This family-friendly tour introduces travelers to a diverse range of Costa Rican landscapes, from white sand Caribbean beaches to smoking volcanoes and quiet estuaries teeming with wildlife. Base yourself in three different locations—Tortuguero National Park, Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, and Arenal—as you explore wildlife habitats, soak in hot springs, and hike around volcanoes. You'll also visit a jaguar rehabilitation center, observe the jungle after dark during a guided night hike, and trek to waterfalls for a refreshing dip.

Highlights

  • Spend a day seeing the sights in historic San José
  • Climb Cerro Tortuguero, the region's highest peak, for views over the Caribbean
  • Explore lush Cahuita National Park on a boat tour
  • Spot monkeys, sloths, tropical birds, and more on a guided wildlife hike
  • Visit an animal rehabilitation center to see jaguars up close

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Explore Downtown San José San José
Day 2 Spot Wildlife on a Night Hike in Tortuguero Tortuguero
Day 3 Boat Along the Tortuguero Canals Tortuguero
Day 4 Discover the Beaches Around Puerto Viejo Puerto Viejo de Talamanca
Day 5 Tour Cahuita National Park Puerto Viejo de Talamanca
Day 6 Visit a Jaguar Rescue Center Puerto Viejo de Talamanca
Day 7 Transfer to Arenal & Soak in Hot Springs La Fortuna
Day 8 Visit the Arenal Hanging Bridges & La Fortuna Waterfall La Fortuna
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, you can choose to walk or hail a taxi to your first destination, Mercado Central. Featuring over 200 shops, food stalls, and sodas (traditional restaurants), Mercado Central is the perfect spot to kick off your city tour. Sample traditional snacks—kids will love trying empanadas, freshly cut fruit, and batidos, or smoothies. Explore the colorful fruit stands full of fresh produce, scope out some souvenir ideas, or pop over to a soda for an early lunch of traditional Costa Rican casado

From Central Market, it's a short walk to Central Park, a small plaza that is always bustling with activity. Kids will enjoy checking out 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 need a caffeine fix, the theater's café is an excellent 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 the Plaza de la Cultura, the museum is located beneath and holds the largest Pre-Columbian gold collection in all of 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 as it looks like a block of raw jade stone. As you wander among thousands of unique jade pieces, you and your family will gain an even deeper appreciation for Costa Rica's rich history. 

Day 2: Spot Wildlife on a Night Hike in Tortuguero

The red-eyed tree frog is one of the creatures you might spot on a nocturnal exploration of Tortuguero National Park
A red-eyed tree frog in Tortuguero National Park

Today you will transfer from San José to Tortuguero. A driver will pick you up in an air-conditioned minivan, help you with your luggage, and take you to the boat dock near Tortuguero. You and your family will transfer to a boat, which will take you to your hotel. As the day draws to a close, the nocturnal animals and insects wake up, utterly transforming the jungle's sights, sounds, and atmosphere. This transformation is spellbinding to behold and is the focus of your activity this evening as you take a magical nighttime hike through the mysterious jungle surrounding Tortuguero.

Starting at your lodge, you will leave by boat around 5:30 pm for a 5-minute ride to the lodge's network of private trails, located close to Tortuguero National Park. Your walk with an expert naturalist guide begins, taking you along forest trails as twilight descends. There are many creatures for kids to spot—keep your eyes open for moths, crickets, spiders, frogs, bats, sloths, porcupines, nocturnal birds, and caiman. You'll return to the lodge in time for dinner.

Day 3: Boat Along the Tortuguero Canals

Sun on the tree branches
Sun on the tree branches in Tortuguero
Tortuguero National Park is one of the world's most important locations for several species of nesting sea turtles. The park's canals can be explored by boat, and today's guided tour of the canals gives you the thrilling chance to see the forest and its wildlife from the water. 

You will start your journey by boat to the Tortuguero National Park ranger station to get your park admission tickets. Here, the park ranger will tell you and your group which canals you will be able to explore on the day. Tortuguero's flora and fauna are impressive. A 2021 count registered 186 species of bird in the area, along with three monkey species, crocodiles, caimans, toucans, sloths, and much more. You and your family are likely to see some of these creatures on your tour. You can get close to the tangled jungle on the riverbanks of some waterways, where many animals can be seen. 

After lunch, get ready to see the most spectacular panoramic view in all of Tortuguero as you climb the area's highest peak, Cerro Tortuguero. Start with a boat ride from Mawamba Lodge to the trailhead. The peak is only 390 feet (119 m) above sea level, but climbing through the jungle is nevertheless demanding, especially for younger children. During the hike, your guide will share interesting facts about the area and tell you about the plants and animals you will see. When you get to the top, the most exquisite view of Tortuguero opens up, spanning the Tortuguero canals, the Caribbean Sea, and the communities of San Francisco and Tortuguero. 

After hiking down to the trailhead, you will take your boat back to the lodge. 

Day 4: Discover the Beaches Around Puerto Viejo

Punta Uva in Puerto Viejo

You will travel from Tortuguero today to Puerto Viejo de Talamanca and Cahuita National Park. No trip to this stunning coastal area would be complete without time to explore the diversity of its Caribbean beaches. You'll have your pick of black, golden, or white sand beaches, all within a short distance of town. Great beaches in the area include what many consider one of Costa Rica's most beautiful, Playa Punta Uva. Rent bicycles with the kids and pedal there! The rest of the day is yours to sunbathe, swim, surf, and relax on the sand.

Day 5: Tour Cahuita National Park

Cahuita National Park
Cahuita National Park

From Cahuita National Park this morning, you'll start your adventure at the beach, climbing aboard for a 20-minute cruise to Cahuita Point. If the sea conditions allow, you will have the opportunity to snorkel twice off the coast near the most extensive coral reefs. The seafloor off the coast of Cahuita is as much a jungle as the rainforest, with tropical fish, stingrays, octopus, and nurse sharks on view for snorkelers. The best time for snorkeling is from July to October, as the sea is typically too rough between December and March. Regardless of the time of year, the boat ride is a great way to approach Cahuita Point and start your exploration of the park. 

Fuel up with a spread of tropical fruit on the beach before heading out on a guided hike through the coastal rainforest. You’ll head onto land and enter the national park from the boat. Since the region is home to an abundance and diversity of wildlife, the chances are good that you'll see monkeys, tropical birds, sloths, iguanas, poisonous dart frogs, and more. After your hike, head back to Puerto Viejo with your guide.

Day 6: Visit a Jaguar Rescue Center

A jaguar in a wildlife refuge in Costa Rica

Start the morning at the Jaguar Animal Rescue Center, which offers shelter, treatment, rehabilitation, and protection to ill or wounded wild animals in the area. The shelter is run by a biologist with many years of experience caring for wild mammals in captivity. The center has become a sanctuary for wild animals through the organization's hard work, with terrariums for snakes and small animals, larger spaces for the monkeys, and special quarantine cages for animals arriving with serious injuries. It's fascinating for kids, and your entrance fee and support help keep the center running.

After the rescue center, visit a local family that grows cacao trees on their land. They will show you the entire process, from cacao fruit to a bar of chocolate. Kids can sample different kinds of homemade chocolate, and you will have the opportunity to purchase sweets and handmade crafts. Later, your guide will bring you to a waterfall with beautiful swimming holes. Enjoy a dip in the water before hiking back to the vehicle and returning to the hotel.

Day 7: Transfer to Arenal & Soak in Hot Springs

Steam emerging from Arenal, one of Costa Rica's most famous volcanoes
Steam emerging from Arenal, one of Costa Rica's most famous volcanoes

In the morning, you will ride about five hours to La Fortuna—the closest town to Arenal Volcano—where you and your family will have the rest of the afternoon and evening free to enjoy the area. Take the edge off the day's long journey with a soak in one of the region's natural hot springs.

For dinner, hit the town and sample one of the many restaurants here. Solid dining options include Don Rufino, an upscale grill with a good wine list; Cafe Mediterraneo, an Italian restaurant with fresh pasta and a wood-fired pizza oven; and Rancho Perla, serving up Costa Rican staples like beef, chicken, and seafood. Kids might spot toucans, iguanas, and even sloths in the trees near your table.

Day 8: Visit the Arenal Hanging Bridges & La Fortuna Waterfall

Suspension bridge at Mistico Hanging Bridges Park
Suspension bridge in the jungle

Today your family will explore the Arenal Hanging Bridges. This rainforest reserve features suspension bridges that take you high above the treetops before treating you to a once-in-a-lifetime view of Arenal Volcano. Venturing along these elevated walkways, some of which are 180 feet (55 m) high, you'll also be able to appreciate the incredible biodiversity where upland and lowland rainforest meet. The birdwatching is superb, with more than 350 resident species. The trail you will walk is two miles (3 km) long, crossing 10 fixed bridges and six hanging bridges with lengths between 16 and 328 feet (5 and 100 m).

Next, head off to hike around Arenal Volcano with a naturalist guide. The 1.5-hour route offers some of the best wildlife viewings, and your guide will keep a well-trained eye for exotic birds, monkeys, and other animals. In addition to the forested parts where you can spot wildlife, 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. Your guide will explain the history of the area pre-and post-1968 eruption.The family-friendly 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 the kids can soothe your muscles with a dip in mineral-rich waters. These springs have been used as therapeutic baths for centuries. End the day with a nice dinner at the resort's restaurant, which serves Costa Rican dishes and international fare, before being picked up and transported back to your hotel for the night.

Day 9: Depart Costa Rica

Puerto Viejo National Park
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 Family Adventure in Costa Rica: Wetlands, Volcanoes & Caribbean Beaches - 9 Days
Map of Family Adventure in Costa Rica: Wetlands, Volcanoes & Caribbean Beaches - 9 Days
Yenyi
Written by Yenyi Fu, updated Jun 2, 2022