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Costa Rica: Sensational and Autism-Friendly

Our mission was simple: experience as much of Costa Rica as we could, searching for the best autism-friendly destinations and attractions.

My name is Nicole Thibault. I’m a Mum of three boys, one with autism and one with sensory processing disorder. I’m also a Certified Autism Travel Agent, and I’ve assisted countless families with their travel plans, creating sensory-friendly trips for loved ones on the autism spectrum.

I met Stephanie Sheehy of Il Viaggio Travel several years ago at a Family Travel conference, and we’ve become fast friends. It was clear straight away that we had much in common, as well as a similar passion for helping families travel. Stephanie lives and works in Costa Rica with her husband, Emilio, and two young kids.

In addition to creating amazing Costa Rican vacations for families through her Tour Operator business, Stephanie has a strong personal passion for accessible travel. She works tirelessly to create wheelchair-accessible beaches in Costa Rica, with rollaway ramps and wheelchairs that can be used on sand and in the water. She partners with attractions to ensure that her clients who use wheelchairs can access transportation, restaurants, bathrooms, beaches, and more. Stephanie’s face lights up when talking about wheelchair accessibility on the ziplines, knowing that this experience is a unique one.

Adaptive surf lesson at the accessible Jaco Beach in Costa Rica
Adaptive surf lessons are one of the many activities available at Costa Rica’s accessible Jaco Beach.

While Stephanie focuses on physical travel accessibility, I focus on cognitive disabilities and sensory issues that come with travel. We both strive to make sure that our clients are well-prepared and cared for during their vacations.

It seemed natural that Stephanie and I would work together at some point. We’ve always talked about me visiting Costa Rica, to see all it has to offer. Plus, Stephanie has been wanting to learn more about specific itineraries for families with autism and other cognitive disabilities.

“I wanted Nicole to come to Costa Rica, because we wanted to really understand, train, and check travel suppliers to see if we are able to create accessible autism trips for families,” Stephanie said.

This collaborative trip finally became a reality in June 2021. My youngest son, Emerson, and I joined Stephanie, Emilio, and their two kids on a 12-day cross-country trip to Costa Rica. Our mission was simple: experience as much of Costa Rica as we could, searching for the best autism-friendly destinations and attractions. We wanted to be sure, from personal experience, which experiences would be best to include in an autism-friendly itinerary.

I mentally organised our experiences in Costa Rica into one of two categories: low-sensory and high-sensory. Knowing the sensory level of activities is crucial to planning itineraries for families with someone on the autism spectrum. If a person with autism is a sensory seeker, they may prefer adventurous activities like white-water rafting or zip-lining. Sensory defensive travellers, meanwhile, may prefer a walk through a nature reserve, a chocolate tour, or a day at the beach.

Here are some of the activities we recommend, in each category, for travellers visiting Costa Rica.

Low-Sensory Activities in Costa Rica

Baldi Hot Spring

This water park includes several pools, water slides, and a kid’s zone – all with water temps of 105°F or 40.5°C. With waters heated by the nearby volcano, this park is a wonderful place to relax and enjoy some family time. This might not be the ideal choice for someone who has sensory issues with water temperatures, but it’s an excellent choice if you’re looking for a relaxing day in balmy waters.

The Arenal Volcano 1968 Park

This nature park has several trails around the base of the Arenal Volcano. Grab a walking stick at the Visitor Center, check the map, and head out at your own pace. Look for volcanic rocks, hike to the top and take in the view, and make your way to the Observation Deck for snacks and a smoothie.

Emerson holding a walking stick, standing on a walking trail with Arenal Volcano visible in the distance.
Emerson enjoyed a hike in the nature park around the base of the Arenal Volcano, Costa Rica.

Customised Equine Therapy at Hotel Tilajari

Stay in this beautiful resort, and request daily sessions with the equine therapy team. The sessions include picture schedules to prepare riders for the session, and activities with the horse to work on both cognitive and physical goals (e.g., colour matching, hand-eye coordination). The session ends with feeding, tattooing (with washable paints), and bathing the horse.

Surf Lessons at Jaco Beach

Jaco Beach is one of Costa Rica’s wheelchair-accessible beaches, and home to the Accessible Surf Team of Costa Rica. They offer adaptive lessons to surfers of all abilities, including people with autism. The instructors work with their students on land before jumping in the water, to prepare them for the waves.

Manuel Antonio National Park

What’s not to love? The beaches. The pristine blue waters. The pathways through the jungle, full of iguanas and sloths. Explore it all at your own pace – and don’t forget your bathing suit!

High-Sensory Activities in Costa Rica

Rappelling Down a Waterfall at the Pure Trek Canyoning Tour

Thrills abound descending down this 160 foot, or 48 meter, waterfall. Obviously, this one is only appropriate for travellers without a fear of heights!

Emerson rapelling down a waterfall in Costa Rica, smiling
Rapelling down a waterfall in Costa Rica isn’t for the faint of heart – but it’s incredible, and memorable!

White Water Rafting on the Sarapiqui River

After a lesson and safety check, you will be whisked down the river to navigate the Class III rapids, full of dips and waves between calmer spots. The guides are excellent in making sure their instructions are clear and fully understood by all, before even getting in the boat.

Sky Adventures Canopy Tour

Experience the sky tram, hanging bridges, and multiple zip-lines, all in view of the Arenal Volcano.

Treetop Climbing Experience

Once suited up in safety gear, climb up the inside of a hollow 132 foot, or 40 meter, Ficus tree. There’s a lovely Observation Deck at the top, if you need extra motivation. If you have issues with claustrophobia, you might want to take an alternative adventure, as it’s quite a close space inside.

Two people climbing inside red-lit trees
The Treetop Climbing Experience is a unique adventure for visitors to Costa Rica.

Now that our research trip is finished, Stephanie and I are working together to create autism-friendly Costa Rica itineraries, based on our observations and experiences. It’s not a one-size-fits-all destination – each trip will have to be tailored to individual sensory needs and preferences. This sensory exploration of Costa Rica was a wonderful way to learn and understand what this incredible country has to offer all kinds of travellers.

This story first appeared in Travel Without Limits magazine. You can subscribe here.

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