Exploring Costa Rica with Kids

Stepping into a small raft on the shore of the Peñas Blancas River, my daughter accepted a hand from our guide, wiggled into her seat and glanced dismissively ahead as we glided downstream.
“Where are all the animals?” she said. “Are they here?”
I had promised my 5-year-old wildlife galore as I planned our trip to Costa Rica. And this country – lush with rainforests and cloud forests, beaches and rivers – did not disappoint. There were sloths hanging from the trees and monkeys swinging along their branches while a rainbow of exotic birds fluttered throughout.
The thing is, I explained to the impatient child in the boat clinging to her dad, you have to look for the animals. This isn’t a zoo. Creatures are in their natural homes and if we are very lucky, they’ll let us see them. Soon enough, she was squealing with delight as our guide pointed out white-headed capuchin monkeys frolicking in the branches to the chorus of howler monkeys that lurked nearby. We also spotted sloths, bats and huge iguanas.
I found that good planning (in addition to luck) increased our chances of viewing the wildlife we desired. We had signed up for a safari float combined with a waterfall hike during a brief stay in La Fortuna near the Arenal Volcano. My initial excitement for visiting this area had to do with the hot springs the spot is known for.  And my husband, daughter and I enjoyed unwinding in the multi-temperature springs at our hotel. (Arenal Springs Resort and Spa, La Fortuna de San Carlos. hotelarenalspring.com.)
But the tour was certainly the highlight. We were on this trip to see animals and, boy, did we see them.
Picking age-appropriate activities when traveling anywhere with children is key. There are countless options for recreation all over Costa Rica including white-water rafting, zip lining, surfing and horseback riding, to name only a few. It’s an adventurer’s paradise and if you aren’t too squeamish about letting your children dive in and explore, this is the place to come.
In our case, with a very young child, we had to consider her patience, strength and abilities before committing to any activity.
A lazy float down the river was a great choice for any age. My daughter got a bit worn out during the hike, which included hundreds of stairs, but the sight of the amazing La Fortuna Waterfall, along with a daring dip into its chilly pool, perked her right up.  (Desafio Adventure Company. 855-818-0020. desafiocostarica.com.)
We tested her patience even further by taking a few long shuttle rides to see other parts of the country. Once she settled in with music, coloring or her portable DVD player, she was fine. (Gecko Trail. 415-230-0298. geckotrail.com/transportation.) My husband and I had been here 10 years previous (without kids) and were eager to see places we hadn’t yet visited. One of these spots included the lesser-discovered Caribbean coast, known for its spicy flavors, uncluttered beaches, rainforests and chocolate.
Anyone with a sweet tooth will love exploring a cacao forest while learning all about the history of chocolate. And you get to eat it, too (Tours $28. Caribeans Coffee & Chocolate, Puerto Viejo, Limon. caribeanscr.com.)
For an extra-special nature experience, we stayed in the tree house at the Tree House Lodge. (costaricatreehouse.com.) The lodge’s signature rental is a full home submerged in the jungle with an open-air living room, kitchen and bathroom built from a 100-year-old Sangrillo tree. What kid (or adult for that matter) wouldn’t want to stay in a tree house? Tip: bring a lot of bug spray.
It was impossible not to spot creatures sneaking by, or sometimes even through, the house while relaxing inside. The lodge also has its own iguana sanctuary on the grounds.
But we wanted more.
A visit to Puerto Viejo’s Jaguar Rescue Center did not disappoint, although please note that there are no jaguars. We did get up-close looks at sloths, toucans, iguanas, snakes, frogs and the cutest baby howler monkeys ever. This is more of a zoo-type experience than seeing animals in their natural habitat but it’s still enjoyable. The center serves as a temporary home for ill, injured or orphaned animals. (Tours $20. Jaguar Rescue Center Foundation, Cocles Beach. jaguarrescue.foundation.)
After hitting the very bumpy road again, we found ourselves up in the mountains in Costa Rica’s famed Monteverde Cloud Forest. This is a foggy and chilly part of the country, so bring long pants and a jacket. It also takes a bit of effort to get here because of the rough terrain. The most efficient and enjoyable route from La Fortuna is by the boat-jeep-boat taxi (three hours. $25 per person. jeepboatjeep.com.) and it is well worth the trek.
We opted for a simple self-guided hanging bridges tour to explore this unusual forest canopy. ($27-39 Sky Walk. Sky Adventures Monteverde Park. skyadventures.travel/skywalk.)
The 2-mile hike included trails through rare plants and suspension bridges up among the treetops. Our daughter rested under leaves twice her size and marveled at tiny orchids on the trees. Zip liners flew off of platforms nearby and had we been traveling alone or with older children, we would have joined them.
This isn’t the best region to spot animals; plants are the highlight here. However, do yourself a favor and stop at the hummingbird gallery in Selvatura Park. It won’t take much time out of your day and the sight of these little birds fluttering around in excess near a small café is absolutely charming. 
Our hunt for wildlife came to a close as we returned to San Jose, Costa Rica’s capitol. A majority of travelers tend to start and/or end their trips to Costa Rica in this gritty metropolis. It doesn’t have the same natural charm as other parts of the country but what it does have is the Museo de los Niños. (8:30am-4:30pm Tue.-Sat., 9am-4:30pm Sun. $9 ages 12 and up. museocr.org.) If you have kids and a few extra hours, don’t miss this gem.
Historically, the castle fortress-like structure was a prison that shut down in 1979. It reopened as a spacious and eclectic spot for families in 1994 with 40 interactive rooms exploring the solar system, dinosaurs, electricity, Egyptian history, grocery shopping and so much more that a one-day visit wasn’t enough for us. We even got to be part of a bizarre, fake television show in the museum’s broadcast studio!
For our family, Costa Rica had it all.
Dhyana Levey is an environmental reporter, frequent traveler and calendar editor for Bay Area Parent


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