Costa Rica Family Vacation: Monteverde, Arenal & Manuel Antonio

From wildlife sanctuaries to powdery beaches, from outdoor I-Spy games to surf challenges, from bat encounters to volcano explorations, Costa Rica is a make-everyone-happy kind of place. In a world where one-size-fits-all rarely fits anyone, this tropical paradise manages to really, truly and genuinely thrill everyone. Your kids will delight in once-in-a-lifetime adventures, and you’ll have as much fun observing their reactions as you do experiencing Costa Rica for yourself. Welcome to the best of all worlds.

Are you here yet??

Day 1: From Concrete Jungle to Ethereal Cloud Forests

Even before your plane touches down, even as you descend through the clouds and catch your first glimpse of Costa Rica – of craggy mountains and smoking volcano, of sprawling valley and waving palm fronds – you know that something special awaits. Something tropical. Something exotic. And perhaps something little bit magical.

Welcome to Costa Rica! A private driver is waiting at the airport to ferry your family from San José (technically, Alajuela) to Monteverde, a mountaintop hideaway straight out of fairy tales. It’s an enclave of misty cloud forests and roaring rivers, of old-fashioned cheese and handmade ice cream (kids LOVE. IT.), of sloths hanging above the road and monkeys howling in the distance. It’s a paradise of emerald-covered everything – of a million shades of green, each worthy of its own creatively named crayon color.

Our advice: It’s been a long day of travel, so take it easy tonight. Take a walk around town – you can stay in Santa Elena, Cerro Plano, or Monteverde (they’re all considered “Monteverde,” and they’re all within a few minutes’ drive of each other) – and grab a bite to eat. Despite Monteverde’s secluded feel, there’s some truly great grub to be had.

Travel time: About 2.5 hours

Transportation: Today, for convenience and comfort, we really recommend you splash out on a private driver. If you book a shared shuttle or public bus, you’ll probably be waiting for hours at the airport. A rental car is also doable, but be aware that when it comes to Costa Rican roads (and drivers), you’re not in Kansas anymore! Avoid driving at night.

Optional: If you’re itching to get the adventure started today, book a Night Hike at the Children’s Eternal Rainforest, a Monteverde must-visit for kids and their parents.

Did You Know: At the very end of a meandering dirt road, sits the hilltop town of Monteverde, a cloud forest enclave with an Alpine feel. Founded by Quakers in the 1950s, what was once mountaintop pastureland is today a paradise of nature reserves, coffee and cheese production, wildlife (and lots of it!), and emerald-colored everything. You don’t know green until you’ve seen the many shades and hues of Monteverde!

Day 2: Hiking, Flying and Tram’ing

The day begins with a morning hike through Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve, a 765-acre private cloud forest. The morning light filters through the forest canopy, and dew-covered orchids, epiphytes and dazzling mosses adorn every tree, every bridge, every stone, every and surface. Make it a game with the kids: Who can spot the first (or the most) hummingbird (30 species of them!), toucan, monkey, coati or kinkajou? And if the day is fortuitous (and the season right), you may even spot resplendent quetzals on your walk (best months: April and May).

In late afternoon (say, an hour before dusk), head to Monteverde Frog Pond to spot 25 species of hopping toads and jumping frogs. Your kids will have a blast walking through the ranarium by the light of day, and then taking another go (flashlight in hand!) after dark, when the amphibious reptiles are most active.

Transportation: If you’ve rented a car, excellent. If not, book your tours with transportation included. Taxis are also viable, although it can be hard to catch one quickly in the early morning or late at night.

Day 3: Tarantulas, and Butterflies, and Bats – Oh My!

If the animal kingdom fascinates your kids, today is their day! Start off at the Monteverde Butterfly Garden (aka mariposario), for a thorough intro to Costa Rica’s butterfly and bug life. You’ll have an opportunity to visit the butterfly nursery, home to dozens of pupa ready to hatch, and then travel out into four distinct butterfly habitats. Then, learn about (and see, smell and touch) Costa Rica’s insect life, including an incredible (and very active) leafcutter ant colony!

No trip to Monteverde is complete without a visit to the Bat Jungle, so that’s where you’re headed this afternoon. You’ll meet live bats – you may even see them feed, fly and give birth! – and your kids will love the hands-on exhibits, like trying on bat ears to get an idea of these mammals’ incredible hearing.

If you have an extra day in Monteverde: Head to Selvatura Adventure Park or Sky Adventures for a heart-pounding canopy tour and aerial tram. Also on offer at Selvatura: hanging bridges, a Superman zipline (talk about adrenaline!), butterfly and hummingbird gardens, and more. You can build your own afternoon, suited to your family’s specific interests (and adventure level).

Day 4: Over Land, Over Lake

When traveling with kids, we know you want to avoid long travel days. And that’s one reason we recommend adventure connections, which partner travel with activities. In this case: a boat ride across Lake Arenal + the Don Juan Coffee & Chocolate tour. It’s a delicious way to spend the day! (And it does take up a significant chunk of the day, departing Monteverde around 8:30 and arriving in La Fortuna about six hours later.)

Once you arrive in La Fortuna, have a look around. In the early afternoon, head to your choice of hot springs (get the dinner package, if available): the super awesome Kalambu, with its warm-water playground, waterslides, and other kiddie delights; or Baldi, a mix of tranquil hot springs and kid-friendly water park.

Tip: Choose a hotel with hot springs, and you can roll the cost of the hot springs right into your room.

Travel Time: For a car-boat-car trip, you’re looking at about 3 hours. Tack on additional activities or tours, and you’re looking at 5-6 hours. Budget 3.5 hours for a drive in your rental car (or private driver). A shared shuttle takes about 4-4.5 hours.

Transportation: The easiest (and most fun) way from Monteverde to Arenal is the classic Jeep-boat-Jeep. You can also hoof it (literally – we’re talking horseback), bike it, or drive it.

Did You Know: La Fortuna, the beloved adventure capital of Costa Rica, sits at the base of the towering Arenal Volcano, proud owner to one of the world’s most perfect (and picture-perfect) volcanic cones. While the volcano’s once fiery activity has calmed significantly, Arenal is still one of the hottest destinations in Costa Rica, thanks to its relaxing hot springs, adventure activities, and stunning scenery.

Day 5: A Full Day in Arenal

Far and away the favorite family-friendly tour around Arenal, a half-day volunteering visit to Proyecto Asis is almost a requirement. Your morning begins with a guided tour through the wildlife refuge, and then transitions to real-life, hands-on help with animal rehabilitation. It’s not only a good time, but a wonderful way to teach your kids environmental stewardship and a respect for wildlife (and the importance of keeping it wild).

In the afternoon, and if your kids are good walkers, book the family onto a volcano hike. (Or, if they’re bad hikers and good riders, a horseback riding tour!) For a few hours, you’ll explore the base of Arenal Volcano and its ancient lava fields, secondary forests, and natural beauty. Keep your eyes peeled for toucans, sloths, and other animals!

Tonight, book the fam into a hot springs. Relax. You’ve earned it!

If you have an extra day in Arenal: Kids (and their parents) love the slow pace and gentle nature of a safari float, which is essentially a paddle/rafting trip on a Class I river. (Times: 8:30 a.m. or 1:30 p.m.)

Day 6: Adventure En Route to Manuel Antonio

We’ll say it again: When time is limited, we believe in making the best of it. And in the case of swapping La Fortuna for Manuel Antonio, there are three great ways to take advantage of travel time via adventure connections: Bundle a day of travel with a Carara National Park tour (all ages), or a crocodile tour (age 6+), or whitewater rafting (class II-III, age 10+). Take your pick!

Once you arrive in Manuel Antonio, settle in. Get a feel for your hotel. And definitely, absolutely, do not miss the sunset. It’s spectacular here! Tip: Several (more than several, really) great restaurants have spectacular sunset views, among them Barba Roja, El Gato Negro, Ronny’s Place, and El Avión, a kid favorite and Manuel Antonio icon landmarked by a very real, old airplane.

Did You Know: There’s a reason Manuel Antonio is one of Costa Rica’s hottest destinations: It’s paradise. Palms and sea almonds canopy powder-soft, white sands. Dramatic cliffs rise to breezy bluffs and sweeping views. Dolphins and whales are frequently spotted. Troupes of mischievous monkeys, including the critically endangered Central American squirrel monkey, swing by your window. As we said – paradise!

Travel Time: If you’re driving (rental car or private driver), plan on 4.5-5 hours. If you’re traveling via adventure connection, budget 9-10 hours. Shared shuttles take about 5.5-6 hours.

Day 7: Where Rainforest Meets the Sea

We love tours where the parents are as happy the kids; Manuel Antonio National Park fits the bill perfectly! At under 4,500 acres, it may be one of the smallest national parks in the country, but it’s also one of the most biodiverse. In addition to housing all of Costa Rica’s monkey species (including the adorable, kid-pleasing, and critically endangered Central American squirrel monkey), the park is home to two- and three-toed sloths, agoutis, armadillos, iguanas and hundreds of other mammal and reptiles species.

But it’s the park’s awesome beauty that’ll really get you: Here, super lush rainforest stops only where soil transitions to sand – in other words, at the park’s four pristine, white-sand beaches, which are lined with palms and sea almonds. Gentle waves beckon you to take a dip in the aquamarine Pacific, or simply to stroll with your feet in the sand. Note: Manuel Antonio’s beaches are generally safe for swimming, even for the littles, but be sure to ask a park ranger about daily swimming conditions.

Tip: If you’re a nature junkie, definitely splash out on a private guide ($25-$50 per person), who will spot things you didn’t even know existed.

If you have an extra day in Manuel Antonio: Kids are always thrilled with surf lessons, especially considering Manuel Antonio’s kid-friendly (= on the small side) waves. Another hot destination for families is Greentique Wildlife Refuge (formerly, Fincas Naturales), home to a butterfly garden, crocodile pond, and elevated walkways; you can even take a night tour!

Day 8: Adiós, Costa Rica!

Today, you head back to San José for your flight home. Adiós! We hope you had a great time.

Travel Time: Budget 3 hours for the drive from Manuel Antonio to San José. If you’re really tight on time – psst! You need to arrive at SJO a full 3 hours before your flight – consider taking a local flight from Quepos to SJO (25 minutes, around $60-$100 per person). Shared shuttles take about 4.5 hours.

Add-ons: If you have an extra day or two in Manuel Antonio, consider booking a mangrove kayaking tour, a canopy tour, a surfing lesson, sea kayaking, a snorkeling + sunset catamaran cruise, a rainforest spices tour at Villa Vanilla, and so much more. There are a ton of options in Manuel Antonio!

Too many details, too little time? Hand off your trip to a Costa Rica travel pro. Their services are free (find out why) and their knowledge is vast. Consider it your Costa Rica easy button.