Wild animals are not only at the zoo! That’s a lesson family travel expert Amie O’Shaughnessy’s family learned on a recent trip to Costa Rica. Find out how family travel and eco-tourism do and don’t blend in our latest report from the founder of CiaoBambino!
Flanked by both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, Costa Rica is home to an array of fascinating land and water-based ecosystems including rainforests, cloud forests, mangroves, and coral reefs that are brimming with exotic plant and animal life. Costa Rica’s relatively small size makes this eco-tourism hot spot ideal for nature-loving families who want to experience variety without having to travel great distances.
Like any nature viewing experience in the wild, observing animals in their native habitat takes patience, as the first step is finding them. The hunt can be thrilling … or not … it all depends on the luck of the day. The best Costa Rica itineraries with kids incorporate stops where wildlife encounters are guaranteed.
Costa Rica wildlife vacation highlights with kids:
Meet an Array of Animals at La Paz Waterfall Gardens
Located in the center of Costa Rica with easy access to San Jose and the main international airport, La Paz Waterfall Gardens is an excellent first stop on a family itinerary. There are 10 animal exhibits with over 3.5 kilometers of walking trails. Although the animals are enclosed, it’s a perfect opportunity to introduce kids to the main species in Costa Rica as they are all in one place here in a gorgeous, natural setting.
The aviary is amazing and families can have very close encounters with toucans and hummingbirds. A butterfly farm is home to thousands of stunning butterflies at any point in time and showcases their development lifecycle from start to finish. There are also monkeys, sloths, insect and snake exhibits, as well as a jungle cat rehabilitation center where rescued cats who can no longer survive alone in the wild, live in a safe environment. This is the perfect opportunity to see the big cats like jaguars and pumas up close.
The tour includes an easy 45-minute hike to spectacular waterfalls and a shuttle that returns families to the starting point at the end of tour. Admission for adults is $36 and children ages 3-12 is $21.
Jungle Education in Manuel Antonio National Park
Manuel Antonio is Costa Rica’s smallest national park, but also one of the most popular as favorite mammals including both the two and three-toed sloths and three of Costa Rica’s four species of monkeys. In a typical few-hour visit, families are likely to observe a wide range of plant and animal life.
Our tour included termite tasting (like peanut butter) and a fascinating introduction to tropical plant life. The wide and easy-going main path is perfect for little legs and parents who are moving slowly in the high-humidity. The beauty of Manuel Antonio is that the park tour leads to a spectacular protected beach where families can spend the rest of the day relaxing in this tropical paradise.
A kid-friendly guide is absolutely essential in Manuel Antonio in order to fully appreciate the wildlife. Our Kensington Tours guide, Miguel, had unbelievable bionic vision and hearing — we would have missed 90 percent of what there is to see in the park without him. Entrance fees to the park are $10 per adult and children under 12 are free.
Birdwatching in Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve
The joy of birdwatching is vastly underrated. It takes patience and is not optimal for very young children, but ages 10 and up will love the experience. Tracking birds via their songs is part of the thrill, as is the reward of finally spotting them and seeing first-hand what all the fuss is about.
Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve is renown as a birdwatching heaven with over 500 bird species. Prized sightings include the Quetzal and Three-Wattle Bellbird – we were lucky enough to spot both species on our tour and the joy of observing them turned into a trip highlight for our 10-year-old son.
In addition to hiking in Monteverde, families can experience hanging bridges in Selvatura where it’s easy to spot birds from the top of the forest canopy. There’s a zip-line and butterfly garden in this park too.
Monteverde is remote and the drive down unpaved roads is slow. This stop is recommended for 10-day itineraries where families can spare travel time. The park entrance fee is $17 per adult and $9 per child for ages 6-12 years old.
Tortuguero Turtle Watching
We didn’t make it to Tortuguero National Park on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica on this trip, but our guide walked us through Tortuguero as a family trip highlight, as it’s an important nesting site for endangered sea turtles from July through October.
Note, the wildlife is abundant here and even periods outside of turtle nesting are exceptional for families as they can get close to many animals via boat excursions on the extensive network of canals in this area.
Tour Operator Recommended
Costa Rica is the ultimate adventure family travel vacation destination given the extensive list of adventure activities from zip-lines, to surfing, to white water rafting. I recommending using a reputable tour operator who specializes in family trips as travel in Costa Rica is logistically intensive, not to mention that the best operators know and use only the top-rated guides and activity providers. Kensington Tours, an award-winning tour operator offering customized family-focused itineraries, planned our recent trip to Costa Rica. Their regional expert, Brandi Merchant, expertly walked us through the best kid-friendly wildlife attractions for a week-long trip.
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Text and Photos by Amie O’Shaughnessy. Amie O’Shaughnessy is the editor and founder of CiaoBambino.com, an award-winning family travel blog, offering expert tips and advice on where to go, where to stay, and what to do in the world’s top destinations with kids.