Costa Rica: Your family and other animals

In this week's Lonely Planet 'Great Escape', discover how to make the most of the wildlife, beaches and jungles of Costa Rica, a natural wonder for children and adults

The sound of cicadas fills the forest like a screeching jet engine. You step over a dark trail of leafcutter ants carrying triangles of leaves over a snake-like tree root that's invaded the path. One of the many tall trees above your head rustles and you look up to see a troop of white-faced monkeys eating fruit. A monkey catches your gaze, then turns quickly to run up the branch, a baby clinging to her back. Your child points at her, with an expression of pure awe.

Welcome to Costa Rica, arguably the easiest place to see wildlife in the Americas. But the nature-in-all-its-glory adventure doesn't end here. The same day that you explore the forest you may have also visited a live volcano, and the Pacific coast with its sandy beaches and surfable waves could be steps away. As one of the safest and more developed countries in the region, Costa Rica is easy to get around; if you plan it right, you won't have any car trips that are longer than three hours. There are thrills for every age: soft beaches for tots, easy walks with lots of animals for children, more adventurous jaunts and surfing for tweens, and nightlife and adrenalin-charged activities (from rafting to zip-lining) for teenagers.

While almost anywhere in Costa Rica is good for family travel, the north-west part of the country and the central Pacific coast is easy to get to from the capital, San José, and offers tons of variety in a condensed space. In this exhilarating tropical playland you can explore Arenal's perfectly shaped volcanic cone and the surrounding Jurassic jungle before heading up to Monteverde for misty cloud forests filled with bright-coloured birds, outrageously large insects and weird animals, such as nocturnal, prehensile-tailed porcupines. Then head to the coast for tall, humid jungles that hide sloths, snakes and coatis (members of the raccoon family). Look down from river bridges to see colossal crocodiles bathing in the sun or spend a day at the beach learning to surf in gentle waves. And expect plenty more expressions of awe.

Arenal volcano Arenal volcano The perfect getaway

Get out of San José and go straight to Parque Nacional Volcán Arenal. The volcano has recently stopped spouting lava and the views here look like something out of a dinosaur-meets-unicorn fantasy novel. Walk or horseback-ride to waterfalls, explore the dark grey rubble of old lava flows, or windsurf, boat or fish the 85sq km volcanic lake. Meanwhile, trees with massive root buttresses hold troops of monkey comedians that will keep you laughing. See some of the world's most dangerous snakes and colourful frogs up close at the Arenal Eco Zoo. Next, go to Monteverde for higher, mistier, lichen-draped forests with more critters. Take a walk along the family-friendly Bajo del Tigre trail to spot toucans and agoutis by day or hairy tarantulas hiding in their ground lairs at twilight. There are specialist educational zoos here for butterflies, frogs, bats and snakes that allow you to see and learn about your favourite animals.

A macaw A macaw

Then it's time to descend from the clouds to the sunny, humid coast. Jacó is touristy yes, but it's a beachside town with enough sleeping and eating options to keep any family happy. Days can be spent exploring the nearby macaw-filled Parque Nacional Carara. If you haven't had enough animal and beach action, then Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio, about an hour down the coast from Jacó, is sure to deliver. Here, vine-covered trees harbouring sloths give way to coconut palms and white sands where you can swim in warm blue water until an animal exciting enough (a spiny-tailed iguana, maybe?) draws you out. Again, this park is no secret but it merits its popularity through its beauty and density of animal life. Even at its most crowded it still feels as though the monkeys outnumber people.

Plan it

Fly into the Costa Rican capital of San José and rent a 4x4. Book your lodging well in advance if you'll be travelling during the peak months of December and January or June and July. The driest (and most popular) time to visit is November to April. Humpback whales migrate along the coast in September and October. Monteverde gets packed for the annual Monteverde Music Festival (includes jazz, Latin and classical artists), held on variable dates from January to early April.

Detour

If you're travelling in Decexmber or January, visit the Playa Hermosa Wildlife Sanctuary to watch baby Olive Ridley turtles dig themselves out of their nests and flail their way to the sea. From July to early December you may be able to visit the sanctuary at night to watch mama turtles come to shore to lay eggs. Any time of year you can visit the hatchery and see the efforts to protect the species. Tour companies can charge up to US$100 per person for day trips but it's perfectly fine to just show up on your own. µ

This is an extract from 'Great Escapes', published by Lonely Planet (£29.99). To order a copy, go to shop.lonelyplanet.com

ESSENTIAL EXPERIENCES

* Hearing the dinosaur-like call of scarlet macaws before watching them land in a flash of brilliant red on a tree branch at sunset.

* Gliding on a gentle wave while warm ocean water lightly sprays your face.

* Feeling the mist of a 40ft waterfall before seeing it post-descent from the Arenal Observatory Lodge and its volcano views.

* Gaining exhilarating speed as you zip-line through the myriad greens of the rainforest canopy.

* Searching for creatures in the mists of Monteverde's Middle Earth-like cloud forests.

* Getting a touch of vertigo from your very solid bridge, while watching gargantuan sunbathing crocodiles in the river below.

Travel details

Location: Costa Rica, Central America

Best time of year: November to April

Ideal time commitment: 10 days

Essential tip: You can use US dollars almost everywhere in Costa Rica

Pack: Jumpers for chilly nights, binoculars for wildlife-watching, insect repellent

Life and Style
Steve Shaw shows Kate how to get wet behind the ears and how to align her neck
healthSteven Shaw - the 'Buddha of Breaststroke' - applies Alexander Technique to the watery sport
Arts and Entertainment
The sight of a bucking bronco in the shape of a pink penis was too much for Hollywood actor and gay rights supporter Martin Sheen, prompting him to boycott a scene in the TV series Grace and Frankie
tv
Sport
footballShirt then goes on sale on Gumtree
Voices
Terry Sue-Patt as Benny in the BBC children’s soap ‘Grange Hill’
voicesGrace Dent on Grange Hill and Terry Sue-Patt
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010
music
Arts and Entertainment
Twin Peaks stars Joan Chen, Michael Ontkean, Kyle Maclachlan and Piper Laurie
tvName confirmed for third series
Sport
Cameron Jerome
footballCanaries beat Boro to gain promotion to the Premier League
Arts and Entertainment
art
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Guru Careers: Events Coordinator / Junior Events Planner

    £24K + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an Events Coordinator ...

    Royal Yachting Association Cymru Wales: Chief Executive Officer

    Salary 42,000: Royal Yachting Association Cymru Wales: The CEO is responsible ...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

    £35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

    Ashdown Group: Technical IT Manager - North London - Growing business

    £40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A growing business that has been ope...

    Day In a Page

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine