What you need to know:
- Costa Rica is an amazing place to have a family adventure and is best suited for kids age 5 and up.
- If you do it right (i.e. use this itinerary!) you’re going to see a bunch of wildlife and a great beach.
- Costa Rica is a relatively safe destination for your family.
- The dangerous animals tend to steer clear of people.
- Ticos (what Costa Ricans call themselves) are really friendly.
- Ticos in the travel industry speak at least a little English.
- Don’t be afraid to go to Costa Rica during the wet season.
- It’s greener, cheaper, and less crowded. The “rain” is often just a misting similar to what you would see in the produce section of the grocery store. It likely won’t keep you from doing activities.
- The beaches on the Pacific side are generally better.
- You probably don’t want to spend a bunch of time in San Jose.
- There’s plenty of places to rent cars but the GPS that is provided was not good for us in 2016. Download the Waze app on your phone and use that. It was a lifesaver.
- Most of the main roads are paved “two-laners” with one lane going each way and a 45 mph speed limit. There’s not many speed traps though. Road conditions vary based on the area of the country you are in.
- Credit cards are widely accepted but get comfortable with the idea of using Costa Rica’s local currency, the Colone. Some ATMs will issue Dollars as well as Colones, but not all of them.
- If you want to have a laugh, try looking up the weather forecast for various cities in Costa Rica. The climate is diverse and the weather is ever changing. You have desert like conditions in the Northwest part of the country, tropical rainforest in other parts and chilly temperatures at the highest peaks. All in a country that takes up less area than Lake Michigan.
- When travelling abroad. It’s always a good idea to get a pre-emptive prescription filled before the trip just in case you happen to get “La Turista.” It’s also wise to find out if any shots are recommended for travel to your chosen country.
Two week itinerary for a party of 5 (1 senior citizen, 2 adults, 2 kids, ages 9 and 5)
Thought Process: Open up a map of Costa Rica. The most popular part of Costa Rica resort-wise is the northwest province called Guanacaste. It’s warm, arid, and has some beautiful beaches. If your goal is to hang out at the resort for most of your trip and do resort-like activities, this is probably the area for you. But if that’s your goal, you’re on the wrong website! On the flip side, based on our research, the northeast and southwest coastal regions probably aren’t going to have the plethora of modern amenities that you would like either. If you want a great mix of adventure and relaxation for your family that you don’t have to work overly hard for, follow the itinerary below.
Cities you’ll stay in:
Note #1: We thoroughly enjoyed our stays at all of the places listed above. We really did our homework and were quite pleased with the results. However, you should focus on the areas we stayed in rather than the exact properties as other properties may be better suited for you. You can find a plethora of positive reviews about the properties we stayed in as well as other properties in the area online at sites like www.vrbo.com, www.airbnb.com, and www.tripadvisor.com . Some of our specific observations are below.
Note #2: If I had it to do this trip all over again, I would have added 2 nights in Monteverde. More on that later.
Note #3: We were right by two national parks, but never visited either one. My rationale was that since I had scheduled so many personal wildlife experiences and excursions in the jungle, I wasn’t likely to see anything new in the national parks. This may have been a mistake. Numerous folks have raved about both Manuel Antonio National Park and Cahuita National Park in regards to how nice they are and all of the wildlife they had seen.
How you’ll get there:
We flew Spirit Airlines which was nice because we got into San Jose midday as opposed to other airlines which arrived in the evening. This allowed us to jump into our pre-arranged rental car (www.Travelocity.com , get all wheel drive if you plan on going to Monteverde or the northeast or southwest parts of the country) and hightail it towards Nuevo Arenal and arrive by nightfall. If you don’t have that luxury, you may have to stay a night in San Jose. Make sure to put in some time looking at Google Maps and getting directions from place to place so you are familiar with the drive times. Frankly, you can probably do all three cities in any order you want since San Jose is centrally located. For that matter, you can probably fly into Liberia (LIB) first and pull off a similar itinerary. Just make sure you allow plenty of time to get to your first destination by nightfall and plenty of time to get back to the airport in time for your departing flight.
Day by Day:
Day 1: Arrive in San Jose, drive to Nuevo Arenal. If you’ve never seen a volcano before, you’ll experience another first when you spot Arenal Volcano. We opted not to explore any of the volcanos near us on the trip though because my understanding is that they are more visually appealing from afar and fairly anti-climactic at the rim. However, Costa Rica has numerous volcanos for you to check out if you prefer.
Day 2: La Fortuna Waterfall and Baldi Hot Springs. If you love waterfalls, you’re going to love Costa Rica. They have a plethora of great waterfalls for you to choose from. The best part is that you can swim in most of them. This is the case with La Fortuna Waterfall which was easy to get too and two areas for picturesque swimming. The top area is the actual waterfall which you can swim by and is magnificent. The lower area is a “kiddie pool” of sorts where the kids can swim and chase fish. A tip about the lower area, if you enter in and start trekking to the right, you’ll get an arguably better view of the waterfall than when you are right up next to it. We took some great pictures from this vantage point.
I had been reading about the natural hot springs which occurred in Costa Rica and was intrigued because we had never experienced this phenomenon. I was especially interested in the “free hot springs” which were frequented by the locals and sounded like it had more of the jungle ambiance I was looking for. Patrick, our outstanding host at the villa we were renting, had advised us that this was simply runoff from the hot spring resorts though and not that great. He recommended we visit Baldi. Well, we did find the free hot springs and Patrick appeared to be right. There is flora by them, but you are also staring at the main road heading into town and being that the locals use it a lot, there was a little bit of rubbish. We opted to go to Baldi instead and had a good time. Baldi offers many services but we were there for the hot springs. The best way to explain the layout is to think of a bunch of pools all over the place that all happen to be hot tubs, surrounded by lush rainforest vegetation. Many of the pools have water slides connected to them (my favorite was the one that flushes you out of the bottom) and many others have swim up bars with tasty drinks. If your kids can entertain themselves on water slides for a decent period of time while you enjoy lounging with a drink in your hand, then Baldi will be wonderful for you.
Day 3: Pure Trek Waterfall Rappelling. This wasn’t originally on our itinerary but after Patrick told us about it, I decided we needed to include it. This was definitely a great recommendation. For my wife and son, it was their favorite adventure of the entire trip. Each member of my family (including my 5 year old) rappelled down a series of waterfalls in the rainforest; the tallest being 200 feet! This was an experience that none of us will ever forget. It’s worth noting here that my son is very risk adverse. He hates trying new things (often cries and panics) but usually loves them after he does. When you begin this trek, there is no going back so you and your kids can’t chicken out. That’s fine with me because I’m not a soft parent who lets his kids be held back by self-doubt. My daughter is fearless but my son is very risk adverse and flips out easily due to his anxiety. He was worried and crying like I knew he would be, but I told him I loved him and pushed him off the edge and he … absolutely loved it and wants to go again! He actually thanked me and said it was his favorite part of the entire trip. It was a big boost of self-confidence for him.
Day 4: So another recommendation that Patrick provided was that we take a guided canoe trip down a river to see wild life and follow it up with a visit to a nearby jungle cat rescue. The canoe trip was definitely interesting and we did see a lot of wildlife including crocodiles, monkeys, iguanas, and surprisingly (literally) bats. But it wasn’t anything that special considering we were in Costa Rica. The jungle cat rescue really did look like more of a zoo and we have been to plenty of those before. I’m not including the names of these places because I think you should do something else.
If I had this day to do over again, I would probably do a combination of visiting the Llanos De Cortez Waterfall, go tubing down the Rio Celeste, or go zip lining with Sky Adventures – Arenal Park. We probably wouldn’t have been able to get all three in, but could have done two easily. Llanos was originally on our itinerary to be a pit-stop to our next destination but since it added an hour to our drive time, we opted not to do it. Rio Celeste was originally on our itinerary as well mainly because I was intrigued by the crazy blue water but then Patrick pointed out that during the rainy season, the riverbed is turned up so the water doesn’t look very blue. At the time, this turned me off to doing the trip but in hindsight, we should have done it. A tubing trip down the river in the rainforest is still pretty cool even if the river isn’t crazy blue. It’s also worth noting that there are plenty of white water rafting opportunities in Costa Rica, including some in the Nuevo Arenal area.
SPECIAL NOTE: My initial itinerary included a trip to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve to go zip-lining and cross rope bridges among other things at Selvatura Park, hence the reason I didn’t think we needed to zip line with Sky Adventures, noted above. On Google Maps. It only showed the drive being two hours one way from where we were staying. I had read that the road conditions into Monteverde could be rough though and Patrick called ahead for us and learned that the actual drive time would be more like four hours one way because so much of the road had washed out during the rainy season. Now as background, you need to understand that Patrick’s house is incredible but his driveway is horrible based on U.S. standards. You vibrate so much that you’re worried your teeth may fall out. He described his driveway as a super highway compared to the road to Monteverde. This, combined with the possibility of damaging the rental car, or worse yet, leaving my family stranded, made me grudgingly cross this highly anticipated adventure off my list. Since then, I have done some research though and learned that there likely wouldn’t have been much of a chance of breaking down. Instead, the ride would have probably been four hours of slow driving with really heavy vibration. Skipping it was still a wise decision though because 8 or more hours in the car roundtrip in those types of conditions wouldn’t have been any fun. The next time we go to Costa Rica, I’m booking at least two nights in Monteverde.
Day 5: Drive to Quepos/Manuel Antonio. This drive is pretty straightforward but there is something that you have to see. We happened to get lucky and spot it when my wife noticed a bunch of people on the overpass looking down towards the Rio Tarcoles. There are spots to park right after the overpass and you are going to want to stop and take a look at the dozens of huge crocodiles that congregate at the widely known Crocodile Bridge (it comes up when you type it into Google Maps and may on your GPS too). These things are the massive saltwater crocodiles that you read about. They dwarf any alligator I have ever seen. In case the bridge over Rio Tarcoles isn’t specific enough for you, the Natura Salvatica reptile house (don’t bother) and Restaurante Nambi are right before it.
Afterwards, as you near Manuel Antonio, I want you to keep a look out for small billboards that say “Monkey Mangrove Tour.” Once you see one of the signs, drive to where they tell you to go and get the information on the tour.
Day 6: Enjoy Manuel Antonio Beach. As someone who lives near the eastern shore of Lake Michigan and has been lucky enough to spend a lot of time by the ocean in Florida and the Caribbean, I’ve seen some great beaches in my day. However, the beaches near the Manuel Antonio area are near the top of my list and universally recognized as the best in Costa Rica. We were lucky enough to stay right on the beach, but if you are looking for a great access point, there is a path down to the beach right next to the Espadilla Ocean Club. This beach is wide, warm, and soft. It has great waves for bodysurfing and crabs that run all over the place.
Day 7: Mangrove Monkey Tour. This tour is awesome. Wild monkeys climb all over you and you see a bunch of other wildlife in the mangroves. The one with the billboards on the road is who we used and it was a little confusing to set up (since I opted to find a phone number on the web versus just driving up) but I found out there are multiple operators. Here are some websites that may be helpful in setting up this extraordinary experience. Whomever you book with, make sure to ask if the monkeys will sit on your shoulder just to make sure you are booking the correct tour.
Day 8: Enjoy Manuel Antonio Beach again. Because one day wasn’t enough for us. If you want to try another beach, consider Playa Biesanz (I’m told there is decent snorkeling) or one of the other numerous beaches. If you’re not as beachy as we are, this would be a good day to visit Manuel Antonio National Park.
Day 9: Nauyaca Waterfalls. One great thing about this trip is that while there were only five of us, each of the four places we stayed got a vote from somebody as their favorite. The same can be said for our excursions. Nauyaca was my favorite adventure. These waterfalls will remind you of Giligan’s Island and Fantasy Island. To me, they were the epitome of rainforest bliss. The falls are owned by a family and as you can see from the website, the primary ways to get there is either by horseback tour or hiking. Just to be clear, the hike is serious. It’s not a leisurely walk. It’s long and hilly in hot, humid weather. I don’t recommend it for kids, senior citizens, or anyone not accustomed to long hikes or runs. The horseback option would be okay except that I can horseback at home anytime I want and the ride was long. Luckily, when we called, a third option was available. For $20 a person, we jumped into the back of a pick-up truck and were driven straight to the falls. The drive was long (20 minutes) and over bumpy terrain, but it was very scenic. We were dropped off and told that our driver would be back for us in two hours. In hindsight, I should have asked him if he could come back in three hours instead of two.
Like the La Fortuna waterfalls, Nauyaca has two large areas that you can swim in. There are actually two layers of waterfalls and they are each gorgeous. There are plenty of spots for pictures and if you are like me, you’ll probably spend a lot of time just staring. NOTE: Parque Reptilandia is next to the entrance of Nauyaca. The reviews seem to be pretty good, but we did not check it out ourselves.
Day 10: El Santuario Canopy Tour. As mentioned, the best zip lines seem to be in Monteverde or Nuevo Arenal and I was bummed that we hadn’t been able to experience them. However, the kids had never experienced longer zip lines before so we opted to give El Santuario a try. They did a very nice job and it was fun zipping through the rain forest. If you’re not able to zip line in the other areas of Costa Rica I mentioned, I would give this outfit a try.
Day 11: Drive to Cahuita (pronounced “Wa-he-ta”). The cool thing about this is that we started our day staring at the Pacific Ocean and then drove to the Atlantic. There’s not many places where you can do that without a plane. That said, the drive to Cahuita was probably the most stressful part of our trip. The roads were fine, but “logistics” got in our way. You see, most of the freight that is shipped in or out of Costa Rica comes from the Caribbean coast. As you may recall from above, the majority of Costa Rica’s major roads are two lanes with only one lane going in each direction with a 45 mile hour speed limit. This becomes problematic when you consider all the semi-trucks that are needed to move products to and from the Caribbean coast. For the latter half of the trek, your pace is slow and your view is usually the back of a semi. Our situation was made worse by an accident that put traffic at a standstill. Google maps had the drive lasting 6.5 hours. Due to the accident and our decision to stop and have dinner, our journey lasted 10 hours.
Day 12: Visit Cahuita National Park. Cahuita was definitely the most rural area we stayed in. Not surprisingly, it also had the most wildlife. We caught poison-dart frogs with our bare hands. I “rescued” a basilisk from the bottom of our swimming pool (he was actually there intentionally, escaping from a cat). We were within 10 yards of wild howler monkeys and saw numerous sloths. You’ll likely be within walking distance of various restaurants and a great beach. While the beach at Cahuita is pretty, it may not be swimmable during your visit due to dangerous currents. We got in once and locals promptly told us to get out. I’m told there are times when it is okay to swim though, most notably when the sea is calm.
We were lucky enough to stay in Topo’s Treehouse, a truly magical place that surrounded us in nature. As a result, we spent a lot of time exploring the grounds and enjoying the wildlife. As it happens, Topo’s former career was as an expert author and researcher on poison-dart frogs (pinch me!). He knew where to find all the critters. My father stayed next door at Cabinas Nirvana, which has a very nice pool that we would use to cool off. Had we not had the luxury of staying at these two places, we would certainly have spent some time at Cahuita National Park. Our understanding from online reviews and firsthand accounts is that there is a bunch of wildlife there and you are likely to see monkeys and sloths up close as well as host of other animals. If you are visiting during the February-April time frame, the snorkeling off shore is thought to be worthwhile with safe currents for swimming. The entry fee is a voluntary donation. Hawksbill Sea Turtles also nest on the park’s shores from April through October .
Day 13: Jaguar Rescue Center Tour and Night Tour of La Ceiba. You organize both of these tours through the same organization. First off, there are no jaguars at the Jaguar Rescue Center (JRC). But, as the name also suggests, the JRC does focus on rescuing and rehabilitating injured wildlife. It also puts a priority on research and education. To that end, the JRC offers tours of the facility, both public and private, during which you will see a lot of animals. The surprisingly energetic baby sloths were my favorite. The public tours happen twice a day and were $20 a person. The private tours happen once a day and were $60 a person. Kids under 10 are free in both instances. The main difference in the tours is pretty self-explanatory. With the latter, you have a tour guide all to yourself who takes you where you want to go and answers all of your questions. In both instances, the tour guides are volunteers who, I was told, work for tips. We opted for the private tour as I was hoping we would get some special behind the scenes access or hands-on experience. That wasn’t the case. However, the tour was still very enjoyable and my wife and children really enjoyed the private attention. If I had it to do over again though, I would try my luck with the public tour. If you want to do the private tour, there is a $10 pp discount to package it with the La Ceiba night tour (Sloth Package). If you really love wildlife rescue centers, there are others in Cahuita that you may want to visit in addition to the JRC.
After your tour of the JRC, you are going to want to get back and rest up for your night tour of the La Ceiba Release Station. At the time, the tour cost $60 pp and kids under 10 were $10. This tour begins with a wonderful homemade dinner at their facility in the rainforest. From there, you will receive flashlights and boots and then begin your guided trek. We saw a bunch of critters, most notably frogs, snakes, and tarantulas. For me, this was one of those moments where I had to pause and think to myself “I’m walking through the Costa Rican rainforest at night with my family in search of the types of animals I had previously only seen in zoos and books.” Pretty cool.
Day 14: Explore Cahuita. You probably got an eye-full of Cahuita and the surrounding areas during your previous days’ adventures but you may not have had the time or energy to walk around and feel the laid back hippie/reggae vibe. This is a great day to do that. Once you’ve explored Cahuita, start heading south to Puerto Viejo de Talmanaca and Playa Chiquita. While all of the areas around the coast cater to tourists, these areas have a laid back local feel to them that we found quite charming. While my kids were too young for us to do it at the time, I would have loved to carve out some time for some surfing lessons.
Day 15: Drive to the airport. We left bright and early and as a result, had nowhere near the traffic problems. Smooth sailing. Traffic did become much heavier and jammed up once we hit San Jose though so I would still give yourself plenty of extra time to get to the airport and turn your car in.