Traveling with a toddler to Costa Rica
Its a fact that toddlers love to explore. And if your child is like mine, anything that has to do with the outdoors keeps her happy and entertained for hours which is why Costa Rica is a perfect family vacation. Costa Rica is an exciting destination that gives your toddler an up close look at exotic wildlife and access to plenty of outdoor activities.
Costa Rica is one big adventure for parents and children alike and will give the whole family memories you will cherish forever!
Check out my tips when traveling with a toddler to Costa Rica.
At the airport
You've made it!! Arriving at Juan Santamaría International Airport is typically stress free but its important to know a few tips for once you arrive.
At customs, families with young children are able to skip the wait in the family queue line. This is great because due to an increase in tourism in Costa Rica, the customs line can take up to 1-2 hours during the busy season! When facing the customs booth, the family line is at the far righthand side against the wall.
The customs form you fill out on the airplane will be turned in after you receive your luggage so keep it somewhere easily reachable.
If you brought your car seat, it will come out in the oversized baggage claim which is located on the lefthand side once you arrive in baggage claim. Car seats typically come out last after all of the other luggage so you can expect to wait a few minutes for it.
There are free luggage carts located throughout baggage claim, but if you need help or a larger cart there will be men in green shirts waiting near the entrance. They are free but work for tips and will bring your luggage all the way to your car or car rental shuttle. $5 to $10 tip is sufficient depending on how much luggage you have.
If you will be driving yourself our of San Jose, you will need the local currency, colones, for toll booth along the highway. There will be ATMs and currency converter stations in the baggage claim.
Once you receive your luggage you will have to take it to the final check point and place it on a conveyor belt to be x-rayed. All bags need to be removed including purses and backpacks. This is where you will turn in your custom form.
If you are renting a car, you will see the rental companies' stands once you get your luggage through the x-ray. They will direct you to where the pick up is for your company's shuttle.
If you are needing a taxi, there will be a gentlemen right before you exit that will ask you if you need transportation. He will handle you getting into a registered taxi cab.
Once outside, expect to be bombarded with men asking you if you want a taxi. Simply say "no, gracias" if you are not needing a taxi.
If you are traveling south to Manuel Antonio or Dominical, check out my post on driving out of San Jose and down south.
What to bring
Opt for baby wearing instead of bringing a stroller. Most roads are not paved and do not have sidewalks so its much easier to wear your child then lug around a heavy stroller. If you plan on doing a lot of hiking, which I recommend, bring a carrier that keeps your little one out of the sun and is breathable. Costa Rica is hot and humid so a carrier that has light weight material is preferred.
It makes sense that the tropical weather in Costa Rica welcomes all sorts of insects that are more than obnoxious. Mosquitos are definitely a nuisance in certain parts of Costa Rica and with mosquito transmitted diseases like Zika, dengue fever and chikungunya its important to keep your children safe.
While you can purchase insect repellent in Costa Rica, it is double the price and its hard to find natural insect repellents. We prefer to use wipes for our daughter so we don't have to worry about the spray getting in her eyes or mouth. Check out my post on my favorite repellents for traveling to Costa Rica.
Since Costa Rica is so close to the equator you can expect the sun to be hot and brutal! One of the most important items to pack for your toddler is sunscreen, and a ton of it. Like insect repellent, you can buy sun screen in Costa Rica but you will be paying double and the options are limited. So its best to bring your own from home.
In addition, make sure to bring a beach hat and sunglasses to provide extra protection while at the beach or pool. Check out PopSugar's list of best sunscreens for kids to keep the safe from unnecessary chemicals.
Toddlers love to explore and you can bet they will find their share of mud and water during your trip to Costa Rica. The humidity is high in Costa Rica so you will want to bring shoes that are meant to get wet and will dry quickly. For our daughter, we brought Crocs to walk around on the beach and Merrell waterproof shoes for hiking in the rainforest. They both dry off quickly and keep her feet dry and safe.
While you can typically find major diaper brands in Costa Rica, they are more expensive if you are staying outside of San Jose. I tend to stock up for a few days worth of diapers for our travels so we don't run out while getting checked in and acquainted to our new destination. You can easily find affordable baby wipes in the stores so you don't necessarily need to stock up on them for your trip.
While we lived in Costa Rica, Milena went through potty training and we had the hardest time finding pull ups outside of San Jose. So if your toddler is potty trained I recommend bringing your own pull ups with you or you may be out of luck.
Also bring a heavy duty changing pad. Outside of San Jose, it is near impossible to find changing tables in public restrooms. I had to change Milena either on the bathroom floor or in our car. So, we ended up buying several changing pads to bring with us because of how dirty they got from the floors.
Where to stay
Costa Rica has so many great spots throughout the country but there are a few areas that are more tailored to family travel.
If you are looking for beautiful beaches, wildlife at your finger tips and great hotels and restaurants head to Manuel Antonio. This popular beach town has blended tourism with nature very well and the Tico culture is alive and well unlike some northern cities.
The Manuel Antonio National Park is a beautiful park that offers some of the best places in the country to spot sloths, monkeys, and reptiles. The hiking trails are mostly paved with handrails which makes it easily accessible for kids of all ages. The trails will lead you to some of the most pristine beaches in Costa Rica where you can enjoy the ocean and cool off from your hike. Its a great trip to make with kids and to feel immersed in Costa Rica's rainforest.
The most touristy spot on my list is Tamarindo. Located in the northern province of Guanacaste, this area is known for warmer weather and less rain which entices many travelers. However, it is much more popular and can get very busy during the dry season which spans from late November to March.
While it may seem a bit Americanized once you arrive, Tamarindo is a popular destination for many tourists because of its close proximity to beautiful beaches, top hotels and resorts, outdoor activities and great restaurants. You can pretty much see and do everything Costa Rica is known for near Tamarindo.
Make sure to hit the waves which are famous for their surfing conditions and don't leave without seeing Playa Conchal which is consistently rated as one of the most beautiful beaches in Costa Rica.
If you and your family prefer a remote location for your trip to Costa Rica, head over to Samara which is located on the Nicoya Peninsula, miles away from the main tourist hot spots.
This surfing mecca of Costa Rica attracts many families for its quiet beaches and laid back culture. Relax with your toddlers on one of the many hidden beaches while watching surfers chase the infamous waves. The panoramic views of the beach in this part of Costa Rica are out of this world and offer some great photo opportunities for you and your family.
Besides the relaxing beaches, Samara has multiple outdoor activities for your entire family. You can even rent a boat and head out to spot whales and dolphins in the Pacific Ocean.
One of our favorite trips in Costa Rica was to the Arenal Volcano in Fortuna. This small town has so many fun activities for the whole family and the landscape is beautiful! Nestled beneath the Arenal Volcano, Fortuna is a family-friendly location that offers great views of the towering caldera.
Hike to the La Fortuna waterfall to cool off and swim beneath one of Costa Rica's most famous waterfalls or relax in one of the dozens thermal hot springs in the area. Many resorts in the area offer exclusive access to the hot springs. You also can hike in the Arenal National forest to get a close up of the volcano and see some of the country's most unique wildlife.
You will be quite far from any beach so you may not need as much beach attire as you would in other destinations but you can easily include a trip to the beaches of Guanacasete into your itinerary. Expect about a 3+ hour drive to the beach from Fortuna.
There are several types of accommodations your family can choose from during your time in Costa Rica. From luxury to boutique options there is something for any type of traveling family.
Costa Rica has multiple all-inclusive resorts located throughout the country. However, some of the most well-known locations are in Guanacaste, the northern part of the country. There are a wide range of options from beachfront hotels to rainforest locations.
If all-inclusive isn't your family's cup of tea, know there are dozens of chain hotels throughout Costa Rica. From the Marriott, Holiday Inn, Four Seasons, and Westin to name just a few. Costa Rica also boasts some of the top ranked hotels in Central and South America.
One of my favorite resort hotels is the Costa Rica Marriott Hotel located in San Jose. Its a beautiful hacienda set on a coffee plantation and located near the airport. We like to use this hotel if we are spending a night or two in the capital city.
Check out this list of top hotels in Costa Rica to help find the right hotel for your family vacation.
While our family enjoys the perks of large, chain hotels we end up picking boutique accommodations instead. Luckily, Costa Rica has many options if you prefer smaller, quaint hotels.
Whether they are bungalows, B&Bs, or even luxury locations, these smaller accommodations offer a charming stay while in Costa Rica. Many times, families own and run these hotels which provides a more intimate experience for your family. They tend to be more attentive and since Ticos love children, they typically take great care of families.
One of the most affordable ways to stay in Costa Rica is with Airbnb. Renting a house or apartment during your vacation provides, typically, lower nightly rates with access to a private kitchen which is great when traveling with a toddler. If you are staying in a touristy area, restaurants can be quite expensive so its nice to have your own kitchen to save on food costs.
When picking your home/apartment, try and get a location with a decent outdoor area. This will be great for you and your children to have a space to relax without being cooped up in doors.
*Note, boutique hotels and Airbnbs in Costa Rica may not have A/C. Make sure to check before you book or you and your toddler may have a hot and humid experience. Also, many hotels will provide a crib but you will need to ask the boutique hotels and home rentals to make sure.
Things to do
Costa Rica has more than 60 national parks, dozens of animal sanctuaries, a diverse landscape and over 2,000 km of coastline which offers the ultimate vacation for any type of family.
While wildlife can be seen from almost anywhere in the country, there are multiple sanctuaries that will offer your children up-close encounters with animals. Monkeys, sloths, toucans, reptiles and even jaguars, sanctuaries are perfect for learning about the exotic wildlife in Costa Rica.
What makes these locations so great are the sanctuaries are nurturing injured animals to be placed back in the wild. Your toddler will be able to learn how they are cared for and released back into nature.
Costa Rica is a great location to hike with toddlers. The rainforests are bursting with wildlife and beautiful flora which will keep their adventurous eyes entertained. Hike through the cloud forests in Monteverde to see some of the most unique birds in the country or hike around the Arenal Volcano on Costa Rica's infamous hanging bridges. Your bound to see a sloth or some toucans and its fun for the whole family to get a different view of the landscape. Your hiking options are pretty much endless!
Its no secret that Costa Rica is home to hundreds of waterfalls. Some of the most famous waterfalls are La Fortuna, Nayuca, Rio Celeste, La Paz, and Bajos del Toro. While these five are definitely worth a visit, some of our family's favorite waterfalls are off the beaten path.
Waterfalls are a great excursion for toddlers because not only will they love the impressive display of water falling, they can often swim in the cool, water below. Our daughter loves the cool water and often spends hours simply throwing rocks into the water. Also, they make a great photo opportunity for you and your family. So, pack a lunch and hit the trails to explore Costa Rica's natural wonders!
If you and your family are staying on the coast, whether the Pacific or Caribbean, you won't be disappointed with the easy access to Costa Rica's natural beaches. All beaches are publicly owned in the country so you have the whole coastline available to explore!
*Warning!* Its important to know that rip tides are very common in Costa Rica and very dangerous. While we've been living here we've heard several stories of children, and adults, drowning because of rip tides. So while Costa Rica is a great place for a beach vacation, know the signs of rip tides and pay attention to warnings placed on beaches. Many times there will be signs posted if rip tides are present and if there are lifeguards they will request you to remain out of the water.
One of the best spots to view a sunset in Costa Rica is on a catamaran. You can purchase a tour at multiple locations and jet off into the ocean. Often they have a small cafe, bar and restroom which will make your trip with a toddler stress free. They will provide lifejackets as well.
Depending on what time of year you visit Costa Rica, you may even spot whales or dolphins during your sailing tour! Its a perfect place to enjoy the ocean with your children while spotting some of the ocean's most beautiful creatures.
Most restaurants have high chairs.
The people of Costa Ria (Ticos) are very accommodating and its culture is child-friendly which gives parents a stress free environment while out and about. Family is very important to Ticos and your toddlers will get nothing but smiles from the locals during your time in Costa Rica.
Car seats are required in Costa Rica with hefty fines as consequences. Also know, children under 12 have to be in a safety device.
Costa Rica is a rainforest so beware of multiple poisonous reptiles and insects while out with your toddler. I felt like a helicopter parent with my daughter while in the country but for good reason. We constantly ran into tarantulas, scorpions and even snakes.
Costa Rica is one of our family's favorite vacations! Its quite the adventure and we always have a smile on our face whether we are relaxing on the beach or hiking to a waterfall. Traveling with a toddler to Costa Rica is a fun experience and a must-see destination!