These suggestions are informed by nearly 25 years of experience traveling with young people in Costa Rica. While a lot of it is just obvious common sense hopefully there are some helpful tidbits that haven’t occurred to you.
Children of All Ages
Home Base – Most kids learn their home address and parents phone number as soon as they can talk. If you use a full service local travel company you should receive a 24 hour bi-lingual emergency contact phone number when you make your reservations – be sure the kids have it. A sharpie marker on the back of their hand might seem over the top until you’re separated in a crowded airport terminal.
If you’re traveling independently make sure the kids know at least the full name of the hotel or lodge where you’re staying. If you’re renting a vacation home you’ll probably need to give them a map because addresses are not used in Costa Rica and no one will know what they’re talking about if they use the cute VRBO listing name like “Sunset Paradise House.”
Brain Eating Amoebas – No dunking your brother in the hot springs! Naegleria fowleri, or the “brain-eating amoeba” lives in warm fresh water. It causes primary amoebic meningoencephalitis by entering the nose and eating it’s way up the olfactory nerve to the brain causing death in a few weeks. Even if no water fights break out it’s not a bad idea for the whole family to blow their noses enthusiastically after any exposure to warm, fresh water (basically all fresh water in Costa Rica).
Keep them Busy – “I’m bored…” Read up on the answers to the dreaded question “What is there to do around here?” and take a look at age recommendations for popular tours and activities.
Adventures in Eating – Part of travel is exploring the local cuisine but it can be intimidating for kids.
Usually there are some familiar choices available, for example pizza is popular. However, there are precisely zero places that serve gluten free crust, low acid tomato sauce, non-dairy soy cheese, molded tofu pepperoni pizza.
The more gluten sensitive, low-carb, lactose intolerant, peanut allergy, or otherwise dietarily afflicted you or your kids are the more supplies you’ll have to carry. We’ve packed a cooler full of food as a piece of checked luggage. Just be sure everything is in factory sealed packages or it won’t make it through the ag inspection at customs.
There are some local sources of special needs foods – look for Fresh Markets and AutoMercado supermarkets – the selection is limited and prices are 2 to 10 times what you pay at home.
Use Caution with Expectations – Nature is fickle. Some species like monkeys are so common they’d be hard to miss but there are no guarantees. Unless your children handle disappointment well either 1) don’t make promises or 2) reserve a wildlife rescue tour where the animals are in cages or enclosures.
Definitely don’t promise things like sea turtle nesting or whales that are only seen in the wild.
Even things that seem guaranteed might not go as planned. Costa Rica is not standardized like Disneyland and there’s no regulation size 48 inch mouse statue with a sign that says “you must be as tall as Mickey to ride this ride.”
One 13 year old girl traveling with us was told she’d have to go tandem with a guide on the zip-lines. She was old enough and over five feet tall but she was also twig skinny 60 lbs. which wasn’t heavy enough to have the momentum needed to reach the next platform. Teenage girls do not enjoy being publicly singled out by body characteristics or tied to 20 year old males they’ve never met before…
If it rains hard the rivers rise and rafting gets cancelled. Sometimes half the country is closed down when landslides cut off the airport from the coast for days at a time.
The Ant Dance – Teach your kids the ant dance.
Drowning – is the number one cause of fatalities among young travelers in Costa Rica. Everyone who goes in the water regardless of age should know how to swim well and be educated about rip currents.
Gimme Shelter – It’s important to remember that except while sleeping you and your kids will be “outside.” Tropical design and architecture means restaurants, dining areas, lounges, patios, lobbies, bars and in many cases the living “room” of rental homes are open air.
Move Less – We always try to help people minimize the amount of time spent on the road while maximizing fun and relaxation but kids have even less patience for five hour car rides. Even though Costa Rica is a small country it can take a long time to get from place to place.
Honesty is the Best Policy – There are a lot of educational opportunities in Costa Rica. A guided hike through the cloud forest at Monteverde probably includes a couple of hours of walking plus eight or ten mini-lectures on epiphytes, moisture droplet harvesting and other ecological wonders. If you’re lucky it’s punctuated with spotting a resplendent Quetzal, Silky Anteater, or Three-Toed Sloth in the treetops.
While planning it’s tempting to think about how enriching all the teaching opportunities will be for your kids but if you’re honest with yourself you know they’d rather be zip-lining. Think about it. One of the reasons the adults are on vacation in Costa Rica is to escape work. Is it really fair to expect the kids to use their trip as a classroom…?
We’re not suggesting you skip vacation education all together, just don’t overdo it. Remember that just being there is educational and they’re going to be exposed to culture, language and natural history continuously.
Tips for Specific Age Groups
0-1 years old
We’ve seen some rants on travel forums harassing parents for endangering their infant by “dragging them to Costa Rica.” Of course that’s just ridiculous. Costa Rica is as safe for babies as most places in the world and safer than many. In fact tens of thousands of babies are born in and thrive through infancy in Costa Rica every year.
Whether it’s a good idea to travel with an infant has more to do with difficulty than safety. Parenting can be exhausting in the comfort of home and doing it on the road can magnify the challenges.
If you’re up for traveling with your infant in Costa Rica here are some tips we’ve picked up from a couple of them.
Consider bringing your own car seat. Rent-a-car agencies will usually provide one for a fee but may not have the selection to provide the best fit. There’s a big difference between “45 lbs, front facing seat belt anchor” and “rear facing, 12-18 lb infant, overhead anchor”
If you use formula or other special foods bring a supply to last the duration.
Go to the front of the line. It’s normal in Costa Rican culture for people with young children to skip the queue. This tradition is fading but don’t be surprised if you’re pushed to the front especially in rural areas and smaller towns. Needless to say we don’t recommend trying to cut in front of your fellow North American or European tourists.
2-5 years old
The most common question we get about this age group is “are they too young to appreciate a trip and should we wait until they can do ‘Costa Rica Stuff’ like zip-lines and rafting?”
While it’s certainly true that they won’t be able to participate in many of the more adventurous activities they’ll also probably have a fantastic time on the beach, seeing monkeys in the trees and just spending time together as a family.
As mentioned above for infants you may want to bring your own child seat if renting a car.
If potty training accidents are still common consider bailing out and going back to the convenience of disposables or pull-ups temporarily…at least on the plane.
6-12 years old
This is probably the hardest age from the perspective of activities especially if there are older siblings in the family. It’s quite likely that they’ll want to do a few things that they simply aren’t strong or big enough to participate in safely. We’ve put together a list of which activities are appropriate for different ages and a bunch of suggestions for what to do when not on tours.
There’s a pretty good chance that at some point in any vacation it’ll seem like a teenager (or perhaps even your spouse) is behaving with all the maturity of an infant.
Just because it’s possible doesn’t make it a good idea. Use your judgement to help your kids stay within their abilities. For example, dozens of hours of classroom study, simulator training, and escorted practice is required to drive a car. However, completely untrained, underage, wildly overconfident (crashed and decapitated – no problem 5 video game lives left) novice riders are handed the keys to ATVs and JetSkis.
The drinking age in Costa Rica is 18 and not strictly enforced. I’ve seen ten year olds buy a six pack by saying it was for their dad (in that case it was). Prostitution is also legal starting at age 18. Tourist families are usually insulated from this but obviously your family and especially your teenagers could encounter some uncomfortably unfamiliar situations.