As new parents sometimes do, we kept putting off our first family adventure trip. When our daughter turned the magical age of three, we started looking for an easy way to explore Costa Rica with a preschooler. Once we arrived, we were amazed by the gorgeous mangos, the friendly locals, and the national park-like beauty of the entire country. Here are a few of our tips for a successful vacation in one of the world’s prettiest places.

See our Costa Rica trip in photos: Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

Choose your destination carefully to limit travel time for small children. We knew that a red-eye flight would be tough enough with our daughter, so we wanted to limit the time spent traveling to our accommodations once in Costa Rica. The beach community we picked was Playa Hermosa, about 10 minutes south of Jacó (a popular tourist area). It was the safest beach area close to the San Jose airport, about 90 minutes on a highway. We wanted to be close to San Jose in case any of us needed medical treatment, and not in too remote of an area.

Entrance to Hermosa Palms

Stay in a vacation rental with A/C, privacy and a fully stocked kitchen. We picked a vacation home in gated Hermosa Palms through VRBO, complete with a lagoon-entry pool perfect for kids. It can be very important when you’re traveling with small children to give them a place to burn off excess energy and carry out their normal routines. We treasured those afternoon naps in the air-conditioned coolness of our house, especially after hiking in the heat and humidity.

We were able to store all the food and milk we wanted in our full-size fridge, as well as cook local meals and safely prepare the amazing mangos, papayas and plantains from the amazing fruit stands. There is nothing better than homemade fried plantains with local ice cream. If you can stay a week or more, visit in low season, or travel with friends, you’ll save more on vacation rentals.

Start small with adventure. Kids love animals. Our day trip to Manuel Antonio State Park was a hit, starting with a kid-friendly 45-minute mostly flat hike to a protected beach. We technically could have even brought a stroller on this one, but it was great to see our daughter actually explore on foot. She loved the sloths, lizards, agoutis and all the blue butterflies.

Yes, we still had to carry her sometimes!

Beautiful Manuel Antonio beach after the hike

At El Avion, the famous restaurant in an old airplane.

On beach days we were careful to watch her in the water, especially since the same waves that draw surfers to the Pacific Coast also have some rip currents. We took a short trip up to Tarcoles, where we dropped chicken off the bridge to feed the crocodiles that gather there.

We explored some tiny villages along the coastal highway, often looking for surf spots for the guys and finding friendly locals, wild parrots and fresh coconuts. We drove on the beach in our rented Montero Sport and ate arroz con pollo and casados at “sodas” (small roadside cafes).

But, the best adventures are unplanned. At the last minute we decided to spend a night at Baldi Hot Springs near Arenal Volcano and La Fortuna. We got lost on a one-lane dirt road on the 4-hour drive and had to ask a pig farmer for directions in broken Spanish. Despite torrential rains (it was the beginning of rainy season), we made it to Baldi Hot Springs to 25 pools of varying temperatures built into a hillside and kid and adult water slides. We had promised our daughter water slides at the beginning of the day and it kept her going for the whole drive! It was a great family adventure, and definitely an easy way to see Costa Rica.

At the only microbrewery in Costa Rica, overlooking Lake Arenal

James at the lava flow

Need any more tips for your trip to Costa Rica? We did a lot of research in advance regarding health issues, grocery stores and family-friendly spots. We would love to go back too, so if you want to share your recommendations, comment below!