Parenting: Traveling With Kids - Costa Rica, Part 1

October 14, 2010

And of all the Central American nations, one in particular stands out as an up and coming, American-friendly, and welcoming eco-tour destination: Costa Rica. In fact, calling it "up and coming" these days is fast becoming passé. In the last few years, the country that sits between Nicaragua and Panama has made great improvements in infrastructure and services, and the politically stable democracy is now a destination for roughly one million American travelers every year. That's not bad for a nation roughly the size of Virginia.

Costa Rica is a roughly 4.5 hour plane ride from Philadelphia, a little less than Los Angeles and due south instead of west. Near the equator, the Costa Rican weather is humid and tropical at the coasts, although the mountainous interior can remain surprisingly cool even during the summer months. The weather moves between a wet season in the summer (during which afternoon showers are common) and the dry season over the winter and early spring. We went in March and saw no rain, which we were told is pretty typical. Highs were in the 80s along the coast, while it remained in the 60s for at least one day up in the mountains.

State of the State

Stories abound about Costa Rica's drawbacks and most of these derive from observations by U.S. tourists over the last decade. Even in 2010, traveler friends warned us of terrible roads and a lack of security suggesting that these problems existed relatively recently. But the roads, I can report, are greatly improved since 2009. A brand new toll-gated highway extends from the capital city of San Jose to the Pacific coast, paralleling the old Pan American Highway (which is a bumpier, more narrow local road) and connects with other easily passable coastal highways traveling north and south. When traveling into mountain regions, it's still possible to encounter stretches of unpaved road surfaces that can include loose gravel and larger, bumpy rocks. This only happened to us once along the last quarter-mile to a mountain lodge, though, and was due to rock slides from an earthquake the previous year. Other paved local roads were bumpy with asphalt patches a plenty, but nothing worse than the bumpy secondary roads you sometimes encounter at home.

The guidebooks also warn extensively about security issues, citing car break-ins near several popular tourist spots. But we found those spots guarded by friendly Costa Rican police officers and we had no problems. However, we were warned at the rental car counter of an on-going scam that apparently still occurs on the roads leading from the rental lots near the airport in San Jose. Perpetrators will shoot out tires with pellet guns, and then offer to fix the flat when you pull-over, stealing your luggage while you're not looking. This has prompted many a renter to pile on extra insurance on the rental agreement in hopes of avoiding any responsibility to damage related to this sort of trouble. We did, of course, and then had no need for it. The fine print on the extra insurance contract also notes that it doesn't cover tires or stolen radios, so if you rent, beware of these extra possible costs. Having said that, I can report that our family felt safe while traveling in the country, even in rural areas where there only small villages were evident along the way. The exception would be the depressed area in San Jose near the airport.

A different world

Across the board, the standard of living in Costa Rica is not nearly as good as in the U.S., and even away from the city, the country struck me initially as being kind of "second world", which can certainly be part of the educational aspect of the trip for kids. Homes are often of concrete and rather squat, and gates and barred windows are not uncommon, partly out of style, but partly I imagine out of necessity. Some locals complained to us of the occasional burglary which they readily blamed on the recent influx of illegal aliens from Costa Rica's much poorer northern neighbor, Nicaragua. It's hard for an outsider to know how much truth there is to this, but it appears to be a widely held belief. True or not, the thieves have apparently left most of the resorts alone, because nowhere in the many reviews I read before we left could I find any similar concerns, at least among travelers who stayed at reputable, mainstream resorts or hotels. A personal friend did have something taken from a room at night several years ago, but this was at a bed and breakfast that was suggested to her along the way, rather than a pre-arranged resort that could be researched prior to the trip. My suggestion would be to stick with well-reviewed resorts and hotels.

Back to traveling the country, if the idea of renting a car or SUV bothers you, it's possible to avoid this by simply booking a second flight to a resort area connecting from San Jose. But be aware that those secondary airlines usually fly small prop aircraft which may not appeal to you. I checked safety records for the two main carriers, Nature Air and SANSA. As of 2010, the last crash had occurred about 8 or 9 years earlier, suggesting a good recent record. Numerous reviews on travel websites also suggested that these airlines appear safe. In the end, though, we rented the vehicle and found that to be convenient and easy, allowing us to do a lot of additional exploring and broadening our ability to visit different areas of the country.

Now that I've covered the nuts and bolts, my next blog will address what there is to do there. For families, there's plenty!


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