Feature image (above): Don’t miss a visit to Arenal Volcano National Park. // © 2017 Getty Images
Costa Rica has a lot to offer active families, from volcanoes and ziplines to hanging bridges and white-faced monkeys. Even better, there are a number of direct flights into San Jose and Liberia, making it easy to begin an adventure in Costa Rica, regardless of which part of the country you’re eager to visit.
I recently spent a family vacation in Costa Rica exploring several different areas of the country — including Arenal Volcano and Manuel Antonio National Park — thanks to a kid-friendly itinerary crafted by Il Viaggio Travel Costa Rica, an in-country tour operator that specializes in custom family adventures.
Although I had heard from other active families about their high regard for the destination, I knew little about Costa Rica, so I was eager to work with an operator that could help me plan the perfect trip. From the start, I was impressed that Stephanie Sheehy, general manager for Il Viaggio, and her family personally inspect hotels and attractions all across Costa Rica; they don’t rely on online reviews and photos, but instead visit every property — they even try out ziplines — to help ensure the right fit for individual families. Not every tour operator can say the same.
That was a real value-add for me, and it led my family to Karahe Beach Hotel in Quepos, just steps from the waves, and Mountain Paradise Hotel in Alajuela, where we stayed in a family suite with a splash pool and jaw-dropping views of Arenal Volcano. Both hotels were spot-on for us.
We opted for Il Viaggio’s Treasure Hunt theme package, which engaged my school-age kids by having them seek out one treasure, such as leaves or flowers, each day of the trip. We used free messaging app WhatsApp to submit photos of our favorite family moments to the Il Viaggio team.
On the final day of our trip, we learned that our efforts had been turned into a photo album just for us. It was an unexpected personal touch. Il Viaggio also offers three other customizable packages, including Peace Seekers, which is designed for families interested in low-impact activities, such as exploring waterfalls and iguana-watching.
One of the more unique aspects of our vacation in Costa Rica was that we had a private guide who also drove us around the destination. This was a new experience for me, and to be honest, I almost felt like a celebrity. I highly recommend this — not for the celebrity factor, but because this added to our overall experience without significantly increasing the total cost of the vacation.
Juve Acuna was our personal guide the entire week, driving us all around the country in his tour van. He stayed at or near our hotels; introduced us to all his favorite "sodas" (family-run restaurants serving Costa Rican food such as empanadas and "casados"); and made sure the van had plenty of snacks and cold drinks.
But Acuna’s most important role was navigator. I saw few street signs in the destinations we visited, and there were often no sidewalks, so we would frequently see people walking or biking on the road. The streets are bumpy and winding, and families could end up stuck at a road block for more than an hour or discover that a major road has been closed. Acuna got us through it all — with extreme patience.
Acuna also educated us on squirrel monkeys, morpho butterflies, the age of volcanoes, the significance of oxcarts, walking palms and cocoa beans (which, before being roasted, taste surprisingly like honeydew melon). We learned so much more in Costa Rica than we had on any other vacation.
While Il Viaggio will do a top-notch job crafting an itinerary and managing hotel bookings, the tour operator also offers a stand-alone van and guide service. This way, families can plan a trip to Costa Rica and still benefit from having a local such as Acuna to shuttle them around the country.
Costa Rica is a safe country, but petty theft, such as having belongings taken from a rental car, is on the rise. This concerned me, but Acuna stayed with our luggage or beach bags any time we were away from them. My family misses him already; I can’t wait to go back, if only for another go at the hermit crab races that Acuna set up for my kids on the beach.