Stepping out of our casita’s stone shower with windows facing onto the lush forest, I jumped at the sound of my 7-year-old’s panicked voice.
“Mom, you have to come-right-now! There’s a Collared Aracari down at the breakfast place, and Sal said she just saw a toucan.”
I threw on a sundress and raced after my ecstatic son toward our guest house’s breakfast deck. There, leaning over the porch rail, were my husband, older son, and parents known to their grandchildren as Sal and O’da. In front of them in the yard were bamboo platforms, tied to trees, laden with bunches of bananas and the most amazing birds I had ever seen: Collared Aracaris with their bright red rumps, yellow chests, and serrated beaks; and Costa Rica’s largest toucan — the Black-mandibled — measuring in at about 2-feet long with its cartoonishly large beak.
We continued to gasp at birds for at least a half hour before any of us remembered that we, too, were there for breakfast. When I finally settled into my chair, sipping a glass of frothy soursop juice, I smiled. While planning this trip, the ease of a kid-friendly Costa Rican beach resort had certainly occurred to me, but instead I had decided to capitalize on our group’s new, and perhaps fleeting, ability to explore the outdoors together. At 6 and 9, my kids could finally keep up on any moderate hike, and in their late 60s, my parents were still quite active. So far, our multigenerational naturalists’ trip was proving a success.
Birds beyond our wildest dreams
After meeting up with my parents at the airport in Liberia, we aimed for Bijagua, a town in Costa Rica’s cowboy country just south of Nicaragua. The lure of this region is Rio Celeste, a mineral-infused river located in Tenorio Volcano National Park.
Though our plan had been to head to the park first thing in the morning, three hours after racing down to the birds at breakfast we were still leaning over the railing, perusing our hosts’ homemade bird ID cards and enjoying some of their smaller avian neighbors: bright red Summer Tanagers and Black-cheeked Woodpeckers inching along the garden’s branches with their dexterous claws. Costa Rica — and this region in particular — had a way of not just nudging, but shoving us into enthusiastic birding.
When we finally made it to Tenorio Volcano National Park, we were not disappointed. We hiked a kilometer through moss-covered tropical forest and then down 260 stairs to Rio Celeste’s stunning aqua waterfall. Over the next kilometer and a half of trail, we were rewarded with a blue lagoon, bubbling sulfuric pools and passage over rickety, one-person suspension bridges that left us feeling like Indiana Jones.
On our final morning in Bijagua, we were again late to leave, this time exploring our host’s farm on a naturalists’ treasure hunt we designed for the kids. For the requisite mammal on our list, Liam and Reid spotted a sloth and a troop of white-faced capuchin monkeys; termites, which they confirmed tasted like licorice, fulfilled the insect requirement; and a banana tree counted for the fruit.
Warm river swimming in Arenal
A two-hour drive from Bijagua brought us to the Arenal region, known for its volcano, active through 2010. Riding high from the birds in Bijagua, we jumped out of bed each morning as soon as we heard the earliest roars of howler monkeys. Down a nearby farm road we were rewarded with a nesting colony of Montezuma Oropendolas, an eccentric black bird larger than crows, sporting an orange beak and yellow tail feathers. The females were busy weaving their huge, pendulous, teardrop-shaped nests, while the males, like living coo-coo clocks, provided outlandish cheerleading support with their bubbling calls, each one punctuated by a full upside-down flip.
With the constant tease of the volcano on the horizon, we spent one day hiking in Arenal Volcano National Park. Starting on the jungly Heliconias Trail, we wound our way along the 3½-kilometer path up to the periphery of an old lava flow. The kids hopped from one volcanic boulder to the next before we retreated to the shade of a giant Ceiba tree for our picnic lunch.
The real Arenal highlight for young and old was the abundant geothermal water. We made constant use of our hotel’s soothing hot pool, but also ventured out to soak in Río Chollín, a free-access, warm river. Even my mom, a woman known to wear wool turtlenecks in June, was soon leaning back into the current with a smile on her face. The kids popped on their goggles and wriggled around in the pools, looking for fish, but their biggest find was a tiny green lizard, which ran along the surface of the river, covering about 10 feet in three seconds.
Traipsing through the cloud forest
Our last stop was Monteverde, where the cloud forest drapes over the Continental Divide, and where my husband, kids, and I were living for a sabbatical year. We led my parents along our favorite trail in the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, peering up at giant tree ferns, ficus trees with their eerie web of roots strangling host tree trunks, and wild avocado trees teaming with orchids, air plants, droopy moss and Tarzan-like vines. Much to our delight, we spotted a red-bellied Resplendent Quetzal with its fluffy green head and long tail feathers drifting in the wind. As always, we stopped just outside the reserve’s gates at Café Colibri to ooh and aah at the nine varieties of hummingbirds that frequent their feeders.
Yes, a Costa Rican beach-resort trip would have been easier to plan — and perhaps even more relaxing in the moment — but we emerged from our 10-day hiking and birding adventure with so many salient memories of shared discovery. I’d trade in a piña colada next to a pool for the excited passing-of-the-binoculars between my parents and their grandchildren any day.