For weeks before our Costa Rican vacation, my husband, David, and I promised Zoe, our two-year-old, that she would see animals. I feared we had overdone it, though, when she awoke on our third morning there demanding to see elephants.
Not to worry. Hours later, we were peering at a nest of cold-eyed baby caimans on the Rio Frio near the Nicaraguan border. "Crocodiles!" squealed Zoe, elephants forgotten. By evening, we'd seen a sloth, monkeys, alligators, a psychedelic-green Jesus Christ lizard (it skitters on water), and birds galore.
Costa Rica, long Central America's oasis of peace and relative prosperity, is a model of conservation, with some 30 parks to preserve its celebrated biodiversity. It offers a gentle taste of a fascinating region still grappling with a legacy of violence and poverty.
There's certainly adventure for the unencumbered. But with a toddler, we wanted maximum nature with minimum heroics. We found it, from iguanas in hotel gardens to roadside egrets and monkeys on the beach. And Costa Rica is so small you can drive from highlands to beaches and back without living in the car. That's especially nice because the potholed roads are arduous--and hard on stomachs. Another plus: Zoe was welcomed everywhere. People fussed over her so that we began to feel we had a little empress in tow.
We didn't hit the animal trail right off. "Family vacation" means treats for Mommy and Daddy, too. From the capital, San Jose, we headed to the north-central region for its hot springs. We stayed at the Hotel El Tucano Resort & Thermal Spa (www.centralamerica.com/cr/hotel/tucano.htm), near Ciudad Quesada, an afternoon's drive along Costa Rica's hilly backbone. The area is like a tropical Vermont, with palm trees and verdant cow pastures. February is supposed to be the dry season, but it rained on and off. No complaints, though; we saw so many rainbows that David joked they blocked the view.
At El Tucano, we hit the spa for a hot dip in the rain--delicious, but steep at $8 per adult for 15 minutes. Guests have free use of a pool, hot-spring-fed jacuzzis, and steam hut. While David took Zoe for a walk, I enjoyed the spa's $135 "Narciso" package, including a full-body wrap in volcanic slime that smelled like onions but banished my winter itches. The night cost $310, with meals and spa.
We chose our next destination, the Hotel Resort Tilajari (www. tilajari.com) near La Fortuna, as a base for seeing the Arenal Volcano. Fog thwarted that plan, but the Tilajari's tropical gardens and butterfly farm were a delight. Zoe gaped at brilliant birds eating fermenting fruit on sticks. We even saw a hummingbird nest with two pea-sized babies. It was there that we took a trip down the Rio Frio. Our eagle-eyed guide's skill at spotting fauna in lush flora made it worthwhile. Including a two-hour bus ride each way, a four-hour boat tour, and picnic, it cost $48 per adult (half-price for Zoe).
No chilblained Northerner should miss the Pacific beaches. We used Jaco, about 70 miles southwest of San Jose, as a base to visit tiny Manuel Antonio National Park, 40 miles farther south. A breeze with toddlers, it has paths, rest rooms, and more animals. Enter across a small estuary, stepping on stones at low tide, wading at high tide. Rocks jut from the sea, and woods line the beaches. Then stroll to Playa Manuel Antonio, a palm-lined crescent with jade-green water and gentle surf.
You don't have to seek animals. They'll find you. Our picnic was ground zero for squirrel monkeys and iguanas--we threw sand to scare them. One iguana tried to eat Zoe's plastic lion. Alarmed, we left, clutching our offspring.
How memorable has all this been been for Zoe? Well, recently I heard her singing and bent to catch the words: It was Old MacDonald with a tropical twist: "And on that farm, there was an iguana! E-I-E-I-O!"