On my first morning in Costa Rica, I’m elated to be up at dawn.
Lush green jungle spills out in all directions from my balcony, perfectly framing the majestic Arenal Volcano looming on the horizon. I sip hot coffee while my husband and kids sleep, harmonized by the rainforest’s brilliant orchestra playing out in the early morning’s soft, dewy light.
Colorful birds flitter and chirp as they dart from one tree to the next. Giant leaves, fanned by cool breezes, gently rustle. Tree frogs sing out a morning melody. To my left, a hummingbird greedily drinks from vibrant violet flowers, fastidiously working its way from one sweet nectar course to the next. To my right, a large brown coati nonchalantly meanders across my balcony, completely oblivious to my presence before retreating back into the leafy landscape. I brought a book out here with me, but the pages go unturned. There’s a whole raw and wild nature show happening before me, and I can’t turn away.
A few hours away in Tamarindo, I head to the beach early one morning for a run. Mother Nature’s playlist of waves crashing onto the shore is interrupted by a loud, guttural roar that stops me mid-stride. I follow the thunderous calls from the sandy beach toward a leafy path that leads me straight to the source: a troop of howler monkeys scattered high up in the tree canopy, some slumbering, draped over branches like furry blankets, and a few others leisurely picking through the leaves.
No matter where you are in Costa Rica, early mornings are worth waking up for. The Central American country is roughly the size of West Virginia yet it’s home to some of the densest biodiversity on the planet –– and sunrise is your best bet for seeing its abundant wildlife in action.
I’m here on vacation with my whole family –– more than a dozen of us spanning toddlers and teens to parents and grandparents. None of us have ever been to Costa Rica before, but after spending a little over a week here, we all know it’s a destination we want to return.
International vacations aren’t always simple and seamless for multigenerational families traveling together, but Costa Rica proved to be the perfect destination for all of us to disconnect from our worries, soak in the surrounding beauty, and embrace the country’s “pura vida” way of life. Translated as “pure life” or “simple life,” pura vida is Costa Rica’s mantra and all-purpose phrase used for everything from greetings and goodbyes to letting go of your stresses and relishing a more relaxed pace of life. Pura vida laced its way through our entire vacation, which we divided between the Arenal area’s mystical rainforests, volcanoes, and waterfalls and the coastal beauty found in Tamarindo. If you’re planning a family trip to Costa Rica, below are some of the highlights you’ll find in each diverse area.
Arenal area adventures
From our room at the middle-of-nowhere Lost Iguana Resort, a nature-inspired hotel tucked in the Costa Rican jungle, we enjoyed postcard-worthy views of Volcano Arenal, which stands more than 6,000 feet high, and until 2010, was considered Costa Rica’s most active volcano. But the Arenal area is also known for its gorgeous waterfalls, rainforests, rivers, volcanic hot springs and Arenal Lake, which is the largest lake in the country.
Put La Fortuna Waterfall high on your Arenal bucket list. Located in a biological reserve in the Arenal Volcano National Park, it’s well worth the .75-mile, 500-plus steps to get down to (and back up from) this jaw-dropping 70-meter-high waterfall that cascades into a jade lagoon like something out of a dream.
Sure, it’s touristy and crowded at the base of the waterfall –– and the waterfall current is too strong to get too close to, especially for kids. But if you walk downstream a bit, you’ll find cool, crystal-clear natural pools perfect for swimming, big boulders for sunbathing, and silvery schools of fish that dart through the refreshing water.
Tickets to visit La Fortuna Waterfall are $18 for ages 9 and older and free for children 8 and younger. Add lunch to your ticket price ($12 for adults, $11 for kids) –– not only will you need to refuel after the uphill climb back, but the food and drinks served at the restaurant up top are surprisingly delicious. We weren’t expecting much from a touristy hot spot, but Rio Lounge impressed us with everything from their succulent smoothies made from local soursop to delicious traditional dishes like Casado, a Costa Rican lunchtime fixture featuring rice, black beans, vegetables and a protein like fish or chicken. Casado means “married man,” and our server informed us that the popular plate originates from when Costa Rican wives would put together lunchtime meals for their working husbands, the more elaborate lunches distinguishing the married men from those who were single.
Whether gliding effortlessly on an open-air gondola toward Arenal Volcano or flying high above the lush Costa Rican rainforest on a zip line while capturing panoramic views of Lake Arenal, everyone in the family will find their own form of fun at the Sky Tram and Sky Trek. After you reach the top, you can opt to take the gentle gondola ride back down or get your adrenaline fix by zip lining back to the base. Afterward, we all reconvened for a two-mile guided hike through the rainforest and across aerial suspension bridges. The rain poured relentlessly the day we visited (which it tends to do in the rainforest), but despite our soggy shoes, this was a great spot to experience the flora and fauna of the forest canopy for everyone in our group. Along the hike, our local guide pointed out everything from venomous eyelash vipers to mischievous white-faced capuchin monkeys that notified us we were unwelcome guests by trying to pelt us with branches from the treetops.
Arenal Hanging Bridges in Mistico Park is another fantastic place to immerse yourself into Costa Rica’s abundant biodiversity and wildlife. You can book a tour with an experienced naturalist who will guide you through the rainforest, pointing out interesting flora and fauna. Or book your own tickets like we did ($28 adults, $18 teens and free for children under 10) to cross the aerial bridges and forest walkways –– even without a guide, we saw tiny tree frogs as colorful as they are poisonous, toucans, and a family of coatis foraging for food.
Soaking in volcano-fed hot springs is another must-do in Arenal, and a no-fuss way to do it is by booking day passes at some of the surrounding resorts such as Tabacón Thermal Resort & Spa or Baldi Hot Springs. Since day passes were sold out at Tabacón (book at least a week in advance), we headed to Baldi Hot Springs, which boasts 25 different thermal water pools of varying temperatures. Located at the base of the Arenal Volcano in La Fortuna, the thermal water is heated in part by the volcano and contained in a variety of unique pools, some featuring swim-up bars and grottos with waterfalls and others with kiddie play areas and thrilling water slides, which our kids loved.
Soaking in the sea, surf and sunshine in Tamarindo
Although it’s just a four-hour drive away, Tamarindo, a bustling town in Costa Rica’s Guanacaste Province, feels like a whole different country. Sitting on Costa Rica’s northern Pacific coast, Tamarindo brims with stunning beaches, plenty of sunshine and tons of restaurants, shops and tourists. Playa Tamarindo is one of the most famous beaches on Costa Rica’s Gold Coast, and from our beachfront rooms at Tamarindo Diria Beach Resort, our whole family had a front row seat to all of the sand, sun and fun that makes the destination so popular.
First on our beach bucket list? Learning to surf. Luckily, Playa Tamarindo is one of the best places to learn in Costa Rica because the waves here are good enough for serious surfers but also gentle enough for those just starting to stand on a board. After a two-hour lesson with the hotel’s passionate and patient certified surf instructors ($80 per person), our three kids were riding the waves with ease and my 6-year-old nephew instantly switched his future profession from race car driver to surfer.
At the end of Tamarindo Beach, there’s a saltwater estuary where you’ll find local guides waiting patiently with their boats to whisk you off on a tour any time of day. One morning, my parents took all the grandkids out on an estuary tour and another afternoon, my brother and his girlfriend booked a boat guide, each time spying everything from crocodiles hiding in the murky mangroves to howler monkeys hoisted high in the trees.
Since Costa Rica is known for having some of the best canopy tours in the world, zip lining was a high priority for our thrill-seeking kids. Early one morning, we set out for Diamante Eco Adventure Park. This Guanacaste zip lining course is an adventure-lover’s dream, featuring dual lines that let you ride next to each other, a stomach-dropping 30-foot free fall jump and a mile-long ocean view zip line that lets you fly through the sky Superman-style at speeds up to 60 miles per hour.
Down below, there’s an animal sanctuary where we got up-close views of rescued animals like sloths, monkeys, jaguars and toucans. There’s also a historic farmhouse on the property that gives guests a glimpse into how rural Costa Ricans produced coffee, chocolate and sugar. During the hour-long demonstration, we learned about the process of drying and grinding cacao and even mixed our own chocolate, sipped coffee made the traditional way, and pressed our own sugarcane into sweet “agua dulce.”
On our last evening in Tamarindo, our entire family set out on a sailing and snorkeling catamaran sunset tour with Marlin del Rey. Moments after departing from Playa Tamarindo, just off Costa Rica’s Golden Coast, we experienced the unexpected splendor of watching a humpback whale and her calf surfacing for air. It was a surreal experience that had every passenger on the boat, young and old, completely captivated, misty-eyed and drop-jawed as we watched the majestic creatures rise and roll across the blue Pacific waves before disappearing back beneath the surface. Somewhere between the oohs and the aahs of wonder that reverberated across the bow, you could feel the palpable magic of Costa Rica. The pura vida.
If You Go
We flew into Liberia International Airport (LIR), which is smaller than San Jose Airport (SJO) but a closer option to Guanacaste, where we ended our trip in Tamarindo less than an hour away. From Liberia, it’s a three-hour drive to the Arenal area, where we spent the first half of our trip.
In Arenal, we loved Lost Iguana Resort, a middle-of-nowhere, nature-inspired hotel tucked in the Costa Rican jungle boasting luxurious accommodations spread out on 120 acres of preserved rainforest with picture perfect views of Volcano Arenal. In Tamarindo, we stayed at Tamarindo Diria Beach Resort, which offers beachfront hotel style lodging in the heart of Playa Tamarindo perfect for multigenerational families wanting to stay together in separate rooms with perks like palatial pools, delicious restaurants and a two-mile beach right outside the door.
Costa Rica, home to everything from beaches and volcanoes to rainforests and waterfalls, is an adventure- and nature-lover’s paradise. Book a canopy tour to zip line above the treetops, go white-water rafting, swim beneath or rappel down a waterfall, soak in natural hot springs, hike or horseback ride through the rainforest while spying everything from venomous snakes, colorful birds and tree frogs to monkeys, sloths and coatis. In Guanacaste, relax on the beaches, learn to surf, snorkel through the blue Pacific, or take an estuary tour.
Eat + Drink:
Both resorts offered complimentary buffet breakfasts perfect for fueling up the family before departing for each day’s big adventure. Eat at Rio Lounge at La Fortuna Waterfall which serves traditional Costa Rican dishes like Casado and refreshing smoothies made from local soursop. In Tamarindo, dine at The Red Door, a beachfront outdoor restaurant with an expansive menu including ceviche, whole red snapper, and curry Puerto Viejo, or opt for the family-friendly Ay Caramba to enjoy Mexican food and margaritas while the kids play on the on-site playground. Café y Macadamia is a fabulous roadside stop during the drive, boasting stunning views of Arenal Lake, locally inspired dishes, hot coffee drinks, cold beers, clean bathrooms, and a gift shop.
If you can, split your time between more than one area to experience Costa Rica’s diversity. Pack a lightweight rain jacket, closed toe hiking shoes (recommended for some hikes and tours) and waterproof hiking sandals such as Chaco’s to navigate waterfalls and hot springs.