Parks & Recreation = Family Travel Highs in Costa Rica

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Ready for a ziplining adventure, which is very popular in Costa Rica.
Ready for a ziplining adventure, which is very popular in Costa Rica. (Photo credit: Chris Hunt)

“If any destination is tailormade for family travel, Costa Rica is it.” I wrote that sentence in Recommend’s Costa Rica Specialist Program based on just looking around during many years of traveling in this family-friendly nation. Last July was time to sample the product: The Hunt family—son Christopher (50 years), grandkids Ethan (12 years) and Morgan (10 years), and yours truly (of a certain age)—traveled in an Adobe Rent a Car’s 4×4 to a trio of kid-friendly wild places: Tortuguero National Park (three nights), the Sarapiqui region (two nights), and Monteverde National Park (three nights). Perhaps a trip report on what worked (most things) and what didn’t (just a few) will be helpful in client trip planning.

tortuguero national park
Who is not fascinated by Tortuguero National Park? It’s home to three-toed sloths, iguanas, river turtles, caiman river otters, Basilisk lizards, poison dart frogs and three species of monkeys, all sharing the 51,870-acre territory with 309 species of birds, including all six kingfishers found in the New World, as well as three species of toucans, eight parrot species and such special sightings as the great green macaw, the purple-throated fruitcrow and the white-fronted nunbird. All this you learn when keeping company with Tortuguero National Park guides; exploring by boat rather than on foot is not only rewarding, but generally easier on the stamina of young travelers. For the ultimate river discovery, book a 2-hour, single or 2-passenger kayak and paddle tour to discover the backwater creeks and lagoons up-close and personal.

Of course, the top draw at Tortuguero is the nesting season (July to October) of the 300-pound Atlantic green sea turtle. The standard tour operates twice nightly (8 p.m. and 10 p.m.) with five different groups of 10 people coming to a nesting site at the same time; it’s an orderly viewing, but to me off-putting with some 50 people filing by in the dark. However, the hotel we stayed in during our visit to Tortuguero National Park, Tortuga Lodge and Gardens, offered an alternative: a private turtle nesting expedition with your own guide, boat, and turtle encounters on a remote beach, plus an elegant torch-lit dinner along the banks of the  Jaloba River. It’s pricey—from $199 pp for a group of five, versus $43 pp for the standard tour—and it must be booked ahead, for only one group (maximum six guests) goes out each night.

On the other hand, free for kids of all ages is participation in the hotel’s Word Adventure program that involves guests teaching English to youngsters in the surrounding community village of San Francisco; the day we four Hunts went, the subject we taught was prepositions, mixed with some singing and soccer playtime.

Set on 146 acres of private land, Tortuga Lodge, located right on the water, offers river-view rooms and suites that have private bath and ceiling fans, with hammocks slung on verandahs. The lodge offers top-notch service, particularly when dining deliciously in the waterside dining room and bar. Rates start at $74 pp dbl for lodging only. Booking a complete package is recommended.

the region of sarapiqui
We headed west from Tortuguero to the Sarapiqui region, named for the river that runs through it. Less visited than most areas, it’s also more committed to sustainable tourism than many. A leading example is the family-run La Quinta de Sarapiqui Country Inn, our base for exploring the region and a recent winner of the Certification for Sustainable Tourism (CST) at the top five-leafs level; rates are $110 sgl and dbl, $140 for suites. Sitting on 10 acres of reforested former farmland, the property offers spacious rooms fitted with air conditioning, good baths and patios. They are dispersed among flowering gardens and connected by covered walkways to the main lodge where delicious country-style food—fresh vegetables from the organic garden—is served buffet-style. The sprawling lounge area embraces an excellent library.

On-property, guests enjoy butterfly and frog gardens, a kids’ treehouse, a botanical garden, two pools and an observation bridge over a pond where one can spot caimans. Guests can book horseback riding at the hotel desk, as well as chocolate and coffee touring, and a pineapple plantation tour. The newest attraction is the Tirimbina Rainforest Center with a network of trails and several impressive suspension bridges over the river and through the rainforest. But the “numero uno” adventure is river rafting with the Aventuras del Sarapiqui river-outfitter, which does a superb job—particularly among beginners—in teaching the art of river running.

monteverde cloud forest reserve
For those of you who haven’t been up in the famous cloud forests of Monteverde in a while, know that the long, tortuous road up the mountain is finally being graded and paved. People like Michael Kaye, founder of award-winning Costa Rica Expeditions, hope that easier access will not open Monteverde to cruise ship excursions; so do I, for even now, you have to come early to beat the crowds for the active attractions such as canopy touring and ziplining. Kaye also owns the 28-room Monteverde Lodge and Gardens, to which we were headed; rates start at $99 pp dbl with breakfast. This Alpine-style inn is a top-in-its-class lodging whose choicest, beautifully furnished rooms are on the second floor with floor-to-ceiling views of the rainforest. Sitting on 10 acres, the lodge is engulfed in tropical gardens and laced with flowering trails; guests hang out by the new pool and count the colorful species in the new butterfly house.

Monteverde is a kiddie’s paradise: They learn about cloud forests, where green is endless and massive plants sprout leaves the size of patio umbrellas, and where it’s best to spot jewel-colored quetzals and hummingbirds through the park guide’s telescope. Natural attractions are even more dramatic at the Ranaraio frog pond, the Serpentario, the Butterfly Garden, and the superstar Bat House. Our guide along the route of the Hanging Bridges—through and above the rainforest canopy—told us that the reserve hosts 100 mammal species, more than 2,500 kinds of plants, and 400+ bird species. He also spotted a green snake curled up on a green leaf and three howler monkeys. Magical.

For my grandkids, we left the best for last: Their first zipline adventure, harnessing up and taking off with Sky Trek, whose cable rides link seven platforms. If your clients suffer from acrophobia, this may not be your cup of adrenaline, for once you traverse the first cable, there’s no turning back.

While everyone was up in the clouds, I was back at the lodge, talking turkey (so to speak) on food. My discovery on this trip is the deliciously positive change in culinary Costa Rica. Lonely Planet describes the national cuisine as simple, hearty and somewhat bland; someone hasn’t been eating out recently. Costa Rica’s chefs have been…to France and Spain. The new blend of Caribbean ingredients and culinary continental savoir-faire combine to make fine dining yet another reason to sell Costa Rica.

A Note: During “Green Season,” there’s a lot of rain. This limits the viability of excursions in general and birdwatching in particular.

Archived related articles (available on recommend.com/magazine/issue archive): Alma del Pacifico, Costa Rica  (July 2014)

contact information
La Quinta de Sarapiqui Country Inn: hotellaquintasarapiqui.com
Monteverde Lodge & Gardens: monteverdelodge.com
Tortuga Lodge & Gardens: inforeservations@costaricaexpeditions.com