Costa Rica is famous for its beautiful beaches, its abundance of wildlife, and its friendly citizens. That is what makes it the perfect option for families looking to find a place that is safe, fun, and full of adventures to last a lifetime. I know because not only have I planned hundreds of vacations for families, but I also brought my own family down from the United States to explore my favorite places in the country.
After landing in San Jose, I picked them up in a comfortable rental SUV and we drove to La Fortuna, home of Volcan Arenal. On the way we stopped for a delicious lunch where my nephews started working on their Spanish and befriended a couple of playful dogs sitting outside. We made it to Arenal Springs Resort for a dazzling sunset and a restful evening at their restaurant adjacent to the hot springs right on the property.
The next morning we went on the Arenal Canopy Tour, a zipline adventure that included a Tarzan rope swing. That part was purely voluntary as my sister-in-law was not keen on jumping off a 50 foot platform attached to a harness. However, the tour is created to be extremely safe, with multiple guides helping us along the trails and zooming through the rainforest on the sturdy cables. We saw lots of monkeys and one sloth observing us from his jungly bed.
That evening we walked through the town of La Fortuna. There was an amazing sunset with multiple rainbows and an incredibly clear view of the volcano’s peak. We ended up enjoying dinner at the Lava Lounge and my nephews learned that the restaurant was assisting an organization that rescued dogs and helped them get adopted. They bought a collar for their dog at home, and the profits raised money for the charity.
The next morning we were treated to clear blue skies and a beautiful drive around Lake Arenal. We headed south to my home near Dominical on the South Pacific Coast and made it in time for another dazzling sunset. Both nephews and my brother were excited to hit the beach and get surf lessons so we made it an early evening, exhausted from the journey there. One tip for travelers is to not try to do too much in one way. The heat and humidity in Costa Rica’s tropical zone can cause dehydration, plus why rush when it is better to go slow and enjoy the scenery. Sometimes you even see monkeys in the trees right off the highway or scarlet macaws flying right above your car.
The boys were up early and after a breakfast of fresh fruits and eggs from the chicken coop next door, we drove to Dominical beach. Here the mountains and jungle come right down to the coast, and the sound of the waves is only broken by the calls of toucans perched in the beachside almond trees. They booked lessons with Costa Rica Surf School which has a small shop right across the coast with plenty of soft top surfboards in all sizes and friendly, well trained instructors. [see our DOMINICAL SURF SCHOOL LIST]
First they learned to read the waves and how to carry and paddle the surfboard. Then they practiced standing up on boards drawn in the sand. Finally each student went out with one instructor to ensure they were safe and could get feedback after each ride. The waves on the outside were bigger for advanced surfers, but after they broke provided plenty of whitewater to push the beginners to the shore. All of the students were standing up and riding short waves by the end of the lesson while I cheered them on and took photos. [see other DOMINICAL TOURS]
Another awesome tour we did while in the area called the Costa Ballena was a whale watching tour. We left from Uvita early the next morning with Delfin Tours. There were a lot of boats out that morning but everyone in our group was given a complete safety briefing and how to wear the lifejackets and what was allowed and not allowed while on the boat. None of the boats got too close to the whales but we saw mother and juvenile whales swimming and breaching only 20 yards from our seats! These are humpback whales that come down from Alaska each year to raise their young.
After the whale watching, our boat captain took us to an empty beach where we could swim, snorkel, enjoy a walk along the coast, or play on the rocks. We were treated to snacks, fruits, and water and arrived back in Uvita with plenty of time of clean up, rest, and make it back to the beach to enjoy another perfect sunset. Dominical has a dozen restaurants to choose from, everything from local cuisine to sushi, thai food, pizza, burgers, or Mexican dishes. Since they see tourists from around the world they have something for every appetite plus plenty of vegetarian and vegan options.
For our final day in that corner of Costa Rica, we took an hour drive up to Manuel Antonio National Park. This is the most famous park in Costa Rica, mostly because of the scenic easy to walk trails that go through multiple eco-systems, but there is a beautiful beach inside the park and white-faced monkeys that come right up to the visitors. Sadly this is due to previous visitors feeding them, but now the park rangers don’t allow food in the park and teach locals and tourists how to protect the flora and fauna.
We walked slowly through the park with a guide who had a monocle for viewing wildlife up close. He helped us spot two sloths, three types of monkeys (spider, white faced, and howler), a basilisk (also called a Jesus Christ lizard because it runs on water), dozens of tropical birds, and even a agouti – which looks like a giant gerbil. The boys climbed a four story viewing tower to see far over the mangrove forest and into the tropical canopy. And my brother brought his snorkeling gear to explore the reef right off the white sand fringed cove.
My family had dinner in a restaurant that was created out a giant airplane placed right on top of the mountain. The boys checked out the cockpit while the adults had a frozen drink and took in the view above Manuel Antonio. The meal portions were giant and tasty, and we tried the local favorite – tres leches – for dessert. That night we slept soundly with the only background noise being the crickets chirping and the frogs croaking their love songs.
Our plan was to drive up to meet our parents in Tamarindo, as they were flying to the airport in Liberia in the afternoon. The drive took five hours and halfway up we stopped on the way at the Tarcoles Bridge, just north of the Carara National Park. There we spotted the giant crocodiles that laze below the bridge, sunning themselves while waiting for a treat to float down the river. These dinosaurs grow to be up to 20 feet long (6 meters) and are a must see when driving through this part of the country.
The best place for older tourists who love the beach is by far the Tamarindo Diria. The resort is handicapped friendly and located right in the center of town, right on the coast. It is an 80 minute drive from the Liberia airport. My parents reserved an oceanfront room on the ground floor and right past their back porch is a shaded grassy area with plenty of lounge chairs and a refreshing pool that the kids of every age enjoyed. Just past the grassy area is a short wall to mark the edge of the property and then the light tan sand of Tamarindo’s wide beach.
There is a plentiful breakfast buffet each morning for guests, along with a beachside restaurant for family gatherings or a more romantic setting. As my mother is not that mobile, she enjoyed that there are five other restaurants to choose from less than 50 yards from the hotel, plus a gelato stand, gift shops, and a tour desk on site. In the late afternoon my parents would sit on the back porch, make themselves a boat drink, and enjoy the sun setting on the horizon past the returning catamarans, while listening to some reggae or calypso music.
We did another canopy zip line tour with Pura Aventura near Avellanas, a beach village 15 minutes south of town and this time my father joined us. He was 75, and celebrating his 50th wedding anniversary, so we kept the pace slow to be sure we brought him back to my mom in good condition. We didn’t see much wildlife but flying down the cables while enjoying the expansive vistas to the coast made it worth the trip. On the other days that week we rented boards and surfed, took a nearshore fishing trip where my teenage nephew caught his first dorado, and did a night beach walking tour to see the giant Leatherback turtles lay eggs on the beach in Playa Grande. [see other TAMARINDO TOURS]
During the entire trip there no were no snafus. Everyone remembered to put on sunscreen. The whole family enjoyed the breakfasts and dinners since most every option was available to them. There were no issues with the car rental or hotel rooms. All of the tours were safe, fun, and well worth the price. My parents had the best week all year in Tamarindo and my brother’s family is already planning their next trip to visit me. These are the benefits when you have a travel consultant who is an expert on Costa Rica planning your trip. It’s time to get started with your dream vacation.