Last Spring, we did our first big family adventure trip to Costa Rica and it was one of our best family trips ever. Trying to figure out the best place to bring two kids, ages 10 and 12, was a bit of a challenge but after researching Costa Rica I knew it would be the perfect place for an unforgettable family adventure and I was right.
Since our trip, many friends of mine have been asking for advice on how to plan the perfect Costa Rica trip so I decided to put together a Family Travel Guide and am hoping this will become a new series of mine as I begin to bring my children out into the world. There is so much I want them to see and explore!
Why Chose Costa Rica?
Costa Rica continues to be one of the hottest destinations in Central America for nature loving and thrill-seeking tourists. Not only is this small country one of the safest in Central America, Costa Rica’s well-developed tourism industry affords numerous options for all different kinds of travelers: Eco, Adventure, Luxury, Beach, Solo and Family. Furthermore, Costa Rica’s insane biodiversity makes it a place where nature enthusiasts can see some of the most unique species of flora and fauna on the planet, a lot of which is endemic to the country. To put it simply, Costa Rica offers the perfect combination of awe-inspiring beauty, nature, beaches, rainforests, volcanoes, culture and adventure for people with all sorts of interests. It is an amazing place!
Where to go with older kids in Costa Rica:
Costa Rica is home to tons of beautiful beaches and resorts along the Guanacaste coastline which is ideal for families especially with younger children. You can make it really easy by staying in an all-inclusive resort offering children clubs, childcare and as many activities as your heart desires. Plus most of the resorts are just a hop, skip and a jump from Liberia International Airport making it a very easy beach and sun vacation. However, our two kids, ages 10 and 12, are not into laying around the beach and swimming all day. Nor are we!
Instead, we wanted to give them a more cultural view of this amazing place and seek adventure as well. We didn’t want to stay in just one location and preferred to move around a bit to give them a real feel of the different parts of the country. That was the hardest part with the planning as we didn’t want to move too much as that would be stressful for everyone. With nine days, we decided on three unique places staying three days each per place and allowing travel time: Manuel Antonio, Arenal and Rio Celeste. We felt these three destinations would each have something a little different and unique to explore and we were right.
Costa Rica is home to two international airports, centrally located San Jose and Liberia in the north which is only an hour drive from the beaches of Guanacaste. Unfortunately we made the mistake of purchasing our tickets based on price and chose Liberia which would have been fine if we stayed in Guanacaste. Little did we know, it was going to be a long haul (about four and a half hours driving time without stops) down to Manual Antonio where we began our trip.
Flying internally in Costa Rica is easy but not cheap and it is on small planes which I try to avoid. Initially we were going to rent a car for the entire trip but decided to break it up by using a driver for part of it and minimizing the stress. We hired Morpho Vans for a few of the long legs of our trip and it ended up being fantastic. We loved kicking back and having a local driver who could tell us all about Costa Rica and do the driving for us. One word of caution: Be sure to rent a car with all-wheel drive so you can handle some of the bumpy gravel roads and water crossing in some areas. Also, get a GPS!
An overview of our route:
We landed in Liberia at 11 am and had to make it all the way down to Manuel Antonio that day (from A to B). It was a long day but we made it just in time for sunset. We spent two full days in Quepos/Manuel Antonio, then drove back up to Arenal/La Fortuna with Morpho Vans, rented a car and spent two days at Arenal. We dropped off the car in La Fortuna, and had Morpho Vans pick us up to bring us to Rio Celeste where we spent the next two days before returning back to Liberia to catch our flight home.
All in all, our trip gave us an amazing overview of the country and each place offered unique things to see and do. We did not visit the beach area of Guanacaste or the Osa Peninsula. You could easily add on one of these destinations if you have another 2-3 days to spare.
Manuel Antonio National Park is located right outside of Quepos, a bustling tourist town in the south of Costa Rica. Most people stay up above Quepos at one of the several beautiful resorts. There are more then plenty to choose on depending on your budget but it is a beautiful place to stay especially if you choose a place with access to the ocean.
Manuel Antonio National Park is by far one of the best known parks in Costa Rica for its raw beauty and spellbinding biodiversity. Known as the first ecotourism destination in Costa Rica, the park and town has brought tourists in for decades. Despite its small size and immense popularity, the variety of wildlife and nature you can see within this park is absolutely incredible. The beaches are known as some of the most beautiful in the world (however they are crowded especially during high season). There are also hiking trails within the park so you can plan on packing a lunch and spending the day here.
What to do
Guided tour of Manuel Antonio National Park
It is critical to book a tour with a local guide, preferably a naturalist, early in the morning who can find and point out all the amazing creatures that live within the park. We searched TripAdvisor and found a guided tour with high-esteemed naturalist and birder Johan Chaves. It was the best money we ever spent!
Our 2 1/2 hour tour began just inside the gates of the park. The first thing Johan did was take out his equipment. For the tour, Johan used a Swarovski ATX 65mm Telescope, the industry’s best optics to view the wildlife close up.
A telescope is a must at the park as many animals, birds and insects are either too small to see or too high up. You can bring a pair of binoculars yet you end up craning your neck and won’t get nearly as detailed of a view as you would with a telescope. Another added bonus is that the telescope allows you to take pretty good photos with a smart phone through the lens. Unless you have a gigantic telephoto lens, this is essential.
Every time Johan spotted something new, he would set up his telescope and each person in the group got their chance for a look. This is where having a small group (in our case only 6 people) is critical. If you are in a group of 10 or even 20 people, you would waste all of your time waiting around for each person to have a look and have the telescope adjusted for their height.
During our tour, we saw two and three-toed sloths, howler and white-faced monkeys, bats, fascinating insects and spiders, lizards, birds and more. It was absolutely amazing and we would have missed it all without a trained guide.
To read my review of the tour and see photos of everything we saw, click here: “ A Guided Tour of Manuel Antonio Park with Naturalist Johan Chaves”.
We wanted to enjoy some adrenaline seeking activities that Costa Rica is known for and decided to try out Quepo Canyoning located in the rainforest outside of Manuel Antonio. What we loved most about the tour is the adventure of it from start to finish. We were picked up at our hotel and driven to the headquarters of Quepo Canyoning where we were fitted with safety gear and then shuttled into the back of a large pick-up truck. We proceeded to follow a bumpy road into the depths of the rainforest where we would begin our seven station adventure course in the heart of the jungle.
We did suspension bridges, waterfall rappelling, the famous “monkey drop” right over a pool of water, inclined rappel, tree-top repelling and various zip lines located high above the canopy. It was one of the most thrilling adventures we have ever experienced and I loved the fact that it is a small, locally-owned company with not mobs of tourists. There were less than 15 of us on the entire adventure! After all the thrills, we returned to the base where we were served local Costa Rican cuisine for lunch. Unfortunately I don’t have any photos as it wasn’t recommended to bring a camera along however there are photos of what to expect on Quepo Canyoning’s website. Minimum age is 8.
Where to stay
After thorough research of all the options of where to stay with a family of four, we chose to rent a villa on the Tulemar property and we could not have been more pleased. The beautiful property is home to its own private Sloth reserve of all sorts of wildlife, has its own private beach, several pools and a wide variety of accommodation choices depending upon your needs.
We selected a two-room villa that was perched high above the jungle overlooking the ocean below and not a far walk from the beach. It was a cozy home away from home and perhaps one of the most lovely accommodations we have ever stayed at. By far, the beach was one of my favorite things about Tulemar. The jungle literally tumbles down the hill to the edge of the sea. There are monkeys, sloths, scarlet macaws and tons of hermit crabs to see moving slowly across the sand. Guests have access to all sorts of water toys such as paddleboards, kayaks and boogie boards. There are also restaurants on the property and tons of them walking distance from the resort.
Best of all, family sunsets at our own private beach! We had the place almost entirely to ourselves each night. What a treat!
Located in the Northern Zone of Costa Rica, Arenal/La Fortuna is awash with rainforests, two active volcanoes, cloud forests and hot springs. It is an adventure seeker’s paradise and one of the main stops on a first visit to Costa Rica for couples and families alike.
This relatively small area is loaded with amazing things to see and do especially for families. You can spend the day hiking in a cloud forest and the next day exploring a rainforest and active volcano or else you can soak away in the hot springs at one of the luxurious spa resorts. Want more adrenaline? No problem. You can go ziplinging high above the trees or take the Sky Tram up above the lake and volcano affording spectacular 360 degree views of this incredible place. There is fishing, hiking, horseback riding, ATV rides, canyoning, and white-water rafting. The list is endless for those who seek adventure and fun. There is so much to do that some families I know spend an entire week just in this part of Costa Rica.
What to do
Deciding on how to spend your valuable time in Arenal is not easy given the huge array of fantastic options. Since we already went zip-lining in Manuel Antonio, we wanted to try some other outdoor pursuits including hiking and horseback riding. Unfortunately we ran out of time for a visit to the hot springs.
Mistical Hanging Bridges Park
We spent an entire day at this fabulous park located just above the Lake Arenal Dam. In the morning we went horseback riding around the gorgeous property and took in the breathtaking views of Lake Arenal and the volcano. We then had lunch at the restaurant on the property and spent the afternoon on a guided tour of Mistical Arenal Hanging Bridges Park with a naturalist.
The trail through the park is about two miles long, and follows a footpath through the innermost parts of the rainforest as well as passes high up through the jungle canopy over 6 hanging bridges (the highest one being 148 feet/45 m above ground) and four lower bridges. You can do the walk without a guide however having a trained eye and a professional naturalist was amazing as we learned a ton about the diverse flora and fauna in the area and saw lots of interesting things we would have missed on our own like the vipers and poisonous frogs.
Mistical Arenal Hanging Bridges Park is open seven days a week and is located 2.5 km East of the dam of Lake Arenal on the pave road, La Fortuna de San Carlos, Alajuela, Costa Rica.
Where to stay
We wanted to try something different and also introduce the kids to some culture so we ended up booking an Air B&B rental at a Costa Rican Farm called Parrot Hill Ranch with sweeping views of Arenal. It ended up being the most unique lodging we have ever stayed at and a very memorable experience.
If you want something a little more luxurious, there are plenty of ecolodges and resorts in La Fortuna with hot springs, a spa and pool. However, we loved our stay at the farm. There are also many great homes and rooms for rent in this area on Air B&B. To read more about it, click here.
For a much more remote and less visited part of the country, Rio Celeste in northern Costa Rica near the border of Nicaragua, is a treasure of a find. World renown for its surreal turquoise blue waters, the Rio Celeste is by far one of the most beautiful rivers I have ever laid eyes upon and the park that surrounds it is equally divine.
Rio Celeste is absolutely stunning, remote and has been slow to catch on to tourists which makes it special in its own right. It feels like the old Costa Rica before tourism caught on. There is plenty of adventure ranging from white-water rafting, river tubing, and hiking, and it is also not far from the Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge, a unique ecosystem of wetlands and home to several species of migratory birds and wildlife. It is the perfect place to relax and unwind in its peaceful, quiet beauty.
What to do
Tenorio Volcano National Park
The highlight of this area of course is the Rio Celeste and a visit to the Tenorio Volcano National Park where you can explore rainforests, cloud forests, hot springs, bubbling water and the area’s namesake, the Rio Celeste. As you hike in the park, you can visit a spectacular waterfall as well as see where two rivers converge to create the celestial blue Rio Celeste, a natural phenomenon. We took a guided tour and it was definitely worth it.
Tubing down the Rio Frio or Rio Celeste
For a huge family thrill, try river tubing! Depending on the water levels you can either float down the aquamarine Rio Celeste or else test out the waters of the more vigorous Rio Frio. It is quite the adventure and not for the faint of heart. (You can read my review here). But it is for sure to be an unforgettable experience!
Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge
Take a full day tour of full day tour to the Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge, a remote wetland known for its incredible wildlife, located about 12 miles south of Los Chiles and near the Nicaraguan border. The Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge is wetlands area consisting of a vast network of marshes and streams that drain into the Lago Caño Negro during the wet season. Given its unique ecosystem, the reserve is world renown for its excellent bird-watching especially the many species of migratory birds that seek sanctuary in this magical place. Out of Costa Rica’s estimated 880 species of resident and migrant birds, over 200 species have been found in Caño Negro during prime migration season. (To read my review of our tour, click here).
Where to stay
The Rio Celeste Hideaway is built within the verdant thick rainforest that surrounds Rio Celeste and borders Volcan Tenorio National Park. It is a spectacular place! There are 26 spacious, beautifully appointed casitas (little houses) that literally are tucked up into the jungle. Each casita is decorated immaculately with hand-carved wood furniture, high-pitched ceilings made from sugar cane, open-air showers and a large balcony jutting out into the jungle. There is nice pool with a swim up bar, a hot-tub, game room, and their own little hiking trail that leads you to the “blue river” (Rio Celeste). It truly is a gem of a find. I fell in love with this place and wish we could have stayed longer than three short days.
Finally, if you have an extra 3-4 days and want to visit some of the most unspoiled parts of Costa Rica, you can add on the remote Osa Peninsula. I visited this area without the kids and fell in love with its beauty. I’ve shared lots about the Osa on my blog here.
All in all, you are bound to fall in love with Costa Rica. It is surely an amazing place that will offer life-long memories of times of a wonderful vacation.
Want help with finding the best airfare and hotel rates? Check out this list of the Top 25 Best Travel Sites which includes some great websites for finding discounted airfare and hotels. I happen to be a huge fan of Expedia, TripAdvisor (goes without saying), and airbnb where we found our great stay at the farm in Arenal.
Have you traveled to Costa Rica before with kids? Do you have any favorite places to add to the list? Please let me know. PURA VIDA!