14 Reasons You Should Take The Family to Costa Rica Instead of a Theme Park
For parents, it's the never-ending question: Where do we take the kids on vacation this year? You're looking for a trip that's affordable, relatively convenient, kid-friendly and memorable (for all the right reasons).
Theme parks often end up high on the list; some might even be considered a rite of passage. But before you start researching hotel rates, dining plans and line-skipping techniques, have you thought of taking the kids to Costa Rica?
Yes, THAT Costa Rica -- the one with the zip lines and the waterfalls.
Affordable? Thanks to a strong dollar and robust tourism industry, prices remain very reasonable.
Convenient? Non-stop flights from 15 U.S. cities.
Kid-friendly? No time zone jet lag and most flights under 6 hours = less cranky kids. And there's something new to do every day -- if you want it.
Memorable? While a picture with Mickey or Elsa is definitely memorable -- we'd argue that experiencing a new culture, seeing monkeys in the wild and getting a passport stamp will stick with your kids just as much (if not more).
Here are 14 reasons why your next family vacation should be to Costa Rica, instead of a theme park.
1. You want a lazy river? Check this out.
Why settle for a lazy river that gets boring after the second time through? Wouldn't you rather check out monkeys, birds and brightly colored flora as you shoot down Class I or II rapids? Calm floats on the Corobici (Guanacaste) and Savegre (Manuel Antonio), or a gentle night safari float on the Peñas Blancas River (near Arenal) offer the chance for younger kids to get out on the water. The minimum age depends on the river conditions and the rafting company, but most have activities for kids aged 8 and older.
Families with older kids can choose more active white-water rafting on the Rio Pacuare or Upper Tenorio River.
2. A horseback ride on the beach beats the petting zoo.
Hop on a horse -- Costa Rica's most versatile all-terrain vehicle -- for a trail ride through the rain or cloud forests to seek out wildlife or hidden waterfalls, or for a leisurely walk down the beach in Hermosa or Manuel Antonio. Tour operators will match the horse to the rider, and excursions will vary between a few hours and a full day.
3. It's the perfect excuse for an unplugged vacation.
Nothing kills a family vacation like everyone sitting together silently tapping away at their phones.
Even if you have an unlocked phone or international data, wireless coverage can be spotty and roaming charges can stack up. That's a great reason to put the phone down (yes, you too), and be more present during family adventures and activities.
4. Imagine taking your holiday card photo here.
With all due respect to Cinderella's castle, there's nothing like a shot of your family at sunset on Tamarindo beach, backdropped by the brilliant blue waterfall at Rio Celeste or up in the canopy in Monteverde.
You might even get photo-bombed by a curious monkey.
5. Skip the wave pool -- go to the beach.
Rip currents can be strong at beaches popular with surfers, but there are many beaches that are safe for kids -- with gentle waves and tide pools for checking out fish and turtles.
On the country's Caribbean coast, Punta Uva near Puerto Viejo is renowned as one of the country's prettiest beaches. Playa Tambor on the Nicoya Peninsula is remote, but the calm surf makes it a great spot for swimming. Parents should note that most beaches in Costa Rica do not have lifeguards. Wherever you choose to put down your beach blanket, when a vendor comes by touting "Granizados!", make sure to try this refreshing cool treat of shaved ice, milk and coconut, and mango or cherry syrup.
Older kids (even parents) can learn to surf through schools set up in beach towns across Guanacaste and Puntarenas. Left unsaid -- they'll come back as the coolest kids in school.
6. Real animals > stuffed animals.
You can spend $15 on the ring toss, trying to win that cheap $1.50 stuffed penguin, or you can visit a sloth sanctuary like the one near Puerto Viejo. Your call ...
7. Try new foods and some new takes on old favorites.
A trip here is a great excuse to branch out from chicken nuggets. As expected in a tropical climate, the fruit is really good here, and a stop by a roadside stand for a refrescos (fruit juice) is a welcome change from a juice box. Costa Rica's indigenous Chorotega people used cacao beans as currency, and a growing scene on the Caribbean coast is producing artisan chocolate that tastes "money."
If your kids are a little older and prefer a venti half-caf macchiato, the coffee here is serious stuff. Visit a coffee plantation in the Central Valley highlands near San Jose to see how it's grown and how coffee has helped shape Costa Rican history. Pro tip: Don't buy the souvenir coffee at the airport, go to a Mercado for the good stuff.
8. You'll spend a lot less time on line, unless you count zip lines.
For an adrenaline-pumping activity like zip lining, the assumption would be that it's only for adults -- but kids as young as 6 years old can get in on the act. Operators will either connect your child to a seasoned guide (think tandem skydiving) for the ride through the canopy, or will travel before and after your group as you zip between tree stands to help with clips and equipment. If you thought they liked roller coasters, wait until they try this.
Now that's a fast pass.
9. You won't be alone.
Family is very important to Costa Rican culture, and it's not uncommon to find several generations living in the same house here. Parking spots are set aside for women with children, and you'll find kids are welcome in many places throughout the country. Seems like the perfect place to go with the grandkids or extended family, whether it's by heading to a resort or renting a larger house through Airbnb or HomeAway.
If you have time in San Jose before or after a flight, check out Museo de los Niños, one of the institutions that make up the Costa Rica Center for Science and Culture. Housed in a former prison, this interactive children's museum features more than 40 exhibits ranging from archaeology to the universe. For a change of pace, adults will enjoy the National Gallery in the same complex.
10. Arenal is the real magic mountain.
A real volcano is a lot better than that fake one you make with papier mache for 4th-grade science class. Costa Rica has several volcanoes you can visit -- mostly along the country's mountainous interior. The show-stopper is Arenal, which climbs above the cloud forest. The area is home to hot springs, a massive lake, waterfalls and enough activities to fill a week. It's adventure rides, a water park and an amusement park rolled into one.
11. Go wild, instead of going to the zoo or aquarium.
It's one thing to see animals behind glass or in a cage, it's another entirely to see them in their natural environment. Costa Rica offers numerous opportunities to go wild -- whether it's "snorkeling" to see fish in tiny tide pools during low tide, spying monkeys and toucans from the hanging bridges in the Monteverde cloud forest, whale-watching cruises off the coast of the Osa Peninsula or chasing butterflies at the La Paz Waterfall.
One kid-friendly way to seek out wildlife is on a boat cruise -- popular ones include river cruises in Guanacaste or through the canals in Tortuguero National Park. It's low-effort (good for young kids) and high-yield. Bring binoculars to see birds and monkeys watching the humans from the trees.
12. The rain forest is like one big coloring book.
Colors really pop in Costa Rica -- thanks to the country's tremendous biodiversity. Crayola could create a giant box of crayon colors just based on the frog species alone. "Pass the Strawberry Poison Dart Frog Orange, please."
Manuel Antonio National Park is a good choice for kids, with well-marked trails, abundant wildlife and a jungle that ends with a beautiful beach.
13. Your 'hotel' could be the coolest thing about the trip.
There's no one correct way to stay in Costa Rica. Accommodations run the gamut from luxury vacation rentals to 5-star resorts to basic inns and charming B&Bs. It's very possible to stay within budget on lodging, especially if you avoid holiday weeks. High-end resorts can help with planning excursions such as zip-lining or wildlife cruises, and many have kids' clubs that can entertain the kids for a half- or full-day when you're back at the resort.
Some of the more unique lodging options include stays on a working ranch or farm, "glamping" in a cabin or a treehouse stay in the forest.
14. It's a small world after all.
A U.S. Department of Education study has shown that children who travel regularly score better on math, reading and achievement tests than kids who don't. Traveling with your kids can offer them life lessons and foster a global perspective very early on.
They may learn some Spanish -- whether it's from the morning cartoons on TV or when they are ordering dinner. They will spend a different currency. They'll try new foods and new adventures. They'll see wild animals that aren't in a zoo. Their curiosity will be piqued.
And, chances are, they'll catch the travel bug for life.
Tips for traveling with your kids in Costa Rica.
• Don't overdo it. Balance adventure and activities with downtime. Rather than trying to see all of Costa Rica on one trip, choose to visit fewer places and stay longer at each spot. Happier kids + you can come back again to see more next year.
• Make sure to use sunscreen. Costa Rica is much closer to the equator, so make sure to apply sunscreen early and often, especially when you're in the central mountains.
• It's better to be prepared. Pack a rain coat or light jacket, sturdy pair of shoes and bug repellent.
• While Costa Rica stores have plenty of modern conveniences like diapers and wipes, it's a good idea to have an extra day's supply with you -- especially if you are venturing off the beaten path.
• Ask your kids for their help planning aspects of the trip, especially older kids. The more children are involved in setting the agenda, the more they'll look forward to each new day.