Travelling With Kids: San José & La Paz Waterfall Gardens (Costa Rica)

With Panama sharing a boarder with Costa Rica it became clear quite fast that we had to go and explore this country. We had heard beautiful things about both the beachside and the rainforests and when scrolling through our airbnb feed, we discovered beautiful locations that would have allowed us to spend a great time either way. That said, after several trips to the beach side, we were longing for some green and the mountains.  Moreover, as this would be our first trip to Costa Rica and given that we would stay only for a long weekend, we felt that it would be great start to focus on San José and one of the nearby rainforest areas. After all, we would be travelling with our kids so we wanted to keep it simple and avoid long car trips.

We decided to stay the first night at the Aparthotel La Sabana., a small hotel in San José nearby the North side of the Parque Metropolitano, so that we could explore the city without having to rush to another location right after our arrival by plane. This turned out to be the perfect decision. Due to airport issues in San José, our plane was redirected to Liberia where we had to wait for 30 minutes before flying back again to San José. Hence, we arrived a couple of hours later than planned but this did not keep us from doing a long walk through the city of San José before closing the day with a cosy evening and room service delivered from the Argentinian restaurant next to our hotel.

A Coffee Ranch near San Isidro de Heredia

The next day, we went for a morning walk in the Parque Metropolitano which featured various playgrounds for kids and a big lake with ducks. With the climate being slightly fresher and less humid than in Panama, we saw a lot of families cycling around or going for a walk. This was really nice to see. We went then viaUber to our second accommodation, a cute little house which we had found via airbnb, located on a coffee ranch approximately 20 minutes from San José. Upon our arrival, our host Phil welcomed us with fresh orange juice made with oranges from his garden and plenty of tips on how to explore the surroundings. We loved the big garden which featured a swing for the kids, numerous orange trees as well as access to the coffee farm and a labyrinth…oh and the view, not to forget the breathtaking view on the surroundings!

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La Paz Waterfall Gardens Nature Park

After exploring the various activity recommendations by our host which included trips to Volcan Poás and the La Paz waterfalls, we booked a day trip with a guide to la Paz Waterfall Gardens Nature Park. Located approximately 1.5 hours by car from where we were staying, we had a very nice guide pick us up at our house in the morning and accompany us throughout the whole day. During the drive, we passed by various strawberry and blueberry fields and stopped to buy some of the fresh fruits which were delicious!

The La Paz Nature Park gives access to five waterfalls, a cloud and rainforest as well as numerous local animals with a variety of birds, toucans, spider and white faced monkeys, butterflies, snakes and various jungle cats. According to their website, all jungle cats, monkeys and toucans have been rescued from centres who had to close or people who illegally held them. Having been exposed too long to humans or due to high age or illness, these animals couldn’t have been released back into wildlife so the park is taking care of preserving their lives as well as possible.

The park itself with the waterfalls is beautiful. There are various paths that allow you to walk and explore the different parts and it’s nice to see that there are areas that are completely open and where the animals, especially the birds, are really free. That said,  the whole “nature attraction” set-up did not really click with us. First of all, the park is for sure set-up for tourists so you have a lot of people visiting. Moreover, there are a couple of buffet-style restaurants throughout the park to provide everyone with food which added on to that weird vibe. The waterfalls were gorgeous but I think we would just have preferred to see them in the “original” setting instead of an organised park for tourists. But then again, would we have been able to access it in such an easy way with two children under 4 ? I guess not. The waterfalls are impressive though and our kids did love the experience so for that matter our visit had definitely been a success.

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San José

On our last day, we decided to check out again San José. On our first day, we had only seen the central part of the city with its main commercial road. This hadn’t particularly blown our mind so we were keen on exploring a bit more of this city. With San José featuring the Museo de los ninos and numerous restaurants, we thought that we would have plenty of options for spending our day in the city. This thinking would have worked on any other day of the week but given that it was a Monday, most restaurants as well as the museum were closed. To our surprise, we still managed to spend a great day in the city which started with a brunch at the vegan restaurant  Luv Burger . The restaurant staff suggested that we walk around the nearby neighbourhoods called Alamena and La California which we then did. This was a cute hipster like neighbourhood with a mix of colourful residential houses, local shops, restaurants and bars.

We made a stop at Raw Co for some cold pressed juice and just walked and walked and walked.  With living in Panama City, which is a pure car city, we hadn’t been able to do such a basic thing as walking around in a city for a while so we really appreciated how easy it was to explore everything by foot in San José. At some point, we arrived at the local zoo and botanical garden which turned out to be open on Mondays. We are no big fans of zoos and sadly, this one didn’t provide much space for the animals which made it really bitter to look at them in their cages. The surroundings though are beautiful. There are so many plants there and with being located in the city it gives you an idea on how the San José would look like if there wasn’t that much concrete everywhere: green!

While walking, we discovered a lot of street art, an open air cinema and lots of nice bars. Nightlife in San José must for sure be quite a thing. To us the terraces of the cafés and bars did for look quite intriguing so we ended our day with a cold beer at the Beer Factory, while both kiddos were peacefully asleep on the couch we were sitting on. Bliss!

So ?

There are people who love San José and people who say that it does not have a lot to offer and rather hate it. We loved our time there. It’s a city with a lot of history and cultural sites, that has preserved its own charm, far away from all the big global brands that dominate other cities such as Panama City. When travelling with kids, it’s easy to navigate both by foot or by car. That said, one day, maximum two days are sufficient to explore the city, especially of you plan to head on to other parts of Costa Rica.

Here are a couple of tips if you plan to visit San José and its surroundings:

Rent a car

If you plan to choose an accommodation outside of San José and explore the surroundings, do a tour to the Waterfall garden Park or one of the volcanos, I’d recommend to rent a car. We did not rent one and had no issues as our airbnb host had excellent taxi and tour guide contacts. That said, if you prefer to be a little bit more flexible and mobile, renting a car will for sure help you achieve that.

Bring a sweater

Not having been used to difference in temperature since we moved to Panama, we were quite surprised how chilly it can get in the evenings so brining one or two sweaters is definitely must, especially if you are travelling with kids and considering travelling towards the outside of the city in the mountain area.

Visit San José on any other day than a Monday

We were lucky that our last day turned out so positively but yep, if you want to have more choice on what to do in the city, I’d recommend to come and visit on any other day than a Monday 😉

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