I’ve been planning destinations lately around current interests of my kids, knowing that the historic locales that are at the top of my must see list won’t be on theirs for another ten years or so. My boys are bug crazy right now, and my 4-year-old has a fascination with volcanoes and snakes. Costa Rica fit the bill perfectly to quench our appetite for the great outdoors.
After days of research and speaking with people who have lived in country, all roads kept leading us to two places as the best areas to visit with kids in Costa Rica.
La Fortuna and Manuel Antonio are hands down the favorite places to visit with kids in Costa Rica.
In La Fortuna, you get the majestic volcano views, animals, chocolate and coffee tours, hot springs, and hanging bridges.
In Manuel Antonio you’ll find many more animals, the national park, beaches, and themed dining.
Someone asked me, “Should you really travel with kids in Costa Rica? Isn’t it dangerous?”
I’ll admit, it was never intended to be a relaxing family vacation. There were sections of our hikes where I clenched my teeth and held my breath watching my son navigate rough terrain or walk confidently along a steep drop off. I pictured him falling through the gap at the bottom of the hanging bridges at least 10 times.
There was also a lot more “No, don’t touch that, it’s poisonous!” and “Get back here this second!” than I shout back home in Wisconsin.
While we had to exercise extra precautions, I didn’t feel we put our kids in danger by visiting the wild rainforests of Costa Rica.
Now that are home, I beam hearing him enthusiastically tell stories about the leaf cutter ants we saw who traveled hundreds of meters, how we hiked a volcano and walked on lava flow, and how we were awoken by howler monkeys outside our Airbnb. I’m overjoyed they had this adventure and grateful I had my tireless husband keeping them safe with me.
Best Things to do in La Fortuna, Costa Rica with Kids
Arenal Volcano with Kids
We paid and parked at the Arenal 1968 Trailhead entrance to Arenal Volcano National Park. It costs 12,500 colones or $19 USD per person. The trail was 4km and the man who gave us our tickets said the hike would take us about 1 hour. He must not have kids. It took us 1 hour 20 minutes to the summit and another 50 minutes return.
At the end of the trail loop, leading back to the parking lot, they have a newly built cafeteria with perhaps the most stunning view of the volcano. Honestly, in hindsight, I could’ve been happy just enjoying the volcano from that vantage point. I say that because we didn’t see many animals on the hike, it was quite hot already at 10am and my 35 pound child was having a “my legs hurt” day so I carried him for much of the uphill hike. Silver lining, we can say we hiked a volcano and it seemed to cement some of the volcano lessons we have had with our son.
This volcano has been dormant since 2010. Up until then though, it was regularly active with steam and rocks often spewing ever since the last major eruption in 1968.
As for wildlife at Arenal Volcano, the types of creatures we saw were an eyelash viper right next to the parking lot which was our first snake of the trip and we were also introduced to the fascinating leaf cutter ants. There are hundreds of species of birds too that call this unique terrain home.
(Free) Public Hot Spring
You simply cannot leave the La Fortuna area without experiencing hot springs and this free option put that in reach for us.
This natural hot spring borders the resort made famous by the Kardashian’s. The Tabacon charges $80 to enter the natural spring. We were not ready to splurge on a spa or water park, plus thoroughly enjoyed the untamed, undeveloped spring. Pura Vida, right? Who needs a bar and locker rooms when you can pack your own drinks and tree branches double as clothes hangers.
We visited twice, both before 9am and more or less had the place to ourselves. There were 6-8 others there, but with the winding springs, you could choose an area where no other visitors were in eye shot.
The bottom is rocky, so do bring water shoes!
How to Find the Public Hot Spring in La Fortuna
Park just east of the Tabacon Spa. You’ll see parking attendants guiding you to pull over so they can take the standard 500-2,000 colones to watch over your vehicle.
Continue to walk east until you cross over the spring, then on the left, you’ll see a trail that leads you downhill to an opening in a fence. From there you can jump right into the water or walk further up a trail to find a section to yourself.
Is it safe to visit Costa Rica’s Hot Springs with Kids?
Just as safe as for adults! The current is powerful in some sections, so be mindful of where you situate your family in the hot spring. You want at least a mild current versus bathing in an area of stagnant water where bacteria festers. Keep your nose above water, because while Amoebic Meningoencephalitis is extremely uncommon (3 cases in 25 years, 2 of them were in 2020, though), the temperature of the hot springs is ideal for the microorganism that causes it. Warning: Googling this will probably freak you out. Just keep your nose above water, ok?
Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges
I had some doubts as I planned our trip itinerary, but Mistico Hanging Bridges turned out to be a phenomenal place to bring kids in Costa Rica. Moving at a slow pace, we spotted colorful frogs, monkeys, and a snake. We got to hear the howler monkeys warning their friends of our presence. The sounds of the rainforest are astonishing.
Call ahead to check opening hours to ensure you give yourself about 2.5-3.5 hours to explore. It closed at 4:30pm with the last admittance at 3:50. If you don’t have time to do the full tour, it is also a great place to park (for free) and soak in spectacular views of the Arenal Volcano. You can dine in their restaurant with a panoramic dining room view of the volcano.
We were pleased with our decision to rent one of their large wheeled strollers. It gave our 1 year old a place to nap and also felt more stable than when we carried him in the hiking backpack across the swaying bridges. An umbrella stroller would NOT traverse the trails.
A Chocolate Tour
There are numerous coffee and chocolate tours in the La Fortuna area. I highly recommend taking your tour with Don Jorge Chocolate Tours. Call ahead to book your tour and indicate whether you want it in Spanish or English. We were the only ones on our tour at 1 o’clock. It felt very intimate and could not have been more warmly welcomed with our children. They truly treated us like we were members of their family and the experience was one of our favorites of our entire Costa Rica vacation.
Interacting with our children. They had a four-year-old grandson who came to play with my kids and brought all of his trucks etc.
The woman between teaching us the coffee chocolate making process would rock our one-year-old and play with our four-year-old. By the time it was time to leave my four-year-old would not stop ringing to them he still talks about how much he loved them
Martin made chocolate in two different methods for showing us the way the Inca had and then more modern handmade chocolate processes. They used a Stone that was on earth from an excavation of in car ruins to make the chocolate. It was just fascinating and authentic and they were clearly passionate about their craft and their families history.
Martin Jorge grew up on this farm and led our tour.
They are 100% organic now. They said they made the switch about 10 years ago. Where they were amazed by how quickly butterflies returned to their farm once all the chemicals were gone
La Fortuna Waterfall (or on second thought…)
The La Fortuna Waterfall was a must see on my list when I planned out our trip. Then, when we arrived, after hiking steep trails elsewhere with the littles, we opted against carrying them down and back up 500 slippery stairs for a photo op.
It costs $18 for adults, or free under 9 years old.
I’m including this in the list even though we didn’t make it for those more daring than me.
Where to Stay in La Fortuna, Costa Rica with Kids
We felt completely at home with our Airbnb host Carla. She went out of her way to make sure my kids found frogs in our backyard and she even brought us breakfast in the morning. They were toys, a highchair, and a pack and play all set up and waiting for my family to settle in.
We had a beautiful garden with lush vegetation and a covered patio rocking chairs hammock
A gated staircase led to a river below where the kids loved to throw pebbles into the cascading water. The sound of it added to the wonderful ambiance of the backyard. I appreciated that it was well fenced off for the kids safety.
If you’re comfortable foregoing some of the familiarities of a western style resort, I highly recommend an Airbnb for a more authentic experience and to save hundreds of dollars on your stay.
It took a couple days to get used to the noise of cicadas flying around outside of our home and to not be grossed out when we have to catch cockroach inside our Airbnb. The bathroom is part of the patio and it’s open door to the outside. So I always felt a little uneasy while taking a shower that a buzzing cicada or cockroach would come crawling through the window.
I was grateful to have my son’s noise machine in my room to drown out the sound of bugs crashing into the house outside trying to get to the inside light.
Wildlife in La Fortuna
There are several eco-tours where guides will find creatures in a section of the land very familiar to them, but we saw several animals ‘by chance’ in our stay in La Fortuna. We knew Manuel Antonio would be the half of our visit aimed for animal encounters so we opted not to spend our money on an eco tour.
What to See with Kids in Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica
Manuel Antonio National Park
We arrived to Manuel Antonio Park at 7:30am, shortly after they opened. Parking becomes increasingly difficult as the day goes on and by noon the park becomes uncomfortably crowded. We found a spot in the closest lot to the park entrance, behind Cafe Alex. We were charged 5,000 colones, or $7.50.
We purchased our tickets in advance, online, as did many others so the line to enter moved quickly. Bags were inspected at the entrance looking for any carry in foods. Only bottled water is allowed to be carried into the park. I suspect the animals were getting a little too comfortable around people. My husband said when he visited ten years ago, the beach areas were swarming with monkeys and this time we only saw two and that was after several hours spent at the beach. We saw the greatest amount of spider monkeys while sitting at the picnic tables outside the snack bar.
The snack bar was well stocked with healthy options; salads, fresh cut fruit, sandwiches. After hiking all day in the heat we returned for ice cream treats and more fresh squeezed juice.
Numerous bloggers online will advise you to get a guide to lead you through the park, but we opted against it. Our kids just can’t be ‘bound’ for a 2 hour guided hike, we like to have a flexible schedule. The guides’ selling point is that you only see 10% of the creatures that the guides see. I believe it. They come out with their spotting scopes and see animals you cannot with the naked eye. One of the guides took this picture of a sloth on my iPhone through his scope. I tried as hard as I could and couldn’t find it without the scope. Amazing right?
That said, we know we made the right choice going independent with our one year old and a four year old who was having a particularly volatile day.
Several other guides pulled us into the fold with their tour groups, maybe they took a special interest in us trotting along slowly with our littles.
There are fabulous beaches on the far end of the park, so don’t forget your beach supplies. Keep an eye on your bag! We saw this clever monkey try to unzip a bag that belonged to the party next to us. We were basking in the moments we had the whole place to ourselves, as 30 minutes later the crowds appeared.
Beware: These “Beach Apple” trees often grow along the tree lines of beaches in Manuel Antonio and they are highly poisonous to touch and eat. Be aware of your surroundings before settling into a spot on the beach to be sure you have a good distance from these trees.
One thing to note, many places online mentioned the park is closed every Monday. They recently closed their closure day to Tuesdays.
Rainmaker Conservation Park – Kids In Costa Rica
Rainmaker Conservation Park gave us a much more authentic rainforest hike than we found at Manuel Antonio or the Mistico Hanging Bridges.
In hindsight we would have done our trek a bit differently. With small kids like ours, it would’ve been less strenuous to go ‘in reverse’ to number 6 and then back out the same way. The other half of the hike consisted of steep inclines, slippery sections, and rickety bridges that made my stomach flip as I saw my four year old nonchalantly hike across them.
This alternate route also has hanging bridges so you don’t miss out on that, nor the best waterfalls.
At the swimming hole at number 6, I highly recommend water shoes for the rocky bottom. Carrying my son over to the waterfall I ended up breaking a toe by jamming it between two large rocks at the bottom.
We didn’t see any mammals on our journey other than a cow next to the parking lot, but we spotted lizards, birds, and interesting bugs.
Bring lots of water and then treat yourselves to a meal and a smoothie at the café at the entrance. We had Tamal as we still hadn’t tried it on our visit to Costa Rica. My son loved the taste. They were similar to Mexican Tamales. but instead of being wrapped in corn husks, they use banana leaves.
Driving to the entrance of the Rainmaker Park, you leave the main highway and drive through seemingly infinite fields of palm trees. It was so astonishing we had to research what they were being used for. Turns out their kernels are harvested for palm oil (used for making vegetable oil, cosmetics, etc.) and is one of the main agricultural exports of the country.
We spent three sunsets and one day at Playa Espadilla beach because for one, it is stunning, and two, the north end is so easy to park close and unload tiny humans and their multitude of supplies.
During the day, we paid $10USD for a full day’s use of two chairs, an umbrella, and a boogieboard. There are countless vendors on the beach offering rentals from chairs, to kids toys, and most offer adventure activities as well. There is jet skiing, parasailing. surf lessons, and horseback riding to name a few.
Vendors walk by frequently selling just about anything; from hammocks, to wooden serving trays, coconut water ($1-$1.50), and “copos” snow cones. I read that some sell illegal substances, but we were not approached (maybe because we appeared to have our hands full).
Right next to where we parked, there was a fantastic restaurant that was run out of an old school bus called En Todos. Their Pura Vida smoothie was to die for. I had it twice. Fresh made smoothies were only $3 and the perfect refreshment for a day at the beach. Their casado plate lunch was delicious and easy to take to go.
The waves are large, as opposed to the Playa Biesanz, but because parking was exponentially easier I preferred this more popular beach.
Playa Biesanz is a highly popular beach for families due to the gentle waves inside the alcove. I had read several blogs calling it the ‘secret’ beach of Manuel Antonio, but the secret is out.
Parking and approaching the parking area was kind of a nightmare. We arrived at about 1pm and there were few spots remaining. We had to wait for someone to pull out. The parking attendant takes 2,000 colones ($3) to watch your vehicle then from there it is a 5-7 minute downhill trail walk to the beach.
You’ll reach the alcove beach where you can rent chairs, umbrellas, purchase drinks and snacks, or pay a fee to use toilets. You can also rent paddleboards or kayaks!
If you wish to swim, stay on the right side of the bay, where the bottom is sandy vs. more rocky on the left.
El Avion Restaurant is a Must Do with Kids in Costa Rica
We walked in with our eyes wide open to the fact that this is a tourist trap and I’d do it again. My son asked every night after if we could return.
They cater to kids well, they offer a kids menu, the servers interact with children well, and of course, a grounded plane smack dab in the middle of the dining room.
They don’t seat tables inside the plan, there is just a bar, and the cockpit is open to explore!
The open air balcony seating offered beautiful views over the ocean and monkeys swung between palm tress just next to the restaurant.
Sample Itinerary for Families with Kids in Costa Rica
Day 0 – Travel day, arrival and get settled
Day 1 – Free Hot Springs, Arenal Volcano
Day 2 – Chocolate Tour and either La Fortuna Waterfall or Mistico Hanging Bridges
Day 4 – Manuel Antonio National Park and Beach Day
Day 5 – Rainmaker Park, Dine at El Avion
Day 6 – Relax on the Beach, consider an Adventure experience like Parasail, Zipline, etc.
Day 7 – Travel day, souvenir shopping, return to airport