If there’s one thing we know well after all these years, it’s what to do with kids in Costa Rica. If you haven’t been to Costa Rica, it’s no secret that I think you should go. This bewitching, palm-fringed, eco-friendly Latin American paradise is our favorite family vacation destination, with plenty of activities for the whole family.
In Costa Rica, adrenaline-seekers can surf and zip line. Nature lovers can see wildlife up close in national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, and basically anywhere outside the city (we saw a sloth just crossing the road — very, very slowly crossing the road). Eager learners can visit sustainable, off-the-grid farms and study a country that’s at the forefront of conservation. If you’re a family of hikers, there are waterfalls galore as well as volcanoes and mountains to explore (and will you please send me your tips because my kids can’t even tolerate the word “hike” right now.)
Then there’s the ocean: the turquoise waters of the Caribbean, the sweet calm of the Golfo Dulce and the consistent waves that beat the Pacific beaches. You can snorkel, dive, surf, boogie board, and build endless sand castles as scarlet macaws fly overhead.
Ready to go yet? First, you’ll have to pick and choose from this list. I’ve tried to do them all in one trip, and it’s not advisable (or cheap). In no particular order, here we go: all the best things to do in Costa Rica with the whole family.
Zip Line Through a Rainforest Canopy
I’d be willing to bet that Costa Rica has the highest zip line to citizen ratio of anywhere in the world. You don’t have to visit one specific area of Costa Rica to experience the mad adrenaline of whizzing through the air suspended from a cable; you’ll see signs everywhere advertising zip lines. Zip lines can be one of the best ways to see the flora and fauna of Costa Rica if you are in the right place. I recommend looking for a zip line in a dense forest as it will afford you chances to see animals you may otherwise miss.
There are strict safety regulations in Costa Rica, so you can be assured everyone will arrive at the last platform unscathed. Ask about age and weight restrictions, as every company has different policies. Before you go, check out everything you need to know about zip lining in Costa Rica with kids.
Visit a Volcano
Costa Rica still has active volcanoes, although the regular lava eruptions of the famous Arenal Volcano ended a few years ago. If you have a budding volcanologist in your family, you’ll want to visit one for sure. For more information, check out this guide to the volcanoes of Costa Rica.
Soak and Play in Hot Springs
Costa Rica has some impressive hot springs. If you plan on visiting the Arenal area, don’t miss them. Baldi Hot Springs and Tabacon Thermal Resort are two of the more well-known, family-friendly spots, but there are other excellent natural hot springs in Costa Rica, too.
Visit Sea Turtle Nesting Sites
Tortuguero National Park, in the northeast of the country, is the most famous sea turtle nesting site in Costa Rica. Accessible only by plane or boat, this is a phenomenal place to visit; green sea turtles nest here from March to October. Costa Rica is home to four species of sea turtles: green, leatherback, olive ridley, and hawksbill. You can read more about location and nesting seasons for each species here.
The Osa Peninsula in the southeast is one of the most protected areas of the country and sea turtles are frequently spotted there as well. Although it wasn’t nesting season, while visiting the Osa we frequently saw turtles dipping in and out of the waves, and one April morning while jogging I came across the nesting tracks of a turtle that evidently hadn’t read a calendar.
Take a Surfing Lesson
If your kids are already spectacular surfers, you can find a beach to set them loose anywhere in the country. If not, don’t be afraid to sign them up for a lesson! I was surprised that my five-year-old wanted to surf, shocked they were willing to teach him for two hours, and absolutely thrilled to see him out-surf all the beginner adults alongside him. You can find surfing beaches and surf schools pretty much anywhere along either coast, and they will schedule your lesson at a place and time where the waves are appropriate for your little one.
The most famous surfing beaches are around Santa Teresa on the southern Nicoya Peninsula, Playa Matapalo (lessons are usually at Playa Pan Dulce) on the Osa Peninsula, Playa Hermosa and Playa Dominical on the Pacific Coast, and around Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean side.
Go on a Chocolate Tour or Visit a Local Farm
Finca means “farm” and rancho means “ranch” and if you have a chance to tour a local farm or ranch, take that chance! Cacao grows in many places in Costa Rica, and getting to see how chocolate is made by hand, from seed to bar, is pretty amazing for any age. It’s truly educational, plus it’s easy to get the whole family excited about anything that involves chocolate.
Snorkeling and Diving
We always pack snorkels when we travel with Costa Rica with our family, because you never know when you’ll want to peer under the water! There are lots of places to take snorkel and diving tours, but one of the best is Cano Island, a protected island and reef off of Drake Bay on the Osa Peninsula. You can see a map here of the best places to scuba dive in Costa Rica.
Visit a Wildlife Sanctuary
If traipsing through the jungle isn’t your thing, you can still experience Costa Rica’s wildlife by visiting a wildlife sanctuary. Osa Wildlife Sanctuary on the Osa Peninsula is reachable only by boat, but has a reputation as a serious wildlife rehabilitation center. On the Caribbean side, the Jaguar Rescue Center also has a good reputation. If you are staying on the central Pacific coast, consider a visit to Alturas Wildlife Sanctuary.
There are several other animal rescue centers in Costa Rica. If you are trying to volunteer or donate money, I would investigate first, as the line between “wildlife sanctuary” and “zoo” can be fuzzy. That said, if you are just looking for a place to let your kids see critters, these can be great options. Our favorite little spot to see caged animals — particularly frogs and snakes — is Neo Fauna, located just past the popular beach town of Jaco.
Play on the Beach
Costa Rica has no shortage of spectacular beaches. Check out our guide to the best beaches in Costa Rica to help plan your trip, or just sit back and look at pretty beach photos and daydream. There are sandcastles to build, waves to play in, and tide pools to explore for active kids.
If you have kids that balk at the idea of spending all day on a boat tour, see if they’ll go for kayaks instead. Kayaks offer a quieter, closer-to-the-water way to see dolphins and mangroves and all sorts of oceanic life up close. With double kayaks, you can easily paddle your kid along with you, while older kids will get a kick out of controlling their own watercraft. Our favorite outfit for kayak tours is Aventuras Tropicales on the Golfo Dulce.
Visit Monteverde Cloud Forest
This is the one famous Costa Rica attraction that I haven’t seen yet, mostly because I go to Costa Rica in search of warmer temperatures and refuse to bring a jacket. The Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve is a private conservation area where you can hike through misty rainforests and spy exotic animals. There are a variety of adventure tours available here, from tree climbing to repelling and zip lining, along with educational opportunities galore. This area of Costa Rica is mountainous and cooler than other areas, and people frequently pair this with a trip to the beach afterwards.
Hike to a Waterfall
If your kids are hikers or waterfall-lovers, or you’re willing to drag them along on such adventures, you’ll find plenty to keep you busy in Costa Rica. Check out one of the subjectively rated “best” waterfalls in Costa Rica….or ask around once you arrive and see if you can find your own slice of plunging water paradise.
Visit a Sustainable Farm
Costa Rica’s eco-friendly, sustainable vibe and lush environment means that it’s studded with off-the-grid operations — and lucky for you and me, many of these places are open to visitors. Younger kids will adore the animals, and older kids will be fascinated by the ability of places like Rancho Margot to generate all their own electricity and food for their restaurant. Choosing to stay at fully off-the-grid accommodations for a couple of nights was one of the best decisions we made for our family.
Explore National Parks
Costa Rica has an impressive national park system, part of a careful attempt to conserve its national resources. National parks offer the chance to see animals like sloths, monkeys, a variety of reptiles, and exotic birds in the wild.
Corcovado National Park is the largest and most remote national park in Costa Rica, and not for the casual tourist. If you’re wondering if you should take your kids to Corcovado National Park, you may want to consider a visit to the ever-popular and far more accessible Manuel Antonio National Park instead.
Seek out Dolphins
Costa Rica’s warm waters are home to four species of dolphin: common, spotted, spinner, and rough-toothed. Take a dolphin tour by boat or kayak to increase your chances of viewing these gorgeous creatures.
Go River Rafting
The rivers that rush from the central mountains of Costa Rica down to the coasts provide for plenty of river rafting, from terrifying rapids to calm float trips. Check out these white-water rafting tours in Costa Rica, or consider a stay at Rafiki Safari Lodge, where the river runs right by the lodge and rafting packages are part of the deal.
Pan for Gold…Legally
Costa Rica’s history is heavy with tales of gold. Currently gold mining is banned, but gold still exists, especially on the Osa Peninsula and in the Rio Tigre. In the small town of Dos Brazos, you can pay local guides to take you upriver and help you find a few gold flakes. It turns out this is the perfect activity for a certain category of treasure-obsessed older child. We had great fun on our Costa Rica gold panning tour.
Costa Rica has ample opportunities for sport fishing charters off its coasts, if that’s what you’re looking for, but you can also have plenty of fun fishing in the surf. You’ll find fishing boats and guides for hire in any coastal town. If you’re looking to fish on your own, check out our guide to fishing in Costa Rica with kids.
Our kids love to chase butterflies, and never go anywhere without these butterfly nets. Costa Rica’s tropical environment is home to some of the world’s most beautiful butterflies, so keep your eyes open. Or visit one of Costa Rica’s many butterfly gardens for all butterflies, all the time!
Check out Local Culture and Cooking Tours
Costa Rica has no shortage of tours aimed at wooing visitors away from the beach…but the good news is, so far I haven’t been on one that wasn’t worth it. Consider signing your family up for a tour designed to get your kids more immersed in the local culture and trying new foods, like this coconut-based cooking experience. My kids are usually wary of new foods, but absolutely loved making (and eating!) coconut candy in Costa Rica with coconuts and cinnamon sourced from the front yard and served on leaves from the garden.