Costa Rica has long been a top destination for nature lovers, beach enthusiasts and intrepid travelers beating a new path. Over the past decade, however, the country has developed a wonderful range of activities entire families can enjoy.
Each of Costa Rica’s destinations has its own flavor and attractions, ranging from active volcanoes to placid beaches. Most hotels and tour desks can help you arrange family-oriented activities. Here are just a few recommendations of places to visit around the country.
Most families will fly into San José. And while the capital city may look a bit chaotic on the taxi ride into town, the truth is that Chepe, as it’s nicknamed, offers a number of places that give families a great introduction to Costa Rica’s history, ecology and culture.
Children’s Museum. The Children’s Museum in downtown San José is a delightful break from the bustle of urban life. This former penitentiary today is a thoughtful museum that highlights science, ecology and culture through a philosophy of “learn through play.” Kids love the earthquake simulator, radio studio and myriad interactive exhibits. The museum also offers an art gallery and cafeteria. The building is at the north end of Calle 4. For information, call 2258-4929 or visit www.museocr.com.
National Museum. The recently remodeled National Museum is a great way to experience Costa Rica’s history. Each of the museum’s exhibition halls illustrates a particular era: the Pre-Columbian Room has ceramic, stone and gold objects from this period, as well as a glimpse into the everyday life of the time; the Indigenous Gold Room is a captivating selection of delicately made gold pieces of great symbolic meaning to their makers; the Colonial Home offers a detailed look at how some Costa Ricans lived during this era; and the National History Room showcases important events in more modern times, up to today.
Don’t miss the new Butterfly Garden, where you’ll find 20 species of colorful butterflies in the middle of downtown San José. The garden is part of the museum’s efforts to become more interactive.
The museum also offers frequent workshops that are open to the public. You might find classes on traditional dance, theater representing Costa Rican customs, soap sculptures made to look like jade, and much more.
The museum is on Calle 17, between Avenidas Central and 2, on the east side of Plaza de la Democracia. For information, call 2257-1433 or go to www.museocosta rica.go.cr.
Gold Museum. This museum in downtown San José has three integrated exhibits: the Gold Museum, which has about 1,600 handcrafted gold pieces dating from A.D. 500 to 1500 reflecting Costa Rica’s pre-Columbian world view, social structure and technology; the Numismatic Museum, which has some 5,000 money-related objects such as banknotes, molds, coffee vouchers, and the complete evolution of Costa Rica’s coins from 1502 to today; and the Temporary Exhibit Room, which showcases works from renowned local and international artists.
The museum also offers a night tour called Noche de Oro Familiar (Family Gold Night) for 25 people or more. This tour discusses indigenous culture and teaches participants to decorate bracelets, emboss metal and more, before enjoying a delicious dinner.
Other services include a gift shop, a Costa Rican Tourism Board (ICT) information office and an auditorium for 75 people.
The museum is at Calles 3 and 5, between Avenidas Central and 2, underneath Plaza de la Cultura. For information, call 2243-4202 or visit www.museosdelbancocentral.org.
Parque de Diversiones. This theme park boasts rides and entertainment for all ages, including waterslides, free-falls, roller coasters, go-carts, train rides and much more. One of its main attractions is Old Town, a quaint re-creation of the buildings and spaces that were typical to rural Costa Rica at the beginning of the 20th century. This picturesque place with farm animals and parks can be explored on foot or by horse-drawn carriage. Its restaurant offers a great menu for all ages. Old Town also has a night tour that re-creates the origins of Costa Rican culture and folklore with marimbas, traditional dances and a tasty Tico supper.
The park is in the northwestern district of La Uruca, two kilometers west of Hospital México. For information, call 2242-9200 or see www.parquediversiones.com.
INBioparque. This ecologically themed park managed by the National Biodiversity Institute is great for kids and adults alike. As you explore the interactive displays of snakes, bromeliads, heliconias, orchids, frogs, tarantulas, giant bullet ants and more, you’ll be walking through living examples of Costa Rica’s different ecosystems. Every turn in the path reveals more flora and fauna than you thought possible in the middle of a city, and INBioparque more than makes up for the San José zoo’s poor facilities. The park also has a butterfly garden, a working farm and more.
INBioparque is in Santo Domingo de Heredia, 500 meters south and 250 m east of the Red Cross. For information, call 2507-8107 or visit www.inbioparque.com.
La Paz Waterfalls. These falls tumble through gorgeous mountainous countryside in Vara Blanca, near Poás Volcano, an hour and 20 minutes northwest of San José. The five majestic waterfalls can be enjoyed close up from special walkways built along cliffsides bordering the La Paz River. White Magic Waterfall drops 37 meters and can be observed from several angles, platforms and bridges.
But the falls are only one of the park’s many attractions. The butterfly farm has 26 species of butterfly, and the snake farm is home to more than 27 species, including the rare sea snake. There’s a splendid orchid garden, a frog exhibit and a magical hummingbird garden where the tiny birds, accustomed to human contact, fly right up to visitors’ eyes before buzzing madly off in pursuit of nectar.
The park has two souvenir shops and two buffet restaurants with dishes that include traditional Costa Rican food, a children’s menu and dishes prepared especially for vegetarians. With the $35 ticket price ($20 for kids age 3 to 12), visitors are invited to enjoy a snack and a hot beverage in a typical Costa Rican house along the path. Families can fish for their own trout in the lake and have it prepared to their taste, or take a dip in the pool or hot tub. The park’s Peace Lodge offers beautiful and comfortable rooms for those wishing to spend the night.
The park recommends that visitors bring comfortable shoes and clothes that dry quickly or a change of clothing. Rain slickers are sold at the stores. For information, call 2225-0643 or go to www.waterfall gardens.com.
Poás Volcano National Park. An hour from the capital, Poás Volcano boasts the best infrastructure of any national park in the country, complete with a visitor center and cafeteria. The colorful crater forms a border between the Central Valley and the humid plains to the north and east. It’s easy to get to the edge of this crater (one of the largest in the world). Visit Laguna Botos, whose emerald waters are colored by sulfuric acid.
The old colonial capital, east of San José, offers plenty of activities and attractions. You’ll find ruins of colonial churches, museums, botanical gardens, national parks, volcanoes, rushing rivers and archaeological sites.
Irazú Volcano National Park. This is one of the most visited, and highest, volcanoes in the country. The moonscape-like atmosphere and an emerald-green, toxic crater lake contrast with the gray tones of the peak. On a clear day, you can see both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.
Turrialba Volcano National Park. This is Irazú’s twin volcano, and they share the same base. Turrialba is Costa Rica’s second highest volcano (3,340 meters), and one of its three craters can be explored.
Guayabo National Monument. Located 17 kilometers northeast of Turrialba, this archaeological site dates from 1000 B.C. You’ll find streets, mounds, tombs and an aqueduct that still works.
Ujarrás Ruins National Monument and Orosi Church. The ruins of Ujarrás are the vestiges of the first church built in Costa Rica, dating from between 1575 and 1580. And while its architecture is interesting, the surrounding park makes for a great day trip.
Orosi Valley. This valley is known not only for its gorgeous scenery, but also for its church, which dates from 1734. There is a small but interesting museum next door that illustrates how Spanish-influenced religious artifacts were used in the church.
With La Fortuna and Arenal Volcano as the region’s focal point, the Northern Zone is one of Costa Rica’s most popular destinations. Kids will love the different hot springs, ranging from the high-end Tabacón resort (www.tabacon.com) to the free thermal rivers that cross the region.
Arenal Volcano National Park. Home to Costa Rica’s most famous volcano, Arenal. Its perfect conical shape and nonstop activity make for a great way to spend the evening: watching incandescent rocks tumble down the slopes (if it’s clear out). Don’t miss Arenal Lake, where windsurfing and boating are favorite activities.
Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge. This is a hugely important site for migratory birds. You’ll also find a wide array of fish, plants, endemic birds and reptiles.
Desafío Adventure Company. Based in La Fortuna, with offices in Monteverde and Sámara, Desafío offers a wide range of activities, including some great family adventure options: rafting on Class II, III and IV rivers, canyoneering, hikes to Arenal Volcano and hot springs, visits to Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge, sea and lake kayaking, spelunking, fishing, canopy tours, horseback riding, bird-watching and more. For information, call 2479-9464 or visit www.desafiocostarica.com.
Sarapiquí. This region in the northern Caribbean lowlands is known for ecotourism and scientific observation. However, adventure tourism is taking hold: you’ll find whitewater rafting, kayaking, hotels and more. And, it’s very close to Heredia and San José.
If you and the little ones need a break from the tropical heat, check out Monteverde’s famous cloud forests. Cool and misty Monteverde is a great place to get in touch with rural tourism, and is one of the regions most dedicated to sustainable environmental practices in the country.
Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. Stretching up and over the Continental Divide, this reserve measures more than 4,000 hectares, and, with 13 kilometers of hiking trails, it is possible to find yourself alone in the forest even on the busiest of days. Monteverde’s cloud forests are home to a wide variety of birds and other wildlife, including the famously sought-after resplendent quetzal. Contact the reserve at 2645-5122 or 2645-5564.
Selvatura Park. Great for families, this park features hanging bridges and zip lines that take you through the forest, as well as a butterfly garden, hummingbird gallery and reptile and amphibian exhibition that bring you closer to the local fauna. For information, call 2645-5929 or go to www.selvatura.com.
Costa Rica Sky Adventures. Families can get an up-close look at the forest canopy with Monteverde’s Sky Tram cable car and Sky Walk hanging bridges (all ages), and Sky Trek zip-line tour (ages 8 and up). For more information, call 2645-5238 or visit www.skytrek.com.
Bugs and Stuff. Monteverde offers an array of places where kids can enjoy learning about the area’s creepy-crawlies. Try the Monteverde Butterfly Garden (2645-5512, www.monteverdebutterflygarden.com), the Frog Pond (2645-6320), Serpentarium (2645-6002), Monteverde Insect World (2645-6859, www.monteverdeinsectworld.com) or The Bat Jungle (2645-7701).
Costa Rica’s largest province is home to some of the country’s most popular beaches, national parks and protected areas. You’ll find volcanoes, rivers, a well-developed tourism infrastructure and Costa Rica’s most representative traditions. Lodging, tours and dining options abound. Families can enjoy boat trips, sportfishing, canopy tours, bird-watching, surfing, scuba diving and much more.
National Parks and Protected Areas. Santa Rosa National Park houses the historic La Casona (hacienda house), where several battles for national sovereignty took place, and the park’s beaches form a sanctuary for leatherback, green and olive ridley sea turtles. Barra Honda National Park offers spelunking adventures with a system of caves ranging from 15 to 100 meters deep. The wetlands of Palo Verde National Park are a refuge for myriad water and migratory birds, with some 280 identified species and 20,000 resident birds.
Volcanoes. The Guanacaste mountain range is home to Orosi, Rincón de la Vieja, Miravalles and Tenorio volcanoes. Orosi is famous for its biodiversity and ecotourism; Rincón de la Vieja is constantly active; Miravalles produces Costa Rica’s geothermal energy; and Tenorio has a park, crystalline waterfalls and the famous Río Celeste, named for its celestial-blue waters resulting from a combination of volcanic minerals.
Beaches. Ticos and international travelers alike love the sandy expanses of Guanacaste’s long coastline. Popular beaches include Papagayo, Hermosa, Coco, Conchal, Tamarindo, Flamingo, Avellanas, Brasilito, Nosara, Sámara and Carrillo. Some are good for surfing, some are good for diving, and all are beautiful.
This region is home to the country’s most accessible beaches, as well as a variety of tour options and the world-famous Manuel Antonio National Park.
Puntarenas. Enjoy a refreshing granizado, called a “Churchill” locally, on the Paseo de los Turistas in this port city. Small restaurants offer traditional food along the boardwalk, and, in Puntarenas Centro, the Marine History Museum and the aquarium at the Pacific Marine Park offer additional attractions.
Manuel Antonio National Park. White-sand beaches, easy access and the possibility of seeing monkeys, sloths, scarlet macaws and much more attract tourists from around the world to this highly visited park. The Quepos/Manuel Antonio area boasts a wide variety of hotels, restaurants and tours.
Rain Forest Aerial Tram. Just minutes from the booming beach town of Jacó is one of the country’s two Rain Forest Aerial Tram locations. Visitors can see exotic and rarely seen wildlife up close while gliding silently through the rain-forest canopy. The Pacific tram covers the transition between rain forest and dry primary forest. (The Atlantic tram is in Braulio Carrillo National Park, 50 minutes from San José on the highway to Limón.) Under the tram, paths have been made to accommodate baby strollers and wheelchairs. These paths intersect flower, frog and butterfly farms. The snake farm has more than 20 types of reptiles in glass dioramas. Zip-line tours are also available. For information, call 2257-5961 or visit www.rainforestadventure.com.
Hacienda Barú National Wildlife Refuge. This 330-hectare reserve near the mouth of the Río Barú, north of Dominical, offers bird-watching, hiking, canopy exploration and zip line tours, as well as comfortable accommodations.
Ballena National Marine Park. This park near the beach town of Dominical is famous for its whale-watching opportunities and sea turtle nesting grounds. Diving and swimming are other attractions.
Corcovado National Park. This remote area on the Osa Peninsula is a veritable paradise for nature lovers. It houses the northernmost strand of Amazonian rain forest and has a huge amount of wildlife, including monkeys, jaguars, crocodiles, tapirs and sea turtles.
The exotic province of Limón has a different feel from the rest of the country, with a distinctly Caribbean vibe fueled by Afro-Caribbean traditions and food. You’ll find that Limón moves at a different pace and feels more remote and less explored than the rest of Costa Rica. Here you can go diving, walking through parks, boating or surfing, or you can simply enjoy the beaches and wonderful culinary offerings.
Rain Forest Aerial Tram. About 50 minutes from San José on the highway to Limón is Rain Forest Aerial Tram’s Atlantic location, in Braulio Carrillo National Park. (See entry in Central Pacific section.) For information, call 2257-5961 or visit www.rainforestadventure.com.
Tortuguero National Park. Famous for its system of canals, Tortuguero is not only an important nesting site for the green sea turtle, but also is teeming with monkeys, jaguars, reptiles and amphibians. You’ll also find nutrias and manatees here. Nesting season for green turtles is mainly from June to October. Giant leatherback turtles also nest here, between March and July.
Cahuita National Park. This park on the southern Caribbean coast is home to the largest coral reef in Costa Rica. Cahuita has beautiful white-sand beaches that are perfect for snorkeling and scuba diving. A camping area rounds out the offerings at this gorgeous park.
Gandoca-Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge. This refuge near the southeastern border with Panama is famous for having the best-preserved coral in the country, as well as ancient rock formations.
Beaches. The beautiful beaches of the southern Caribbean coast offer abundant opportunities for sunbathing, surfing, diving and sportfishing, with the towns of Cahuita and Puerto Viejo hosting a variety of hotels and restaurants to choose from. Some of our favorite beaches: Cahuita, Puerto Vargas, Cocles, Chiquita, Punta Uva and Manzanillo.