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Looking for nature and wildlife in Central America with your kids? Want to hike the Arenal Volcano, visit the elusive quetzal bird in the Monte Verde cloud forest, or spot sloths at the beach? Costa Rica vacations offer these family-friendly activities and more. Here are 20 of our top family travel experiences in Costa Rica.
While some countries might boast of having wildlife reserves and others of stunning landscapes, Costa Rica IS the world’s nature sanctuary. This country is the closest thing our modern world has to the Garden of Eden. Preserved within its borders, the size of the state of West Virginia, is 5% of the world’s biodiversity. That’s more than double the biodiversity of the entire United States of America. If your family loves nature, a Costa Rica family vacation must absolutely be on your bucket list. And if our experience was anything to go by, I can assure you, you’ll be back for more.
Costa Rica has set the bar for eco-tourism by creating a slew of rich and delightful experiences that allow families to be immersed into it’s beautiful and diverse ecosystems. Our experience was particularly enriched by the passionate and knowledgeable naturalist guides who truly deepened our appreciation of what we encountered. Private eco-tourism businesses are also crafting truly unforgettable ways for people to experience the beauty of the country’s forests, volcanoes, rivers, lakes, and coastline. Costa Rica is the inquisitive traveler’s dream.
Drumroll! Here are 20 unforgettable experiences that every Costa Rica family vacation must include.
1. Lay eyes on the elusive resplendent quetzal
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, verdant with the quetzal’s favorite food, wild avocado, is just about the best place to catch a glimpse of this elusive bright green bird with its 5-foot long tail feathers. Our guide from Three Brothers Tours was awesome in helping set up scopes so our kids could get a nice close up look at the mommy and daddy pair caring for their new baby. Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve itself contains 2.5% of the world’s biodiversity. A walk through this private reserve is a treat for all of your senses.
2. Zipline through a slot canyon
Ziplines and Costa Rica might almost be synonymous. So, it’s not surprising that this small country might have some of the most remarkable ones. 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 a morning and help milk a cow and horseback 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 2 and 3 rapids. Need even more excitement? A single track mountain bike ride through the rugged terrain of an active volcano just might be the prescription. To wrap up the day, a mud bath and soak in the natural hot springs couldn’t be more soothing.
3. Search for sloths in Costa Rica
Did you know a sloth can literally hang out in the same spot for a whole week and 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. If you’re a sloth loving family like us, 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. You can’t argue that it’s pretty awesome to share a beach day with sloths and naughty monkeys.
4. Suspend time and space in the canopy of the Monteverde Cloud Forest
At Selvatura Adventure Park a series of hanging bridges suspend you within the tree canopy of the Monteverde Cloud Forest. 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.
5. Get face to face with a 17-foot crocodile
“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.” But it seems all the river cruise guides seem to know exactly where to find this big guy at any time of the day. We pull up right next to Osama and the guide reaches 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.
6. “Play” with a friendly pod of acrobatic Bottlenose Dolphins in a tropical fjord
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 teaming 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. It makes you wonder, why do we need to put dolphins in captivity to enjoy them? 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
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. Wake up to the rainforest symphony
The Osa Peninsula is Costa Rica’s off-the-beaten path treasure. It is carpeted in primary rainforest with biological discoveries waiting to be uncovered. Nestled at the edges of this lush forest are small communities and a slew of eco-lodges like Playa Nicuesa Rainforest Lodge. Here, the line between forest and civilization is barely perceptible. For some, the idea of staying overnight in a rainforest is rather intimidating. It was for me. If not for a place like Nicuesa, it would be hard to persuade me to remain in a rainforest beyond dusk. However, 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
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
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.
Learn more about Trekaroo’s Costa Rica Family Vacation trips.
11. Drink chocolate milk straight from a cow
Book-cased in between two active volcanos, 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
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 with fins, mask, and snorkel, 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
Nestled in the hills between Monteverde cloud forest and Arenal Volcano is the town of Sachi, 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, and farm workers sprinkled in the fields, handpicking coffee berries. In June, the coffee trees are carpeted in white blossoms like snow cascading down a mountainside.
The town of Sachi 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. Bird watch in the tropical canals of Tortuguero National Park
Tortuguero National Park, has been dubbed Costa Rica’s “Amazon”. Its remote location in the northern Caribbean coast of Costa Rica is accessible only by air or by boat. The park’s pure untouched rainforests are 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 teaming with wildlife.
15. Watch sea turtles nest and baby turtles hatch
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. That’s why Tortuguero National Park is the favorite place to watch sea turtles nest and hatch because the season is long in comparison.
From July-September watch pregnant mothers coming on shore 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. The beach of onlookers find themselves cheering the hundreds of baby turtles as they race precariously toward the surf. Meanwhile scolding the flocks of seagulls, vultures, and hawks swooping down for a feast.
16. Soak in natural hot spring pools with views of Arenal Volcano
The healing waters of Arenal Volcano are 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 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
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. And only a few surfers can say they have surfed 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.
18. Kick back at a beautiful tropical beach
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. 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.
Try to avoid the beaches on the weekends when locals flood from the cities to the beaches to enjoy some R&R. 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. Here, you will experience nothing but wildlife, nature, sand, and ocean and it’s never crowded as there are no big hotels nearby. Here’s a list of Costa Rica’s Cleanest Beaches.
19. “Moon walk” at Irazu Volcano Crater
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, Irazu Volcano is one of them. As you wind up the side of the volcano, the landscape is dramatic. Local farmers are working the rich fertile earth along the mountain sides, 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 above 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 off the rim on to Irazu’s sandy crater and free the kids to run through this moonscape. There are several mini craters and magnificent emerald-colored pools fed by rainwater and tinted by the acidic minerals of the volcano. On your way down, don’t miss the old, historic capital of Costa Rica, Cartago.
20. Paint your own pre-Columbian style pottery in the town of Guaitil
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; visitors can then join in as well. 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