Designed for families and perfect for outdoor enthusiasts, this 9-day adventure takes you to many of Costa Rica's most beautiful natural landscapes, including Arenal Volcano, the Monteverde Cloud Forest, and Manuel Antonio National Park. This action-packed trip also takes you off the beaten path to the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve—a haven for wildlife viewing—and the spectacular Isla del Caño Biological Reserve, where you'll dive or snorkel in a colorful underwater ecosystem.

Highlights

  • Float down Peñas Blancas River to spot monkeys, alligators, and waterbirds
  • Ride the country's most thrilling zip line in the Sky Adventures Park
  • Explore the lush rainforest of Manuel Antonio National Park
  • Snorkel or dive with the kids at the Isla del Caño Biological Reserve
  • Visit the country's largest butterfly garden with the family

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Explore Downtown San José San José
Day 2 Enjoy the La Paz Waterfall Gardens La Fortuna
Day 3 Go on a Safari Cruise & Hike Around Arenal Volcano  La Fortuna
Day 4 Visit the Sky Adventures Park Monteverde
Day 5 Discover the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve  Monteverde
Day 6 Travel to Manuel Antonio National Park Manuel Antonio
Day 7 Hike, Sail & Snorkel in the Park Manuel Antonio
Day 8 Explore the Underwater World of Isla del Caño Biological Reserve Manuel Antonio
Day 9 Depart Costa Rica  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Explore Downtown San José

The National Theater
The National Theater in San José
Welcome to Costa Rica! A driver will be waiting for you at the airport to take you to your hotel in San José. After getting settled in, go for a self-guided walking tour of the city's downtown. Depending on your hotel's location, you can walk or call on a taxi to your first destination: Mercado Central (Central Market). The perfect spot to kick off your city tour, Mercado Central features over 200 shops, food stalls, and sodas (traditional restaurants). Explore the colorful fruit stands full of fresh produce, scope souvenirs, or pop over to a soda for an early lunch of traditional Costa Rican casado

It's a short walk to Central Park, a small plaza that is always bustling with activity. Kids will enjoy seeing various outdoor sculptures as you make your way through the park toward Catedral Metropolitana, whose interior combines Greek Orthodox, Neoclassical, and Baroque styles. Continue walking down Central Avenue until you reach the historic Teatro Nacional, an opulent Neoclassical building constructed in the late 19th century. A free guided tour is offered on the hour. If you require a caffeine fix, the theater's café is a great place for a quick coffee and pastry before exploring the city's museums.

Your first museum stop is the Museo del Oro Precolumbino, accessible from beneath the Plaza de la Cultura and holds the most extensive Pre-Columbian gold collection in Latin America. A guided visit provides unique insight into the history of Costa Rica and the rest of Central America. Next, head to the Museo del Jade, the world's largest collection of pre-Columbian jade artifacts. The museum's distinctive modern architecture is hard to miss, having been built to look like a block of raw jade stone. As you wander among thousands of unique jade pieces, your family will gain an even deeper appreciation for Costa Rica's rich history. 

Day 2: Enjoy the La Paz Waterfall Gardens

La Paz Waterfall
La Paz Waterfall

Spend the day exploring La Paz Waterfall Gardens. Once at this natural park, your family will visit the largest butterfly garden in the country, an aviary full of local bird species, an impressive hummingbird gallery as well as snake, frogs, and wildcat exhibits. After enjoying a delicious buffet lunch, you will visit an old farmhouse and continue along forest trails visiting three spectacular waterfalls.

Initially, the only way one could view the falls was by literally hanging over the side of the mountain, peering through trees and ferns. With the construction of the Waterfall Gardens, guests can enjoy views from the platforms above, below, and in front of the falls, as well as fantastic photo opportunities. On the Magia Blanca Waterfall viewing platform, stop to take photos of the kids under the waterfall. 

Day 3: Go on a Safari Cruise & Hike Around Arenal Volcano 

Arenal Volcano

Get acquainted with the tropical river ecosystem and experience the tranquility of the forest while floating slowly down the wildlife-rich Peñas Blancas River. This is a golden opportunity for your family to observe many wildlife species such as monkeys, sloths, iguanas, turtles, and alligators, and different types of birds like herons, cormorants, American darters, and passerines. You might even get lucky and spy a quirky reptile called a basilisk lizard, capable of walking on water.

This tour is perfect for smaller children and those who don't want to do as much walking but would appreciate plenty of opportunities to observe and photograph nature's beauty. The raft makes for a quiet and peaceful trip—you will only occasionally need to paddle to avoid an obstacle. The raft's material allows it to be light, highly buoyant, and stable without affecting the river floor as it passes or disturbing the animals that inhabit it. In addition, the boat captain is an experienced naturalist guide equipped with the knowledge to interpret the ecosystem and provide interesting information about it.

Next, your family will hike around Arenal Volcano with a guide. The 1.5-hour route offers some of the best wildlife viewing opportunities in the park, and your guide will keep a well-trained eye out for exotic birds, monkeys, and other animals along the way. In addition, you'll also walk through sections of the park devastated by the lava flow of 1968, resulting in little to no vegetation in the surroundings. The trail also provides magnificent views of the massive Arenal Volcano, pristine Lake Arenal, and the extinct volcano Cerro Chato. After hiking the trails, your guide will drop you off at Tabacon Hot Springs so you and your family can soothe your muscles with a dip in mineral-rich waters. 

Day 4: Visit the Sky Adventures Park

Monteverde is popular for its canopy tours
Monteverde is popular for its canopy zip-line tours
After breakfast, you'll head toward Monteverde, known as the "Green Lung" of Costa Rica due to its rich biodiversity. Located in the mountainous northwest region of the country, Monteverde is famed for its sprawling Cloud Forest Reserve, home to countless wildlife species. Suspension bridges throughout the reserve lead you and your kids on walks high above the forest canopy. You'll have plenty of opportunities to spot the colorfully plumed quetzal. The reserve's marked trails pass through exotic fauna and flora, including the most significant number of orchid species on the planet (500!), with new varieties discovered regularly. 

After checking in at your hotel, you'll spend the afternoon at Sky Adventures Park. Here your family will have your pick of ways to explore the cloud forest. First, you'll start with a guided Sky Walk, which combines trails and suspension bridges for close encounters with wildlife. Later, you'll ride in an open-air gondola. During this journey, you'll enjoy sweeping views across the mountains. Arriving at the end of the line, the exhilarating adventure of whizzing down the mountain begins. Connect to a zip-line cable that stretches over rainforest treetops and across clifftops, returning you to the starting point. This activity is especially well-suited to older children and teenagers.

Day 5: Discover the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve 

A male coatimundi, part of the raccoon family
A male coatimundi, part of the raccoon family

Although the Santa Elena Cloud Forest is only slightly higher in elevation than the nearby Cloud Forest Reserve in Monteverde, the increase in rainfall and cloud coverage is considerable. Combined with the lack of crowds, this makes the atmosphere of the cloud forest all the more ethereal and mesmerizing for you and your family. And because the local community runs the reserve, the tourism dollars generated by visitors go directly toward aiding the local schools and protecting and maintaining the forest.

Upon arrival, you'll meet up with a naturalist guide. Because the canopy is highly dense in the cloud forest, it's an exceptional challenge for the untrained eye to spot most wildlife species while walking the trails. Your guide will share stories and insights about the cloud forest with your family while keeping a careful and well-trained eye out for any wildlife that crosses your path. The cloud forest is home to an astonishing number of animals, like the elusive feline species of pumas, jaguarundi, and the endangered jaguar. More commonly seen species include spider monkeys, sloths, bright red poison dart frogs, and tarantulas. 

Day 6: Transfer to Manuel Antonio National Park

Sunset at Manuel Antonio Beach
Sunset at Manuel Antonio Beach
Today is a travel day. After breakfast, you'll transfer with your family to Manuel Antonio National Park in a private, air-conditioned minivan. The drive takes approximately five hours depending on traffic. Tomorrow, you'll venture into the park to explore the rainforest. Today, you'll have the afternoon and evening free to relax, take a short hike, enjoy dinner in a local restaurant, and get some rest before the next day's excursion.

Day 7: Hike, Sail & Snorkel in the Park

Be on the lookout for sloths hanging from the trees
A sloth hanging from the trees

Explore the pristine natural beauty of the world-famous national park today. The region is filled with wildlife including monkeys, sloths, birds, reptiles, and butterflies that kids will enjoy looking for along the way. Start with a picturesque hike that leads you to a gorgeous beach. Enjoy the sights and sounds of the lush rainforest, white sandy beaches, and crystalline blue waters along the journey. 

Later in the day, you will board your catamaran at the pier in Quepos and go for a sailing adventure along the coast. Your guide will point out notable wildlife and vegetation as your family admires islands, cliffs, and natural rock formations. After touring the coastline, the captain will set anchor at Biesanz Bay, where you and your kids can snorkel or relax onboard and enjoy a barbecue lunch. If you do venture into the water, you're likely to see parrotfish, starfish, angelfish, and dolphins. 

Please note that afternoon sailing is unavailable from May through November, but morning sailing is available year-round.

Day 8: Explore the Underwater World of Isla del Caño Biological Reserve

The sea turtle, a magnificent and regal creature
A sea turtle at Isla del Caño

Today your family will explore the waters of the Caño Island Biological Reserve (Isla del Caño) on a diving and snorkeling excursion. This protected marine area is located just off the northern tip of the Osa Peninsula, next to Bahía Drake. There isn't much wildlife on the island itself, but it is a different story underwater. The area is home to an abundance of marine life, including reef sharks, sea turtles, parrotfish, eels, manta rays, pufferfish, snappers, sea cucumbers, octopus, and many more. There's also a wide variety of coral-building organisms and 19 different species of coral.

The excursion to Isla del Caño begins when you board a 30-foot boat. An expert guide will offer a safety lesson geared for all ages and experience levels. Then it's time to plunge into the water. Visibility is excellent throughout the year, making Caño Island a perfect site for underwater photography. For kids and those who are not certified divers, there will be snorkeling equipment available, as well.

Day 9: Depart Costa Rica

Sunset in Costa Rica
The trip ends today. Your family will transfer to the airport to catch your flight out. Safe travels!

More Great 9-Day Costa Rica Itineraries

Looking for more inspiration for your trip to Costa Rica? Check out these other 9-day Costa Rica itineraries, with outdoor adventures, family-friendly trips, and best-of tours to hit the highlights. 

Map

Map of Costa Rica for Families: Outdoor Adventures & Wildlife - 9 Days
Map of Costa Rica for Families: Outdoor Adventures & Wildlife - 9 Days
Yenyi
Written by Yenyi Fu, updated Jun 2, 2022