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How to Take a Family to Costa Rica and See Volcanoes, Monkeys, Jaguars and Sloths

Feb. 11, 2019
10 min read
Poas, Costa Rica
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When the monkey swung down out of the tree and lifted my daughter's peanut butter sandwich straight out of her hand, we knew that our trip to Costa Rica was going to be everything we'd hoped. We were in Manuel Antonio National Park on Costa Rica's Pacific coast, walking the vine-draped trail to the beach, and we couldn't say we hadn't been warned. "In the past, people have fed the monkeys, and now they are very bold," the manager of our hotel had told us, suggesting that we eat lunch before entering the park. But the truth was, we didn't mind at all. It was the monkeys we'd come to see, and here they were.

Costa Rica monkey
(Photo courtesy migadi / Getty Images)

Our family flew to San Jose (SJO) using Southwest's Companion Pass, an indispensable tool in our quest to take at least two family trips a year on a freelance writer's budget. Once you get the pass, you can bring along a family member or friend on any paid or award flight and your companion will only pay the ticket's taxes. It's an incredible deal.

Visiting Manual Antonio National Park

We started our visit to Costa Rica at Manuel Antonio National Park, one of only two large protected areas of tropical rainforest left along the country's Pacific coast; the rest having been lost to logging. It's home to an extraordinary wealth of wildlife; trees are alive with spider, white-faced capuchin and howler monkeys; white-nosed coatis nose through the undergrowth; and neon-beaked toucans and scarlet macaws perch high in the branches.

Once we'd accustomed ourselves to the constant companionship of Manuel Antonio's monkeys, we set out on an even more ambitious mission: the hunt for a sloth. Costa Rica is home to two species of sloth, the Hoffman's two-toed sloth, and the three-toed brown-throated sloth.

Brown-throated three-toed sloth
This is a rare sight! A brown-throated three-toed sloth mom and baby. (Photo by KenCanning / Getty Images)

Both are remarkably difficult to spot, and to understand why, all you have to do is think about their name. It's well-deserved; sloths sleep 15 to 20 hours a day and while they do, they curl themselves tightly in the crook of trees or stretch themselves along branches so that they're almost indistinguishable from the bark and leaves. When they do move, they do so almost in slow motion; it can take a sloth a full minute to climb a few feet up or down a tree. They evolved to have the slowest metabolism of any mammal, taking up to two weeks to digest a meal, meaning they don't have to eat very often. For these reasons -- and the fact that two-toed sloths are nocturnal -- we'd now been in Costa Rica for five days without yet spotting a sloth.

To get away from the crowds, we chose to hike farther into the park to Playa Escondido, a protected cove with soft white sand and turquoise blue water, and it's a good thing we did, because it was there that we saw our first sloth. Except we almost didn't see it -- we'd been picnicking within a few feet of it for more than an hour before we spotted it -- which we did because it moved, ever so slightly, seemingly annoyed by a fly.

Once we saw it, though, it was hard to believe we'd missed it -- the massive lump must have been 2 feet across, resembling nothing so much as Cousin It on the Addams Family. "It's so big!" yelled my older daughter, jumping up and down, now alerting others on the beach. Pretty soon there was a crowd around the tree, cameras and phones waving, but the sloth, oblivious, slept on and soon interest waned.

Our hotel in Manuel Antonio was a quirky local eco-lodge and thus not part of a loyalty program, but you could pay for the stay with a cash back card or something like the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard on which you can use the miles earned on the card to offset travel expenses charged to it.

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Marriott's Hotel Punta Islita

We had driven south from the Nicoya Peninsula, where we'd spent three idyllic days at the Hotel Punta Islita, a member of Marriott's Autograph Collection, taking advantage of the Marriott loyalty program (that is rebranding to the name Bonvoy very soon). Here, my daughters had stalked iguanas along the edge of the pool while I lay in a hammock and watched the parrots crowding in to feed in the palm fronds.

Image courtesy of the Hotel Punta Islita

Hotel Punta Islita has taken an active role in several local wildlife protection initiatives, including a successful effort to restore the Nicoya's once-declining population of scarlet macaws, and a turtle protection program on nearby Camaronal Beach. This beach is one of the sites where it's possible to see a stunning event known as an arribada, or mass spawning, in which hundreds or even thousands of Pacific Olive Ridley sea turtles come ashore all at once to lay their eggs. Arribadas are most likely to happen on moonless or new moon nights, and we were lucky enough to be there on one such November night when the attentive hotel staff alerted us to the opportunity to watch.

(Photo courtesy of Hotel Punta Islita)

Known for its environmental stewardship, Hotel Punta Islita also has a deep commitment to supporting the villages in the surrounding area and while there we visited the nearby Islita School constructed by the hotel, where my daughters had sat in on the children's English lesson, answering their questions.

Hotel Punta Islita is a Marriott Category 5 property that costs 35k points per night. Or, use the free night certificate that comes with the Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express or Marriott Rewards Premier Plus Credit Card at each card member anniversary.

The Volcanoes of Costa Rica

If there's one thing as appealing to kids as cute animals, it's a volcano, and I'd promised my daughters that our trip would include the chance to see Costa Rica's most famous one: Arenal. One of the highlights of our trip was a guided volcano night hike, which gave us a chance to see the more than 50 percent of jungle wildlife that are nocturnal. Within the first 20 minutes, our guide had shown us two sloths, a rare red-eyed tree frog and a green glass frog, so named because it's so nearly transparent that you can see its internal organs -- we didn't.

Arenal volcano
Arenal volcano (Photo by milehightraveler / Getty Images)

We continued the volcano theme with our choice of hotel; Tabacón Thermal Resort & Spa is set atop the volcano's thermal field, with springs, pools and waterfalls naturally heated by the volcano's magma. (Book via the partnership through Jan. 31, 2020 and use your Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card to earn 10x miles per dollar spent.) My girls simply could not get enough of floating in the warm water and climbing up and down the rocky terraces. While the girls took part in a waterslide race, I slipped off to visit the spa and adult pools in Shangri-La Gardens. Tabacón is a wildlife preserve in its own right, with 900 acres of lush forest and during our stay, white-faced capuchins joined us every day for breakfast. We added a night at Nayara Springs Resort when we heard they'd created an on-site sloth sanctuary, luring the elusive sleepers by planting hundreds of their favored Cecropia trees.

Jaguar Spotting at Corcovado National Park

Our final destination in Costa Rica was the Osa Peninsula at the southernmost end of the country, and Corcovado National Park. Our mission here was by far the most difficult: to see a jaguar -- or at least to try, though I'd prepared my girls well for disappointment. The third biggest cat in the world (after the lion and tiger) and the largest in the Western Hemisphere, jaguars are critically endangered. The nonprofit Global Conservation estimated in 2017 that fewer than 30 jaguars remain in Corcovado National Park and the surrounding Osa Peninsula, and their numbers are dwindling every year.

They're also nocturnal, and famously stealthy. Many of the jaguars in this area are also black, or melanistic, jaguars, as opposed to those colored more like leopards, making them harder to spot. But Corcovado is home to other big cats, including puma, ocelot and margay, and to other curious beasts like the Baird's tapir, a prehistoric-looking mammal that can grow up to 6 feet long, so there was sure to be some excitement.

You'll probably have a better chance of seeing a puma (like this one) in Costa Rica than a jaguar. (Photo by InVision_Photography / Getty Images)

To increase our chances of seeing wildlife, we stayed at Lapa Rios Lodge, an eco-resort just outside the park in its own 1,000-acre nature preserve.

We took both day- and nighttime guided hikes in and around the park to increase our animal-spotting opportunities. By the end of our second day, our list of sightings included a tiger snake, a deadly viper, the wild boar known as a collared peccary, a tapir and a tamandua, a slightly alien-looking anteater with a prehensile tail. But no cats -- or not, at least until our last night. That was when, swinging his flashlight through the trees, our guide drew in his breath.

Motioning us all to freeze, he pointed: "There -- just there -- see the eyes?" and we all peered, holding our breath. Deep within the foliage, two dots did appear to glow yellow, reflecting back the light. After watching for a few minutes for any movement, we stepped quietly past and on through the rainforest.

The next day we asked ourselves, did we really see a jaguar, or possibly a puma? Of course, we'll never be sure. But I choose to believe we did.

Bottom Line

If you've got curious kids that love animals and nature, Costa Rica is a destination that's hard to beat. And, it's a spectacular place for families that want to enjoy some more adventurous activities as well. If you want a little more resort in your Costa Rica experience, Mommy Points and her family especially enjoyed a stay at the Andaz Costa Rica.

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Featured image by Getty Images
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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