Costa Rica vacations offer up a wealth of opportunities for adventure, wildlife-spotting and indulgence to keep travellers of all ages happy, as Harriet Mallinson found out.
My cheeks are quite literally rippling in the wind as I happily rocket headfirst at full tilt towards the mountainside. Yes, I decide, anyone who has ever fantasised about flying simply must give ziplining in Costa Rica a go.
Stuff of dreams – or nightmares, depending on your inclinations – the experience (on some of the longest ziplines in the world) takes you far above the rainforest canopy, soaking up stonking views of gleaming white beaches, glistening azure ocean and expansive verdant forests.
I take to whooping into the ether, relishing the incredible sense of liberation and release. “That was awesome!” I hear another tourist yell with glee as we careen into the end of the course, our bodies fizzing, and I couldn’t agree more.
Exhilaration is something you can feast on in spades on a Costa Rica family vacation. Teenager nursing a broken heart? Kids who need to expend excess energy? Costa Rica is the place to immerse yourself in beauty while seeking high-octane thrills or life in the slow lane – the Central American country caters excellently for both.
What activities to do in Guanacaste
We’ve based ourselves in Guanacaste on the country’s northwest Pacific coast for the week and I intend to fully expose my inner George of the Jungle. It’s not a hard task – there’s adventure aplenty in Costa Rican national parks where you’ll find active volcanos, cloud forests, an abundance of wildlife from jaguars to sloths and so much more.
There’s plenty to challenge adventure-seeking kids and parents in Costa Rica
Head to Buena Vista Del Rincon Eco Adventure Park on your Costa Rica holidays to take part in a plethora of activities all in one convenient location. As well as zip-lining there’s a waterslide snaking down the luscious hillside which is certainly not for the faint-hearted. Bristling with bravado I give it a go, and, powered by gushing water, I speed down through the trees at high speed sloshing with such gusto I fear I might be thrown out of the slide altogether.
Boy, is this the place to feel alive. Those niggling work worries? That school quandary? I guarantee you’ll be free of them all on a Costa Rica family vacation – although you might not look so clever in the leather diaper-come-loin cloth they dole out to wet n’wild thrill-seekers.
Visitors can also give horse riding a go – we’re lucky enough to see spider monkeys swinging through the trees as we sway through the greenery – while for true relaxation, the hot springs will ease any aching muscles. Nestled among the forest, the series of pools varying in temperature are entirely heated by nature. What’s more, there’s volcanic mud to lather yourself up in and drinks can be delivered poolside.
A tour operator can be super helpful with vacation planning
Incidentally, if you’re not sure where to start with organising activities and getting from A to B on your vacation to Costa Rica, local tour operator TAM Travel does a top job of sorting out day trips and organising transport which takes any stress off your hands. But back to the escapades at hand.
What wildlife can you see in Costa Rica?
A real vacation highlight is getting up close to Costa Rica’s fantastic fauna at the Animal Sanctuary in Diamante Eco Adventure Park; I challenge anyone not to enjoy sloth feeding time. Not only do the friendly staff teach you all about the intriguing animals but you could spend hours just staring at their weird ways (indeed you’ll need hours if you want to see them do much at all).
Nearby, the myriad frogs and snakes spark all manners of oohs and aahs as we learn about how quickly some can poison humans or indeed squeeze them to death. Elsewhere spider monkeys amaze with their agility, the toucans impress with their colours, and the huge iridescent Blue Morpho Butterflies mesmerise as they swoop through the air and even land on me as I stand enchanted amid the butterfly observatory. I half expect to find myself in a Disney film as the vibrant critters help me dress.
A boat trip is a great way to see Costa Rica from another angle
Fancy something more low-key on your Costa Rica vacation? Not all getting out amongst nature has to involve activity-packed days. We take a boat trip with Marlin del Rey Catamaran Sailing Tours from Tamarindo to admire Costa Rica from a different angle.
We’re kept fed and watered thanks to the BBQ lunch and copious cocktails while the animal-spotting opportunities are extensive – we spot not one but three pairs of mating turtles and a mother and baby humpback innocently frolicking. There’s also a pod of dolphins swimming by the bow of our boat which intermittently darts underwater and crests above the waves provoking squeals of glee from passengers.
There’s history and animals aplenty in Guanacaste’s countryside
It’s not just the ocean you can explore by boat, though. A more cultural day out to enjoy with the gang on a Costa Rica vacation is the Hacienda El Viejo Boat and Cultural Tour based around a charming, wooden property where Costa Rican presidents of old once lived. The riverboat ride here is tremendously peaceful and terrific for animal lovers and twitchers – although the ghoulish cries of the howler monkeys might haunt your nightmares!
Crocodiles are the kings of these wetlands and we spy several; some float in the river and are nigh impossible to spot while others laze stock-still on the river bank, their toothy jaws open as they digest. Much like me on the sofa after overindulging in a Chinese takeaway. Apparently, the alpha dubbed One Eyed Croc regularly (brace yourselves) tucks into the baby male crocodiles to destroy any competition. Any penchant for clocks à la Peter Pan is not disclosed.
Don’t miss the rum-tasting experience on this day trip – you’ll learn all about the process of creating the tasty beverage and even make your own infusion, complete with a personalised bottle to take home afterwards. Lime, chocolate and cardamom go in my concoction under the tutelage of the dashing Roberto and it’s delicious. The drink is nice too.
Where to stay in Guanacaste
Fun out on the water can also be enjoyed back at your hotel. We spend several days at the uber family-friendly Planet Hollywood Costa Rica where not only are pool games regularly organised by cheerful staff but a raft of water sports out on the blue are also available just moments away. We enjoy a kayak tour to explore the local coast and even hop out for a swim in the gorgeously warm water complete with lovely views of the beach and verdant hills of the gulf.
For further all-inclusive family adventure on a Costa Rica vacation, there’s Weston Reserva Conchal resort on Playa Conchal Beach in Costa Rica’s North-Pacific Riviera. The ocean is right on your doorstep here, complete with a scenic sandy beach and access to on-site snorkelling and kayaking for guests.
If you’re after something wilder and more away-from-it-all on family holidays to Costa Rica, then stay at El Mangroove, a charming and peaceful property situated on the Gulf Of Papagayo in Guanacaste.
The sleek main pool and its stylish loungers is set against the backdrop of the Pacific Ocean and the rooms (where the emphasis is on eco-friendliness) benefit from the rainforest right outside the window.
Sand underfoot at El Mangroove’s bar lends a rustic beach vibe and from here you can watch the dying sun daubing the ocean’s surface with gold and orange. Costa Rica is famous for its sunsets and if I’d spotted a chubby cupid perched atop a fire-tinged cumulus cloud I would hardly have been surprised.
A Costa Rica vacation is truly perfect for families
As darkness sets in, the shadowy, hulking hills on the other side of the bay becoming iguana-like with their spiked castellations, guests head to pool-side Makoko restaurant for dinner to the soundtrack of cicadas, the crash of the waves and low music.
Siting with a cocktail, I spy a lone swimmer carving through the velvet midnight blue water of the pool which shimmers with the reflection of strung lights – it’s a slice of perfect tranquillity after the adventurous thrills I’ve experienced so far.
Locals here frequently speckle their conversation with the phrase “Pura Vida”, meaning a “pure” or “simple” life, and in my moment of solitude, I let this way of being wash over me. Maybe it’s the rum, maybe it was the massage or maybe Costa Rica has got its hooks in. I hope they stay there.
How to plan a trip to Costa Rica
Where to stay
Planet Hollywood Costa Rica, An Autograph Collection All-Inclusive Resort
Family rooms from $560 per night (2 adults, 2 children)
The Westin Reserva Conchal All-Inclusive Golf Resort & Spa
Family rooms from $388 per night (2 adults, 2 children)
El Mangroove Papagayo, Autograph Collection
Family rooms from $280 per night (2 adults, 2 children)
What to do
Tailor-made programs for family holiday activities in Guanacaste by TAM Travel Corporation