Family-Friendly Arenal and Manuel Antonio National Park- 9 Days

Fun for the whole family, this itinerary covers two of Costa Rica's most famous areas. Arenal and Manuel Antonio are some of the best representations of Costa Rica; Arenal area features one of the most famous volcanos in the country, surrounded by lush tropical rainforest, while Manuel Antonio National Park is renown for its white sandy beaches and vast diversity of tropical plants and wildlife.

Overview

This tour offers a more laid-back Costa Rica experience, making it ideal for families with small children and for those who want to minimize travel time. Most of the hikes will be relatively mild and easy for young kids, and there will be plenty of opportunities also to do all the typical Costa Rica activities, such as zip-lining, beaches, and wildlife spotting.

This itinerary can also be great for older kids by adding a few adventure activities in either location.  So, whether you seek jungle adventures or just want to relax on the beach, you can customize this itinerary to design your family's ideal adventure.

Highlights

  • See two of Costa Rica's most famous destinations
  • Explore the architecture and markets of San Jose, Costa Rica's historic capital
  • Zip-line across the jungle with the stunning backdrop of Arenal Volcano
  • Explore waterfalls and rainforests through guided hikes and boat tours
  • Relax on the pristine beaches of Manuel Antonio National Park

Brief Itinerary

Day Destination Activities (Included Meals)
Day 1 San Jose (Arrival) Sightseeing
Day 2 Arenal/La Fortuna Rafting, Waterfall/Coffee Tour
Day 3 Arenal Zip-lining, Hiking
Day 4 Arenal Free day. Optional tours include: Horseriding, waterfall jumping, ATVs
Day 5 Manuel Antonio Boat Tour 
Day 6 Manuel Antonio Hiking, Snorkeling
Day 7 Manuel Antonio Free day. Optional tours include: Boat tour, kayaking
Day 8 San Jose Night Tour
Day 9 San Jose (Departure)  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrival & Downtown San José

San Jose's National Museum

Welcome to Costa Rica! Get settled in San José, and if your flight arrives earlier in the day, go downtown to explore San José. To start things off, you can tour the Pre-Columbian Gold Museum to see one of the largest collections of gold in the western hemisphere. If you want to see some of the city's most iconic architecture, you can check out the former post office that is now the Teatro Nacional (National Theater) and the National Museum, a bright yellow building that once served as military barracks.

Day 2: San José to Arenal Volcano (La Fortuna)

Arenal Volcano

You will be picked up from your hotel in the morning and drive down to Arenal Volcano and the nearby town of La Fortuna.  You can take a direct route to Arenal, or plan some activities and stops on the drive down.  Some options include:

  • Whitewater Rafting on the Sarapíquí river (Class II-III): Starting from the serene town of San Miguel de Sarapíquí, a professional rafting guide will give you safety tips and take you down a 2-hour journey down the Sarapíquí River (Class 3-4). Raft across over 30 exciting rapids along 6 miles (10km) of lush, scenic rainforests.  Finish the tour with a delicious homemade lunch before continuing your trip to Arenal.  Whitewater rafting on the Sarapíquí river is best for children 9 and up.  Class III-IV whitewater rafting is also available for older kids (13+) or those who want more adventure.
  • Tour of Coffee Plantation & La Paz waterfall: Learn about the history and role of coffee in Costa Rican culture before heading to La Paz waterfall to spot a variety of birds, butterflies, monkeys, and sloths. Enjoy a traditional Costa Rican lunch before continuing on to Arenal.

Once you arrive in La Fortuna, which sits at the foot of Arenal Volcano, check into your hotel in Arenal. Take the afternoon to rest.  You can splash in the pool with the kids, or take some time to indulge in a massage in the hotel spa and enjoy the beautiful view of the volcano in the distance.   

Day 3: Adventures around Arenal

Hanging Bridge of Arenal

Explore Arenal through a variety of organized adventure activities, including:

  • Zip-lining: Zip lining is said to have originated in Costa Rica, what better place to try this activity.  In this isolated patch of jungle, you will get amazing views of the surrounding mountains, rivers, and the impressive volcano as you soar among the trees. Make sure to keep your eyes open for toucans, monkeys, sloths, butterflies and various species of colorful birds.  For zip lining, the minimum age depends on the operator, typically the child needs to be 8 -10 years old (50 - 80 lbs), for younger children, some operators will allow children older than 4 years to ride in tandem with an guide.  
  • Arenal Hanging Bridges:  Kids will love the adventure of walking across elevated bridges and to see the jungle from high above, surrounded by birds and trees.  A stunning, environmentally friendly project located near the Arenal Volcano, the bridges also lead to 2 miles of pristine forest trails. A naturalist guide will teach you about Costa Rican culture and history while pointing out different species of plants, animals, and birds along the trails.
  • Hike to the La Fortuna Waterfall: A good workout that takes about 600 steps for a round trip down and up, this hike covers one of Arenal's largest and most breathtaking waterfalls. Once you reach the bottom, make sure to cool off with a refreshing dip in the pool and take lots of pictures! 
  • Arenal Volcano National Park Hike: Arenal is one of the most visited natural parks in all of Latin America since its trails are generally flat and not too difficult, making them the perfect setting for a leisurely hike. Explore the jungle with the help of a guide along well-maintained, easy trails that cover the base of the volcano.

Day 4: Arenal - Free Day

Arenal on a cloudy day

This day is free for you to explore the rest of the area on your own and go on some more adventure tours available. Options include, waterfall rappelling, caving, canoeing, mountain biking, horseback riding, an ATV tour, stand-up paddling, kayaking, safari trips, rafting, and more. Be sure to enjoy your last day at Arenal to the fullest, as we will hit the road tomorrow morning.

Day 5: Arenal to Manuel Antonio National Park

Capuchin in Manuel Antonio

Today, start the trip down to the beaches of Manuel Antonio National Park. 

Along the way, stop at the Carara Biological Reserve area of the Tarcoles River for a side excursion.  Keep your eyes peeled for the rare Scarlet Macaw, as well as over fifty other species of tropical birds. Basilisks, nicknamed "Jesus Christ Lizards" for their ability to walk across water, also thrive here. If you're lucky, you might be able to spot one in action!

Next, a bilingual guide will point out hidden wildlife along a two-hour boat tour of the Tarcoles River and into the Guacalillo Mangrove Estuary. This entertaining yet educational tour of one of Costa Rica's most-complex ecosystems, traversing one of the largest crocodile populations in the world, is great fun for the whole family.

Day 6: Manuel Antonio National Park

The Beaches of Manuel Antonio

Now that you're within Manuel Antonio National Park, you can wind down at one of Costa Rica's most beautiful beaches.  If you hungry for more adventure, you can also hike through the park on one of the many trails by following the signs and get up close to capuchin monkeys, sloths and over 200 species of birds.  You can also snorkel from multiple access points back at the beaches.

Another tour that is really interesting is a trip to Damas Island Estuary. Kayak through the waterways of a sprawling mangrove swamp, or go for a more laid-back boat tour. Certain species of wildlife, such as boas, caimans, and several birds, are more common here than on the mainland and are truly a sight worth seeing.

Day 7: Manuel Antonio National Park - Free Day

Snorkeling in Coral Reef

On your full last day in Manuel Antonio, continue to enjoy the beach and finish exploring the area. Organize more tours if you'd like, such as fishing, snorkeling, or naturalist-led hikes in the park. 

Day 8: Back to San José Costa Rica

Post Office Building in San Jose

Take the morning to relax at your hotel, visit the National Park, and enjoy the beach one final time.  By noon, you will start driving back to San José. A 30 minutes local flight is also an option, but there is a luggage weight restriction of 40 pounds per person as well as an additional charge. 

Once you're back in San Jose, take a night tour of the city if you want to make the most out of the last few hours. Stroll through the city with a guide, meet local vendors and taste authentic cuisine in the Central Market, see a plethora of architectural wonders including the National Theater, and enjoy a authentic Costa Rican dinner as a part of the tour. 

Day 9: Farewell

Time to say goodbye to Costa Rica and head to the airport for your flight back home.