Costa Rica Family Vacation: Complete First Timer’s Guide

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Arenal volcano. Photo credit: Liana Moore

Costa Rica is an ideal family vacation destination for all ages. This Pura Vida nation boasts beaches, volcanoes, rainforests, hot springs, sloths, monkeys, toucans and more. Its location in Central America makes it a fairly easy getaway coming from the United States. Whether you’re a family of nature lovers, adventurers or seekers of white sand beaches, Costa Rica is full of family adventure.

My family has taken several multi-gen vacations to Costa Rica with ages three to eighty and all have had a blast. Here’s what you need to know about family travel to this exotic, yet accessible, kid-friendly vacation destination.

The most important thing to know in planing your itinerary is that while Costa Rica is not a large country, travel on the roads can be time consuming. You may want to narrow down your destinations to just a couple of areas. Avoid spending too much of your vacation on the road.

coconut stand on playa penca costa rica
At Playa Penca, Ricardo will greet you and cut open a refreshing cold coconut for you for a very reasonable price. Photo credit: Liana Moore

Choose one rainforest or cloud forest, and then also a beach town, or an area that has both. Or, choose to stay on either the Pacific or Caribbean side and explore some of the best beaches in the world.

There’s certainly no lack of family fun in Costa Rica. Whether you book an eco-lodge, one of the many all inclusive family resorts or a beachfront condo, you are sure to get a flavor of Costa Rican “Pura Vida.”

SheBuysTravel Tip: For the ultimate Costa Rican adventure, book an Adventures by Disney Costa Rica tour.

View of Playa Flamingo from Playa Potrero at sunset
With beautiful beaches, lush rainforests and exotic wildlife, Costa Rica is the ideal family vacation destination. Photo credit: Liana Moore

Getting to Costa Rica

There are two international airports in Costa Rica: San Jose and Liberia. The Arenal Volcano area near La Fortuna is about three hours from either airport. But Guanacaste or the Tamarindo area on the Pacific coast of the country is closer to Liberia. Manuel Antonio, Monteverde and the Caribbean coast will be easier to reach via San Jose airport.

tulemar beach in manuel antonio costa rica
The beautiful Tulemar beach on the edge of the jungle in Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica. Photo credit: Liana Moore

Getting Around Costa Rica

Costa Rica may look like a small country, but don’t count on driving to several destinations. Road travel can be slow, and driving in Costa Rica is downright scary. As someone who regularly navigates Colorado’s icy roads in winter and calmly drove the Amalfi Coast, I thought I wouldn’t be scared. But I was surprised, at least at night.

Highways are few and far between. Most roads do not have shoulders, leading to cars parked in the middle of the road. Street lights are non-existent. Bridges are one lane. And people, dogs and cyclists like to meander the road with little attention to cars.

If you do choose to drive, just try to keep your excursions to daylight. At least then you can see potential hazards.

Another option is to hire a car and driver through your hotel. Turismo busses abound throughout Costa Rica.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Be sure to download our Costa Rica Packing List before departing!

poison dart frog
A poison dart frog spotted on a sloth tour in Arenal. Photo credit: Liana Moore

Exploring the Rainforest: Where to Meet the Animals

The Arenal Volcano area should be part of any vacation to Costa Rica with kids. Arenal attracts visitors for its now-dormant volcano and natural hot springs, but it also boasts a spectacular lake and the most amazing eco system filled with wildlife and fresh fruits and vegetables.

If you could visit only one area in Costa Rica, Parque National Manuel Antonio might be the place to go. With rainforest, bird-watching, animals galore and beaches too, you can find it all here. Manuel Antonio National Park is one of the most popular national parks in the country. This is one of the top places to see sloths in Costa Rica.

sloth in a tree in manuel antonio costa rica
Seeing sloths, toucans and other beautiful animals in their natural habitat is a great reason to visit Costa Rica. Photo credit: Liana Moore

Corcovado National Park is one of the least developed areas of the country and the one with the most biodiversity. Here you’ll find a rich wilderness experience. This is the place for a jungle and wildlife adventure.

White faced Capuchin monkey spotted at Palo Verde National Park. Photo credit: Liana Moore

Palo Verde National Park offers boat tours and is a short distance from the many beach towns of the Guanacaste region. Here you are likely to see colorful birds, monkeys, crocodiles and iguanas.

Whichever area you chose, you are likely to be able to fly across the rainforest on zip lines, cross the forest on canopy bridges, hike to waterfalls, horseback ride and even experience whitewater rafting.

Costa Rica beach
Playa Potrero in the Guanacaste region is one of Costa Rica’s lovely, quiet beach towns. Photo credit: Liana Moore

Best Family Beaches in Costa Rica

On the Pacific coast, the Guanacaste area encompasses the Papagayo and Nicoya Peninsulas. Tamarindo is the best known town in the province, but probably not the most family-friendly.

Our family made Playa Potrero our home base for the second half of our first Costa Rica vacation. It is a quiet beach town where you are likely to hear perfect Spanish from the mouths of American gringos. The town boasts excellent restaurants and perhaps the most spectacular sunsets in the world.

Just a couple of miles away, Playa Flamingo offers up a harbor where catamaran cruises depart for their tours. This beach is home to Margaritaville Resort, as well as many cliffside vacation rentals with spectacular ocean views.

vibrant orange sunset in costa rica
A vibrant orange sunset captured from Las Catalinas in Costa Rica. Photo credit: Liana Moore

A new luxury walking town, Las Catalinas, has more recently sprouted from the edge of Playa Danta up the hillside to take advantage of some of the most beautiful sunsets in Costa Rica. Here you will find an Italianesque village with a spray park in the town center for the kids, luxury boutiques and delicious, healthy restaurants. This is not authentic Costa Rica. But it is a lovely place to make your home base, while experiencing authentic Costa Rica via day trips.

Playa Grande, also a short distance away, is known for turtle spotting.

Puntarenas, still off the Nicoya Peninsula is fairly close to San Jose.

Playa Tortuguero is the beach to go for turtle spotting on the Caribbean coast. Cahuita offers a couple of interesting beaches aptly named Playa Negra and Playa Blanca after the color of the sand. There’s also a wide variety of wildlife in this area.

casado in costa rica
Many tours will serve Casado as lunch. This is traditional Costa Rican fare: beans, rice, plantain and a meat or fish. Photo credit: Liana Moore

The Foods of Costa Rica

Our family really enjoyed the traditional Tico fare. Breakfast included delicious fresh fruits as well as Gallo Pinto.

One of our favorite lunch and dinner entrees included a barbecue chicken dish from Que Rico Restaurant at the Arenal Volcano Inn.

We ordered Arroz con Pollo (rice with chicken) at restaurants throughout the country, as it became a family favorite. The traditional Casado, including beans, rice, fried plantains and a choice of meat, was also fun to try at different restaurants.

Our family returned home with a very large bottle of Lizano Salsa, which is used to flavor many of these traditional dishes.

We highly recommend dining at a Soda in every town you visit. A Soda is a casual restaurant, often run out of someone’s home, with an open air dining area. The menu is basic but authentic. A Soda is more affordable than many of the restaurants catering to tourists. You get a real taste of the area!

Best Things to Do in Costa Rica with Kids

There are so many exciting family adventures to be had in Costa Rica. From spotting interesting animals on a mangrove tour or taking surf lessons to ziplining and ATVing to see waterfalls, to tasting chocolate and coffee, the whole family will find something to love about this Pura Vida nation.

The fruit that chocolate comes from opened so we could taste it, on a chocolate tour in Costa Rica. Photo credit: Liana Moore

Coffee or Chocolate Tour

Whether you book a chocolate tour or a coffee tour, you will likely discover much more. The two tours that we have taken were family owned and run businesses. They each grew a wide variety of fruits and spices, as well as coffee and chocolate on their land on which they live. This is a wonderful way to experience the flavors of Costa Rica right off of the trees, and to see how some of our favorite flavors come to be.

monkeys climbing on a boat as seen on amangrove boat tour costa rica
Monkeys climbing up on a boat while on a mangrove boat tour. Photo credit: Liana Moore

Mangrove Boat Tour

A mangrove boat tour is an easy way to see birds and wildlife while learning about important protected waterways in Costa Rica. Depending on the area of the country, you’ll likely spot white-faced capuchin monkeys, many species of birds and maybe even a crocodile or two. If you are looking for more of an adventure, then opt for the kayak tour instead of a boat.

Mistico Hanging Bridges
People crossing hanging bridges far above a waterfall at Mistico Hanging Bridges near Arenal Volcano. Photo credit: Liana Moore

Visit the Hanging Bridges

Visiting hanging bridges is an excellent way to experience the rainforest up close. We highly recommend a guide who can point out the wildlife and provide a better view though a viewing scope. The Mistico Hanging Bridges outside of La Fortuna in the Arenal area provided our group with plenty of opportunities to spot interesting wildlife, cross amazing hanging bridges and check out waterfalls. One of the highlights was spotting a blue morpho butterfly that our daughter has just studied in school.

Ziplining on Canopy Tours

For the more adventurous travelers, canopy tours and ziplining in Costa Rica are a must-do activity. Make a day of it at an adventure park such as Buena Vista del Rincon in DIamonte, located in Guanacaste. You may be able to visit hanging bridges, horseback ride, relax in hot springs or see amazing wildlife. All in addition to soaring safely over the upper canopy of the rainforest harnessed into a zipline. Adrenaline inducing with a birds’ eye view.

waterfall tours are one of the most popular things to do in costa rica
Waterfall in Costa Rica spotted on an UTV tour. Photo credit: Liana Moore

Waterfall Tour

Costa Rica is chock full of photogenic waterfalls. Take a tour and see several in a single day. Many you can even swim in or jump off of for the more adventurous. Rio Celeste, La Paz and La Fortuna waterfalls may be the most famous. But a guide can locate hidden gems that your group can have all to yourselves.

Visit a National Park

Part of what makes this country so special are its conservation efforts. Almost 30% of the land in Costa Rica is protected. About half of this is made up of 30 national parks. These comprise both fresh waterways and ocean waters, as well as rainforests. Wildlife thrives here and can be spotted by skilled and knowledgeable guides. Some of the more popular national parks include Manuel Antonio, Monteverde Cloud Forest, Tortuguero, Corcovado and Arenal Volcano.

Relax in Hot Springs

Costa Rica is home to natural hot springs. The La Fortuna/ Arenal Volcano area is best known for these relaxing mineral waters. Stay at a resort that is home to some of these to avoid paying the day fees to visit.

With beautiful beaches, lush rainforests and exotic wildlife, Costa Rica is the ideal family vacation destination. Photo credit: Liana Moore

Sunset Snorkeling Cruise

Costa Rica has some of the most vibrant sunsets. The best view we found of the spectacular sunset was aboard a sunset cruise. These will also take you to beaches and waters that you couldn’t access otherwise. Your captain will help find the best spots for snorkeling and checking out the colorful marine wildlife. If you are lucky, you might get to spot dolphins, whales, sea turtles or puffer fish.

stand up paddleboarding in las catalinas costa rica
Watersports abound off the coast of the Guanacaste region of Costa Rica. Photo credit: Liana Moore

Surf or SUP

Samara, Tamarindo and Jaco are all beaches known for surfing. Beginner lessons are offered at all of these beaches.

I actually brought along my inflatable standup paddleboard to Las Catalinas. The waters off of Playa Danta are excellent for paddleboarding. Local Pura Vida Ride in Las Catalinas offers rentals of bikes, boogie boards, sea kayaks and standup paddleboards.

Play on the Beach

The beaches in Costa Rica are pristine and beautiful. Here you can enjoy taking out boogie boards. Just splash in the waves. Or, relax under an umbrella as the kids build sand castles.

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Hike or Mountain Bike

You are likely to hike in Costa Rica just to see the marvelous sights from waterfalls and hanging bridges to amazing wildlife. But in some areas you can also mountain bike. Las Catalinas offers boasts more than 40 kilometers of hiking and biking trails.

Did We Feel Safe Traveling to Costa Rica?

We never felt unsafe in Costa Rica, other than perhaps driving our rental car at night on curvy roads in the pouring rain. There is petty crime. Just do your best not to be flashy and leave valuables in your hotel safe.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Q: What is the best time of year to visit Costa Rica with kids?

A: The best time to visit Costa Rica with kids is during the dry season, which runs from December to April. However, keep in mind that this is also the busiest time of year, so you may encounter more crowds and higher prices.

Q: What are some kid-friendly activities to do in Costa Rica?

A: Costa Rica is full of family-friendly activities, such as zip-lining, wildlife watching, visiting hot springs, and exploring national parks. Some popular destinations for families include Manuel Antonio, Arenal Volcano, and Monteverde Cloud Forest.

Q: Is it safe to travel to Costa Rica with kids?

A: Yes, Costa Rica is generally a safe country for families to visit. However, as with any travel destination, it’s important to take precautions and be aware of your surroundings. Keep an eye on your belongings and avoid walking alone at night.

Q: What should I pack for a family trip to Costa Rica?

A: Some essential items to pack for a family trip to Costa Rica include sunscreen, insect repellent, comfortable walking shoes, lightweight clothing, and a reusable water bottle. You may also want to bring a waterproof camera and a backpack for day trips.

Q: Do I need to speak Spanish to travel in Costa Rica?

A: While it’s helpful to know some basic Spanish phrases, it’s not necessary to speak fluent Spanish to travel in Costa Rica. Many locals speak English, especially in tourist areas. However, learning a few key phrases can help you navigate the country more easily and connect with the local culture.

Liana Moore lived overseas growing up, attending British public school for kindergarten in London. She then moved to Stavanger, Norway for nine years until age 15, growing up with friends of different cultures. Summers involved camps in Switzerland and Wales, plus USA time in East Texas and Minnesota. Liana sees things from others’ viewpoints, believing those experiences shaped the woman she is today. She’s instilling that empathy in her children, having fun along the way. Currently based in the mountains of Colorado, much of her time is spent exploring the Rocky Mountains. When she’s not marketing a resort property professionally, or traveling and writing, find her trying out new sports with her kids, like BMX biking, or debating with her teenager (and occasionally winning). Follow Liana’s adventures at Insider Families.
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One response

  1. My husband & I have 4 kids (19 yo twins, 17 & 14yo). I am looking into Costa Rica in June & have only Sat-Sun (8nights from LAX). My youngest has difficulty walking long distances & the other 2 tend to get motion sickness. I was leaning toward Westin LReserva conchal AllInclusive to make things easy but after reading articles, it seems like 2 separate hotels in order to access more of the unique rainforest &animals is the way to go. I don’t want to stress too much about the what,where,how since all my previous family vacations have always been exhausting due to me making all the decisions. Any recommendations you could give would be greatly appreciative. the more I read, the more confused I get.

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