A diverse sampling of National Parks and sound infrastructure in the form of medical care and potable water make Costa Rica an excellent choice for adventurous families.
Here are eleven excursions ranging from easy to extreme, beginning near San José then branching out to the country’s remote enclaves. Even in well-populated areas, the government has neglected the roadways because they have had no need to transport arms or soldiers since the military was abolished in 1948. Therefore, your adventure travel experience will include enduring arduous routes, but getting there is half the fun, right?
San José is not for the adventurous. It acts as a transit hub for backpackers flying in from all over the world who fan out to explore Central America. However, there are activities that families can do near the capital that do not require nerves of steel.
Parque Nacional Volcan Poás
Within easy distance of San José, Volcan Poás National Park is the closest and easiest volcano to begin adventuring. Kids will find the walk to the crater a cinch. A short leisurely hike along the trails in the forest is not difficult for kids who are fit and have done some easy hiking. Sunburn is the bigger concern at that altitude. Ages 4+
Outside of a suburb called Desamperados, southeast of San José, lies Fossil Land, an easy day trip by local transit. Prepare for a day of hilarity on the small mountain with Capitan Tula! Learning about the ancient seabed upon which Fossil Land rests forms the foundation of Capitan Tula’s objective: to impart an appreciation for the natural world. He accomplishes this by donning a “superhero” cape and performing an almost improv-comedy routine as a team-building exercise in the first few minutes of the program. After that, however, be prepared to move the limbs. Traipsing uphill through streams, zip lining across a gorge and spelunking into caves are just a smattering of what your day will be like before you are handed tools to chip away at the thousands upon thousands of fossils buried on the property. Ages 7+
Costa Rica’s main attractions extend from San José like the spokes of a wheel; one must backtrack to the city and venture off again. Heading southwest, arrange private transport for this leg and ask the driver to stop at the Tárcoles Bridge to peer at the crocs in the river below. There’s a rest stop across the street for drinks and snacks.
Kayak Jaco (pronounced kayak hocCOE)
Families won’t find much to do in Jacó besides eat and sleep, but just a bit north of town, Playa Agujas offers a relatively unknown destination for kayaking. A family run outfit called Kayak Jaco will arrange an exhilarating adventure that you will not soon forget.
From the hamlet of Playa Agujas, Neil Kahn, and his wife Yasmin have operated Kayak Jaco for nearly twenty years. Neil outfitted us with life jackets and took us out on the Pacific in his unique outrigger canoes to nearby Playa Blanca. At the beach, our kids enjoyed playing with hermit crabs and running around in the surf. Neil paid careful attention to the well-being of the children’s safety, a rarity in the region, but not a surprise when you learn that Neil and Yasmin have raised their own on the water learning the family business. Ages 5+
Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio
With easy hiking under their belts, kids will be ready for a trek in Manuel Antonio National Park. About ninety minutes from Jacó, go with the locals by bus to nearby Quepos, (if you are on a budget), bunk there, and take a day trip to Manuel Antonio. The jungle is dense with foliage, but now and then, the azure waters of the Pacific poke through gaps in the flora at strategically placed lookout points. Kids will be mesmerized as much by the crabs skulking in the loam as the numerous pizotes (raccoonesque creatures, unafraid of humans) who saunter along looking for scraps of food dropped by tourists. The reward at the end of the hike is a swim at the beach and a pavilion to unpack a picnic lunch (hence the proliferation of pizotes). Ages 5+
Tirimbina Biological Reserve
When the cute and fuzzy no longer act as a motivator to hike the rainforests, chocolate surely will. Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí, a mere eighty kilometers from San José, offers thrill seekers a variety of activities to choose from, but few are safe for children. The Tirimbina Rainforest Center organizes tours of the jungle led by a trained guide with the specific aim to educate visitors about the history of chocolate production in Central America. The tour is lengthy (close to three hours), but not too challenging and ends with the bonus attraction of a chocolate making tutorial. Taste testers encouraged. Ages 5+
Hiking in the rainforest isn’t overly difficult, but if getting there takes the better part of a day and you are expected to walk for at least three hours, it can be tough for kids. Children who have been active outdoors will have the advantage, but a good guide will adjust their pace and engage children by asking questions and pointing out interesting sights.
Children’s Eternal Rainforest (Bosque Eterno de los Niños)
A pattern of environmental stewardship becomes noticeable the more places you visit in Costa Rica. Never is it more evident than in the twin communities of Monteverde/Santa Elena, located an excruciating four hours from the center of the country. Hire private transport for this leg and have the driver stop when the stomachs get queasy. Start your adventure at the Children’s Eternal Rainforest. The trails are well-maintained, and young children will enjoy the walk if some wildlife can be spotted. However, the popular mammals are not the only creatures to be glimpsed in this rainforest. A twilight walk commencing at 5:30 p.m. showcases some of the exoskeletal if you have the stomach for it. Prepare for at least two hours of hiking no matter what time of day you go. Ages 5+
Santa Elena Cloud Forest
Santa Elena Cloud Forest is less crowded than the more renowned Monteverde Cloud Forest. Worried that others would not appreciate the number of stops required to allow the children to ogle strange looking mosses or insects, we hired a guide solely for our family. Our girls were happy just being outside in the fresh air, but even more impressed by the enormous trees, whose every spare inch seemed to be covered by epiphytes.
Opportunities to view wildlife in their natural surroundings were constant in the cloud forest, especially because our guide had the uncanny ability to identify the trill of various birds and track the route of three species of monkey: howler, white-faced capuchin, and squirrel. The scene before us, mist-covered pathways and dangling vines along with sounds emanating from the jungle elicited visions of Yoda’s home planet of Dagobah. A lifetime worth of science lessons took place here. Ages 7+
La Fortuna/Volcán Arenal
The majestic, formerly sputtering volcano Arenal, located in the town of La Fortuna, is reached by a well-organized taxi-boat-taxi “shortcut” that starts in Santa Elena. After ninety minutes, the van deposited us at Lake Arenal. The conical shape of the volcano was visible from the moment we arrived at the lake and stayed in our sight while we crossed to La Fortuna (about thirty minutes). A waiting van transported passengers directly to hotels in town. The trails at Parque Nacional Volcán Arenal are easy enough for children as young as 5.
For the following, children must be able to endure sometimes hours of mind-numbing and gut-wrenching bus rides or water transport to reach the destination. Sweltering heat, long hikes, very early mornings or middle of the night tours, and often a complete absence of creature comforts such as electricity and running water comprise the characteristics of these excursions.
Parismina (Getting there: extreme–reachable only by boat after a full day of travel on a non-air-conditioned and grossly overcrowded chicken bus)
Remote and isolated, the hamlet of Parismina is grassroots environmental stewardship at its best. Located outside the boundaries of the protected Tortuguero National Park, Parismina’s citizens have devised a way to protect endangered sea turtles from being decimated by offering tourists a chance to see the process of egg-laying up close and personal through scheduled turtle patrols. A nominal fee pays for a guide who accompanies you along the beach in the dark of night to deter poachers who are in search of eggs.
Patrols leave at 8:00, 10:00 and midnight and last two hours. It is a long walk for a child (up to seven kilometers) but if a sea turtle is spotted coming ashore, complaints of discomfort disappear once the giant creature begins her process of digging a hole in the sand to lay her eggs. Tourists wait at a respectful distance and then, when the mother returns to the sea, the eggs are removed and re-located to the hatchery.
The second part of the process begins at 5:30 a.m. when patrols go out to unearth eggs whose incubation period has ended. Seeing the fluttering of the tiny creatures as they wake from their twilight state is enough for anyone to forget the aching legs from the patrols. Accommodations are rustic. We tried camping at Alex Campground and enjoyed it immensely. Cold water showers and an open air kitchen on the grounds make this an ideal spot for an adventurous family. Ages 5+
Just two hours up the coast by lancha from Parismina lies the village of Tortuguero. If you travel from San José, select a tour bus that provides rest stops and arranges your water transport. Within a National Park, the turtles who come ashore here are protected from poachers by the Coast Guard. There are still nightly turtle-watching tours but if you have experienced the real deal in Parismina, take advantage of the tours that leave from the main docks and venture out for several hours to wind among the many tributaries of the Tortuguero canals in search of wildlife that Costa Rica is so famous for. Select a local guide who uses canoes rather than motorized vessels so as not to scare away the very creatures you are trying to spot. Ages 5+
Further south along the coast of the Caribbean lies the community of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca. Here, nor far from the cobalt blue water and the lilting sounds of Bob Marley we found El Puente, an organization that provides educational assistance and microloans to Indigenous families. When we visited El Puente, we helped cut up vegetables for the bi-weekly soup kitchen but managed to get ourselves invited to stay the night in the jungle with a Bribri family as a fundraising exercise.
After forty-five minutes of hiking uphill, we came to rest at a small clearing where the father had fashioned two elevated sleeping quarters, one for his family and another for guests. The mother made us a simple meal of beans and rice, and we chatted quietly at dusk while their children and ours played together. Father made a “jungle toilet”–a piece of wood with a hole carved out and laid across a pit. We washed up using water from a stream. Open air sleeping presented challenges, but we had brought sleeping mats and bug jackets. Keeping an eye on your children in these natural surroundings is paramount. Ages 7+
The nature of Costa Rica’s roadways demands a few weeks to experience all of the above family-based adventures. Transiting from one part of the country to another can take the better part of a day. Plan your route by restricting travel to four hours at most. Bus routes of this length make rest stops at intervals, necessary because there are no toilets on board. Renting a vehicle is an option but beware of theft that is so rampant among rental car users. However you travel, Costa Rica is full of adventure opportunities for your family.
Janet LoSole and her husband took a leave of absence, sold all their possessions and spent nearly two years backpacking through Central America as part of a massive field trip for their two homeschooled daughters.