Where The Wild Things Are

Issue 6 - 2017
By Douglas Rogers · Images Istvan Kadar, Getty Images, Douglas Rogers

Exotic and safe, Costa Rica is one of the most family-friendly destinations in Latin America. Putting his vertigo to one side, Douglas Rogers takes his brood on the action (and chill-out) holiday of a lifetime

Issue 6 - 2017
By Douglas Rogers · Images Istvan Kadar, Getty Images, Douglas Rogers

Exotic and safe, Costa Rica is one of the most family-friendly destinations in Latin America. Putting his vertigo to one side, Douglas Rogers takes his brood on the action (and chill-out) holiday of a lifetime

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.

Douglas Rogers and family enjoying their Costa Rican adventure
Douglas Rogers and family enjoying their Costa Rican adventure
Costa Rican papaya
Fresh ceviche at Lola’s bar on Avellana, one of Latin America’s best beaches
A bedroom at Arenal Nayara hotel in the Arenal Volcano National Park

We settled into a lazy rhythm, woken not by alarm clocks each morning but by screaming howler monkeys in fern-like guachipelín trees. An iguana the size of a small crocodile sunned itself by the pool, and we sent Madeline up a papaya tree to pick fruit for breakfast. The adults were soon tucking into delicious rich cups of fresh Costa Rican Tarrazu coffee.

We had booked a zip-line excursion that first day, and made our way to Pura Aventura, a canopy outfitter on a 150-year-old horse-and-cattle ranch a half-hour drive south. The wonder of Costa Rica’s conservation ethos is that while it makes every effort to preserve its forests, it also goes to great lengths to make sure you see them – even from a steel wire suspended above a canyon or forest canopy.

Zip-lining is a leading industry in Costa Rica, and we joined a dozen other families (mostly American and British) on Pura Aventura’s 11-station zip-line above the slopes and canyons of the ranch’s lush green old-wood primary forest. I suffer from vertigo and was concerned for my kids, but the fearlessness of youth meant they took to the high-wire like trapeze artists, doing each station in tandem with a guide. One of the sections is 300m long, suspended over a deep gorge; my wife put me to shame by doing that stretch hanging upside-down.

The following day was a surf lesson. Nicoya is famous for its surf schools and we booked lessons with Real Surf Trips, a Costa Rican company with two camps on the peninsula. Our four-hour lesson was with an instructor named Gustavo. We gathered on Playa Avellana at dawn.

A ribbon of white sand facing turquoise ocean, Avellana is one of Latin America’s great beaches, made so by the fact that, aside from the coconut sellers, the only commercial business on it is a stylish beach bar, Lola’s, once named one of the 10 best beach bars in the world. Wooden tables and high-backed chairs were set on pebble and beach sand under the shade of palms and walnut trees, the ocean a few yards away. Waiters in blue T-Shirts ferried fruit and rum cocktails, bowls of ceviche and fresh grilled line fish.

Surfing exposes your age and condition. Ten years ago I could at least get up on a surfboard; this time, even in the gentle left breaks, I could barely get up on my knees. “Daddy, you look like a blob of marshmallow on a stick of gingerbread,” Madeline said. Damn that girl. The kids, on the other hand, used to riding around on scooters, were near naturals, and within an hour both were up, riding waves to the shore. Escaping further insult, I snuck off to Lola’s for an early piña colada.

we’d walk to the beach early in the morning, lunch on ceviche and mojitos, then take siestas in hammocks back at the hotel

The days folded into each other and a wonderful gauzy routine set in. We would walk to the beach in the morning, swim and body surf, lunch on ceviche, tuna steaks and mojitos at Lola’s (fish and chips for the kids), then cool down at the hotel in the afternoon, adults taking siestas in those hammocks.

We broke up one day with an excursion to Tamarindo, the largest town on Nicoya – it reminded me of a bustling Greek Island village. On the second last day, we drove two hours north, into the interior, for a hike in the aforementioned Rincón de la Vieja Volcano National Park, famous for its still-active, 6,217 ft-high cinder-cone volcano. The steaming geysers, dense jungle and weird lizards did remind me of Avatar, although another meeting soon after the lizard set me straight.

On the way back from the volcano we literally bumped into another family we knew from home. We had no idea they were holidaying with their kids in Costa Rica, too. But it all fit a theme: Costa Rica is wild and exotic, but it’s also safe, accessible and perfect for children.

Call Scott Dunn’s Americas team on 020 8682 5030 to arrange your trip.

Scott Dunn Suggests

Costa Rica is perfect for families looking for an off-the-beaten track adventure, seeing incredible wildlife, and ending with the ultimate beach break

The Costa Rica Family Wildlife Adventure starts with two nights in Finca Rosa Blanca, an arty boutique country inn in the Central Valley near San José. From here, you are taken by motorboat through the mangroves to remote Casa Corcovado Jungle Lodge on the Osa Peninsula for three nights. You’ll see glimpses of scarlet macaws, iguanas, jaguars, pumas and many more in their natural habitats. Ride horses, go scuba-diving and sea-kayaking, or take a leisurely nature-trail walk. Continue by road to one of the country’s most iconic highlights: the Arenal volcano. You’ll stay at the Arenal Nayara for three nights – a stylish hotel surrounded by lush tropical rainforest. It’s a great base for family-friendly activities, from zip-wiring to canopy walkways and white-water rafting. Continue by road to finish your holiday with four nights in the luxurious Andaz Peninsula Papagayo, a beach resort set on the Peninsula Papagayo. Facilities include a great spa, an infinity pool and a kids’ club. Or tailor this itinerary to suit your family’s needs. Costa Rica Family Wildlife Adventure, from about £4,600pp for 12 nights including flights. For details visit scottdunn.com/costaricacool

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