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Costa Rica just for kids

With an active volcano, abundant wildlife and tropical beaches, this Central American land puts a family-friendly face on an exotic adventure.

May 25, 2003|Deborah L. Jacobs | Special to The Times

La Fortuna, Costa Rica — La Fortuna, Costa Rica

"Mommy and Daddy, come quickly! I hear rumbling!"

My husband, Ken Stern, and I had left our 5-year-old son, Jack, coloring in front of the floor-to-ceiling window of our hotel room while we washed up for dinner. Ken and I had apparently missed an explosion of the Arenal volcano, just six miles away. By the time we scrambled into the room, we could see only a trail of smoke streaming from its crater.

Earlier that February day, the three of us had been even closer to the tempest, on foot navigating the lava flows left by two major eruptions of Arenal, one in 1968 and the other in 1993. Frequent small upheavals allow the volcano to vent, supposedly minimizing the risk of dangerous outbursts for visitors like us who hope to witness this natural wonder in action.

On a 90-minute hike with a local tour guide, Arenal reminded us of its presence at least a dozen times. Depending on the intensity of the outburst, it sounded like a bubbling pot, galloping horses or a fireworks display. Jack said the rough terrain reminded him of the forest moon of Endor, scene of a climactic battle in the "Star Wars" film "Return of the Jedi."

By day we could see rock and lava pouring down the sides. At night, the blasts were visible as bursts of orange against a darkened sky.

We had come to La Fortuna, the town closest to Arenal, as part of a 12-day family trip. Past journeys with Jack had taken us to some far-flung destinations,

including Malaysia, Hong Kong and India. Although we enjoyed these trips, Jack, understandably, had absorbed very little. Now that he was in kindergarten, our goal was to balance our yen for the exotic with activities that would interest him.

Costa Rica offered plenty of opportunities to do both. The Central American country has nearly 30 national parks and reserves, including wet and dry jungle, dramatic waterfalls, hot springs and pristine beaches.

It also turned out to be a place where a kid could be a kid. During our visit, Jack came face to face with an iguana, followed the trail of leaf-cutter ants and learned to bite open a ripe red coffee berry and scoop out the beans inside, an experience he described as "awesome."

There was no particular reason to stay clean or even quiet, except to hear the chorus of birds and crickets or to keep from frightening the squirrel monkeys. When we weren't sleeping, we spent most of our time outdoors.

A child-friendly country

Our itinerary included three segments: the volcano at Arenal, a beach resort in Tamarindo and another beach and national park in Manuel Antonio.

Everywhere we traveled in Costa Rica the local people went out of their way to accommodate us and our child. Our hotels supplied an extra bed at no additional charge. The driver of every cab or minivan we took stopped to point out things that would interest Jack, from the lava flows and the white-faced, raccoon-like coatis in La Fortuna to the grazing cows we saw on the way there.

Three nights and two full days in each of our destinations seemed about right. In hindsight, we would have skipped the three nights we spent in San Jose, which, despite the entertaining Children's Museum, seemed noisy, polluted and charmless.

On our one full day in San Jose, Costa Rica's capital, we hired a taxi ($100 for the day) to take us on an excursion to La Paz Waterfall Gardens near Varablanca, about an hour northwest of San Jose. This private reserve was our first experience with the sort of soft travel adventure that makes Costa Rica accessible even to young children.

The path to several spectacular waterfalls took us not over rocks and muddy paths, as one might expect, but up and down sturdy metal and concrete staircases. Jack seemed fascinated with the rushing current and kept asking where he could go swimming, but there was no safe spot for him to take a dip.

At the end of the hike, a caretaker radioed the main building for a shuttle bus to take us back there. After a buffet lunch on the terrace, we explored the magnificent butterfly garden below, where electric blue morpho butterflies landed on our sleeves. Jack learned to look for the plates of mashed banana where they congregated.

The ease of visiting this place contrasted starkly with the overall difficulty of getting around Costa Rica. The mountains, lakes, volcanoes and rain forests that contribute to Costa Rica's beauty are natural barriers to travel.

In various spots the roads are unpaved or in disrepair. For example, the 87-mile trip from San Jose to La Fortuna, which would take less than 90 minutes on a California freeway (assuming little traffic), took 3 1/2 hours on the winding, potholed mountain road.

We traveled that route by Interbus, one of two scheduled services that pick up tourists at their hotels and take them by minivan directly to the next destination. (Gray Line runs a comparable service.)

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