Costa Rica With Kids

Costa Rica's animals, waterfalls and rainforests enchant the whole family 

Photo © Corbis

My 10-year-old daughter, Avery, cups her hands around her mouth and bellows, “Whoo! Whoo! Whoo! Whoo!” 

From deep in the rainforest booms a chorus of guttural answering calls—a troop of howler monkeys is crashing its way through the treetops toward our rental house on the shore of Lake Arenal in the Northern Lowlands of Costa Rica, and they are making their presence known. 

The sound is enough to frighten even the most seasoned travellers, but Avery, my budding naturalist, delights in the new-to-her jungle noises. It’s the first evening of our family holiday in the Central American country that’s famous for its tropical forests and fascinating wildlife, and she’s ready to see it all. 

After exhausting her lungs mimicking monkeys, Avery busies herself looking for “Chalupa,” a two-toed sloth that supposedly lives in a tree by the pool. As night falls, her eight-year-old brother, Bennett, questions every sound and sight. 

“What was that, Mommy?” he asks me when the frogs and crickets begin their nightly refrain. 

“What are those?” he wonders, pointing into the inky darkness. 

I squint into the black void and ask, “What’s what?” 

“Those lights,” he says. 

Only when I look carefully do I see what he sees: fireflies glowing in the jungle. It’s a similar story over the next few days; I observe a trail created by leaf-cutter ants only after Avery points it out, and glimpse a tiny blue-jeans frog after she sees it hopping through the leaf litter. 

Time and again in this country, whose name translates as “rich coast,” I’m awed by its abundance and diversity of wildlife, and the way it blends seamlessly with its environment—blink and you’ll miss it. Many of the marvels are pointed out by my kids, especially Avery, who is able to slow down and contemplate creatures I might overlook in my hurried quest to bag experiences in a new country. Children are like fairies that way—it’s as though they have magical powers when it comes to noticing natural wonders that older eyes take for granted. 

Costa Rica is one of the most biologically rich places on the planet; it takes up just 0.03 per cent of Earth’s land mass, but contains five per cent of its land-based biodiversity. It’s that inviting blend of abundant wildlife and manageable size that makes this country an ideal vacation spot for adventurous families. Landing in Liberia, Guanacaste’s capital city, it’s possible to combine jungle and beach time into one holiday through a mix of independent travel by rental car and guided day tours. 

Our plan is to explore the rainforests, waterfalls and hot springs near the Arenal Volcano, then hop over to Playa Grande on the Pacific to uncover Costa Rica’s coastal treasures. 

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Lake Arenal

And Avery has come prepared. In the weeks leading up to the trip, she wrote down a list of animals to look for on our vacation, including the fearsome fer-de-lance snake, the strawberry poison-dart frog and the milkweed assassin bug. By Day Five of our trip, we’ve seen numerous poisonous frogs, as well as two bright-yellow eyelash pit vipers, on a hike in Arenal Volcano National Park—one of the country’s 28 national parks and eight biological reserves. We also stalk iguanas at Tabacón Grand Spa Thermal Resort, a popular hot springs resort, and marvel at the blue morpho butterflies (that land on Avery’s hand, naturally) at Selvatura Park in Monteverde.

But wildlife viewing isn’t limited to the country’s national parks and tourist attractions. Opportunities for immersion are everywhere. In just one morning of birdwatching from our rainforest home, aptly named Villa Encantada (“enchanted house”), we see keel-billed toucans, blue-and-gold tanagers, bright green mealy parrots and the melodious oropendola, whose call sounds like drops of water falling from the forest canopy, only amplified a hundredfold. It’s a feathered menagerie impressive enough to turn us into full-fledged twitchers. 

During another day at Villa Encantada, Josue, the gardener, summons us to look at a large leaf he had come across while keeping the jungle at bay. Attached to it, sleeping, is a pale green frog, nearly the identical shade of lime green as the leaf. Josue begins to gently touch the amphibian, as though to rouse it, and, ever so slowly, the small creature awakens, first opening its ruby-hued eyes, next extending a leg to reveal a blue and yellow-striped flank and bright-orange toes. It hops onto Avery’s shoulder, then crawls up her face onto the top of her head, much to everyone’s delight. The nocturnal red-eyed tree frog is the symbol of Costa Rica and is rarely seen in daylight hours. Avery is especially awed by it, and soon takes to turning over large leaves on hikes, hoping to see

another.

“The fine details of nature are everywhere—you just have to notice them,” she observes, in perpetual pursuit of frogs, geckos and lizards.

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Later, in Playa Grande, we’re charmed by the marine life. When we finally stow the boogie boards, there are tide pools to explore and a nearby mangrove estuary to canoe through in hopes of spotting an American crocodile. We’re on the tail end of turtle season, but we still manage to witness hatchling Pacific black sea turtles scampering toward the surf. And, every evening, nature becomes our entertainment as the setting sun bleeds the sky pink, orange and purple.    

“Sometimes, it’s better to be in the moment than to take a picture,” Avery sagely explains one night after the sun has winked out on the western horizon. The adults have been busy capturing nature’s curtain call through a lens, but the kids just watch the glory from a sandy perch. 

I wonder, has my daughter always been so wise? Or is it just that Costa Rica’s natural splendours—its crashing orchestra of waves; its living, breathing jungles; its brightly coloured sunsets—have become a more magnetic pull than any kind of modern technology?

Her rapt fascination with scampering crabs and shimmering fireflies reminds me what it was like to be a kid, when everything was a new discovery worthy of investigation. I find myself following the children’s lead, slowing down and paying attention to the “fine details of nature.”

For two weeks, while the iPad collects dust, we stay outside to search for sloths in the jungle, or turtle tracks at the beach. And occasionally, we all answer the call of  the wild: “Whoo! Whoo! Whoo! Whoo!

Getting there: WestJet flies to Liberia seven times a week from Toronto and Calgary, and to San Jose twice a week from Toronto.