Costa Rica is a family travel playground, specializing in big adventures guaranteed to get your kid’s heart pumping; whether you are zipping through the leafy canopy or spying a lazy sloth, this little dynamo of a country offers a plethora of fun experiences that every family member can enjoy. We've come up with a list of recommendations sure to wow both kids and parents alike.
Costa Rica's rainforests are some of the most stunning in the world, but sometimes navigating it on foot just doesn't do the trick – get a bird’s-eye view instead. The country’s first zip-line, the Original Canopy Tour, is in Monteverde, but nowadays there are canopy tours all over the country. Not all zip-lines can accommodate small children (under 120 cm or six years old), but many do (Selvatura, Monteverde Theme Park, Arenal Paraíso Canopy Tour). Kids can zip across the cables while attached to a guide, so they don’t have to worry about controlling their own speed.
Some people, no matter what age, are a little wary of zooming over the forest at high speeds and high altitudes while suspended from a wire – go figure. In that case, hanging bridges are a better option for exploring the canopy at one's own pace (Sky Adventures, Selvatura and Mistico have bridge options). Again, some facilities are better suited for very small children: you may want to inquire if there is a gap between the walkway and the guardrail on the bridges.
Have a little adrenaline junkie in the family? Kids as young as six or seven years old can ride river rapids, and even smaller children can get out on the river on a 'safari float’. These gentle river rides coast over Class I and II rapids and allow time for a swim and snack break; both Aventuras del Sarapiquí near La Virgen or Safaris Corobicí near Cañas offer kid-friendly rafting experiences. Or, if the grown-ups are itching to ride some wild rapids on their own, book a room at the Hotel Interamericano in Turrialba; this hotel actually provides childcare while parents are out running the river.
There’s something about bathing under a waterfall that’s good for body and soul. If you have kids in tow, the trick is to find a cascade that is safe to swim and does not require too strenuous of a hike to reach. The well-maintained waterfall trail behind the Arenal Observatory Lodge is an easy 2 km hike, though it’s not always safe to take a dip if water levels are high. Near Bagaces, Llanos de Cortés is another easily accessible and spectacularly beautiful waterfall with a picture-perfect swimming hole. More adventurous (or slightly older) kids might be up for the Montezuma Waterfalls or the Catarata Río Fortuna.
Wildlife watching can be tricky with kids, as you never know what you will (or won’t) see. We recommend taking a wildlife cruise because a boat ride is a little adventure in itself, even if the animals are feeling shy that day. Take a boat tour at Caño Negro Wildlife Reserve, follow the Ruta Los Héroes on the Río Sarapiquí or cruise the canals in the Parque Nacional Tortuguero. And you will see something – birds, iguanas, monkeys, sloths or even a few caimans.
If your timing is right, you might witness a mother turtle hauling herself up on the beach to lay her eggs, an incredible experience for travelers of all ages. The arribada (mass arrival) of olive ridleys at Playa Ostional is especially impressive, though turtle tours are on offer up and down both coasts. These animals are endangered, so be sure to book tours with responsible service providers with licensed guides.
If you are looking for a fail-safe option to see wildlife, visit a rescue center. Many offer up-close animal interaction, including the Jaguar Centro de Rescate south of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, Proyecto Asis in Ciudad Quesada (San Carlos) and Alturas Animal Sanctuary in Dominical.
Most surf schools give lessons to children as young as age five. Some places cater especially to families, including Safari Surf in Nosara, Matos Surf Shop in Tamarindo or Playa Grande, and One Love Surf School in Puerto Viejo de Talamanca. Alternatively, skip the lessons and rent a boogie board on the beach at Playa Sámara and your kids will be riding the waves on their bellies in no time.
Volcanoes and hot springs
Budding geologists will get a kick out of peering into the crater of a volcano at Parque Nacional Volcán Poas (which is wheelchair accessible, so it is also stroller accessible). You can see other volcanic activity – bubbling mud pots and such – at the Pailas Sector of Parque Nacional Rincón de la Vieja or at Las Hornillas near Volcán Miravalles.
Finally, here’s some geothermal activity that everyone can get excited about: hot springs. You’ll find soaking springs near Miravalles (Río Perdido, Termales El Guayacán) and Rincón de la Vieja (Canyon de la Vieja, Hot Springs Río Negro), but the most elaborate thermal pools are around La Fortuna, including fancy set-ups like The Springs or more understated environs like Eco Termales.
NOTE: At the time of update (June 2017), the Parque Nacional Volcán Poas was closed due to volcanic eruption. Please check the safety status of the park before attempting to visit.
Where to sleep
Even your lodging is an opportunity for adventure in Costa Rica. Beach resorts and jungle lodges abound, not to mention these unique ways to spend the night:
Stay on a farm
Agrotourism allows guests to experience authentic, rural Tico life: kids can help take care of farm animals, observe the sugar cane harvest and learn about sustainable farming practices. The eco-forward Finca Terra Viva (terravivacr.com) and their neighbors at Capulín Cabinas & Farm are excellent choices near Santa Elena. The Río Celeste area also offers many options for farm living, including La Carolina Lodge (lacarolinalodge.com), Finca Verde Lodge and Casitas Tenorio. Horseback riding is a specialty at Rancho Margot in El Castillo and Rancho Amalia (ranchoamalia.com) near Zarcero. Other great, budget-friendly farmstays include Finca La Flor near Cartago, Punta Mona (puntamona.org) south of Manzanillo, and the truly special Albergue el Socorro near San Miguel.
Sleep in a tent
Some call it 'glamping’ while others just call it sustainable tourism, as these heavy-duty tents offer (almost) all the comforts of a permanent structure, without the same environmental impact. Feel the breeze and hear the noises of the jungle from the comfort of your bed! Rafiki Safari Lodge in Playa Matapalo and Pozo Azul (pozoazul.com) near La Virgen are surrounded by rainforest and river; while Corcovado Adventure Tent Camp near Drake Bay and La Leona Eco Lodge near Carate have prime beachfront locations on the edge of Parque Nacional Corcovado.
Climb into a tree house
Do you ever think your kids are part monkey? They’ll be in their element in these awesome treetop hideaways. Birds, monkeys, and other tree-climbing creatures come calling at the Tree Houses Hotel (treehouseshotelcostarica.com) near San Carlos and the Tree House Lodge near Puerto Viejo de Talamanca. There’s all sorts of family-friendly accommodations, including tree houses, at Posada Andrea Cristina (andreacristina.com) in Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí and Flutterby House (flutterbyhouse.com) in Uvita.
What to eat
There are only three words you need to know to keep your kid well fed in Costa Rica: rice and beans.
The national dish of Costa Rica is, you guessed it, rice and beans. It’s actually a breakfast item, served alongside eggs or cheese. And if your child wants to eat it every day, they won’t be alone.
This typical set lunch consists of meat or chicken, salad and, you guessed it, rice and beans. It’s simple, tasty and filling. If your child is really lucky, there might be a sweet, fried plantain on the side.
Batidos, or jugos naturales, are fresh fruit smoothies, made with banana, mango, pineapple, papaya, watermelon, or just about any other fruit. One batido guarantees a day’s worth of Vitamin C – ask for it made con leche (with milk) and you’ve got your kid’s calcium intake covered too.
Tips & resources
- Children under the age of 12 get a 25% discount on internal air travel while children under two fly free (provided they sit on an adult’s lap). Kids age three and up pay full fare on buses.
- Car rental agencies offer children’s car seats, but their condition cannot be guaranteed, so it’s recommended to bring your own.
- Specialty items like disposable diapers, baby creams, baby aspirin and thermometers are not generally available in remote places, though you’ll find them for sale in towns and tourist hubs.
- Tap water is safe to drink throughout the country, though bottled water is also readily available if you want to be more cautious with infants.
For inspiration on how to keep your young explorers entertained whilst on the road – or at home – sign up to the Lonely Planet Kids newsletter.
This article was originally published in April 2016 and refreshed in June 2017.