Costa Rica is a beautiful Central American country well known for it’s ecological diversity, both in topography and its flora and fauna, as well as having a rich culture and an amazing year-round climate. It’s a fantastic destination for families with children with the unique wildlife, gorgeous beaches and outstanding outdoor adventure (ziplining, hiking, horseback riding, surfing, etc.) that is easily accessible is most areas of the country. You can spend a month or more and still only experience the tip of the iceberg, but I’ll share some of the major highlights of Costa Rica in 7 days, a trip that my family and I took this past January.

Day 1: San José – Arrive in San José spend your first night at the 4-star Aloft San José Hotel, a new and modern hotel close to the airport with an excellent buffet breakfast and a small, but very nice, swimming pool (from $89 per room per night). They also offer large connecting rooms which worked perfectly for our family. If you have time today, head into San José and enjoy a stroll around the beautiful Teatro Nacional, the Parque Central and the lively market to get your first taste of the capital of San José. Enjoy dinner at Restaurante El Patio del Balmoral and try some local fare tonight! I recommend the typical casado which is rice, beans, typically choice of chicken or pork or fish and a salad.

Fruit vendor

Day 2: La Fortuna – Pick up your rental car this morning and head out to La Fortuna and the Arenal Volcano area today. You’ll drive through stunning landscapes as you’ll be traversing the Central Valley, the mountainous areas surrounding the San José area in the center of the country. Stop in the quaint town of Sarchí, famous for it’s history in the making and painting of carretas (traditional oxcarts used for hauling primarily coffee beans) and enjoy a stroll around the main square which contains the largest oxcart in the world and a small playground for the kids. Make sure to visit Fábrica de Carretas Eloy Alfaro for a tour of the factory to see the wood carvers, how the machines operate and even the local artists painting in action. They also offer little art lessons for children. It’s a wonderful stop and you can of course leave with a special souvenir. Continue your picturesque drive through the misty cloud forest and then down into the northern lowlands as you arrive in La Fortuna. I recommend staying at the 4-star Arenal Manoa in one of their lovely cabins, all with volcano views (assuming the weather cooperates). The hotel also offers a natural (hot) spring fed pool and gorgeous views from the restaurant (prices from $250 for quad rooms). Visit La Fortuna Waterfall time permitting for a great hike down to the base of the falls, and then enjoy a refreshing swim before you hike back up. Our little ones did great with this strenuous but short hike (500 steps one way) and loved playing in the water at the bottom. Head into the town of La Fortuna tonight for dinner and enjoy a stroll around town, running around in the park in front of the church, and perhaps some shopping or ice cream after dinner. We enjoyed typical Costa Rica cuisine at the casual Soda La Hormiga, but there are many nice restaurants geared towards tourists as well such as Restaurante Don Rufino and Inspira located all near the main square.

Eloy Alfaro Factory
Artist at work at Eloy Alfaro

Traditional oxcart
La Fortuna Waterfall
Town Square of La Fortuna

Day 3: La Fortuna – Today, join an excursion to the Río Frío located in the Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge. You’ll enjoy a typical lunch (rice, beans, chicken or pork and fruit) in the small town of Los Chiles which acts as the gateway to the refuge and then board a boat with a local guide and have the chance to spot tons of wildlife including monkeys, sloths, many species of birds, caimans, lizards and more. It’s a fantastic excursion as you can get quite close to the wildlife. Head back to La Fortuna and later this afternoon, enjoy a visit to Baldi hot springs where you’ll enjoy testing out the many different pools and decide which temperature is the right one for you. There are even a couple of slides (they’re fast!) that the kids will enjoy. It’s a lovely natural setting where you can also include a buffet dinner in your ticket if you choose. Alternately, for those on a budget, skip the hot spring resort and head to the natural hot springs like we did located right across the road from Tabacón hot springs. Bring some snacks and drinks, join the Ticos, and find your own little slice of heaven in the warm river water!

Río Frío boat
Quick cross over to Nicaragua and back. 🙂
Baldi Hot Springs entrance
One of the many pools at Baldi Hot Springs
Natural hot springs across from Tabacon

Day 4: Manuel Antonio – This morning, fly through the canopy on zip line tour. It’s a thrilling ride and keep your eyes peeled for wildlife from your birds eye vantage point. We saw a large coati mundi, a mammal in the raccoon family with a long tail, foraging for food. The bravest of the bunch will take on the Tarzan swing as well. From here, drive south and arrive in the later afternoon to Manuel Antonio National Park, one of the premier parks of Costa Rica located on the Pacific Coast, with its white sand beaches backed by rainforest teaming with wildlife. Check into the charming and comfortable 3-star Hotel Villabosque (from $230 for a quad room) located within walking distance to the beach and to the park entrance. Enjoy dinner at El Avión, which is a very cool restaurant built around a C-123 Fairchild cargo plane. The kids will love it, and adults will too as it has fantastic drinks and a perfect spot to view the sunset.

Zipline Gear
El Avión Restaurant
Sunset from El Avian

Day 5: Manuel Antonio – Enjoy a full day exploring Manuel Antonio National Park. Pack your lunch, bathing suits, towels, sunscreen and hats, and hire a guide at the park entrance to help you spot the magnificent wildlife (many of them have telescope lenses so you can see faraway animals such as sloths up close) that inhabit the park. The park has a few trails along with 4 beautiful beaches to explore. The most popular is Playa Manuel Antonio with calm blue waters which is as far as we made it as it was hot, humid and we had 2 kiddos who weren’t up for walking. Ha! Watch out for the white faced Capuchin monkeys who like to grab your food! Our kids loved watching the spider monkeys play in the trees. For a less crowded beach, head to Gemelas which is smaller but also good for swimming. Head back to your hotel this evening to freshen up before going to Ronny’s Place for dinner tonight, a casual place where the kids can run around. They have excellent local dishes, and again, this place offer amazing sunset views!

Playa Manuel Antonio

White Faced Capuchin Monkey

Day 6: San José – This morning, visit nearby Playa Biesanz, a beautiful small hidden beach that was recommended to us by a local. Park your car on the road at the entrance to the beach (a parking attendant will watch your car for a small fee) and walk in about 300 meters before arriving at the lovely beach. There are a few services that we took advantage of (i.e. chair rental and delicious freshly-made ceviche for a mid-morning snack), but it’s mostly a very quiet beach, and fantastic for swimming and even snorkeling. This afternoon, drive back to San José (about 2 hours) stopping in Tarcoles to see the huge alligators that hang out under the bridge. There’s also a fantastic little national park called Carara right off the highway near the alligator bridge that is worth a stop for those who are itching for more wildlife sightings. Look for scarlet macaws, monkeys and iguanas. Check back into your hotel later this afternoon and enjoy your final night in Costa Rica. For something different tonight, head to Tenedor Argentino in the city for your farewell dinner and perhaps enjoy a delicious steak or empanadas Argentinian style.

Playa Bisaenz
Alligators under bridge
Beautiful view from Alligator Bridge at Tarcoles

Day 7: Fly Home – Head to the airport for your return flight home.

We enjoyed Costa Rica so much that we have since decided to relocate and are now enjoying the Pura Vida lifestyle in Atenas, a quaint town located in the coffee-growing hills of the Central Valley. Maybe you will join us.

As an estimated budget for this 6 night/7 day itinerary for a family of 4 would be as follows:

Accommodation: $1160

Food: $1000

Transportation: $600

Activities/Excursions/Entrances: $350

Total: $3110

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Originally from the Chicago area, Cara has most recently relocated to the Central Valley of Costa Rica with her husband and two energetic little ones to slow down and enjoy the ‘Pura Vida’ life. Since traveling to Mexico as a child with her family and studying abroad in Spain as an undergrad, she is always looking for the next adventure. Her favorite life experiences to date include working in a deli in Grand Teton National Park, teaching English to toddlers in Japan, connecting with her local community as a Peace Corps volunteer in Paraguay, backpacking with her husband in Patagonia and putting down some roots in the Boston area. With over 10 years of experience in the travel industry, she is passionate about sharing her love of travel with others and helping them make the most of their time overseas with authentic, extraordinary experiences. To learn more about Cara’s adventure in Costa Rica, visit her blog at


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