The entire country arguably could be considered one big outdoor classroom – filled to the brim with amazing nature and exciting adventure. For this reason, Costa Rica has become one of the top family vacation destinations in the world.
All in one small country you can find warm tropical weather, beautiful beaches along two oceans (Pacific and Caribbean), rainforest, cloud forest, volcanoes, rivers, and fascinating wildlife that is actually “in the wild.”
For families looking for a safe, educational and fun vacation, Costa Rica offers ample variety of hotels and resorts on a wide economic scale – many are all-inclusive – and plenty of kid-friendly activities. Tourism is the number one industry, so it’s safe and easy to get around; and English is commonly spoken in tourism areas.
As Parents Magazine writer Judy Goldberg put it, “This Central American hot spot is fun for families – and won’t bust your budget.”
We’ve put together a list of our top family travel recommendations in Costa Rica. Enjoy!
What kid (or adult!) wouldn’t want to visit this real working horse and cattle ranch, next to a live volcano, that offers the most popular activities in Costa Rica? The all-in-one adventure park at Hacienda Guachipelin offers a unique canopy tour, waterfall rappelling and canyoning, river tubing, horseback riding, waterfall hikes, natural hot springs, butterfly farm, Serpentarium, and hiking in the Rincon de la Vieja National Park to see the live volcano in action. You can be a “cowboy for a day.”
Tip: Stay at least 2 nights to take advantage of all of the things you can do.
2) Manuel Antonio
It’s monkey time! The famous Manuel Antonio National Park, on the Central Pacific Coast, is home to white-faced Capuchin monkeys, howler monkeys, and the endangered Squirrel Monkey. See them all, plus lots of other wildlife on a guided hike in the national park. The beaches sparkle with white sand and calm water in protected coves; snorkeling is great. The area is bursting with adventure tours – canopy ziplines, waterfall rappelling, whitewater rafting, sea kayaking, snorkeling, parasailing, catamaran sailing, dolphin & whale watching, surfing, sportfishing, horseback riding, and more.
Tip: There are many lodging options, but Sí Como No Resort with its large suites, two pools, water slide, nightly movies, and on-site wildlife refuge and butterfly atrium, is a good choice.
The mountain area of Monteverde features the country’s most famous cloud forest, and a big selection of fun activities. You can hike in one of three nature reserves – go with a guide to see more wildlife. Kids will be happy zipping down cables on a canopy tour, walking trails on high-flying suspension bridges, riding horses, riding a vintage train into the forest, and visiting the local sloth sanctuary, Serpentarium, butterfly farm, frog pond, bat jungle, and hummingbird gallery.
Tip: One of the most family-friendly hotels in Monteverde is El Establo. The luxury hotel has two restaurants, two heated covered pools, a spa, tennis courts, basketball court, gym, internet room, its own trails, mountain biking, canopy tour, and unique “Night Walk” tour.
Probably the most popular spot in all of Costa Rica, the Arenal Volcano is the perfect family vacation destination. Nature lovers will enjoy the Arenal Hanging Bridges, Arenal Volcano National Park, natural volcanic hot springs, La Fortuna Waterfall, and a Safari Float tour on the Penas Blancas River. Thrill-seekers will go for the SkyTrek canopy tour, waterfall canyoning, whitewater rafting, lake kayaking or windsurfing. For a little culture, visit the Maleku indigenous reserve right outside the town of La Fortuna.
Tip: Arenal Paraiso Hotel is a good family place to stay – 118 rooms with volcano views, 14 swimming pools with thermal mineral waters, two saunas, a spa, two restaurants, a small gym, its own canopy zipline tour, on-property hiking trails, and cross-country horseback riding.
In Costa Rica’s Caribbean region, Veragua Rainforest is the top nature and adventure attraction. It is located one hour inland from the Caribbean port of Limón in the tropical rainforest. Attractions include an aerial tram, canopy zipline tour, hiking trails, a river with waterfalls, wildlife exhibits, and science research labs. The park is safe for all ages, and nearly everywhere is wheelchair accessible.
Tip: After your day tour at Veragua Rainforest, go on to visit either Tortuguero – famous for its turtle nesting beaches and Amazon-like waterways – or the beautiful Caribbean beaches of Cahuita and Puerto Viejo.
Head to the very south of the country on the Golfo Dulce (Sweet Gulf), and you’ll find the gigantic jungle playground of Playa Nicuesa Rainforest Lodge. Located on a 165-acre private preserve, the eco-lodge borders the Piedras Blancas National Park and is across the Gulf from the Osa Peninsula. The rustic yet luxurious lodge is a unique adventure travel destination for its remote, pristine wilderness location. Kids will love that the only way to get to the lodge is by boat. Things to do: Rainforest hikes to see wildlife and to waterfalls, play with monkeys on a wildlife sanctuary visit, kayak to nearby botanical gardens, night hikes in the forest, visit an organic chocolate farm, yoga classes, river estuary kayaking, snorkeling, boat tour in the Gulf to see dolphins and sea turtles, fishing right off shore – eat what you catch at dinner!
Tip: Stay at least three nights, four or more if you can, to enjoy the most of your adventure. Domestic flights to the area are easy on Nature Air or Sansa Airlines. It’s a 25-minute boat ride from either Puerto Jimenez or Golfito to the lodge.
7) Surf camps
For a different family vacation, go surfing. Top Costa Rica surf school, Del Mar Surf Camp, offers a Family Surf Vacation Package for adventurous families who want to try something new or get better at surfing together. Five or seven-night packages are available at the famous surfing beach of Hermosa, on the Central Pacific Coast near Jacó.
Tip: The Costa Rican national surfing championships are being held at Hermosa Beach at the end of July.
Just an hour outside of San Jose, La Paz Waterfall Gardens is a fantastic Costa Rica one-day tour. Walk paths alongside impressive jungle waterfalls, see an amazing open-air hummingbird garden, aviary, monkey habitat, insect exhibit, giant butterfly garden with laboratory, sloth habitat, jungle cat habitat, frog exhibit, orchid exhibit, Serpentarium, a trout lake, and a restaurant. La Paz is kid heaven! The park is self-guided, so you go at your own pace.
Tip: Plan to spend the day to really take in all of the park’s features. The park varies greatly in elevation, and therefore also in temperature – bring raincoats, warm layers, and comfortable sport shoes for walking. Combine La Paz Waterfall Gardens with a coffee tour at Doka Estate.
9) Papagayo Gulf
The Northern Pacific area of Costa Rica is called the “Gold Coast.” Surrounded by natural dry tropical forest and dazzling topography, the Gulf of Papagayo is most famous for its beaches with brilliant white sand and sparkling aquamarine sea. Several national parks are in the area: Santa Rosa, Marino las Baulas (Leatherback turtle nesting area), and Rincon de la Vieja (you could do the Hacienda Guachipelin day tour from here). Ocean activities are most popular: swimming, snorkeling, scuba diving, fishing, kayaking, and boating.
Tip: Stay at the four-star Ocotal Beach Resort on a tranquil beach. The hotel has a PADI-certified scuba diving school and center, swimming pool, tennis court, restaurant, wet bar, mini gym, Jacuzzi, and spa services.
Planning a vacation to Costa Rica
Everyone knows parents are busy. There is often little time left over to plan the family vacation. That’s where the Costa Rica travel agency Valle Dorado Tours can help. Valle Dorado Tours offers customized Costa Rica vacations. They use their 20+ years of local experience in Costa Rica travel to ensure you receive only the best in accommodations, transportation, tours and activities.
By Shannon Farley