Family Travel Survival Guide: Costa Rica

Taking the kids to Central America can be daunting, especially if you're a first-timer. Here, one of our family-travel experts shares a survival blueprint for traveling to Costa Rica with the little ones in tow.
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Red-Eyed Tree Frog emerging from a wet leaf in Manuel Antonio National Park
Red-Eyed Tree Frog emerging from a wet leaf in Manuel Antonio National Park  (David Tipling)

Blessed with a lush interior that could rival Hawaii and a tropical setting that’s home to three types of monkeys, glacially slow-moving sloths, vibrant-colored scarlet macaws, toucans, and 45 different species of hummingbirds, Costa Rica has become an increasingly popular getaway. It’s a mix of rainforest, mountainous cloud forest, volcanoes, and exquisite Pacific beaches—all housed in a country roughly the size of West Virginia. On a weeklong trip, many families choose to sample each of Costa Rica’s diverse landscapes. Others simply head straight to the beach. It all depends on how much you want to relax.

For active families, Costa Rica is one of the best playgrounds in the Americas. The zip-line tour, now ubiquitous, originated here and can be found in all types of terrain. Cruising above the rainforest or cloud forest canopy, immersed in the greenery, brings an unparalleled feeling of freedom—a thrill for a kid of any age. Naturalist-led hikes deep into the forest to see not only monkeys and sloths but immense grasshoppers, tarantulas, and other enticing insects are a great way to indulge the bug-lover in your family. The swells on both the Pacific and the Atlantic attract surfers from across the globe, and lessons are readily available for beginners. There are a slew of rivers, such as the Pacuare and the Sarapiqui, where the whitewater rapids guide rafters on adrenalin-pumping rides. Add horseback riding in the countryside, deep-sea fishing for tuna and marlin in the winter months, and snorkeling and scuba diving, and there is no way you’ll hear “I’m bored” on this trip.

Yet perhaps the most surprising part about Costa Rica is the people. Even though travel is a vital business in their country, locals don’t view you as a walking dollar bill. They won’t hassle you on the beaches, wanting to braid your hair or sell you cigarettes. Costa Ricans are very proud of their country, as they should be. They want you to savor your time here and will assist you any way they can. As they like to say: “Pura Vida!”—wishing you the joy of life. One taste of that life and you’ll be scouting out the local schools to relocate.

When to Go
December through April is the dry season, when rain is at a minimum. This is best in terms of weather, but it is also the high season, so you’ll be paying premium rates for airfare and hotels. The summer months are referred to as the “green season.” It tends to rain at night, leaving the landscape as verdant as imagined. On the beaches of Guanacaste, the days are still long and sunny in summer, at a reduced rate. For families on a budget or wanting more time than the typical one-week vacation, this is a great time to go. Avoid September and October, when it tends to rain the most—no amount of money you could save would be worth missing the trip due to torrential rainstorms. Anglers hoping to hook the big fish should head to the Pacific coast during the winter months.

Getting There and Around
Costa Rica has two international airports, in San Jose and Liberia. If you’re heading to Jaco, Quepos and Manuel Antonio National Park, Sarapiqui, or Arenal Volcano, you should fly into San Jose. Monteverde National Park and the Cloud Forest are equidistant to both airports. If you’re hitting the Pacific coast beaches of Guanacaste or venturing to the Nicoya Peninsula, it’s best to fly into Liberia.

Most families rent four-wheel-drive vehicles for their trip, but note that driving takes an incredible amount of patience, as roads are notoriously rough. In the mountains surrounding San Jose, roads twist and turn with little or no shoulder. The major highway that runs north to south, the Pan-American Highway, boasts only two lanes. So you could be behind a fruit truck traveling at ten miles per hour and would have to find a way to speed around it while watching for that Mack truck in the opposite lane. Other roads, like the one leading from Lake Arenal to Monteverde in the Cloud Forest, are not yet paved and can be incredibly frustrating—a good reason to shuttle between resorts or take flights between cities. If you do decide to drive, pay close attention and heed this warning: A GPS is worth its weight in gold in Costa Rica since there is very little signage. Be sure to bring your own or rent one from the car agency, which averages about $12 a day.

Lay of the Land
Even with all the obstacles, driving distances are relatively short. Less than an hour from San Jose’s Juan Santamaria International Airport, you’re at the flanks of Poas Volcano and the lush countryside that surrounds it. Another 30 minutes and you can reach the toucans and monkeys of the Sarapiqui region or the Pacific coast beach town of Jaco. Arenal Volcano is about a 2.5-hour drive northwest of the airport, while Manuel Antonio National Park lies just outside of Quepos on the Pacific coast, a good three-hour drive with traffic from San Jose. Monteverde and the Cloud Forest is also a three-hour drive from San Jose. Choose to fly into Liberia and you could be at the northern beaches of the Nicoya Peninsula in less than 30 minutes.

Published: 17 Jan 2013 | Last Updated: 29 Jan 2013
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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