Going to Costa Rica with teens? Here’s our itinerary, what I’m glad we did, and what I’d do differently next time.
Is Costa Rica on your bucket list? It was on mine for a long time. So after two years with little travel, I was ready to go big and finally make it happen.
I’m happy to report that Costa Rica was everything I’d hoped it would be: lush, gorgeous, and full of new wildlife, flavors, and culture. Leading up to our trip, I promised/warned my family, “It’s going to be an adventure!” and it absolutely was.
We spent a week in Costa Rica with our kids, ages 13 and 17, and I wanted to share our itinerary, as well as what I’m glad we did AND what I’d do differently next time. I hope this is helpful to you.
What I’m Glad We Did
I’m glad we…rented a car
You can get around Costa Rica with private shuttles or public transportation. But I loved having the freedom to explore on our own, stopping at overlooks or markets along the way. Our travel agency booked our car through Mapache, and we had no problems. It was a newish Suzuki 4X4, a must for the bumpy, unpaved roads. It was small but comfortable for our family of four.
Keep in mind that many of the roads in Costa Rica are narrow and windy, so you need to be a confident driver. Since I planned the trip, my husband did all the driving. That was a relief to me.
We did all of our driving in daylight hours and gave ourselves plenty of time. Speed limits are low to account for the twisty roads, so short distances can take much longer than you think (a 100-mile trip from Manuel Antonio to the San Jose airport took nearly three hours).
For navigation, we used Google Maps offline since we didn’t have data outside the hotels. We made a few wrong turns along the way but never got completely lost.
I’m glad we…went off the beaten path
My favorite part of the trip was driving around as a family, stopping at small restaurants, scenic overlooks, small markets to buy popsicles and tortilla chips, and fruit stands for fresh mango and watermelon. We also drove through many small towns and beautiful rural areas. If we had stayed put at hotels and resorts with other tourists, we wouldn’t have experienced that.
I’m glad we…used guides
You don’t technically need guides when visiting the rainforest and national park. But I’m glad we did because we would never have seen the wildlife on our own. The guides know how to spot sloths hanging in trees, which hole the tarantula is living in (yep!), and what leaf the poison dart frog is perching on. They’re also a wealth of knowledge about the vegetation and history of the area.
I’m glad we…got help from a travel agent
Even armed with advice from friends who had traveled to Costa Rica, I still felt overwhelmed planning the trip. So I used a travel agency a friend recommended called Pacific Trade Winds. They were so patient with the majillion emails I sent and all of my questions and last-minute worries. They answered every message promptly, and each step of our itinerary went off without a hitch.
We were also upgraded at two of the hotels to suites and given rooms with especially lovely views (we had one of the few rooms at Tabacon with a volcano view), which I’ve heard can happen when you book through an agency.
For trip planning, I also highly recommend the Facebook group Costa Rica Travel. You can ask questions, search for topics, and get itineraries, tips, and inspiration there.
What I Would Do Differently
I wish we had…been more strategic about food
Teenagers are ALWAYS HUNGRY, which can be especially tricky when you’re traveling. We spent a lot of money on food, and I think we could’ve been smarter about it. My advice:
- If you’re booking a hotel, check the menus in advance to be sure the food is family-friendly and affordable.
- Stock up on food at a grocery store to keep in your room (we stopped at a Wal-Mart near the Liberia airport). See our list at the bottom for ideas.
- Visit one of the many fruit stands to buy fresh fruit and local baked goods like Rosaquillas. Keep the fresh fruit in your hotel or Airbnb fridge.
- Research restaurants ahead of time so you have options when everyone is tired and hungry and wants to eat RIGHT NOW! Scroll down for two places I recommend.
- Eat at the “sodas”, which are small, locally-owned restaurants with simple meals and good prices.
I wish we had…scheduled more activities
Every kid is different, but I found that mine enjoyed having something to do every day of our trip. Some downtime to rest and recharge was necessary, but my kids were bored when we had a day without plans.
We did four tours in all–Mistico Hanging Bridges, Coffee & Chocolate Tour, Forest Night Hike, and Manuel Antonio National Park Tour–but I wish I had booked some active, adventurous tours as well, like waterfall rappelling, kayaking, or pedal-boarding on Lake Arenal, which a friend recommended.
I wish we had…stayed in an Airbnb or Vrbo
Frankly, I was nervous about being in a new-to-me country, so I wanted to stick with hotels. But now that I’ve visited, I would feel great about renting a well-rated Airbnb or Vrbo to save money, have a complete kitchen, and get more room to spread out.
For example, a friend of mine stayed in this Vrbo in Monteverde with her family, and the owner arranged to have a local cook prepare a traditional dinner for them!
I wish we had…spent more time in fewer places
I scheduled a lot for one week, and I think I pushed us a bit too much. If I could do it over, I’d stay at just two places instead of four, so we could spend more time in each spot. Here was our itinerary:
- Fly into Liberia Airport and get shuttle to Hotel Playa Hermosa Bosque del Mar (one night): This was an expected extra day, after Southwest randomly canceled our flights and rebooked us a day early. It was fine for our bonus day, but there are likely prettier beaches in the area.
- Get rental car and drive to Tabacon Thermal Resort & Spa (two nights)–the swankiest hotel we’ve stayed in as a family, with access to their extensive thermal springs. I would stay in the La Fortuna area longer next time. While there, we also did:
- Drive to Villa Blanca Cloud Forest Hotel (two nights)–beautiful and remote but I don’t recommend it for those who get carsick, as the road up to the hotel is long, bumpy, and unpaved. I arrived sick with food poisoning, so unfortunately I did not get to enjoy this hotel. They sent tea and chicken broth to our casita for me.
- Guided Night Hike for my husband and kids, where they saw a variety of frogs, snakes, spiders and enjoyed being in the forest at night.
- Drive to La Vela Boutique Hotel in Manuel Antonio (two nights)–a five-minute walk to the National Park, which was a convenient location but in a very touristy area. I wish we’d had more time at these beaches. Mapache also picked up our rental car here.
- National Park Tour: Because we did not get tickets to the park in time, doing a formal tour was the only way to get in–but you could simply get park tickets and enjoy the park and beaches on your own.
- Shuttle to San Jose Airport for our flight home.
Highlights From Our Trip to Costa Rica with Teens
Cafe y Macademia: We stopped here for frosty fruit drinks, pizza, awesome views of Lake Arenal, plus fun souvenirs on the way out. It’s worth the long, windy drive.
La Vendanita: A reader recommended this small, family-owned restaurant near La Fortuna, and my 17 year old declared it “the coolest restaurant he’s ever been to”. Owned by an ex-pat from California and his Costa Rican wife, it’s got fresh, affordable food with amazing views of the volcano.
Coffee & Chocolate Tour: I was worried my kids would be bored learning about coffee, but we all liked this tour, which starts in a small farm and ends with tastings of coffee and chocolate. My kids also got to press juice from raw sugarcane. We learned a lot!
Manuel Antonio National Park Beaches: I wish we had more time at these beautiful beaches, which look like slices of paradise. These beaches are inside the national park, and tickets to the park sell out, so book yours in advance.
FAQ About Costa Rica
Did we feel safe in Costa Rica?
Yes! We did not experience anything that felt dangerous. That being said, it’s important to know that car break-ins are common. When we stopped at a Wal-Mart, security guards patrolled the lots, and at Cafe y Macademia, you tip the parking lot attendants to keep an eye on your car. We also stashed our passports and valuables in the hotel safes when out of our room, which is wise no matter where you travel.
Is it okay to drink the water?
Yes. I did a lot of research before going, and the consensus was that the water is safe to drink. However, I did come down with some kind of food poisoning that landed me in bed for about 36 hours in the middle of our trip. It’s impossible to know what caused it, but nobody else in the family got sick while we were there even though we all ate and drank the same things.
What’s the food like in Costa Rica?
At hotels and resorts, you can easily find familiar fare. At the small local restaurants (called sodas), you’ll find menu items like gallo pinto (rice and beans), arroz con pollo (chicken and rice), casado (rice, beans, vegetables, and plantains), and lots of fresh fruit juices. And the pineapple! Oh the pineapple! It’s everywhere and it’s FABULOUS.
We also ate plenty of tacos, burritos, quesadillas, and nachos. My kids had no problem finding items on every menu that they liked.
What currency do they use?
The currency of Costa Rica is the colon. When we arrived, we exchanged $200 for colones and brought $200 worth of dollars in small bills for tips. We paid in colones, dollars, and with our Visa (there is a small fee for using Visa).
Currently, the exchange rate is about 660 colones per $1. Don’t exchange your money at the airport like we did–their rate was much lower!
Is it true they don’t flush toilet paper?
Yes, in some places they ask you to place used toilet paper in a can beside the toilet.
Do I need to speak Spanish?
Most of the people we encountered working in tourism spoke English. But we also met many “Ticos” (that’s what Costa Ricans call themselves) who didn’t speak much or any English at all, like the proprietors at the fruit stands and markets we visited and the cashier at Wal-Mart. But through hand gestures and the Google Translate app, we were able to work it out!
I think it’s respectful to try and speak the native language, so we used simple Spanish phrases wherever we went, and my kids got to practice the Spanish they’ve learned in school, translating menu items and road signs. Basic words & phrases we used:
- Hola: Hello
- Gracias: Thank you
- Buenos días = Good morning
- Buenas noches = Good evening
- Mucho gusto = Nice to meet you
- Adiós = Goodbye
- Por favor = Please
- Lo siento = Sorry
- ¿Dónde? = Where?
- Sí = Yes
What does “Pura Vida” mean?
You’ll see and hear this expression in Costa Rica. The literal translation is “pure life” or “simple life” and it embodies the laid-back vibe of the country. As one of our tour guides explained to me, it can be used for everything from a greeting, a good-bye, an answer to “how are you?” and even a “no worries” when something goes wrong.
Since returning home, we’ve tried to keep the relaxed, worry-less “Pura Vida” vibe going!
What to Pack for Costa Rica with Teens
- T-shirts (at least one per day if no access to laundry because you’ll get hot and sweaty), shorts, hiking pants or joggers, hoodie
- Extra socks (in case you get wet)
- Bathing suits and rash guard
- Reusable water bottles
- Day packs for everyone: On tours, have each person carry a pack with their own swimsuit, towel, water bottle, and anything else they need.
- Walking or hiking shoes
- Sandals or slides
- Sunscreen (the sun is strong!)
- Bug spray (you can also buy this there)
- Imodium anti-diarrhea medicine. A reader advised me to pack this just in case. So glad I did because we were far away from a pharmacy when I needed it.
- Bonine motion sickness chewable tablets. The roads are windy, so it’s easy to get carsick. Even if you don’t rent a car, you may need it for the shuttles to hotels and resorts.
- Band-aids and antibiotic ointment
- Advil or other pain reliever
- Playing cards or Uno
- Phone charger for the car
- Many $1, $5, and $10 bills for tipping
Groceries We Bought in Costa Rica
- Chips and other salty snacks
- Cookies (perfect for dessert back in the room)
- Granola bars
- Bottled water
- Gatorade (I was so happy to have this when I was dehydrated from food poisoning!)
- Hard candy (great for long hikes)
- Peppermints (to soothe carsickness)
- SIM card (we were advised to get this but never figured out how to use it!)