In the rainforest, it’s the noise that gets you first. A persistent, pulsating hum: like the buzz of electrical wires. Of course, just finding myself in one was quite shocking. You see I’m not the type that typically goes for eco escapes. What started as research for my daughter’s grade school Social Studies project had simply evolved into an itinerary that would give my family a true taste of the rain forest—and a welcome break from our ho-hum beach vacations.
Narrowing down the choices was easy. Central and South America are both rife with rainforests. But when it comes to bio-diversity, Costa Rica is the undisputed champ. After all, this tiny nation boasts the greatest variety of flora and fauna on earth. Some 10,000 species of plants have been identified within its borders, plus 500 species of mammals and over 35,000 of insects, reptiles, and amphibians. Still, for all the abundant wildlife, the country remains reassuringly civilized.
Though situated in an area renowned for despots and dictators, Costa Rica is a stable democracy. There hasn’t even been a standing army here since 1949, and dollars that would have been used to fund one were diverted into social programs. As a result, the country has Latin America’s finest healthcare system and its most educated population. It has the best environmental record, too. While neighbors like Nicaragua to the north and Panama to the south were busy making military messes, Costa Rica cleaned up (literally and figuratively), transforming more than one quarter of its land into parks and preserves.
A few decades ago, these factors made it a magnet for backpacking college kids. But, like those early visitors, Costa Rica’s tourism industry has grown up a lot in the intervening years. Fortunately, development has been handled with taste and tact. That means travelers can still enjoy natural wonders. The difference is you can now do it without bunking down with bugs in rustic cabanas and waking up to yet another breakfast of rice and beans.
The heightened comfort levels also make it an ideal family destination. The only caveat is that you can’t expect to take in too much in ten to fourteen days. Considering the country is only about the size of New Hampshire and Vermont combined, it’s tempting to try. However, the land Columbus called “Rich Coast” actually has two coasts and the terrain between, bisected by mountains, is challenging. Crossing it, you encounter everything from rainforests to mist-shrouded cloud forests, fertile valleys, and towering volcanoes. So it’s important to be realistic about how much territory you can cover.
Prudent planners focus on no more than two of the six basic tourist zones. The remote Caribbean and South Pacific regions are better left to intrepid adults. The Northern Pacific (home to Nicoya Peninsula all-inclusives) and the Northern Plains (famed for the Arenal Volcano and Monteverde Cloud Forest), conversely, are both manageable. The same goes for the Central Valley, a region of forests and farmlands ringing the nation’s capital; and the Central Pacific, an idyllic coast lying just a few hours west. Based largely on accessibility, my family opted for the latter pair and hopped a plane for San José.
Since it lacks the colonial architecture often found elsewhere in Latin America, this gritty city has limited appeal. But that’s okay: we weren’t after an urban experience and opportunities for adventure were close at hand. In fact, by the time we reached Braulio Carillo National Park (less than thirty minutes north of San José), we were deep in rainforest country. It was as if we’d substituted a five-hour flight from New York for a trip via tornado to Oz because we suddenly entered a Technicolor realm where emerald greens were offset by brilliant splashes of red, yellow, and orange.
The flora here never fails to impress. The fauna is another matter … Animal lovers must remember that this isn’t a safari park: creatures don’t appear on cue. And given how many you hear, it’s surprising how few you see on the ground. The real action occurs in the vaulting canopy. Sights, as a result, are best viewed from above—and you can do just that at the Rain Forest Aerial Tram: a private 1,200-acre reserve bordering Braulio Carillo that promises visitors a genuine “bird’s eye view.”
Buying a full Eco Pass ($105 for adults, $57.50 for kids) gets you into a multi-media presentation at the facility’s open-air theater and onto its seven-stage zip line: a contraption that clearly would give blasé, been there-done that tweens or teens something to brag about back home. Luckily for little kids (and ‘fraidy cat parents like me!), the pass also covers the signature tram ride. So my crew chose to board a six-person gondola that ferried us almost 100 feet up through the lacy ceiling of leaves.
The tram is a smart family alternative to the much-hyped zip tours because it’s accessible (even strollers and wheelchairs are welcome) and focuses on the environment rather than adrenaline alone. Best of all, keen-eyed bilingual guides, who accompany guests on the 80-minute tram trip and the 45-minute nature walk that follows, can help you spot what you’d otherwise miss. Thanks to ours, for instance, we spied anteaters, coatimundis, parrots, and enough creepy crawlers to dazzle any Discovery Channel junkie.
Personally, I could have been happy spending the entire vacation watching leaf-cutter ants onsite. However, other Central Valley attractions beckoned: among them, Poás Volcano National Park, where the highlight is a bubbling turquoise cauldron that measures almost a mile across. (Don’t panic: an observation platform lets little tykes view it from a safe distance). Twenty minutes away, yet still just an hour from the city, is La Paz Waterfall Gardens: an independent operation boasting five sublime falls and the world’s largest butterfly observatory ($29 adults, $18 children).
Those wanting to overnight in the thick of things have several choices. Both the Waterfall Gardens and Aerial Tram, for example, offer über cool lodgings for Tarzan types. But we booked into Hotel La Condesa (from $115 per night) in suburban San José. With generously-proportioned rooms, multi-level suites, and self-catering chalets, it’s well suited to families. Moreover, its setting—and set-up—helps soften culture shock. Except for the glassed-in pool featuring orchids and hummingbirds, this hillside lodge would have fit right in back home. And my usually adventuresome offspring were relieved to find a TV in our room and plain ol’ burgers and wings on the menu in the lobby lounge.
La Condesa’s central location also left us well positioned for our swing toward the Pacific. We actually hit the ocean near Carara Biological Reserve. It’s one of the last habitats of the scarlet macaw. Kids, though, will get a bigger kick out of the super-sized crocodiles basking on the banks of nearby Rio Tárcoles. (The best finds of our trip were tiny wooden crocs that we scooped up from roadside vendors there for a buck apiece). Continuing south, we passed the busy beach town of Jacó and endless palm-oil plantations before finally reaching Manuel Antonio National Park.
While the park is small and the four-hour drive rather harrowing, Manuel Antonio’s varied topography proved an ample reward. Lush foliage extends almost to the tide line where it meets white sand lapped by blindingly blue water. Rainforest trails in differing degrees of difficulty invite hikers while an adjacent marine reserve, rich in sea life, lures snorkelers. Park admission is $7, and good negotiators can hire a guide at the gate for around $15 an hour. But in the Central Pacific, some of the best things in life really are free—like Playa Espadilla, a classic crescent beach just outside the entrance.
Recognized as one of the country’s finest beaches, it’s perfect for surfers, sunbathers, and sandcastle builders. The only downside is that the water is too rough for young swimmers. Thankfully the kid’s pool at Hotel Si Como No (from $165 per night)—complete with faux waterfalls, waterslides, and a mini swim-up bar—more than compensates. My hubby and I were so content poolside that we never retreated to the hotel’s adults-only version. Nor did we venture into the spa where tropical treatments (think coffee scrubs, lava rock massages, and seaweed wraps) are based on native ingredients.
Again, the accommodations work for families: even standard rooms have wet bars or kitchenettes and jaw-dropping views. Yet despite the luxuries, Si Como No is both intimate and environmentally friendly. Perhaps that’s why sloths still hang around the property and iguanas continue to sun themselves on its landscaped paths. In keeping with the green theme, it also organizes a broad selection of eco excursions. Depending on age and inclination, your kids can sign up for sport fishing, river rafting, horseback riding, or mountain biking.
From our perspective, though, nothing compares to the four-hour Damas Estuary Tour, offered through the hotel for $49 per person. Blandly billed as a “boat trip through mangrove forests,” it turned out to be much more. We wound through natural canals roofed with arching branches and maneuvered around tangles of exposed tree roots. We recoiled from bats and reached for hanging vines (wait, those were snakes!). We lost count of clamoring monkeys. In short, we lived out our own National Geographic fantasy. Hmmm … too bad all school projects can’t turn out so well.
How we got around:
We flew Taca Airlines to San José; then picked up a rental car. For us, driving was just part of the adventure—but not everyone would agree. Roads are often rough (especially during winter “rainy season”) and emergency services limited. Furthermore, petty crooks or on-the-take transit police have been known to occasionally target rental vehicles. As an alternative, companies such as Iguana Tours provide a chauffeured transfer service. Domestic airlines, including state-owned Sansa, also fly daily between the capital and Central Pacific. Public buses or private shuttles serve individual attractions.