Costa Rica is a top bucket list destination for many families. Planning your first time in Costa Rica can be overwhelming sorting through the sheer volume of information and things to do. We know this because we went through it last year when planning for our family of 5. No matter where you end up in Costa Rica however, you’ll find it is a great value in terms of safety, affordability, and education for parents looking to have a great time together as a family and help develop little global citizens.
Is it really worth the hassle to take your kids to Costa Rica?
YES! – A lot of times the family default with kids is something related to Disney or a theme park. But why not immerse your kids in some nature and culture? Let them see monkeys and sloths in the wild. Instead of a plastic souvenir, come back with a passport stamp! You can see a live volcano, explore rain forests, and unplug on the beach all within a week. If your kids are old enough, you can go offline, then reconnect and go back online… on a zip line! (dad joke… I’ll be here all week, folks) Costa Rica is ripe with stunning scenery that will serve as a photo backdrop to memories that will last a lifetime. Finally, Costa Rica is the type of place where you will want to come back year after year to really appreciate all it has to offer.
Now on to the things you need to know.
Do I need to speak Spanish?
Speaking Spanish will be a plus if you want to interact with Ticos, how Costa Ricans affectionately refer to themselves, but it definitely is not required. Similar to most countries, the locals will appreciate if tourists try to speak the local language, even if you say a few things wrong, but most folks speak and understand at least some English.
Do I need a Visa?
According to the Costa Rican Embassy: “US Nationals do not require an entry visa to Costa Rica. However, they must have a current valid passport and a return ticket to exit Costa Rica within 90 days. US passport must be valid for a minimum of one day from the day you enter Costa Rica. As a tourist, US nationals cannot stay more than 90 days.”
So basically, bring your passport and you’re good.
When to Visit
Costa Rica is pretty close to the equator so no matter when you visit you’re looking at about 12 hours of sun and 12 hours of darkness each day. There are only two seasons in Costa Rica, dry and rainy, and the temperatures are fairly similar regardless of the time of year. The rainy season runs from May through November and the dry season runs from November through April.
Regardless of the season, because some of the main attractions in Costa Rica span from rain forests to beaches to cloud forests, expect some precipitation. Costa Rica is technically a tropical climate due to its proximity to the equator but it has several micro-climates and great biodiversity. The bottom line is to pack a rain jacket and sunscreen for any season. If you want to spend time on the beach in the afternoon, maybe aim for a trip over spring break.
Where to go your first time in Costa Rica
It’s pretty hard to go wrong when planning a trip, but there are a few can’t miss destinations for a first-time visit to Costa Rica. What most people do is the itinerary that we followed. The itinerary is outlined below in the text and in the map. Beyond that, I went into some more detail about each location.
- Day 1: Arrive in at SJO, stay for a night at a hotel near the city
- Day 2:
- Option 1 – Take a day trip from Alajuela to La Paz Waterfall Gardens. If you do this option, skip day 3.
- Option 2 – drive to La Fortuna (listed as Day 3 on the map below)
- Day 3: If you do the La Fortuna option, spend a day at Arenal Volcano.
- Day 4:
- Option 1 – Do a coffee or chocolate-making tour in the morning
- Option 2 – Explore yet another rainforest ecosystem. Spend the morning at Montverde Cloud Forest Reserve
- From there continue on to the on your way to the Central Pacific Coast. Since this is a long drive, a popular stopping point is the alligator bridge noted in the map below. It’s nothing more than a bridge where you can look at alligators that live underneath it, but it’s a good 1/2 point with souvenirs and food. Just be warned we got food poisoning from the fruit smoothies here.
- Day 5: Take a day trip from wherever you stay to Manuel Antonio National Park. Enjoy the beach and the forest.
- Day 6: Take a 1/2 day trip to do something action-oriented or just chill on the beach. In the afternoon take a sunset catamaran cruise.
- Day 7: Stay one more night in Alajuela. You can spend some time in the city or just arrive late just so you have hassle-free transport back to the airport for your flight home.
The majority of international flights into Costa Rica will come into Alajuela or SJO, just a short distance from the capital city of San Jose, so this is an obvious first place to start. One pro-tip that we employ anytime we travel to a foreign country is we stay near the airport for one night before venturing off into the country. We do this just in case we have issues with rental cars, luggage, or flights.
In addition to the airport, the region is home to rain forests and an abundance of things to do such as coffee tours and sugar cane tours.
We stayed at Hotel La Rosa De America and we were glad we did. First of all the hotel was super cute, family-oriented, the staff was very friendly, and the morning breakfast was delicious and quite filling before a day of adventure. More importantly, however, our airline lost the car seat for our 4-month-old so we were glad to be nearby for them to deliver it the following day. While the car seat situation was frustrating, we liked the hotel enough that we booked it for the night before we left as well.
La Paz Waterfall Gardens
We originally wanted to do either La Fortuna or the Monteverde Cloud Forest, but because of our lost car seat situation, we were set back about half a day since we didn’t want to drive a 4-month around in a car seat we didn’t trust. Our back up plan was La Paz Waterfall Gardens. To be honest, it was perfect for our family. It took us about 4 hours to walk through the grounds. We started in an animal sanctuary where the boys walked through a butterfly observatory, through jungle cat exhibits, and finally along a very well maintained and accessible hike under and around beautiful waterfalls.
The website for La Paz advertises that it is the #1 most visited ecological attraction so we were a bit nervous about crowds, but we had moments where we were literally by ourselves in little pockets of the trail for decent periods of time.
La Fortuna is the town that sits at the base of the Arenal Volcano and is about a 3-3.5 hour drive from the Juan Santamaria International Airport (SJO). Because Arenal has so much to do it is worth at least a day or two on your first visit to Costa Rica.
Arenal is the most popular and well-recognized volcano in Costa Rica. It is an active volcano, so active in fact, that it erupts 3 to 5 times per day! The park includes hot springs, hanging bridges, a beautiful lake, cave spelunking, and zip-lining. For older kids, it’s like a dream playground. We cannot wait to come back in a few years when the kids can tackle a bit more intense and physical adventure sports than we were able on our first visit to Costa Rica.
Monteverde Cloud Forest
One of the many highlights of the Alajuela region is the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. Take a hike and walk over suspension bridges in the canopy of a rain forest as you check out birds, snakes, spiders, waterfall, and probably some rain.
Central Pacific Coast
Manuel Antonio National Park, hailed as one of Costa Rica’s best beaches, is located on a hill with incredible panoramic views of the ocean. Most folks stay in Quepos as a short drive to the park, but instead, we opted for an Airbnb in a small town called Esterillos Oeste. More on our accommodations below.
In the park itself, you are guaranteed to see (occasionally over-friendly) monkeys and other wildlife in Manuel Antonio. Just note that there are no food vendors inside so it is best to pack a picnic. You can take a guided tour of Manuel Antonio park for the kids. The only thing the guide provides, however, is a telescope to see some of the smaller animals and the sloths hiding in the trees. If you already see sloths at La Paz or Arenal, there is no need for this.
From Quepos, you can also take some pretty cool eco-adventures such as a catamaran cruise where you can swim in the ocean, enjoy a beautiful sunset dinner, and even more wildlife like dolphins.
Safety in Costa Rica
Costa Rica is generally about as safe as most places you will visit in the United States. Similar to most tourist destinations, be vigilant about pickpocketing and other petty thefts. San Jose downtown is generally safe during the day, but there are streets that may be dangerous at night. If you’re out late at night with your kids in a foreign country I have other questions for you anyway. EasyTaxi is the app of choice for locals to secure a ride.
Car rental versus tours versus public transportation
There are several transportation options in Costa Rica including public buses, private transfers, or renting a car. Ultimately for us, the choice came down to flexibility and safety for our kids. We didn’t know how wiped out the kids would be and we didn’t want to set any plans in stone so a car rental was an attractive option for us. When we layered in the fact that we wanted to rent two car seats and bring a third it was a no brainer. When the kids are older, I would make the same decision. There is so much to explore especially your first time in Costa Rica, I would not want to be tied to any sort of schedule or itinerary.
I wrote an entire article on things to know about renting a car in Costa Rica, but generally, it is not much different than renting one in the US.
Accommodations in Costa Rica
We stayed at both a hotel and an Airbnb and we were happy with both. The hotel was the right move for our first night near the airport because the concierge staff was super helpful navigating our lost luggage situation, they gave us great recommendations on food, and they helped confirm the highlights of our itinerary. It was also nice because it was a short drive to La Paz. If we had opted not to rent a car, the hotel could have arranged a day tour for us either with a group or with a private shuttle, this might have been nice for our first time in Costa Rica, but we did great without the guided tours! We just picked something cheap with a pool and it was great. I would avoid an all-inclusive hotel. All-inclusive seems pointless being surrounded by such rich biodiversity and culture.
The Airbnb we stayed at was amazing. The hosts were quirky, but location wise we were super happy with the pool and beach to ourselves. Another pro-tip that isn’t unique to Costa Rica is in addition to often being more affordable than hotels, Airbnb also often offers a full kitchen. One thing we never forget to bring on trips like this is a collapsible cooler. It’s a great idea to pack a few PB&J’s and some other snacks for a long car ride or a day on the beach.
What to pack for your first time in Costa Rica
Aside from the essentials you should pack for any trip, here are a few Costa Rica specific items:
- Sunscreen – You’re at the equator. Do not underestimate the power of the sun, especially with kids.
- Rain jacket – Rain forest. rain forest. rain forest. rain forest. It rains sometimes.
- Mosquito spray – The humid climate is a perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes. We applied mosquito wipes anytime we were in the forest and really didn’t have any problems.
- Cash – Most places in Costa Rica accept both colones or US Dollars. Not everywhere accepts credit. If you pay in US Dollars, you will typically get your change in colones at a fair exchange rate. The exchange is typically ¢600 per dollar
- Collapsible Cooler – already mentioned. I just don’t want you to forget it!
- Paper map – We had good luck with the GPS on my phone, but never underestimate the annoyance of cell service going out when you need it most.
- Pack-n-play – Yes, that’s an Amazon affiliate link to a pack-n-play. We think this company owes us commission because we brag about it all the time. In fact, we have a whole article on this site about beach vacation hacks and we talk about it there. We also talk about the pack-n-play in our post about camping with toddlers. After trying to figure it out for 6 years, we finally feel like we got it spot on with kid #3. Toss that pack-n-play in the sand, in the dirt, in the Airbnb, at grandma’s house, etc, and keep on keeping on.
Other Tips and Tricks for a first-time visit to Costa Rica
- Do I tip? For long cab rides, a tip of between $1.00 and $5.00 is sufficient. $10.00 is about good for a full-day bus tour. Restaurants may charge a 10% gratuity, but it is certainly not mandatory and more than that is excessive.
- What’s the local currency? The local currency is colones and it exchanges at roughly ¢600 per dollar
- Local News – if you’re interested in what the locals are up to or want to get topical news, The Tico Times is the news source of choice for Costa Ricans.
- Drink Water – Just do it. Don’t be a dumb-dumb.
We’ve taken our kids all over the world from Abu Dhabi to Paris to Phuket, and Costa Rica ranks right up there as an unforgettable experience that we’ll be talking about for the rest of our lives. Part of it was some misfortune, but it really is a convenient paradise. It is an affordable, safe, and immersive educational experience for the kids. Have you been to Costa Rica? How did we do covering the basics? Let us know in the comments below!
You may also like:
Check out our guide on renting a car and driving through Costa Rica
Coming soon: Listen to Mike talk about overcoming unexpected hiccups on our trip to Costa Rica on the This Travel Tribe podcast.