We spent the first week or so of our family sabbatical discovering some of the best things to do in Uvita with kids. Uvita sits on Costa Rica’s Costa Ballena (whale coast). It is known for the spit of land jutting out from the beach which looks like a whale’s tail, as well as for being a great place to spot migrating whales (December to February / July to October).
We arrived in San Jose from the UK after a 21-hour journey from home which took us via Madrid. We’d booked a hotel in San Jose that was mercifully near the airport (only a 15-minute taxi ride) but also central enough to be able to walk into the city centre. The Crowne Plaza Corobici (top tip, we used Hotwire.com to find this hotel at a great price), next to La Sabana park, was big, comfortable and served up the most amazing breakfasts. Unbelievably the kids ate for free at breakfast – they filled themselves up on rice and beans, omelettes, fried eggs, fruit, pancakes, croissants and hot chocolate.
Our first day in Costa Rica was spent doing jobs; buying and loading up Costa Rican SIM cards for our phones, getting cash and arranging our bus tickets to our next destination, Uvita. San Jose is surrounded by lush mountain peaks, but the city is a jumble of old and new, smart and shabby. Pot-holed roads swell with traffic during the day, homes made of corrugated iron fill the side streets while the main roads are lined with impersonal concrete buildings occasionally broken up by a colonial relic. If it’s too hot, wet or simply too far to walk, Uber is the most convenient and cheap way to get around.
Uvita, Costa Ballena
When we decided to visit Uvita with kids many months ago our main aim was to find somewhere relatively quiet near the beach to acclimatise to Costa Rica for a few days. We couldn’t have chosen a more suitable spot. Visiting in April means that we are here out of whale-watching season and at the end of Costa Rican high season. Though we are sad not to see the migrating whales the town is quiet, which suits us well while we are settling into this new, slow-travel, life. The beach, which in high season can attract up to 3,000 people per day, is almost deserted save a handful of tourists, local families and surfers.
We stayed at Arboura Eco Cabinas which is a few hundred metres from the quietest of Uvita’s 3 beach entrances. The beach, Playa Colonia, is part of the Marino Ballena National Park. There is a charge to enter – $6 + tax per adult / 1,000 colones for residents – and it’s not possible to buy tickets at our closest entrance. It’s a 5-minute walk down a small track to another entrance to buy the tickets. Visitors can leave and re-enter as many times as they like during their day visit. The price is worth it.
The beach is palm-fringed and perfect, exactly what you might imagine a Costa Rican beach to look like. There are no bars or restaurants, no one pacing the sand selling their wares, no facilities on the beach at all (there are facilities – toilets, parking, cafés and shops – near the two main entrances at either end of Uvita town). That’s what makes it such an idyllic spot. As our cabin is located close to the beach entrance, we’re able to pop back and forth as much as we need.
Activities to do in Uvita with kids
The kids had a surf lesson with Julian (his surf school and board hire is right next to our beach entrance) on our first full day in Uvita. They’d given it a try last year in Devon and Cornwall. This time they were on ‘proper’ boards rather than those humongous floatie boards favoured by British surf schools for beginners. They both did brilliantly well, catching their own waves easily and confidently standing up. The waves in Uvita are good for beginner and intermediate surfers. We were able to rent boards from Julian on our subsequent beach days.
Waterfalls and river rapids
We decided not to rent a car while staying in Uvita. Our plan for our ten days in Uvita was to decompress from the stress and busyness of our final few weeks in England and acclimatise to Costa Rica – both the weather (hot and humid) and the pace of life. We wanted to spend our days settling into a gentle routine to include home school as well as exploring the town and its immediate surroundings. We had originally thought we might rent a car for a few days during our stay, but that proved more difficult (lack of availability) and expensive (closer to $100 per day rather than the $50 we expected) than we’d anticipated.
Getting taxis is easy and affordable, costing about 2,000 colones (about £2.40) from our cabinas to the main street (known as downtown). Happily for us the manager at Arboura, Oswald, offered to give us lifts to local spots whenever we needed one. He’s dropped us at the high road more than once, and taken us to two local, freshwater swimming spots.
Bamboo Forest & Uvita River
Our first swimming spot was in Uvita River, accessed via the Bamboo Forest. Oswald parked up by the entrance to an unmarked track which we followed to reach a wide river with large boulders lining its banks. On a Monday morning it was quiet, with only a few locals and their dogs enjoying the freshwater pool. Jumping in the pools, climbing over the rocks and getting a back massage in the rapids were highlights.
Simply known as La Catarata (The Waterfall), this is one of Uvita’s main tourist attractions. Oswald dropped us at the second entrance where there is a restaurant overlooking the jungle. We paid our entrance fee of 1,500 colones per person to the restaurant then followed the short, steep track down to a metal walkway which runs alongside the river. We walked to the first pool and set up our spot on some rocks before getting in the water. The braver members of the family went back to the metal walkway to access a platform high above the pool to jump in. I was quite happy to sit back and film them!
A little further up the river (clamber along the big, slippy boulders or take the easy route along the walkway) is the main draw – Uvita’s waterfall. This waterfall forms a natural slide down the steep rock. This is not a slide for the faint-hearted. We watched as one tour group took their turn to go down the slide. It looked thrilling but very bumpy and we all agreed that we wouldn’t be giving it a go (yup, even the 8yo wasn’t up for it!). The tour group moved on, and for a blissful 10 minutes or so we had the pool and waterfall to ourselves. As the next tour group arrived, we moved down river to a third pool which the boys swam in for a while before we headed back up the track for a quick smoothie whilst we waited for our lift back to the cabinas.
One of the benefits of staying still for longer means that we are slowly, but steadily, adding to our wildlife checklist. Wildlife abounds in this place, and even if we can’t always see the animals around, we can always hear them. From the constant hum of cicadas, to chirruping lizards, the whistling call of yellow-headed caracaras to the other-worldly bark of howler monkeys, the sound of the jungle can be deafening! We’ve seen scarlet macaws, the local sloth, a little tanager family, busy hummingbirds, iguanas, a toucan, black vultures and many other animals. This is exactly what we’d hoped to experience in Costa Rica, and this is only the start of our time here.
During whale watching season there are countless boat tours to choose from, and in dry season many of these include snorkelling. We had hoped to take advantage of one of the snorkelling tours, but it rained quite a lot during our stay which affected the water visibility, meaning a tour wasn’t really worth the price.
Walk the Whale Tail
La cola de ballena (whale tail) is a key attraction in Uvita. It’s best accessed during the two hours either side of low tide. Enter the National Park at the main entrance, and follow the beach round to the right, towards Playa Hermosa, before beginning the walk up the tail. The water creates magical reflections, and we particularly enjoyed watching the waves from either side zip together. At the tip of the tale is a rocky reef. We recommend carrying your flip flops or walking sandals to walk on the rocks. They’re rougher and spikier than they look!
Where to stay in Uvita with kids
The Arboura Eco Cabinas are a great choice if you’re staying in Uvita with kids. We chose Cabina AC3 which has two air-conditioned bedrooms (great for sleeping at night or cooling down during some quiet time during the day) and a spacious living area. We are next to the common area which holds a table tennis table, a book swap and a chess set. On arrival we feared it might be disruptive, but we’ve not found it to be an issue at all. At first sight the cabina seems a little rough around the edges, but the longer we are here the more comfortable we feel.
The communal pool is well designed and is semi-covered, providing some protection from the strong sun. There is a communal BBQ available for guest use, but we used the two-burner gas hob in our open-air kitchen, eating out or getting takeaway. A laundry service is offered for $10 per wash. The manager, Oswald, is extremely helpful and can book tours for guests as well as providing plenty of local recommendations. Everyone who lives and works here is friendly and will make you feel at home. It’s also just minutes from the beach.
Where to eat in Uvita with kids
We are travelling on a tight budget, so aren’t eating out quite as frequently as the average holidaymaker. We have come across a couple of sweet spots in Uvita which serve up delicious food and drinks with a smile.
Kinsu is our favourite spot for a sunset beer or smoothie, but it serves up a tasty menu too, with pick n’ mix tacos to suit all tastes as well as burgers. Across the road from Kinsu are a few trees lining an empty plot of land. Look up and you might be lucky enough to spot El Perezoso (the sloth).
El Hornito is an Argentinian take-away spot just around the corner from Arboura. They create massive pizzas (two is plenty for the four of us) and delicious empanadas.
Sibu café and restaurant on the main road, next to the tourist information centre, is a popular spot for tourists and ex-pats. Gelato, next door, is run by the same owners, and they’ll happily serve you delicious ice cream at your Sibu table and pop it on the same bill. Flavours include salted caramel, blackberry, three milks (normal, evaporated and condensed) and lemon with basil. An enticing array of toppings can be added too.
If you visit Uvita with kids you must try the ice creams at Hotel Bahia Azul. They have a limited selection of flavours, but the ice creams are homemade and delicious. Generous servings too.
We’ve been very happy during our ten-day stay in Uvita. It’s probably longer than most would choose to stay, but it’s been the perfect amount of time for us. We feel recharged and ready for our next adventure.