Does Costa Rica work for families?
I travelled to Costa Rica with my husband and two young children, Charlie and Patrick, who are 4 and 6 years old. The aim of the trip was for quality family time with a mix of adventure, sunshine as well as some downtime. The itinerary included jungle, wildlife, a range of hotels from mountain and jungle lodges to bigger luxury beach hotels. I wanted to put Costa Rica to the test and find out for myself if it was worth visiting with children.
We took the direct British Airways morning flight from London to San Jose and landed in Costa Rica 10 hours later at 4pm. Seven hours behind UK. Luckily, the children had enough to amuse themselves with on the flight from colouring books, card games to i-pads.
The trip combined visiting volcanoes, waterfalls and wildlife sanctuaries in the Central Valley, exploring the waterways and canals through the rainforest in Tortuguero National Park and travelling along Caribbean and Pacific beaches. We flew in 10 seater twin-prop planes, we were driven in the comfort of our own vehicles with our own guides, as well as self-driving 1400km from east coast to west coast passing through vast banana plantations, mountain ranges and national parks.
WHERE WE STAYED
Finca Rosa Blanca, Central Valley
A small hotel only twenty minutes from the international airport, surrounded by luscious forest, birds singing outside our bedroom window, a delightful large infinity pool looking over the central valley (which we had to ourselves) and a restaurant serving delicious costa rican fare served by the most charming and happy people. This could not have been a better welcome to Costa Rica.
We went off and visited La Paz Waterfalls and Gardens with our excellent guide Isaac, the perfect introduction to Costa Rica’s flora and fauna. If time had allowed, we would have gone to Poas Volcano and I would have booked a spa treatment at the hotel spa.
Manatus Lodge, Tortuguero National Park
An early start from the central valley and an overland journey through Braulio National Park to Tortuguero National Park on the north-east coast. What could have been an arduous morning with young children turned out to be a fun adventure passing through amazing scenery including miles and miles of banana plantations while our guide chatted to the kids about jungles, snakes and football.
Once at our lodge, which we arrived at by boat, we spent the days exploring the canals spotting all sorts of wildlife. The children were given a check-list of animals to look out for. We saw caiman, monkeys, herons, eagles, otters, egrets, sloths, a crocodile, spiders and lots more. Exploring by boat is great way for children to see the rainforest – no walking, carrying children, nor any chance of getting bored. The swimming pool back at the lodge is the perfect end to the day to cool off before an early dinner and bed. Thanks to our guide Luis, who was born and brought up in Tortuguero, we learnt so much about the region and how it has evolved from potential destruction from the logging years pre-1970s to a now protected national park.
If you travel to Tortuguero in the turtle nesting/hatching season (July – October Hawksbill Turtles & Feb to April Leatherback Turtles) you have the added bonus of watching these beautiful creatures arrive in the moonlight to lay their eggs on the beach.
Le Cameleon Hotel, Puerto Viejo on Caribbean Coast
Three hours by road from San Jose and you arrive at the very laid back town of Puerto Viejo. First impressions of the region..a back-packer stop however after a few days here we warmed to the charm of the slow pace, reggae music and lack of mod-cons. The draw to this corner of Costa Rica are the long expanse of beaches, the nature and birding opportunities in Cahuita National Park, the sloth sanctuary and riding.
There are a handful of places to eat, serving fairly basic food, a lot of simple hotels, some self-catered villas and the one small boutique luxury hotel, Le Cameleon. We stayed at Le Cameleon!
A hip hotel with minimalist modern touches and Ibiza-style chilled tunes wafting through the jungley surroundings. Due to the heat and humidity, escaping to air-conditioned rooms was very welcoming. There were a few mosquitoes about at dusk so you definitely need to take sufficient deet repellent.
The days here were spent lazing by the pool, exploring the miles of black and white sandy beaches and venturing into the national park for excellent birding opportunities.
A warning to all families, most of the hotels in Puerto Viejo including Le Cameleon are located on the edge of the coastal road. It’s a busy road and it can be noisy. Do not let your young children out of your sight!
Poas Volcano Lodge
A charming remote lodge about 40 minutes from San Jose airport near the entrance to Poas Volcano Reserve and La Paz Waterfalls and Gardens. The drive itself from San Jose is beautiful along windy roads with amazing vistas over mountain rages, volcanoes and the central valley.
We arrived at this dairy farm after a long drive from the coast and the warmth and charm of the place was simply wonderful. The lodge is owned by an English family and it’s design and cosiness is indicative of it’s owners. Surrounded by rolling hills and verdant stunning countryside outside yet inside, you feel like you are in a Scottish highland Lodge – lovely high ceilings with large wooden beams, polished concrete floors covered with an array of Persian rugs and wood burning fires in the living rooms. For children and young adults, there is a games room with billiards table, a huge cinema room and a small selection of toys and board games.
Why come here… to explore the cloud forest with excellent birding, to visit the crater lake of Poas Volcano, to head up to Sarapiqui for a wildlife experience on the Sarapiqui River, zip lining and if you want to head onto Arenal afterwards, it’s only 2 hours away.
It’s a great base to explore and you return each day to delicious home-cooked food, a good selection of wines and the best gin and tonic!
Mangroove Beach Hotel near Papagayo, Pacific Coast
A short flight from San Jose or a 5 hour drive from San Jose. I’d recommend the flight as the drive can be quite slow if you get stuck behind a truck!
Mangroove is a small resort with all the facilities of a big resort including a huge swimming pool, water sports desk, three restaurants, a kids club, spa and a small fitness centre. The service was excellent, cuisine for both adults and kids was delicious and the feel to the place is very peaceful.
The hotel is right on the beach where the sea is flat calm. I would say that most guests stay by the hotel poolside rather than swim in the sea. The beach is not private so you do see locals enjoying the beach too.
The watersports centre can arrange non-motorised sports including kayaking and paddle-boarding, deep sea fishing, snorkelling and boat tours. It is also possible to arrange scuba diving at the Bat Islands, Costa Rica’s best spot for diving.
If guests want to visit local town, shops and restaurants, it’s possible to take a taxi to Playa Coco which is only 20 minutes away by water taxi.
The neighbouring hotel, Andaz Papagayo, on Papagayo Peninsula, is also an excellent resort hotel and ideal for families and couples alike. It is larger and offers a larger range of activities and facilities with top notch luxuries, huge bedrooms and everything you’d expect from a 5* resort. I loved it.
Is Costa Rica good for families?
Yes, Costa Rica is a brilliant destination for families. There are plenty of attractions and activities to keep the young entertained, it’s educational, easy to travel around, the food is good and all the hotels have simple and healthy options for kids.
Every family and every child is different so what worked for my family, may not work for others. Costa Rica is a tropical country so it will be hot and humid and you will spend a lot of time in jungles and rainforest so expect to see a few creepy crawlies. Come prepared with high-factor sun-screen and good insect repellent and drink plenty of water. Not all lodges have interconnecting rooms so you may have to share a room with younger children. There are some minimum-age restrictions on activities such as riding, zip-lining and white water-rafting. Most family friendly hotels have swimming pools and are surrounded by an abundance of nature and wildlife so young children will love it as well as older children and teenagers.