MANUEL ANTONIO NATIONAL PARK, Costa Rica — Gone are the days when my wife and I traveled with toddlers, spewing knowledge on a host of topics, kids staring at us wide-eyed, soaking up every word with their sponge-like curiosity. Now I travel with two teenagers who can’t hide their boredom and seem excited only when I talk about Facebook or food. So I delegate, hiring historians to take us on walks through London’s West End, rock climbers to guide us in the Canadian Rockies, and here in Costa Rica, naturalists to show us the rain forest’s hidden treasures.
“Wow, check this out,” says an impassioned Ersel Aguilar, propping his telescope under a large green leaf as we take turns staring at a prehistoric-looking lizard.
“The green helmet lizard,” says Aguilar. “A very rare find.”
We were in Manuel Antonio National Park, a sliver of a rain forest bordered by a sublime stretch of Pacific coastline and backed by a ridge of cliffs. A little over 1,600 acres, the small national park allows only 800 people to visit each day, so we arrive with our guide when the gates open. I quickly realize that every creature looks good viewed through a high-powered telescope — the bulging eyes of a dragonfly, the furry hairs of a tarantula, the electric blue coloring of a butterfly’s wings.
Aguilar stops in front of a tree with a large bump. “Termites,” he notes, “a wonderful source of protein.” He dips his hand into the hump and comes out with several.
“Who would like to try?” he says. My adventurous wife, Lisa, goes first. “Minty,” she says.
Next up are my son, Jake, 16, and I. Aguilar sticks the last termite into the face of my daughter, Melanie, 14.
“Please,” he says, “try.” With a grimace, Melanie places the ant-sized insect on her tongue and swallows. I can’t help but laugh, knowing full well that Melanie would have no interest in looking at a termite, let alone eating one, if I had pointed the insect out to her. Aguilar, my man, is getting a big tip.
Blessed with a lush interior that could rival the South Pacific and a tropical setting that’s home to four species of monkeys, slow-moving sloths, vibrantly-colored scarlet macaws, toucans, and at least 45 species of hummingbirds, it should come as no surprise that Costa Rica has become an increasingly popular family getaway. Approximately the size of West Virginia, the country offers a mix of rain forest, mountainous cloud forest, volcanoes, and ocean beaches.
I’ve been fortunate to visit Costa Rica a half-dozen times, but this would be the first trip with my family, so I wanted to show them some of my favorite regions, like Manuel Antonio. Our first stop would be the often overlooked Central Highlands, a mere 90-minute drive from the international airport outside the capital, San José. We would spend three nights at El Silencio, an eco-resort set in the small farming community of Bajos del Toro on the verdant back slopes of Poás Volcano.
Quickly leaving the congested city streets (a GPS is highly advisable since road signage is poor), our ears popped as we ascended the high mountain roads, passing a green mosaic of coffee plantations, horse meadows, and dairy farms. Eventually, we spotted the dramatic serrated ridges of Poás, a sight that never grew old from our room’s back porch.
All it took was one stroll at sunrise through the lodge’s hummingbird garden to realize that we had made a wise choice. The tiny birds were zipping by us, poking into the nectar of the blue hyacinths.
This whet our appetite for a two-hour hike we would take that morning with El Silencio’s naturalist, Andrea, who would lead us to three waterfalls hidden in the cloud forest. Walking along a stream, we picked blackberries, felt the large elephant ear leaves, smelled wild citronella, and watched golden beetles cross the trail. We were traveling here in the heart of the Green Season, when torrential downpours happen at a moment’s notice. The result was a trail blanketed with fallen leaves and passionfruit.
We crossed a bridge and soon were privy to our first waterfall cascading down the rock crevice. The waterfalls became more picturesque the higher we hiked, especially the final one, coined “The Promise,” which plummeted some 200 feet down the rocks into a natural pool of water.
“Wow, I can’t believe it’s just us here,” said Melanie.
That afternoon, we took a horseback ride from El Silencio’s stables into the meadows that climbed the hillside. This was no level ride on a dirt road at some touristy stable. We rode high up the mountainous slopes, trotting through streams, and stopping at a dairy farm to milk the cows and feed a 5-day-old calf. Then we galloped though this small farming village of 300 to see the school soccer field, church, police station, and two bars.
The next day was Jake’s birthday. In lieu of a cake, we opted for the chocolate tour at Tirimbina Biological Reserve. In the neighboring Sarapiquí River region, Tirimbina is a favorite for scientists studying the primary rain forest. We crossed an 866-foot-long canopy bridge, the longest in the country, and spotted a sloth under the shade of a large tree.
A guide led us past flowering bromeliads and orchids and the web-like roots of a century-old wild nutmeg tree to a plot of land housing a cocoa plantation. A demonstration explained the history of chocolate-making in Mesoamerican culture and how cocoa pods were transformed into chocolate. The kids waited patiently to sample the homegrown goodness, a dark, rich, and creamy chocolate. And since it was Jake’s birthday, he was invited up for seconds, and thirds.
From the Central Highlands, we drove five hours to the northern tier of the country on the Pan American Highway, a frustratingly slow two-lane road. As patience grew thin, we arrived at Riu Guanacaste, which we would soon learn is not your typical all-inclusive resort. At any given moment, we would spot howler monkeys climbing trees on the perimeter of the property and large lizards scurrying below the chairs by the pool.
We spent our days in the large pool, gliding over for another frozen concoction at the swim-up bar, riding the waves of the warm Pacific, and snorkeling with the neon-colored fish off the rocks. The beach was an exquisite crescent of gray sand, buttressed by hills, which could easily lead to an hourlong walk. Surprisingly, aside from the resort, there was little development. That might change, however, when the Riu unveils its second hotel this month, next door to the first property.
Heading south along the coast, on our way to Manuel Antonio, I insisted that we spend a night near Jaco so that we could wake up early and hike into Carara National Park. On my last trip to Costa Rica, I had stumbled upon Carara, only to stare in awe at a family of four scarlet macaws. I was hoping to duplicate the moment, waking the kids at 6 a.m.
Leaving the parking lot of Carara, we were quickly lost in the dense and humid rain forest, passing under towering wild cashew trees. Following a counterclockwise route along a creek, we spotted turkey vultures, but no scarlet macaws. Disappointed, we headed back to the hotel.
That same afternoon, as we were driving south on the coastal road to Quepos and Manuel Antonio, high atop a hill looking down at the ocean waters, we spotted a flock of large birds flying overhead. I stopped the car, and there to our right in a tall almond tree were six or seven scarlet macaws, all squawking loudly, feathers a kaleidoscopic blend of red, blue, green, and yellow. Cars behind us honked, but we didn’t move until we got our fill of the sight.
After spotting the elusive green helmet lizard at Manuel Antonio the next day, we headed down to the beach, where five howler monkeys were climbing atop a small tree, one mother holding her infant on her back. You could actually smell the strong, very ripe scent of the monkeys before you saw them. But to truly appreciate a howler monkey, you have to hear that loud, guttural roar that reverberates across the bush.
“It sounds like a monster dying,” said Melanie.
Covered in sweat from the hot sun, we went for a swim in the strong surf. That’s the beauty of Manuel Antonio, where the rain forest meets the sea. You can wash away the humidity with a quick dip in the ocean.
On the final day of our trip, we headed high into the mountains above Quepos for a morning of zip-lining.
“This is what we call a Costa Rican massage,” said our guide Joshua as we bounced around on a bumpy road through a 25,000-acre palm oil plantation. Used for biodiesel fuel, cooking oil, suntan lotion, and other lubricants, the palm oil industry is the second most important business after tourism on the Costa Rican coast.
We made it to the base camp, where we harnessed up, and off we went on another jeep ride to the top of a ridge and the first of our 12 zip line runs. As we cruised along the cables, the greenery became a blur, especially when you rode upside down, which we all tried. For a finale, Jake attempted the Superman run, cruising face first, arms straight out like the superhero. At the end, he had a huge smile on his face and declared, “This is one of the best things I ever did. Well, besides eating termites.”
Stephen Jermanok can be reached at www.activetravels.com.