Places to visit in Costa Rica
Costa Rica is a small country but is packed with an incredible number of national parks and beautiful beaches. It’s tough to fit everything into a two-week itinerary so here are some of the highlights that you might like to consider including in your itinerary.
San Jose & the Central Highlands
Costa Rica’s central plateau is lined on both sides by volcanoes and provides a natural divide between the Pacific and Caribbean climates, with San Jose located more or less in the centre. There are a host of child-friendly activities within easy reach of the capital, with everything from butterfly and frog gardens to working coffee estates and smoking volcanoes. Many visitors spend little time in the capital itself although the gold museum is interesting if you find yourselves downtown with time on your hands.
The Poas Volcano is a popular trip, reached by a short scenic drive from San Jose through fruit farms and coffee plantations. Sulphurous steam belches from the crater-lake and the easy, well-marked hikes are perfect for younger children. On the northern Poas slopes you can see five spectacular waterfalls at La Paz Waterfall Gardens, as well as a butterfly garden and landscaped grounds that teem with humming birds and frogs. Some of the best family hiking near San Jose is here and there’s a good buffet-style restaurant with lots of choice from Costa Rican dishes to pizza.
NOTE: Poas Volcano has been closed to visitors due to volcanic activity since mid 2017. We do not know when it will re-open. La Paz Waterfall Gardens remain open.
In the Poas foothills the Doka Coffee Estate still dries its beans in the sun and their tour of the coffee production process from seed to cup is very well done, ending in a gift shop where you can buy delicious freshly roasted coffee beans to take home.
Tortuguero National Park
Located on the northern stretches of the country’s Caribbean coast, Tortuguero covers approximately 70 sq miles and is one of Costa Rica’s most visited national parks. There are no roads in the park and the most common way to get there from San Jose is by air-conditioned coach and boat or by light-aircraft.
Once there, the easiest way to get around is by boat. Adults and kids alike will love exploring the network of waterways that crisscross the rainforest. Wildlife abounds and the local guides are brilliant at spotting caiman, freshwater turtle, river otter, alligator, the Jesus Christ lizard (it really does walk on water) and many species of colourful tropical bird such as macaw and toucan. The children will enjoy listening out for acrobatic spider monkeys as they swing from branch to branch in the canopy, or locating a noisy howler monkey as it emits a guttural roar to mark out its territory. Don’t forget your binoculars as these will help you to see so much more.
Many lodges provide wellingtons and it’s great fun to explore the jungle floor. Everywhere you look the rainforest teems with life. Tiny brightly coloured frogs, such as the Blue-jeans dart frog and the iconic red-eyed tree frog are exquisite and at the other end of the scale, large iguana regularly appear in camp.
Between June and November Tortuguero’s star attraction is the Green turtle, which comes ashore at night to lay its eggs. This protected 14-mile long beach of grey sand is one of the most important nesting areas in the western hemisphere for the endangered green turtle. Visits are carefully controlled by the local co-operative, so that the turtles are not disturbed. This is a very special experience that will enthral all the family.
An early morning kayak or boat trip is a wonderful way to see the sunrise and spot wildlife at its most active. A visit to the bustling riverside village of Tortuguero is also fun. Here the kids can browse the craft stalls, sip cool milk from a coconut or visit the Sea Turtle Conservancy Centre. And everyone will enjoy relaxing at the lodge pool in between activities.
Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui
Once an important river port Sarapiqui is now a centre for rafting. River floating or white-water levels 1-3 are ideal for younger children, whilst those who enjoy adrenalin activities can whoop their way down more challenging rapids. The excursions are professionally run with all the gear provided as part of the package.
For those with a sweet tooth, the Sura Chocolate Tour is good fun. It tells the story of the ancient Mayan’s love for chocolate, and the kids can help to grind the roasted cocoa beans and taste the original recipe for hot chocolate.
Arenal National Park
Until 2010 Arenal was Costa Rica’s most active volcano, regularly spewing ash and molten rock. Now in a quiet phase, the volcano is still a wonderful sight when the mists clear and you can see the perfect cone shape with lower slopes draped in verdant vegetation. The local town of La Fortuna will be a big hit with the kids as there are restaurants galore here, with pizzerias, steak houses, crêperies and more. This is the place to stock up on supplies of all kinds.
Arenal is heaven if your family loves the outdoor life, as it’s one of Costa Rica’s best activity centres. Here the kids can go mountain biking, horse riding, rafting, kayaking, wind surfing, canyonning and fishing. Nature trails of different levels will take them across hanging bridges and through moist tropical forest where they can spot a host of fauna and flora including monkeys, sloths, brightly coloured toucans, strangler figs and orchids.
A ride on the open-air Sky Tram is fun and the viewpoint at the top overlooking the volcano and Lake Arenal is spectacular. This is also the jumping off point (literally!) for a fantastic 3km zip-line that connects treetop canopy platforms across wide ravines. With views of Lake Arenal and the volcano as you fly through the air, this is a truly exhilarating experience for old and young alike. There are several other superb adrenalin experiences in Arenal and at the end of an action packed day, a soak in the natural hot thermal springs is a great way to unwind.
Monteverde Cloud Forest
This cloud forest reserve in the heart of the Cordillera de Tilarán is one of Costa Rica’s biggest attractions and the place that is synonymous with ecotourism. The road to Monteverde is twisty and bumpy which only adds to the excitement. The verdant foliage and swirling mists make it a magical place for kids to explore.
Well-marked trails through the montane cloud forest take you to waterfalls and the kids will love searching for Costa Rica’s national bird, the beautiful Resplendent Quetza. The rainforest is home to a profusion of wildlife and you are likely to spot toucan, bats, various species of monkey, coati and sloth to name just a few of the forest creatures. The higher altitude and cooler temperatures here can be a pleasant relief when elsewhere Costa Rica is at its hottest.
Like Arenal, Monteverde is packed with family activities. A favourite is the Sky Tram (open cable car) that takes you up to one of the highest view points in Monteverde, followed by the Sky Walk where hanging bridges are suspended above the tree canopy and link with forest trails. The slower pace of a hike is perfect for ticking off flora and fauna but if the kids want more adrenalin fuelled activities there are some of the longest zip-lines on the country, rappelling (canyonning down waterfalls) and horse riding tours.
Rincón de la Vieja National Park
Located in the northwest of Costa Rica in the Guanacaste province, the Ricón de la Vieja National Park straddles the continental divide. The park protects rare tropical dry forest on the Pacific side with lush rainforest on the slopes that face the Caribbean. Home to the active Rincón de la Vieja Volcano, local legend claims that an angry father once threw his daughter’s lover into the volcano and she became a recluse for the rest of her life, living on the mountain side and practicing healing powers.
Geothermic activity is very much in evidence in the Pailas sector where you’ll find bubbling mud pools, fumaroles and hot springs. Easy walking trails will suit younger children but there are also some more challenging hikes on the volcano slopes. In the lush rainforest of the Santa Maria sector the kids can look for howler monkeys, white-faced monkeys, armadillos, iguanas and many bird species.
Beaches - Pacific Coast & Caribbean
Costa Rica’s wild northern Caribbean coast is beautiful but is the domain of some of the world’s most endangered sea turtles. However, south of Limon the small town of Cahuita is a pleasant spot for a few days on the beach. The atmosphere is relaxed and there are sandy beaches with off shore coral reefs. The national park and the sloth sanctuary are well worth a visit if the kids can be persuaded to leave the beach. Nearby, some of the palm-fringed beaches of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca are gorgeous and are more secluded the further you get out of town.
Many of Costa Rica’s most popular beaches and resorts are on the Pacific coast. Guanacaste in the north has miles of sandy coastline and Costa Rica’s sunniest climate. Many of the beaches here are sheltered and perfect for families, with calm swimming conditions and beautiful scenery. The Papagayo Gulf is one of the most developed areas with many beach resorts, some very upmarket. Tamarindo is a very busy tourist centre but the beach here is superb with over three kilometres of fine sand and something for everyone including good swimming conditions, snorkelling and boogie boarding.
Further south, the beaches near Manuel Antonio National Park are some of our favourites. Here the fine white sand is lapped by warm turquoise water and after a day or two here everyone will feel they understand the meaning of Costa Rica’s favourite saying “Pura Vida” (everything’s great… hakuna matata)! And if the kids want more action, nearby Quepos is a centre for water sports and it’s also a jumping off point for whale and dolphin watching trips, with humpback migrations from December to April and August to October.
The beaches on the Corcovado Peninsula in the far south are rugged and untamed, wonderful for whale watching and spotting many species of dolphin. The conditions offer world-class surfing opportunities, but it’s not the place for a beach-break.
Manuel Antonio National Park
This park stretches from the pristine white sands of the Pacific coast to the rugged jungle interior, encompassing lush rainforest with trees dripping with lianas and moss, remote mangrove swamps and idyllic beaches. Capuchin monkeys leap from branch to branch in the forest canopy, three-toed sloths make their way slowly through the jungle and brightly coloured kingfishers dart above the river in search of small fish. Manuel Antonio is one of Costa Rica’s smallest national parks but is especially rewarding.
Quepos is the gateway to the Manuel Antonio National Park and a thriving tourist centre with hotels, restaurants and shops. From here you can dive, snorkel, sea kayak and sport fish. Some of Costa Rica’s loveliest beaches are found to the south of Quepos, between the town and the national park.
Corcovado National Park
If you are a nature buff then there is nowhere better than Corcovado National Park, a little slice of ecological heaven in a remote spot in southwest Costa Rica. Home to a truly astonishing range of ecosystems, including the only remaining old growth wet forest on the Pacific Coast of Central America this is the place to come to spot some of Costa Rica’s most elusive wildlife.
Tapirs, jaguars, poison arrow frogs and harpy eagles are all found here and crocodiles lurk in the remote lagoons and river estuaries. This is a remote area and not suitable for those who require their creature comforts, but if you want a real adventure and are prepared for some jungle trekking and remote locations this could be just the place.
Bijagua and Tenorio National Park
Bijagua is a small village situated in a beautiful location in the north of Costa Rica, sandwiched between the Miravalles and Tenorio volcanos. The land here is very rich and the foothills of the volcanos are covered in lush citrus farms and home to a wide variety of birdlife. Tenorio volcano national park is particularly lovely with the bright turquoise waters of the Rio Celeste meandering through it. You can either take a hike in the park or perhaps enjoy an exhilarating tubing expedition, in which you ride in giant inner tubes down one of the faster sections of the river.
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Costa Rica in pictures
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