The New Key to Costa Rica’s author on where to go with families
“I heard a long, clear call, and followed it to where it came from. We saw a quetzal sitting on a vine. The light slanting down through the trees made its feathers seem iridescent blue, and its long tail feathers swung in the breeze.”
The sacred bird of the Mayans had appeared majestically before my daughter, Elizabeth and my son, Danny, on a hike in the Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve. It was one of many magical moments we shared on our two-week trip to Costa Rica. Costa Rica is a great place to travel with kids.
The people are friendly and have a warm, accepting attitude toward children. Costa Rica’s long tradition of democracy, public education, nationalized health care and its decision to abolish its army in 1948 all work together to make this small, beautiful country a safe place for children to visit. Our family spent six months in Monteverde when the kids were seven and nine. They attended the Friends School there and loved hiking through the cloud forest on their way to class.
Danny is now a quick, sure-footed, perceptive thirteen-year-old who traces his prowess in soccer to his early years in Costa Rica. He loves animals and anything that goes fast, so he was looking forward to the Sky Trek in Monteverde, one of the longest and highest zip-line rides in the country. Elizabeth is a willowy eleven-year-old with a unique blend of sensitivity and fire. She adores animals and was looking forward to seeing the dolphins in Drake Bay.
Glimpses of Lava
Our first stop was La Fortuna de San Carlos. As we arrived at night, the kids got glimpses of molten lava flowing down the sides of Arenal Volcano before it disappeared behind a thick gray cloud. In the morning we saw the mountain send out a billowing column of smoke and ash before it disappeared again. Since the volcano was hiding in the fog, we decided to take Sunset Tours’ Safari Float.
We glided silently down the green Penas Blancas River in rubber rafts, stopping to watch monkeys and birds in the trees. The kids were surprised at the number of sloths we observed (six), and even spotted some of them before our guides did.
Even though it was the rainy season, only a light shower sprinkled us along the way, and we soon dried off in the warm breeze. After an hour and a half of gentle floating, we stopped and climbed up a trail carved into the riverbank. Our guide showed us a tiny red and indigo poison dart frog. We then climbed a path cut into the riverbank to Don Pedro’s farmhouse.
Don Pedro is a man in his eighties who has lived by the river all his life. He canoes and walks to get into town, lives without electricity, and likes it that way. Our tour guides revered him as a symbol of everything that is important in the Costa Rican character.
Elizabeth was fascinated to see how Don Pedro and his family lived from the fruit, grains and livestock they raised themselves, and Danny was inspired when he heard that Don Pedro had been offered a fortune for the remaining virgin forest on his farm, and had refused to sell.
Don Pedro’s daughters served us their homemade cheese with tortillas, coffee and other treats. We stopped by the kitchen to thank them as we left and they embraced us and gave us a fragrant gardenia to sniff on the way back. It was a memorable afternoon.
We finished the day at Tabacon Hot Springs, where the kids zoomed down the warm waterslide, alternating with dips in a cool pool, and I found a hot waterfall to massage my shoulders and back.
Flight to Palmar Sur
Our next destination was Drake Bay on the Osa Peninsula. After a night in San Jose, we arose early to catch a flight to Palmar Sur. Soon we were stepping on the wing to enter our five-passenger plane. Our pilot inspired confidence with his starched shirt and gold epaulets, and Danny was excited to be so close to the pilot and the controls.
Both kids enjoyed flying at a lower altitude than usual, so they could actually see the lines of waves moving slowly toward the shoreline. We landed gratefully in about half an hour in Palmar Sur, and took a taxi to Sierpe, a sleepy river port, where we boarded a canopied motorboat. We sped down the wide Sierpe river, dodging an occasional crocodile, then slowed for a trip through a narrow channel in a mangrove swamp.
After an hour we arrived at the river mouth, where our boat had to cross the breakers to get us into the open sea. Life jackets were handed out, and the captain waited for the right moment to chug through the waves. We made the crossing without any trouble, and rounded the point into beautiful Drake Bay.
The kids loved their lofty second-story room at La Paloma Lodge. There were no glass windows, just varnished wooden shutters that opened the front of the room to cecropia trees full of friendly toucans, hummingbirds and songbirds. Mosquito nets over their beds kept the night bugs away—mainly moths and june-bugs.
The kids marveled at the warmth of the ocean while they boogie-boarded in a small cove near the hotel; later they enjoyed the pristine tiled swimming pool with a view. They saw a baby sloth in a nearby tree, and white-faced monkeys threw twigs and moss at them. Tracy the Bug Lady stopped by one evening and showed them how to hold a flashlight at eye-level so that they could see the eye-shine of toads and spiders.
The kids appreciated how Nicole, the manager of La Paloma, was open to arranging special activities for them, and served them tropical fruit smoothies in the afternoons.
We went snorkeling at Isla del Caño, and learned about the history of the island from our knowledgeable guide, Miguel. In the water, he kept the children close to him and made sure they were safe. They saw many beautiful fish, and a manta ray that jumped six feet in the air and did back flips.
Searching for Dolphins
The next day we went in search of dolphins with Delfin Amor. Sierra, the owner, let Danny and Elizabeth sit on the bow of the boat where they could get a good view of the huge pod we encountered. Elizabeth says, “I loved seeing the dolphins jump up ahead of us—they were so happy!”
Our last stop was Monteverde, where the kids couldn’t wait to do the Sky Trek. When they were
seven and nine they had gone on the Monteverde Original Canopy Tour, which starts with a climb straight up inside a hollow strangler fig tree and ends with a rapelle 75 feet down.
Danny described the Sky Trek. “You get harnessed up, then walk up at 500-foot spiral staircase. The guides hand you a pulley, and show you how to use it and that it’s safe. You start out with two short, slow cable rides. They get longer and higher as you go, until you get to #8. There you hike a little way, climb up another tower and go on a 1500-foot cable across a gorge 500 feet below. It was exhilarating! Definitely not for those afraid of heights! The guides tell you what you’re in for. They warn you. But after the first cable you can’t turn back.”
I must admit that the Canopy Tour and Sky Trek are not my idea of fun, so the kids went with their adventurous Aunt Mary and I went on the more sedate Sky Walk, a lovely hike on well-tended trails and hanging bridges through a gorgeous private reserve.
On our way down the bumpy road from Monteverde, we saw a huge rainbow spanning the valley below us. It was so magnificent that the bus driver stopped to let everyone take pictures. Even after we started down again, the rainbow remained bright and beautiful–a perfect finale to our Costa Rican adventure.