Adventure Travel with Kids: Costa Rica

Costa 1Costa Rica has become a top adventure travel destination for American families. In under five hours from a New York area airport (we chose Newark), you can be in the land of monkeys, ziplines, passion fruit cocktails, and, as they say in Costa Rica, PURA VIDA!

Although we had been to Costa Rica in the past as a couple, planning it with kids (ages 8 and 10), added a whole other element to the trip and we had a hard time finding good information online. It was overwhelming, to say the least. Should we rent a car, hire a driver or fly? Where should we stay and where should we go within Costa Rica? Do we need to speak Spanish? Where can we see lots of diverse wildlife easily? And our kids were hoping we could find a water park. Hmmmm…

Costa Rica has an extremely well-developed tourist industry. This means an abundance of activities for travelers, tour companies offering safer ways of experiencing adventure that aren’t always found in less developed countries (e.g. helmets), everything running on time, the water being potable and a plethora of high-end hotels and restaurants from which to choose. “Ex-pats” from all over the world have made Costa Rica their home and their business, hence the higher quality (and prices that match) that you’ll find throughout the country for anything tourist-related. Do you need to know how to speak and understand Spanish? Certainly not, but it does help so give it a shot even if you just know a few words. My son answered, “Quiero bailar!” when asked by a local if he likes Costa Rica but they loved that he was trying out his Spanish skills. (It means “I want to dance.”)

We stayed for 9 nights and didn’t want to spend too much time traveling within the country. We wanted a beach scene and some rainforest time; the kids were adventurous and wanted action packed days; we wanted good food options and nice places to stay; the kids wanted a swimming pool. Safety, however, was the top priority. 

We landed in San Jose and were met by a ride arranged through the Adventure Inn’s owner, Eric Robinson. The Adventure Inn is a full-service hotel in San Jose that also offers adventure travel to all parts of Costa Rica. They can arrange almost anything expeditiously and for a competitive price. We made our way over to the Southern Pacific coast where the world-famous Manuel Antonio National Park stands. We asked our driver to stop at the Rio Tercoles on the way to the park to see crocodiles below a bridge…and they did not disappoint. There were at least 25 massive and very active American crocodiles gathered below the bridge, measuring between 10 and 18 feet long…a sight to behold!Costa 5

There are many exceptional hotels in Quepos. We hired a park guide (arranged by the hotel) and learned about tropical trees and insects within Manuel Antonio National Park. We also spotted snakes, three-toed sloths, white-faced capuchin and howler monkeys, frogs, giant iguanas, agoutis and lots of colorful birds. The beaches within the park are stunning; it’s worth spending some time there. Late morning, we were picked up for a zipline adventure in the Quepos area. There were kids as young as seven in our group. It was a fun adrenaline-rush but if ziplining is a priority, the Arenal Volcano and Monteverde areas are better.

Despite the state of the roads, we decided to rent a car for our three-day trip South to Uvita, also on the coast. We heeded all warnings about American car rental companies and rented through Adobe. We highly recommend using Adobe and also suggest renting a 4-wheel drive vehicle for almost anywhere in Costa Rica off a main highway. 

We arrived at Vista Celestial, a gorgeous and upscale boutique resort about 20 minutes up an extremely steep hillside. It was actually rather nerve wracking getting up the steep hillside (and this is coming from a thrill-seeking family) but the view was unbeatable at the top. Vista Celestial has a small handful of immaculate, roomy, and well-appointed villas, each with an outdoor private dip pool and a view of the famous “Whale’s Tail” beach (which looks like a whale’s tail from afar and can be accessed at low tide). Meals aren’t included and are simple but well made and the service and management are both top notch. There is a secluded yoga platform if that’s your thing; it can also be used for gymnastics practice by a 10-year-old (while your husband watches nervously thinking she may fall off).

Costa 2We packed our days with a walk to Nauyaca Falls (pretty and accessible waterfalls), lots of beach time, and a mangrove tour in Sierpe. The mangrove tour was the highlight of our experience with wildlife and showed us a different slice of Costa Rica. The car was helpful to have for all adventures in and around Uvita. We joined a semi-private tour on a small motorboat and explored the mangroves with a well-versed guide we found (again) via Tripadvisor. Hotels can arrange tours as well. We saw huge troupes of several types of playful monkeys; one even tried to grab a banana from my son! We saw big crocs (a little scary from the small boat), sloths, several types of snakes, visually stunning Scarlet Macaws and more.

The next day we returned our rental car in Quepos and got a ride to Rafiki Safari Lodge. Rafiki is a South African-inspired ecolodge situated on a river suitable for whitewater rafting. We stayed in a family-friendly permanent safari tent that is more luxurious than one might think. Each tent has a private, attached bathroom and a platform deck. From there we saw a family of toucans playing more than once.

Rafiki is a really special place and was the highlight of our trip. Adventure is plentiful and we took advantage of it. Whitewater rafting was a first for the kids. There were enough rapids for it to be exciting but it wasn’t so wild that we feared for our lives. Rafiki’s guides were excellent and we enjoyed it so much that we opted to do a second trip a couple of days later. We went horseback riding one day high into the surrounding mountains; one of the owners served as our guide providing continuous information about the history of the area as well as insight into the flora and fauna. When we weren’t adventuring, we were relaxing with other guests in the hot tub, enjoying the view with a cocktail from the communal lodge, or watching the kids go down what might be one of the world’s fastest water slides (and that is no exaggeration)!Costa 3

Food was mostly included at Rafiki. It was extremely fresh and surprisingly well prepared for a place so off the beaten path. Breakfasts were leisurely and filled with fruit, fresh fruit juices by request, and either typical Costa Rican breakfast food (rice, beans, eggs and plantains) or an American option. Service came with a smile and Rafiki’s employees seemed happy to be working and interacting with guests. The lunches were varied and delicious and the dinners, at a set time each night, could have been served at an upscale NYC restaurant instead of the jungle. Each night there were several choices for dinner for both adults and kids; there were always meat and seafood options.

We chose to drive back to San Jose for an overnight at Adventure Inn before leaving to head back to the U.S. (Learn from me and book that flight back to keep that “pura vida” feeling). Adventure Inn will arrange for its visitors to catch a shuttle to the airport in time for their flight; it’s complimentary with the room booking.

Costa Rica has many other places that people rave about but we could not access within our short travel time frame. There are volcanoes to climb, small islands to explore, sea life to be discovered while diving or snorkeling, coffee and chocolate plantations to be toured and so much more. And we’ll be back for more passion fruit juice and pura vida.