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Family-friendly Costa Rica: the best things to do with kids

Jump to it: Costa Rica is paradise for the energetic and the not so…

Costa Rica might be famed for its sloths, but kids won’t want to hang around in one spot for long. From surfing classes to cycling around a volcano, Chris Moss took his nephews on the trip of a lifetime

The sloth is many children’s favourite animal, and in a sanctuary south of Tortuguero national park, a three-toed male, hanging from a spindly branch, was putting on the full display of scratching, staring, smiling – and mooning. Simultaneously. Slowly. Photogenically.

It took my 13-year-old nephew to point out that the best thing about the sloth is its apparent idleness, which may be true, but isn’t the sort of role model you want when you’re on an activity holiday in Costa Rica. We left the sloth to his own devices as we had things to do.

Costa Rica is famously family-friendly and was the perfect destination to take our two teenage nephews on an easily accessible, sightseeing holiday of a lifetime. The country is small enough that a family of four can get around easily, taking in wonderful and ever-changing views of mountains, jungles, beaches and cloud forest.
The topographical diversity of this small, seismically sculpted country makes for myriad adventures. Older kids can go rafting, younger ones can share a canoe with an adult on a gentle river. Wildlife lovers will be just as happy as they tick off sightings of howler monkeys, basilisk lizards, morpho butterflies and vividly coloured hummingbirds.
All of which means that a holiday here, while fun-focused, has immense educational value. My other nephew, two years younger, asked why Britain only had seagulls, sheep and cows. Great question: long answer.
Learning comes from experience. We began in the Arenal volcano national park – one of Costa Rica’s 29 national parks. Both boys are cycling mad, so we booked a gentle, but intrepid-looking, mountain bike trip around the base of the peak. The journey took us through shady rainforest, along a beautiful river and to the edge of an ancient lava flow; older kids and adults can do steeper rides. The region around the volcano is also superb for ziplining, and spotting exotic birds high in the forest canopy as you walk along suspended bridges. Come evenings, hot pools and cold beers mean that adults can take a well-earned break.

Canopy kids: suspended bridges high in the trees afford great views of the wildlife

We stopped next at nearby Montezuma, where we hiked through the cloud forest, with a guide talking us through the flora and fauna. We climbed a giant ficus tree and then learnt about coffee, with a cupping (or tasting) to keep up our energy levels.

It’s a four-hour drive, with stops, to laid-back Tamarindo on the Nicoya peninsula. Surf classes were designed for true beginners (us adults) and small people who learn fast (the nephews). Then it was on to snorkelling, horse riding and body surfing.

Back to school: many of the coastal resorts offer surf lessons

Next we visited Tortuguero, where four species of turtle nest, including the endangered green sea turtle. The national park is on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast – a 30-minute flight from the capital San José; the lack of road access plays a key role in the park’s conservation efforts.

A boat ride through Tortuguero’s lowland rainforest was a highlight of the trip, showcasing the extraordinary biodiversity of the coastal lagoons and freshwater channels. It’s a habitat for seven species of river turtle, spectacled caiman, the southern river otter – all of which we saw – and the endangered West Indian manatee. Add to that the 400 bird species, 400 tree species and 2,200 plant species found here, and you experience the full Costa Rica pura vida sensation – the banks are teeming with life.

Nice and easy: the sloth is one of Costa Rica’s most popular animals

But the absolute highlight was the walk on the beach after dark, where we saw hawksbill sea turtles (they come ashore to nest between July and September, peaking in August). Leatherbacks visit mainly between February and April – although some may be seen at almost any time of year, day and night.

Seeing turtles under a moon is a life-changing experience. With a late supper of the traditional dish gallo pinto (rice and beans), burgers and tropical fruit juices, all was right with the world. The sloth, meanwhile, was probably still only half way down his tree.

To find out more about family-friendly holidays, go to Visit Costa Rica

  • Five more family-friendly regions of Costa Rica
  • Cahuita national park - This coral reef off the Caribbean coast is a great place to snorkel and spot angelfish, parrotfish, sea urchins, lobsters and red land crabs.
  • Tirimbina biological reserve - Superb for nature watching and eco-tourism, with suspension bridges, bat-themed night tours – and chocolate!
  • Manuel Antonio national park - This popular park combines beautiful beaches and well-marked jungle trails; dolphins and whales are sometimes spotted offshore.
  • Playa de Matapalo - On the popular Osa peninsula, this spot has great beaches, a wonderful waterfall, eco-friendly activities and family-friendly lodges.
  • Rincón de la Vieja national park - Saddle up for a leisurely guided ride around the forested Rincón de la Vieja (Old Woman’s Corner) volcano, with a picnic and hot springs en route.