7 Things to consider when booking a family vacation to Costa Rica
The phrase “good things come in small packages” could very well refer to Costa Rica. Consider this, the country only accounts for .03% of the earth’s surface, but it possesses 6% of the world’s biodiversity. Costa Rica boasts seven volcanos, 12 different life zones, and 27 national parks in addition to numerous other protected areas. In addition to its natural beauty, it’s a stable country politically with a high literacy rate (98%) and no need for a military; it was disbanded in 1948. The national slogan is “¡Pura Vida!” - which translates to simple or pure life. It’s a way of life that Ticos embrace.
So it’s no wonder that Costa Rica hosts well over two million visitors a year, the majority of whom come from Canada and the USA. But if you think planning a trip here is easy, you’d be wrong. Sure, if you want a beach vacation on either of the country’s coasts, that’s simple. But if you truly want to experience Costa Rica and all its diversity, that’s going to take a little more work.
Here are 7 things to consider when planning your next Costa Rican adventure.
1/Where to go?
While Costa Rica is smaller than the state of West Virginia, it’s incredibly diverse. The country is broken up into six tourist regions: Central Valley, Central Pacific, Guanacaste, Northern Plains, Limon, and South Pacific.
The Central Valley is home to the country’s capital of San José and the major international airport. It’s likely where you’ll begin your Costa Rican vacation. Central Pacific is the closest beach area to the capital. It’s also home to three national parks, including the popular Manuel Antonio National Park. Guanacaste is to the north with more beaches, volcanoes, and plenty of spas. Vacation rentals are particularly popular in this area. The North Plains is widely visited by international tourists. Here you’ll find Sarapiquí and one of the last habitats for the endangered Great Green macaw. You can visit the much-photographed Arenal Volcano, the Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges, and popular town of La Fortuna. And you won’t want to miss the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Preserve and the colorfully-plumed, hard-to-find quetzals. The Limón region has two draws: the laidback Caribbean coast and the jungle village of Tortuguero. The lodges here are only reachable by boat. But plenty of people do make the trip, because Tortuguero is where you can watch the nesting and hatching of Green sea turtles, one of nature’s greatest spectacles. Finally, the South Pacific region should be reserved for the most intrepid families, as it takes quite a bit of effort to get here, but you are rewarded with incredible biodiversity.
Here’s my point: you need to be ruthlessly deliberate about what you want to do in Costa Rica and where you want to it. Ideally, you’d plan a trip where you could visit at least two or three regions.
KidTripster Tip: Sound a bit overwhelming? It can be. That’s why I suggest working with an in-country tour company to arrange a private tour for your family. I recommend family-run Costa Rica Family Holidays. Owners Emilio Zúñiga and Stephanie Sheehy are not only husband and wife, they are parents. I’ve experienced their tour firsthand and can’t say enough about their expertise and attention to detail.
2/When to go?
High season in Costa Rica runs late November through late April; this time period also coincides with the dry season. Prices will be higher, and the crowds will be thicker. You’ll especially want to avoid holidays times - Christmas, New Year’s and Easter.
The rainy season, or what’s termed the “green season,” runs May through mid-November. On the Caribbean coast, especially south of Limón, you can count on rain year-round; however the area gets less rain in September and October, making those months particularly good times to visit.
In general though, Costa Rica’s location in the tropics means the weather is pretty good with temperatures averaging about 80°F. Of course, temperatures will be cooler in the mountains, and the rainforest will be wetter and more humid.
You may want to plan your trip - not based on the weather - but instead based on what you want to do. For example, if it’s your family’s dream to see Green sea turtles, know that mother turtles lay their eggs from August through November. The baby turtles hatch and then make their perilous journey from nest to ocean starting in November. So there can be a sweet spot in November where you could potentially see both. But remember, nature is not bound to a schedule; it’s just an educated guess.
Also, if you’d like to see Costa Rica’s most photographed volcano, Arenal Volcano near La Fortuna, don’t visit in October. It’s rarely visible through the clouds.
3/What kind of animal experiences are you looking for?
Costa Rica is one of the best countries in the world for your family to view wildlife. The country boasts 500,000 difference species, which is roughly 6% of all the species worldwide. So you need to think about your priorities.
If you want to see the rare and spectacularly-colored quetzal, you’ll want to head to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Preserve or perhaps Los Quetzales National Park. The best time to spot them is during breeding season, which runs mid-February into June or July. What about Costa Rica’s famous and colorful poison dart frogs? To find them, you need to schedule a night tour at a place like La Selva Biological Station or Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park. Sloths? They can be found throughout Costa Rica’s rainforest but are sometimes tricky to spot in the trees. Turtles? As I mentioned earlier, the Green sea turtles of Tortuguero start hatching in November.
KidTripster Tip: It’s also possible to see Olive Ridley, Leatherback, and Hawksbill sea turtles at different locations at different times of the year. Again, I suggest relying on the expertise of Emilio and Stephanie of Costa Rica Family Holidays.
But before you and your family head off into the wild searching for wildlife, I strongly suggest a visit to Rescate Animal Zooave near San José. Zooave is not a zoo but instead a reputable rescue and rehabilitation center. Each year, the center takes in 2000 animals that have been injured, orphaned or illegally trafficked. While the goal is to eventually release these animals back into the wild, about 800 animals can’t be reintroduced and are full-time residents. You’ll see a variety of macaws, green iguanas, tamirs, caimans, and my personal favorite - a two-toed sloth. The center also runs a breeding program to help save the Scarlet macaw, Great Green macaw, Great curassow, Spider monkey, Squirrel monkey, and Great tinamou species.
KidTripster Tip: Each of the animals at this sanctuary has its own story. If you’re not touring with your own private guide, ask at the ticket counter about the possibility of getting a tour when you arrive.
KidTripster Tip: Not all animal reserves or rescues in Costa Rica are on the up and up. In fact, some kill mothers in the wild and then steal the babies for display at their facilities. It’s critically important not to frequent these illegitimate businesses. One tip-off? If the business advertises that you can touch or hold an animal, stay clear!
Want to see a sloth at Rescate Animal Zooave in action? Click here.
4/What’s your family’s adventure level?
In addition to flora and fauna, Costa Rica has a thriving adventure industry. From ziplines and whitewater rafting to snorkeling, scuba diving, and surfing, Costa Rica has something for the adrenaline junkie in your family.
A word about ziplining: I’ve been ziplining all around the world from Hawaii to Thailand to India. And honestly, I’m not really a fan. It can be terribly repetitive. You’re normally forced to zip in a large group of 12 people, where you need to wait at each station for each person to take his or her turn. Plus, it seems like every destination has its own nondescript zipline these days. However, I think Costa Rica is an exception. Ziplining through an actual rainforest canopy here makes sense. I was very impressed with the operation at Ecoglide Arenal Park near La Fortuna. The staff was friendly and professional, and because they send out six guides with every group, you can zip through three lines at a time without having to wait. Take a look.
KidTripster Tip: Opt for the photo and video package at Ecoglide. The photographers actually do a good job of capturing quality photos and videos of everyone in your party. Your kids will want to post them on Instagram, for sure.
If you have more adventurous teens, I’d suggest upping the game and ziplining at Monteverde Extremo Park in Monteverde. In addition, it has a two Superman lines, a giant Tarzan swing, and a bungee jump.
5/Are you a family of foodies?
My family and I love to eat our way through a country. But I have to be honest, Costa Rica is not exactly a culinary destination in the same way that Italy, Thailand or Japan is. The day-to-day food here is pretty standard with a helping of rice and beans at every meal. And the dishes aren’t spicy like you find in some other Latin cuisines. If you have picky eaters in your family, the blandness of the food may actually be a selling point for you.
However, there are still exceptional meals to be had. If you happen to visit La Fortuna, I highly recommend the nuevo cuisine at Don Rufino Restaurante. The plates here are like works of art - almost too pretty to eat. But do eat! Hands down, it was the best meal that I had in Costa Rica.
KidTripster Tip: Avoid buffets, especially at hotels. They’re just not that good.
To get the kids engaged, I’d suggest taking a Costa Rican cooking class. Our group took one at Arenal Vida Campesina, a family-owned organic farm with on-site restaurants. It’s one thing to eat tortillas, but it’s another to actually make them fresh on a wood-burning stove.
KidTripster Tip: If you book a tour with Costa Rica Family Holidays, the staff can help find cooking classes in whatever area of the country that you choose to visit.
6/Does your family like to learn how things are made?
There are plenty of opportunities for what I like to term “process” tours in Costa Rica, especially on a day trip from San José
Coffee is king in Costa Rica. Much of the country’s history and wealth revolves around coffee. Espíritu Santo Coffee near Sarchí offers a coffee tour. The guide engages kids by having them plant a coffee bush, harvest coffee beans, and then help brew coffee, Costa Rican-style. Hint: There’s no Keurig involved! Your kids favorite part will likely be the race to pick the coffee cherries, that is until they realize how much work it really is! In fact, it takes 70 cherries just to produce one cup of coffee! I love coffee, so I found the tour really interesting; however, kids may be less-willing participants.
KidTripster Tip: Did you know that you should warm up your cup with hot water before you pour your brewed coffee? A cold cup apparently affects the taste.
Kids may enjoy a tour of Corso Lecheríe (which is located one hour north of San José) more for no other reason than they get to milk a cow. For real! The guide on this dairy tour will split your family up into teams to see who can extract the most milk from their selected cows. It really is fun. Watch here. This farm also grows strawberries and produces cheese. Don’t forget to grab an ice cream cone after the tour. I highly recommend the fresh strawberry flavor. So creamy!
KidTripster Tip: What don’t you see on this list? Museums. With so much nature to explore, I’d skip the museums when you’re in Costa Rica.
7/How long should you plan?
As you can see, there’s a lot of ground to cover in Costa Rica. I would plan for a minimum of one week. That being said, if you had 10 days or even two weeks, you’d be assured of hitting all the highlights in addition to a few days of relaxation on the beach.
Need more help planning? Read the 10 ways Costa Rica Family Holidays can help.
Editor Shellie Bailey-Shah admits to sampling not one or two but four flavors of ice cream at Corso Lecheríe. No regrets.
This writer received a complimentary tour for the purposes of this review. However, all opinions expressed are solely her own.