Friendly and beautiful, Costa Rica is a fine destination to introduce children to the adventure of travel. Though still a developing country, it boasts some of the best tourism infrastructure in Latin America, with a range of family-friendly activities surrounded by some of the loveliest scenery in the world. Whether you are looking for a beach vacation, a wildlife hike, or extreme adventures including zip-line canopy tours, horseback rides and volcano climbs, you’ll find it all here.
Costa Rica is compact, about the size of West Virginia—you could wake up on the Caribbean, do a rainforest tour after lunch and watch the sun set into the Pacific ocean, all in one day. It’s just four hours on a direct flight from several US cities, including Atlanta and Houston, and jet lag is almost a non-issue if you’re arriving from Canada or the mainland United States.
Like all of Latin America, Costa Ricans love kids and revere the family; you may find it easier to travel here than in developed destinations like Europe and the United States. Children are welcomed everywhere with open arms, and you may find locals going out of their way to make sure your family has the vacation of a lifetime.
Of course, your trip is sure to go more smoothly if you plan ahead.
1) Stay Healthy
Travel websites recommend several vaccines and pills for Costa Rica; at the very least, make sure your family’s tetanus and hepatitis B shots are up-to-date. More importantly, take care that they pay extra attention to hygiene—you aren’t accustomed to Costa Rica’s microscopic wildlife.
Wash hands frequently with soap, before eating and throughout the day. Cheap eats from markets and food stalls aren’t necessarily dangerous, but use your best judgment; restaurants are usually safer. Tap water is generally safe in most major urban areas, especially inland, but it’s worth drinking bottled water at smaller beach towns and anywhere after an especially heavy rain. Clean and disinfect wounds, no matter how small, more carefully than you would at home. Excellent and inexpensive clinics can be found all over the country.
While most toiletries are available in Costa Rica, items like sunscreen, contact solution and DEET-based mosquito repellant are best purchased before you arrive. Even if you wouldn’t use DEET back home (it is strong and arguably toxic), the possibility of malaria and dengue makes it more worthwhile here in the tropics.
2) Eating Out
Costa Rican cuisine, unlike Mexican food, is generally quite mild and agreeable to the tender young palate. Many children will take to traditional dishes, such as gallo pinto (rice and beans), pasta salads, baked chicken, fried plantains and refrescos (fruit shakes), quite easily. If yours don’t, even the smallest eateries usually offer hamburgers, fries and other familiar dishes on the menu.
Restaurants geared to tourists usually have a children’s menu, but even small, local spots will serve smaller portions for young people.
3) Consider Renting a Car
Rental cars are relatively expensive in Costa Rica (note that the price quoted online probably omits taxes and mandatory insurance, which will roughly double the cost), but are often worth it. If you are using an older guidebook or website, note that roads have improved dramatically over the past few years and, with the notable exception of San José, the country is relatively easy to navigate.
Buses are, like everything else in Costa Rica, quite kid-friendly. They do not have restrooms, but stop every two or three hours for a quick break. Private shuttles, which connect many top tourist destinations, are another option. If you decide to use public transportation, note that taxis can be rented for day trips or long one-way distances; trips of up to 62 miles (100 km) are fairly easy to arrange. These are pricey, but make for a pleasant break from the buses if you aren’t going far.
4) Animals Up Close and Personal
Not all children (or adults) have the patience for a wildlife hike, particularly when the animals are so well camouflaged. Tourist destinations around Costa Rica, most notably Monteverde, are filled with zoos, refuges and small, private wildlife displays, which can be pricy but worth it.
Mariposarios (butterfly gardens), serpentarios (snake exhibitions) and ranarios (frog displays) are geared to children—some, like the World of Insects and Bat Cave, both in Monteverde, cater to kids who get bored with butterflies. Don’t miss Aviarios Sloth Sanctuary in Cahuita, Las Pumas rescue sanctuary for big cats in Canas, Guanacaste or Zoo Ave, in Alajuela.
5) Swim Carefully
While there are several wonderful beaches where water is usually calm and family friendly, Costa Rica does have serious riptides. These are usually signed in both English and Spanish, and often a red flag flies to warn bathers of danger. Still, it’s always best to ask about current conditions, particularly in rainy season.
Some of the most kid-friendly beaches can be found on the Caribbean Coast, close to Cahuita and Puerto Viejo; Manuel Antonio National Park; and in Guanacaste, the popular playas of Papagayo, Samara and Playas del Coco. Older kids eager to try surfing will be able to arrange lessons almost anywhere, though the waves around Jaco and Tamarindo get raves from beginners and experts alike.
6) Rafting for Everyone
You may think that Costa Rica’s renowned whitewater rafting adventures are off-limits for families traveling with young children. However, there are some spectacular Class II floats perfect for active kids over four years old. The Rio Corobici, near Canas (with easy access from Papagayo, Tamarindo, Liberia and La Fortuna/Arenal) is a gorgeous trip through the wildlife-packed tropical dry forest, while the Rio Sarapiqui (halfway between Arenal and the Caribbean Coast) offers a fantastic rainforest experience.
For something completely different, check out the Rio Tarcoles, close to Jaco and San Jose, featuring both beautiful scenery and lots of huge crocodiles. The Rio Pejibaye, with a put-in close to Turrialba, is a great family-friendly alternative to the famous whitewater of the Rio Pacuare. La Fortuna and the Nicoya Peninsula have several other splashy-but-easy floats.