Costa Rica is Central America’s answer to New Zealand: small place, huge adrenaline rush. With surfing beaches, cloud forests, rainforests, eco lodges, and active volcanos crammed into a country the size of West Virginia, it’s no wonder Costa Rica has been on the eco-tourism map for nearly 30 years. But thanks to a recent surge in zip lining, rafting, and canyoneering, its focus has shifted from budget-conscious backpackers and active couples to adventurous families looking for more than just a lazy beach vacay.
Maybe it’s the headline-grabbing drug woes in Mexico and the high costs of the Caribbean, but lately it seems like everyone I talk to is decamping to Costa Rica with the kiddos to get in on the action. If your idea of a tropical vacation involves more than lolling poolside with a fruity drink while the kids play Marco Polo, check out these three itineraries, custom made for adventurers of all ages.
Beach Base Camp with Babies: Nicoya Peninsula
For most families, getting the most out of Costa Rica means changing hotels every few days to maximize adventure: rainforest, beach, volcano, cloud forest. But if you’re traveling with very young children or babies in tow, too many in-country transfers can be a hassle. (Who wants to lug a Pack N Play all over the place?) Instead, do as our friends did last spring following the birth of their second daughter, and set up a base camp on the beach. You’ll want a spot with mellow surf, a kid-friendly beach, and enough diversions to give you the illusion that you’re having a real vacation and not tending 24/7 to an infant.
Our friends chose the sleepy fishing village of Cabuya on the southern Nicoya Peninsula and stayed for a month with their newborn and two-year old. Just south of the hippie-gringo outpost of Montezuma, Cabuya has affordable rentals within walking distances to grocery shops and restaurants, beaches, and the Cabo Blanco Wildlife Reserve. Freshwater Rio Lajas, with a shady, sandy, chest-deep swimming hole, is a perfect place to cool off in the heat of the day, and at low tide you can walk out across the rocks to Isla de Cabuya, 100 meters off the coast, home to a native burial ground. Some of the closest beaches can be a bit rocky at low tide, but kids can splash in tide pools and look for fish. A mile and a half from town, the tropical forests of Cabo Blanco, the oldest protected nature reserve in Costa Rica, has hiking trails, armadillos, and howler monkeys. Cabuya is still relatively untrammeled by tourism, but don’t be surprised to run into Americans who’ve bought second homes in the area or other traveling families on extended stays.
Those capuchins are rascally little fellows [photo:Ivan Kuzmin]
If you’re feeling ambitious, you can tack on a detour to the Monteverde Cloud Forest and Arenal Volcano at the beginning or end. With five weeks in Costa Rica, our friends had ample time to rent a car and meander up to Monteverde and Arenal (highlights, respectively: sloth sanctuary and Nepenthe, a mountaintop B&B). Except for the first night, they didn't book any hotels in advance, but just winged it instead. "We knew we'd find places, and we did," says Erika.
With a newborn and a toddler, traveling light is key. "We brought one toy and four floppy books and some music, and our two-year-old was the happiest she's ever been," she says. "It was a reminder that we don't need anything." And the locals were just as gung-ho: Says Erika, "We literally got treated like VIPs because we had a baby. Our favorite places to eat were locals "sodas," basically restaurants in someone's home. The food is amazingly cheap and delicious and best of all, out of nowhere some magical grandmother always shows up and takes the kids. You can literally dine alone with your spouse because the kids are always occupied." Nice perk.
Fly: San Jose (5 hours by car; 30 minute flight). Roads can be rough, but during the dry season you can manage without a 4WD, with lots of patience.
Stay: vrbo.com and homeaway.com have tons of rentals in Cabuya, Montezuma, and Santa Teresa, or talk to Dahlia at costaricanvacation.com for great leads on family-friendly vacation rentals in the southern Nicoya. On the road: Nepenthe, nepenthe-costarica.com; Hotel Los Volcanes, Alejauela;
Eat: mangoes and coconuts straight off the trees, Cabuya Bakery Cafe, local "sodas"
Explore: Cabo Blanco Wildlife Reserve, Montezuma Farmer's Market (Saturdays), Monteverde Sloth Sanctuary
Adrenaline Circuit for Kids: Alejauela, Arenal & Manuel Antonio
My brother and his wife just got back from winter break in Costa Rica with their eight-year old son and twin boys who are 13. They couldn’t stop raving about their eight-day trip, which packed more outdoor adventure into one week than the average American gets in a year. Their secret: early morning wake-ups and long days playing until sunset, followed by beach or pool time, dinner, and then sleep. Repeat.
No question, this kind of trip takes stamina and advance planning, but it's perfect for older kids with energy to burn. My sister-in-law booked all their activities and accommodations in before they left Connecticut because, as she put it, "Time was short, and I didn't want to spend our time thinking about what to do." For most of their itinerary, she used the Costa Rican travel agency, Anywhere Costa Rica, based in La Fortuna, but she wasn't afraid to deviate from their recommendations and dig up her own finds. She also reserved transportation via private van and driver for each leg, so they wouldn't have to eat up precious time trying to navigate local roads. The result: a jam-packed trip for an active family of five craving a combo of volcano, jungles, and beach time.
First stop was Vista del Valle Plantation Inn, in Alejauela, about 40 minutes from the San Jose international airport that's perfect layover en route to Arenal if your flight arrives after dark. The small, family-friendly resort is notched into the hillside, with pools, an open-air restaurant, stellar views, and a trail that leads about half an hour down a steep slope to a waterfall and a swimming hole. They didn't waste any time: On their first day, they woke up with the sun, ate breakfast, hiked to the falls, swam, clambered back up, and hit the pool—all before their driver picked them up at 10:30.
From there, it's a two-and-a-half-hour drive to Arenal Volcano National Park, in the jungly interior, home to one of the world's most active volcanos (it used to be spewing lava, but now it's "resting"). If you're looking for a comfortable family retreat, with nice rooms, tons of kid-oriented activities, and views of the puffing volcano, your best bet is Los Lagos. Though the rooms aren't especially decadent, the hotel has amenities befitting a full-on resort: multiple pools, water slides, natural hot springs, and, unexpectedly, a crocodile farm.
But there's so much to do in the vicinity that you won't want to linger long at the hotel. In three very full days at Arenal, my brother's family took a guided hiking tour of the national park, went waterfall rappelling down four different jungle cascades (one of which was 150 feet high), hiked across 18 hanging bridges in a private rainforest reserve near the volcano, rafted the Class III Balsa River, ziplined across 12 platforms, and hurled themselves into a 50-foot free-fall from the "Tarzan Swing." All that, and they still had time to dunk in the hot springs, hit the water slides, explore nearby La Fortuna. No rest for the adventurous.
By now you've earned some R&R at the beach. Well, sort of. My brother and his family zeroed in on Manuel Antonio, a bustling tourist town on the central Pacific Coast, with lots for kids to do close at hand, including a nearby national park, surf breaks, boogie boarding, and nice beaches. It's a five-hour drive through beautiful country from Arenal, but a straightforward two-and-a-half hour trip back to the airport in San Jose.
Rather than stay at one of the resorts on the main drag near the public beach, they splurged on a luxe, two-story thatched-roof bungalow at Tulemar, where a network of nature trails descends steeply to a private beach and an ocean-front restaurant with free kayaks, and boogie boards. (Note: Given the long climb to and from the beach and the bungalow's high second-floor porches, Tulemar probably isn't the best choice for toddlers.) From there, it's easy to take a taxi into town, grab smoothies at an open-air breakfast spot across the beach, and then head into Manuel Antonio National Park for a day of self-guided hiking. The park is crawling with sloths, howler monkeys, and capuchins, and after you work up a sweat scouting for wildlife, take the trail to Playa Puerto Escondido or Playa Espadilla Sur, two gorgeous swimming beaches. Water sandals are all you need for the rolling jungle trails, but bring your own snacks, because there's no food in the park. (Beware the sassy capuchin monkeys who know how to unzip backpacks to scavenge for snacks!)
Be sure to set aside at least a little time for being a beach sloth and relaxing with a book or games under a beach umbrella. At Tulemar, my brother and his family boogie boarded, kayaked, and played catch with their Waboba ball in the water. One afternoon they caught a sunset sail via catamaran right from the beach. En route to a rocky shoal about an hour offshore, they passed a school of dolphins, then dropped anchor to snorkel with tropical fish and feast on a dinner of fresh fish on deck. My nephews were the only kids on board, and with booze flowing freely it seemed like a trip better suited to adults, but once the dolphins showed up and the snorkel gear came out, the boys were in heaven.
Fly: San Jose, then private car service to other areas
Stay: Vista del Valle Plantation Inn, www.vistadelvalle.com; Los Lagos Hotel, www.hotelloslagos.com; Tulemar, www.tulemar.com
Eat: Mar Luna, Manuel Antonio; Kapi Kapi, Manuel Antonio, www.restaurantkapikapi.com
Explore: Anywhere Costa Rica, www.anywherecostarica.com, Pure Trek Canyoning, www.puretrek.com, Wave Expeditions, www.waveexpeditions.com
Off the Beaten Path with Tweens and Teens: Osa Peninsula & Arenal Volcano
For their first trip to Costa Rica, last month, a couple of veteran travelers and their two daughters and son, ages 13, 12, and 10, wanted a place well off the tourist route that would give them a taste of a wilder, more natural Costa Rica. "There's so much biodiversity in Costa Rica, and I wanted to see it and be in it," says Beth, mother and master planner, who once spent a month trekking through Bhutan and now lives in Connecticut. "My husband doesn't care about the resort experience, so we wanted a place that was sensitive to and passionate about the planet. I thought it would be an education for us."
They found their spot on the Osa Peninsula, a rugged spit of land at the southernmost tip of Costa Rica that's known for its dense rainforests and sandy beaches pounded by Pacific surf. Using the travel agent Costa Rica Expeditions and their own research, they reserved an open-air bungalow at El Remanso, a small, sustainable eco lodge run by two former Peace Corps volunteers. Set in the rainforest but walking distance to unspoiled surf breaks and swimming beaches (best for kids 10 and up), solar-powered El Remanso has all you need right at hand: guided day and night hikes with the resident naturalist, horseback riding on the beach with a guide who's "straight out of Indiana Jones." One morning they woke before dawn to ride a cable platform 125 feet high in the canopy to watch the sun rise and the birds wake up; another day they soaked in warm tidal pools—"the best natural Jacuzzis on the planet." El Remanso's airy bungalows give you the feeling that you're sleeping right in the jungle—with plenty of creature comforts. "We'd wake up to the sounds of howler monkeys screaming," says Beth. "There's nothing quite like it. And at first the cicadas were deafening, but by the second day I was used to it."
On the fourth day, a puddle jumper picked them up at the dirt airstrip in Puerto Jimenez, the Osa's largest town, and flew them north to San Jose, avoiding the long, arduous journey by car. "Costa Rica's the size of West Virginia, but it feels like a big country when it takes you an hour to drive five miles," says Beth. "Besides Africa, it's the only place where you really are warranted driving around in a Range Rover!" From there, they hired a driver to take them to Arenal and their base at El Selencio del Campo, a group of small villas with beautiful gardens and hot springs, swimming pool, and volcano views.
"You can't take a family to Costa Rica and not go see the active volcano," says Beth. "I felt like we'd be remiss if we skipped it—like going to the U.S. and not going to D.C." Plus, even the most diehard eco purists need a jolt of adrenaline every now and then—especially when there are kids in the equation. "Arenal is the hub for the country's best adventures," says Beth, who made sure they hit up all the usual suspects, including waterfall canyoneering and zip lining at Sky Trek (a slightly more extreme version of the one my brother's family did, best for kids 8 and up). "It's a pretty good dose of adrenaline for a very manmade, well-oiled machine," admits Beth. "If it were just me, I probably would have walked away from it, but the kids were excited and we went up and had a great ride. It was definitely a highlight."
Fly: San Jose, Sansa Airlines to Puerto Jimenez and back
Stay: El Remanso, www.elremanso.com; El Selencio del Campo, www.hotelelselenciodelcampo.com; Hotel Bougainvilla (10 minutes from the San Jose airport), www.hb.co.cr
Eat: three meals a day at the lodge at El Remanso; Lava Lounge, La Fortuna, www.lavaloungelafortuna.com;
Explore: Sky Trek, www.skyadventures.travel; Costa Rica Expeditions, www.costaricaexpeditions.com