Let's face it: International travel is too pricey for most of us these days. But this doesn't mean you're stuck here waiting for a better exchange rate. Last summer, I discovered a terrific alternative to European travel. It's called Latin America -- maybe you've heard of it? Turns out it's one of the few places where the dollar still rules. The trick is to pick a destination where tourism is developed so that it's safe and easy to get around, but not so developed that you feel as if you've never left the States. Costa Rica fits the bill and then some. It won't break the bank -- it's easy to find cheap flights -- and since English is widely spoken, it's also not hard to navigate. Best of all: For about half the price of a top-shelf Disney vacation, you can explore a whole new world with your kids.
My family was both wowed and humbled as we watched a minor eruption from the Arenal Volcano. Later, we headed to the volcano's base to check out Tabacon Hot Springs -- nature's version of a water park. Each landscaped trail leads to a different surprise: a bridge, waterfall, or natural pool (some warm, some ice cold). My kids loved jumping from pool to pool and discovering ones hidden off the beaten path. After exploring the springs, we set up shop at one of the nearby manmade swimming pools for some fun on the water slides. We ate a late lunch of burgers and fries in the pool's swim-up bar/restaurant and watched the volcano erupt again in the distance. It would be an understatement to say that this raised the bar for all future dining experiences on the trip.
Getting a wake-up "call" from a gang of howler monkeys is something my family still talks about -- and impersonates. And that's just the start of the animal encounters. Costa Rica's rain forests and national parks are a nature lover's paradise. Our favorite is Manuel Antonio National Park. It's a small nature reserve with trails easy enough for little kids to manage, and there are excellent guides who will point out a sloth sleeping overhead or a giant iguana camouflaged by the trees. Bonus: On the outskirts of the park are white-sand beaches, where you can snorkel through schools of tropical fish, sign your kids up for surf school, or have a picnic on the beach and watch squirrel monkeys try to sneak up and steal some of your lunch.
Whether it's taking in the sights from a zip-line swing through the treetops of the rain forest or riding horses on the beach, Costa Rica has outdoor activities for everyone. Most of the outfits will let kids as young as 4 go on a slow-paced nature hike or strap onto the zip line with you or a guide. You can find out age recommendations and sign up for these excursions through your hotel or a tour operator like Memorable Costa Rica.
But if you or your kids are anything like me and don't want to be suspended midair on a flimsy-looking zip line, head to the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve in Monteverde for a more relaxing -- but still beautiful -- view of the skyline. Here, you'll find a series of suspension bridges built above the tropical forest canopy. And while you're in the area, save time to stroll through the Children's Eternal Rainforest. It was founded in 1987 by a 9-year-old from Sweden who got his classmates together to buy 15 acres of rain forest that were threatened.
Costa Rica offers all types of accommodations, from rustic lodges to American chains to luxury resorts. We decided to try out a couple different ones to have the whole range of experiences. The highlight for us was Si Como No Resort & Spa (sicomono.com; starts at $185), an eco-resort that's built into the cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The hotel has a swimming pool with a water slide and swim-up bar (smoothies for the kids), restaurants, movie theater, and its own private wildlife refuge, complete with Butterfly Botanical Gardens. It may sound like a bustling resort, but it's laid out more like an inn or a lodge. For a cheaper alternative, check out the Cloud Forest Lodge (www.cloudforestlodge.com; starts at $80). The hotel is truly family-friendly, with nice rooms, hiking trails, and most important, helpful owners who will hook you up with all of the popular (and less known) activities in the area.
A lot of countries talk the eco-tourism talk, but here you're going to find the real thing. Right now, Costa Rica is one of the greenest countries in the world (in terms of carbon and sulfur emissions and conservation practices), and the government has made a pledge to be the first developing country to be carbon neutral by 2021. This means that every hotel and tour group goes the extra step to conserve resources and educate visitors. Even the airplanes have gone green. Nature Air (natureair.com) is one of the only carbon-neutral airlines in the world -- and it's a bargain: You can hop from rain forest to the volcano in a matter of minutes (driving would take all day) for less than $50.
Being immersed in this kind of eco-culture had a huge impact on my family: I now have kids who turn off the lights and notice whether I'm buying the recycled paper towels or the organic laundry detergent. I think it's because they got to experience the rain forest in person and soak up the go-green lifestyle. When's the last time your vacation changed how your family sees the world?
Originally published in the August 2008 issue of Parents magazine.
This piece was accurate at publication time, but all prices, offerings, and availabilities are subject to change. Please contact each hotel and attraction for up-to-date rates and information before taking your trip.