Visiting the Costa Rica Caribbean coast with our kids was truly one of the most fulfilling family vacations that we have ever taken. Yes, the Costa Rica Caribbean Coast is a little out of the way to get to, but that is part of its charm. Life moves at a slower pace here.
From our home base in Playa Chiquita Costa Rica we enjoyed visits to Cahuita National park, as well as the Jaguar Rescue center as well as taking a tour of a chocolate farm. We played on many, many beautiful beaches. Every afternoon, we enjoyed picking up fresh fruit from one of the local fruit stands and heading back to our jungle oasis to cool off by swimming in the pool.
This off the beaten path oasis gave us enough to do without feeling like we were missing out on TONS of activities if we just wanted to sit on one of its beautiful beaches and play. Here are all of our best tips from experience for planning a trip to the Costa Rica Carribean coast with kids.
If you enjoy this post, pop back up here once you are done for more family travel tips about planning a trip to Costa Rica:
- Our Stay in a Treehouse In Playa Chiquita Costa Rica
- Samara Costa Rica: Your Insider Guide to This Laid Back Little Piece of Paradise
- Essential Tips for Visiting the Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park
Where to Base Yourself on the Costa Rica Carribean Coast with Kids
Playa Chiquita/Punta Uva
The little town of Playa Chiquita Costa Rica was a perfect base for our last Costa Rica travel adventure on the Costa Rica Caribbean Coast. It is centrally located just 10 minutes down the coast from Puerto Viejo and 30 minutes from popular Cahuita National Park. The town has a variety of appealing local restaurants and a grocery store.
Punta Uva Beach is one of the most popular beaches on the Costa Rica Carribean side for families with small children, and it easily accessible from Playa Chiquita. Playa Chiquita has just the right balance of enough restaurants and shops to provide variety without being overwhelming. It definitely has a laid back, small town vibe. Lots of folks get around on bicycles and everyone seemed to know each other. When we return again, this is definitely where we will stay.
Cahuita is a larger town that is north on the Caribbean coast from Puerto Viejo and Playa Chiquita. It is a mid sized town that is a little less busy and party like than Puerto Viejo, but offers more restaurants and shopping opportunities than Playa Chiquita.
The main draw for folks to stay in Cahuita is its proximity to Cahuita National Park. There is a short walking trail on the south end of town that will take you right into the park. Cahuita National Park has some epic beaches. Cahuita would be a great option for someone who wanted a larger town with more amenities than Playa Chiquita or Manzanillo, but less of a party atmosphere than Puerto Viejo.
Manzanillo is a sleepy, laid back little beach town at the far southern end of the Costa Rica Caribbean coast. The main road down the coast ends here, turning into walking trails that will take you into the Gandoca Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge. The town is small, with limited restaurant and shopping options.
The main reason to stay here is the fact that there are many stunning jungle lodges to stay in and the prices are very reasonable. If you are looking to stay in a stunning jungle setting or for a sleepy beach town where you will have the beach all to yourself, this is a perfect spot. For those looking for nightlife or any sort of shopping or entertainment, Manzanillo will likely be too quiet for your tastes.
Puerto Viejo is the largest city on the Costa Rica Caribbean Coast. It is a main transportation and tour hub with a ton of choices for restaurants, shopping and services. It is also busy and has a party vibe to it that may not appeal to families with young children. There are a wide variety of choices for lodging here with a lot of reasonably priced choices.
When we went into Puerto Viejo for dinner or shopping, it was fine, but I think it would have been too busy for us to use as a home base to stay. If nightlife is not important to you, I would consider staying in one of the smaller towns and making trips to Puerto Viejo as needed.
Best Beaches on the Carribean Coast with Kids:
Costa Rica has two coastlines, so the country has a TON of amazing beaches. Unfortunately, not all of them are the best for families with small children. Some of them are rocky or the waves are too big. The Costa Rica caribbean side has more choices for family friendly beaches than the Pacific side. Here were our favorites:
Punta Uva Beach
Playa Punta Uva was our favorite beach day of the trip. It was located close to our lodging at Angler’s Lair. The beach is in a sheltered bay fringed with palm trees and picture perfect white sand. The sand drops off gradually and the waves were small, making it a perfect beach for those with small children. There is a small snack bar/cafe but no restrooms.
Our lodging was just a few minutes walk away, so it wasn’t a concern for us with the kids, but if you are not staying in the area you might want to take this into consideration. The beach was very laid back and not very touristy.
Punta Uva Arrecife
Punta Uva Arrecife is just down the coast from Playa Punta Uva. A dirt road connects the two. This beach is of almost equal beauty as Playa Punta Uva, but it is even less well known and less touristy. If you are looking for a beautiful beach that is really off the tourist path, this is it. There is a small restaurant here, as well as a few lodging choices if you want to stay right on the beach in your own little piece of paradise.
Playa Blanca, Cahuita National Park
Playa Blanca is located in popular Cahuita National Park. It was a relatively short and easy 15-30 minute walk from the town of Cahuita down the main coastal trail in the park. The trail was flat and we could have done it with a jogging stroller no problem.
This beach is truly spectacular. It had bright white sand, beautiful palm trees and ample wildlife spotting opportunities (we saw a sloth, racoons, monkeys and snakes during our short visit.) The waves were a good size for small children, and the sand dropped off very gradually.
A few little notes about Cahuita beach. The only bathroom was back down the trail at the entrance to the park. There were no restaurants or food nearby. We were also harassed here by gangs of wild racoons who desperately wanted any scrap of food that we had. They were kind of cute at first, but my husband got tired of fending them off after a while (while not vicious, they did keep creeping ever closer to our beach blanket when they thought we weren’t looking. Whether they actually would have hurt us, I do not know.)
This beach is at the end of the road. Literally. The town of Manzanillo is where you come when you want to get away from it all. It consists of a small collection of hotels, eco lodges and small cafes, pressed between the jungle wilderness and the ocean. The beach is beautiful, and we had it just about all to ourselves for the afternoon. The beach is nice for kids, as the waves were relatively small and it was very uncrowded.
Honestly, it is not the prettiest beach on the coast. It only has a few sparse palm trees at the back instead of the dense, lush jungle that many of its neighboring beaches are lined by. For us, it was a pleasant place to picnic and play in the sand for a couple hours at the end of the road.
We absolutely love this packable, waterproof picnic blanket! We take it with on nearly every trip and it has made it possible for MANY impromptu picnics. It has also sheltered us from sudden rain storms. Here is a link to a similar blanket (we actually like this blanket a little better because it is bigger!)
A MUST for your next trip!
I want to be upfront that this is NOT a good swimming beach for little ones. It was quite rocky and had waves that were bigger than I was comfortable with for my little ones. What it DID have going for it was the rocky tide pools that the kids had a lot of fun exploring. It was a really picture perfect, pretty beach. It was also right across the road from the Angler’s lair, an amazing house that we were staying at in Playa Chiquita. This would be a fun place to stop and explore during low tide.
This is also not a good swimming beach, because it is unsheltered and the waves are high here (it is a popular surfing spot). But, this beach has really beautiful black sand. If you have the time, it is worth a stop to let the kids play here for a few minutes so you can snap a few photos.
What to do on the Costa Rica Caribbean Coast with Kids:
There were so many things to do here that we only got to a small portion of these. There are easily enough activities and beaches to explore here for a full week, if not more. Here are some of our favorites!
Jaguar Rescue Center
The Jaguar Rescue Center near Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica was one of the most memorable stops on our trip. They offer tours of the center where you can see the animals that they are saving, and learn about the amazing rehabilitation work that they are doing with each animal. Highlights for the kids included baby sloths and baby monkeys, but we saw a lot of amazing animals here. We recommend going in the morning, when the animals are most active. By afternoon, the sloths were sleeping and while still cute, it was much more fun to see them awake.
Cahuita National Park
Cahuita National Park is a real gem along the Costa Rica Caribbean coast. You can access the park for free by parking in the town of Cahuita and walking in on the trail (donations are appreciated). Visiting Cahuita National Park is pretty straight forward – there is one flat, level path that runs along the coast to traverse the length of the park (the part that we walked was passable for a jogging stroller).
We didn’t even walk that far down the path with our little ones, only far enough to get to popular and beautiful Playa Blanca. This was a beautiful Cahuita beach for little kids. Amazing white sand flanked by palm trees…just absolutely picture perfect! Even on our short walk we saw a ton of animals. Cahuita National Park is a must do if you visit the area.
Cahuita National Park is also well known for having one of Costa Rica’s most spectacular coral reefs. For the protection of the reef, it is necessary to book a guided tour if you want to see the coral reef.
Visit a Waterfall
There are a number of worthy waterfalls in the area to visit and take a cool dip in to cool off from the heat. Booking a tour to see waterfalls is an easy option with kids (where there is no thinking or trying to figure out). If you have a car and are feeling adventurous, there are also some relatively easy to access waterfalls near the town of Bri Bri that would be a fun day out with kids.
Tortuguero National Park Costa Rica
Tortuguero National park is a bucket list destination for its abundance of wildlife and beautiful beaches. This remote destination definitely deserves a place on your itinerary if you can spare a few extra days on you way driving down the Pacific coast to Puerto Viejo.
We visited on a day trip arranged by Playa Rio Blanco Eco Lodge (a popular stop over point between San Jose and Puerto Viejo). Because of its remoteness (you can only get there by taking a rather ride in a boat) we do not suggest this as a day trip with small children.
This being said, Tortuguero National Park Costa Rica was really beautiful, and we did see a lot of amazing wildlife even during a short visit!
Learn about Indigenous People
There are many tours in this area that will take you to an indigenous village to learn about traditional customs and ceremonies. While I sometimes have mixed feelings about the ethics of this sort of tourism, it is an invaluable learning experience that will help teach your kids to appreciate and protect indigenous cultures. There are variations of this tour to go for the day, for an overnight or longer, more immersive multi day experiences.
Visit the Ara Project
The Ara Project in Manzanillo works tirelessly to reintroduce green macaws to the local ecosystem. On a tour, you will get to access a viewpoint with a scenic vista of the beautiful Carribean ocean. From here, you will get to see these large, magnificent birds up close and learn about their plight and how the project is working to save them from extinction.
Go On A Chocolate Tour
There are quite a few artisan chocolate producers in this area of Costa Rica. This is an excellent way to learn about how chocolate is harvested and turned into the familiar treat that we all enjoy. We really enjoyed our tour at Chocoart near Playa Chiquita Costa Rica. This is a small scale farm that still produces chocolate in a very traditional way, using minimal machinery. At the end, we got to sit and enjoy some treats. It was a wonderful afternoon out that we all really enjoyed!
One World Farm
One World Farm is a permaculture farm in the hills above Puerto Viejo. The farm offers a variety of experiences to help you connect with local culture, traditions and the unique ecosystem. You can stay on the farm as a guest. They offer unique accommodations as well as fresh, local, home cooked meals and a variety of captivating tours. For a more authentic and immersive experience with your family, you can volunteer to help with the farm’s conservation efforts.
Tours at the Wild Ginger Herbal Center
Wild Ginger Herbal Center is a mecca for herbal education and traditional healing ways. They offer a number of tours and experiences that could be great for families. From tours to traditional indigenous villages, coconut oil making workshops, wildlife hikes in the nearby wildlife refuge and Carribean cooking classes, you are sure to find a memorable experience with your family.
Best Lodging on the Costa Rica Caribbean Coast with kids:
Man, I found so many family friendly places to stay on the Costa Rica Caribbean side when doing research for our trip! While we could only pick one for this trip, we would not hesitate to stay at any of these lodging choices.
Angler’s Lair is a really magical vacation rental owned by a lovely couple from the US. Staying in this amazing jungle paradise was one of the highlights of our trip! We stayed in a lovely apartment on the second level of the house with tree level views of the surrounding jungle.
The kitchen and living room were open to the air. It was life changing to be able to stay in a place where we felt so connected to the jungle around us (don’t worry, the bedrooms were enclosed). The kids loved the pool onsite, and mom enjoyed soaking in the outdoor hot tub after everyone went to sleep. I can’t say enough good things about this place. You just need to come experience it!
Here is the review that we wrote on our blog about our memorable stay at Angler’s Lair.
Other Lodging Options
- Olguitas Place is a stunning set of accomodation that was high up on our list of possible choices for our trip. The accommodations are simple and traditional but completely adequate and as a big bonus, they are right on Punta Uva beach. This is one of the best beaches for kids in the area.
- We loved our stay at the Angler’s Lair, but this beach side rental house on off the beaten path Playa Punta Arrecife would have been a contender had they not already been booked for our dates. This house offers great value for a family at $115/night for accommodations for up to 7 people. With your own nearly private beach, you really can’t beat this rate!
- Casitas de Punta Uva is another super cool, open air jungle oasis The rustic wood of this place gives it charm. Reviews tell of amazing wildlife sightings and really attentive owners who really take good care of guests. Punta Uva beach is a short walk away and as a trade off, you are immersed in the sounds and sights of the jungle. A really special place that we would not hesitate to stay at.
- One World Farm is a Permaculture and eco farm. It offers simple accommodation about 3km from the coast, in the lush tropical jungle. This is a real working farm, and a great place to get an authentic taste of real life. They offer four simple rooms with varying bed configurations in the main house. They also have a separate house with a kitchen approximately 400 meters away from the main one which accommodates up to seven. One big bonus of staying here is the fresh, home cooked food that is included (much of it is grown right on the farm).
- Kelly Creek Hotel is a boutique style hotel located in the town of Cahuita, Costa Rica. While larger than Playa Chiquita, Cahuita is still pretty small and laid back. Kellys Hotel offers beautifully appointed rooms and a really hearty, home made continental breakfast featuring fruit smoothies, toast and home made jam. A big plus for this property is the fact that it is LITERALLY on right next to the walking trail to Cahuita National Park. They also have a lovely balcony and frequently get visits from animals because of their proximity to the park. Next time we visit, I would LOVE to spend a couple of nights here!
Where to Eat:
I will be honest with you. The restaurants in this part of Costa Rica are not particularly budget friendly. While not SUPER expensive, do expect to pay US prices if you eat out.
On the plus side, we have never gotten sick while eating in Costa Rica, so the quality is also very good. We saved money cooked many of our meals in our beautiful open air kitchen at our apartment.
Here are the places that we can recommend to eat at:
We stopped at Caribeans Coffee and Chocolate twice and just loved it. They have the best, freshest coffee and all sorts of chocolate drinks and treats made from locally made chocolate. The kids had a hot chocolate on our first visit (it was HUGE…they probably could have split it) and I had a lovely iced coffee.
On our return, we had an AWESOME chocolate sundae. IMHO this is a MUST if you are visiting the area. A unique, local favorite and so good!
Selvin’s Restaurant shows up on many people’s must do lists when visiting Caribbean Costa Rica. While we didn’t make it on this trip, it is definitely on our short list for our return visit. This family owned favorite has been dishing out tasty local fare since 1980. This place is not fancy (if you want that, go somewhere else) but is is real, and the food is cooked slowly and with love.
The cafe at the Jaguar Rescue Center
The little cafe at the Jaguar Rescue Center was a hidden gem that offered the best value in the area! They have a good selection of light fare and smoothies, as well as kid friendly favorites such as pizza and toasted sandwiches. The smoothies were awesome and the seating area was nestled in lush jungle. As an added bonus, you are supporting a good cause. We would stop here even if we weren’t going on a tour. A great place for a quick, kid friendly bite at wallet friendly prices!
Is the Costa Rica Caribbean Coast Safe?
I went back and forth in my mind for months after reading some of the unsettling reports on the internet about this area of Costa Rica. I rehashed them in my mind, wondering if this is a safe place to bring my kids. The few reports of serious crime overshadowed all of the reports of wonderful, incident free trips and left doubts in my mind.
I am happy to report that we had a lovely vacation without any incidence of crime or anything unfortunate (other than the fact that we had to leave to go home at the end). We always use an extra level of caution and awareness when traveling in a new place, but we never felt unsafe in any way on the Costa Rica Caribbean coast.
Puerto Viejo definitely did have a party vibe to it, so as a family with small kids, that is not a place that we would choose to stay (but we didn’t necessarily feel unsafe when visiting during the day). We felt great about our choice to stay a few minutes down the coast in little Playa Chiquita.
When I read the negative stories on the internet, many of them come down to simple, common sense safety precautions (unnecessary things that you probably shouldn’t do no matter where you travel).
- Don’t take ANY valuables to the beach.
- Don’t EVER set your bag down.
- Don’t go out in an area away from people by yourself after dark.
- Don’t leave anything valuable in your car.
These safety tips from a local are also a great resource. While I can never guarantee safety ANYWHERE in the world, if you follow these tips, I think you will have a safe, enjoyable trip.
Tips for Visiting Caribbean Costa Rica
Where to Buy Fresh Fruit
The fruit in any tropical country is really life changing. So fresh, so juicy. This is a highlight for us. We found some excellent fruit stands on the road (I think that the ones that we stopped at were on the left hand side of the road, after Caribbeans coffee shop but before Playa Cocles…just keep your eyes open as you are driving and I am sure you will find one.)
Also, there was a fruit truck that drove by the Angler’s Lair where we were staying every day. It had a speaker and came down the road kind of like an ice cream truck (the kids thought that this was SUPER fun!) Our hosts also told us that there are fish and meat trucks that come by periodically. Ask your host where the best place to buy fresh, local produce is and see what they tell you.
Budget Travel on the Costa Rica Carribean Coast
I will be honest with you. Costa Rica is not the cheapest country in Central America to travel to, and Caribbean Costa Rica is not the cheapest part of the country to travel.
On the plus side, standards are very high, infrastructure is generally relatively good and food and water are usually safe. Restaurants, groceries and attractions are all close to US prices. There are a few ways that we found to save a little money.
- Staying in an apartment with a kitchen saved us a TON of money because we could cook our own food for a couple of meals a day. Also, fruit is cheap and abundant…meat is EXPENSIVE. Plan meals that center around fruit and vegetables and contain less meat.
- If you do eat out, eating at a local soda (mom and pop restaurant) will always be much cheaper anywhere in Costa Rica than eating at a western looking restaurant.
- You can save money getting around by renting a bike and riding it up and down the coast. You can easily take a shuttle or bus from San Jose and get around this way during your visit (biking is a very common mode of transportation here). The roads are twisty, windy and sometimes narrow, so do this only if you are very comfortable (and I probably wouldn’t suggest it with small children)
The best resource for budget travel tips for the Costa Rica Caribbean side is Nomadic Matt. he has a ton of info about actual prices. Check this out if you are looking for more budget travel tips for the area.
Best Grocery Store
Grocery stores in Puerto Viejo are generally going to be less expensive than ones in smaller towns down the coast. Try the Mega Super a block or so off of the main road in Puerto Viejo. The stores got more expensive as we drove south down the coast.
There is also a weekly fresh market on Saturdays in Puerto Viejo. This would be a really great place to try some fruits and other foods that re new to you, and get a taste of local culture.
Our Favorite Local Travel Website
The Puerto Viejo Satellite is the most comprehensive source of information for Puerto Viejo and all of the surrounding communities. You will get real, up to date information here that will really help you learn about the area and plan your trip.