Independent Families: 'Is Costa Rica suitable for a family holiday?'


Q. Fifteen years ago, we went backpacking through Central America, and loved Costa Rica. We'd like to return there with our six- and nine-year-old girls, but – since we weren't focused on child-friendliness when we were last there – we're not sure how suitable it would be. James and Erica Ross,Guildford



A. Taking your daughters to Costa Rica would provide them with not only an exciting holiday, but a colourful lesson in geography and wildlife. This compact, peaceful country was promoting environmentally sensitive tourism long before it became the modish notion that it now is over here, and it's not hard to see why: around two-thirds of the size of Scotland, the ribbon of land is bursting with rainforests, wildlife and dramatic shorelines on the Pacific and Atlantic coasts. It is also one of the safest and most visitor-friendly of the Central American nations, with a well-established tourist infrastructure that has set out to preserve the fragile ecosystems within the national parks. A good time to visit during school holidays is at Easter, since temperatures are warm and you'll avoid the "green" (read: rainy) season of the summer holidays.

The only obstacles are distance and inaccessibility. There are no direct flights from the UK to Costa Rica, so you'll have to fly via mainland Europe or the US – typically 15 hours' flying time in total. American Airlines (020-7365 0777; www.aa.com), Continental (0845 607 6760; www.continental.com) and United (0845 844 4777;www.unitedairlines. co.uk) all have connecting flights in the US to the capital, San José. If you'd rather avoid the hassle of American immigration, then Iberia (0870 609 0500; www.iberia.com) flies via Madrid.

Flights can cost over £700 each in the summer, but the website www.opodo.co.uk has an excellent deal for a total of £2,080 for the four of you, flying from Heathrow to New York on Virgin Atlantic and connecting to the excellent Costa Rican airline, Taca.

If you're thinking about reliving your backpacking days en famille and organising the trip independently, it is a good idea to reserve accommodation for at least the first few nights. San José is a good base, since nearly all roads originate from here and getting from A to B will usually mean travelling back to the capital.

There's a good range of accommodation in San José, from family-run backpacker hostels to big, business hotels. Don Carlos (00 506 221 6707; www.doncarloshotel.com) is a mid-range hotel in the historical zone. The hotel is well placed for visits to local museums, the zoo and central market; day trips can also be arranged. Another option is Hotel Presidente (00 506 256 1165; www.hotel presidente.com), a modern hotel also in downtown San José.

The compact size of Costa Rica means that you can pack a lot into a two-week stay. An easy day trip from San José is La Guacima Butterfly Farm (00 506 438 0400; www.butterfly farm.co.cr) – a shuttle collects from some of the larger hotels in the city each morning. Guided tours are given and visitors can wander around landscaped gardens, a caterpillar room and butterfly enclosure. But you won't want to stay in the capital for long and there are ample national parks and beaches within a few hours' drive of San José.

Around an hour's drive north west are the La Paz Waterfall Gardens (www.waterfallgardens.com). Here, five waterfalls are linked by a riverside trail through tropical forest. Visitors can encounter the falls, as well as butterflies, tropical birds, frogs, hummingbirds and snakes in dedicated enclosures.

Continuing north from La Paz Waterfall Gardens takes you through the coffee-farm studded highlands and down to Lake Arenal and its active volcano. Your girls should enjoy watching the lava spew down the sides of Volcan Arenal at night, and you both might enjoy the hot springs in the area. Although most visitors base themselves in Fortuna, it can become crowded. Sanctuary can be found at the Tabacon Thermal Resort (00 506 519 1900; www.tabacon.com), at the foot of the volcano. Rates start at US$250 (£125), with $45 (£22.50) each for your daughters if sharing a room, excluding breakfast.

You'll want to see some of the tropical forests that cover Costa Rica and that are home to the diverse plants and wildlife. There are 26 national parks, which encompass rain and cloud forest reserves. The most family-friendly and smallest of the national parks is Manuel Antonio, on the Pacific coast. It packs in two stunning coves with emerald-green sea and white, powdery sand, as well as varying levels of hiking trails through rainforest.

There are over 100 species of mammal, including fearless capuchin monkeys that will raid any unattended bags on the beaches, sleepy two- and three-toed sloths, squirrel and howler monkeys, iguanas and coatis, as well as diverse birdlife.

Snorkelling is popular offshore, since tropical fish and dolphins can be spotted. The park is open daily from 7am-4pm except Mondays. Daily visitor numbers are limited, so arrive early. Manuel Antonio can be reached by local bus from Quepos, which is itself linked by bus to San José. You'll also find plenty of accommodation in both Quepos and towards the small town of Manuel Antonio, where the luxury hotels are set into a cliffside.

If you'd prefer to let somebody else do the organising, there are package tours to consider. Exodus (0845 863 9600; www.exodus.co.uk) offers a two-week Wildlife Adventure Family Holiday from £1,835 per adult and £1,495 for under-12s. The group trip takes in San José, Monteverde Cloud Forest, Arenal and Tortuguero. The price includes Iberia flights from Heathrow, transfers, sightseeing, hotel accommodation with breakfast and some meals. Reef and Rainforest (01808 866965; www.familytours.co.uk) offers a two-week trip from £2,384 per adult and £998 per child, including return BA/American Airlines flights via Miami, hotels with breakfast, transfers, sightseeing and some meals. The itinerary takes in San José, Tortuguero, boating on the San Carlos River, Monteverde, Arenal and Tamarindo. For more information, see www.visitcentroamerica.com.



Send your family queries to The Independent Parent, Travel Desk, The Independent, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS or e-mail crusoe@independent.co.uk

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