20 Incredible Things to Do in Costa Rica | Costa Rica Family Vacation

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A Costa Rica Family Vacation has rightfully earned a spot on every nature and animal loving family’s travel bucket list.  Volcanic peaks and access to two different oceans (the Carribean Coast and the Pacific Coast) give Costa Rica many different climates. It is also on a land bridge that joins the North and South American continents making it one of the most biodiverse parts of the world.  The result- there are so many amazing things to do in Costa Rica. Use this guide to plan the perfect Costa Rica family vcation.

What is the best time of the year to visit Costa Rica?

Costa Rica Rainy or Dry Season
Costa Rica Rainy Season at Monte Verde Cloud Forest | Photo by: LiLing Pang

Costa Rica is located in Central America, just north of the equator. It doesn’t have the typical four seasons. Instead, it has a dry season that runs from mid-November to late-April. The wet season is typically May to early-November.

The dry season coincides with winter holidays and spring break for U.S. and Canadian families. This is the high tourism season for Costa Rica. Rates are higher and hotels fill up faster. Try to avoid visiting Costa Rica during Holy Week (the two-week window around Easter) as it’s the busiest time.

The wet season coincides conveniently with U.S. and Canada summer school vacation. Mornings are usually dry with rain falling in the afternoon or evenings. The roads in Costa Rica are generally paved, so getting around isn’t too difficult even during the rainy season. The “green season” offers lower rates, fewer crowds, and more comfortable temperatures.

Is Costa Rica Safe for a family vacation?

 
Things to Do in Costa Rica with Kids
Nicuesa Eco-lodge in Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula | Photo by: LiLing Pang

It’s totally normal for families to be concerned about safety when traveling with their kids. 

Although other Central American countries do have a major problem with gun violence and gangs, Costa Rica is the exception. Costa Rica is a country that abolished it’s miliary in 1949 and has invested heavily in education. While you might encounter petty crime in the capital of San Jose, it isn’t common for tourists to encounter problems.

Costa Rica also has clean drinking water and food. So go ahead and enjoy all that tropical fruit and salads. Health care services are available throughout the country.

The roads are mostly paved between tourist destinations, but they can be windy and narrow going up and down the mountain passes.  There is often heavy traffic in the capital of San Jose. Rent a car and drive if you are used to driving in foreign countries, otherwise, we recommend leaving the driving to the professionals.

What can a Family Do in Costa Rica?

Things to Do in Costa Rica - See Wildlife like the Agouti
Agouti in the Monte Verde Cloud Forest | Photo by: Brennan Pang

Costa Rica is the perfect destination for a family who is looking for soft adventure and enjoys the outdoors. This country is the closest thing our modern world has to the Garden of Eden. 

Love bird watching? Costa Rica has 850 species of birds. That’s 10% of the entire world’s avian population represented!

Want to have any of the 1,251 species of butterfly land on your finger? Visit a delightful butterfly garden.

Want to see monkeys and sloths in the wild? You’ll see them swinging all over the rainforest.

Things to do in Costa Rica: Butterfly at Selvatura Butterfly Garden
Selvatura Butterfly Garden | Photo by: Brennan Pang

If you love ocean animals, Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast is part of the second-largest coral reef system in the world. And on Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast you can ride the surf with dolphins and whales.

Want to see an active volcano? There are several you can visit including Arenal Volcano which is surrounded by lovely hot spring resorts, spas, waterfalls in a verdant rainforest. Want to see an active volcano? Drive to the rim of Poas Volcano and stare into her alien green crater which is still smoldering. 

Costa Rica is kid-friendly for all ages. Although how you experience it might be different depending on your child’s age, there is much to enjoy even from a stroller or a baby backpack carrier. Teens and tweens will love all the adventure activities like ziplines, whitewater rafting, surfing, and staying in an eco-lodge.

Tips for Planning the Best Costa Rica Family Vacation

Tips for Planning the Best Costa Rica Family Vacation
Hummingbird Garden at Selvatura Nature Reserve | Photo by: LiLing Pang

For families, this kid-friendly destination is nature’s classroom. Experiencing the country with an excellent naturalist guide is essential. We were very impressed with the passion and knowledge of the Costa Rican guides.

Trekaroo’s trusted Costa Rica Family Vacation experts specialize in engaging kids of all ages. They’ll are available to help you plan your trip from start to finish.

How many days is enough for Costa Rica?

Hot Springs in Costa Rica - Hacienda Guachepelin
Hot Springs at Hacienda Guachepelin | Photo by: Brennan Pang

Although Costa Rica is small, there so many things to do in Costa Rica. You’ll want to spend no less than a week to scratch the surface. And you can easily spend three weeks exploring this country. Once you read through this list of 20 Unforgettable Things to Do in Costa Rica, you’ll be very tempted to extend your stay.

20 Unforgettable Things to Do in Costa Rica for Families

1. Lay Eyes on the Elusive Resplendent Quetzal

Quetzal at Monte Verde Cloud Forest Reserve
Quetzal at Monte Verde Cloud Forest Reserve | Photo by: Brennan Pang

Birdwatcher or not, you will be impressed with the resplendent quetzal who’s feathers once adorned the headpieces of Mayan rulers. It is a rare treat to lay eyes on this beauty that does not survive in captivity. Although it is the national bird of Guatemala, you are more likely to see this magnificent bird in Costa Rica.

The Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, is abundant with the quetzal’s favorite food – wild avocado. It is one of the few places in the world you can easily catch a glimpse of this elusive bright green bird with its 5-foot long tail feathers. An experience birdwatching guide is invaluable. They are able to spot birds hidden in the trees and set up scopes so kids can get a close up look.

Looking for the best Costa Rica guides?
 

2. Zipline Through a Slot Canyon

Costa Rica Zipline - Hacienda Guachepelin
Zipline Hacienda at Guachepelin | Photo by: LiLing Pang

Ziplines and Costa Rica are synonymous. If you’re in the Guanacaste area, a zip line through a slot canyon at Hotel Hacienda Guachepelin is exhilarating.

You begin by zipping through the canopy of a dry tropical forest before you find yourself suspended 30 feet in the air face to face with a slot canyon. Flying through the narrow canyon walls hung with tropical ferns is the kind of experience that gets your adrenaline pumping and your heart singing.

At Guachepelin, there are many other outdoor adventures to be enjoyed. The property is still a fully-operational ranch, so you can play cowgirl or cowboy for the morning and help milk a cow and go horseback riding with a Guanacaste cowboy. Or if you’re up for more excitement, try canyoneering down a jungle waterfall or tubing down the Rio Negro on class two and three rapids. To wrap up the day, treat yourself to a mud bath and soak in the natural hot springs.

3. Search for Sloths in Costa Rica

Costa Rica Wildlife - Sloth at Manuel Antonio
Sloth at Manuel Antonio | Photo: Brennan Pang

Did you know a sloth can literally hang out in the same spot for a whole week? It moves so slowly that algae grows on its fur! This makes spotting this adorable creature remarkably difficult.Unlike monkeys who call out and swing from branch to branch, sloth spotting requires sharp eyes. Manuel Antonio National Park is the best place for some sloth spotting.

Besides being a sloth haven, Manuel Antonio is home to three types of monkeys – the noisy Mantled Howlers, the very intelligent White-faced Capuchin, and the adorable and the energetic Red Back Squirrel monkey. You could spend days searching for a wide variety of wildlife from red-eyed tree frogs to bright red jungle crabs, but it is Manuel Antonio’s pristine beaches lined with tall jungle foliage that will win any child’s heart. 

Trekaroo tip: Don’t leave any of your items unattended while swimming at Manuel Antonio’s beach. There are thieves everywhere, but they aren’t human. Raccoons and coatis run adorably mischievous gangs in these parts and they will absolutely steal your backpack, especially if there any traces of food in there!

4. Suspend Time and Space in the Canopy of the Monteverde Cloud Forest

Monte Verde Cloud Forest Hanging Bridges
Hanging Bridges at Selvatura Nature Reserve | Photo: Brennan Pang

At Selvatura Adventure Park a series of hanging bridges suspend you within the tree canopy of the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. We loved lingering on the bridges where time slows to a crawl as you admire pretty bromeliads, ferns of every shape and size, and butterflies fluttering in the filtered light. Stop and listen.

Enjoy the chorus of birds, crickets, rustling leaves, and the cheerful rumble of a bubbling brook. The scent of wet moss mingled with the earthy fragrance of ripe fruit and rotting leaves is like the breath of nature saturating your lungs with each inhale.

Our kids loved the hummingbird garden. What a thrill to have one of these brightly colored hyperactive beauties pause for a moment on your finger while it drinks some sugar water out of a feeder.

The Monte Verde Cloud Forest is also an epic place to zip line with older kids. It is home to one of the longest and highest zips in the world!

5. Get Face to Face with a 17-foot Crocodile

Crocodile at Tarcoles River Safari
Crocodile at Tarcoles River | Photo: Brennan Pang

“The biggest croc is called Osama Bin Laden,” we were told, as we boarded a small boat on the Tarcoles River. “He’s a 17-foot-long male and he’s elusive.” Luckily, it seems that all the river cruise guides seem to know exactly where to find this big guy at any time of the day.

We pulled up right next to Osama and the guide reached down to give him a pet. I’m not so sure that was such a wise thing to do, but it was definitely an unforgettable moment.

On the cruise, you’ll see lots of magnificent birds hanging out along the mangrove and muddy river banks, along with bright red river crabs and other small critters, and the fast walking “Jesus Lizard” who literally walks on water.

Be aware: Crocodiles like to hang out where rivers and streams meet the sea. Avoid swimming anywhere where you see signs warning you of potential croc activity.

6. “Play” With a Friendly Pod of Acrobatic Bottlenose Dolphins in a Tropical Fjord

Dolphins Breaching at Golfo Dulce
Dolphins at Golfo Dulce | Photo: Brennan Pang

Golfo Dulce is one of only three tropical fjords in the Pacific Ocean. It separates the Osa Peninsula from the mainland of Costa Rica, creating a very rare biome.

This marine ecosystem is teeming with life and the abundance of food welcomes marine mammals all year round. Depending on the season, you’ll encounter humpback whales, spotted dolphins, bottlenose dolphins, and orcas.

Several types of sea turtles and many species of shark and ray live in these waters as well. Invariably, if you kick up the speed on your boat, a pod of friendly dolphins will likely come swimming alongside your boat and put on a spectacular display of marine acrobatics. They are such friendly creatures even out in the wild and there is no better place to enjoy them than in Golfo Dulce.

7. Visit a Local School for a Meaningful Cultural Exchange

Costa Rica School Visit Kids Dancing
Kids dancing at school visit in Costa Rica | Photo: Brennan Pang

Stepping away from the touristy route to make connections with the people of Costa Rica is a deeply rewarding experience. The people of Costa Rica are delightful, warm, and friendly.

Our host and tour guide from Il Viaggio travel made a special arrangement for our family to visit a local school in a small village one morning. Since 1869, elementary school education has been compulsory and free in Costa Rica, resulting in an impressive 97.7% literacy rate.

The one-room school we visited in a small village only had about 15 students; our family got to share a little about ourselves and the students performed some traditional dances and sang for us. We ate a simple lunch with the students before a competitive game of “futbol” (soccer) with the children.

It was a wonderful experience for our kids to see what school is like in such a different context. We were able to connect with local kids despite our limited Spanish. It is a memory that will define our visit to Costa Rica.

8. Stay in an Eco-lodge Nestled in the Rainforest

Things to Do in Costa Rica: Stay at an Eco-lodge
Playa Nicuesa Rainforest Lodge | Photo: Brennan Pang

There are many family-friendly resorts in Costa Rica, but a stay at an eco-lodge is a very unique experience in and of itself.

The Osa Peninsula is Costa Rica’s off-the-beaten path treasure. It is carpeted in a primary rainforest with biological discoveries waiting to be uncovered. Nestled at the edges of this lush forest are small communities and a number of eco-lodges like Playa Nicuesa Rainforest Lodge. Here, the line between forest and civilization is barely perceptible.

The experience of being awoken at dawn by the glorious symphony of the rainforest brought me to tears. I didn’t think it was possible to live in such grace and simplicity within the rainforest literally at your doorstep.

9. Raft Down the Pacuare River

Costa Rica Pacuare River Rafting
Costa Rica Pacuare River Rafting | Photo: flickr/chadica

Explore Costa Rica’s most renowned rafting spot on the Pacuare River. Brave the III/IV rapids, stopping intermittently to take breaks to jump off boulders into the water and swim in pools formed by cascading waterfalls. Plan two days to see the country’s longest river.

The guides of Pacuare Lodge know every twist and turn of this river and its communities. It’s no wonder because most of them grew up in the area. Whether they are cooking traditional meals for you, or taking you on a hike, or inviting you into a remote indigenous village, they are the perfect hosts. This is where you’ll get away from the touristy crowds and find yourself immersed in the real Costa Rica.

10. Visit a Traditional “Mask” Maker and Enjoy Some Traditional Storytelling

Traditional Costa Rica Mascarada
Traditional Costa Rica Mascarada | Photo: Janel Murray

Upon the arrival of Christianity to Costa Rica, the tradition of using over-sized masks became a popular way for Bible stories to be brought to life. However, the tradition took on its own meaning for the people of Costa Rica who used these giant paper-mâché masks to pass down their own folktales or to create funny caricatures of celebrity figures. These masks are traditionally worn for different holidays and celebrations, most notably in street parades.

The town of Santa Barbara is famous for its traditional mask makers and a visit is like walking into a storybook world. It’s a wonderful way for kids to learn about the history of Costa Rica through storytelling and getting hands-on by creating their own masks.

Need help figuring out which activities are just right for your family? Talk to a Costa Rica Family Vacation Expert.

11. Drink Chocolate Milk Straight from a Cow

Costa Rica Farm Visit-Corsa Lecheria
Milking Cows at Corsa Lecheria | Photo: Janell Murray

Book-cased in between two active volcanoes, Corso Lecheria, a dairy 45 minutes outside of San Jose in Poasito, Alajuela, is the epitome of organic farming and sustainable living. Taste a strawberry so fresh that it is suggested you eat it stem-first to thoroughly enjoy the flavor. The cheese, made from the happiest cows I’ve encountered, is made on-site and is delicious.

While we had the chance to milk the dairy cows, our guide playfully added chocolate to our cups and for the first time, I drank chocolate milk straight from the cow. Be sure to sample local, authentic Costa Rican food at the onsite restaurant. The strawberry juice is perfectly sweet and the tortillas are handmade in front of you as you wait for a lunch that is unforgettable.

12. Kayak into the Night in a Bio-luminescent Bay

Bioluminescent Bay
Bioluminescent Bay | Photo: bigstock/travelancer

A night kayak or boat tour to Tambor Beach and the famous Tortuga Island is a surreal experience. As you lower yourself into the calm night waters of Golfo Nicoya, the moonless night is quiet and dark. However, as you begin to stir the waters with your hands, the magic begins. A million little neon lights burst into magnificent sparks of blue and green.

Here in the gulf, where fresh and seawater mixes and mingles, bio-luminescent algae flourishes. It is these algae that give off a momentary flicker of light as you stir the waters. Remember that scene in the movie, Life of Pi? This is the kind of surreal experience where the veil between physical and spiritual is threadbare.

13. Paint Your Own Traditional Oxcarts

Costa Rica Sarchi Oxcart Painting - LiLing Pang
Costa Rica Sarchi Oxcart Painting | Photo: LiLing Pang

Nestled in the hills between Monteverde Cloud Forest and Arenal Volcano, is the town of Sarchi. This is the heart of Costa Rica’s coffee plantations. As you wind through impossibly green mountain roads you feel like you’re being drawn back in time.

Here in the coffee country, you’ll see acres and acres of coffee trees as far as your eyes can see. Farm workers are busy handpicking coffee berries. In June, the coffee trees are carpeted in white blossoms like snow cascading down a mountainside.

The town of Sarchi is saturated with colorful, old-world charm. Local artisans invite you into their traditional way of life. Watch them craft wooden ox-carts using hand and water-powered tools. As they share stories of their way of life, you too can participate by painting your own miniature wooden oxcart.

14. Birdwatch in the Tropical Canals of Tortuguero National Park

Things to do in Costa Rica - Birdwatching in Toruguero National Park
Birdwatching in Toruguero National Park | Photo: bigstock/lesniewski

Tortuguero National Park is Costa Rica’s “Amazon”. Its remote location in the northern Caribbean coast of Costa Rica is accessible only by air or by boat. Most who visit book an all-inclusive stay at a place like Tortuga Lodge and Gardens. Because of the remote location of this national park, all meals and activities are arranged through the lodge you are staying at.

The park’s untouched rainforest is accessed via a series of river canals. There is no better place in Costa Rica for bird lovers to watch local and migrating birds. From rare green macaws to shorebirds like spoonbills, herons, tiger herons, egrets, and kingfishers to howlers monkeys and spider monkeys, this forest is teeming with wildlife.

15. Watch Sea Turtles Nest and Baby Turtles Hatch

Sea Turtles at Tortugeuro National Park
Sea Turtles at Tortugeuro National Park | Photo: Il Viaggio Travel

Costa Rica has five main sea turtle nesting spots (two on the Caribbean side and the other three on the Pacific side). But catching the right time of the year to see this impressive spectacle of nature is tricky. Tortuguero National Park is the favorite place to watch sea turtles nest and hatch because it has longest season.

From July to September, watch pregnant mothers coming ashore to find their nesting spots. As the mothers enter into their birthing trance, you can safely draw close enough to watch her deposit hundreds of golf ball-sized eggs in the sand dunes.

From September to November, baby sea turtles begin hatching by the hundreds in the early morning hours. Cheer the hundreds of baby turtles as they race precariously toward the surf. 

16. Soak in Natural Hot Spring Pools with Views of Arenal Volcano

Costa Rica Hotsprings Springs Resort Arenal
Costa Rica Hotsprings Springs Resort Arenal

The healing waters of Arenal Volcano are world-renowned. Its mineral-laden hot springs can be enjoyed in a natural hot spring river at Tabacón. Others who prefer more sculpted tropical gardens head to resorts like The Springs Resort and Spa to enjoy a day soaking in man-made pools designed with natural materials. The hot water slide is always a hit with kids.

Whatever your preference, people have come to these waters for centuries seeking physical and spiritual healing. While in the Arenal area, there are lots of beautiful hikes, including to the impressive La Fortuna waterfall. Private eco-tourism enterprises have also sprung up that will fill your visit with adventure after adventure, from hanging bridges to ATV rides, tubing, water rafting and one of Costa Rica’s most spectacular zip lines – the Sky Trek.

17. Surf on the Longest Wave in the World

Costa Rica Surfing
Costa Rica Surfing | Photo: bigstock/leniewski

From the Caribbean to the Pacific, Costa Rica is a surfer’s paradise! However, only one beach, Playa Pavones, can boast of having the longest wave in the world. The water in Costa Rica is warm and shark-free; no wetsuits are needed year-round.

Other favorite surfing beaches include Hermosa Beach, Avellanas Playa Negra, Playa Grande, and Playa Viejo. A favorite for families and beginner surfers is the beach in Tamarindo.

Our friends at Iguana Surf in Tamarindo offer surfboard rentals, lessons, and even a surf camp!

18. Kick Back at a Beautiful Tropical Beach

Manual Antonio Beach
Manual Antonio Beach | Photo: Brennan Pang

Costa Rica has some of the most idyllic beaches in the world. So a trip to Costa Rica for any family vacation must include at least one day spent hanging out at one of their sandy beaches. We got the scoop from some local guides to find out where the best beaches in Costa Rica are for families.

Playa Conchal is delightful, but if you’re looking to get away from the expensive resorts, Playa Punta Leona is it. The beach at Manuel Antonio is also idyllic and teaming with wildlife.

On the Caribbean coast, Playa Cocles and Playa Cahuita are incredible because the rainforest abuts the ocean shore. From August to November the waters are clear and calm. It is just wildlife, nature, sand, and ocean; no crowds.

19. “Moon Walk” at Irazu Volcano Crater

Irazu Volcano Costa Rica
Irazu Volcano Costa Rica | Photo: bigstock/photoblueice

In a country with over 200 volcanoes, there are just two volcanoes where you can drive right up to the rim. The tallest of them all is Irazu Volcano

As you wind up the side of the volcano, the landscape is dramatic. Local farmers are working the rich fertile earth along the mountainsides, growing all sorts of vegetables. But as you climb higher, the trees shrink and begin to look wind-swept and gnarly. You eventually emerge above the tree and frost line at 11,000 feet.

The air is crisp, and the wind can be fierce. It feels like you’ve driven into space and landed on the moon. Walk straight onto the rim and into Irazu’s sandy crater. There are several mini craters and magnificent emerald-colored pools fed by rainwater and tinted by the acidic minerals of the volcano.

20. Paint Your Own Pre-Columbian Style Pottery in the Town of Guaitil

Pottery at Guaitil Costa Rica
Pottery at Guaitil Costa Rica | Photo by jayscratch

The humble town of Guaitil in the Guanacaste region is home to the indigenous Chorotegas people. They are famous for producing beautiful pre-Columbian pottery using only nature’s raw materials and traditional methods. From generation to generation, the secret locations of these raw materials for glazing have been heavily guarded.

Visitors can watch these master potters skillfully throwing clay pots on foot-powered wheels. Then, they can then join n and attempt to create a masterpiece of their own. No worries if your bowl ends up looking more like a lump, you can paint a perfectly formed and fired piece with their unique earth glazes. If you’re looking to enjoy some traditional cuisine, Guaitil is also a great place to try some.

 

Many thanks to fellow Trekarooer, Janel Murray, and to Stephanie Sheehy, the amazing mom behind Il Viaggio Travel, who contributed their most unforgettable Costa Rica experiences to this collection.

Disclosure: During Janel’s recent trip to Costa Rica, she was hosted by Visit Costa Rica. I was provided some discounted rates at Nicuesa Lodge, Hacienda Guachepelin, and Pacuare Lodge. However, these opinions are entirely ours. Featured photo by: Shutterstock


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About the author

LiLing Pang is Co-founder and CEO of Trekaroo . She is a mom to two boys and a girl and recently traveled through Central America. Together with her husband, Brennan Pang, they hatched the idea of Trekaroo one summer day along the California coast while searching for the best kid-friendly tide pool near La Jolla with their curious 2 and a half year old.

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