Costa Rica is an awesome place to take kids. Sometimes, finding the right balance between what adults enjoy and what kids enjoy can be a challenge on a family vacation. Our family vacation to Costa Rica was the right mix of fun and adventure. It was also a great educational experience in the best outdoor class room ever. Without my eight-year old son even knowing it, he was learning about conservation, alternative energy sources and botany all with Spanish sub-titles. We travelled this small country in a rented car; from the capital of San José, to the shy volcano of Arenal, to the cloud forests of Monteverde to the monkeys of Manuel Antonio.
If you are planning on going to Costa Rica with kids, here are the twelve things that made my son smile from ear to ear.
- Buy a Soccer Ball (All of Costa Rica)
My son loves to play soccer; so does the entire population of Costa Rica. Costa Rica may be small, but its soccer team will be in the 2018 World Cup whereas the United States men’s soccer team will not. Costa Rica is ranked number 22 in FIFA. Its team made it all the way to the quarter finals in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Every town in Costa Rica has three things; a church, a school and a soccer field. Playing soccer is a great way to make friends with the locals. Every place we stop, Max takes out his soccer ball and, immediately, he is surrounded by a group of local kids. He learns to say “¿Quieres jugar fútbol conmigo?” (Do you want to play soccer with me?)”
2. Catch Some Butterflies (San Jose)
Not far from the capital city of San José is La Paz Waterfall Gardens Nature Park. From our hotel in San José, we book a day trip tour to the Doka Estate Coffee Plantation. The tour includes a stop at La Paz for lunch and a tour of the gardens. Max’s favorite part is the butterfly garden. Inside the butterfly gardens, over twenty-five different species of butterflies flutter about free. The giant Blue Morpho is Max’s favorite. The butterflies land on everything; his shoulder, is head, his hat. One Blue Morpho lands on Max’s hat and stays there as he walks through the observatory. The observatory also displays the jewel like cocoons where Max watches the butterflies as they emerged and unfurl their wings.
3. Take the Guided Tour (Monteverde)
Every national park in Costa Rica includes a free tour in its entrance fee, you just have to ask. The guided tours are awesome and the tour guides are highly trained educators. We take our first guided tour in the cloud forests of Monte Verde at 100% Aventura. As we make our way through a network of suspended bridges, our tour guide explains to us the difference between primary growth and secondary growth forests. Our guide points out bugs and plants. He gives us a class in ecology and conservation. He tells us that the ranchers on the milk farms are encouraged to plant trees by being provided grass seeds that grow in the shade. The government provides the ranchers with containers for the cow poop which the government collects free of charge to harness the power of the methane gas. He tells us that if a tree falls on your property, by law, you are not allowed to move it.
Max soaks in all of this information under his rain poncho. Without Max even realizing it, he is learning valuable lessons from a small country with a big goal. Costa Rica intends to become the first carbon neutral country in the world by nurturing this beautiful forest we are touring. Max grins widely as he gets to climb a ladder hidden inside a giant ficus tree.
4. Play Tarzan (Monteverde)
So zip lining is probably the scariest, most thrilling thing I have even worked by nerve up to try. Max love, love, loves it. We zip line at Selvature Park in Monteverde. The guides spring from the platform onto the zip lines like monkeys, spinning playfully as their glide to the next platform. Max is the first to go. I feel my heart sqeeze with fear as I see him jump off the platform, clingling to the back of his guide like a baby monkey. He looks so small as he dissapears into the mist. I am next. Fear. Panic! Jump. Glide. Breath. Beauty. Elation! Clunk. I hit the metal stopper and the ride is over. I am still alive. Max is still alive, grinning, his face covered in black spots.
At the end of the ride, Max climbs up to the top of the Tarzan Swing, a raised platform with a rope tied to the center. As Max hurls himself off the platform, a look of shear fear crosses his face followed by a look of shear delight as the rope swings him like a giant pendulum. Yeah, so I am not doing that.
5. Ride Like a King (Monteverde)
Max enjoys a tour of the cloud forest from a higher perspective; on top of a horse. We book a morning ride at La Estrellas Stables in Monteverde. This ride is Max’s first time on a horse. His horse’s name is King and King only speaks Spanish. Our guide teaches Max how to get King to move by telling him to say “Vamos King.” Max enjoys the ride through the fields where we see cows and a view of the far away ocean. From our vantage point, we can see both the Pacific and the Caribbean. We follow the path into the forest where we see a sleeping sloth. Max squeals in delight when he is allowed to make King trot across the open field. “Vamos King, vamos King.”
6. Stay Up Late (Monteverde)
Most of the creatures in Costa Rica are nocturnal, making night time the best time to see them. We book a nocturnal tour Santa Marias Night Walk. The tour includes a tour guide and a flashlight. As the night falls and darkness descends, Max’s eye bulge with excitement. The forest fills with the cacophony of night creatures. We enter the forest armed only with our flashlights. Our guide shines a light in a nearby tree “look, there is a deadly snake.” We all shine our lights towards his light to see an emerald green snake dangling from a branch in frozen stillness. This tour feels like a night time scavenger hunt. We rush from place to place as the guide via a walkie-talkie finds us more creatures.
7. Ride the Waves (Manual Antonio)
Manual Antonio is situated on the Pacific Ocean side of Costa Rica. It has one of the best surf breaks for beginner surfers. You can sign up for a surf lesson right on the beach. Max takes a lesson and, within no time, he is standing up on the board and riding the wave to the sand. Luckily, I only found out about the ocean going crocodiles after we returned home the San Francisco.
8. Climb Trees (On the road from San Jose to La Fortuna)
On of the coolest, weirdest places we stopped is Zarcero, a small town on the road between San Jose and La Fortuna. This town features a church situated in a park maintained by Evangelista Blanco. The bushes and trees are shaped to look like something out of Doctor Seuss. It is a perfect place to stop and explore. Max enjoys climbing the strangely shaped trees while I enjoy a rest from driving.
9. Eat in a Tree or in a Plane (Monteverde and Manual Antonio)
In Monteverde, you can literally sit in a tree as you enjoy your lunch. The Tree House is a restaurant that has been built around a giant ficus tree. When it rains, the water drips from the leaves onto your table.
In Manual Antonio, El Avión is a restaurant built in, around and above a C-123 Fairchild cargo plane. While Max enjoys watching soccer games inside the pub located inside the plane, I enjoy watching the spectacular view of the sunset over the Pacific Ocean.
10. Learn a Little Spanish (All of Costa Rica)
You cannot get very far into your trip in Costa Rica without hearing the phrase “Pura Vida.” What is “pura vida?” “Pura vida” means pure life in Spanish. It is the single most used expression in Costa Rica. It is a response to “Cómo estás?” It means, “life is great.” It is a greeting and a goodbye. Teach your children to say this phrase to the locals and it will invoke many happy responses. If you would like to read more about the historical origins of the use of pure vida as Costa Rica’s national slogan, check out my blog post How a Thousand Yello Butterflies Taught Me about Pura Vida.
11. Talk to the Animals (Manuel Antonio)
Costa Rica is teaming with life. From the sloths and quetzals of Monteverde to the monkeys of Manuel Antonio. Taking a vacation in Costa Rica is like walking through an open air zoo. You never know what strange creature is going to cross your path.
On morning in Manuel Antonio as I sit on the porch of our rented villa, I hear mangoes falling. Branches shake in the trees high above me, moved by invisible hands. The monkeys are coming. I can hear chirps that sound like high-pitch dolphin calls. Soon a parade of monkeys jumps from tree to tree above our porch at Villa Titi. I sit frozen, afraid to even sip my coffee. I do not want to scare them away.
As if by magic, I am suddenly surrounded by monkeys. There must be at least twenty of them in the large mango tree that grows above our villa. These are the squirrel monkeys; tiny, delicate, light tan monkeys with soft white faces. Max has come to the door. I slowly gesture him to stop. Max stares at our tiny guests who beam at us with small intense eyes. They are so close I tingle with excitement. I have never been this close to monkeys without a fence separating us. A baby clings to its mother’s back staring back at us in wide-eyed wonder.
After a pause, the monkeys begin the business that brought them to our tree. It is breakfast time. They begin their morning routine. They seem to have forgotten us completely. They throw the mangoes down from the tree. They run down to the ground to retrieve their fallen treasures. On the ground, they take a few thoughtful test bites before they carry the mango back up into the tree. Max and I watch with silly grins on our faces. As suddenly as they arrive, as if by mutual agreement, they all leave. The shaking branches and fading chirps mark their retreat.
12. Play Detective (Monteverde)
Costa Rica is home to over 1400 different species of Orchids including some of the tiniest. In Monteverde, the Orchid Garden is staffed by volunteers who work the desk in exchange for room and board. We meet a young man from Redding California who will soon return home to become a fire fighter. In the meantime, he gives us a tour of the gardens. To begin our tour, he hands Max a large magnifying glass. As we make our way through the gardens, he explains to us the life cycle of the orchid and how each orchid has its own special pollinator. Max peers through his magnifying glass is the itty bitty buds.
I would highly suggest following our route if you have about two weeks to spend traveling through Costa Rica. We flew in and out of San José. After spending a few days in San José, we rented a four wheel drive car which the rental company brought to our hotel. The roads of Costa Rica are well maintained and easy to navigate. However, you will need a four wheel drive car for the roads in and around Monteverde as they are all unpaved. I also recommend a GPS device as it is easy to get lost as the backroads are not well marked. Once we arrived back at our hotel in San José, we simply left our rental car in the parking lot and the company picked it up for us.
Here is a map of our trip. Each stop was separated by about a three hour drive. We spent three nights in San Jose, two in La Fortuna, five in Monteverde, five in Manuel Antonio and one more in San Jose before we flew home.