The next day was Jake’s birthday. In lieu of a cake, we opted for the chocolate tour at Tirimbina Biological Reserve. In the neighboring Sarapiquí River region, Tirimbina is a favorite for scientists studying the primary rain forest. We crossed an 866-foot-long canopy bridge, the longest in the country, and spotted a sloth under the shade of a large tree.
A guide led us past flowering bromeliads and orchids and the web-like roots of a century-old wild nutmeg tree to a plot of land housing a cocoa plantation. A demonstration explained the history of chocolate-making in Mesoamerican culture and how cocoa pods were transformed into chocolate. The kids waited patiently to sample the homegrown goodness, a dark, rich, and creamy chocolate. And since it was Jake’s birthday, he was invited up for seconds, and thirds.
From the Central Highlands, we drove five hours to the northern tier of the country on the Pan American Highway, a frustratingly slow two-lane road. As patience grew thin, we arrived at Riu Guanacaste, which we would soon learn is not your typical all-inclusive resort. At any given moment, we would spot howler monkeys climbing trees on the perimeter of the property and large lizards scurrying below the chairs by the pool.
We spent our days in the large pool, gliding over for another frozen concoction at the swim-up bar, riding the waves of the warm Pacific, and snorkeling with the neon-colored fish off the rocks. The beach was an exquisite crescent of gray sand, buttressed by hills, which could easily lead to an hourlong walk. Surprisingly, aside from the resort, there was little development. That might change, however, when the Riu unveils its second hotel this month, next door to the first property.
Heading south along the coast, on our way to Manuel Antonio, I insisted that we spend a night near Jaco so that we could wake up early and hike into Carara National Park. On my last trip to Costa Rica, I had stumbled upon Carara, only to stare in awe at a family of four scarlet macaws. I was hoping to duplicate the moment, waking the kids at 6 a.m.
Leaving the parking lot of Carara, we were quickly lost in the dense and humid rain forest, passing under towering wild cashew trees. Following a counterclockwise route along a creek, we spotted turkey vultures, but no scarlet macaws. Disappointed, we headed back to the hotel.
That same afternoon, as we were driving south on the coastal road to Quepos and Manuel Antonio, high atop a hill looking down at the ocean waters, we spotted a flock of large birds flying overhead. I stopped the car, and there to our right in a tall almond tree were six or seven scarlet macaws, all squawking loudly, feathers a kaleidoscopic blend of red, blue, green, and yellow. Cars behind us honked, but we didn’t move until we got our fill of the sight.
After spotting the elusive green helmet lizard at Manuel Antonio the next day, we headed down to the beach, where five howler monkeys were climbing atop a small tree, one mother holding her infant on her back. You could actually smell the strong, very ripe scent of the monkeys before you saw them. But to truly appreciate a howler monkey, you have to hear that loud, guttural roar that reverberates across the bush.
“It sounds like a monster dying,” said Melanie.
Covered in sweat from the hot sun, we went for a swim in the strong surf. That’s the beauty of Manuel Antonio, where the rain forest meets the sea. You can wash away the humidity with a quick dip in the ocean.
On the final day of our trip, we headed high into the mountains above Quepos for a morning of zip-lining.
“This is what we call a Costa Rican massage,” said our guide Joshua as we bounced around on a bumpy road through a 25,000-acre palm oil plantation. Used for biodiesel fuel, cooking oil, suntan lotion, and other lubricants, the palm oil industry is the second most important business after tourism on the Costa Rican coast.
We made it to the base camp, where we harnessed up, and off we went on another jeep ride to the top of a ridge and the first of our 12 zip line runs. As we cruised along the cables, the greenery became a blur, especially when you rode upside down, which we all tried. For a finale, Jake attempted the Superman run, cruising face first, arms straight out like the superhero. At the end, he had a huge smile on his face and declared, “This is one of the best things I ever did. Well, besides eating termites.”
Stephen Jermanok can be reached at www.activetravels.com.