When to go:
The best time to go to Costa Rica is from December to April. It is the dry season there, which means better weather to enjoy all the outdoor activities, beautiful sunsets, cooler temperatures and less mosquitoes.
What to bring:
Sun lotion, bug repellent, hats and sunglasses, hiking shoes or a good pair of comfortable sturdy sneakers, light clothes. If you will visit the mountains or volcanoes it can get pretty cold, bring a good coat – a light sweater might not be enough. If you will travel during the rainy season consider bringing everything waterproof/impermeable – rain boots, rain coat, waterproof jacket, umbrella, etc.
Planning your trip itinerary:
Costa Rica is a small country but there is definitely a lot to see. What are your priorities? Upscale beach/golf resorts? Undiscovered deserted beaches? Exploring mountains and volcanoes? Having a rain forest experience? Learning to surf? Discovering San José? Have a very intimate encounter with sea turtles? You can always try to do a little bit of everything, but if you are staying 15 days or less you will most probably have to give up on something from the list.
Our final itinerary included:
- 3 days in Conchal/Tamarindo;
- 4 days in San José and surrounding areas;
- 4 days in Puerto Viejo/Punta Uva;
- 2 days in Monteverde;
- 2 days in Arenal.
Unfortunately we had to leave Manuel Antonio National Park and Tortuguero National Park out, but we did the most out of our time and these were the highlights:
Places to go:
Tamarindo is a little town famous for its perfect surfing conditions. Super family friendly, there are tons of restaurants and breweries that offer relaxed settings and kids` menus. Accommodation ranges from gorgeous beach houses to simple airbnbs and from large resorts to cute boutique hotels. Most places will let you borrow surf boards at no extra charge.
The ideal way to explore the region is with a rental car. Playa Conchal and Playa Flamingo are better beaches than the one you will find at Tamarindo, so it is definitely worth the 20-30 minute drive for silky white sandy beaches. Remember to bring food/drinks for the day, return to Tamarindo in time to enjoy the best sunset in Costa Rica.
Where to stay: Exploring San José with a stroller can be a bit daring. Sidewalks and pedestrian crosses seem to be a strange concept in most Central America cities. If you are up to the challenge, try to stay somewhere near Barrio Escalante – a trendy neighborhood with good options of restaurants, near downtown but not too close, so you won’t be affected by city center problems.
City Center: A walking tour is an easy way to get to know the highlights of the city in half a day. If you prefer going at your own pace, reserve some time to explore the Jade Museum, Central Market, Pre-Columbian Gold Museum, National Theater.
Kid Friendly Tip: Museo de los niños is an old prison transformed into a nice children’s museum. The kids easily spent 3-5 hours there. The exhibitions are hands-on and fun for the kids, although they are not new and could use some upkeep. Despite being close to downtown I suggest driving or taking a taxi to get there, this neighborhood might be a little rough.
Where to eat: La Casona Tipica and La Criollita are great local cuisine restaurants downtown. Don’t miss!
Exploring the region: The best family oriented things to do in San José are actually outside of the city! Get a car and drive your way up to the Toucan Rescue Ranch (30 minutes away). This place is living proof that the human being can do great things to help animals and the environment we live in. Here you’ll have a close and intimate encounter with sloths, toucans, snakes and tons of other birds and small mammals rescued from poachers or accidents. If you only have time to do one thing in San Jose, make sure your kids meet these wonderful animals.
Where to eat: Have lunch at Restaurante El Paso for great local food in a very relaxed and family friendly setting.
Volcanoes: From San José you can visit two active volcanoes – Irazú and Poás. During our last trip Poás was closed because it was expelling some rocks and ashes. Visiting any of these places is something so unique and beautiful that it is worth driving up the mountains on some winding roads.
What to bring: Make sure to bring a warm set of clothes because it is always cold at a 10,000-ft. high altitude. Sun lotion is also essential.
When to go: Visibility conditions are usually better early in the morning. It can get pretty foggy in the afternoon, in which case you won’t be able to see the volcano itself or the beautiful landscape from up there.
For an authentic rain forest experience rent a car (make absolutely sure it is 4WD or AWD) and drive 3 hours to Monteverde. There you will find an infinity of ecotourism options like:
- wildlife watching tours (day and night)
- zip line and tree canopy
- sky walks and suspension bridges
- hikes and trails
We found companies to be extremely used to catering for families and young kids so that will definitely not be a problem and one of the many tourist info spots will gladly inform you about everything that can be done in Monteverde.
Culinary tip – Make sure to stop at Restaurante Monteverde for an authentic Costa Rican lunch.
How to get there: You can reach the Arenal volcano from San José or from Monteverde. Both routes will take 3 ½ hours of driving. If you are driving from Monteverde do your family a favor and and choose the bigger loop (Highways 1 and 142). Avoid shortcuts at all cost as alternative roads can be in pretty poor conditions, making it for a very dangerous drive.
Where to stay: Up to a few years ago this used to be the best view in the whole country, when the Volcano still had constant orange lava flowing down from the top. Albeit still being an incredible sight, the lack of lava is responsible for a significant drop on the amount of tourists. Nowadays it is incredibly easy to find a hotel here and way cheaper than it once was. We decided to stay at Arenal Bungalows to be able to enjoy the majestic views. Another option would be to stay at one of the many Thermal Water and Hot Spring Resorts.
What to do: Being from the Pacific North West we love hiking and it is easy to find all kinds of paths and trails in the region. Some even go up the volcano! A more relaxed way to spend your time is to enjoy the many thermal water amusement parks and swimming pools, perfect for kids of all ages. All resorts offer a daily package to enjoy their facilities even if you are staying someplace else.
Natural beauty tip – On your way back to San José, stop at La Fortuna Waterfall. A perfect place to have a picnic, swim or just take many pictures of the 200-ft drop.
Puerto Viejo/Punta Uva
The Atlantic coast of Costa Rica has a completely different feel from the Pacific. While in the west coast you can find nice resorts and well developed cities, the Atlantic boasts more of an unexplored vibe. Towns are very little, the food is different and culturally everything has a Caribbean kick to it.
Where to go: Puerto Viejo de Talamanca is what comes closer to resembling a city with diverse options of accommodation and restaurants. The best beaches are south of Puerto Viejo- Punta Uva, Playa Grande and Manzanillo range from 20-30 minutes away from Puerto Viejo by car.
Beaches are more “Caribbean like” than on the Pacific side, hence more kid friendly. On the other hand, due to its raw and unexplored aspect there are less options of entertainment for the young ones. These beautiful clear water white sand beaches are pretty much all there is to do, but if your kids are like mine, it will be more than enough!