Best Itinerary for a Costa Rica Family Vacation

If you are dreaming of a trip where you “do” with your kids instead of supervising them, Costa Rica is the ultimate participatory family adventure travel vacation. Don’t let the word “adventure” scare you — Costa Rica with kids doesn’t need to be all thrills, or all animals, or all beach for that matter. You can fit a taste of everything into the right itinerary.

Costa Rica Itinerary
Up close and personal with a strangler fig tree

Costa Rica Family Itinerary: 7 to 8 Days

Costa Rica is easy to access via two international airports, Liberia and San Jose. It makes an ideal weeklong family vacation for American families who need to work around limited school holiday periods.

I worked with our tour operator exhaustively to figure out the best family itinerary that is suitable for a wide variety of ages and interests. In this itinerary, you can do mix of iconic Costa Rica attractions like ziplining and wildlife viewing, and still have all-important downtime.

If you have just a week, I recommend limiting the itinerary to two stops, excluding the first or last night that may need to be spent near the airport depending on flight times. Despite Costa Rica’s small size, driving from one place to another takes time. Although more roads are paved than when I was last there almost two decades ago, many roads are narrow and transfers take time.

Costa Rica Itinerary
Zipline adventure in Arenal

Arenal

Arenal is the area around the Arenal Volcano, located 90 km northwest of San Jose. It’s known as adventure central in Costa Rica as tourists can access thrills in the water, on land and in the air. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that, despite the extensive tourist growth over the years, Arenal and the main town of La Fortuna have not lost their off-the-grid charm.

A wide selection of excellent zipline adventures, river excursions, hiking, biking, hanging bridges, waterfall rappelling and horseback riding exist right here. The exotic rainforest setting is spectacular and filled with wildlife, including tropical birds and my favorite for noisy ambiance, howler monkeys.

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Arenal is also known for a plethora of natural hot springs and swimming is a key activity for excursion downtime. To ensure time in Arenal is not rushed, as most structured excursions take at least a half a day, I recommend staying no less than three nights in Arenal. We have great hotel recommendations in this area, and our Family Vacation Advisors can help you select from our favorites.

Costa Rica Itinerary
Tropical paradise in Manuel Antonio National Park

Manuel Antonio National Park

The most visited park in Costa Rica, Manuel Antonio, is known for its extraordinarily diverse plant and animal life, including three of the four species of monkeys found in Costa Rica as well as two kinds of sloths. I love this park with children in tow as the wildlife experience is very accessible. The park is concentrated, so little legs don’t need to go too far to appreciate all the jungle has to offer.

The exotic beach in Manuel Antonio is right out of a movie with lush tropical foliage and soft white sand. The jungle backs up to the water, so it is not unusual to have monkeys frolicking on the beach looking for snacks to steal.

Like in Arenal, ziplines, hanging bridges and other adventure activities are offered in spades, although given the beauty of the beach, it’s an ideal place to get some family downtime. Depending on the time of year, dolphin and snorkeling excursions are available for families to get out on the water.

Important Note

To say these are the only destinations that are wonderful for families in a weeklong itinerary is a gross understatement! One big factor to consider is weather. The rainy season in Manuel Antonio runs from May through October, so the best time to visit in terms of sunshine is November to May, making it an excellent option for winter and spring breaks.

Another popular beach option for families is the Guanacaste province on Costa Rica’s northern Pacific coast; this region is easily accessible via the Liberia airport. Our writer Dana Rebmann experienced Guanacaste during her family vacation in Costa Rica and loved it. Note, Guanacaste has the same rainy season as Manuel Antonio.

TIP: The upside of rainy season travel is that prices are lower, the rivers and waterfalls are full, and rain can be limited to the afternoon.

Costa Rica Itinerary
Bird life during a night tour of Monteverde

Costa Rica Family Itinerary: 10 Days

If you have a few extra days to spend in Costa Rica, there are wonderful additions to add to a family-friendly itinerary.

Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve

Monteverde is an ecological paradise, best known for the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. It’s time-consuming to access via unpaved, winding roads, but the journey is worthwhile if you have enough time.

Our 10-year-old thought his quetzal sighting in Monteverde was a trip highlight. The birdwatching experience around Monteverde is phenomenal, as are the warm hospitality and the passion that the locals have for their natural wonders. There are a few private nature reserves in this area as well as a variety of adventure activities, including ziplining and hanging bridge tours.

TIP: The reason I recommend Monteverde only for the longer itinerary is that it takes a minimum of a half-day drive to get to/from the area on rugged roads. Also, the weather can be wet year-round.

Tortuguero

We didn’t make it to Tortuguero on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica, but it is considered one of the country’s jewels. Tortuguero translates to “land of turtles,” and it’s famous as a key nesting site for sea turtles. Its canals, which can be explored by boat, are filled with wildlife. Dana also visited Tortuguero National Park with her kids and highly recommends it for families.

TIP: It’s easiest to get there via a short plane ride from San Jose. Given these extra logistics, Tortuguero is best suited for longer itineraries unless you are in Costa Rica during turtle hatching season (June through August), in which case a visit should be a priority.

Costa Rica Itinerary
Using a kid-friendly naturalist enhanced the trip experience for all of us!

Use a Costa Rica Specialist Tour Operator

Using a travel advisor or a tour operator for Costa Rica is a must. Family adventure travel vacations are all about activities and the logistics require an expert. In addition, there are many people providing different services and they are not created equal from a safety, knowledge, or kid-friendly standpoint. Our travel advisors only use the best resources and guides with kids in mind.

Our expert team can help you run through each and every trip option until your dream itinerary is in hand. Although Costa Rica is not a bargain trip by any means, we can help bring pricing down (or up) as you pick and choose different activity and accommodation options. Ciao Bambino also offers a Costa Rica vacation package for the ultimate in one-stop ease.

Relevant Links:

Browse all family-friendly accommodations and vacation ideas in Costa Rica on Ciao Bambino

Costa Rica off the beaten path: Our best kept secrets

Living la pura vida at the Four Seasons Resort Costa Rica

A family-friendly vacation at one of Costa Rica’s top ecolodges

UnCruise Adventures’ Unveiled Wonders: A seamless journey through Panama and Costa Rica

Editor’s Note: Photos by Amie O’Shaughnessy.

Start a Discussion

21 Comments
  • Hi. We are considering a trip to Costa Rica with our 14 year old son in February but are confused with all different areas. We would like to visit rain forest and experience wildlife and fauna, a little beach time, and a little adventure. Not really looking to fly from place to place just one flight from New York to Costa Rica. Could you recommend a place and a hotel that would be nicely located and in a relatively safe area. Thank you.

  • Hi we are a family of 4 ( 2 adults and 2 children aged 11 and 7) we would be interested in booking a few tours with your company. We are traveling to Costa Rica on the December 17, 2016.

  • Hi,
    We are looking into spending 3 weeks in CR with two young children. We’d like to choose 3 different places to stay. Do you recommend renting a car or is public transport the way to go?
    Thanks,
    Petra

  • I have extended family going to Costa Rica March 20-28, 2016. Tickets in and out of San Jose already purchased. Party of 6, including 4 active adults and two kids (12 and 13). Would appreciate suggested itinerary/price. 4 of us arriving noon on 3/20 and 2 others arriving late on 3/20. 4 of us departing 3/28 and last 2 departing 3/29. So arrival/departure is a bit complicated since we won’t come all together.
    I would consider making arrangements myself, as I did for family vacation of 8 persons last year to Canadian Rockies (ages from 10-86). However, if a good price is offered, I would prefer the convenience of having hotels and outings arranged by tour company.
    Thank you.
    Mary Ann Rashid

  • Would you be able to put together a trip itinerary with cost for a family of 4 (kids ages 11 and 9) for March 26- April 2nd 2016? Thank you!

  • Greetings. We are starting to plan a family trip to Costa Rica for February 2016. At that time we will have a 9, 8 and 2.5 year old. The 2.5 year old poses the biggest challenge in planning for me. Would love any insight you have. Thank you!

  • Looking to go Dec. 20th for 8-9 days with our 17 year old, don’t want to spend hours in the car but do 1-2 excursions. We like all inclusive but not sure if we need it there.

    • Hi Stacey – Thanks for reaching out! I’m the Costa Rica consultant for Ciao Bambino and will be happy to help. I’ll send you an email to follow up.

  • Hi,
    I would like to take my 15 year old son on vacation in Costa Rica and stay in a very nice hotel. Any suggestions?
    Thanks,
    Anastasia

  • Hello! We’re looking to do an all-inclusive hotel stay and take 2-3 tours away from the hotel. We have a 1 & 7 year old, so we don’t want to be stuck in a car for hours. Which area has more kids stuff to do, San Jose or Liberia? Thanks in advance for your help!!

  • My wife and I want to take our daughters family on a “See Costa Rica” vacation. There will be four adults and three ten age girls ages 17,16and15. We plan on arriving in San Jose on the morning of June 7th and depart from same airport on June 15th, 2014. Please put together a suggested vacation plan where we can see as much of Costa Rica as possible in eight days.

  • This trip sounds amazing! With my son in a Spanish immersion school, visiting Costa Rica (along with other Central and South America destinations) has been on our wish list. Thanks for the tips on tour guides, which can be overwhelming. Manuel Antonio National Park has made it to our must-do list now.

    • I was in San José this summer for 4 weeks doing a study abroad and I have a few tips for you (I’m a single mom of a 10 year old and soon to be 6 year old boys). Manuel Antonio is a must!! Loved it! We stayed at hotel Mono Azul and was greeted daily by the monkeys that surround the hotel (nonviolent of course). My group also did white water rafting just north of San José which was an amazing adventure, though maybe too intense for under 10. I definitely recommend visiting San José for the cultural experience of life in the central region. Tons of amazing restaurants and “Sodas” ( little restaurants. Our favorite was Soda a U which was by Universidad de Costa Rica). Another favorite was Rosti Pollo. The open air market was an amazing experience as well. I am planning a trip back to CR as my children are begging me to take them. Don’t listen to the negative reviews about how San José is an ugly city and dangerous. I found it breathtakingly beautiful and full of culture and the people there are very friendly and helpful. Just be aware of your surroundings like you would in any major city.

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