Costa Rica Family Cruising - My Family Travels

Exploring this coastline by ship provides a rich South America adventure and learning opportunities, without the hassles of getting around a foreign country.

If you’re looking for a family adventure that explores the natural world yet doesn’t require roughing it, then Cruise West’s annual summer family cruises on Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast will certainly fit your style. My 10-year-old daughter Alex, her godmother Kathy, and I sailed aboard the Pacific Explorer in June 2004 and were totally in awe of Costa Rica’s prolific and exotic natural life. We got to ride zip lines through the tree tops, hold a baby monkey, and swim in a river in the midst of the rainforest, to name a few adventures

Adventurerers of All Ages

While Alex was a perfect age to partake in all the varied outdoor activities for both kids and adults, I don’t recommend this cruise for families with very little children — or the elderly — due to physical requirements. Other than embarkation and disembarkation day, the ship never calls in a port but rather, drops anchor off a deserted beach. Thus, all passengers must climb into a bobbing Zodiac (motorized, rubber boats) off the ship’s stern and then have a wet landing on the beach.

On our cruise, the youngest child was 5-years (I wouldn’t recommend it for a younger child) and he seemed to handle the physical rigors fairly well. While there were a number of intergenerational families aboard our sailing, the grandparents were in all good shape.

Kids Learning the Activities Ashore

About the year 2002, Cruise West began offering summer family cruises with a youth counselor aboard ship. If there are large numbers of children and teens aboard – as was the case on our late June cruise where one-third of the passengers were youngsters – then the guest programs manager also helps the youth counselor.

While most traditional, large cruise ships only offer youth activities aboard ship and don’t get involved in “edutaining” kids ashore, Cruise West is just the opposite. There are a limited number of onboard activities, probably because of the lack of a dedicated youth room to hold games or crafts. Instead, there are plenty of supervised kids-only activities held ashore such as short hikes in the rainforest, snorkeling from the comfort of a Zodiac, and kayaking lessons.

I applaud Cruise West for their policy since my only objection with the large ships’ youth programs is that the children are stuck indoors the whole time, although there is usually beautiful scenery right outside, on deck or ashore! In contrast, Cruise West’s youth counselor, Krissia, even supervised kids on the beach and in gentle waters. One day on Corcovado Beach, the children flocked to a wide stream leading to the ocean. Krissia remained with them throughout much of the day while they played in the sand.

Kids Learning Activities Aboard Ship

Among activities aboard ship, there is a bridge tour of the pilot’s control room. Youngsters can also dine daily with their peers and the youth counselor at 6:15pm, prior to the adult dinnertime. After that, there are mostly unstructured activities in the adjacent lounge such as board games, coloring, and videos on a large screen television.

I felt that there could have been a bit more imagination in the activities offered (such as group games to get all the children involved) but it is a challenge to entertain a broad range of ages at one time. The large cruise ships, on the other hand, have the luxury of more counselors to tailor their activities specifically to one age group rather than trying to appease kindergartners to teens.

“This is very much a Latin experience,” remarked Rudy Zamora, our Exploration Leader. “We don’t try to structure the kids too much,” he added, noting that this is part of Cruise West’s philosophy. For example, there is no daily program of events for children like on the large ships, so basically you have to ask the youth counselor, guest program manager or exploration leader what special things are happening for children each morning.

On the second to last night, Zamora gave a slide show just for the kids that showed them some of the wildlife and plants they witnessed during the cruise. I was impressed that when he asked them, “What’s this?” as each new image appeared on the screen, many of them remembered what they had seen and learned. Then on the last night, there was an endearing slide show of kids’ photos taken during the cruise, followed by one for the adults later in the evening.

A Typical Day at Sea

Due to her age and physical ability, Alex was able to partake in both kids’ and adult-oriented activities and truly enjoyed them all. So often during our Costa Rican cruise, Alex or I would remark on how much we’d done before lunchtime.

Most days started with an early morning nature walk/hike (you can sign up the night before for easy, moderate or strenuous hikes starting anywhere from 7:30 to 8:30am) which were led by naturalists. We were impressed by the naturalists’ knowledge of indigenous flora and fauna, as well as the strength they showed hiking and carrying a huge powerful telescope. We felt like we hit the jackpot on our first day when our naturalist spotted lots of monkeys in the tree tops at Curu Wildlife Refuge. Alex, Kathy and I were truly amazed when we looked through the naturalist’s telescope and saw every detail on one of the monkey’s faces!

Usually after the hike, we’d either swim at the deserted beach we were anchored near, or jump off the stern of the ship to swim (or hang onto the life preserver when currents were strong.) We also went kayaking off the stern of the ship. There was always a line of kids waiting for the beloved banana boat rides that the crew tirelessly offered. After a sit-down lunch, the ship would often reposition to a different beach or island for swimming.

Costa Rica’s Natural Wonders

Throughout our action packed days, there were so many highlights for both kids and adults alike. From our long list of favorites, holding Sweet Pea, a baby Spider monkey who was being rehabilitated at Santuario Silvestre de la Osa, was the ultimate for Alex, who adores monkeys.

At the end of the memorable Rainmaker Canopy tour (an optional shore excursion which led us over suspension bridges high in the rainforest), we got to splash in a heavenly natural pool. Luckily we donned our bathing suits before the hike and were rewarded with a dip right by a gushing waterfall, complete with Tarzan rope to swing on. What made it even better was that there was only one other person on the hike with us, making this quite different from the experience we remembered from crowded Dunns River Falls in Jamaica.

Another time, when we were on the beaches of Corcovado National Park, we heard and saw a dozen Howler monkeys up close as they loudly chatted with each other. Great sightings of monkeys were also prevalent at Manuel Antonio National Park.

We got quite a thrill out of the (optional) zip line excursions. We hiked up hill to a series of platforms in the trees and then zipped, via attached cables, through the tree tops from platform to platform. Alex and Kathy liked it so much they did a more strenuous zip line tour another day. Yee ha!

One morning, our naturalists led us up the Agujitas River via Zodiac to spot flora and fauna. We all got to jump into the serene river and splash around within the pristine rainforest. As Zamora said, “How many people are lucky enough to swim in a rainforest?” Alex, Kathy and I positively second that sentiment.

Since we came back from our Costa Rican adventure, my 3-year-old son, Ethan has become obsessed with toucans and life in the rainforest. Now I have a great excuse to go back in a few years when Ethan is old enough to participate in all the natural fun Costa Rica offers.

Details, Details

Families with older children may want to consider Cruise West’s Panama and Costa Rica itineraries. If your travel dates are flexible — that is, if you are free to travel with 30 days’ notice — their last-minute “Stowaway” deal takes 25% off the cruise fare.

Typically, from June through August, Cruise West’s 100-passenger Pacific Explorer offers five or six different family cruises where activities are offered for kids. In the current economic crisis, future itineraries will run September to December to the region.

In addition, on these six-day family cruises, children 12 years and under receive 50% off the cruise fare and teens (13 to 21-years) receive 25% off. While this not a luxury ship, it does serve tasty meals and carries very knowledgeable expedition leaders who accompany passengers on complimentary hikes and walks ashore. For more information on their year-round cruise itineraries, contact your travel agent, their reservations agents at 888/851-8133 or visit

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