I know what you are thinking... how can this 20-something really know the best place for me to take my kids in Costa Rica. Well, what I can tell you is where I have seen families thriving and where I have seen college students planning their next Spring Break and I promise you, there is a clear (and easy) way to spot the difference.
In general, Costa Rica is the Mecca of family travel destinations in Central America. This is true for many reasons, but the most important are: safety, ease, and adventure. Costa Rica is one of the safest destinations you can take your family. Because the economy depends on tourism, from the local to national level, everyone is on board with protecting and treating tourists right. Costa Rica allows you to travel with ease. While many other locations in Central and South America are still riding the learning curve, Costa Rica has ‘been there, done that” in terms of planning and executing enjoyable family vacations and travel. And to top it off, Costa Rica allows for adventure to become a lifestyle while you are here. Zip-lining, whitewater rafting, horseback riding, and surfing are just a few of the adrenaline pumping activities that await you, but it doesn’t stop there. From fun modes of transportation to specialized accommodations your time in Costa Rica can truly be one big adventure.
Where it’s at!
If you are traveling with kids get out of San Jose ASAP. If you need to stay a night at the beginning or end of your time in Costa Rica, stay in Alajuela. There are many big hotel chains nearby, but if you would like to stay locally and get to know the city a bit more I would recommend Hotel Pacande. From there you can either head to the mountains or the beach!
La Fortuna (home to Arenal Volcano) is a great place to begin your adventure. La Fortuna is a walkable small town. There are options for many day tours from here to surrounding areas. Of these I would recommend hiking Arenal volcano, visiting both the free local hot springs and one of the nicer resorts (Baldi is my favorite), and hiking to the La Fortuna Waterfall. You will not need much time here, but it is a great place to set the stage for the rest of your travels!
Monteverde is not far from La Fortuna and is also a great place for families. Here you have access to the Cloud Forest, hanging bridges, night hikes, and a fun, cute mountain town to explore! There are some great typical restaurants called “sodas” here as well!
Playa Tamarindo is an expat family favorite! I have found myself vacating here many times and I am never disappointed. Full disclaimer, this is the most developed beach town in Costa Rica. There are many restaurants, shops, activities, and tourists. After exploring other parts of Costa Rica, Tamarindo will feel like a westernized paradise! With that said it is a great place for families because it is safe and convenient. You will have access to everything you could possibly need and more often than not people will be able to help you in English. I would recommend spending some time in Playa Langosta (for a more local scene) and taking a day trip to Playa Conchal which has strong rip tides but the clearest water I have encountered on the Pacific Ocean.
Nosara is another expat paradise. A little farther off the beaten track, Nosara is a dirt road town with just a tiny little main street. This is a true beach town. The cool thing about Nosara is that you will find many other families here, so kids will have the time to interact with other kids. The beach is vast and sandy with lots of room to run around. This area is away from the tourist track, so you will feel like a member of the community, not just another visitor while here.
Manuel Antonio is the last on the list! Manuel Antonio is the most visited National Park in Costa Rica. It is known for its incredibly diverse plant and animal life (a true jungle). This is a great park if you have children in tow, because the wildlife is extremely accessible. In the park most guests can see 3 different types of monkeys, sloths, butterflies, and many birds and insects! The walking trails are fairly short, so little legs will be able to enjoy the park without tiring out too much! In addition to the park there is a beautiful white sand beach that is directly adjacent to the National Park making monkey sightings while sun bathing a daily occurrence!
Are we there yet?
Traveling with a crew, especially with kids can be a challenge. Most places in Costa Rica are 2-5 hours driving apart. Here are your options for traveling around Costa Rica:
Rental car: By far the easiest way to see the most and get around in the least amount of time. You will want to get the bells and whistles (full protection plan) and 4 wheel drive to make it around on the crazy roads!
Shuttle Services: I have had great luck with Caribe Shuttle and Interbus. They have daily shared shuttles as well as options for private transportation.
Local Buses: If you are feeling adventurous you can try your hand at taking a local bus. The best way to learn about the local buses is by asking at the hotel or from the person you are renting from!
I personally believe the best places to stay with kids are Airbnbs! (Airbnb allows you to rent a full home or a few rooms from a local who lives in the area you are traveling to!) Staying in a home or even with a local really allows for you and your family to feel comfortable! Locals can offer the best advice and Costa Ricans are known for being extremely hospitable! In addition, most Airbnbs are equipped with a kitchen and outdoor space, which would allow families to eat in and have a safe place to blow off steam after those long car rides!
Other options include tree houses and camping, cabinas and family owned hotels, and fancy hotels and all-inclusive resorts! With a huge range of accommodations, a family can have a truly unique and fun experience with lodging alone!
Que Mas? (What more?)
That pretty much does it for the basics. As a mentioned above, Costa Rica is a place full of adventure. The key to best utilizing your time here is to let the Pura Vida lifestyle guide your family to simplicity, rest, and enjoyment.
Okay, one last tip! Always schedule in time to watch the sunset. It's a powerful beast here, and will not disappoint!
Please comment below if you have any questions that I can answer about Costa Rica family travel!