Following the Rainbow in Costa Rica
by BEATRICE BLAKE
A long call pierced the solitude. Wandering through the cloud forest, we soon found its source: a resplendent quetzal, one of Costa Rica's rarest and most elusive birds, sitting on a vine. The light slanting down through the trees shone through its iridescent blue feathers, and its long tail feathers swung in the breeze.
Discovering the sacred bird of the Mayans in Monteverde Cloud Forest preserve was just one of many magical moments I shared with my daughter, Elizabeth and my son, Danny on a two-week trip to Costa Rica. An ideal place to explore with kids, Costa Rica offers a diverse array of outdoor and learning activities that will keep the whole family interested. The country's warmth towards children and calm, peaceful atmosphere also make it a safe and fun place in which to travel.
Knowing my kids' interests, I tried to choose activities that would be fun for them as well as for me. Danny, a sharp, inquisitive 13-year-old, loves animals and anything that goes fast, so visits to the rainforest and to Monteverde's Sky Trek (one of the longest and highest cable-line rides in the country) were right up his alley. Elizabeth, a willowy eleven-year-old with a unique blend of sensitivity and spark, loves animals--and they love her back. She was looking forward to seeing the dolphins in Drake Bay.
Our first stop was La Fortuna de San Carlos, a small town situated at the eastern base of Arenal Volcano. Views of the erupting massif from a safe distance are both awe-inspiring and beautiful. Arriving at night, the kids got glimpses of glowing, molten lava flowing down the sides of the volcano before it disappeared behind a thick gray cloud--definitely cool. In the morning, the mountain sent out a billowing column of smoke and ash before it disappeared again in the haze.
Nearby, the Green Penas Blancas River seemed like a good place to kick back and relax, so we joined the Sunset Tours' Safari Float. Gliding silently down the river in rubber rafts, we stopped to watch monkeys and birds in the trees. The kids were surprised at the number of sloths we observed (six), and even spotted some of them before our guides did. Though it was the rainy season and a light shower sprinkled us, we were soon warmed by the tropical breeze.
After an hour and a half of gentle floating, we stopped and climbed up a trail carved into the riverbank. Our guide showed us a red and indigo poison dart frog. Hardly any bigger than your thumb, these creatures are protected by a lethal poison that they excrete from their skin. Though they're not dangerous unless you plan on eating them or pick them up in hands with a cut or scrape, it's best to leave them alone and just watch. The kids were amazed by its tiny size.
Another highlight of the day was a visit to Don Pedro's farmhouse, where we were offered a peek at how Costa Rican families live. A sprightly octogenarian, Don Pedro has lived by the river all his life. He canoes and walks to get into town, lives without electricity, and seems to like it that way. Our tour guides revered him as a symbol of everything that is important in the Costa Rican character: resilient, noble and full of principle.
Elizabeth was fascinated to see how Don Pedro and his family lived off the fruit, grains and livestock they raised themselves, and Danny was impressed when he heard that Don Pedro had been offered a fortune for the remaining virgin forest on his farm, and had refused to sell. With a unique personal touch, Don Pedro's daughters served us their homemade cheese with tortillas, coffee and other treats. We stopped by the kitchen to thank them as we left and they embraced us and gave us a fragrant gardenia to sniff. We finished our day at Tabacon Hot Springs, where the kids zoomed down a waterslide and I basked under a hot waterfall.
Our next destination was Drake Bay on the Osa Peninsula. After a night in San Jose, we arose early to board (by stepping on the wing) our five-passenger plane for the half-hour flight. Our pilot inspired confidence with his starched shirt and gold epaulets, and Danny was excited to be so close to him and the controls. Both kids enjoyed flying at a lower altitude than usual, so they could actually see the lines of waves moving slowly toward the shoreline.
After landing in Palmar Sur, we boarded a canopied motorboat nearby and sped down the wide Sierpe River, spotting an occasional crocodile or anhinga bird, then slowed for a trip through a narrow channel in a mangrove swamp. After an hour, we arrived at the river mouth, where our boat had to cross the breakers to get us into the open sea. Life jackets were handed out, and the captain waited for the right moment to chug through the waves. We made the crossing without any trouble, and rounded the point into beautiful Drake Bay.
The kids loved their lofty second-story room at La Paloma Lodge. There were no glass windows, just varnished wooden shutters that opened to cecropia trees full of friendly toucans, hummingbirds and songbirds. Mosquito nets over their beds kept the night bugs away-mainly moths and june-bugs.
Marveling at the warmth of the ocean, the kids boogie-boarded in a small cove near the hotel; later they enjoyed the pristine tiled swimming pool with a view. They saw a baby sloth in a nearby tree, and white-faced monkeys threw twigs and moss at them.
The hotel also arranged activities geared toward kids-an added bonus. Tracy the Bug Lady stopped by one evening and showed them how to hold a flashlight at eye-level so that they could see the eye-shine of toads and spiders. And the kids really appreciated how Nicole, the manager of La Paloma, served them tropical fruit smoothies in the afternoons.
Ready to explore the underwater world of Costa Rica, we went snorkeling at Isla del Caņo, learning about island history from our knowledgeable guide, Miguel. In the water, he kept the children close, making sure they were safe. They saw many beautiful fish, and a manta ray that jumped six feet in the air and did back flips.
The next day we went in search of dolphins with Delfin Amor. Sierra, the owner, let Danny and Elizabeth sit on the bow of the boat where they could get a good view of the huge pod we encountered. Elizabeth was ecstatic. "I loved seeing the dolphins jump up ahead of us-they were so happy!"
Our last stop was Monteverde, where the kids couldn't wait to do the Sky Trek. On a previous visit to Costa Rica when the kids were seven and nine, they had gone on the Monteverde Original Canopy Tour, also a thrilling experience for adventurous munchkins. That tour started with a climb straight up inside a hollow strangler fig tree and ends with a rappel 75 feet down.
The Sky Trek was a little different, as Danny explained: "You get harnessed up, then walk up a 500-foot spiral staircase. The guides hand you a pulley, and show you how to use it and that it's safe. You start out with two short, slow cable rides. They get longer and higher as you go, until you climb up another tower and go on a 1,500-foot cable across a gorge 500 feet below. It was great! But definitely not for people afraid of heights! The guides tell you what you're in for. They warn you. But after the first cable you can't turn back."
I must admit that the Canopy Tour and Sky Trek are not my idea of fun, so the kids went with their adventurous Aunt Mary, while I went on the more sedate Sky Walk, a lovely hike on well-tended trails and hanging bridges through a gorgeous private reserve.
We spent our last two nights in San Jose at the home of Vernon and Marce Bell, who have organized a network of Costa Rican homestays for visitors. After our travels, it was comforting to stay in a home and eat Marce's delicious, home-cooked meals. The kids enjoyed having their own room and playing with the family dog, who happened to love bananas.
A few days before, as we bumped down the winding road from Monteverde, a huge rainbow spanned the valley below us. It was so magnificent that the bus driver stopped to let everyone take pictures. Even after we started down again, the rainbow remained bright and beautiful--a lasting image of our Costa Rican family adventure.
For more information, contact tour operator Selva Mar. Tel: 011-506 -71-4582; Fax: 011-506-771-8841; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; Website: www.exploringcostarica.com.
Bell's Home Hospitality can arrange bed & breakfast homestays with "tico" families, including visits with people who help teach guests Spanish. For information: Tel. 011-506-225-4752; Fax: 011-506-224-5884: E-mail: email@example.com: Website: www.HomeStay.TheBells.org.
For information about additional programs and tour operators, see the Activity
Index under "Family Groups/Tours-Costa Rica."
Focus on: Costa Rica
--Costa Rica's 50,000-acre Children's Eternal Rainforest was purchased by
the fundraising efforts of children from all over the world.
--Costa Rica abolished its armies in 1948.
--Whales from Alaska spend their winters in Drake Bay, and often give birth
in Costa Rican waters.
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