We were an hour into our hike in Costa Rica’s Rincón de la Vieja Volcano National Park when we saw the creature. Sunning itself across the path in front of us, blocking the way, was a giant yellow-black lizard – a Black Ctenosaur (’tino-sore) – its prehistoric eyes blinking ominously at me. What made the sight so surreal and cinematic was the smoke rising from a bubbling geyser behind it, and the park’s titular volcano, a ribbon of cloud around its cone, towering above. I felt as if we’d stepped into a scene from Avatar.
We were about to take a wide berth around the lizard when an odd thing happened. A howler monkey – one of a troop playing in the surrounding trees – let out a series of screeching yelps whereupon the lizard raised its head, blinked and ambled off into the brush. “Thanks, Boots!” said my son, without a second thought, and we continued on our way.
It was the fourth day of a week-long family holiday in Costa Rica, and there was nowhere my wife, Grace, and our kids, Whitaker, 6, and Madeline, 8, would rather be. When they were younger, the children were huge Dora the Explorer fans – hence the “Boots” reference – and they had long wanted to see monkeys, jungle and volcanoes. But it wasn’t just wildlife and wild landscapes we’d come for.
We have had some experience of the outdoors as a family. Since our children were born, we’ve made several trips to southern Africa. I grew up in Zimbabwe, where my parents still live, and we’ve gone on safaris there and in South Africa. The main drawbacks, however, are that the flights are terminally long and there are malaria tablets and yellow fever jabs to get. All this before my American wife begins to discuss security concerns: “Zimbabwe is not exactly Switzerland,” she will say.
the fearlessness of youth meant that my kids took to the high wire like trapeze artists
Wanting somewhere wild and exotic – and safe – without having to trek to Africa from our home in Virginia, we looked elsewhere. It didn’t take long to work out that Costa Rica – literally known as the Switzerland of the Americas – was the perfect destination for an adventurous young family.
A sliver of a country sandwiched between Panama and Nicaragua, the Caribbean and Paciﬁc lapping its shores, Costa Rica is unique for the region. In 1948 it abolished its military and began pouring money into conservation. By the 1970s and ’80s, when much of Latin America was in the grip of caudillos and death squads, Costa Ricans – Ticos – were declaring vast swathes of the country, from volcano-dotted rain forests to tropical dry coastlands, protected nature reserves, and teaching school kids about biosphere and sustainability. With 0.03 per cent of the Earth’s land mass but 6 per cent of its biodiversity, Costa Rica was “green” before the term existed, and it has been a ready-made paradise for outdoor enthusiasts – surfers, hikers, white-water rafters and zip-liners – for years.
We persuaded our friends Kathy and Mike and their four boys (aged 11 to 17), to join us, and booked a hotel near Playa Avellana, a beach town south of Tamarindo, on the Pacific’s popular Nicoya Peninsula.
The Nicoya Peninsula is the most visited part of the country and yet, this being Costa Rica, that doesn’t mean shopping malls, six-lane highways and multi-storey resort hotels. Ten miles out of Avellana, nearing the end of a four-hour drive from San José airport to the west coast, the road became a rutted, dusty dirt track. We thought we had taken a wrong turn. But no, this is development Costa Rica style: the government intentionally keeps roads unpaved and airports small, and ensures hotels comply with strict environmental building codes. “We have an expression: if we don’t build it, they will come!” a local in the tourist industry told me – Field of Dreams in reverse.
We arrived late evening, a soccer-ball sun setting over the glassy Pacific. Time for a dip in the pool and a lazy swing on hammocks suspended between palms. The Pacific Ocean waves were our soundtrack.