Costa Rica’s rich biodiversity and natural beauty puts it at the top of the list of inspiring family travel destinations. With cities and cloud forests – not to mention your pick of Caribbean or Pacific coastlines – the Central American country’s signature pura vida (“pure life”) way of life creates a welcoming and laid-back atmosphere for visiting families.
It’s brimming with things to do, and it provides a model of thoughtful, sustainable living that’s a better souvenir than anything you could take home and frame. Here are tips for planning an unforgettable family trip to Costa Rica:
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What to know before you go
COVID-19 travel restrictions: According to its tourism site, Costa Rica no longer requires a negative coronavirus test for entry, and it doesn’t have a quarantine policy. But visitors must complete a Digital Health Pass 48 hours before boarding their inbound flight and purchase travel health insurance that covers at least $50,000 worth of medical expenses and $2,000 in lodging expenses.
What’s the COVID situation in Costa Rica? According to the World Health Organization, cases of COVID-19 are trending downward again in Costa Rica after spikes in late November and early December. During the week of Feb. 8, the last week for which WHO has complete data, there were just over 2,700 cases, a 13% drop from the previous week.
Pack your car seat: Car seats are uncommon in private transportation and shuttles. When traveling within Costa Rica with children or infants, make sure safety seats are on your baby-packing list.
Communication: Most cellphones work in Costa Rica’s cities, but service is often spotty in remote or mountainous regions. Be sure to check with your service provider before going abroad for coverage and rates.
Adjust your watch: Costa Rica is in the Central Time Zone, so it is one hour behind Eastern time.
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Getting to Costa Rica
Most major U.S. airlines offer direct flights to Costa Rica from their hub airports to Juan Santamaría International Airport (SJO) in San Jose and Daniel Oduber Quirós International Airport (LIR) in Liberia. Both airports are close to popular destinations and offer connecting flights to other destinations in Costa Rica.
Traveling within Costa Rica
Most of the tourist destinations in Costa Rica are a few hours apart by car, but many of these areas are also serviced by small airports, and domestic flights are a convenient way to travel quickly from place to place.
Driving can be a rewarding adventure: The roads are lined with beautiful views, and roadside “sodas” are a fun way to break up a drive while sampling the signature snacks and tropical fruits of Costa Rica.
The country does not require an international driver’s license (only a valid one from your home state and your passport), which makes renting a car fairly straightforward. Or, if you don’t feel comfortable driving abroad, you can arrange private transportation or book a shuttle. Private transportation and shuttles offer a convenient way to travel, and once you arrive at a destination, most hotels and tours offer free local shuttles.
If you’re going to rent a car, keep in mind that while most of the main highways in Costa Rica lead to the popular tourist destinations, it’s a good idea to opt for a four-wheel drive vehicle if you are looking to venture farther afield, especially during the rainy season. Also, remember it gets dark around 6 p.m., and in some places, it is not advised to drive after dark.
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Popular destinations in Costa Rica
Planning your vacation to Costa Rica can be the adventure before your adventure: a chance to try on the options and decide what’s right for your traveling group.
According to its embassy, Costa Rica is home to nearly 6% of the world’s biodiversity and has created a system of national parks and reserves that cover more than 25% of its land area. So, unsurprisingly, many of the star spots put nature front and center. Here’s a quick look at some of Costa Rica’s most popular destinations:
Rising dramatically from the land and ringed by rivers, rainforests and waterfalls, Arenal Volcano looks straight from a children’s fairy tale. And the surrounding protected area of Arenal Volcano National Park offers something for everyone on a family vacation.
With the largest concentration of hotels in the area, the nearby town of La Fortuna offers the perfect base for exploring the area. With its mix of tourists and locals, La Fortuna strikes a nice balance, offering easy access to adventure activities and lower-key cultural experiences.
Consider staying closer to downtown La Fortuna if you don’t have a car; you’ll be closer to tours, transportation and restaurants. But if you’re planning on renting a car, it’s worth checking out some of the hotels closer to the national park. Many of these hotels have their own hot springs, ranging in size from private soaking pools attached to suites to larger shared pools.
In town, tour operators offer adventures such as rappelling down a waterfall, whitewater rafting and ziplining, or walking the hanging bridges through the canopy of the rainforest.
On quieter days, visitors can hike through Arenal Volcano National Park, tour a chocolate or coffee farm, float down the river and spot wildlife, or relax in one of many mineral-rich hot springs. Also, don’t miss out on a variety of twilight and night experiences that let you experience the nocturnal world of the rainforest.
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Good to know: When choosing a tour operator – especially for the more adventurous tours – ensure that it is a legitimate tour operation with proper safety certifications (many canopy tours are certified by the U.S.-based Association for Challenge Course Technology), have liability insurance and a good record of safety and customer service.
Home to the world-famous cloud forest and first zipline, the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve is renowned for its conservation and preservation efforts. Visitors come to marvel at the towering trees, draping vines and hundreds of mammal and bird species, including the majestic yet elusive Resplendent Quetzal. Zipline the length of the forest canopy to experience the four ecosystems that exist harmoniously as a result of the area’s varying altitude and climate.
Monteverde is less than 40 miles from Arenal, but getting there can be an adventure on its own. Driving requires a five-hour trek around Lake Arenal on curvy roads. You can also arrange to travel across the lake by boat and be picked up on the other side. For the truly adventurous, several tour companies offer a combination boat, horseback ride and car transfer. Once you’ve arrived, you’ll find a number of hotels, lodges and eco-resorts.
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Manuel Antonio National Park
Sloth lovers flock to Manuel Antonio National Park, a prime place to spot the two- and three-toed creatures. The park, popular with tourists and locals alike, is one of the rare places in Central America where rainforest meets beach. The park is home to howler, squirrel, spider and white-faced monkeys; as well as amphibians like frogs and iguanas and more than 350 species of birds.
The best way to spot the wildlife in the park is on a guided tour, with a trained guide who not only knows where the animals like to hang out but also has a good eye for spotting them. Pack a lunch and make the most of the picturesque beaches that make perfect picnic spots.
Wildlife spotting is not the only adventure in Manuel Antonio. Nearby Espadilla Beach has waves great for aspiring surfers and experts alike, along with surf shops that offer rentals and lessons. Travelers also can take a boat to the nearby Damas Island Estuary and kayak the area on a day or evening tour.
About an hour south of Manuel Antonio is a national park that celebrates the sea. One of the country’s news national parks, Marino Ballena National Park is committed to the conservation of the rich marine ecosystems. It’s a great spot to see migrating humpback whales from mid-July and October, and again from December through March. The park is also home to one of the largest coral formations on the Pacific side of Central America and offers good snorkeling, especially at low tide. Another low-tide treasure is the natural land bridge that emerges to create one of the park’s biggest attractions: El Paso de Moises.
Good to know: Manuel Antonio National Park is closed on Mondays and holidays, which means tours are unavailable at those times. There’s a limit on the number of tickets sold the rest of the week to prevent overcrowding. To secure a spot, either arrive early and purchase tickets online or at a Coopealianza office before getting in line for the entrance, or book with one of the tour groups that have access to advance tickets.
Avoid buying tickets or tours from guides selling their services on the roads leading to the park, because they have no relationship with the park and usually inflate their prices.
Santa Rosa National Park
Costa Rica is famous for its wildlife, and the arribada is one of the country’s most spectacular natural phenomena. The arribada, or arrival, marks the events from late summer through late fall when tens of thousands of Olive Ridley sea turtles come ashore to lay their eggs along the beaches of Ostional Wildlife Refuge and Playa Nancite in Santa Rosa National Park. The park also happens to be home to some of the best surfing beaches in Costa Rica.
Good to know: A permit from the rangers is necessary to visit the arribada beaches during the nesting season.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Family travel: How to plan a post-COVID trip to Costa Rica