When it comes to planning the perfect family vacation in Costa Rica, the only problem is never having enough time to experience everything this Central American paradise has to offer. Fortunately, the best family-friendly resorts offer tours and packages that deliver the best of Costa Rica in a way that fits your schedule and budget. Most will even design a custom package that caters to everyone in your family, so adults and children will be pleased.
From beautiful beaches to the lush forests of Costa Rica’s many national parks, there are myriad places to visit, each offering a variety of activities and adventures for people of all ages. The biggest challenge in getting the most out of your Costa Rica family vacation? Knowing where to begin.
Here are our picks for the best things to do on a family vacation in Costa Rica, as well as the best places to do them.
Make a Beach Checklist
The question isn’t “Which beach should we visit?” It’s “How many beaches can we visit before our vacation is over?” Costa Rica has beaches on both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts that are perfect for everything from rest and relaxation to catching waves or watching professional surfers.
One of the most popular beaches is Tamarindo in Guanacaste on the Pacific side, where visitors can enjoy local cuisine or schedule a beginner surf lesson from one of the many local shops, like Iguana Surf. Not far from Tamarindo is Playa Grande, which is well-known for its great surfing, as well as nesting leatherback turtles. Jaco Beach, Flamingo Beach and Conchal are also great options in the Guanacaste region.
Located in the Limón province on the Caribbean coast, Playa Bonita is the region’s most popular beach for travelers looking to drop their towels and get some sun. Further south, Playa Blanca is tucked away in Cahuita National Park, where guided tours take guests up close to the coral reef. Underwater enthusiasts can also swim out to the reef located near Punta Uva, but if you’re heading that far south it’s worth it stop at Playas Cocles and Cahuita along the way.
Visit the Islands
Costa Rica, as we learned in world geography, is not an island. However, the country is home to a number of uninhabited or scarcely inhabited islands that make for great day trips. Isla Tortuga is a perfect place to begin any family vacation, as companies like Zuma Tours offer boat trips from various locations, like Mal Pais and Tambor, that take guests down the coast to spot dolphins and whales, before arriving on the island for a day of snorkeling and exploring. The waters surrounding Tortuga are home to angelfish, morays, needlefish and more.
In addition to everything Tamarindo’s beaches offer, visitors can hire a guide for a kayak trip to and around Isla Capitán, which is also a popular spot for snorkeling. Divers can book day tours of Isla del Caño’s coral reefs and marine life.
Tours and adventures are also waiting to be experienced on Isla del Coco, Damas Island, Chira Island and more.
Snorkeling and Scuba Diving
Costa Rica has no shortage of great snorkeling, and the aforementioned beaches and islands are just the beginning, with spots like Manzanillo Beach and Playa Chiquita also offering unique underwater views.
Head to Ballena Island Marine Park on the Pacific coast for the ultimate combo trip that starts with whale-watching and a visit to the caverns of Ventanas Beach, and ends with snorkeling and observing the park’s vast array of marine life.
Or, more experienced divers can experience the thrill of getting up close and personal with bull sharks by heading to the Bat Islands, where Rocket Frog Divers will take them into the “Big Scare,” where Pacific giant mantas also await them.
Costa Rica has become one of the best destinations for surfers in the world because of the beaches and perfect waves, but it also helped that certain spots were featured in the 1994 film The Endless Summer II. Ollie’s Point and Tamarindo are iconic locations worthy of a Facebook check-in just for their cinematic legacy, and visitors should check out Witch Rock Surf Camp, which offers instructional packages for all levels and occasionally welcomes Endless Summer star Robert August as a guest. The camp even has a hotel for the most dedicated students.
On Playa Grande, head to Frijoles Locos Surf Shop for surf lessons and board rentals. Another popular location is Playa Hermosa, located just south of Jaco, and companies like Hermosa Surf Vacations offer not only surf lessons and rentals, but also kayaks, paddle boards and a variety of other activities.
Playa Avellana in Guanacaste is also a good alternative beach for beginner and intermediate surfers.
Visit a National Park
With 28 national parks, Costa Rica is way more than a destination for beach bums and surfer dudes. There’s no better way to work off a few trips to the breakfast buffet than by hiking the trails of the country’s lush forests, and there are so many tours ready to deliver the best of these parks, their wildlife, waterfalls and more.
Manuel Antonio National Park features two beaches–Manuel Antonio and Espadilla Sur Beaches–that require shoes to reach. Start with a guided hiking tour or take to horseback and visit the park’s waterfalls. The Titi Canopy Tour invites families with children ages four and older to experience Manuel Antonio from above, with a new double cable zip line that is good for racing to the bottom.
On the Osa peninsula, Corcovado National Park is the home to a vast array of wildlife, including scarlet macaws, squirrel monkeys and jaguars. The aptly named Jaguar Corcovado Tours offers families a “Lioness” day tour that keeps things simple yet rewarding, as the journey ends with a dip in a creek known as La Hedionda.
A trip to the Monteverde Cloud Forest begins with a guided sky walk over suspension bridges as long as 984 feet. From there, the adventures are plentiful, with guided canopy tours, visits to coffee and chocolate farms and even a snake tour for people who aren’t scared of the reptiles and amphibians that call Cloud Forest home.
Head to the beach in Tortuguero National Park to view the green sea turtles, leatherbacks and hawksbill turtles that nest here. Night guides are even available to watch the turtles crawl across the sand and dig their nests.
The Ultimate Water Slide
For fearless thrill seekers, the Buena Vista Lodge is a destination even if you’re not staying there. Located near Rincon de la Vieja National Park, the hotel offers several adventure tours that include an extreme zip line and Tarzan swing.
But people travel to this area for another reason: The Jungle Water Slide. At 425 meters, this is not your typical water slide, which is why guests are given a helmet and tube. Hop in at your own risk and bring a GoPro.
A View from a Volcano
Arenal Volcano National Park is a trip within a trip, offering everything from birdwatching (approximately 850 species can be spotted) to rafting on the Balsa River. The 4-in-1 tours allow guests to take in as much as possible in a day’s time, with most of the tours ending at the park’s various hot springs.
Get an up-close view of the Irazu Volcano National Park’s craters and bright green lagoons on a half-day journey that begins with a bus ride on the road to the top of the volcano. A fun game can be made of spotting the area’s two bird species–the Volcano Junco and the Volcano Hummingbird.
Tenorio Volcano National Park is Costa Rica’s youngest, but it still offers as much as any of the other parks. A can’t-miss tour features a journey along the Rio Celeste that results with a visit to a hidden waterfall.
As if everything offered on land isn’t enough, Costa Rica also offers adventures at sea, especially off the Pacific coast. Costa Rica Sport Fishing Tours provides the opportunity to catch rooster fish, wahoo, Spanish mackerel and so much more, with six locations available for fulfilling every fisherman’s wildest dreams.