Costa Rica with Kids, Part 1

| July 27, 2004

Part 2

Who needs Disney World's Animal Kingdom when you and your family can experience the thrills of the natural world hands-on in Costa Rica? Every summer, Cruise West offers at least five or six family cruises aboard the 100-passenger Pacific Explorer. These six-day journeys, which drop anchor at secluded beaches, islands, and national parks on the country's Pacific coast, are the cruise industry's best-kept secret for a true family adventure.

Recently my 11-year-old daughter Alex, her godmother Kathy and I cruised the Pacific Explorer and got to spot monkeys, toucans, and sloths in the rainforest; zip-line through the treetops; swing from a rope over a waterfall-fed natural pool; and speed along calm Pacific seas on a banana boat ride. My daughter was mature enough to participate in the adult activities – which she thoroughly enjoyed – although she could have joined in the kids-only activities that some of the younger ones opted for. Actually, it didn't seem to matter to her if other kids were around or not, although it usually does. Instead Alex immediately came under the magical spell woven by the untouched beauty and natural life of Costa Rica. Because of this, she voted this voyage as one of the best of her 17 cruises.

Action-Packed Days

Alex and Sweet Pea
Often during our Costa Rican cruise, Alex or I would remark, "Wow, I can't believe it's not even lunch time yet. We've done so many things already!" Most days started with an early morning nature walk/hike (you can sign up the night before for easy, moderate or strenuous hikes, starting from 7:30 to 8:30 a.m.), which were led by naturalists. We were impressed by their knowledge of indigenous flora and fauna as well as their strength (they hiked carrying a huge, powerful telescope). We felt like we hit the jackpot on the first day when our naturalist spotted lots of monkeys in the treetops at Curu Wildlife Refuge. Alex, Kathy and I were amazed when we looked through the naturalist's telescope and saw every detail on one monkey's face!

Pacific Explorer, zodiac and banana boat rides
Usually after the hike we'd either swim at the deserted beach we were anchored near or jump off the stern of the ship and swim or hang onto the life preserver when currents were strong. We also went kayaking from the back of the ship, and there was always a line of kids waiting for the beloved banana boat rides that the crew tirelessly offered. Then after a sit-down lunch, the ship would often reposition to a different beach or island for swimming.

Michelle and her grandparents
Due to its small size, the Pacific Explorer does not dock at any ports but rather drops anchor near beaches and national parks. Thus, just getting on and off the ship is an adventure in that you have to don a life vest and climb into a bobbing zodiac (small, motorized rubber boat) off the stern. All landings are "wet," meaning that your feet (and sometimes more!) will get wet as you climb into and out of the zodiac.

Typical Costa Rican Beach
Maneuvering zodiacs can be a bit challenging. Therefore, I don't recommend this cruise for children under five years old, although Cruise West does not have a minimum required age. (Note that due to the cabin size, there is no room to set up cribs; thus if you take an infant or toddler, they have to sleep in a bed.) The youngest child on our cruise, Nathan, was five and seemed to handle the physical rigors fairly well. In retrospect, it was a good thing I left my active two-and-a-half-year old son home with my husband. Since this is an expedition ship, one could walk out the stern door on deck one and literally go down a few steps leading into the ocean. This is not the case on large, traditional cruise ships.

I also don't recommend this cruise for those who like to sleep late and stay up until the wee hours. Most hikes start early, which is the best time to view wildlife and beat the humid heat. Conversely, by 10 p.m. I was often the only one up on deck reading since everyone was tired from their full day of physical activity. In fact, the only evening activity is pre-dinner snacks and cocktails, watching the sunset, and listening to the naturalists discuss the day's highlights.

Natural Highs

Throughout our action-packed days, there were many highlights for both kids and adults. Our list of favorites includes:

  • Hands down, holding Sweet Pea, a baby Spider monkey who was being rehabilitated at Santuario Silvestre de la Osa, was the ultimate for Alex, who adores monkeys.
  • At the end of our memorable (optional) Rainmaker Canopy tour, which led us over suspension bridges high in the rainforest, we had to be coaxed out of the natural pool we got to splash in. Luckily we donned our bathing suits before the hike and were rewarded with a dip right by a gushing waterfall, complete with Tarzan rope to swing on. Even better, there was only one other person on the hike with us, making this quite different from crowded Dunns River Falls in Jamaica.
  • While we were on the beaches of Corcovado National Park, we heard and saw a dozen Howler monkeys up close as they loudly chatted with each other. Up-close sightings of monkeys were also common at Manuel Antonio National Park.
  • We got quite a thrill out of the (optional) zip line excursions. We hiked uphill to a series of platforms in the trees and then zipped, via cables attached to us, through the tree tops. Alex and Kathy liked it so much they did a more strenuous zip line another day.
  • One morning, our naturalists led us up the Agujitas River via zodiac to spot flora and fauna. We all got to jump into the serene river and splash around amidst the pristine rainforest. As Rudy Zamora, our Exploration Leader said, "How many people are lucky enough to swim in a rainforest?"
  • Alex, Kathy and I particularly enjoyed the water activities at the back of the ship. One day we kayaked to land, went for a swim, and then kayaked back to the stern of the ship.
  • Watching spectacular sunsets on deck was the best pre-dinner show I've seen on a cruise ship in a long time.
  • Latin Dance Night was lots of fun. One time per cruise, there is evening entertainment in the form of a deck party with the crew. Kids and adults alike had a great time learning Latin dance steps from the smooth-footed Costa Rican crew.


Youth Activities

According to Karine Rosvold, Guest Programs manager aboard Pacific Explorer, this is the third summer that Cruise West is offering family cruises. There is a youth counselor aboard these sailings, and if there are large numbers of kids and teens aboard – as was the case on our cruise, where one-third of the passengers were youngsters – then Karine also helps entertain the children.

Natural pool and waterfall on Canopy Walk
While most traditional, large cruise ships only offer youth activities aboard ship and don't get involved in "edutaining" kids ashore, Cruise West is just the opposite. There are a limited number of on-board activities, probably in part because of the lack of a dedicated youth room for games or crafts. Instead, there are plenty of supervised kids-only activities ashore, such as short hikes in the rainforest, snorkeling from the comfort of a zodiac, and kayak lessons. Aboard ship, there was a bridge tour for youngsters.

The youth counselor, Krissia, even watched kids on the beach and in gentle waters. For example, on Corcovado Beach, there was a wide stream leading to the ocean. The children flocked there to play in the sand and thus Krissia watched the kids there through much of the day. I applaud Cruise West for this, since my main objection with the large-ship youth programs is that the children are stuck inside the whole time although there is usually beautiful scenery right outside on deck or ashore!

Kathy and Alex sea kayaking
Aboard ship, youngsters can dine daily with their peers and the youth counselor at 6:15, prior to the adult dinner at 7 p.m. After that, there are mostly unstructured activities in the adjacent lounge such as board games, coloring, and videos on a large screen TV. I felt that there could have been a bit more imagination in those activities, such as group games to get all the children involved.

Alex geared up for zip lining
Part of the challenge, according to Rosvold, is to entertain a broad range of children at one time. The large cruise ships have the luxury of more counselors, so they can tailor their activities specifically to one age group rather than trying to appease kindergartners to teens. There were many teens on our cruise from a large group that knew each other from home. One teen who was not part of that group said there could have been some activities just for teens.

"This is very much a Latin experience," remarked Zamora. "We don't try to structure the kids too much," noting that this is part of Cruise West's philosophy. For example, there is no daily program of events for children like on the large ships and basically you have to ask the youth counselor, guest program manager or exploration leader what special things are happening for children each morning.

On the second-to-last night, Zamora gave a slide show just for the kids, showing them some of the wildlife and plants they witnessed during the cruise. I was impressed that when he constantly asked them "what's this," as each new image appeared on the screen, many remembered what they had seen and learned. Then on the last night, there was an endearing slide show of the kids during the cruise, followed by one for the adults later in the evening. Part 2


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