A small, inherently peaceful country, with a friendly populace, a good healthcare system and a decent transport infrastructure, Costa Rica is arguably the most child-friendly destination in Central America. Add a bounty of exotic wildlife, countless beaches and enough outdoor activities to keep even the most adrenaline-fuelled teenager quiet for a week or two, and it’s easy to see why the country is fast becoming one of the most popular destinations for families looking for a break with a bit more bite.
Like most other Latin countries, children are a fundamental part of society in Costa Rica, and you’ll be made to feel more than welcome in hotels and restaurants and on guided tours and trips; indeed, in many restaurants, junior (especially if they’re blond and blue-eyed) is likely to prove the star attraction. Very few hotels do not accept children (we’ve noted in the Guide those that don’t), and you’ll find that the comparatively early opening hours in restaurants actually favour the routines of younger families.
Costa Rica is also a very safe destination to travel around, with a long history of political stability and far less crime than in neighbouring countries. You don’t need specific inoculations to visit (and malaria is only present in the southern Caribbean) and most tourist places have a high standard of food hygiene, so health problems are rarely an issue – though Costa Rica’s position near the equator means that you should take the necessary precautions with the sun. In the unlikely scenario that you do require medical help, note that the (private) healthcare system in Costa Rica is excellent, with a couple of top-notch clinics in San José, while the capital’s Hospital Nacional de Niños at C 14, Av Central (t 2222-0122) has the best pediatric specialists in Central America.
Costa Rica’s incredible wildlife will undoubtedly provide your children with the most abiding memories of their trip, and you’d struggle to spend a couple of weeks in the country and not see a blue morpho butterfly, a colourful keel-billed toucan or a sloth or howler monkey working their way through the rainforest canopy – the latter two are particularly prevalent in Tortuguero and Manuel Antonio national parks. Most parks have well-maintained trails, many of which are short circuits; travellers with very young children will find pushchair-friendly paths at Poás and Carara national parks and the Reserva Santa Elena, while the main-crater viewpoint at Parque Nacional Volcán Irazú is also reachable with a buggy.
Butterfly farms are a big hit for younger children. It can sometimes seem that every small rural village has its own finca de la mariposa, but two of the best – and most interesting for the adults – are the La Gaucima Butterfly Farm just outside Alajuela, in the Valle Central, and the Butterfly Conservancy at El Castillo, near La Fortuna, the biggest in the country. Similarly, frog gardens, or ranariums, should also appeal thanks to the variety of croaking, whirring, garishly coloured species that are easily spotted hopping about; most major tourist centres, such as Monteverde, have a frog garden, while several private wildlife reserves run evening frog walks.
Costa Rica’s two long coastlines are backed by some beautiful beaches, though swimming should be supervised at all times – the same waves that make the country so popular with surfers can be dangerous for children, while some of the best beaches are plagued by riptides. Older children can rent bodyboards and surfboards in major surfing resorts such as Tamarindo and Santa Teresa/Mal País.
Taking a dip in an outdoor hot spring is a novel experience likely to be enjoyed by young children and teenagers alike. Most complexes have a variety of pools (of varying temperatures), many “fed” by waterfalls that you can perch under, and some have water slides as well; the springs around Volcán Arenal make great spots for a thermally heated soak. Given its constant activity, Arenal is also the best place for some serious volcano viewing, offering (weather permitting) memorable scenes of molten lava and hot rocks spilling down its flanks, especially from the (relative) safety of the Arenal Observatory Lodge. Always heed local safety warnings, and follow the advice in the For more information, see Volcán Arenal: explosions and eruptions.
The variety of outdoor activities available to teenagers is seemingly endless, and few will be able to resist hurtling through the treetops attached to cables on a zip line; hanging bridges offer a more relaxing alternative to exploring the upper canopy. You can go bungee-jumping in the Valle Central and at Jacó on the Pacific coast, and caving in Parque Nacional Barra Honda and Venado, near La Fortuna. Older teenagers can try their hand at white-water rafting by tackling the raging rapids of the Pacuaré and Reventázon rivers among others, though there are also “safari floats” on much calmer waters that will appeal to all the family.