Costa Rica: A Family Adventure Mecca

Family Adventure Magazine Fall/Winter 2002

Waterfall RappellingEarlier this year a 5th grade teacher contacted me looking for posters of the rainforest for her classroom. She hoped to turn her entire classroom into a vibrant jungle to help teach her students about the importance of this ecosystem. That got me to thinking about the families I have known who have taken their kids on trips to the rainforest. What better way for children and parents to understand this fantastic ecosystem than to tromp through the rainforest seeing firsthand how the thousands of insect and plant species, hundreds of types of birds, and varied animals like three-toed sloths and noisy monkeys all work together to create this thing called rainforest. A Costa Rica tour comes to mind as one of the best choices for families with children of any age. Small rainforest lodges with excellent guides and creative cooks dot the country and travel times are rarely longer than 3 hours. Some of these lodges have developed special programs for families traveling with children as young as 6 years old. In addition, the Costa Rican rainforest seems ideal for that first introduction to the jungle environment. Although the country has some of the largest tracts of jungle in Central America, it's also very easy to get to know this forest on short hikes, canopy walkways, horseback rides or half day rafting trips.

The Costa Rica tour industry is well developed. It's possible to stay at resorts complete with cable TV and air conditioning, but I think the best places for family adventures are the small eco-lodges that Costa Rica families have built to introduce visitors to their home country. It's at these places that visiting families stop feeling like tourists and start feeling like welcomed guests in another family's home - complete with adventures suitable for all ages! These family run eco-lodges might be slightly more rustic - no television, no room telephones, and sometimes no electricity - but then who goes to the jungle to watch Nickolodeon? The personal attention of your Costa Rica tour host as she takes you on walks through the forest, complete with family anecdotes from her childhood, is well worth the small sacrifice of no television and dining by candlelight.

With these small lodges dotting the country and with short travel times between regions, families can spend a few days in the rainforest, go whitewater rafting, and rent boogie boards and sea kayaks on the beach all in a week-long vacation. So where are the best places to spend a week on a Costa Rica tour? I can't really answer that for you, but I can tell you about some of my favorites.

A great way to begin your trip in Costa Rica is with a whitewater rafting trip on the Pacuare or Reventazon rivers. The minimum age for rafting the Pacuare River (Class III-IV) is 12 and the minimum age for the Reventazon (Class II-III) is 9. A great alternative for families with younger children is the famous Rainforest Arial Tram. The trip lasts about half a day and includes an hour-long guided gondola trip through the jungle canopy. We've had families with younger and older children where dad and his 8 year-old daughter took the rainforest tram and then met up with mom and the older kids after their rafting trip. This provides a great starter for any Costa Rica tour.

After whitewater rafting, many visitors return to San Jose for the night. A great alternative, however, is to continue traveling on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica. This area isn't as developed as other parts of Costa Rica, but there are natural treasures worth several days in any itinerary. One of my favorites is Selva Bananito Lodge. Selva Bananito is a small eco-lodge bordering La Amistad Biosphere, an ecosystem spanning Panama and Costa Rica. The 11 cabaņas have no phones or electricity, but the wonderful organic food, solar powered showers, kerosene lamps and daytime adventures of horseback riding, tree climbing, and hiking help you forget all about the busy outside world and those so-called modern conveniences! After your adventures in the jungle, you can relax for a few days on the palm-lined beaches south of Limon.

Corcovado Tents Through TreesAnother great Costa Rica tour is Tortuguero National Park. Tortuguero was created to protect four species of turtles that lay their eggs there from April to October. At night, visitors go on guided trips to watch the turtles come ashore to dig shallow holes for their eggs. Tortuguero is the most famous place in Costa Rica to watch the sea turtles. Families can canoe through the watery canals to look for monkeys, toucans, and caiman or they can stay around the hotels and play pool, ping pong, or just relax.

Tortuguero isn't the only place to view sea turtles, and if you are looking for that secluded Caribbean get-away, it probably won't meet your Costa Rica tour expectations. My favorite place in this area is the little known Pacuare Nature Reserve. This private reserve is located just south of Tortuguero and it is the most important nesting ground for the giant leatherback turtle (turtle season is roughly March 15-August 25). This reserve has no hotels; instead, visitors stay in a beach house built years ago by the reserve's founder. A maximum of six visitors can stay here at any time as the house has only three rooms! Families can go on canal trips during the day and wander the reserve's four miles of pristine beach. At night families accompany biologists on their rounds, during which kids and mom and dad can help measure the turtles, count the eggs, and even help carry the eggs to incubators where they'll be protected from poachers until they hatch. The beaches at both Pacuare and Tortuguero are not suited for swimming as the tides are too strong, so make certain to plan some separate beach time if you're looking for some fun in the surf during your Costa Rica tour.

If you've returned to San Jose you might consider boarding a charter flight the next morning for the Osa Peninsula or the Golfo Dulce. The highlight on the Osa Peninsula is Corcovado National Park, one of the crown jewels of the Costa Rica national park system. Corcovado Tent Camp offers families a chance to "rough it" without really doing so. Accommodation is in one of 20 safari-style tents so kids feel like they're camping, but mom and dad don't have to cook any of the meals. Instead, everyone gets to enjoy the adventures of climbing into the canopy using a system of ropes and pulleys, boogie boarding or surfing on the crashing waves just a hundred yards from your tent, and hiking through the rainforest as your guide points out coatis (sort of like a tropical raccoon), capuchin monkeys, and scarlet macaws.

If you're looking for a bit more comfort during your Costa Rica tour, you might try one of Costa Rica's first eco-lodges across the Golfo Dulce from Corcovado. Tiskita Jungle Lodge was originally an experimental fruit farm, and it now protects 550 acres of forest. Lodge owner Peter Aspinall and his wife take families on personal tours of the fruit orchard, and you can bet that some of the wonderful fruits and juices they serve are from the hundred-plus types of fruit trees they grow. Activities include guided hikes in the rainforest, a visit to their scarlet macaw reintroduction facility, a chance to snorkel in nearby tide pools, and don't forget to try surfing or boogie boarding on the beach below. When I was last there, they had even developed special programs for young children that included creating artwork from rainforest plants gathered earlier in the day. Given the experience that the Aspinalls have raising their own children here, this is one of my favorite places for families to visit.

A Costa Rica tour is such a great idea for families that I can't describe all of the options here. I haven't even mentioned Arenal Volcano, Wilson Botanical Gardens, the Savegre Valley, Monte Verde, and Manuel Antonio, Manzanillo and Cahieta. Costa Rica offers such diversity that you're likely to come back again and again. Whatever Costa Rica tour you choose for your holiday, I recommend that you search out those small lodges and hotels that are often owned and operated by families like your own. What better way to create lifelong memories with your own family. As they say in Costa Rica - Pura vida!