Costa Rica offers an exciting yet safe entrée into exotic ecotourism and soft adventure vacations, from coast to coast.
Ticos, as Costa Ricans call themselves, love children. This created opportunities to meet locals that we wouldn’t have had otherwise when I traveled through Costa Rica with my wife and two kids a couple years ago. But more importantly, to me Costa Rica is what family travel is all about. The country is safe—Costa Rica is Central America’s first democratic nation—non-commercial and possesses incredible natural diversity.
We were drawn to Costa Rica because the variety of terrain and potential activities ensured there was something for everyone. In a country about the size of West Virginia, Costa Rica has the Pacific coast where sun, surf and sand are the primary attractions, and the Caribbean coast, which is home to Tortuguero, the “Amazon of Central America.” (Read our accompanying feature on Tortuguero.)
Between the two coasts is an impressive mountain range sporting no fewer than seven active volcanoes, one of which, Volcán Arenal, has been active almost daily since 1968, when it wiped out an entire village. (Read our article On the Volcano’s Edge for more active volcano destination sights.)
Most visitors to Costa Rica have to go through the country’s capital, San José, especially if you’re taking ground transportation to get around the country. They don’t necessarily spend a lot of time there, and for an understandable reason. They’d much rather be participating in all the outdoor, wildlife and/or ecotourism adventures that have made the country a popular destination in recent years as opposed to spending their vacation time in a crowded urban area. (Read more about viewing Costa Rica wildlife in our related Into the Wild article.)
If you do find yourself for any amount of time in San José though, there are a few worthwhile sights and activities. The Museum of Jade—once you find the correct office building in which it’s housed on the 11th floor—is worth the visit for those keen on history and culture lessons. Some pieces from the Jade Museum’s vast collection date back to 500 B.C. Jade played a key role in pre-Columbian cultures and was more important than gold.
Afterwards, the Central Market (Mercado Central) is a great place to shop and eat like a local, with small food counters serving up tasty comida tipica dishes: empanadas, rice and beans, and meat and fish. A lovely place to stay that also offers an excellent restaurant and killer desserts is the Hotel Grano de Oro, an old home that has been converted into a charming hotel.
If you have a free day, hire a driver or book a tour for a day trip to Volcán Poás National Park, north of San José. Leave early, as best viewing times of the large crater lake are in the morning, before the clouds and mist roll in. On your way back to San José, stop by the La Paz Waterfall Gardens for a hike through 70 acres of cloud and rainforest.
After San José we headed straight for Monteverde and the famed cloud forest, where you can see the equally famous blue morpho butterflies, sloths (if you’re lucky), monkeys, and a wide variety of birds and insects. We stayed at the Cabañas Los Pinos, a small family-run business consisting of 12 cabins; children 11 years and under sleep free. I highly recommend it. Standard cabins start at $65 per night; family cabins at $120.
The Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve is one of the best-known cloud forests in Central America. The proximity of the Pacific and Atlantic coasts on either side of a tall mountain range creates a veritable cloud factory. In the forest, clouds whiz by propelled by impressive wind velocity. I’ve watched some from a 747 that don’t go by nearly as fast. And the clouds are so low it seems that you can reach up and touch them, creating a kind of Timothy Leary effect. The persistent mists make the setting somewhat surreal, as sounds escape the mist, yet their creator remains shrouded.
The most popular attraction in the reserve a tour of the tree top canopy. Using walkways suspended 100 feet and more in the air, we waded through the mist listening for and catching glimpses of monkeys, toucans, quetzals and other wildlife. Another option is zip lining, which you can read more about below.
Monteverde offers more than its famous cloud forest. You’ll also find mountain biking, a working coffee farm and horseback riding. (Read more about ecotourism options in the area in our related Monteverde article.)
Costa Rica put zip lining on the map, and there are more than 65 places in the country where you can experience this suspended flight through the jungle. Our adrenaline-junkie family had to try it. It looks scary from the ground, but we found that the staff from the tour operator we used in Monteverde was safety conscious, helpful and professional in every way possible.
We certainly did zip through the rainforest canopy. However, the experience is one of an adrenaline rush set in the rainforest, and little more. If you want to see wildlife in a serene setting, choose a suspended walkway. The noise generated by the trolleys and those dangling underneath them are your guarantee that any wildlife is hiding away from the noise.
Wildlife viewing is best in the early hours of the morning and comes to those with patience. But after your morning nature encounter, find yourself a reputable zip line operator and spend the afternoon engaging in pure, screaming, high-altitude fun.
Children will present special concerns, the most obvious being that they may not be up for the rush of a zip line. That wasn’t a problem for us, as our kids shame the adults when it comes to seeking out bigger and bigger thrills. We faced a different issue that we weren’t prepared for—whining.
To our surprise we found that children are not typically allowed to go alone on a zip line and can’t be paired with a parent, so they’re strapped in with a guide. If the passenger doesn’t weigh enough, the trolley might not gain enough speed to reach the end of the line and the trolley slows to a stop before it reaches the next platform, leaving little Timmy dangling 100 feet in the air between two platforms. Our kids simply hated being strapped in with a guide—they had anticipated freedom and adventure and instead found themselves encircled in the arms of a total stranger.
Not far from the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve is the equally famous Volcán Arenal, near the town of La Fortuna. Although La Fortuna and Monteverde are a mere 16 miles apart, the continental divide and 85 very bumpy miles of road separate the two towns. Of the three ways to reach La Fortuna from Monteverde, the combination horse/boat/4x4 trek is the most memorable.
We settled into one of La Fortuna’s many hostels and quickly found that one of the area’s big pastimes after a day’s hiking is to sit in the nearby natural hot springs, swim up to the bar and order margaritas in the shadow of an active volcano spewing red lava. Using the logic that everyone else was doing it, so it must be OK, we went to the hot springs and let our two kids order non-alcoholic margaritas.
My 10-year-old son, Jordan, sat at the swim-up bar and wore a huge grin. He kept talking to himself, but the only thing he was saying was, “I really like this place. I really like this place. I really like this place …”
Suddenly, he was spewing volcano facts that I never knew were inside him.
“Oh really?” I said. “And how is it you know so much about volcanoes?”
“We studied them in first grade.”
Come to think of it, all my volcano knowledge probably went back to the first grade, too.
(Read Katrina Higham’s account of hiking Arenal.)
Located on the Pacific coast at the bottom of the Nicoya Peninsula, Montezuma will satisfy any sun worshiper with crystal clear days essentially from December through May. However you don’t just “pass though” Montezuma—it takes a little bit of dedication.
After a two-hour ferry crossing from Puntarenas, then a couple more hours to the end of a long and bumpy dirt road, Montezuma has that magical quality that makes you forget that there was ever life at the beginning of the road. It also inspires a population that comes and forgets to leave. If you’ve ever wondered where the Deadheads went after Jerry Garcia died, wonder no more.
If you visit during the December and New Year’s holidays, book well in advance as rooms tend to sell out quickly. Otherwise, you shouldn’t have any problem finding lodging. Several hotels and guesthouses line the main roads through town with prices ranging from $15 per night for a rustic backpacker experience to more than $150 per night for luxurious comfort.
An excellent place located slightly outside of town is the Hotel Horizontes de Montezuma, with tasty meals and super clean, spacious rooms with balconies that overlook the rainforest, making it easy for early-morning bird watching. Rates start at $45 per night for standard doubles during the low season.
There also are plenty of excellent restaurants in Montezuma, not least because of all the ex-patriot Italians living in the town.
Tour operators can set you up with everything from surfing lessons to guided hikes through the surrounding parks, as well as your ground transportation back to San José. Costa Rica is a magnet for virtually any kind of adrenaline junkie, except perhaps downhill skiers. This has not only set up an industry catering to the adventurer, but also an industry to put the adventurer back together when the pursuit of adrenaline doesn’t go so well. In Montezuma, after a wave demonstrated the perfect pile driver maneuver on my brother, we found firsthand that Costa Rica’s medical system is excellent. But even though our Montezuma experience came to an unexpected halt, don’t let that stop you from tackling the world-class waves.
Editor's note: While many of the hotels, restaurants and shops take credit cards, make sure you have back-up cash on you. The nearest bank is in Cobano, 7 kilometers away, open only Mon.-Fri., 8:45 a.m. to 3:45 p.m., so be sure to catch the morning bus to make it in time. Bring your passport. While there is an ATM in Montezuma, it sometimes runs out of money, as it did during my stay there.
Costa Rica offers so many destination and activity options, that it’s difficult to cover them all in one article, or in one trip for that matter. Additional places in the country worth visiting are Manuel Antonio National Park on the Pacific coast with its beautiful stretches of white sandy beaches and jungle trails, the remote Osa Peninsula, Peninsula Papagayo in northern Nicoya for five-star luxury resorts, and more.
There’s something different to do every day and never a boring moment. Use this to your advantage. Let the kids help you shape the itinerary. This will give them some ownership and add to the excitement when they see the red lava spewing out of a volcano, or see the outline of a camouflaged alligator. Just don’t be surprised when some of your best memories are when the friendly Ticos let you pose with their pet toucan or pick fresh bananas from their tree.
Most visitors from North America stay in Costa Rica for less than 10 days, while many Europeans have the good sense to enjoy the country at a more leisurely pace. If you have only a short time to enjoy Costa Rica’s wonders, make sure that you give the following five destinations a place in your itinerary:
Additional information provided by Donna M. Airoldi for the San Jose and Montezuma sections.
Hypno-Toad little sister This Tree Frog is indeed funky and quite disturbing to me. It makes me feel it is trying to hypnotize me. Stop starring!!
Ok, Fiona You can take the zip lines and I'll do the night hikes to see all the frogs. Deal.
Adrenaline rush in the rainforest Sounds like my kind of place! I'd love a go on those zip lines. Also love the tree frog photo, although not sure I'd want to come face to face with this little guy!