Costa Rica is the most popular travel destination in Central America and a great spot for an upcoming family vacation. It’s relatively easy to get to, affordable, has amazing landscapes, and is known for its adventure activities. There’s something that will appeal to all travel styles and ages- whether you’re looking for a relaxing beach vacation or want an adrenaline packed itinerary.
The Arenal region has become a popular spot on many travelers Costa Rica itinerary. Arenal Volcano was largely dormant until 1968 and then started spewing lava at a fairly predictable rate which attracted hoards of tourists wanting to get a glimpse of an active volcano. The surrounding area got more built up to accommodate this rise in tourism to grow to what it is today. And while the volcano is no longer considered active (for now) there’s plenty to do and see.
Why it’s great for families
Families love it because there’s a lot of variety in terms of activities. You can take infants on farm tours and gorgeous hikes or take your older kids zip lining and white water rafting. There’s plenty of great budget and luxury hotels to choose from and getting around is pretty straight-forward (we took our 1 and 3 year old without issue).
Where to stay
While most of the resorts in the Arenal area welcome children, they have less in the way of dedicated amenities for kids than what you’ll find at beach resorts (kids clubs, etc). The Arenal area is known for its hot springs and definitely has a romantic/honeymoon vibe. That being said we had a great experience taking our 1 and 3 year old so don’t let that deter you.
We stayed at the Royal Corin Thermal Water and Spa Resort. The staff was amazing and great with our kids. The daily breakfast buffet was our morning staple (the staff even overheard me telling Lucia they didn’t have pancakes that day and one of the cooks made us some as a treat). We so much appreciated their efforts and help. We also utilized our concierge who booked us a farm tour and gave some good recommendations on restaurants, etc. Some of the others we considered are listed below.
The Springs Resort and Spa– This resort has amazing views of the Arenal Volcano (when the weather cooperates). The nearby Club Rio Outdoor Center gives you an opportunity to go tubing and horseback riding without leaving the hotel grounds. There’s also an on-site animal sanctuary (big cats, monkeys, sloths)
Tabacon Resort- A high end thermal resort boasting Costa Rica ́s largest network of naturally flowing thermal mineral springs. They also have day passes for those who want to experience the springs but don’t want the price tag of the accommodations which is a popular excursion in the area.
There were so many reasonably priced budget options in and around La Fortuna as well. Volcano Lodge, Hotel and Thermal experience had rooms for less than $150 USD and most of the hotel room rates were for less than $100 USD. The area is a great value.
Top 7 Family Activities to check out while in Arenal
Arenal Volcano National Park– the main attraction itself! There are so many trails to hike in and around the base of the volcano. Check out the old lava fields and the constantly changing geography created by the volcano. The trails are self-guided (most trailheads originate from the ranger station and Arenal Observatory Lodge) or book a tour.
Soak in the famous hot springs– the volcano continues to bubble lava underground creating natural hot pools to soak your tired muscles. Most hotels have some version of a hot spring pool but the largest and most popular is at Tabacon Resort. They offer day passes.
Mistico Hanging Bridges– explore the rainforest and canopy from six suspended bridges. You can self-guide at your leisure or take part in a naturalist tour to get more information on local species of spiders, bats, and other animal life.
Check out a local farm tour– Take a guided tour by a local farmer in the La Fortuna area. You get an opportunity to press sugar cane juice, milk cows, collect chicken eggs and see how local chocolate is made. Most include a traditional lunch (this was great for all ages but especially little kids)
Zip line– Add some adrenaline to your canopy tour by booking a zip line, one of the adventure activities Costa Rica is known for. Check out Sky Adventure, Arenal canopy or Paradise Adventures for booking options. Generally for kids >7 years of age, though some activities are for all ages.
La Fortuna Waterfall– take a morning hike through the rainforest down 200 feet (or 480 steps to be exact) to the picturesque waterfall and cool your toes in the surrounding pools.
White water rafting– most of the tours traverse the Balsa River where you’ll find outfitters that offer a variety of difficulty level rapids. Generally for kids >6 years of age depending on the class of rapids.
Where to eat
There are quite a few dining options in and around the Arenal/La Fortuna area. Most eateries offer a casual vibe which is great for kids. There are some higher end restaurants as well depending on the age of your kids and budget.
Check out the Lava Lounge for a hip relaxed atmosphere. Serving pasta, burger and wraps picnic table style.
When we asked for a ‘local’ favorite by one of our guides we were referred to Los Nenes. There were still quite a few tourists so the word must have gotten out. Offering ceviche, steaks and a more traditional menu.
For those with smaller kids, Cafe Mediterraneo was our pick. They had an indoor play area next to the tables so you could eat, drink your wine, and your kids could play. Pretty awesome if you ask me. They specialize in Italian foods (pizzas, pastas).
Arenal Volcano and surrounding La Fortuna are about a 3-4 hour drive North from the San Jose Airport and will vary depending on time of day and traffic in San Jose. You can rent a car, take a tour which usually includes round trip transfers or take public transportation. We rented a car as a family with little kids (1 and 3 years old) we appreciate having the flexibility to be on our own schedule and stop when we need to.
I’d recommend driving in the daylight hours. We got a late start from the airport after getting our rental and once it got dark the signage was much harder to see. The roads once you get off the main highways are very curvy (lots of switchbacks) and single lane. We just felt it was less stressful and safer to drive during the day.
For those who are prone to car sickness, you may want to drive.
If you have waze, I’d recommend using it. It was reliable and as previously mentioned the signage was sometimes difficult to see.