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 is easy to access with 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, Kensington Tours, exhaustively to figure out the best family itinerary that is suitable for a wide variety of ages and interests. (See our tips for planning a family trip with a tour operator.) In this itinerary, you can do mix of iconic Costa Rica attractions like zip-lining 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 15 years ago, many roads are narrow and transfers takes time.
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 zip-line adventures, river excursions, hiking, biking, hanging bridges, waterfall rappelling, horseback riding exist right here. The exotic rain forest 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. I’ll cover hotel recommendations in another article.
The most visited park in Costa Rica, Manuel Antonio, is known for its incredible National Park filled with 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 too far to appreciate all the jungle has to offer.
The exotic beach in Manuel Antonio is out of a movie with lush tropical foliage and soft white sand. The jungle backs right up to the water so it is not unusual to have monkeys frolicking on the beach looking for snacks to steal.
Like in Arenal, zip-lines, 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.
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 in the Guanacaste province, on the northern Pacific coast of Costa Rica; this region is easily accessible via the Liberia airport. Dana Rebmann, one of our writers, 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 prices are lower, the rivers and waterfalls are full, and rain can be limited to the afternoon.
If you have a few extra days to spend in Costa Rica, there are wonderful additions to add to a family-friendly itinerary.
Monteverde is ecological paradise, best known for the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. It’s time-consuming to access via unpaved, windy 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 bird watching experience around Monteverde is phenomenal, as is the warm hospitality and passion that the locals have for their natural wonders. There a few private nature reserves in this area, as well as a variety of adventure activities including zip-lining and hanging bridges 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 Monteverde on rugged roads and the weather can be wet year-round.
We didn’t make it to Tortuguero on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica, but it is considered one of Costa Rica’s jewels. Tortuguero translates to Land of Turtles and is famous as a key nesting site for sea turtles and the canals that 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 right from San Jose, so given these extra logistics, a visit 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.
I recommend using a tour operator for Costa Rica. These adventure family 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. The top-rated family tour operators use the best resources and guides with kids in mind.
We used Kensington Tours for our trip. Their approach combines the best of group travel, where you have access to exceptional local resources that have been tried and tested over and over again, and independent travel, where every client customizes their own trip to meet their exact travel needs.
The Costa Rica country expert for Kensington Tours, Brandi Merchant, is incredible and helps families run through each and every trip option until their dream trip is in hand. Although, Costa Rica is not a bargain trip by any means, given that Kensington Tours has many different resources at their disposal, they can bring trip pricing down (or up) as you pick and choose different options.
After my trip, I worked with Kensington Tours to create an ideal itinerary based on what we experienced — check out our Ciao Bambino Kidtastic Costa Rica Adventure.
Are you excited to plan a trip to Costa Rica but still have questions? Email us on email@example.com and we’ll provide some additional insight.
Editorial Note: Kensington Tours provided complimentary access to their Costa Rica itinerary for Ciao Bambino to review. As always, all opinions expressed on Ciao Bambino are our own. Photos by Amie O’Shaughnessy
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