Mischievous monkeys and steaming volcanoes, mysterious rainforests and palm-lined beaches – Costa Rica sometimes seems like a comic book reality. The perfect place for family travel, it is a safe, exhilarating tropical playland that will make a huge impression on younger travellers. The country’s myriad adventure possibilities cover the spectrum of age-appropriate intensity levels. Additionally, the warm, family-friendly culture is extremely welcoming of little ones. In addition to amazing the kids, this small, peaceful country has all of the practicalities that rank high with parents, such as an excellent transportation infrastructure, a low crime rate and a world-class health-care system. But the reason to bring the whole family is the opportunity to share the country’s unique experiences, like spotting a dolphin or sloth, slowly paddling a kayak through mangrove channels or taking a night hike in search of tropical frogs. Here are some Costa Rica’s fun places for families.
Monteverde & Santa Elena
On a good day, the Monteverde area is a place where you can be inspired about the possibility of a world in which organic farming and alternative energy sources are the norm; on a bad day, it can feel like Disneyland in Birkenstocks. Take heart in the fact that the local community continues to fight the good fight to maintain the fragile balance between nature and commerce.
Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio
The downside? Crowds. Visitors are confined to around 6.8 sq km of the park (the rest is set aside for ranger patrols battling poaching) and the place gets packed when midmorning tour buses roll in. Get here early (7am) and head for the furthest reaches of the park for a bit of tranquillity and the best chances to spot wildlife.
Jacó was the first town on the central Pacific coast to explode with tourist development and it remains a major draw for backpackers, surfers, snowbirds and city-weary josefinos (inhabitants of San José). Although working-class Tico neighborhoods are nearby, open-air trinket shops and tour operators line the tacky main drag which, at night, is given over to a safe but somewhat seedy mix of binge-drinking students, surfers and scantily clad ladies of negotiable affection.
While Jacó’s lackadaisical charm is not for everyone, the surfing is excellent, and the restaurants and bars are great, particularly those lining classy Jacó Walk.
If you’ve got some extra time and a 4WD, explore the hidden beaches north of Sámara, such as Playas Barrigona and Buenavista.
Veragua Rainforest Research & Adventure Park
In Las Brisas de Veragua, this bells-and-whistles rainforest adventure park is nestled into the foothills of the Cordillera de Talamanca. The sprawling complex has guided tours of the forest along elevated walkways, along with such attractions as an aerial tram, a reptile vivarium, an insectarium, and hummingbird and butterfly gardens. At research time the park was converting to solar power.
There’s also a zipline canopy tour. Installations include a cafeteria and gift shop. Many of the attractions are wheelchair accessible. To get here, take the signed turnoff south from Hwy 32 at Liverpool, 12km west of Puerto Limón.
Tabacón Hot Springs
Some say it’s cheesy and some say it’s fun (we say it’s both.) Broad-leaf palms, rare orchids and other florid tropical blooms part to reveal a 40°C (104°F) waterfall pouring over a fake cliff, concealing constructed caves complete with camouflaged cup holders. Lounged across each well-placed stonelike substance are overheated tourists of various shapes and sizes, relaxing.
The spa, 14km west of La Fortuna, is on the site of a 1975 volcanic eruption that killed one local. The former village of Tabacón was destroyed in the 1968 eruption, when 78 people were killed. Don’t sweat it: the volcano is once again dormant. For now. Note that an absolutely free hot spot on the river is located just 50m south of this property, much to the consternation of Tabacón.
Spirogyra Jardín de Mariposas
Housing more than 30 species of butterfly – including the luminescent blue morpho – in plant-filled enclosures, this small butterfly garden is a great spot for kids. Visit in the morning to see plenty of fluttering. The garden is 150m east and 150m south of Centro Comercial El Pueblo, which can be reached on foot (about a 20- to 30-minute walk from downtown), by taxi or by bus.
Museo de los Niños & Galería Nacional
If you were wondering how to get your young kids interested in art and science, this unusual museum – actually two museums in one – is an excellent place to start. Housed in an old penitentiary built in 1909, it is part children’s museum and part art gallery. Small children will love the hands-on exhibits related to science, geography and natural history, while grown-ups will enjoy the unusual juxtaposition of contemporary art in abandoned prison cells.