I’ve been asked several times for suggestions on foreign travel with children. There’s one easy answer – Costa Rica – our family’s favorite trip together.
Because of its beauty and neutral government (they have no army), Costa Rica is the Switzerland of Central America. Their former president, Oscar Arias Sanchez, has negotiated the end to civil war in Guatemala and is currently trying to resolve leadership problems in Honduras. Jammed into this small country is an incredible variety of botanical and geological wonders – rain forest, cloud forest, active volcanoes, and beautiful coasts, all within 120 miles of each other.
Costa Ricans pride themselves on being “muy sencillo” (very simple) and often greet you with “pura vida”, the national philosophy of life. This can be translated as “it’s all good”, “full of life”, “have a good day”, or on a deeper level “enjoy life slowly and with perseverance”. Because of their high literacy rate and the country’s early recognition of eco-tourism, visitors feel welcomed and appreciated. It is loaded with language schools and has become a popular retirement country.
Renting a car is easy and fun and you should try a Toyota Forerunner or a jeep. The roads are mostly good and easy to maneuver. The jungle area to the northeast of its capital, San Jose, is a good beginning point. At Selva Verde Lodge in Chilamente, (www.selvaverde.com/)you are greeted with hammocks, balconies, and mosquito netting. Turn in early. The birds will wake you up. I’ve never heard such an early morning din – a mixture of thousands of birds greeting each other all at once. Experts will name them at the 6 a.m. birdwalks. A guided jungle walk can reveal the poison dart frogs (actually quite beautiful) and occasional monkeys. Kids will love the raft trip down the near-by Sarapiqui river. The guides are young but knowledgeable and the water lively.
On to the active volcano, Arenal. This is always a little dicey. Do you want it to be really active and spew out lava or are you satisfied with it just warming its neighbor, the Tabacon baths? Actually, it doesn’t matter what you want. You are totally dependent on Arenal’s whim. If it’s too active, they won’t let you near. But usually, one can enjoy the smoke puffing out of the cone while sitting in a leisurely hot bath, warmed by volcanic underground energy. The Tabacon’s hot mineral springs and waterfalls provide a Disneyland feel with 10 pools ranging in temperature from 80 to 110 degrees and lovely paths connecting them. Massages are available as well as a swim up bar. www.tabacon.com/
The Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve in Monteverde is famous and worth traveling the rough roads to arrive there. A rain forest is designated as such because of receiving 100 inches or more of rain a year. But a cloud forest is one in which much of the moisture is received from the mountain’s clouds settling on the forest. Both are Wet with a capital W and our day there was no exception. But it is at Santa Elena that we all finally understood ecosystems. Our wonderful guide, a PhD candidate from Cornell, could stop at any tree, ant mound, or stream and explain who fed on whom and what attracted what. He spotted the beautiful quetzal for us and helped us hear the three waddled bell bird. We were treated to an amazing show when a group of raccoon-like coatimundis arrived, followed by a troop of white faced capuchin monkeys looking for dinner. This area is also the first in the country to have a zip line, where you are harnessed to a cable and zip from one tree to another – guaranteed to be the kids favorite activity of the trip.
A final stop would be on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica at Manuel Antonio, south of Quepos, a place for relaxing with beautiful views. Howler monkeys woke us in the morning (think Tarzan movie) and tiny titi monkeys walked the wires outside our room. The Manuel Antonio Park has a great beach where you can belly board or simply check out the nearby iguanas, lizards, sloths, and monkeys. http://www.manuelantoniopark.com/mapk/english/park.html
Costa Rica pleases the birders, outdoor enthusiasts, botanists, curious, and even the lazy beachcombers who just want to relax. It is safe, welcoming, and perfect for opening a child’s eyes to the wonder of nature.