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