Thanks in large part to its high COVID-19 vaccination rate and the outdoor nature of activities, Costa Rica’s popularity as a travel destination has soared during the last few years. Even pre-pandemic, the country’s combination of pristine beaches and rainforests teeming with mammals, birds and amphibians made it a favorite of adventure-seeking and animal-loving families.
Nearly all Costa Rica itineraries include time in the Arenal area, about 85 miles northwest of San Jose (two and a half hours by car). And for good reason: this tourist hub is the ideal introduction to the country, with hiking, hanging bridges, whitewater rafting, ziplining and bird-watching galore. Many of the country’s top hotels are clustered in the town of La Fortuna, within the Arenal area, making it easy to combine mellow onsite activities like hot springs, pool time, cooking classes and night walks with half- or full-day excursions. (Note: the Arenal Volcano last erupted in 2010 and has been inactive since.)
Our recent family trip to Costa Rica included four nights in Arenal at the 21-room Nayara Tented Camp, followed by time in Monteverde as well as Manuel Antonio. Most guests book excursions through their hotel or a third-party outfitter. In our case, we found the caliber of our private guides through the hotel property to be exemplary, and they really became the highlight of our time in the Arenal region.
Depending on the ages of the kids and how adventurous they are, Arenal is ideal for whitewater rafting, with class II, III and IV rapids along the Peñas Blancas, Balsa and Toro rivers, which pass through rainforest, canyons and rolling hills. Since our kids, particularly our son, are on the younger side, we opted to visit the hanging bridges and go ziplining instead.
The Mystic Hanging Bridges are a series of 16 bridges, six of them suspended, that cut through mature rainforest. This gives visitors the advantage of increasing height as they make their way from forest floor to understory to treetops to spot wildlife and birds. The trail in total is around 2 miles and well-marked. While some choose to tour the bridges on their own, the majority of visitors we saw had come with an expert guide carrying a scope and binoculars to allow for wildlife viewing. Our own private guide, Andre, not only shared his in-depth knowledge about the forest and plants, but with his trained eyes and ears was able to help us spot howler monkeys, hummingbirds, poison dart frogs, bats, an orange and green-hued broad-billed motmot as it swooped above us, and a pair of chestnut-mandibled toucans. Plan to spend two to three hours walking and exploring the hanging bridges, and come prepared for light rain showers, like everywhere else in Costa Rica. If it’s not too cloudy, the hanging bridges also showcase fantastic views of cone-shaped Arenal Volcano, though its peak is often shrouded in mist.
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Ziplining through the lush rainforest canopy in Costa Rica is a must. The activity is pretty much synonymous with Sky Adventures, which has locations in Arenal, Monteverde and Guanacaste, and is known for stringent safety standards. Sky Trek, as the ziplining circuit is known, begins with a harness fitting, a safety demonstration and a gondola ride up the mountain. From there, adventure seekers will zip along seven cables, the highest of which is 656 feet, past emerald green treetops and with panoramic views of Arenal Volcano. Our family loved the thrill and excitement of the ziplining excursion and were tempted to do it again in Monteverde. It’s worth noting that ziplining participants must be at least 5 years of age and younger kids typically ride tandem with a guide.
Nayara Resorts, our Arenal home base, offers an onsite night walk, which proved to be fantastic and more than enough for our crew. Some visitors opt to book a night tour at a private reserve instead. The cover of dark brings out a host of different creatures such as frogs, lizards, armadillos and snakes, the nocturnal two-toed sloth and nocturnal birds like owls. Plus, evening showers can actually prompt some of these creatures to venture into plain sight. Hearing the cacophony of bullfrogs and toads, along with spotting the red-eyed tree frog with its penetrating eyes and blue-colored underbelly, will be experiences we remember forever.
Our stay at Nayara Resorts was as much a highlight of our time in Arenal as the area and activities. Nayara Resorts comprises three interconnected properties: Nayara Gardens, Nayara Springs (for adults only) and the new Nayara Tented Camp. All three properties share the resort amenities and restaurants, except for a few adults-only pools and restaurants that are part of the Springs.
Our room, one of 21 at the Tented Camp, had the feel of a secluded canvas-topped casita hidden in the dense jungle. The king bedroom opened onto a patio with private plunge pool, hammock and stunning views of the volcano. On each side of the king bed were two twin-size daybeds, perfect for kids. The sprawling bathroom featured both an indoor and outdoor shower. Our kids’ favorite was, of course, the hot springs-fed plunge pool, where they soaked and swam as cool afternoon showers drizzled on them from above. Birds landed on the patio and butterflies fluttered by, confirming that we really were tucked away in our own jungle paradise.
TIP: Even if you don’t stay in the Tented Camp, Nayara boasts a collection of hot springs and regular pools on the grounds.
While we could have opted to go into La Fortuna to eat, we ended up having most of our meals on-property. The food was delicious across the restaurants, from breakfast through dinner. Breakfast was quite the spread, with pastries and breads; fruits such as mango, pineapple, watermelon and even rambutan (its red, spiky skin peeled to reveal a sweet lychee-like white flesh); and a hot counter serving papaya-laced rice, beans, pancakes and eggs made to order. Our kids loved the fresh coconut water, served in the husk. Come dinner, we loved the pan-Asian-inflected Asia Luna restaurant, with its menu of sushi rolls, noodles and fried rice, so much that we ate there twice.
What really stood about Nayara, beyond the luxe accommodations and the food, was the service. No request was too big or small, whether it was for a bellman to lead us to the resident sloth, Tony; snacks to be replenished in the complimentary minibar; or ponchos to gear for a drizzly night walk.
In a country known for its ecotourism and conservation efforts, Nayara is no different. Sustainability and community outreach are among the brand’s core values, and it shows. From planting some 200,000 trees to “reforest” the area where the property sits to eliminating single-use plastic to offering early childhood education for the children of employees, Nayara continues to adhere to and exceed ecotourism practices as well as uplift the local community.
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Editor’s note: Tanvi received a media package to review Nayara Tented Camp for families. As always, our opinions are our own on Ciao Bambino. Photos by Tanvi Chheda except where noted.
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