Costa Rica attracts adventurous families. With its zip lines, whitewater rafting, wildlife, and hiking opportunities, it’s hard to imagine a better place to visit if you love the outdoors. If you’re planning a family vacation to Costa Rica, good for you. You could just fly there and wing it, and you’d be fine, I’m sure. However, we all know that when you have kids planning ahead is never a bad idea.
All my usual advice for how to prepare for an international trip with kids applies here, but once you’ve got the basic stuff down (passports in hand, right?) you have to get down to the nitty gritty. Here’s what I tell all my friends trying to plan an adventurous family vacation to Costa Rica.
Rent a Car
You don’t have to rent a car in Costa Rica. You can have a great vacation without one. But to get off the beaten path — to find your own secluded beach, or for the chance to stop at random rivers and catch frogs — you’ll need a rental car.
Tips for renting a car in Costa Rica:
- You need a 4×4. Absolutely. Even in the dry season. You never know when you’ll find a river to cross!
- Buy the full coverage insurance. It’s expensive, but just buy it. We are not usually full insurance people — we are usually “take the risk” people — but let’s be honest, my husband has damaged our rental car more times than I care to count in Costa Rica. Get the insurance.
- You need GPS. Every rental car agency will offer you some sort of option for this, usually with Waze, which is the best map and traffic option in Costa Rica. GET IT.
- Follow all traffic laws carefully, including speed limits and car seat and seatbelt laws (which are very strict in Costa Rica). We’ve never had problems, but I’ve heard stories and I can see how a local cop would not be inclined to go easy on a wealthy-appearing tourist.
- Avoid driving at night or at dusk. You’ll be sharing the road with pedestrians and cyclists, who are hard to see. Plus, most roads are unmarked and it’s very difficult to find your destination in the dark.
- Driving in San Jose is the worst part of driving in Costa Rica, but if you have managed to drive in any other major world city, you can handle San Jose. If all your driving experience has been in Boise, you might be challenged, but I have faith in you.
Talk to Your Kids About Toilets
Sure, this may sound silly. But hear me out. In all but the most expensive, most Western hotels in Costa Rica, you will be expected to throw the toilet paper in the garbage can, not the toilet, as the septic systems can’t handle it.
This is a small thing, but we know that toilets and kids can be disasters if not handled properly (haven’t we all potty trained at one point?) and that kids who have just learned to read are probably not going to read the reminder signs that are tacked up all over the bathrooms in Costa Rica.
So just tell your kids before the trip, and in the airport, and frequently throughout your trip, as you do not want to be the people responsible for clogging the toilet at whichever restaurant or hotel you are visiting.
Also, consider traveling with a little pack of tissues in your bag…just in case.
About Restaurants…One Word: “Pollandia”
I would never recommend flying to another country just to eat fast food, but if things get desperate — and with kids they sometimes do — you should know that we consider Pollandia to have the best fried chicken of anywhere in the world. Does it just taste better because we’ve been starving every time we had it? Who knows! But their chicken comes with tortillas, which means when you add the fruit from the fruit stand nearby, you have a balanced meal.
You’ll thank me for this one, I promise. (Unless you’re vegetarian, I guess…)
When you’re slightly less desperate, try to eat at sodas. When you see a sign that says soda, it’s referring to a local restaurant (not Coke). Usually they’ll serve some type of typical dishes with fish or chicken and rice and beans. Hopefully your kids are good eaters and love rice and beans. If not, I have asked for tortillas in the past and occasionally been successful.
There are lots of tourists and expats in areas of Costa Rica you’ll likely visit, and that means some deliciously expensive gourmet restaurants. It’s a little crazy, because you can frequently find something half the price next door. If you care about cost, one tip is to avoid any place that lists their prices in U.S. dollars. We made this mistake in Santa Teresa. Unless you are independently wealthy, shop around.
Budget for Tours
In the past, we never took any tours, because that’s how my husband rolls and our kids were toddlers. Last year, I decided I wanted to take ALL THE TOURS. It cost us ALL THE MONEY. However…some of them were really amazing and I couldn’t believe I had missed out on, say, zip lining in the past!
My advice: make a budget and decide what activities you care most about. Also, don’t skimp on hiring a guide if you want to see wildlife, even if you’re the independent type. Local guides in Costa Rica are well trained — ours have usually had perfect English and frequently you’ll get someone with a degree in biology leading your dolphin or wildlife tour. They can always spot wildlife you would never see on your own.
Check out our top 20 things to do with kids in Costa Rica to help you plan your trip.
Bring some dollars. Bigger establishments and grocery stores will take your credit card, but mom-and-pop places and tour agencies frequently want cash. There are plenty of banks where you can withdraw money with your debit card; however, on our last trip, we relied on this plan and that was a mistake. Taking ALL THE TOURS meant we needed quite a bit of cash to pay for those tours, and the ATM at the bank in Puerto Jimenez would only let us withdraw $200 at a time.
Consider bringing enough cash to pay for the tours you intend to take, at least, and souvenirs. Your credit card is usually fine for grocery stores and hotels. I hate traveling with a lot of cash, so it’s a delicate balance. The question of how much cash to bring also depends on how developed an area of the country you intend to visit; in larger towns you’ll have an easier time withdrawing money.
Costa Rica has very low rates of violent crime but petty theft is on the rise, especially in touristy areas, so use common sense in keeping your valuables safe. My husband and I both carry cash and credit cards and split it among our luggage so that if one of us gets a bag or wallet stolen, we’re still fine.
Pack the Right Stuff
Disclaimer: I’m not a minimalist packer, especially when we go to Costa Rica, rent a car, and set out on an adventure. I’ve written elsewhere about what to pack for a trip to Costa Rica with kids. You really can buy anything you need in Costa Rica, but some items are imported and more expensive. Of particular importance are sunscreen, insect repellent, microfiber towels, toddler life jackets, and butterfly nets for catching frogs and butterflies.
We have easily purchased sandals in Costa Rica, but butterfly nets were harder to come by. Check out my must-have travel gear for little explorers, which includes all the stuff my outdoorsy kids use at home and abroad.