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Costa Rica offers everything you could want from a family vacation – beaches, volcanoes, rainforests, hot springs, sloths, monkeys, toucans and more. It’s location in Central America is fairly easy to get to 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.
Costa Rica Family Vacation: Complete First Timer’s Guide
My family just returned from a multi-gen trip with ages three to eighty and all had a blast. Here’s what your family needs to know about Costa Rica, an exotic, yet accessible kid-friendly vacation destination.
The first thing to know is that Costa Rica is not a large country, but travel on the roads can be time consuming. You may want to narrow down your destinations to just a couple of areas. Chose one rainforest or cloud forest, and then also a beach town, or an area that has both. There’s certainly no lack of things to do in Costa Rica with kids. 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.”
TravelingMOM Tip: For the ultimate Costa Rican adventure, book an Adventures by Disney Costa Rica tour.
Travel to Your Costa Rica Vacation Destination
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.
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.
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.
You may want to consider hiring a car and driver rather than renting a car, if possible. Arrange for a car and driver through your hotel. Or you can locate recommendations through Facebook travel groups.
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 would 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.
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.
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.
Best Family Beaches
This Pura Vida nation offers all kinds of spectacular beaches from white to black sand. Whether you want to relax on the beach with a book, surf or splash in the waves, there’s a beach for you! Here you will find all inclusive beach resorts, beachfront condos and villas with a view of the beach.
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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 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. 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.
The Foods of Costa Rica
Our family really enjoyed the traditional Tico fare. Breakfast included delicious fresh fruits as well as Gallo Pinto. 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, and much more authentic. 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.
Coffee or Chocolate Tour
Whether you book a chocolate tour or a coffee tour, you will likely discover much more. The two of these 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.
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.
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. Only two of our group of eleven opted for this activity, But it was their favorite of the entire trip. Just imagine soaring safely over the upper canopy of the rainforest harnessed into a zipline. Adrenaline inducing with a birds’ eye view.
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.
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.
Play on the Beach
The beaches in Costa Rica are pristine and beautiful. Here you can enjoy taking out boogie boards or trying a surf lesson. Or, take out a sea kayak. Just splash in the waves. Or, relax under an umbrella as the kids build sand castles.
COVID-19 Protocols in 2022
Vaccination and testing are not required to enter Costa Rica. However, all visitors must complete a health form (pase de salud) 48 hours prior to travel to Costa Rica.
Visitors who are not vaccinated are required to purchase $50,000 COVID-19 medical insurance and $2,000 quarantine insurance to enter the country. We found this insurance is very affordable, around $70 for a family of four for 9 days and opted to purchase it even though we weren’t required to.
However, non-vaccinated visitors will also have much less freedom to enjoy the country than vaccinated travelers in 2022. Fully vaccinated visitors may show proof of vaccination to enter any business. Because businesses can move from a 50% capacity to full capacity when requiring proof of vaccination (under 18 exempt), many businesses will opt to require vaccination to enter.
In January all non-essential businesses are expected to require proof of vaccination (under 18 exempt) to enter. This includes hotels, restaurants, activity providers and more. In February, this may start applying to children, as well as adults.
Masks and hand washing continue to be required when entering a business, other than when eating. Our family felt very comfortable. Both restaurants and activities tend to be outside and mask wearing was prevalent.
Is it Safe to Travel 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.