Family adventure in Costa Rica

White-faced Capuchin Monkey, Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica

Boasting more species of plants and animals than any other country in the world, Costa Rica deserves a place on every family’s bucket list. Kids (and adults) who are excited by nature and wildlife will discover a surprise with every step. Schedule a rain­forest tour with a certified guide early on and you will be amazed at all you will be able to find on your own after that, and all that you missed beforehand.

Our family split our time between the lush rainforest of Arenal Volcano National Park and the dry rainforest and beaches around Manuel Antonio National Park.  Both destinations offer a completely unique experience, diverse wildlife and climate as well as different family activities. Seven years and older are ideal ages for kids, then the whole family can easily participate in the adventure sports Costa Rica is known for—ziplining, river rafting, horseback riding, hiking, snorkeling, kayaking, surfing and, for the truly brave, rappelling waterfalls and more.

Getting Around

We were leery of renting a car after hearing about narrow, winding roads in poor condition without shoulders or guardrails. In reality, we found the major roads in excellent shape, many newly paved or under construction. Driving in the mountains at night would definitely be scary and not recommended. Side roads are often ungraded with waves of  bumps and enormous potholes. Rental cars take a beating, so don’t be surprised to find your vehicle with 60,000 plus miles, even when using an international agency. The advantage of having your own car is, of course, the freedom to go wherever whenever you please and the flexibility to change your plans on a whim. If you’d rather leave the driving to others, it is common and easy to arrange transportation to get around. Almost all tour companies as well as resorts offer transportation and two local airlines offer service around the country (NatureAir and Sansa Air). The chief complaint we heard from travelers who traveled this way was the nuisance of waiting for rides. If you decide to drive yourself, a GPS is an absolute necessity (bring your own if you have access to Costa Rica maps or rent one which will add about $70 to your vehicle cost). Most road names and numbers are unmarked and signage is poor. Our rental representative plugged in all of our major destinations and, with GPS guidance, we found them all easily. Car rentals and transportation services are both expensive, so do the math to see which will work better for your travel plans. It is advised to add collision insurance to any car rental and it is cheaper to do so before you arrive in Costa Rica.

Places to Stay, Things to Do

Lost Iguana Resort view from room, Arenal, Costa Rica

Lost Iguana Resort and Spa, Arenal Volcano
The balcony from every room at the Lost Iguana Resort and Spa offers a stunning view of the volcano and rainforest canopy.  Unlike most area lodging located on the main road between the small town of La Fortuna and the unpaved side road to Arenal Volcano National Park, the Lost Iguana Resort and Spa lies within the rainforest itself, so offers non-stop opportunities for observing exotic tropical birds, mammals, insects, reptiles and plants.
Lost Iguana Resort pool, Arenal, Costa RicaThe 42-room boutique resort has their own network of hiking trails through primary forest and it is only a short hike from the resort to the entrance to Hanging Bridges, a worthwhile two mile trek over 16 bridges through lush and, at times roaring loud, forest to beautiful waterfalls and volcano views. Since the Lost Iguana is inside the rainforest, be prepared for showers at any time, they come and go quickly. Not to worry, umbrellas are always on hand from stands conveniently located throughout the resort.

The Arenal Volcano area offers all of Costa Rica’s adventure activities. You can easily arrange tours in La Fortuna, through your resort’s reservation desk or by booking in advance (see Fast Facts below). There are differences in safety procedures among zip lines and there is a certification program for naturalists, so it is a good idea to stick with reputable operators and guides.

Manuel Antonio National Park

Unlike the wet climate of Arenal National Park, Manuel Antonio National Park on the Pacific Ocean is hot, humid and in a “dry” rainforest. The climate change is immediately apparent and you’ll appreciate access to a pool or beach during the day.

FAST FACTS

Plan

  • Costa Rica Info
    It is easy to arrange tours through your hotel or for advance tour discounts and helpful general information, visit Pura Vida! Eh? This Canadian company offered reliable and responsive service when we reserved our tour of Manuel Antonio in advance. Payment is made to the tour operator once you are there.

Stay

  • Lost Iguana Resort & Spa, Arenal Volcano
    011 (506) 2479-1557, email maritzalostiguana@mac.com
    42-room boutique resort on 120 acres in primary rainforest. Breakfast buffet in the resort’s open-air restaurant is included (always good for exciting wildlife sightings at the bird feeders so bring your camera); restaurant open for lunch and dinner; two pools include one cool-temperature pool and one hot with swim-up bar; full-service bar; secluded spa with saunas, gymnasium and massage bungalows; on-site hiking; tours and transportation can be arranged at front desk; high quality gift shop.
  • Tulemar Bungalows, Manuel Antonio
    866-569-6241, email reservations@buenavistaluxuryvillas.com. Ten bungalows with kitchens, larger villas available, resort services, private beach without riptides, short walk to grocery store and walk to many fine restaurants a plus

Do

  • Arenal Hanging Bridges
    Arenal Volcano, La Fortuna, (506) 2290-0469, email info@hangingbridges.com
    A good place to add a guided tour to your admission fee in order to see all the hidden wildlife.
  • Ecoglide Zipline
    Arenal Volcano, Rt. 142, La Fortuna, (506) 2479-7120, info@arenalecoglide.com
    Canopy tour in the forest of the Arenal Volcano features 13 cables from 82 feet to 1410 feet in length utilizing a safe, double cable system and one frightening Tarzan swing dropping 38 meters. Minimum age 5 yrs. (small children may be accompanied by an adult guide). Another popular zipline, Sky Trek, offers steeper ziplines and requires a minimum age of 7.
  • Ecotermales Hot Springs
    Arenal Volcano, Rt. 142, La Fortuna, (506) 2479-8787, email eservas@ecotermalesfortuna.cr
    Five tiered hot springs pools in a natural setting range in temperature from 100-107 degrees. Afternoon and evening reservations; restaurant; bar on site. Other hot springs in the area offer more water park facilities.

Shop

  • Coco Loco Art Gallery
    San Isidro de Penas Blancas, San Ramon, (+506)-2468-0990
    The best shop we found is a fair trade gallery for fine local artwork with a special focus on Costa Rican indigenous culture, on the way to Arenal Volcano from San Jose

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