This 15-day adventure allows you to experience the country from both coasts and is designed from start to finish with kids in mind. You'll visit the bustling capital of San José, the rainforest of Tortuguero National Park, the towering Arenal Volcano, the cloud forest of Monteverde and the spectacular beaches of Guanacaste. There are plenty of family-friendly activities along the way, from watching sea turtles hatch on a Caribbean beach to sampling locally produced chocolate to snorkeling in the Pacific.

Highlights

  • Ride in a canoe along the waterways of Tortuguero National Park
  • Hike around Arenal Volcano and take a dip in natural hot springs
  • Take a traditional Costa Rican cooking class and chocolate-making workshop
  • Soar over the treetops on a zip-line adventure in Monteverde
  • Enjoy a sunset catamaran cruise around the Gulf of Papagayo

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrive in San José San Jose
Day 2 San José to Tortuguero National Park Tortuguero
Day 3 Turtle Spotting in Tortuguero Tortuguero
Day 4 Transfer to Arenal Volcano, Chocolate Making & Hot Springs Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 5 Hanging Bridges & Hiking in the Arenal 1968 Reserve Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 6 Wildlife Spotting at the Caño Negro Refuge Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 7 Waterfall Hike & Cooking Class Arenal/La Fortuna
Day 8 Boat from Arenal to Monteverde - Nocturnal Nature Tour Monteverde
Day 9 Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve Guided Hike Monteverde
Day 10 Zip-Line Fun in the Cloud Forest Monteverde
Day 11 Monteverde -> Transfer to the Gulf of Papagayo Gulf de Papagayo
Day 12 Palo Verde Boat Tour and Artisan Village Gulf de Papagayo
Day 13 Free Day in Guanacaste Gulf de Papagayo
Day 14 Beach Time - Sunset Catamaran Cruise Gulf de Papagayo
Day 15 Depart Costa Rica  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrive in San José

The Neo-Classical Teatro Nacional in San José
The Neo-Classical Teatro Nacional in San José

Welcome to Costa Rica, the land of pura vida! After arriving at Juan Santamaría International Airport in San José, a local representative will meet you and escort you to your hotel. The rest of the day you'll have free to explore the city at your leisure.

Perhaps take a stroll through Mercado Central (Central Market), featuring over 200 shops, food stalls, and sodas (traditional restaurants). Then visit the Catedral Metropolitana (Metropolitan Church), whose interior combines Greek Orthodox, Neoclassical, and Baroque styles, and features wood carvings and stained-glass windows. There's also a pair of popular museums in San José: Museo del Oro Precolumbino (Pre-Columbian Gold Museum), and Museo del Jade—the world's largest collection of pre-Columbian jade artifacts.

Be sure to explore Barrio Amón, a historic neighborhood home to cafetalero (coffee grower) mansions built during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many of this area’s historic buildings have been converted into hotels, restaurants, and galleries, making Amón a popular bohemian district.

For dinner, opt for a restaurant in the hills of Escazú. This elevated region on the western edge of the city offers panoramic views of the valley below. That said, San José is filled with great restaurants serving everything from traditional to forward-thinking fusion cuisine.

Day 2: San José to Tortuguero National Park

Rainforest on the banks of the Tortuguero River
Rainforest on the banks of the Tortuguero River

After breakfast, you’ll depart early in the morning for Tortuguero National Park, on the northern Caribbean coast, stopping en route for a snack. Maybe try the gallo pinto (rice mixed with black beans), Costa Rica's unofficial national dish, often served with eggs or cheese.

Getting to Tortuguero is an adventure in itself. On this nearly 4-hour road trip, you'll head northeast out of town, leaving the concrete jungle of San José behind as you enter the tropical rainforests of Braulio Carrillo National Park. As you wind around the green mountains at various altitudes, exotic flora and fauna will present itself depending on the elevation. Squirrel monkeys can be found here, as can scarlet macaws.

After passing small towns and banana plantations you'll reach a small boat dock along the network of canals that feed into the Tortuguero River. Once aboard for the approximately 90-minute trip, you can relax and enjoy the ambiance as you zip along the calm waters—maybe make a game of spotting fish and birds as you enter Tortuguero National Park. Once you arrive, the rest of the day is free for you to relax in your hotel (where meals are included). If you do decide to dine out, the area isn't lacking for restaurants—you'll find everything from pizza and crepes to jerk chicken and fresh-baked banana bread.

Day 3: Turtle Spotting in Tortuguero

Turtle hatchling on the beach
Turtle hatchling on the beach

Tortuguero is unique in that, unlike many national parks in Costa Rica, it almost exclusively revolves around the water. Today you'll hop in a canoe and navigate the network of arterial waterways that snake around this protected area. Keep your camera at the ready because you'll be on the hunt for various denizens of the reserve, including manatees, spectacled caimans, river otters, and rare birds. Among these, you'll likely spot macaws, toucans, and kingfishers.

Back on terra firma, you'll have plenty of time to explore Tortuguero's 22-mile expanse of beach. It's a favorite nesting area for three different species of turtle: the hawksbill, leatherback, and green sea turtle. All of these nest in the area from July through October (mostly at night), and seeing the mother turtles lay their eggs is an unforgettable experience. If you come from February to July, you'll spot the leatherback, which at 6 to 7 feet long and up to 1,500 pounds, is the largest sea turtle in the world.

Boat tour: Three hours

Day 4: Transfer to Arenal Volcano, Chocolate Making & Hot Springs

Participate in the harvest of cacao and the drying and grinding of the seed that produces creamy cocoa butter
Participate in the harvest of cacao and the drying and grinding of the seed that produces creamy cocoa butter

After an early breakfast at the hotel, you’ll meet the shuttle service in the lobby. Your destination is the area surrounding Arenal Volcano National Park, home of the 5,437-foot-high peak that is one of Costa Rica’s most famed landmarks.

Today, you'll get a hands-on lesson about the origin, history, and current production of one of Costa Rica's most famous exports: chocolate. Participate in the harvest of cacao and the drying and grinding of the seed that produces creamy cocoa butter. You'll also learn how the traditional chocolate drink was developed centuries ago, and, of course, sample the chocolate freshly made onsite.

Afterwards, treat yourself to an unforgettable hot springs experience at Tabacón hot springs.  There are five springs source of highly mineralized water that is heated underground by the Arenal Volcano’s magma. Thousands of gallons of this perfect water naturally emanate every minute. The thermal water flows throughout the resort, forming the Tabacon River. You will find dozens of cascading waterfalls and warm pools along the riverbed, of varying temperatures, water flows and degree of privacy.  Some pools are vast and calm, others are small and afford privacy for those wishing to disappear in a secluded nook.  

Finally, complete your evening by enjoying a traditional dinner next to the hot springs at the Ave del Paraíso which serves a mix of local Costa Rican and international cuisine.
Here are a few recommended restaurants for your stay in La Fortuna

  • Don Rufino, which serves a mix of local and international flavors in charming digs that include an open-air bar overlooking the main street. 
  • Café Mediterraneo, a friendly osteria serving up homemade pasta and pizza. 
  • La Parrilla de María Bonita, a must-visit for perfectly cooked steak as well as Mediterranean dishes like falafel and baba ghanoush. 
  • Rancho Perla, a popular open-air restaurant (you may even spot sloths hanging from the nearby trees) serving well-prepared Costa Rican staples.
  • Ave Del Paraíso, which offers daily theme dinners such as Italian, Mexican, Mediterranean and Costa Rican.

Day 5: Hanging Bridges & Hiking in the Arenal 1968 Reserve

Hanging bridge in the jungle surrounding Arenal Volcano
Hanging bridge in the jungle surrounding Arenal Volcano

Head out early to spend the day exploring the jungle canopy. You'll wander along well-marked trails that lead you over suspension bridges high above the treetops —some that are hundreds of feet long—for a once-in-a-lifetime view of Arenal Volcano. You'll also get an up-close look at the incredible biodiversity that occurs in this region, where upland and lowland rainforest meet. More than 350 bird species can be found in this park alone. 

After lunch, take an optional hike to Arenal 1968. This private reserve is named for the volcano’s eruption of that same year, which completely changed some of the region’s topography: lava fields now predominate on one side of Arenal. Trails wind through those lava fields as well as through the rainforest, offering beautiful views of the volcano. This is a more challenging hike—if you're looking for something more mellow, there are plenty of easier trails in the area.

Optional tour: Naturally heated thermal springs are plentiful here, and several places nearby offer the chance to soak in the relaxing waters. Kids will clamor for a visit to Ecotermales or Tabacon Hot Springs, with five main springs, dozens of cascading waterfalls and warm pools of varying temperatures, plus a cold-water pool with a thermal slide (and a swim-up bar for the adults).

Day 6: Wildlife Spotting at the Caño Negro Refuge

Howler monkeys are common in Caño Negro
Howler monkeys are common in Caño Negro

After breakfast in La Fortuna, you'll take a day-trip to the Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge (a two-hour drive each way). It's located in the far north of the country, near the border with Nicaragua, but it's well worth the travel time. 
This ecologically diverse refuge has been named a "world protected area" by Ramsar and is home to an abundance of wildlife.

Touring the area by boat down the Río Frio, you'll spot dozens of the more than 200 species of exotic birds that call this area home. Some avian varieties you can expect to see include spoonbills, jabiru storks, ibises, northern jacanas, ducks, and egrets. You'll see other wildlife, too, such as jaguars, three different species of monkeys, caimans, and turtles. Be sure to keep an eye out for sloths hanging from the treetops during your stop for lunch along the river.

Day 7: Waterfall Hike & Cooking Class

Take a cooking class on typical Costa Rican cuisine
Take a cooking class on typical Costa Rican cuisine

After breakfast in La Fortuna, pay a visit to La Fortuna Waterfall Reserve, where heavy annual precipitation gives you the chance to see a 210-foot waterfall. As you descend downhill on the trail, you'll check out the falls from the very bottom where a natural pool awaits if you want to swim in the fresh water of La Fortuna River.

In the afternoon, take a guided journey to the family-owned Arenal Vida Campesina Farm where you'll find several crops that Costa Rica is best known for: sugar cane, coffee, corn, yucca, cocoa, bananas, and plantains. The trip includes a visit to the mill for fresh-squeezed sugar cane juice and a taste of sugar cane liquor. Next, you'll head to restaurant La Guaria Morada for a cooking class on typical Costa Rican cuisine, followed by a family-style dinner.

Day 8: Boat from Arenal to Monteverde - Nocturnal Nature Tour

Cloud forest in Monteverde
Cloud forest in Monteverde

After breakfast at your resort in La Fortuna, you'll transfer to the Monteverde region of Costa Rica. This is no ordinary route; you'll skip the drive and board a boat, which will take you across the tranquil waters of Lake Arenal. On this 3.5-hour boat ride, you'll have ample opportunity to spot local birds like herons and anhingas. 

When you arrive at Monteverde, take the afternoon and evening to enjoy nearby Santa Elena, a charming town with Quaker influences known for excellent coffee and cheese. There are also plenty of dining options featuring delectable Costa Rican standards like ceviche and arroz con pollo (rice with chicken).

In the evening, spot nocturnal wildlife at its most active on a guided night tour of the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. A naturalist will point out sloths, armadillos, and kinkajous, as well as sleeping birds and frogs.

Night hike: Two hours

Day 9: Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve Guided Hike

The resplendent quetzal
The resplendent quetzal

After breakfast, you’ll transfer a short distance to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, one of the jewels in Costa Rica's ecological crown. Known as the "green lung of Costa Rica" due to its rich biodiversity, this 26,000-acre reserve is located high in the mountainous northwest region of the country. The views of the misty cloud forest here are the stuff of postcards.

But Monteverde offers more than sweeping panoramas. On a guided tour you'll get an up-close look at the incredible biodiversity that occurs in this region, where upland and lowland rainforest meet. More than 350 bird species exist here alone, including the aptly named resplendent quetzal. In other words, it's a nature lover’s paradise.

In the afternoon you'll return to your hotel and have the rest of the day to spend as you like.

Monteverde Cloud Forest hike duration: 3 hours

Day 10: Zip-Line Fun in the Cloud Forest

Suspension bridge in the cloud forest
Suspension bridge in the cloud forest

Today you'll enjoy an adrenaline-pumping zip-line ride in the country where that activity was invented. You'll start by ascending hundreds of feet above the jungle canopy via a network of trails and suspension bridges. The exotic flora and fauna of the region will be on full display, and our specialized guides will point out the most interesting specimens.

Upon reaching the end of the line, the exhilarating adventure of whizzing down the mountain begins. You will connect to a zip-line cable that stretches over the treetops and across canyons, ultimately returning you to the starting point. The whole excursion is regarded as the most thrilling zip-line adventures in the country.

Day 11: Monteverde -> Transfer to the Gulf of Papagayo

The arid, volcanic valleys of Guanacaste
The arid, volcanic valleys of Guanacaste

Road trip time! This four-hour drive takes you west into Guanacaste Province, past volcanic mountain ranges, flatlands, and villages as you head toward Costa Rica's Pacific coast. Stop for a bite and enjoy a traditional lunch or maybe a batido (fresh fruit smoothie). As the plains and tropical dry forests slowly give way to azure seas, you’ll arrive at your destination—the Gulf of Papagayo, where you'll check into your hotel. 

You can spend the remainder of the day relaxing on the tranquil beach. Perhaps enjoy a beer at one of the local beach bars. Maybe kayak around the bay.

Day 12: Palo Verde Boat Tour and Artisan Village

Prepare for a jungle cruise
Prepare for a jungle cruise

If you're an avid birder and/or wildlife enthusiast then you're going to love this full-day excursion. First, you'll transfer to Palo Verde National Park, where you'll embark on a two-hour river trip that's like a Disney Jungle Cruise come to life. As you motor down the Tempisque River, white-faced capuchin monkeys swing from the tree branches on shore as caimans and even the occasional crocodile patrol the waters. Birders will be treated to the sight of various species including tiger herons, ospreys, ibises, and the jabiru.

Afterward, you'll transfer to the small village of Guaitil. It's a hotbed of local culture in that many residents make handcrafted pottery here. This has been the case for generations, and you can browse the various products and appreciate the craftsmanship on display. Perhaps even take an item or two home.

Day 13: Free Day in Guanacaste

Visit the blue waterfall at Sensoria
Visit the blue waterfall at Sensoria

Today is free for you to explore in whatever way you prefer. You can opt to head back inland and embark on a jungle trail tour to Sensoria, part of a wildlife sanctuary at the foot of the Rincon de la Vieja Volcano. You'll relax in thermal pools, swim in waterfall lagoons, and do some more wildlife spotting. Or, you could enjoy the rainforest from the water on a two-hour safari float along the Corobicí River. A local guide will point out monkeys, bats, lizards, and even crocodiles. 

For families with kids over 12 years old and who are looking for an adventure, you could take a guided trip down the Tenorio River. Its white-water rapids make it the best river in Guanacaste for rafting. After a challenging trip down the rapids led by experts, you'll enjoy lunch before heading back to your hotel in time to catch one last sunset.

Day 14: Beach Time - Sunset Catamaran Cruise

Sunset over the Pacific in Papagayo
Sunset over the Pacific in Papagayo

There's no shortage of secluded bays and inviting beaches in Guanacaste Province. And after so much activity, you're likely eager for a day relaxing on the sand. If you happen to be a surfer (or just want to learn), Papagayo is the place. You'll find both beginning and advanced waves in the village of Tamarindo, as well as a number of surf schools. This laid-back surfer haven is also home to some of the best restaurants in the country. 

In the evening, you'll board a catamaran for a sunset sail. The ship will stop in a tranquil bay, drop anchor, and you'll explore the crystalline waters while the crew prepares a dinner feast. While you eat, enjoy the sunset over the Pacific horizon while keeping a sharp eye out for dolphins, sea turtles, flying fish, or even a breaching whale.

Day 15: Depart Costa Rica

One last view of Costa Rica
One last view of Costa Rica

It's time to say adiós to Costa Rica! After breakfast, you'll transfer to the airport and catch your international flight home.

Map

Map of Costa Rica Coastal Family Adventure - 15 Days
Map of Costa Rica Coastal Family Adventure - 15 Days
Yenyi
Written by Yenyi Fu, updated May 15, 2019