Arenal volcano in Costa Rica ringed in clouds with a horse grazing in the foreground
(Photo: @ISphotos via Twenty20)

How to Plan a Costa Rica Family Vacation

Costa Rica’s rich biodiversity and natural beauty puts it at the top of the list of inspiring destinations for families. With cities and cloud forests, plus two beach-lined coasts (Caribbean and Pacific, take your pick), Costa Rica’s signature pura vida way of life creates a welcoming and laid-back atmosphere for visiting families. It’s brimming with things to do, and it provides a model of thoughtful, sustainable living that’s a better souvenir than anything you could take home and frame. Here are tips for planning an unforgettable family trip to Costa Rica. 

Note that even as vaccinations make it easier to travel again, it’s likely that COVID-19-focused entry requirements will continue to be in place. 

The Basics: Getting to and around Costa Rica

From much of the U.S., getting to Costa Rica is a fairly straightforward endeavor. Here’s what to consider as you start to plan your trip. 

Getting there: In Costa Rica, two airports offer direct flights to the United States: Juan Santamaría International Airport (SJO) in San Jose, and Daniel Oduber Quirós International Airport (LIR) in Liberia. Both airports are close to popular destinations, and also offer connecting flights to other destinations in Costa Rica.

Traveling in Costa Rica: Most of the tourist destinations in Costa Rica are a few hours apart by car, but many of these areas are also serviced by small airports, and intra-country flights are a convenient way to travel quickly from place to place. Driving can be a rewarding adventure, though, as the roads are lined with beautiful views, and roadside “sodas” are a fun way to break up a drive while sampling the signature snacks and tropical fruits of Costa Rica.   

Take a Costa Rica road trip by renting a car, or opt to be a passenger and arrange private transportation or book a shuttle. Private transportation and shuttles offer a convenient way to travel from place to place, and once you arrive at a destination, most hotels and tours offer free local shuttles. 

If you’re going to rent a car, keep in mind that while most of the main highways in Costa Rica lead to the popular tourist destinations, it’s a good idea to opt for a four-wheel drive vehicle if you are looking to venture farther afield, especially during the rainy season. Also, remember it gets dark at about 6 p.m., and in some places it is not advised to drive after dark.

Good to Know: Car seats are uncommon in private transportation and shuttles. When traveling within Costa Rica with young kids or infants, make sure to safety seats are on your baby packing list

Communication: Most cell phones work in Costa Rica’s cities, but service is often spotty in remote or mountainous regions. Be sure to check with your service provider before going abroad for coverage and rates.

Popular Destinations in Costa Rica

Planning your vacation to Costa Rica can be the adventure before your adventure–a chance to try on the options and decide what’s right for your traveling group. Costa Rica is home to nearly six percent of the world’s biodiversity, and has created a system of national parks and reserves that cover more than 25% of its land area. So unsurprisingly, many of the star spots put nature front and center. Here’s a quick look at some of Costa Rica’s most popular destinations. 

Arenal

Rising dramatically from the land and ringed by rivers, rainforests, and waterfalls, Arenal Volcano looks straight from a children’s fairy tale. And the surrounding protected area of Arenal Volcano National Park offers something for everyone on a family vacation. 

The nearby town of La Fortuna offers the perfect base for exploring the area. With its mix of tourists and locals, La Fortuna strikes a nice balance, offering easy access to both adventure activities and lower-key cultural experiences. In town, an abundance of tour operators offer adventures including rappelling down a waterfall, whitewater rafting, and ziplining or walking the hanging bridges through the canopy of the rainforest. On quieter days, visitors can hike through Arenal Volcano National Park, tour a chocolate or coffee farm, float down the river and spot wildlife, or relax in one of many mineral-rich hot springs. Also, don’t miss out on a variety of twilight and night experiences that let you experience the nocturnal world of the rainforest. 

In the vicinity of Arenal Volcano, you’ll find the highest concentrations of hotels in the town of La Fortuna and out near the national park. Consider staying closer to downtown La Fortuna if you don’t have a car; you’ll be closer to tours, transportation, and restaurants. However, if you’re planning on renting a car, it’s worth checking out some of the hotels closer to the national park if you do. Many of these hotels have their own hot springs, ranging in size from private soaking pools attached to suites to larger shared pools. 

Good to Know: When choosing a tour operator, especially for the more adventurous tours, ensure that it is a legitimate tour operation with proper safety certifications (many canopy tours are certified by the  U.S.-based Association for Challenge Course Technology), liability insurance, and a good safety and customer service record. 

Monteverde

Home to the world-famous cloud forest and first zipline, the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve is renowned for its conservation and preservation efforts. Visitors come to marvel at the towering trees, draping vines, and the hundreds of mammal and bird species, including the majestic yet elusive Resplendent Quetzal. Zip line the length of the forest canopy to experience the four different ecosystems that exist harmoniously as a result of the area’s varying altitude and climate.

Monteverde is less than 40 miles from Arenal, but getting there can be an adventure on its own. Driving requires a five-hour trek around Lake Arenal on curvy roads. You can also arrange to travel across the lake by boat and be picked up on the other side. For the truly adventurous, there are several tour companies that offer a combination boat, horseback ride, and car transfer. Once you’ve arrived, you’ll find a number of hotels, lodges, and eco-resorts.  

Manuel Antonio National Park

Sloth lovers flock to Manuel Antonio National Park, a prime place to spot the two- and three-toed creatures. The park, popular with tourists and locals alike, is one of the rare places in Central America where rainforest meets beach. The park is home to howler, squirrel, spider and white-faced monkeys; as well as amphibians like frogs and iguanas; and over 350 species of birds. The best way to spot the wildlife in the park is on a guided tour, with a trained guide who not only knows where the animals like to hang out but also has a good eye for spotting them. Pack a lunch and make the most of the picturesque beaches that double as perfect picnic spots. 

Wildlife spotting is not the only adventure in Manuel Antonio. Nearby Espadilla Beach has waves great for both aspiring surfers and experts, along with surf shops that offer rentals and lessons. Travelers can also take a boat to the nearby Damas Island Estuary and kayak the area on a day or evening tour. 

About an hour south of Manuel Antonio is a national park that celebrates the sea. One of the country’s news national parks, Marino Ballena National Park is committed to the conservation of the rich marine ecosystems. This is a great spot to see migrating humpback whales from mid-July and October, and again from December through March. The park is also home to one of the largest coral formations on the Pacific side of Central America, and offers good snorkeling, especially at low tide. Another low-tide treasure is the natural land bridge that emerges to create one of the park’s biggest attractions: “El Paso de Moises.”

Good to Know: Manuel Antonio National Park and the tours in the park are closed on Mondays. There’s a limit on the number of tickets sold the rest of the week to prevent overcrowding. To secure a spot, either arrive early and purchase tickets at a Coopealianza office BEFORE getting in line for the entrance, or book with one of the tour groups that have access to advance tickets. 

Santa Rosa National Park

Costa Rica is famous for its wildlife, and the arribada is one of the country’s most spectacular natural phenomena. The arribada, or arrival, marks the events from late summer through late fall when tens of thousands of Olive Ridley sea turtles simultaneously come ashore to lay their eggs along the beaches of Ostional Wildlife Refuge and Playa Nancite in Santa Rosa National Park. The park also happens to be home to some of the best surfing beaches in Costa Rica. 

Good to Know: A permit from the rangers is necessary to visit the arribada beaches during the nesting season. 

More from FamilyVacationist:

Kathryn Sarkis
Kathryn Sarkis is a parent and traveler who has lived in France and the U.S. Her work has appeared on SmarterTravel.com and FamilyVacationist.