family photo at Nicoya Bay Road Trip Costa Rica
Family on a boat ride in the Gulf of Nicoya

Road Trip Costa Rica – Lasting Family Adventure Memories

By Alexandra Dishnica – AlexandraDishnica.com

If you and your family road trip Costa Rica, you’ll soon discover it’s one of the most beautiful places on the planet. Central America, in general, is full of natural beauty! But, given Costa Rica’s forests, national parks, tropical waters, and Pura Vida ethic you’ll have plenty of opportunities for outdoor adventure family travel experiences!

This family-friendly road trip itinerary is one of my family’s favorite holidays to date. It’s got six action-packed stops. And, of course, it requires a good bit of driving. However, what you’ll get in return for all the miles on the road is a host of experiences that will bring your family even closer together than they are now!

If you have any comments or questions about this Costa Rica family road trip, feel free to leave them in the comments section below. And then buckle up, as our Costa Rica itinerary kicks off in San José!

Road Trip Costa Rica – Stop 1: San José

One of Costa Rica’s two international airports, Juan Santamaría International Airport (SJO), is located in San José. This is where our journey begins. And, given that this is a Costa Rica road trip itinerary, you will need a car.

Oftentimes you can reserve a rental car with your airplane ticket, but for more information, you can read all about San Jose’s airport car rental options.

Don’t Skip San Jose

Naturally, we took a day to explore Costa Rica’s capital city. We spent a night in the Marriott San Jose and in the morning we toured the city.

San Jose is known for its markets and shops which are fun to admire and shop at. I remember buying woven blue flats at a Costa Rican market. There were so many things to marvel at!

There are also several museums and theaters that are interesting and give you a taste of Costa Rican culture and history as well. 

Kid-Friendly Car-Activities

If you didn’t bring your own kid-friendly car activities from home, consider buying some in San Jose before setting off. Or of course, make up your own car-games!

While the Costa Rican rainforests are indeed mesmerizing, it never hurts to have a few car-activities up your sleeves for the kids in case they get a bit squirmy.

Road Trip Costa Rica – Stop 2: Arenal Volcano

The Arenal Volcano is an active stratovolcano in San Carlos, Costa Rica. But don’t worry, it’s now in its resting phase. We stayed at a hotel off of the Arenal Volcano, and there are lots of options in the area.

the Arenal Volcano
A view of the Arenal Volcano from our accommodation

Since there are many outdoor family adventures in this area you likely will not be spending much time at your accommodation. So, you’ll be able to save a bit of money by choosing a place with fewer amenities.

Zip-lining Pit Stop

On the way to the Arenal volcano region, we stopped to do some zip-lining. If you and your family decide to road trip Costa Rica, this a must-have experience, and it was one of the highlights of our Costa Rica family trip.

family photo while zip-lining on a Road Trip Costa Rica
Family photo zip-lining at Arenal National Park

At the Arenal National Park, we zip lined with Sky Trek, a company that offers many outdoor family adventure activities at the park.

Another advantage of ziplining through the lush forest, other than the energizing adrenaline rush, is the opportunity to explore wildlife. In this area, it’s common to spot toucans and monkeys through trees, and sometimes even jaguars.  

Arenal Volcano Hike

Also in this area is the Arenal Volcano hike. The route is pretty challenging, and it’s not suitable for young children, so we didn’t do this. For some other family-friendly hiking options in the area, check out this Arenal National Park map.

Mellow Out – Baldi Hot Springs

Also within the Park boundary are the Baldi Hot Springs. Natural Springs are channeled to form over two dozen thermal pools. When you road trip Costa Rica, you can visit the springs to refresh your car-stiff body.

Consider taking a dip both in the day or night. Also, keep in mind, you can even spend the night here in one of the resort’s rooms! Further, adults can book spa treatments while children enjoy the water park and pools.

Road Trip Costa Rica – Stop 3: La Fortuna Waterfall

La Fortuna is a gorgeous waterfall also located in Arenal National Park. It takes about 10-15 minutes to hike down the stairs to the 200 ft cascade, or you can horseback ride to this location.

la fortuna waterfalls on a Road Trip Costa Rica
Swimming at the La Fortuna waterfall

Take A Dip

In addition to swimming, consider packing a picnic. And most certainly, plan to take a lot of photos! The crystal clear water forms a bathing area downstream, but be careful- sometimes the water can create strong currents. When swimming with young children, proceed with caution. You won’t want to ruin your Costa Rica family trip with the need for a swift water rescue!

Road Trip Costa Rica – Stop 4: Rio Celeste

Rio Celeste is a river in Tenorio Volcano National Park. This is about an hour and a half drive north from the Arenal National Park. When you road trip Costa Rica, make sure to save a bit of time for this spot. For more information on navigation and parking see here.

turquoise waters of Rio Celeste
Rio Celeste’s turquoise blue waters.

You cannot swim in the Rio Celeste river and waterfall, but it is absolutely beautiful. You may notice the unusually bright, turquoise color. This is due to a phenomenon known as scattering.

Consider Hiring A Guide

Most people hire guides to take them through the 4-mile walk through the forest to the waterfall itself. There are several guides at the trail entrance that can help you.

Bring The Right Gear

Remember to bring water, wear long pants and t-shirts, and bring lots of bug spray. The forest is very humid and dense, so it is home to many insects including mosquitos. Covering up is important to prevent mosquito bites and in extreme cases illnesses like Dengue. 

Road Trip Costa Rica – Stop 5: Playa Tambor 

Buckle up again! We are in for a long ride. We are traveling Southwards to the Gulf of Nicoya. There are two ways to get to this region of Costa Rica. 1) Take a ferry across the bay to Puntarenas 2) Drive all around the bay to the Tambor region.

the ferry to Playa Tambor
We made sure to take the ferry home!

A Lesson Learned

My family did the second option going to Playa Tambor, which was a mess! After an entire night of driving through windy, cracked roads through remote villages, we finally arrived at our resort. Instead, we recommend you take your car on the 70-minute ferry ride across the bay on your own Costa Rica family trip.

Playa Tambor – Chill Beach Vibes

This part of your vacation will be more mellow. You are approaching the seaside so get ready to sunbathe, snorkel, and surf. The best place to stay will be near Playa Tambor, and you’ll have many choices for accommodations near Playa Tambor.

Plenty To Do If You’d Like

At Playa Tambor, you can go on dolphin/whale watching tours, kayak trips, hikes, ATV driving, and more. Different resorts will offer different activities, but in general, there are many companies that offer these adventure activities as well. 

Road Trip Costa Rica – Stop 6: Isla Tortuga

Isla Tortuga is a remote island off of the Nicoya Peninsula known for its excellent snorkeling spots. Many resorts offer tours to this island which I highly suggest. If your resort does not offer these, you can purchase an island tour online as well.

Swimming near Isla Tortuga on our Road Trip Costa Rica
Petting a puffer fish. Be careful of their spikes!

More Than Just Snorkeling

This trip entails several activities wrapped into one. On the way to the island, we saw dolphins and whales! Then we went snorkeling. The driver parked offshore, and we jumped in and out of the boat as we pleased. At one point, the driver brought a puffer-fish up for us to interact with. And then, of course, they safely returned it back to its home.

Eventually, we arrived at Isla Tortuga. Off the shore of this volcanic island, you will have plenty of opportunities to snorkel. And on the beach, you’ll be able to admire the colorful display of fish dashing through the water. 

Food And Drinks Too

On Tortuga, there are also several places to eat and get drinks. They also have a gift shop, and I still have the shell-filled bottle that I bought from the store sitting on my desk. 

One of my favorite aspects of the excursion was the dynamic environment. On the island, there were two wild pigs, and the guides showed us how to pet them and let us hold the baby.

At the end of the day, the boats return to the resorts in time for dinner. Note: There are very few public restrooms on Tortuga, so plan on paying a small fee if you need to use one.

Is A Costa Rican Road Trip Right For You

If you choose to road trip Costa Rica with your family, be prepared for an action-packed experience that is heavy on natural and cultural beauty.

If you’re willing to do a bit of driving, a road trip is a great way to get around this tropical paradise. And, if you follow our itinerary, you’ll get a taste of both the Costa Rican rainforest and the beaches.

Once you’ve had your fill in Costa Rica, and if you’re looking for another tropical and family-friendly road trip experience, consider a Dominican Republic road trip. Or, for something really far our, consider this road trip in Albania!

No matter what you and your family choose to do, if you have questions or comments about all this, feel free to leave them in the comments section below! And then start planning your own family road trip adventure!


Alexandra Dishnica author bio pic

Alexandra Dishnica is a travel blogger from Boston, Massachusetts. She shares her perspective on traveling as a teenager on her site, Alexandra Dishnica’s Travel Blog. Also, she emphasizes the importance of cultural authenticity, and she is committed to immigration advocacy. She has been involved in several studies related to U.S. immigrants and has her own podcast, Dishing on Immigration, where she shares immigrant stories.


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