Wildlife, Nature & Active Adventures: A Costa Rica Family Self-Drive Holiday
Dive into the delights of Costa Rica on this 13-day Costa Rica family self-drive, traversing this captivating country from coast to coast, zip lining, surfing, white water rafting spotting jaguars en route.
Itinerary at a Glance:
- Dive into Dominical, surfing in the waves and snoozing on the shores
- Cruise the Pacific coastline in Ballena National Maritime Park, hopefully you'll spot humpback whales (depending on the time of year) and make sure you go snorkelling in the waves
- Explore Manuel Antonio National Park
- Spot giant crocodiles in Carara National Park
- Spend two nights in an eco-lodge along the Celeste River
- Go night walking through the jungle, as the forest-floor comes to life under the moonlight
- Trek through Tenorio Volcano National Park
- Stay in an old volcano observatory, with unbeatable views of the towering Arenal Volcano
- Explore Arenal by cable car, on a zip line and at night, heading through the canopy on hanging bridges
- White water raft the rapids on the Saraquipi River
- Surf and sunbathe amid the laid-back, surfer vibes of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca
- Visit a Jaguar Rescue Centre
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Day 1: Fly to San Jose
Your Costa Rica family self-drive trip begins today with a flight to San Jose. On arrival, your driver will be waiting to whisk you away to your hotel, and once you have settled into your room, it's time for dinner at the hotel's restaurant. The simple-but-delicious food, is sure to please even the fussiest of eaters, as you all toast the first night of your trip, in the cool night air.
Day 2: Driving to Dominical
Today is the first full day of your Costa Rica family self-drive trip, and it's time for the first part of the road trip. You'll be picking up your hire car and driving south-west to Dominical, so make sure you have some snacks for the road (for you, and for the children) because its nearly four hours to your next accommodation.
Located on the Pacific coast, Dominical was once a sleepy surfer village which has become much more sophisticated in recent years. You will be spending the next two nights in a private villa, a little way out of Costanera Sur. The road might be a little bumpy, but the destination is worth it - a hacienda-style villa, complete with swimming pool and stunning views. Settle in for a family dinner-date at a restaurant with incredible views over the bay.
Day 3: Boat Trip to Ballena National Maritime Park
This morning calls for a private cruise along the Pacific coast in Ballena National Maritime Park. The park is famous for its beach, which is shaped like a whale's tail at low tide. This small but very important marine park protects several offshore islands, and plays host to migrating humpback whales, dolphins and nesting sea turtles. Let the salty-sea breeze ruffle your hair as you glide through the waves.
We suspect that even the most battle-hardened teens will find it hard not to be amazed at the curious bottlenose dolphins that skip over the waves, riding the boat's wake; or marvel at the chorus of birdsong that rises from the forests lining the shore. There is no better place in Costa Rica, or perhaps the world, to see humpback whales, from December and April and between July and November- so if you happen to be there then, make sure you keep an eye out for these gentle giants rising from the deep.
Don your masks (fins are optional) and snorkel in the big blue, catching sight of multi-coloured, glimmering fish, flitting between corals.
Next, a private surf lesson is sure to appeal to children's inner-surf dude, as you learn about catching waves and paddling back out through the surf.
Later, enjoy a well-earned supper with the whole family before bed.
Day 4: Manuel Antonio National Park
Today you will be heading north along the Pacific coast, towards Manuel Antonio National Park, the next stop on your Costa Rica family self-drive, which takes about an hour in the car.
This small outcrop of land jutting into the Pacific plays host to one of the country's most beautiful national parks. Wander the winding trails, the air heavy with humidity and full of the calls of birds and monkeys frolicking in the canopy above. Coo over baby capuchin and sarmiri monkeys skipping through the treetops and watch sloths snooze on branches. Myriad multicoloured birds flutter through their glossy green habitt and on the shore turquoise waves, hiding pristine coral reefs, lap over sliver sand - it's a perfect paradise showcasing some of mother nature's best work.
Hop back into the car, expecting non-stop commentary on 'how amazing' Costa Rica is, as you drive on to Tarcoles. Heading further north along the coast, driving for nearly two hours this time, you'll reach your destination in the early evening.
The village sits at the mouth of the Tarcoles River, on the shores of the Gulf of Nicoya, and this a great place for bird-spotting and crocodile sightings. Close by, the primary rainforest of Carara National Park is famous for its population of scarlet macaws, parrots, parakeets and hummingbirds. Best be wary of the water though- some of the world's largest crocodiles lurk beneath the surface - some of which can measure up to 23ft in length.
Fab for families, your lodge for the night is the perfect place to drift off, dreaming about the sandy shores of Manuel Antonio National Park.
Days 5: Head to San Bernado de Bagaces
This morning it's time to get everyone packed up and into the car as you head north for two-and-a-half hours to in San Bernado de Bagaces. Its off the beaten track and rarely visited. This misty, leafy green landscape, bisected by the Celeste River, is a charming forest oasis. According to legend, after painting the sky blue, God washed his paintbrushes in the river, colouring the water an impossible shade of turquoise.
You'll be staying in an intimate eco-lodge for the next two nights. Sitting heart of a valley next to the river, it's an oasis of calm in this steamy, jungle world. Take a moment to indulge in the spa river - nestled in the canyon, the water is heated by the Miravales volcano creating soothing, bath-like waters - perfect for the whole family to relax in.
At dusk, when creatures begin to stir between the trees, it's time to head out to explore the jungle on a night walk. As you walk you'll see the silhouettes of the three nearest volcanoes, standing guard over the trees. Accompanied by the noises of the night, keep an eye out for frogs, nocturnal mammals and snakes. Don't worry about having to hiking home - your return journey is by zip line, gliding back down through the forest canopy.
Days 6: More Activities in San Bernado de Bagaces
Today is a chance to take it easy, or enjoy more of the fun experiences available in the region, such as hiking, hot spring bathing and riding.
Day 7: To the La Fortuna Region
Today on your Costa Rica family self-drive is another road trip, heading east to the La Fortuna region; the journey should take just under three hours. The road passes large pineapple plantations and ends within sight of the peak of the Arenal volcano.
There are plenty of places to stop off and while away a few hours, breaking up your trip. If you do stop, make sure that you take to the trail in Tenorio Volcano National Park. One of the finest walking routes in Costa Rica, it winds through jungle-shaded paths, taking you to waterfalls and natural hot springs. These hot springs and sulphur springs are near the Celeste River, which you can wander along, following the sound of a nearby waterfall. Round the bend and you'll see the river - forming magnificent curtain of tumbling, thundering water that cascades over a rock and pours into a calm pool below. Fun fact: the surreal turquoise colour of the water comes from minerals washed into the river.
The hike and drive combination is sure to have the children suitably tired by the time you reach your lodge and home for the next two nights. Located in an old volcano observatory, inside a private reserve, international volcanologists stay here - so you can be sure it provides one of the best viewing points of the Arenal volcano (and bragging rights when back at school). Simple but comfortable, your rooms are all about the stunning view that lies beyond the windows. Leafy paths, perfect pools, tumbling waterfalls and the gently winding river beckon - as you venture into the tropical forest that surrounds your lodge on your family Costa Rica trip.
After such an active day, dinner will be very much needed, so tuck into a delicious feast before tucking everyone, including yourself, into bed.
Day 8: Adventure in Arenal
Today is all about Arenal, starting with an adventure in the treetops. Start on a two-stage journey through the forest canopy: first you'll glide through the treetops by cable car, passing monkeys and sleepy sloths. The return journey is by zip line. Strap in and zip from platform to platform, zooming through the branches, watching the green world below you. The children (and you, possibly!) will love the sensation of flying through the trees.
Your adventures continue come nightfall on a night walk on the hanging bridges of Arenal. Tread through the forest canopy - and its extraordinary ecosystem, where your trail, dotted with tunnels and bridges, leads into the heart of the rainforest.
Day 9: Rafting along the Rio Saraquipi
Today on your family trip to Costa Rica you'll need everyone in the car, so you can begin the journey to Saraquipi.
The drive takes around an hour, heading east. On the way you will wind between pineapple, cocoa and banana plantations, as well as nature reserves, such as the forests on Heliconia Island. Here the flora and fauna are protected, creating a haven for tapirs, sloths, coatis and other monkeys.
Once you arrive it's time to get suited up for a white water rafting adventure. Perfect for the whole family, the exciting but family suitable rapids flow from one to another, but there are moments when the river calms enough to appreciate the river banks and animals living along them.
Your home for the evening, following your rapid adventure, is an ancient hacienda (estate farmhouse). Complete with colonial architecture and surrounded by gardens - which help to preserve its simple charm - the whole family can retreat into the warmth of this delightful place. A wonderful, traditional meal awaits this evening, before the children fall into bed dreaming of the day's white water rafting adventure.
Days 10-12: Capers along the Caribbean Coast
You might want to set off early this morning because it's a longer drive to your next destination. Cruise for nearly four hours, heading south-east and you will reach the shores of the Caribbean coast and Puerto Viejo de Talamanca; your home for the next three nights.
The region is home to immense beaches bordered by either black or white sand and fringed by the ever-present jungle. With a distinct surf dude feel, this place is where the legendary Salsa Brava break crashes into the shore. Don't worry, though, there are plenty of more beginner-friendly breaks, and this place is a must for any avid, or aspiring surfers. Surfing is somewhat of a Costa Rican institution and Puerto Viejo de Talamanca is the perfect place to learn how to perfect your 'pop-up' or maybe get the gang into catching waves for the first time.
Traverse the dusty dirt streets, which are full of colourful houses and relaxed eateries. You will be staying in a cosy lodge, surrounded by stunning gardens - it's a quiet haven, perfect for retreating to after a day exploring. A short trail leads straight down to the white sandy beach - handy for when the children fancy an early morning dip in the waves. Spend the morning frolicking on the sand and playing in the waves - so that when you return (children suitably tired out) there will be no complaints about a quiet afternoon, snoozing in a shaded hammock.
Miss the beach for one morning and head instead to a nearby Jaguar Rescue Centre. This park offers a refuge for sick, injured and orphaned animals, with the aim of reintroducing them into their wild home. You'll see the majestic spotted big cat, an icon of South American jungles, but the park is also home to small primates, birds, reptiles and amphibians.
With a healthy dose of some of the best that the country has to offer, during these last few days of your family trip to Costa Rica, relax by the beach playing in the sand and topping up your tan.
Day 13: Return to San Jose
Take your time this morning, enjoying the beach before it's time to bid the beach farewell as you hop into the car for one last time, driving back to San Jose. The drive should take around four hours, so pack some snacks and in-car entertainment to keep everyone happy.
Once you arrive in San Jose this afternoon, return your hire car at the airport and check in for your flight home.
George and Kate B are our experts for this itinerary and as seasoned travellers they have the inside track on the most memorable adventures.