In its first week, the new U.S. administration has already removed all references to Climate Change from its website and is openly looking to sell off drilling rights in National Parks and other public lands to the highest bidder. So the responsibility of parents to educate their children on the importance of nature and wildlife conservation has never been more vital.
There are few nations on the planet that are better for illustrating the beauty of nature than Costa Rica. The country was one of the earlier adopters of responsible ecotourism, with more than 25% of its 19,700 square miles protected from future development. It’s been ranked the best country in the world in terms of environmental sustainability on more than one occasion, and became the first country in the Americas to ban hunting in 2012.
There are so many things to do in Costa Rica, it can be difficult to decide where to start. The country has 26 National Parks and myriad nature reserves and wildlife refuges, encompassing diverse ecosystems ranging from cloud forests and rainforests to wetlands and coastal marine areas. In short, the place is paradise for anyone with an interest in nature, wildlife and outdoor adventure.
Here are our picks for the best things to do in Costa Rica for families…
Explore Tortuguero National Park
Located in northeast Costa Rica, this 77,000-acre protected area is a poster child for the country’s efforts to conserve its remarkable biodiversity. Tortuguero National Park boasts 11 different ecosystems, including beaches, lagoons, mangroves, rainforest, and swamps. Its canals feel like a miniature Amazon, providing up-close sightings of Caiman, Crocodiles, River Otters, and Roseate Spoonbills. Scan the trees and you’ll find Sloths, Iguanas, Toucans, and more. For nature lovers, this place is truly paradise!
Go for a Canopy Walk in Monteverde
Visiting Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve is one of the most popular things to do in Costa Rica. With six ecological zones, the reserve boasts extraordinary biodiversity, containing around 100 mammal species, 120 reptilian and amphibian species, and 400 bird species. It also has a Nature Center, butterfly gardens, frog pond, serpentarium, and an array of hiking trails. Their canopy tours are world-renowned, providing tree-top views of butterflies and birds such as the rare Resplendent Quetzal and Toucans as well as Capuchin, Howler, and Spider Monkeys.
Hang Out in Hot Springs
One of the most active volcanoes in the world until 2010, the 5,480-foot Arenal Volcano dominates the landscape of northwestern Costa Rica. The majestic mountain has been dormant for six years now, but its geothermal activity heats the groundwater of numerous local springs. Kids can enjoy splashing in the pools or trying to stand up under the immense pressure of hot springs waterfalls. Their parents can simply relax, enjoy the verdant tropical scenery that surrounds Arenal, and soak away the aches and pains that come with a long day of adventures.
Hike in Corcovado National Park
A third of Costa Rica’s 164-square-mile Osa Peninsula is protected as Corcovado National Park, which National Geographic called “the most biologically intense place on Earth in terms of biodiversity.” Corcovado is packed with wildlife, including four Monkey species, Sloths, Anteaters, Poison Dart Frogs and more. It’s also home to rare species such as the Baird’s Tapir, Jaguars, and Harpy Eagles, with Whales, Dolphins and other marine mammals often seen offshore.
Monkey Around in Manuel Antonio
Listed by Forbes among the world’s 12 most beautiful national parks, Manuel Antonio is just 7.66 square miles, making it the smallest national park in Costa Rica. But the park’s tiny size belies its popularity, drawing over 150,000 visitors a year. It also has an abundance of natural beauty, with gorgeous white sand beaches, dynamic mountains, and lush rainforest that’s home to 109 species of mammals and 184 species of birds. Just watch out for the Monkeys: They’re known as opportunistic kleptomaniacs eager to steal a prize from unsuspecting tourists!
Save Sea Turtles on the Costa Rican Coast
Costa Rica is one of the world’s most important places for Sea Turtle conservation. The country’s beaches provide vital nesting grounds for four different species– Green Sea Turtles, Hawksbills, Leatherbacks, and Olive Ridleys. All of these except the Leatherback return to the same beach on which they were hatched to lay their own eggs. So it’s simple science to know when and where to see them, but much harder to protect them from poaching and other dangers. Discover Corps’ Sea Turtle Volunteer vacation offers travelers a chance to help with hands-on conservation, including releasing baby Sea Turtles during peak season.
Raft the Rio Pacuare
One of Costa Rica’s great environmental victories came in 2005, when the plan from a state-owned electricity agency to build a hydroelectric dam on the Pacuare River was rejected due to concerns about pollution and potential impacts on the local ecology. Now, whitewater rafting on the 67-mile river has become one of the most popular things to do in Costa Rica. The family-friendly adventure activity often affords excellent views of rainforest animals such as Howler Monkeys, Sloths, and a broad variety of tropical birds.
Speak For the Trees… By Planting Them
One of the biggest environmental issues facing coastal communities all around the world is deforestation. Tree loss and climate change are contributing to increased beach erosion rates, increased ocean runoff, and habitat loss for many of Costa Rica’s iconic species. Discover Corps travelers have a chance to help out with community reforestation projects by collecting seeds, planting them in a nursery, maintaining the trees and even planting them in key areas. Not only is getting their hands dirty good for kids, but in this case it’s great for the environment as well.
Whale Watching in Marino Bellena National Park
One of the newest national parks in Costa Rica, Marino Belleno is known for its “Whale’s Tail” land formation, which you can see only when the water recedes at low tide. Located in Uvita, the park is also considered one of the best places in the Americas to go whale-watching. Because both Northern and Southern Humpback Whales migrate through this area, Marino Bellena gives Costa Rica the longest Humpback Whale-watching season in the world. The park also offers 8.69 miles of beaches and the largest coral reef on the Pacific coast of Central America.
Work in Wildlife Rescue
Perhaps the best thing about taking your family to Costa Rica is the opportunity, not just to learn about wildlife conservation, but to get involved in it. From Kids Saving the Rainforest in Quepos and Alturas Wildlife Sanctuary in Dominical to La Tortuga Feliz on the Caribbean coast, Costa Rica offers numerous opportunities for animal lovers to volunteer. In the process, they get personal experience that reinforces the importance of protecting the country’s precious flora and fauna. Hopefully they share the joy of that experience with friends and family back home, and encourage others to help preserve this planet we all love to travel. –Bret Love
BIO: Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 23 years of print and online experience, whose clients have ranged from the Atlanta Journal Constitution and American Airlines to National Geographic and Yahoo Travel. He is the co-founder of ecotourism website Green Global Travel and Green Travel Media.