Somewhere around 16 months ago, we were enjoying a late summer dinner in SoCal with two other families who are dearest of friends. We had vacationed together locally earlier that Summer and everything had worked so well. The couples got along great. The ten kids were all like cousins after just a few days. It was all so great. We reflected on how thankful we were that things had turned out so well. It’s not easy find family travel buddies that all gel nicely. The next question we started to explore was, “well, what next guys?” After such a powerful and meaningful time together, shouldn’t we try to do something like this again?
It quickly became clear. Figuring out a follow up trip was going to be a chore. This group involved kids ages 10-18 and adults with jobs and all of the other real life responsibilities. It’s hard enough to line up even one family’s schedules to plan a big vacation. We were all getting sad and settling in on the fact that a repeat trip was probably not in the cards for this squad.
Fast forward about 10 months and this group of 16 (along with a couple of dear Tico friends for a total of 18) were on a bus together pulling out of the San Jose airport, kicking off what was to be an epic adventure. It turns out that after that disappointing dinner where a trip like this didn’t seem possible, we continued to dream, work, and plan to figure out not only how to get a few days together again…but to somehow pull together a 10-day adventure in Costa Rica! Call it providence, or the stars aligning, or whatever you’d like, but even we were all a bit shocked to be back together again…this time on this small bus filled to the rim with 18 humidity impacted bodies with somewhere around 25 suitcases. It was absolutely awesome! We drove away from the airport and launched into the trip of a lifetime…
We do some of our vacations a bit differently. We introduce intentionality and purpose into these fun times together as families. The first few days of our trip were not (in any way, shape, or form) Inspirato related. As far as luxury and comfort go, it was an anti-Inspirato experience. But, it was wonderful. We spent the first night in a dorm style mission home in San Jose…wood bunks, no air conditioning, the whole deal. As I laid in my lower bunk that evening in a tiny room with our family of four, I joking stated, “I miss Inspirato”, which brought out some laughter from the rest of my family. It was said in jest (well, at least somewhat) as we really were already having a great time together.
Early the next morning, we loaded back up on our bus and headed to Cot de Cartago, a small town about an hour or so outside of the capital where we’d spend the next few days volunteering together at a local high school. All 18 of us, from 11 years old to 60+, joined high school English classes to help the students practice their English and learn about our culture. In turn, the Tico (nickname for Costa Rican people) student groups did presentations (in English!) for us, teaching us all about Costa Rican culture, history, and gastronomy.
It was beautiful. We laughed together, ate delicious typical homemade Costa Rican food, and learned one from the other. It was delightful. They were incredible hosts and we all made some great new friends. Our Costa Rican friends hosted us in their homes for all of our meals and times together. With our group being so large, we slept in a tiny but charming local hotel. It’s hard to express how impactful this time was to all of us. This was all done through a beautiful partnership our friends have with a Community serving local non-profit in Cot de Cartago.
Heading to the Inspirato Costa Rica luxury villa
After our few days in Cot de Cartago, our “little bus that could” picked us up in Cot and we embarked on the very long journey up to Costa Elena, a most beautiful and isolated coastal area up by the border of Nicaragua. What we had estimated to be a 6-hour drive turned into a 9-hour journey with all the restroom breaks, food stops, and a long stop at Walmart to get groceries and other items for our week in Costa Elena.
Our super slow bus may have also been a contributing factor. But we had a blast during the bus ride, singing songs, having long conversations about life, etc. Well, at least we had a blast for about the first 5 or 6 hours. The last few hours may have been more filled with fatigue, sticky skim from the humidity, and some growing frustrations. Just keeping it real folks. But oh my goodness, the arrival at our villas was worth every minute of that long travel day!
18 hot, sticky, hungry, cranky bodies walked off that bus and into paradise…really, like actual freaking paradise.
As the prime mover for this trip, I shouldered the good and the bad with this trip. I could see the thoughts on people’s faces as we hit 6, 7, 8 hours of driving. What was I getting us into?! Thank goodness (actually, thanks to our Inspirato Concierge) I made a wise life decision and planned to have a private chef waiting for us with dinner when we arrived at our villa. Best call ever! We walk into our spectacular villa in awe of where we were blessed to spend the next seven days and were welcomed by Chef Danny and Chef Andrea who are waiting for us with the most incredible spread of food I’d ever set my weary eyes upon.
There were fresh fish tacos, tenderly grilled steak and chicken, rice, beans, plantains, tortillas…you get the idea. We had clearly transitioned into the Inspirato portion of our travels. One of our favorite quotes of the entire trip was from the youngest boy in our group said upon entering the villa. He quipped with much enthusiasm, “It smells like glory!”. It was a strange way to describe a smell, but this young dude perfectly captured what we were all feeling and smelling upon arrival. It was glorious. We settled in, one of the other dads served up some delicious cocktails, and we ate and talked, and laughed, and relaxed…the evening ended with full bellies and tired but wide-smiling faces all around. Phase 2 of our trip was off to a remarkable start.
In order for this piece not to become a novel, let’s take a look at the top ten experiences our group had while staying in Costa Elena with Inspirato (I’ve had to widdle it down from a top 30!). So, in no particular order…here it goes:
#1 Private Chef Dinners
I already touched on it above, so I’ll provide just a bit more color here. The private dining experiences with Chef Danny and Chef Andrea were a trip favorite for kids and adults alike. As wonderful as the food was that they prepared for us, it was eclipsed by the beautiful time we had sharing and talking with them both. We considered them friends by the end of the week. Our group was big, loud, and probably somewhat intimidating. In fact, as Danny and Andrea became more relaxed with us, they mentioned how they had been super nervous to be cooking for such a large group. In the end, we had so much fun with Danny and Andrea who ended up doing three dinners for us during our stay. They showed such deep appreciation for our group and I trust we reciprocated well.
One of the evenings, Chef Andrea created a whole “Get to know Costa Rican culture and history” game for us. Our trip happened to coincide with an important national holiday celebrating the independence of Guanacaste (the northern most province in Costa Rica, and where Costa Elena is located). Andrea brought small gifts and prizes for the Costa Rica trivia game she had created for us. It was above and beyond anything we would have ever expected. It’s tough to overestimate the impact that Chef Danny and Chef Andrea had on our time. So thankful for the two of them! And lest we forget, every single dish that they prepared for us was absolutamente delicioso!
#2 The In-villa Breakfasts
I realize that the first two of my top ten are about food. Well, that’s just how good it was. For just the price of groceries, the housekeeping staff prepares an incredible breakfast spread each morning. Not only was the food delicious, but what a joy to wake up without needing to figure out and prepare breakfast for 18 hungry mouths. And better yet, not having to clean up the dishes afterwards was a welcome gift!
Inspirato offers this breakfast service at a number of their villa destinations and I would opine that it’s one of the most important and enjoyable offerings that can be included in a vacation. It adds so much to a restful week. It also may add so much to the waistline, but that’s something that we push off and worry about post vacation. 🙂
#3 Fishing Charter
Costa Elena is remote. Many of the activities are a bit of a drive for sure. However, you can charter a fishing boat for the day that leaves just in front of the Beach Club. The convenience of it all added to the awesomeness of this day. Fishing turned out to be just for the dudes. All the ladies were invited, but they opted for a chill day at the villas. Nothing wrong with that at all! Our guide Jose met us in front of the Costa Elena Beach Club and loaded us onto our boat’s tender to shuttle us out to where we were welcomed by our crew and a plate of fresh fruit and a couple of coolers chock full of beer, liquor, and soda.
My buddy Ryan shared that his grandmother always claimed that a cold beer was the best trick to avoid sea sickness. I’m never one to doubt grandma so I cracked open a cold one to ensure my wellness and stability for the day. What a gorgeous day it was…sun shining bright and more dolphins, flying fish, and sea turtles than we could count. And yes, we did catch some fish, the highlight of which was a huge Rooster Fish reeled in by one of the boys. An experience that will not be soon forgotten. We also got into some tuna that we enjoyed later that evening. More on that in a bit.
#4 Costa Elena Beach Club
A short drive down the hill from the villas sits the very private and intimate Costa Elena Beach Club. We generally had the place to ourselves. We unexpectedly spent quite a bit of time down there having group meals together, playing some serious rounds of bocci ball, ocean swimming right out front of the club, and us adults were pretty content to enjoy sunset adult libations while the contingent of kids walked over to Dreams Resort for pool time and the all-inclusive snack offerings.
Oh, and the service at Costa Elena Beach Club is what kept us coming back again and again. Jonathan was a fantastic host and server. Just like with Chef Danny and Andrea, the human relationship side of these experiences is the most beautiful part. Thank you Jonathan and team! And about that Tuna we caught, the Beach Club chef created an amazing ceviche with it that our entire group of 18 was able to enjoy over dinner at the Club. So good!
#5 Wildlife everywhere
I’m not sure how many places there are on earth where you can stay and sit in your villa pool and watch the families of monkeys pass by in the tree canopy above, apparently commuting up the hill in the mornings and then back down the hill around sunset. They seemed to be on a tight schedule. I’m not sure where or how they spent their days, but it certainly was a highlight to watch their daily routine.
And it wasn’t just monkeys. Costa Elena was teeming with wildlife. There were the ubiquitous iguanas, a beautiful variety of tropical birds, crazy looking bugs and insects (even spotting a scorpion turned out to be a huge highlight for the younger boys), and even wild deer. I’ve been to Costa Rica a number of times, and somehow had no idea that there were deer. You can imagine my surprise when three of them trotted right by us as we were looking out to the hill next to the villa. What a delight it was for all of us to experience so much wildlife just outside our front doors!
#6 Vandara Hot Springs and Adventures
Our group was, for the most part, very happy to just hang out around the villas and beach club and Costa Elena. But we did need at least one day of a big adventure activity together and we opted for Vandara after reading about options that our wonderful Inspirato concierge had provided for us. I’m never a big “let’s do the touristy things” type of vacationer, but sometimes those experiences are well worth it. That proved to be true with our day trip to Vandara.
We loaded up our three large, white, identical SUV’s and made the 90 minute trip from Costa Elena to Vandara. With the Waze app, getting most anywhere in Costa Rica has become relatively simple. The particular tour that we selected for this day was called something like the “luxury super combo deluxe plus”. We had almost as much fun making fun of the name of our tour as we did with our experience in Vandara. Our day included a surprisingly adventurous horseback ride up substantial vertical feet, a jungle zip-line course with spectacular vistas, a curiously wild waterslide (which required an inner tube, helmet, and weird diaper thing for the ladies to prevent them from losing their suits), and ample time to soak in the hot springs.
The water slide was exciting, somewhat painful, and definitely not up to par with any international building codes. Aside from some bumps and bruises, we all came out unscathed. We ended our tour with the included lunch which was exceedingly mediocre. Overall, Vandara was a blast. It was as touristy as could be but turned out to be super fun for our large group as something that we were all able to do and experience together.
#7 Playa Rajadita
Close your eyes and picture the most spectacular tropical cove you can possibly imagine. You got it? That’s Playa Rajadita. It’s that beautiful. The photo above can only capture a portion of its magnificence. Thanks to the recommendation of our awesome concierge, Loreana, one day we decided to set out to find this little gem of a cove.
After a few errant turns, (no cell reception so we were navigating the old fashioned way…trial and error…and asking locals) we finally came upon the guarded entrance, which we learned was quite secure after struggling for about 15 trying to convince the guard that it was okay to let us in. He eventually relented (or was able to radio someone who said it was okay to give us the green light) and we drove down and parked on this deserted cove of paradise.
We swam out to the small off-shore island, floated pleasantly in the warm water for a couple of hours, had a great game of ocean football, ate PB & Nutella sandwiches…it was as good as it gets. If you ever find yourself anywhere near Playa Rajadita, make every effort to visit this secret spot.
#8 Costa Elena, Costa Rica Luxury Villas
As often is the case with Inspirato, it all starts with the villa, residence, suite, etc. It sets the tone for the entire vacation. And my goodness did Inspirato deliver with these Costa Elena luxury villas. Simple, understated, and contemporary luxury that rested so naturally within the surrounding tropical jungle context. I’ll let the photos do the talking here. As always, it was furnished impeccably with every creature comfort that one would need or want. Of course the infinity pool and ocean vistas were the real show stealers at these villas.
#9 The Down Times
With this, I’m referring to all of the non-programmed, simple times of rest and hanging with our people. Reading on the pool deck, adults and kids playing Marco Polo together in the pool, full group yoga classes in the villa living room, conversations over cocktails as the sun sets…all of those incredible times that make a vacation with people you love connecting with so darn special. These are generally my most cherished of all vacation moments.
#10 Group Time
As I mentioned above, our squad vacations together a bit differently. We aim to be intentional in our times together. We were intentional to include a few days of cultural learning and service to begin our trip, and we were intentional to have group sharing times together each day while in Costa Elena. This was usually after dinner or breakfast when we were already all together in one place. Each person would take a turn and share about a something that shaped them as a person in the last year.
The group would quietly listen to their story and then have a time of response, encouraging the person sharing and speaking blessings (good things) over their lives. We, of course, integrated our faith tradition into this time as that is a huge value of this group. We started doing this the previous summer on a group trip to CA and it was so powerful that we’re working hard to make it an annual thing. We’ve got two years going in a row now so hoping we can keep the streak alive!
Well, that’s a whole lot of awesomeness for one trip to Costa Rica. And our group of families worked hard to make this trip happen. We all made significant schedule and calendar sacrifices to make sure this trip made it onto the books. And, I know I speak for all of us when I say, it was WAY worth it. It’s never easy to plan and put together a trip like this. And I must mention that this incredible vacation would have never happened had we not been members of Inspirato.
We certainly could have had the drive and desire to make a trip like this happen. But, we would have severely lacked the most essential elements that make group travel like this possible. From the incredible villas, to fresh-made in-villa breakfast each morning, to in-villa chefs in the evening, to excellent concierge planning, to being able to get all of our travel questions answered before we even left our homes, Inspirato had us covered in every way and always with excellence. There is simply no better way to travel than with Inspirato. But, heed this warning! Once you join and travel with Inspirato, you’ll never want to travel any other way!
If you’ve read this far and are not already a member of Inspirato, you must have some serious interest at this point. If that’s the case, please feel free to reach out to my Inspirato contact by email at Dain@inspirato.com or shoot me a message with any questions. Thanks for reading!
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