With palm-shaded beaches, lush stretches of rain and cloud forest and wildlife refuges offering spectacular bird and animal viewing, Costa Rica is a family-friendly paradise. But the scenic country has another draw: It’s one of the few Central American destinations with clean water. This means that visitors can not only brush their teeth and drink H20 straight from the tap, but they can enjoy the fresh fruits and vegetables without fear. The delicious refresco iced fruit juices made of mango, papaya, passion fruit, strawberries and more – seen on every menu – are safe.
What’s more, the local culinary and “maker” scene is booming. San Jose boasts innovative farm-to-table restaurants and entire neighborhoods like Barrio Escalante famous for creative food and craft drinks. Here’s a look at the perfect family vacation guide to San Jose, Costa Rica.
What to Do
Daring adventurers will love donning the hardhat that is required to visit this awe-inspiring active volcano in central Costa Rica, but be warned that it’s not always visible due to steam-and-cloud weather cover. The main crater measures almost a mile in diameter and contains an acidic lagoon. This national park is about 1.5 hours from San José and entry tickets must be booked online in advance. A visit is limited to just 20 minutes, but that’s more than enough time to take in this sight and pose for photos as proof of your bravery.
La Paz Waterfall Gardens
Go wild at this eco-park not far from Poás Volcano that’s jam-packed with sights and animals that will enthrall children: five dramatic waterfalls, a cloud and rain forest, a colorful aviary, a serpentarium, a butterfly observatory, a hummingbird garden and exhibits of adorable capuchin monkeys, prowling jungle cats and much more. Set aside many hours for these attractions and wear comfortable shoes to navigate the many steps and more than two miles of walking trails.
Rescate Animal ZooAve
See more than 125 animal species and lush botanical gardens at this vast rescue center about 45 minutes outside of San José. One particularly poignant inhabitant is a Toucan named Grecia, whose top beak was hacked off by humans. The bird wears a prosthetic beak made of a material similar to that of an artificial nail; it must be replaced every six to 12 weeks when the adhesive fails. For a quick adrenaline rush, the park has several ziplines.
Museo de los Niños
Courtesy of Museo of de los Ninos
San José’s children’s museum looks like a castle, but the colorful, turreted building is actually a former prison. More than 40 exhibits feature hands-on nature, science, technology and history displays suited for pre- and elementary-school age children. Kids can “milk” a metal cow, dig an “archeological site” and experience a simulated earthquake. Take a taxi there and back, as the building borders one of the city’s less safe neighborhoods.
It might not have record-breaking roller coasters like at Six Flags, but this small, affordable amusement park on the outskirts of San José has plenty of thrilling rides for kids, tweens and adults. The water attractions, like the Splash Caribe, are particularly fun on a hot day. Make sure to check the web site before going, as the park is only open half the week.
Next up: Where to Eat
Where to Eat
Courtesy of Silvestre
Chef Santiago Fernández Benedetto has a fertile imagination. Not only does he develop innovative tasting menus and à la carte options, but he plates some of his courses inside and underneath comical ceramic figurines in the form of fancy ladies or devils. If the food is too fancy for youngsters, he offers a kid’s menu with spaghetti and pizza. Benedetto’s elegant restaurant is housed in a late-19th-century house in San José’s swanky Barrio Amón neighborhood. He recently opened a more casual eatery, Cantina Cothnejo Fishy (facebook.com/cothnejofishy/), in the tiled basement of the same building.
Sikwa celebrates Costa Rica’s ancestral cuisine with simple and delicious dishes, like yellow corn tamale with crispy pork jowl. Chef Pablo Bonilla has made it his mission to research and preserve the cooking techniques and culinary traditions of indigenous tribes. Most of the ingredients he uses at his cosy Barrio Escalante restaurant are grown in Talamanca. Grownups can sip gin and tonics with cacao nibs while listening to the waiter tell the story behind each dish.
El Tigre Vestido
Combine a delicious meal at this open-air restaurant in the mountains of Santa Bárbara in Heredia, about an hour from San José, with a tour of the property’s 12-hectare organic coffee plantation and a stay at the art-filled Finca Rosa Blanca Inn, which has a pool. Children can order chicken nuggets and mini pizza from the kid’s menu while grownups can try the coffee-themed tasting menu that ends with affogato, a house-made ginger and coffee ice cream topped with espresso and Rosa Blanca coffee caramel sauce.
Chef Jose González sources much of the produce used at this Barrio Escalante farm-to-fork hotspot at his own nearby finca. The Cordon Bleu-trained whiz, who worked in French kitchens for five years, serves inventive Latin fare, like sweet potato and corn chalupa and a horchata popsicle. There’s plenty for vegetarians at this buzzy, plant-lined destination, but the menu also features meat and fish options, such as steak or shrimp ceviche with turmeric and hearts of palm.
San Jose Central Market
This bustling covered market on Avenida Central is crowded with produce, meat, fish and flower stalls; souvenir and handicraft vendors, and sodas, the Tico version of a diner. Along with refresco juices, sample the affordable empañadas and chorreada, sweet corn pancakes served with sour cream and cheese. And don’t leave the country without devouring a classic casado, a heaping plate of rice, beans, fried plantains, salad and tortilla, along with meat or seafood.
Next up: Where to Stay
Where to Stay
Hotel Grano de Oro
Courtesy of hotel
What started as a private Victorian residence in San José’s Barrio Don Bosco neighborhood has grown – after a series of tasteful expansions – into an characterful boutique hotel with a magnificent inner courtyard and fountains. It’s just a short cab ride away from the downtown area. The skyline view from the rooftop gym and jacuzzi terrace is not to be missed, nor are the many period photographs in the hallways. The family suite accomodates five people and complimentary cribs can be reserved in advance.
Holiday Inn San Jose-Aurola
Centrally located in San José’s historic city center, this 100% nonsmoking hotel has a heated indoor pool, a gym and suites that accomodate up to four people. Complimentary cribs can be requested. It’s a short walk from the high rise to the main shopping area, museums and the historic National Theater of Costa Rica, which can be toured outside of performances.
By Alev Aktar