This is a guest post from by Edward Piegza, the President and Co-Founder of Classic Journeys, an award-winning tour operator out of San Diego.
I invited Edward to blog about visiting Costa Rica and Panama with kids because these are regions I think are best seen with the guidance of an established tour operator. See our article from last year on why to consider a family tour operator for reference.
Costa Rica monkeys. Source Davis Images
Beginning in the 1970’s, Central America gained a big following among surfers and hard-core eco-explorers; especially Costa Rica, because over a quarter of its land is set aside as protected nature preserves. Even so, most families did not consider a trip to Costa Rica, Panama, or Central America in general as a viable option for traveling with kids — until recently.
I’ve been traveling to Central America since the early 1990’s and twice in the last four years, I’ve taken my wife and kids on guided tours to Costa Rica and Panama.
Costa Rica and Panama family tours
My kids were ages 13 and 11 when we went to Panama, and 10 and 7 when we visited Costa Rica. In the groups with whom we traveled, we had kids as young as 7 and as old as 18. Adults as young as 40 and as old as 75 (“Rocket Grandma”, so named by one of her six grandkids who were amazed at her zeal for river rafting and zip lining; but that’s another story for another time).
What makes these countries so perfect for a family vacation is that they offer activities that everyone in the family can thoroughly enjoy: butterfly safaris, ziplining in the rainforest canopy, swimming on gorgeous beaches, spotting scarlet macaws, white-faced monkeys and iguanas. It’s so gratifying to see how my kids get engaged in these incredible eco-paradises. I will admit that the adult part of me loves the very high-end boutique properties that have sprung up to cater to the desires of baby boomers who no longer want to backpack, but still want to immerse ourselves into a lesser-developed region.
Which brings me to why it still makes sense to visit Costa Rica and Panama as part of a guided tour instead of on your own. Logistics are still difficult enough that getting the most out of a vacation there requires local expertise in terms of logistics, outfitters, even things as simple as which cloud forest is jam-packed all day, and which is privately owned and limits the number of visitors in order to make the experience better for everyone.
In addition to simply overcoming language barriers and finding the coolest things to enjoy each day, joining a guided family vacation can also save you a lot of lost time when things go wrong, as they almost certainly will at some point during your trip when you visit a lesser-developed region like Central America.
My favorite example of this is one day in Costa Rica when we were supposed to go river rafting on the Savegre River, about 90 minutes south of Manuel Antonio Park along the Pacific Coast. As we drove, we were stopped about two miles short of a one lane bridge. It had suffered some damage overnight and all traffic was stuck.
Our head guide — Jorge — called ahead to the rafting guides who were waiting for us. With them, he brainstormed a solution: we’d walk the two miles to the river, they would come up from the south with a vehicle and zodiacs, boat us across the river, then drive us to the river rafting put in spot. All worked perfectly and we smiled and waved at the drivers stuck in traffic as they tried to figure out what our group was doing looking so happy.
We rafted all day, and when we got back on the road to return to Manuel Antonio Park, the bridge had been repaired. We learned that night that traffic had been stopped for several hours, so all those not lucky enough to be on tour with Jorge had lost a full day of their vacation.
What was that one day worth? As the commercial says, I can put a price tag on the cost of the actual rafting experience, but watching my kids laugh and sweat while pulling paddles instead of sitting stuck in traffic was … priceless.