Soft Adventures in Costa Rica - My Family Travels

Costa Rica's land activities provide plenty of "soft" adventures for vacationing families with less active — or more fearful — loved ones.Costa Rica's land activities provide plenty of "soft" adventures for vacationing families with less active — or more fearful — loved ones.

Nature has blessed Costa Rica with an ecosystem of scenic beauty and variety, from steaming volcanoes and dramatic mountains to rainforest jungles and cloud forests to gorgeous beaches on the Caribbean and the Pacific. The incredible variety of wildlife includes 850 bird species, multitudes of butterflies, howler monkeys, coatimundis and armadillos on the land, to oceans teeming with fish, sea turtles and dolphins.

"Watch Out! Watch Out! Oh my God — Brake! Brake!" These were the words of my teen-age son and the tour guide as they stood on platform #3, built into a tree about 75 feet above the forest floor. They were watching my husband careen through the tree tops, coursing down rapidly from the second platform, directly toward the guide's head. Luckily, he engaged the braking mechanism in time and everyone was safe and sound.

"Canopy tours" provide travelers to Costa Rica with a unique means to see the tropical rainforest's various levels by swinging between the trees. Gliding from platform to platform on a system of cable and pulleys, using modified equipment employed by canyon rappelers and cave explorers, tourists can see the jungle from a viewpoint formerly accessible only to naturalists and researchers. Does this sound like an adventure vacation? Well, for us city slickers, it was just that!

Our eight-day visit enabled us to get a taste of its capital city of San José, spend a few days in the Guanacaste Region on a black-sand Pacific beach, and experience the mountainous region near the Arenal Volcano. Calling themselves "Ticos," the people are gracious, welcoming, and justifiably proud of their home. The country is small, but so rich that we look back on this trip merely as an introduction to a wonderland of variety and natural beauty.

Pacific Coast Adventures

We arrived in San José in the evening and journeyed the next morning to the Pacific coast. Our first days were spent unwinding at the beachfront Allegro Papagayo Resort ( 800/858-2258). Positioned atop a winding road overlooking Golfo de Papapayo, this comfortable all-inclusive resort offered just the right combination of relaxation and activities. Lounge by the pool, play water polo, do some aerobics with staff or take the introduction to scuba lessons. The bay's warm, gentle water invites you to swim, take out a kayak, or just lounge on the black sand beach, common in Costa Rica, due to volcanic action. There's a Kid's Club to entertain 4-12-year-olds, a 15-minute boat trip to a pristine private beach for lounging and sports, and the nightly entertainment is spirited. The air-conditioned, balconied rooms are very comfortable and meals and drinks are plentiful.

Enough downtime! After catching our breath, we spoke with Allegro's on-site tour operator to arrange some local excursions. The National Parks System which covers about 14% of the land, protects and preserves Costa Rica's unique ecosystems. The Guanacaste region is home to two such parks, Santa Rosa and Rincon de la Vieja, the one we chose to explore. As we neared the park, the van drove along an unpaved road for about 12 miles, which was very bumpy and slow-going. We recommend our guided van tour, but if you choose to go on your own, you'll need to rent a 4-wheel drive vehicle.

The park encompasses the crater of the Rincon de la Vieja Volcano whose geothermal activities create steaming mud pots, sulfur ponds and fumaroles, fascinating to view. As we hiked the Las Pailas Loop, a two-mile trail with a swinging bridge, our very knowledgeable guide educated us about the life inside the jungle the trees, plants, insects, birds and animals which were all around us. He explained that this was not Disneyland and that he could not assure us of what we would see. However, his excellent bird and monkey calls, and our complete silence, brought out quite a few greeters.

The next day we donned flippers, masks and snorkels, took a launch to the boat moored off the beach at the resort, and traveled to an inlet to see some incredibly colorful underwater life. Here too, our guide was very knowledgeable and everyone on the trip, from 10-year-olds to several Grandmas and Grandpas were thrilled by the variety and beauty of what we observed. Another trip which would be of great interest to bird watchers, is a raft/float trip down the Corobici River where snowy egrets, tri-colored heron and other colorful birds as well as howler monkeys, otters and iguanas are plentiful.

Mountain Adventures

Costa Rica's most active volcano, Arenal, is located in the Northern Zone, an area also known for clear mountain lakes and shrouded cloud forests. After a five-hour journey from Guanacaste on some poorly maintained roads, we arrived at the Tabacón Grand Spa and Thermal Resort ( 506/519-1900; US and Canada 877/277-8291). This combination hotel and spa was built above a village destroyed in July, 1968 by Arenal's eruption, previously dormant for hundreds of years. Each comfortable room has a small terrace overlooking the monumental volcano, and we really appreciated the air-conditioning as it was extremely humid during our August visit.

Tabacón is at the forefront of Costa Rida's sustainability efforts.  As of May, 2009, it has been certified as a 100% carbon neutral resort. and it is the first hotel in the world to receive a Seven Stars and Stripes' Green World Award.  It is also the recipient of Certification for Sustainable Tourism from Sustainable Travel International in association with The Leading Hotels of the World. In 2010, Tabacón Thermal Resort earned an honorable mention in the Poverty Relief category of "Conde Nast Traveler's" World Saver Awards.  The resort's program, in which they match every optional $3/N donation to support schools and a shelter for orphans, scored the highest rating in this competion among large resorts worldwide.

We quickly changed into bathing suits and took a short walk to the Tabacón Hot Springs, where we were amazed by the tropical gardens of incredibly lush greenery, and orchids and other flowers in the deepest shades of red and pink.  At dusk, the steam coming off the surface of the natural pools of mineral water, heated by the volcano, created a most ethereal sight. A series of waterfalls create the pools and you need to be very careful maneuvering your way into the 102°F water as the rocky bottoms are slippery and somewhat jagged. Our favorite spot was a long ledge of rock directly under a very forceful waterfall, creating an intense water massage. There are pools on several levels, with a stepped path along side them, and the temperatures vary somewhat, so you can change from hotter to cooler as you wish. After a series of smaller pools, the same water, now cooled down, eventually flows into a large tiled swimming pool with water slide, perfect for families to play in.

There is a swim-up bar in the pool, an on-site restaurant, lounge chairs throughout and locker facilities. Guests of the hotel don't need to pay the $19/adult and $12/child public entrance fee. The springs offer a spectacular view of Arenal, and if you're lucky you can relax in nature's bathtub and observe the crater exploding with red lava, a sight you're not likely to forget.


Rainforest Adventures

The next morning my husband and son, eager, adventurous and not acrophobic, went on the Tabacón Resort's on-site canopy tour mentioned above. The Original Canopy Tour Company ( 506/291-4465; US 305/433-2241), which started this unique way to experience the rain forest, from the top down, is the largest and most reputable canopy-tour operator and has seven other locations throughout the country.You do not need to have any prior climbing experience to participate, and special
Patchwork fields of rows and rows of coffee beans dot the countryside, as the rich volcanic soil and springlike climate combine to create some of the world's best-tasting coffee, Costa Rica's second largest export. Be sure to visit a local supermercado to buy some to take home for yourselves, or as perfect gifts for family and friends.

harnesses are provided for children. Many older folks as well as disabled travelers have taken the tour. Even after my husband's frightening descent on the zip line, they both wanted to go right back up and swing again!

All together, we spent the afternoon in the nearby town of La Fortuna, hiked to the impressive Río Fortuna Waterfall outside of town and took a dip in the pool it creates. This is worth the trek, but not recommended for young children as the path is steep and slippery.

I had passed on the canopy tour, but I was up for something more gentle. So, early the next morning, we were picked up for a trip to ride the Rain Forest Aerial Tram ( 506/257-5961) on the borders of Braulio Carillo National Park. This park, in the Central Volcanic range, is home to two dormant volcanoes and its rugged terrain is comprised of very tall mountains and a deep rain forest with over 175 inches of precipitation each year. Unfortunately, the fairly direct 45-minute route from the city was blocked by a landslide, so we had to travel around a huge mountain and the trip took several hours. A few passengers were disgruntled and one family decided not to proceed, but we were not swayed by the delay and the trip was so scenic that the time passed quickly.

Upon arriving, we had lunch, viewed a video and took a guided nature walk through this rainforest research station. Next we boarded the tram engineered by Dr. Donald Perry and John Williams, scientists who wanted to instruct the world about the importance of saving tropical rainforests. Constructed with minimal disturbance to the plant and wildlife, each gondola holds up to five passengers plus a naturalist guide, and glides slowly above the tree-tops allowing you to see the forest and its hidden treasures from above. My son commented that this was actually more interesting than the Canopy Tour because, as you weren't flying through the trees, you could watch and see so much more, and I was so glad to have the chance to see the forest from this perspective.

Our final visit was to the La Paz Waterfall Gardens ( 506/225-0643; US 954/727-3997) about an hours drive from San Jose. This new facility's layout and gentle approach is perfect for younger children and older adults. The enclosed Butterfly Observatory is the largest in the world and allows visitors to walk freely amid the soaring butterflies and learn about their life cycle in the laboratory. The incredibly colorful Blue Morpho, most famous in Costa Rica, is joined by many other species. A stop at the Hummingbird Garden will be very entertaining as over 16 species of the rapidly fluttering birds can be observed playing, fighting and eating. Finally, there are four hiking trails to view spectacular waterfalls, (the less mobile can drive right up to one of the larger falls.)

Our wishlist for our next trip to Costa Rica includes visiting the Monteverde Cloud Forest, seeing nesting sea turtles, visiting a biological reserve and wildlife refuge, and relaxing on a Caribbean beach. For those more active than we, there are many opportunities for scuba diving, windsurfing, white water rafting, overnight trekking and mountain biking. Whatever your pace, you're sure to hear the commonly used expression Pura vida, loosely meaning "everything's great." It sure is!

Dear Reader: This page may contain affiliate links which may earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase. Our independent journalism is not influenced by any advertiser or commercial initiative unless it is clearly marked as sponsored content. As travel products change, please be sure to reconfirm all details and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.