Pura Vida: Finding Family Fun in Costa Rica

Costa Rica's diverse country delivers family adventures to remember

By Kara Murphy, publisher of Macaroni Kid Erie August 13, 2019

I've wanted to take my kids to Costa Rica for a few years -- I wanted them to have adventures like ziplining through rainforests, a chance to experience a new culture, and the opportunity to fall in love with a place that lives by the motto "pura vida."

But, to be honest, I mostly wanted to go so I could see a monkey. I've seen monkeys, of course, but never in the wild. It's been a bucket list item of mine for years to see monkeys swinging through the trees, uninhibited by any enclosure.

So, Costa Rica. 

Finding a tour company

While I've had Costa Rica on my mind for years, anytime I started looking online to plan, I would get overwhelmed with where to even start. 

Then, on a cold and dreary day at home last winter, I was hunting around the internet, looking at pretty Costa Rica pictures -- including monkeys! -- when a link to Thomson Family Adventures popped up. Turns out Thomson specializes in family travel and had a complete five-day itinerary that included a guide. It also hit all the Costa Rican highlights. Working with Thomson meant we didn't have to do any planning, and it gave me peace of mind that we would be visiting quality, reputable places, and would have a guide to show us around this lush country. Using a family tour company also meant we knew exactly what our cost would be for the trip, since the Thomson price accounted for everything from food to attractions to hotel stays.

I signed us up the next day.

Off on our adventure

We flew into San Jose airport and were met by our guide, Jose, who whisked us onto a bus and off to our hotel. The very next morning we were off on our adventure. Our group that loaded into our small bus included Jose, my parents, my family, and a lovely family of five from Texas. It also included Roberto, our driver, and Josi, a "rafiki," the Swahili word for "friend," whose job was to help keep our kids entertained and learning during our trip. Thomson sends a rafiki with any group that includes eight people or more. 

Our first stop was at a small roadside shop -- clearly a spot for locals -- where we slurped down strawberry smoothies and the kids made friends with the resident cow. Jose's roadside stops all had great local vibes -- a definite bonus to traveling with a resident guide.

A red-eyed tree frog at La Paz Waterfall Gardens.

We continued on to our destination of La Paz Waterfall Gardens where we got to see birds, sloths, and lots of fun frogs up close at the nature preserve. We also hiked down to the gorgeous waterfalls with the lush foliage and beautiful butterflies...

... and monkeys! On their own! In the wild! A few swung in the trees above us. One came down low on her hunt for lunch. I squealed when I saw she had a baby clinging to her back. Trip. Made.

A howler monkey!

Zipping through the Arenal Region

Our next stop was a few hours away in the Arenal region. Costa Rica is famous for its ziplines, and we certainly weren't going to miss the experience. We went whizzing high over canopies of trees hundreds of feet in the air. My kids were nervous about ziplining, but after their first adrenaline-inducing ride, they were ready for more. We rode seven ziplines in all, the longest of which stretched half a mile. The views of Arenal Lake far below were stunning.

My kiddos on their first zipline in Costa Rica. On some of the lines a guide had to go with them because they didn't weigh enough alone to make it all the way across.

We also explored Costa Rica's protected, primary neo-tropical rain forest from the Mistico Hanging Bridges. This 2-mile trail is connected by 16 suspension bridges -- some of which were more than 100 feet in the air. We watched colorful blue butterflies playing by a waterfall, spotted an eyelash viper, and giggled at the colorful strawberry poison dart frogs hiding in the leaves. We also heard howler monkeys hooting in the trees. 

High in the sky on the Mistico Hanging Bridges.

We finished our day at the Eco Termales Hot Springs warmed by the Arenal volcano. The kids splashed and played in the warm waters while the adults talked and sipped on drinks -- a perfect finish to a memorable Costa Rican day.

Gorgeous Guanacaste 

The next day we loaded back into our bus to continue onto Guanacaste, a region located on Costa Rica's Pacific coast. Along the way, we stopped for a river rafting expedition -- an easy float down the Corobici River, where we spotted more monkeys, a small crocodile, sleeping bats, and a basilisk known as the "Jesus Christ Lizard" for his ability to walk on water. He didn't disappoint.

The Casa Conde Beach Front Hotel was -- as its name suggests -- right on the beach, the sand nearly black underfoot. Located in a large protected cove the beach is known for its calm surf -- making it a perfect spot for the kids to play in -- and for us all to enjoy amazing sunsets each night.

A Guanacaste sunset.

We went sea kayaking the next day, ending by a rocky outcrop where we went snorkeling. Our guide caught a pufferfish underwater and we watched it balloon in his hands. He let my wide-eyed daughter carefully hold it before they let it go.

A (slightly blurry!) pufferfish

That afternoon we visited a local library. Thomson makes a cross-cultural experience a part of all of their family trips and so we visited a nearby town where volunteers had started a library just a few years ago. Our kids, sitting alongside local children, listened as the librarian read "The Pigeon Wants a Puppy" in both Spanish and English. 

My daughter, Zoe, and our rafiki, Josi, by a mural at a Costa Rican library.

Then it was time for a fun soccer game comprised of teams made up of a mix of local kids and our kids. There was no language barrier when it came to cheering each other on!

An impromptu soccer game with local kids.

Adventure never ends in Costa Rica

The next day marked the end of our tour, and we said our goodbyes to the other family we'd been traveling with, along with Jose, Josi, and Roberto, who had all been so kind to share their country with us.

We had decided to stay on for two more days at the resort and took full advantage of everything the area offered -- we went jet skiing out to "Monkey Island;" took a sunset horseback ride from the beach to a high outlook; and went four-wheeling on a path where we made friends with a herd of cows.

Horseback riding above the Pacific Ocean in Guanacaste.

We also spent many happy hours playing and relaxing in the resort pools, and I was thrilled one afternoon, while floating in the saltwater pool with drink in hand, listening to the kids giggle nearby, to see a monkey cavorting in a nearby tree.

Pura vida is right.

Thanks to Thomson Family Adventures, who discounted our trip in exchange for a review. Want to use a family tour planner to plan your next trip? Read more about Thomson, along with four other family tour operators we love!