs anyway, as periodically somewhere in Costa Rica, a surfer or tourist (usually a foreigner) will try to cross a river near the beach on foot, and will have an encounter with a crocodile. These encounters tend to involve a chomping sound, and screaming. So it's wise to go around the rivers, not wade through them.

Crocodiles Living near Beaches in Costa Rica

Source: TicoTimes.Net

Some people will tell you that crocodiles are only found in Africa, Asia, and Australia, so surely they don't have any crocodiles in Costa Rica, and that they must mean "alligators" or "caimans." (There are also caimans in Costa Rica.)  However, the name of the critter of which I am writing is the "American Crocodile," and in Spanish, Cocodrilo. They are very territorial and have been known to attack a person who splashes around in their river. Again, we saw none in Playa Carillo, but we chose to swim pretty far away from where the estuary empties into the bay.

Given that the house listing advertised the exciting prospect of hearing the call of howler monkeys every morning, we were disappointed not to see any monkeys. On two mornings we did hear the call of a mono congo (which I believe is another name for the howler monkey). It went something like:  "Oooooh! Oooooh-Oooh!!", but it was very far off in the distance towards the jungle area, near a mango tree.

Traveling with Children to Costa Rica
Not Exactly the Sort of Wildlife I Was Hoping to Spot in the Trees...
Where are all the Monkeys Anyway?
Red Squirrel in Palm Tree, Playa Carillo, Costa Rica

The Beach at Playa Carillo
Playa Carillo ("Little Cart Beach") is often described as a "white sand beach," however, when you get up close and take a handful of it, you see that is has multicolored grains of sand including brown, white, black, and grey grains. Most perfectly, there is absolutely no commercial development permitted directly at the beach. This means no restaurants with prices in dollars blaring intolerable Jimmy Buffet songs, no hotels shooing tourists off "their" beach space and away from their view-obstructing rental umbrellas, and no garish advertisements for surf lessons with Fabio. There aren't even any touts walking around to bother you with verbal pitches for their I Heart Costa Rica t-shirts or postcards.

Traveling to Playa Carillo with a Big Family with Small Children
Undeveloped, Natural Playa Carillo, Costa Rica
Playa Carillo in the low-season was very quiet. It is exactly what I had in mind since my youth, as the idealized version of a tropical beach in paradise: a long, empty, curving, sandy beach, beautiful waves, and a long line of palm trees with parrots flying between them.

However, if beach time is your main reason for traveling, you'd do well to consider alternative destinations. Costa Rica is not at the top of anyone's list for best swimming beaches in the world. There are pretty beaches, but they are pretty wild and rough, since they face the Pacific Ocean. Costa Rica is known for its wildlife and other attractions more than for its beaches.

Things to Do in Playa Carillo with a Big Family
We found it easy to plan our itinerary for Playa Carillo. Here's a 3-day itinerary for Playa Carillo that would work for any size family or budget.

Day One:  Go to the Beach

Traveling with a Big Family to Costa Rica

Day Two:  Go to the Beach

Where to Stay in Costa Rica with a Big Family

Day Three:  Go to the Beach

Itinerary for a Big Family at a Beach Town in Costa Rica

If staying beyond Day Three, we suggest repeating an activity from Day One, Two, or Three. Seriously though, there's not much to do in Playa Carillo presently, other than go to the beach. That's what we liked about it. It's a place to relax. It's a tropical paradise. What you are supposed to do is, well, nothing, then more of the same. If you're looking for something more active and action-oriented, you might try nearby Samara or one of the other, more touristy towns along the coast.

I had never been to a place where there was nothing to do but go to the beach. After about four days, the kids were commenting: "This is the longest we've ever stayed at a beach." Unless you're a beach fanatic, 2 or 3 nights might be just about right.

Is the Beach at Playa Carillo Safe for Kids?
Before the trip, I spent many hours reading up on beach options in Costa Rica, and this is said to be one of the best ones for kids anywhere in the country. Just keep in mind this is the mighty Pacific Ocean, not a water park, or the flat waves of the Gulf of Mexico. As long as you keep your skill level in mind and get back towards the sand when the tide starts to change, it's great fun.

We found it necessary to watch for riptides and to avoid going over about waist deep. A few times I got as deep as my sternum, and the waves were wild at that depth. In our family we are generally used to swimming in hotel pools, lakes, and the comparatively calm waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

At Playa Carrillo, which is said to be one of the gentlest, safest beaches in Costa Rica, every one of our three oldest kids, as well as myself, had moments of being flipped head over heels by a wave, and pushed way under and held there by the weight and force of the water. Often there was second wave that would move you along, tumbling you towards the beach. This usually involved drinking some water up the nose. We called this "going through the spin cycle."

Visiting Costa Rica Beaches with Young Kids
Swimming in the Pacific Can Feel like Going through the Spin Cycle of a Clothes Washer

You come up gagging, choking for air, salt water in your eyes and throat, and hopefully, laughing. You pop up from a ride like that and then have to immediately glance back over your shoulder to see if you're about to unwillingly take a second ride of a similar nature. Then you run for shore, realizing that this wouldn't have happened if you hadn't gone so deep.

My youngest boy has a 3-inch sand burn on his forehead, from getting planted face-first in the sand, then dragged through the sand by a wave.

Although I read multiple pieces of advice saying it was necessary to wear water shoes at this beach to avoid injuries from broken corral, we gave up on water shoes after getting them sucked right off our feet. On our first morning, within 20 minutes, my son was down to one shoe. Everyone else took theirs off and put them high up in the dry sand. We never needed them again for the remainder of our time in Costa Rica.

Still, it's wise to shuffle-walk in the water, as we saw two sand-colored critters (rays of some type?) with stinging tails pointed straight up. Numerous times I nudged something with the edge of my foot or toes, and it scooted out of the way, fortunately, without stinging me.

Swimming in the Pacific Ocean with a Big Family in Costa Rica
Some of the smaller waves at Playa Carillo, Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica

I agree that this can be a great beach for small children, but this assumes they stay very, very close to shore. The waves are punishing, especially when the tide is changing, and I got my back, chest, face, and head thrashed repeatedly. It's the kind of swimming that when you get out, you go and flop down on the sand, flat on your back, exhausted and panting. My wife had a bad moment where her leg was wrenched at the hip socket and she thought she wasn't going to be able to walk home. The next day, I had the same injury too. This was a result of inexperience:  my misguided attempt at resisting a large wave as it broke on me, by planting my foot and bracing for impact, and trying to remain standing, when I should've just dove under it, or let it throw me.

Basically, it's helpful to just keep in mind that this is the powerful Pacific Ocean, not a swimming pool!

Getting to the Beach
To walk from the town, Puerto Carillo, to the beach, Playa Carillo, involves taking an unpaved, hilly, rocky narrow lane towards the beach for about 10 minutes, then crossing a narrow one-lane bridge. We found that cars did not slow down one little bit for pedestrians on the narrow bridge, but we stayed on the white line on the edge while crossing, and of course, we had to walk single-file.

At one crossing, we had to turn around and make a run for it, when a large bus approached, and rather than slowing down for us, it rapidly accelerated, so it could climb the big hill just after the bridge. We probably had enough room to share the bridge (maybe?) but it was much too tight for comfort.

Pipas Frias
The only commercial presence we observed was that periodically a grandmother would pass by on a bicycle push-cart to sell pipas frias (cold coconuts). These were about US$1.60 each. The grandmother would hop off her bike and whip out a machete, then whack the end off of a coconut and stick a straw in it for you. In case you wanted the coconut "meat" or "flesh" from inside, she'd hang around in the background until you were done sipping, then she'd happily crack the coconut in half for you and hand you a spoon. So if that sounds delicious to you (it was), be sure to bring along some colones in small denominations whenever you head to the beach. In groceries in other towns, we saw that we could get 3 coconuts for this price, but of course, everything is more expensive at the beach, and, this price included having someone else do the machete work.

We didn't have a car. I greatly prefer not to drive outside of my home country for several very good reasons (as described in this prior post). We thought we'd see frequent taxis tooling around looking for customers, but we didn't see a single taxi passing through town the entire week.

However, the local property manager gave us the contact info for a driver who has multiple vehicles, including a 7-passenger SUV. I was advised it should cost 6,000 colones (US$10) to come get us and bring us to the larger town nearby, Samara - but to verify that price before having him drive to Playa Carillo. However, the driver's price quotes via text to get us to Samara were bizarre: "10,000 colones or 10 Dollars." During our trip, 10,000 colones was equal to 17 US Dollars. So his quote was essentially "$10 or $17 depending on choice of currency." I was glad to have brought a small stack of US ten dollar bills on the trip. I had read repeatedly that any foreigner paying a taxi driver in Costa Rica should not expect them to make or offer any change. So had I paid with a twenty dollar bill, the ride might have cost twenty dollars.

How About Walking to Samara?
Before the trip, I had initially considered it an option to walk all the way to Samara, which I estimated would take no more than 45 minutes to an hour each way. In Samara you can find a lot of things that don't yet exist in Playa Carillo, such as an ATM, and a couple of supermarkets (we liked the supermarket called New Super China). Also Samara has way more dining choices. We did not like dining at "The Natural Center," as we were joined in our feast by approximately 3 dozen houseflies which ruined the meal. But Samara is the place to go for a major grocery run, and there is no ATM in the Playa Carillo area.

So I had thought Samara might be walkable from Carillo. However, arriving by van the first day, we had a good look at the road there between Samara and Playa Carillo (a road that was very curvy), and the local driving style (very fast). Between the two towns there are many sections with zero shoulder of any kind, and no place to walk at all, except the road itself. Cars go very rapidly on this winding, hilly, paved road. The white line is inches from the edge of the pavement, and for much of the walk, it is a steeply angled drop-off for anyone who needs to step down to let a bus or one of the frequent dump trucks pass. We did see some tourists walking along the white line, and it looked insanely dangerous and ill-advised.

Traveling with a big family staying in Playa Carillo Samara area Costa Rica
Ctenosaur in Playa Carillo, Costa Rica
I'm sure there's also probably a surfer path of some type somewhere nearer the beach, to get from Playa Carillo to Samara. However, with the heat, and considering the age of our kids, we didn't explore that possibility. Plus, as we drove along the full extent of Playa Carrillo, I had to revise my walking estimate. I think it would take about an hour just to get from one end of that beach to the other.

Then you'd have to find the off-road path that leads to Samara, and traverse that. And then once you get to Samara Beach, the commercial center of Samara is at the far end of its beach, making a 2-hour walking time each way more likely, if walking with young children. This is another of the differences between traveling as a couple vs. traveling with a big family: in my younger days, I would never have considered a taxi for such a short distance. I would've just explored the beach and walked it, even if it took 4 hours.

What to Eat in Playa Carillo
On the day of our arrival, we brought a lot of groceries with us from Maxi Pali in the town of Nicoya, about an hour away. We were surprised to find a lot of Great Value brand products there, such as the "Mapple Syrup" we bought for our breakfast pancakes. Then at checkout, the receipt looked exactly like a Wal-Mart receipt - same size, same font, same layout - it just said "Maxi Pali" at the top. As we later found out, Wal-Mart owns the Maxi Pali chain in Costa Rica.

Example grocery store in Costa Rica - lots of variety, zero air conditioning

If you're a coffee drinker, you can find some of the best Costa Rican coffees at grocery store prices rather than sucker prices, if you pick some up at a supermarket. Wait till you get to a gift shop, or, woe is you, the airport, and you'll pay 10 times that price.

While stopped in Nicoya we also got a good lunch at Restaurant Nicoya - which offers Costa Rican fare as well as Asian Fusion - for about US$8.50 per person. That's not the cheapest choice in Nicoya, but I picked that place since it would offer us one last taste of something different, before being in a small fishing village for a week, where I suspected the food choices would basically consist of 1) beans and rice or 2) rice and beans or 3) not great hamburgers. (Hamburgers were unfortunately on almost every menu I saw in Costa Rica; these typically feature reheated frozen supermarket patties.)

And at that particular restaurant back in Nicoya, we could've paid far less by sharing plates; portions were huge, especially for children. After we ate and had so much leftover to bring with us, we figured we could have served all 6 of us from 3 plates and still had food left over. This is not necessarily common all over Costa Rica, though - generally a $7 to $10 plate of food will be just the right size for one person. It's not much cheaper eating in Costa Rica than eating in the U.S.

Rambutan, Mangosteen, and other delicious tropical fruits available in Costa Rica
Wherever We Go, if We See Rambutan, We Eat It!
The outside of the fruit looks prickly, but the inside (as shown in the red bowl) is soft and delicious - just look out for the almond-sized pit
In Playa Carillo, I was told that La Tropicale Hotel/Restaurant is one of the best places to eat, however, it was closed for the low season. They had a sign up by the road stating they would be re-opening about 3 days after we left the beach town.

So we ate mostly at Soda y Cabinas La Plaza in front of the town soccer field. This came out to US$7 per person, including a fresh fruit juice drink. We ate here several times and enjoyed it every time. Every Thursday, they made a special of the day, Olla de Carne, which is a regional specialty of Guanacaste province. It's one of those soup dishes that is heavy on large hunks of beef, with a bit of corn on the cob, and lots of squash and whatever is on hand for veggies. On other days we had their casados con pollo en salsa, or filet de pollo con papas y ensalada, and we often finished it off with popsicles. We drank cool glasses of tap water, as well as fresh juice made with tap water, with no ill effects. We drank tap water everywhere in Costa Rica.

We noted a severe lack of "kids' menus" everywhere we ate in Costa Rica, including in Playa Carillo. Kids are served adult portions at adult prices, almost everywhere. So doing some of your own cooking is a good way to go, when traveling with a big family. A typical day for us is to cook our own breakfast, eat lunch out somewhere, then make our own dinner.

One day, just to get something different, we also tried Restaurante Los Delfines, but we were not overly impressed. The menu was disappointingly an exact duplicate of the menu at Soda La Plaza, except the prices were restaurant prices rather than soda prices. I'm not exactly sure what "soda" means in Costa Rica other than "inexpensive place to eat." So when you go out for something a little nicer, hoping for some different menu choices, it's disappointing to see the exact same choices as at every soda - casados with chicken, casados with chicken in salsa, casados with fish, hamburgers - but with a 25% markup on prices.

What to Bring to Playa Carillo
Sunblock is absurdly priced in Playa Carillo. At one convenience store (there are two in town), I saw a bottle of sunblock that would sell for US$7 in Wal-Mart in the U.S. sitting on a shelf. Its price was in colones, and was the equivalent of US$35.

Back in Nicoya I saw that same brand, in the same size ("No-Ad" brand sun care, 16 oz.) selling at the Maxi Pali grocery store for US$17. So within Costa Rica, away from the coast, it's marked up to about 240% of its U.S. price, but then if you wait till you get to a beach town, it's 500% of its U.S. price.

Exorbitant prices on sunblock in Costa Rica
$17 Sunblock in Nicoya - an hour before the beach - Costa Rica

For Playa Carillo, I'd say pack more sunblock than you think you'll need. We used it liberally and still got sunburned every day. We were alarmed to find that we were running out of our supplies from home by about the third morning of our trip.

We also found mosquito repellent necessary in the evenings in the Playa Carillo area, such as when we would be eating someplace and it would start to get dark. The mosquitoes were feasting on us while we were feasting on dinner, so we'd have to take a few steps outside the restaurant and squirt our legs and backs in order to eat in peace. Every restaurant we saw in Puerto Carillo was open-air, even the fanciest places in town, so every restaurant is subject to evening mosquitoes.

Mosquito repellent is another item to bring from your home country - I found the repellent in grocery stores to be high-priced, with a 200% to 300% higher price than in the U.S. - but not quite as insanely priced as the sunblock.

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Relaxing on the beach in Costa Rica with a big family
Enjoying the Hammock in Playa Carillo, Costa Rica

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