My husband and I visited 12 years ago and to this day it is one of my favorite vacations. I always knew I wanted to take my kids there one day. Once again, Costa Rica was great! We had an amazing family adventure there.
One of the reasons I loved Costa Rica so much the first time I visited was because unlike some places you go, it has a variety of things to do. You want adventure? There’s plenty to choose from. You want to relax and be a beach bum? They have amazing beaches for that. You want to be one with nature? You can do that too. And this is all before even mentioning the amazingly friendly Costa Rican people or the good food. As their popular saying goes ‘Pura Vida!’. It’s the way they live and embrace life. If I ever met someone that went to Costa Rica and didn’t have a great time, I would have to wonder how that’s even possible.
When we visited 12 years ago, we visited the Arenal and Guanacaste areas. For this trip however, I knew the kids would not likely do well with so much driving (most of the popular areas are several hours apart) so I wanted to find an area that would allow us to get in as many activities in one place as possible. After a little research it appeared that Manuel Antonio was that place. During our time in Manuel Antonio we got plenty of adventure and plenty of relaxation. Here is what we did along with my general recommendations for traveling to Costa Rica.
General Travel Thoughts & Tips
We opted not to rent a car and used a shuttle as our transportation to and from the Manuel Antonio area (about 2 hours 45 minutes from San Jose airport). Once there, our transportation was provided by the tour providers, taxi or walking. In the end, this worked out great for us. Many people do rent cars without issue, but just make sure you do your research. Don’t be fooled by prices that say $4/day as there are mandatory foreign rental fees and insurance requirements in Costa Rica that quickly hike your cost in the couple hundred-dollar range. In addition, depending on what area of Costa Rica you plan to visit, the road conditions are also a consideration. Do a little research to understand what you’re in for. Driving to Manuel Antonio would be fine, but the roads to some other areas of the country are not as developed.
Shuttle recommendation: ILT transportation. They were timely, we felt safe, the drivers were nice and it was reasonably priced for a private van for our family only.
We stayed in a bungalow at Tulemar Resort. The wonderful thing about this resort is you get to see almost as many animals as you do within the national park. Monkeys were playing nearby as we swam in the pool and sloths were hanging out in the trees as we walked to dinner one evening. They also have a private beach. It isn’t as nice as the one at the national park, but it was nice that it was for guests only. Tulemar also has a range of accommodation levels. We stayed in what would be considered entry level for the resort in a bungalow. While spacious enough for our family of 5, it was a bit more ‘rustic’ than I would have preferred and many critters got inside the bungalow. If staying their again, I would probably spring for something slightly nicer. The kids however loved it as it felt like staying in a treehouse being surrounded by trees and hearing the animals.
Arrival and Departure from Costa Rica
Depending on your flight time, it might be best to spend your first and/or last night near the airport so that you don’t risk missing your flight due to something unforeseen with a 3-hour drive. Many people do this just for the peace of mind. We arrived early so drove to our hotel right away, but did spend our last night before departing in San Jose at the Doubletree Cariari (won through Hotwire for $69 +tax!).
If you want an appreciation for the Costa Rican landscape along with a little adventure, zip lining should definitely be on your list of activities while visiting the country. Most zip lines are fine for anyone 6+ years old. Smaller kids do have to ride with guides on some lines to ensure they get completely across though. Our entire family had a blast zip lining in Manuel Antonio. My younger 2 were able to do all, but 2 lines on their own. We chose El Santaurio Tours for this excursion after reading many great reviews and were not disappointed. While the lines did not seem quite as high as the ones my husband and I did in Arenal, they were still very exciting. The longest run was nearly a mile long! Lunch is provided at the end as well as a snack of fresh fruit about half way through the tour.
White Water Rafting
White water rafting is another activity for those that enjoy a little more exhilaration. We rafted on the Savegre River and while it says okay for 6+ years old, had I known exactly what it would be like, I would not have taken my 6-year-old. No one fell out, but after a couple of VERY big waves that saw the raft briefly overtaken by water, she was afraid and had had enough. This was on the ‘easy’ trip which started lower down the river. Rafters we met at the waterfall halfway point that had started at the Upper part of the river said they had multiple people fall out. Ultimately, the lower river provides plenty enough excitement for a family with kids…no matter what the tour operator may tell you. And I would recommend for 7 or 8+ years old. We did this tour with ADR (Amigos Del Rio) and the guides were great. They also provided both breakfast and lunch which were both wonderful. Side note: Can I just say that Costa Rica has the most amazing pineapples I have ever had in my life! I don’t even want to think about how much pineapple I ate.
Manuel Antonio National Park
The national park is a beautiful protected area with walking trails throughout. We saw a variety of different animals including different types of monkeys, sloths, birds, and lizards. We did a ‘self-guided’ tour of the park, but there were many people with guides that had telescopes and binoculars so that you can get a better look at animals. We go some great pictures through a guide that just happened to stop as we were looking at sloths. The best part about the hike through the Manuel Antonio National Park, was that the hike ended at an amazing beach. It was one of the prettiest, calmest beaches I have visited, with slight rolling waves and the beach backing up to the rainforest. It was definitely a much needed cool off after the hike through the park. Don’t forget to wear or bring your swim suits! There are bathrooms right before you get to the beach area.
Costa Rica did not disappoint and while there are many places in the world I still want to visit, Costa Rica is one I know I will definitely be back to visit. If you can get two locations in on a visit to Costa Rica, Arenal would be my recommendation for a second. While the volcano there is not active any more (it was when we visited 12 years ago and the view at night of the lava flowing was something to see), the hot springs there are incredible. So no matter what you like, you’ll find something to enjoy in Costa Rica. Pura Vida!