Since having our son, Sam, last December, we have learned a lot about traveling with a baby in Costa Rica. Although we had already lived here and traveled the country many times before, things changed a lot with him. We went from carrying the bare minimum in backpacks to having several pieces of luggage bulging with our new “bare” necessities. We wouldn’t have it any other way though and have loved sharing this amazing country with him. Sam has joined us on day hikes through the jungle and weekend excursions to the mountains. Most recently, we took a two-week road trip up the northern Pacific coast. In this post, we’ll tell you what to expect when traveling with a baby in Costa Rica based on our experiences.
Costa Rica is a wonderful place to travel with a baby. First off, it is very safe. There isn’t a lot of crime and you don’t have to worry about if the food and water is clean. If your child is on solid foods, feel free to let him or her taste the exotic fruits and even sample the local specialties. There are also many baby-friendly things to do. From visiting the national parks and reserves to hanging out at the beach, there are plenty of places to bring a baby. Costa Rica is also a fairly small country so it is easy to plan a trip that doesn’t require too much driving.
Another important thing to note is that the country is extremely family oriented. In particular, the culture loves babies and everything to do with them. You won’t get far on your trip before a friendly Tica (Costa Rican woman) comes up to you, oohing and ahhing about your gorgeous baby. She may even ask to hold him or her (more on this below). Once you have an understanding of how family oriented the country is, some of the idiosyncrasies about traveling with a baby here make a lot more sense.
One of the big benefits of traveling with a baby or child in Costa Rica is that you get priority at the airport. After you get off the plane in Costa Rica, you have to go through customs and immigration before you are allowed to enter the country. A lot of times, especially at San Jose’s busy international airport, this line is long and can take a while to get through. If you have kids, you skip the line altogether and get to go to a special priority line.
Last time we flew into San Jose, I was carrying Sam in the baby carrier. We knew about the special line for families but it was roped off at the time so we weren’t sure what to do. All of a sudden, a friendly Tica working saw us coming and stopped us from entering the regular line. She opened the family line, and with a smile, directed us to the immigration agent. We got right through immigration, with no waiting involved. The family line is definitely an awesome benefit of traveling with a baby in Costa Rica.
Most hotels in Costa Rica are small to medium in size and often family run. While you can find resorts that will have everything you need for traveling with a baby, part of the fun of visiting Costa Rica is staying at some of the locally owned places. On our recent road trip, we stayed in six different small hotels. Our son was four-months old at the time so we needed a crib for him and also needed something for bath time.
We used Booking.com to make our reservations like we usually do. The good thing about this site is that you can see, first off, if a hotel allows children at all (some that we looked at didn’t) and if they have cribs available. You can also send messages to the hotel through the website to confirm crib availability, just to make sure one will actually be available during your stay. This may not sound like a big deal, but the fact is, a lot of hotels in Costa Rica don’t have great information online. Since a lot of them are smaller, they either don’t have a website or it is very simple. Booking.com is nice because most of the hotels in Costa Rica are on there and it’s easy to see all the information you need in one place without having to search on several different websites.
About half of the hotels we stayed at had portable cribs (Pack ‘n Plays). If you need a crib, obviously make sure to stay at a hotel that offers them. Many of the larger hotels (especially chains) have them and some smaller ones do too. If you end up staying somewhere without one, you could always bring or purchase a simple Pack ‘n Play when you get here. However, keep in mind that depending on where you’re visiting, it may not be convenient to find one and it will likely be expensive.
If your baby is too small to take in the shower, you’ll also need to be sure your hotel room has a tub. Tubs are not very common in Costa Rica; showers are the norm. Higher end hotels are the most likely to have a shower with a tub. If your hotel doesn’t have one, an easy solution is to buy an inexpensive plastic tub when you get here. These are readily available in baby stores and also larger big box stores like MaxiPali (a Wal-Mart company).
Most, but not all, restaurants have high chairs available. They are usually not the plastic ones that you’re used to, but handmade wooden ones with Tico flair.
Earlier we mentioned about locals wanting to hold your baby. One of the places that this happens most often is in restaurants. Especially in smaller towns, servers and sometimes patrons will come over and ask (in Spanish) if they can hold your baby. They put their arms out and can be somewhat insistent, making it difficult to say no. Part of it is that they are being nice and want to give you the chance to eat (if you’re holding the baby) and part of it is simply that they love kids! At first, we were really freaked out about this but now actually kind of like it. Sam loves meeting new people and we think being held by random ladies telling him how adorable he is could be part of the reason. Usually he has made friends with everyone, including the kitchen staff, by the time we leave.
Car seats or booster seats are mandatory in Costa Rica for children 12 and under (up to 57 inches/145 cm or 79 pounds/36 kg). Here are the specific laws:
- Infants up to one year (up to 28.5 pounds/13 kg or 29.5 inches/75 cm) are to be rear facing in the middle seat.
- Babies and children ages 1-4 (20-40 pounds/9-18 kg or up to 43 inches/110 cm) can be front facing in the middle seat.
- If you have more than one child, the one who weighs less should be in the middle and the other behind the passenger seat.
- Children ages 4-6 (33-55 pounds/15-25 kg or up to 57 inches/145 cm) are to be in a booster seat with a back.
- And ages 6-12 (48.5-79 pounds/22-36 kg or up to 57 inches/145 cm) must be in a backless booster.
Although Costa Rica has a car seat law, it is often not enforced. You will see kids unrestrained in the back or even front seat of a car. Families even sometimes ride with their kids on motorcycles when going across town. Still, as a visitor, make sure to be in compliance, as the fine for not following the law is ₡198,000 or about $400.
Car seats are available through all reputable shuttle van and rental car companies in Costa Rica for free or a small fee. They typically have infant carriers, convertible seats, and booster seats that comply with Costa Rican requirements. Keep in mind, though, that the exact models on hand at any given rental location will vary widely. If you are not comfortable knowing in advance what kind of car seat will be available, we recommend bringing your own. Most airlines don’t charge for checking car seats as luggage and the peace of mind is worth the hassle of lugging your reliable seat with you.
One thing that is difficult when traveling with a baby in Costa Rica is the lack of baby changing stations. You will very rarely find them in restaurants, even nice ones. We have seen them once or twice at rest area-type restaurants, but it is unusual. Be sure to bring a travel-size changing pad for diaper changes on the go. We’ve had to change diapers in all sorts of places, outside restaurants, on park benches, and in the back of our SUV. Some kind of covering to put under the changing pad is also a good idea in case you have to do it somewhere dirty like the floor of a bathroom.
Breastfeeding in Public
While breastfeeding in public in some places is controversial, that is not the case in Costa Rica. In fact, it is the exact opposite here. The majority of moms in Costa Rica breastfeed and do so openly. You will see women breastfeeding while shopping at the grocery store, in restaurants, and on the bus. It is culturally accepted (and encouraged) to not cover up. A fellow expat from the United States who also had a baby in Costa Rica told us that a Tica once asked her why she was covering up. If you’re not used to breastfeeding in public, it can feel weird to do it at first. But if you’re only covering up for other people, you can let loose in Costa Rica. You will notice that instead of turning away, the locals will smile and praise you for it. After all, you’re taking care of that precious little baby—and they love babies!
We’ve discussed before how difficult it can be to find baby gear in Costa Rica. Basic items like diapers, rash cream, formula, bottles, and pacifiers are readily available if you forget something. Remember, though, that they might not be the brand you’re used to or will be expensive. Anything specialty like organic baby foods, baby sunscreen, etc. is much harder to find outside San Jose. Try to bring everything you will need from home to avoid wasting time on your vacation searching for things. In a pinch, the popular tourist towns usually have small shops that carry at least some baby products. You can also find the basics at most grocery stores.
For a detailed list of what to pack, read our separate packing list post. This has tips on the best ways to carry a baby around for activities, what to bring for different excursions like the beach and hiking, and even some airport and flying must-haves.
Those are our tips for traveling with a baby in Costa Rica. While vacationing with your little ones isn’t always easy, you won’t regret the extra effort you put in when you see them enjoying all that this amazing country has to offer.
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