If your kids are wildlife freaks – like my daughter – they’ll freak over Costa Rica. If they’re not – like my son – they’ll still love it. With so many eye-popping critters and adrenaline-rush activities, Costa Rica leaves no one underwhelmed.
On our family’s first trip to Costa Rica in July 2011, we jumped straight into the deep end of rainforest flora and fauna: the Osa Peninsula. After landing on a tiny dirt airstrip, trucking through a brown, rain-swollen creek, and speedboating down a river and along the Pacific shore, we pulled into tiny inlet in Drake’s Bay which looked a lot like the Jungle Cruise at Disneyland.
Here we disembarked for 5 nights at La Paloma. The hotel was the perfect base for exploring the wide variety of natural wonders nearby – just a few miles from Corcovado National Park, a boat ride from Isla de Cano offshore, and one river’s mouth away from the largest mangrove reserve in Central America. In short, it was a wildlife lover’s paradise! (Sunset on the patio of their “rancho” wasn’t bad either…)
Because of its remote location, Corcovado National Park is one of the least visited spots in the country. La Paloma runs two naturalist-led treks through the jungle. The first was in the San Pedrillo conservation area. Although we saw some amazing jungle scenes, unbelievably massive trees and beautiful deserted beaches, we saw little wildlife. An end-of-day swim in a jungle stream and waterfall made up for it.
Our second trip to Corcovado was farther south at the Sirena Biological Station, a full hour boat ride from Drake’s Bay. We had to leave quite early but our effort was rewarded: we saw three types of monkeys, tapir (mommy and baby!), coati, cayman, deer, crocodiles, tons of neat birds, lizards, butterflies and bugs, and finally a Fer de Lance – the most poisonous snake in the Americas – curled up in a tree root near the trail.
We loved La Paloma’s day trip through the mangroves. The boat captain and our guide Gustavo navigated the narrow channels off the Sierpe River and knew just where to spot trees full of sleeping sloths, snakes, and crocodiles. We encountered a band of darling squirrel monkeys going insane and countless other birds and creatures, like a crab-eating raccoon hanging twenty feet out on stalk of bamboo. Along the way we learned about the mangrove forests, their important position in the ecosystem, and even got to climb around on the roots (obviously the inspiration for the “jungle gym.”)
There’s plenty more to see and do at La Paloma. We took the boat trip to the Isla del Cano to snorkel. We heard whales calling in the distance, played in the surf and saw lots of dolphins on the way over, but the snorkeling wasn’t terribly memorable. There is a Bug Lady night walk on which we saw trapdoor spiders, a poison dart frog, and all manner of other crawlies. Capuchin monkeys patrol the trees on the property and stalk the restaurant for unguarded food. Howlers were congregated on the trail to the beach during our visit. Cockatiels, scarlet macaws and toucans are all regulars, depending on which trees are fruiting.
And that was just our first stop! Over the remaining 10 days, we saw tarantulas in their burrows in Monte Verde, butterflies galore at the farm in El Castillo, a snake devouring a lizard, a majestic juvenile quetzal, a massive green iguana waiting in line at an ice cream stand, and olive-ridley sea turtles laying their eggs on the beach at night near Nosara. The natural wonders truly never ceased.
The ROAM Report : Costa Rica
Travelers : Maryann, Don, West (10) and Pearl (8) Thompson
Date : July 2011
Itinerary : SFO-Houston-Liberia (1 night at airport Hilton Garden Inn), Drake’s Bay (5 nights), Arenal (3 nights), Monte Verde (2 nights), Playa Samara (3 nights)
Budget : Lots of options for low and high budget travel. Our trip cost about $300-$400/day for our family’s lodging/food/activities, except in Drake’s Bay which was much more expensive (approximately $800/day)
Season: Drier from November to April (high season) and rainier from May-October
The Good Stuff
Everything at La Paloma – Two-story “ranchos” that overlook the Pacific and take in amazing sunsets… Juevos rancheros, fresh fish and homemade bread like your grandmother made… Beautiful tropical flowers dotting the property… An inviting common lounge and restaurant area for evening gatherings… La Paloma’s management was incredibly kind and focused on details. Their tour office helped us book our flights to Drake’s Bay and got us tremendous discounts.
Wildlife at Corcovado – From toucans greeting us in the tree outside our La Paloma rancho, to watching a coati patiently dig at a termite nest, to flocks of scarlet macaws taking flight in trees at the beach, the natural wonders never ceased.
Surfing at Samara – After one very underwhelming night in Playa Carillo, we moved to the Samara Treehouse Inn which was perfect for us: on the beach, surf school on one side, restaurant serving dinner by candlelight in the sand on the other. Gentle waves are perfect for families to swim and learn surfing (though surf conditions vary at different times of year.)
Turtles at Nicoya – Hotels near the Ostional Wildlife Reserve will book trips to see the turtles lay eggs during an arrivada. (Be sure to plan your trip for the correct days of the month or you will miss it!)
Hot Springs at Arenal – After an exciting day of river rafting with Desafio, we drove to the Tabacon Hot Springs and got the evening, highly-discounted entry price. Sprawling garden paths and countless pools and waterfalls combine to make a wonderland for kids and adults alike.
Zip Lines at Monte Verde – I have to admit that I was very cynical about the must-do Costa Rica ziplining – but man, it was really a wild, must-do experience. Our family went to Selvatura, the center outside of Monteverde in the Cloud Forest where ziplining was born. One of the lines was 1 kilometer long. You fly hundreds of feet above the trees which were themselves hundreds of feet tall. The view is unreal! Wandering around the hanging bridges afterwards was almost as compelling. The elevated walkways let you linger and marvel at all the plants and birds in the forest canopy. I was psyched to spot a juvenile quetzal. West was psyched that he could pee off the bridge.
The Not So Good
Rotten Roads – In the many years since National Geographic extolled the Cloud Forest’s virtues, the government has not been hot to fix up any of the roads that reach it. All the tales about the roads can be true – they’re one lane, they’re dirt and there are no signs. We drove from Arenal to Monteverde and the 100 kilometers took us the better part of a day. That said, the Pan-American Highway was gorgeous (for the short distance we were on it) and the roads on the Nicoya Peninsula were great too: very well marked and all paved.
Hot & Humid Hikes – I’m sparing you the extremely attractive photos of me hiking in Corcovado with completely sweat-soaked hair. The coast and mountains were nice and cool but the instant you step into the forest canopy anywhere near sea level, it’s subtropical.
Crime Cautions – We did not visit any of the major cities because we did not have time but we have friends who were hassled at small stores while buying food. In the country, it is important to leave nothing in your car even if it looks like no one is around. That said, we had no trouble at all.
Good to Know
Age Restrictions Abound – You must be 7 years old to zipline. You must be 13 to do canyoneering. Depending on the river you want to raft, there will be age requirements there as well.
OK to Book Late – We booked this trip approximately one month before we traveled. Although there were some highly-rated spots that were booked, most places had room and nothing seemed packed out.
Boat Travel Involves Water – Aside from a walk to the village, any destination from La Paloma will involve a boat. A small boat. And one in which you and your gear will likely get wet. Plan attire and luggage accordingly…
Countryside is Quiet – Costa Rica seemed empty to us. This was partly because we didn’t visit the cities and partly because we are used to traveling in Asia where even a small beach village is quite densely populated. Trying to choose a beach on the Nicoya Peninsula was tough because some of the beach towns appear to only be a few houses near the water. We were afraid Samara would be too big but it was actually a nice size which meant there were enough activities to keep everyone occupied.
- Our guide slapping the water at a river’s mouth in Corcovado to try and attract crocodiles and bull sharks to fight. Even if it rarely happens, we were thrilled at the possibility…
- West yelping and running in circles after he knelt behind a tree and got bit by some kind of scary ants.
- The pitch dark of a moonless, electric-light-less beach only broken here and there by the guides’ red head lamps as we watched several olive-ridley sea turtles lay their eggs.
- The deep-breathing-warmup and bellowing howl of a howler monkey who wasn’t happy we were approaching on the trail beneath him.
Good Family Trip?
We were all completely overwhelmed with the amazing variety of wildlife we saw in Costa Rica. And after comparing it to the other rainforest and jungle destinations we’ve visited, Don and I think it was the best concentration of wildlife we’ve ever seen. It made us wonder why more Americans don’t visit Costa Rica instead of taking another trip to Hawaii or the Caribbean… It’s truly a bucket-list family vacation.
Maryann Jones Thompson, 2015
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