Costa Rica is the perfect mix of exotic and accessible. A biodiverse country where families can enjoy an exciting holiday, without getting too far out of their comfort zones. Costa Ricans are friendly and their not-too-spicy food is picky palate proof. It’s the perfect destination for families new to international travel, but looking to give Latin America a try. And, to make it even easier, in-country tour operators can help plan every detail of your vacation. Our contributor Heidi Gollub recently spent a week in Costa Rica as the guest of Costa Rica Institute of Tourism and Family Holidays by Il Viaggio Travel Costa Rica on a customized family adventure. For six days she experienced the breathtaking beauty of Costa Rican rainforests, wildlife, hot springs, and national parks. Here are her recommendations for delighting every member of your family with an action-packed trip to Costa Rica.
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How to Plan a Trip to Costa Rica for Families
It is possible to visit both coasts of Costa Rica—the Caribbean and the Pacific—in one day. But, you’ll miss out on an awful lot of magic in the middle if you do. Costa Rica is an ecological paradise with a rich variety of flora and fauna. It is worth spending several days exploring. Kids and adults alike will love trekking through cloud forests, crossing hanging bridges, and spotting sloths, monkeys, and toucans in the wild.
For a week in early December, when the weather was warm and dry but it was still the country’s low season, I had my first taste of Costa Rica. Picked up from the San José airport by Diego, an exceptional tour guide with with Il Viaggio Travel, I embarked on the trip of a lifetime. Diego entertained, educated, and showed our group his native Costa Rica with pride. Shuttled around in a comfortable, air-conditioned van, I got to relax like a kid on vacation, with Diego taking care of all the logistics. I’ve never had more fun. From cow-milking to tortilla-making, we had a truly hands-on experience, getting up close and personal with the wonders of Costa Rica.
Head to a Costa Rica animal sanctuary – Zoo Ave
Our first stop in San José was Zoo Ave, home to 125 species of rescued animals. We had a lovely morning strolling through the lush botanical gardens and learning about the rescued inhabitants of this animal sanctuary. Zoo Ave rescues 2,000 animals a year, rehabilitates all but 2%, and releases the rest to the wild. Those that are unable to survive in wild are provided with lifelong sanctuary in 84 acres of forest. Visitors can enjoy trails through 13 acres of Zoo Ave, and know their admission fee is going to a good cause. Ninety percent of the sanctuary’s income comes from visitors.
*Pro tip: Ask for a guided tour in advance of your visit, so you can learn about the animals being rescued and treated at the facility. If you’d like to spend more time at Zoo Ave, volunteer opportunities are available for families.
Visit a working dairy farm – Corso Lechería
After visiting the rescue animals, we headed up into the mountains of Poas Volcano for an interactive tour on a dairy farm and strawberry plantation. Corso Lechería offers guided tours that are fun for the whole family. Bring binoculars for sloth spotting and prepare to explore 220 acres of the dairy farm. Your guide will take you on a hayride and teach you to milk cows (pitting parents and kids against each other in a hilarious race to fill buckets). You’ll then walk one of two easy trails through a verdant cloud forest, get to taste strawberries right off the vine, and try fresh cheese and ice cream that were made on the farm. It’s a beautiful slice of Costa Rica and your visit ends with fresh, homemade snacks – what could be better?
*Pro tip: The small shop near the restrooms has inexpensive candy and colorful marshmallows that make great gifts for friends back home. You’ll also find free WiFi—a rare treat in the mountains!
Learn about Costa Rican traditions – Sarchí Artisan Village
Another place to stock up on snacks and souvenirs is the charming artisan town of Sarchí. We enjoyed visitng Sarchí’s famous Joaquín Chaverri Oxcart Factory, built in 1902. After a 12-minute guided tour to learn about the traditional oxcarts that are elegantly handcrafted and painted onsite, we supported the local artisans by shopping in town. Then, we stopped to see La Carreta, the world’s largest painted oxcart. In the same square, we marveled at the gorgeous lime green Iglesia de Sarchí and—most importantly—indulged in an assortment of delicious goods from the local bakery.
*Pro tip: For an extra fun interactive experience, Il Viaggio Tours can arrange for the whole family to take a painting workshop. There’s no better way to learn about the amazing artisan tradition of oxcart design than by giving it a try yourself.
Tour a Costa Rica coffee plantation – Espiritu Santo Coffee
There are 42,000 coffee plantations in Costa Rica. They are beautiful to drive by, but even more fun to visit and get your hands dirty! At Espiritu Santo Coffee, tour groups can plant coffee, use coffee grounds as an exfoliating hand scrub, and have a cherry-picking race. Tours are much more entertaining—for both kids and adults—when they involve a contest. As part of our interactive tour, we strapped on baskets and raced to see who could pick the most cherries from coffee plants. I picked and picked as fast as I could, but only managed to contribute a few inches of cherries. This made me all the more appreciative of my morning coffee.
On our tour, there were seven stations of experiences that showed how coffee, the country’s “grain of gold,” is produced, and plenty of wide open space for kids to roam. This is a great way to learn something new, while enjoying the fresh mountain air.
Search for wildlife – La Selva Biological Station
Heading away from San José toward the Caribbean side, we stopped at La Selva Biological Station for a guided walk through the Universal Trail in the middle of the rainforest. This is the oldest biological station still doing research on the rainforest; they have been collecting data since the 1950s. You’ll need to sign a waiver to visit, but this is an adventure not to be missed. Our guide at La Selva took us on a tour along 16 kilometers of cement trails in search of wildlife. And the walk did not disappoint. We saw a blue jeans dart frog, a beautiful butterfly, a crested guan bird, iguanas, a wild boar, and three wild monkeys eating fruit.
*Pro tip: There are on-site accommodations for families and the station offers a free nocturnal tour, early morning birding, a floating tour down the river, rafting, a pineapple tour, and even a chocolate tour. If you spend the night, you get delicious meals and you can walk through the forest (guide-free) whenever you want. You might even see an ocelot—they have been known to come visit at night!
Try Costa Rica’s hanging bridges – Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park
In the foothills of the Arenal Volcano, Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges offered all of the Costa Rican experiences I was most hoping for in one place: tree canopies, waterfalls, sweeping views, wildlife, and of course, hanging bridges. This place is amazing. If you close your eyes and picture Costa Rica, it will probably look something like Mistico. For about two hours, we hiked at our own pace along an easy two-mile concrete trail, making frequent stops to admire the biologically diverse ecosystem that surrounded us. I saw coati guarding a waterfall, an incredible variety of plants and trees, and a few interesting birds. Plus, walking across high altitude hanging bridges is just plain fun.
*Pro tips: There is a shorter loop, if you don’t think your children will last the full two miles. Make sure everyone uses the restroom before the hike, as there are none along the trails.
Take a rainforest hike – Arenal Volcano National Park
The Arenal Volcano National Park is another interesting place for a hike, and the Peninsula Sector offers extensive trails. Our Family Holidays tour guide, Diego, took us on an easy stroll through this protected area of the rainforest, pointing out various plants, birds, and insects. We were all fascinated by the huge leafcutter ants, who were hard at work that day, and by a Giant Spiny Walking Stick who was guarding the bathroom.
*Pro tip: The National Park is a great place to get away from the crowds and enjoy some quiet time in nature. When we visited the Peninsula Sector, on a misty morning, we never saw another visitor.
Zip line through the treetops – Ecoglide Park
If calm is not what you are looking for, I highly recommend the thrilling zip line tour at Ecoglide Park. Flying through the treetops of the rainforest is an unparalleled experience. At Ecoglide Park, the canopy tour consists of 13 cables and 15 platforms, located high in the trees. Groups are taken up to the top of a mountain with several guides, so you don’t have to wait in between rides. It’s an exhilarating experience, from start to finish. And, it’s one that even small children can enjoy! I loved this chance to see the beauty of Costa Rica from above.
*Pro tip: The Tarzan Swing near the end of the canopy tour costs extra, but you should do it. I didn’t want to at first, but I’m so glad I took the leap (literally). It’s scary, the idea of swinging on a rope through the trees, but it is as safe as the zip line and it is so much fun.
Video: Ecoglide Park
Have a warm soak – Baldi Hot Springs
After a day of hiking (and screaming while swinging like Tarzan), there is nothing more rewarding than a hot soak in thermal water. We concluded one action-packed day at Baldi Hot Springs Resort. Once I sat in the first of many pools, I did not want to leave. It was incredible. A family-friendly resort full of natural springs concealed by lush, tropical gardens, Baldi is divine. Adults will love the luxurious natural thermal water pools, hydro massage, and swim-up bars. And younger guests will have a blast at the water park. You can even dine onsite, allowing you to stay longer—there are a lot of pools at different temperatures to try out!
*Pro tip: If you have a kid-free moment, sneak up to the “secret” adult pool near the spa. It has multiple tiers and is amazing. This pool was so nice, it made us late for dinner.
Take a cooking class in Costa Rica – Arenal Vida Campesina
One of the best ways to experience Costa Rican cuisine is to cook it yourself! We had a blast taking a rural adventure on an organic coffee farm near La Fortuna. Our guide took us on a taste tour of the farm’s herbs, peppers, pineapple, and sugar cane. Then, with a little help, we made our own (oddly shaped) tortillas and chopped fresh vegetables for dinner. The rest of dinner was prepared for us, so we didn’t really have to work very hard. But a meal has never tasted so good!
*Pro tip: The farm also offers a 5 p.m. tour to see the resident tree frogs. Make tortillas, then take hike to see the farm’s frogs before dinner.
Give back – Plant a tree
For one final adventure, we planted a tree at Arenal Paraíso Resort, to offset the carbon footprint of our trip. Il Viaggio Travel Costa Rica arranges this activity for all its guests, and I found it quite special. There is now a tree in La Fortuna, Costa Rica, gazing up Volcán Arenal, that I planted. My tour guide, Diego, has promised to send me a picture of it as it grows.
About Family Holidays by Il Viaggio Travel Costa Rica
My entire experience with Family Holidays was wonderful. I have never had such a relaxing vacation. Stephanie Sheehy, the owner of Il Viaggio Travel Costa Rica, planned every detail of our itinerary. Our driver, Victor, navigated Costa Rica’s tricky roads and guarded the van while we were out exploring. And Diego, who has been a tour guide for 30 years, kept us entertained the entire trip. I’m pretty sure Diego knows the name of every single plant and animal in Costa Rica. And, he is on a mission to make sure guests falls in love with his country.
Accessible Travel for Families with Special Needs
Something extra special about Il Viaggio Travel is that they are dedicated to making Costa Rica accessible for all visitors. If you have a family member with physical challenges or mobility issues, they can help. With a focus on accessible tourism, they can plan around any issue that might make it difficult to travel. In a wheelchair but want to try zip lining, assisted snorkeling, and scuba diving? No problem! Il Viaggio can arrange it for you.
Plan Your Family Trip to Costa Rica
Trips with Family Holidays by Il Viaggio Travel are customized to fit your family’s specific needs and wants. You will never be paired with strangers. Your tour guide will be flexible with the schedule, because they understand the challenges of traveling with children. And, with Family Holidays, you have access to your guide 24/7, even for babysitting.