Costa Rica is a great, family-friendly destination! It’s an easy flight from much of the US, tons of English speakers (or an opportunity to practice your Spanish), lots of kid-friendly foods, and tons of kid-friendly activities! And even though many of us would like to spend about a month traveling Costa Rica, many of us can really only spend about a week.
Even though Costa Rica is a small country, lots of it is remote, and there is just TOO much to do everything in a week vacation. However, we’ve put together a great itinerary for the adventurous family to see the highlights in just 7 days! You’ll see everything from mountains to beaches, cool weather jungles to subtropics, the flora, the fauna, and even a volcano!
We think this 7 day itinerary is perfect for families with kids on their first trip to Costa Rica because it covers SO MUCH without feeling rushed. The drive times between destinations are all pretty reasonable, so you never feel like you lose a whole day to driving. In fact, a couple hour drive usually feels like a pretty good break for my kiddos.
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Tips before we jump in
We definitely recommend renting a car when traveling in Costa Rica, especially with kids. While it is possible to book transportation all around Costa Rica, it’s much easier and more cost effective to rent a car and move on your own schedule. If you plan to head out to any of the more remote areas (Monteverde, Oso Pennisula, or even La Fortuna), we recommend an AWD vehicle.
Hotels and vacation rentals go quickly in Costa Rica, especially during the dry season. Make sure you book hotels, car, and excursions well in advance to ensure you get to do everything you want. But don’t worry about making reservations at restaurants. We found that we never needed a dinner reservation.
Day 1-2: La Fortuna
La Fortuna is right in between the two major airports in Costa Rica; Liberia (LIB) and San Jose. La Fortuna is known as the gateway to the Arenal Volcano National Park, and we think it’s a fantastic way to start off your Costa Rica family vacation!
You can get from either airport to La Fortuna in about 2.5 hours either the San Jose airport (SJO) or Liberia airport (LIB). As you head out into more rural areas of Costa Rica, expect the roads to get narrower, and more of them to be dirt roads.
What to do
Kick off your wonderful week in Costa Rica by unwinding in one of La Fortuna’s natural mineral hot springs. For me, the minerals really make a difference in easing any muscle aches from the flight, or from day-to-day life while not on vacation. The kids love exploring the warm water and natural hot springs as well.
There are a TON of different hot springs areas to choose from. You’ll find one that works perfectly for your budget and preferences. Check out this list to help you chose! Our top pick is Tabacon. Day passes are available for about 80USD/adult and 38USD/child, or, if you stay at the resort, admission to the hot springs is included!
We love that the Tabacon hot springs has a ton of different pools and areas. The main pool is a regular, manufactured pool (though still fed with natural hot springs)with a swim up bar and a nice swimming area for the kids. And the swim up bar is amazing – tons of tasty drinks for kids and adults, and some are even served in a pineapple or a coconut! The next pool has a manufactured waterfall with a bench that allows you to sit under the waterfalls. Continue on to the numerous natural waterfalls and natural pools going in every direction. Plus the entire area is surrounded by beautiful jungle and gardens. The whole area is dreamy!
Pro tip: bring water shoes like this for exploring natural hot springs. Walking around on slippery rocks all day gets painful fast!
Chocolate and Coffee tour
The La Fortuna also has some fantastic coffee and chocolate tours. Don Juan has a great coffee/chocolate combo tour that’ll keep the kids and adults. During the tour, you’ll learn the ins and outs of both the coffee and chocolate process. You’ll get to grind your own coffee, and maybe even make your own chocolate. And there will definitely be lots of opportunities to taste! You may even get a chance to see some animals down at the farm!
Where to stay
Our pick for La Fortuna is Tabacon Thermal Resort and Spa. We love it for the AMAZING hot springs, included for overnight guests, and the beautiful rooms and resort. For Hyatt members, if you book through the Small Luxury Hotels of the World Program (either cash rate or on points) to get free breakfast and free wifi.
While you don’t have to be an overnight guest to visit the Tabacon Hot Springs, we think it’s a pretty good deal. Day passes are around $80/adult and $38/child. During peak season, rooms are as high as $400 per night but they include admission into the hot springs for the whole day on arrival day, departure day, and every day in between. The rooms are beautiful and modern, and the entire resort is lush and picture perfect. Plus, the onsite restaurant is very convenient and tasty.
Looking for a more budget friendly stay? Check out the Arenal Observatory Lodge and Spa. There is no onsite hot springs, but there is a pool, bird watching, and some great views of Arenal Volcano. The lodge is actually located inside the Arenal Volcano National Park so there is tons to see and do right from the hotel. Plus, you are just a short drive away from all the area hot springs.
Staying at a hotel with kids can be nerve-wracking. Check out this guide for hotel stays with kids to make things a little easier!
Day 3-4 Monteverde
Monteverde, which translates aptly to green mountain, is the high mountains and is the perfect base camp for exploring the Monteverde Cloud Rainforest. The temperatures in Monteverde, and other high mountain locations, are significantly lower than the rest of Costa Rica. In fact, Monteverde gets strong winds during the dry season, and it can feel quite cold. It may actually feel colder in the dry season there than it does in the wet season because of the winds. But don’t let the wind or rain scare you away, there is still plenty to see and do.
The drive from La Fortuna to Monteverde is 3 to 3 1/2 hours, but only about 75 miles (or 120 kms). So if you are doing the math on that, yes, the driving is slow! Expect very windy, narrow, mountain dirt roads with major pot holes, and do not expect to be able to beat Google’s time estimate. Travel is slow and tedious.
Note: The roads into and out of Monteverde are no joke. If you were going to skip any part of this 7 day itinerary, I’d skip Monteverde and add extra days in La Fortuna and Manuel Antonio. We love Monteverde, but do not love the drive in and out.
What to do
Zipline and more!
Ziplining in Costa Rica is SUCH a highlight for adventurous kids. But ziplining isn’t the only amazing thing to do. Book a package at the Selvatura Adventure Park for some pretty amazing cloud rainforest ziplining plus you can walk the suspension bridges, see sloths, butterflies, and reptiles.
Is your kid no-so-adventurous? Even for less adventurous kids, Selvatura Park still has plenty of fun things to do!
Plan to head to Selvatura Park early in the day if you want to have time to do everything because there really is so much to do. Plan to spent about 2.5 hours on the ziplines, 1.5 hours walking the suspension bridges, and about 45 minutes in each animal area (butterflies, slothes, and reptiles). Even though it’s a long day, it won’t feel long because each part is so fun!
For lunch, definitely check out the on-site restauant. It’s super tasty, convenient, and a beautiful location.
Monteverde is an excellent place to go on a guided forest walk. CREAR Tours offers both night or day tours for families, and they are well worth the time and money spent. We love guided tours because they point out so many creatures you would have never seen without them! Night tours are really neat because the jungle is so different at night, and for me, creepy enough that I would never go without the guide. But I felt perfectly safe in the group. Plus, you can see sleeping birds, and some amazing nocturnal animals.
Monteverde is a quiet town filled with tasty restaurants, beautiful forests, and LOTS of animals. It’s so small it’s an easy place to just wander and explore, even for families with younger children. We loved that you can hear the sounds of birds from anywhere.
Where to Stay
The Hotel Poco a Poco is a charming hotel with a great location in Monteverde. While the rooms are nothing special, the grounds are beautiful and attract tons of birds- it really makes your stay special! There is also an onsite pool and hot tub. We love that it’s walking distance to so many great cafes as well. Our favorite is probably Orchid Coffee, less than a 5 minute walk away.
Monteverde also has tons of really wonderful Airbnbs. We have stayed at the Natural Wonders House and LOVE how much wildlife you can see from the house. We saw tons of birds- toucans, motmots and more, plus monkeys right out side of our window!
Day 5: Jaco
Jaco and the surrounding area are beautiful and have some great beaches, beach-front dining, and it also has a location that fits perfectly into our itinerary. It is a perfect stopping point between Monteverde (or La Fortuna if you’ve skipped Monteverde) and Manuel Antonio, both of which are can’t-miss destinations. And lets be honest- a week of traveling in Costa Rica can be a lot for kids. We love this itinerary because it gives an easy day in the middle to keep your kids happy!
Jaco itself is a bit of a party town, and it can get a little rowdy especially at night, so when traveling with kids, plan accordingly. Downtown hotels might be a bit noisy at night, and you might prefer to stick around the hotel after dark.
Jaco is about a two hour drive from Monteverde. And unfortunately, part of that drive is on the mountain roads similar to those taken into Monteverde. The good news is the mountain roads will turn to highways halfway through, and the drive will start to go MUCH faster.
If you’ve skipped Monteverde, the drive from La Fortuna is about 3.5 hours with some rural driving.
Plan to stop in Tarcoles to walk the crocodile bridge. It’s a quick stop, but fun to see a TON of giant crocodiles below you. Because it’s a tourist stop, be prepared for lots of people aggressively selling things and very expensive pay-to-use bathrooms.
Where to stay
We love Los Suenos Marriott Ocean and Golf Resort because it’s a little bit out of the hustle and bustle of Jaco, but still located on a beautiful beach. It also has a really great pool that the kiddos will love. Los Suenos is part of the Marriott chain of hotels, so it’s bookable on points or cash through the Marriott Bonvoy program. It’s just a few minutes out of Jaco, so you can easily make it over to the Jaco beach or into town to try some of the great restaurants. Or, stay and eat at one of the tasty restaurants.
Hotel Club Del Mar is at the end of the main strip in Jaco, so you are far enough out of the hustle and bustle to have a nice quiet stay, but close enough to restaurants. The hotel also has an onsite restaurant, if you prefer to stick around, and breakfast is included in your stay. There is also a lovely pool and beach access. The resort also offers larger condos with kitchens, perfect for families!
What to do
Beach and Pool day!
Having a beach and pool day was just what my kids wanted right in the middle of our trip. We left our time in Jaco totally unstructured and had a TON of fun. While there are tons of really great outings to be taken from Jaco, we recommend skipping them and just relaxing at the beach and in the pool for at least one day!
The highlight for me was watching Scarlet Macaws fly over my head as we relaxed in the pool and on the beach. I love that they are so noisy, so you can hear them coming. And their bright red tails make them very easy to spot.
Pro Tip: The sun really is intense in Costa Rica. Wear UV protective clothing- it works so much better than sunscreen for extended protection. You don’t want to ruin your vacation with a bad sunburn! This is my go-to protective top for myself and for my kids.
Carara National Park
Carara National Park is a smaller park that doesn’t get as much attention (or as many crowds) as Manuel Antonio. But there is plenty to see! A lot of people go to Carara National Park for bird watching, best done at dawn. But there is plenty of wildlife to be seen any time of day!
Day 6-7 Manuel Antonio
Manuel Antonio is on nearly every must-do list for Costa Rica for good reason. It’s stunningly beautiful and teeming with wildlife. It’s definitely a favorite for my family, and for any family with animals lovers in it!
The drive from Jaco to Manuel Antonio is a quick 1.5 hours. The roads are easy and the views are great!
What to do
Guided walk through Manuel Antonio National Park
Exploring Manuel Antonio National Park is a must-do activity with your kids in Costa Rica. It’s a highlight for our kids, with LOTS of favorite moments. Our kids, like many kids, LOVE animals, so the opportunity to see so many animals up close but still out in the wild is super fun for us. Plus, the jungle, and the beach, are really beautiful and so much fun to explore.
A couple of important tips:
- Remember that Manuel Antonio National Park is currently closed on Tuesdays but check for updates on their website. Make sure the day you plan around the closure since you won’t want to miss this park!
- Tickets/reservation to enter need to be purchased online in advance and from the official website only. And they do sell out, so book as soon as you are able to make sure your dates and times are available.
- You are not allowed to bring food into the park. There is a kiosk inside the park, near the beach that sells sandwiches, salads, drinks, pastries, and ice cream. And there are plenty of restaurants right outside. We KNOW how hard this can be for families with kids, so be sure to get tummies full before you leave, and make a plan for the next meal.
What about a guide? I’m not joking when I tell you you will see ten times as many animals with a guide as without. So many of the creatures there are tiny or are really well camouflaged. Guides work with a network of other guides, and they are trained to spot these creatures. In our opinion, guides are 1000% worth the extra cost.
Some of our favorite creatures in Manuel Antonio are tree frogs, basilisk lizards, sloths, monkeys (Howler, Squirrel, and/or Capuchin monkeys), Scarlet Macaws, toucans, coati, and iguanas.
Also, don’t forget that there is a beautiful beach in Manuel Antonio so bring your beach gear! Some of the guided tours end at the beach, which we love! There are showers at the beach but lines can get LONG!
Pro Tip: Get everyone excited about the wildlife and the jungles by watching Costa Rica documentaries before you trip. We love the Costa Rica episode of Wild Central America on Disney+ and for littles, the Wild Kratts Basilisk lizard episode on Prime
There are a ton of beautiful beaches in the Manuel Antonio area. Espadilla Beach is essentially the public area of the Manuel Antonio beach, just to the north. It’s a popular white sandy beach, and the meeting spot for lots of paid activities, like parasailing, surfing, boat tours. It’s also a great place to watch the sun set!
Biesanz Beach is a quieter beach, but requires a 10 minute walk to access. The water there is a bit calmer, making it a good place for swimming and playing in the water.
The cool thing about the beaches near Manuel Antonio is they have TONS of wildlife. You’ll may see Halloween crabs, iguanas, squirrel monkeys, capuchin monkeys, howler monkeys, toucans, Scarlet Macaws, and sloths from the beach.
Where to Stay
Los Altos is our top pick for Manuel Antonio for families. This place is pricey, but we feel worth the price. First off, rather than getting a room, you are getting a 3-bedroom condo! Our kids were amazed to see that the elevator opens right into our condo- you have the entire floor! (And for fellow worriers, the elevator won’t go to your floor without first scanning the key, so we did feel safe and secure.) The condos are almost TOO spacious! They are modern, and clean, and my favorite part is that the balcony for all room gives a view of a huge almond tree, where birds, including Scarlett Macaws, love to get a snack.
The resort has a game room, a beautiful pool, private trails, a tasty onsite restaurant, and a private beach, with a free shuttle to take you there and back. Squirrel monkeys frequently visit the pool area, sometimes causing trouble, but always fun to watch. We even got to see mom- monkeys carrying tiny babies on their backs!
Los Altos Resort can be booked direct, or through Hyatt with the Small Luxury Hotels of the World Program (by paying with cash or points). Breakfast and amenities are included in the cost. But one thing to note is that, when booking with points, your points will only cover 2 people. You’ll have to pay cash for additional people. We paid an additional $150/night for our kids. But we thought the resort was well worth price- we loved it so much!
La Mariposa Hotel is a great choice for families. The rooms are clean and modern, and the jungle and ocean views are breathtaking. It has an onsite restaurant and a small pool and hot tub. Everything you need for a wonderful stay in Manuel Antonio!
So I’ll just be honest- for me, San Jose is just where to stay on arrival night and/or the night before departure for me. I’m sure there are lots of great things to do, but it’s tough to compare against the rest of Costa Rica. So if you are spending a night in San Jose before or after your flight, here are my recommendations.
Where to stay
AC Hotel Heredia Belen is a clean, reasonably priced hotel close to the airport with plenty of convenient amenities. The rooms are a little bit small, but for a quick overnight stay, totally fine. The hotel has a pool, and an onsite restaurant.
Right outside of the hotel is a Starbucks, a small grocery store, and our favorite thing – a really nice food truck court. The food truck court is covered to keep out the rain, clean, and has a variety of different types of foods. They have plenty of seating, and a lot of the food is served on real plates. We also loved that they have buzzers so you can go back to your table instead of standing around waiting.
We think this 7 day itinerary is perfect for families with kids! It has tons of adventure packed into one week without feeling rushed. Let us know how it worked out for you!