If you have a family with a wide age range, or are planning a multigenerational trip, Costa Rica is a great choice. When I did my research to find a family-friendly Costa Rica tour operator, I hunted for a company that offered something for all of us. I’ll admit I was a little worried about trying to make everyone happy. In hindsight, I had no reason to worry. Costa Rica has something for everyone. Costa Rica with toddlers works as easily as it does for older children and even grandparents.
Nestled between Nicaragua and Panama, Costa Rica is relatively small. Roughly the size of the states of Vermont and New Hampshire combined, the diverse country is comprised of seven provinces. If you drive from one side to the other, you can pass through rainforests, cloud forests, active volcano craters, and pineapple, banana and coffee plantations, and eventually hit stunning stretches of sandy beach. As the country’s geography varies, so do the activities offered for travelers.
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Tortuguero is located on Costa Rica’s east coast, along the Caribbean Sea. With a population of just 1,200, it’s located in the middle of nowhere … rainforest nowhere. A visit there is a trip to the jungle.
It has a small airport, but many visitors opt to make the trip to Tortuguero by boat. The adventure takes about an hour and a half, but luckily there’s plenty to look at along the way. When you speed through Tortuguero National Park, keep your eyes peeled for animals like manatees, turtles, howler monkeys, birds of just about every kind and, yes, crocodiles.
“The Land of the Turtle” is a place where locals used to make their living killing and selling the green turtles that flock to the black sandy beaches to nest. In 1959 the Sea Turtle Conservancy was created, and now many locals make their living protecting the gentle creatures. The switch is good for the turtles and the locals. If you want a more up close and personal experience with turtle conservation, there are Costa Rica volunteer vacations that cater to kids and families. Some 50,000 tourists visit Tortuguero every year to see nesting turtles and visit the area’s tropical rainforests.
A naturalist-led boat tour of Tortuguero National Park is a must, but take the time to head to town and go for a walk. There are no cars in Tortuguero, which is fine, because there are no roads, just rivers. Folks float, walk and ride their bikes to get where they need to go. Its downtown is comprised of a stretch three to four blocks long dotted with small restaurants and shops. There’s also a small public school. Feel free to poke your head in to say hello — the teachers and kids welcome visitors.
The Arenal Volcano is Costa Rica’s most active and probably most famous volcano. Its almost perfect shape gives the volcano a dominating presence on the skyline as you make your way toward the town of La Fortuna. The volcano erupts frequently, almost daily, and depending on your location you may even be lucky enough to see lava exploding from Arenal. (No such luck on our part.) I’d understand if the thought of staying near an active volcano makes you a little uneasy, but my family and I didn’t fear for our safety at any point during our visit. Popular hotels and tourist attractions are located in low-risk areas.
Thanks to the volcano’s geothermal activity, there are a number of natural hot springs in the area. We spent an afternoon soaking in the warm pools at kid-friendly Baldi Hot Springs. There are beautifully landscaped paths that lead you from one pool to the next. Get a locker to store all the family’s stuff in, but keep flip-flops handy to wear as you wander from pool to pool. I enjoyed just soaking; my kids and husband spent hours slip-sliding and screaming their way down the three waterslides.
The Guanacaste province is a great place to go toward the end of your trip, if for no other reason than it’s the perfect spot to recharge your family’s batteries. We went to the North Pacific Coast, about 25 minutes south of the city of Tamarindo. Getting there wasn’t the easiest thing. The road is long and bumpy, but I realized the payoff the minute we arrived.
Like Tortuguero, it’s another location that qualifies as kind of in the middle of nowhere. But its middle of nowhere just happens to be on a stunning stretch of beach. Take a swim in the warm waves or go for a walk on the beach hunting for seashells, coral and driftwood. After one walk, I was glad I had some extra room in my suitcase.
Humans share the beach with leatherback turtles that come to nest from October to February. Though we didn’t visit during nesting season, we discovered an old nest on the beach. The tiny turtles were gone, but the shells they once called home were still buried in the sand. The look of amazement on my girls’ faces was almost unexplainable. They realized they had found something special. You can’t plan vacation memories like that; you just consider yourself extremely lucky when they happen.
Turtles aren’t the only cute and cuddly Costa Rica critters to call this stretch of coast home. Howler monkeys make quite a racket and get plenty of attention here as well. During a morning horseback ride, we came across a family of monkeys playing in the treetops. They seemed to stop for a brief moment to check us out, than quickly decided we weren’t particularly interesting. Seen one tourist, seen them all, I guess.
During our three days on the coast, we swam, played in the sun and slept in. Rest is the best guarantee there is to end a long family trip on a high note.
Our last stop before home was San Jose. Most international flights go through the Costa Rican capital, so there’s a good chance you’ll come through the bustling city. We didn’t spend much time in the actual city, but we did make the trip to the Poas Volcano.
About an hour north of San Jose, it’s an easy trip to do. There are smooth roads and once you arrive, there’s a paved road that takes you straight to the volcano. Families with more energy can take one of the great trails that lead through the surrounding cloud forest. It’s worth taking your time and exploring.
On a clear day, you can see inside the active crater from an overlook. But know you only have a 30 percent chance of getting a clear view. Visit in the morning for your best shot. All we could see was, well, clouds. That said, it was still worth the trip. Walking through a cloud forest is what I would consider a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. We may not have been able to see the volcano, but we did see plants bigger than my 10- and 12-year-old daughters—hide and seek in a cloud forest. I recommend everyone try it sometime. Bring a poncho or raincoat, and maybe even a dry shirt to put on afterward, because there’s a good chance you will get wet, soaked even.
We spent 10 days exploring Costa Rica, and we could have easily spent 10 more. We missed popular places like Manuel Antonio National Park and ran out of time to try out one of the zip lines that make Costa Rica travel so famous. Give yourself two to three nights in each location. It just seems to help keep family travel chaos under control and you’ll get a better taste of the places you’re visiting. But be warned: You may also wind up with a longer list of places you want to visit in this Central America paradise again!
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Editor’s Note: Photos by Dana Rebmann except where noted.
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