Frogs and sloths meet zip lines and rafting for an adventure in paradise…
Costa Rica’s motto is “Pura Vida”, or Pure Life, and the main tourism draw is their natural surrounds. The country’s enormous effort in conservation has paid off with tourists coming from all over the world. And in an effort to accommodate the tourists Costa Rica has created all sorts of exciting ways to immerse in nature. So, families are sure to have fun. Costa Rica is divided down the center by the Continental Divide, making its two sides, the Pacific and the Caribbean, very different. The Pacific is the more traveled side with the famous Monte Verde Cloud Forest and the surfing beaches of the north. The Caribbean is a bit more off-the-path, but is starting to see real growth in independent and eco-travel. Eco-travel actually defines most of the travel experience in Costa Rica. From guesthouses facing oozing volcanoes to beach retreats focusing on yoga and healing to activities based on enjoying nature…hiking, biking, surfing, horseback riding and, our kids’ favorite, zip lining, Costa Rica exemplifies green travel. To see the video documentary of our trip, get Travel With Kids Costa Rica.
Kids Picks: Zip Lining, Rafting down the Rio Penas Blancas, Arenal Volcano and Conservacion
Arenal Volcano and Around
Just about 4 hours north of San Jose, Costa Rica’s capital is La Fortuna, a town snuggled at the base of a very active volcano. The town, and its loud, belching attraction, has long been a draw for adventurous travelers and has developed quite a directory of activities to stave their adrenaline thirst. Visitors can stay at the base of the volcano and watch glowing lava sliding down the mountain and spurting from its peak at night (the only hotel with a view currently is Arenal Observatory Lodge – see below) and during the day head out on fun trips like rafting, canyoneering, zip lining, horseback riding, biking and more. We decided to head out to see Costa Rica’s famed wildlife by boat along the mini-rapids (Class 1 and 2 while we were there, but varies depending on the season) of Rio Penas Blancas with Desafio Adventure Company. From our raft, the guide pointed out sloths, monkeys, iguanas, bats, birds and more. To get a closer look at some local animals, we made a stop by Proyecto Asis, a conservation center that helps re-plant forest, rescue and rehabilitate animals and offers Spanish immersion courses. While their, we got to hold a kinkajou, shake hands with monkeys, feed an alligator and a wild pig, and feed ourselves after learning to cook a traditional lunch.
Monte Verde Cloud Forest Preserve
Just across the lake and through the woods from Arenal are the towns of Monte Verde and Santa Elena, Costa Rica. Tucked beside the impressive, Monte Verde Cloud Forest Preserve, an area of incredible biodiversity with over 100 species of mammals and 400 types of birds. That also means lots of insects, 10,000 species to be exact…so be sure to bring insect repellent. We decided to explore the cloud forest three ways, by foot, which we were able to do right from our cottage at El Sapo Dorado (see below), by horseback – a ride we booked with Desafio Adventure Company as well and by canopy tour. At Selvatura Canopy, visitors can fly across 15 cables high above the jungle floor to get a bird’s eye view of the jungle. The center also hosts the Whitten insect collection and a butterfly enclosure where various butterflies flit about all around you. The area also hosts several museums our boys thought were way cool…a ranarium (live frogs on display), a serpentarium (live snakes on display) and the bat cave with…you guessed it…live bats on display.
Heading west from Monte Verde, we reached the town of Puntarenas where we caught the ferry to the Peninsula Nicoya…a popular haven for surfer’s from around the world. We stayed at the tip of the peninsula in the town of Montezuma where we explored waterfalls, went zip lining and watched monkeys and raccoons in the trees from our balcony. Montezuma is a small town with a few shops and cafes along the main road and a very bohemian atmosphere. Another quick way to get to Montezuma is to take the fast boat from Jaco and while it is faster, keep in mind it is a small boat and you get very wet. So, if you are catching a plane or traveling further than Jaco or Montezuma it is not recommended.
Family-Friendly Places to Stay in Costa Rica:
The best way to enjoy Costa Rica’s nature paradise is to make sure your hotel takes full advantage of their natural surrounds and that their green initiatives protect it for future generations. Here’s where we stayed.
– Arenal Observatory Lodge– Outside La Fortuna – Situated at the base of Arenal Volcano, this is the only hotel that currently has a view of the lava flow. Our room had a picture window perfectly framing the glowing pyrotechnics show and you could hear the booming explosions shortly after seeing the shooting, blobbing lava. Although a bit un-nerving at first, we were assured that this converted science observation center is situated on a cliff above the flow canyon and thus safe from the action. There are no televisions int he rooms, but none are necessary as watching the flowing lava at night was much more exciting than any T.V. show.
– El Sapo Dorado– Monte Verde – Cottages snuggled on acres of cloud forest offer plenty of room for the whole family to spread out, but don’t let the word cottage fool you. These suites are packed with amenities like fireplaces and orthopedic beds. Balconies offer a nice place to relax and watch wildlife like armadillos and toads scamper or hop by.
– Ylang Ylang Beach Resort– Monetzuma, Pacific Ocean – Tucked along the long stretch of white sand beach just outside of town, Ylang Ylang Beach Resort offers a retreat-like atmosphere with suites and bungalows tucked into beautiful tropical gardens overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Add to that yoga classes, great food, a pool and gardens filled with monkeys, raccoons, exotic birds and other animals and you may find a bit of paradise.
Getting To Costa Rica:
There are many flights from the U.S. to San Jose daily, the most generating from Miami. TACA is the regions main carrier and offers an ample schedule and great rates.
Getting Around Costa Rica:
– AIR – Although Costa Rica is small, the roads to some of the farther reaches can be small, bumpy and unpaved. So it may be worth it to check out flights to some of the farther places from San Jose. TACA offers flights around Costa Rica on its regional carrier Sansa. Nature Air is also a good regional airline to try.
– ROAD: You can rent your own car, take a public bus or charter a shared or private mini-van to take you around Costa Rica. Driving is fairly safe and hassle free. But the road directions can be confusing, and hiring a van means a built in tour guide. We booked with Wilson at Coati Tours. He was very informative about the area and stopped at lots of local spots to stretch our legs and taste the local cuisine.