Parenting: Traveling With Kids - Costa Rica, Part 2

Monkeys on the roof of the Murphy family hotel room in Costa Rica.
October 26, 2010 8:02:51 AM PDT
In my first blog, I talked about the challenges of traveling around Costa Rica and I covered concerns with infrastructure and security, both of which are greatly improving.

In this blog, I'm moving on to the best areas of the country to see and the many sights and activities that you and your family can enjoy.

There are two volcanoes available for touring in Costa Rica. We did the first, Poas, about an hour north of San Jose. The ride turned very quickly from urban to rural and we were immersed among the Costa Rican people and their small villages, as well as the dramatic and beautiful countryside. Poas has the advantage of being only active enough to spew steam and gasses which allows you access to the rim of the main caldera via an easy footpath, as well as a second water-filled caldera located at the upper end of another more strenuous but highly scenic path. There is some wildlife along this route. We spotted a coatimundi with its long, striped tail near the visitor center. Most of the easily seen wildlife, however, is located at lower elevations near the coast. The second volcano is Arenal, located farther north and accessible from the Pacific resort areas. This volcano has the advantage of actually spewing red ribbons of lava. But it's also located in an area that receives lots of fog and cloud cover, and it's possible to book a room for three days with a "volcano view" and never see the volcano! But you can take your pick. Arenal also has foot paths for hikers, but having not been there, I can't comment as to their accessibility and worth.

Go west, young family!

Most tourists head to the Pacific coast for their wildlife adventuring, since the Gulf Coast is less developed, less patrolled, and probably not as safe for foreign travelers. There are a series of world-renowned "bird walks" on the eastern side, but I can tell you that you'll still see birds on the west coast, and for families, the wealth of activities and places to stay on that side of the country makes it the far better choice. There are two resort areas, one to the south near Manuel Antonio National Park, the other north along the Pacific Coast near the area known as Puntarenas on the Nicoya Peninsula. In fact, these northern areas are serviced by a second international airport in Liberia. I can tell you that tours like rafting and zip-lining occur in both spots. If I ever get back to Costa Rica, I'll be trying out this northern area, but for the purposes of this blog, I'll stick to the south because that's where we chose to go.

The area near Manuel Antonio has many hotels to choose from in a wide price range. The region is rich with wildlife. You can begin your adventures by taking a guided tour of the park (which I highly recommend). The guides are exceptional and bring along their own scopes on tripods which they will set-up and train on various wildlife. Since the guides radio to each other, every group tends to see whatever's camped out along the wide park paths. You have to reserve these tours the night before and get up rather early because the park fills up fast and regulations require that only so many people are allowed in every day. Be sure to book a tour that includes a pit stop at the park beach. It's a humid walk and you'll appreciate the 45 minutes they allow you to swim in the ocean. Just look out for the jelly fish. I was one of a few people who got a mild sting. During our 3 hours in the park, we saw several types of monkeys, iguanas, the so-called Jesus Christ lizard, birds large and small, bats, an agouti (a large rodent), and the biggest grasshopper I imagine I will ever see---it had to be close to a foot long!

More than a beach vacation

Other excellent family adventures include rafting (we absolutely loved this) on pristine rivers that are largely out of view of civilization. Zip-lining was also an experience to remember, especially in Costa Rica, where the trees were towering and the scenery was stunning. Kids as young as 8 and 9 happily did this on our tour, by the way. In fact, they did better than the adults, in some cases! Talk it over with your kids in advance, though, because once you begin, the only way down is to keep "flying". Panic attack or not, you're doing it! Our tour included a "Tarzan" swing and a couple of repels which sounded daunting but were actually not bad. They tell you to wear long pants, which of course nobody does because it's hot, but it's not a bad idea. One of my kids did get a rope burn on one of the repelling jumps.

The chances are very good that you'll see wildlife at your hotel without ever taking a tour. Monkeys and sloths, as well as exotic birds, are like squirrels and sparrows here, and the Costa Rican government and people take conservation very seriously, so the animals pretty much have the run of the place. You are not encouraged to touch or get too close to the wildlife, but it often gets close to you. Monkeys were daily visitors at our place, usually for about an hour each afternoon in the trees above the pool and on the roof and balcony of our room. There were enormous iguanas hanging out on the hotel paths during the day, and orange Halloween crabs at night. Small anoles (lizards) were even on the ceiling of our room one night as well as in the hotel's outdoor restaurant, which might sound creepy, but they kept their distance and actually became a welcome part of the scenery.

The people of Costa Rica are very friendly. Spanish is the native tongue, but most are happy to speak enough English to help you get by. You can order some of the local money (colones), but U.S. dollars also work fine (albeit at a slightly less favorable exchange rate). The impression we got was that most Costa Ricans realize how much the influx of U.S. tourism is helping improve their economy and they're more than happy to make you're a stay a good one, so you and your friends will come back. For kids, there's the added bonus to practice a little Spanish (whether or not they're fluent), and to experience the sort of wildlife array that normally you can only see in a zoo.

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