The Five Best Family Hikes Along Minnesota’s North Shore

With the arrival of spring in Minnesota, there is no better time than now to start planning your next visit to the gorgeous North Shore of Lake Superior.  Less than four hours away from the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, lay hundreds of opportunities to explore pure and relatively untouched nature. Extending for 150 miles along the rocky shoreline of Lake Superior from Duluth to Canada, the North Shore is a place of unspoiled beauty and pristine nature. Home to a multitude of scenic waterfalls, rivers, state parks and the 310-mile long Superior Hiking Trail, it is a hikers paradise and offers a treasure trove of opportunities to explore wild, relatively untouched nature.

The North Shore has been a special place all my life. Every fall since I was a baby, my parents would pack up our old station wagon and do the drive north to spend a weekend enjoying the splendid fall colors and hiking the wonderful trails. This tradition started before I could walk and ended when I left for college at the age of 18. Fast forward several years, the North Shore has once again become a place I visit often with my own family and our family hikes have continued.

For the past four years, we have been visiting with my children and have discovered the very best hikes that the entire family will enjoy.   This list of my top five favorites is a great start to creating family memories of your own. Feel free to add your favorites in the comments section.

 

Map of North Shore

Photo credit: NorthShoreVisitor.com.  

 

1. Gooseberry Falls

Description: Gooseberry Falls is a beautiful hike along the Gooseberry River which affords stunning views of waterfalls and lovely forest. There is a nice easy hike along the falls for all abilities and more moderate hiking if you prefer to go further. It can be slippery when wet.

Location: 12 miles northeast of Two Harbors along highway 61

Length of Hike: About five miles roundtrip (however entire park has around 18 miles of trails if you want to go further).

Highlights: The best part of this hike is exploring the cascading waterfalls and stopping to enjoy the fascinating roots of the tree trunks and forest flowers along the trail. It is a nice place to also bring along a picnic.

Tip: The trail alongside Gooseberry Falls is relatively easy and somewhat kid-friendly given the steps (but remember no guard rails or safety fences!). If you want to really explore this fabulous park, there are footpaths for miles on end on the other side following the river upstream.

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Vail Resort

Travel Guide: How to Make the First Family Ski Trip to Colorado a Success

This year we decided to try something new for our family spring break. Instead of flying south to the sun, sand and beach that most Minnesotans crave by this time of year, we opted to head west for our first family ski trip to Colorado.

Growing up in Minnesota, Colorado has always been a popular place for spring break given its proximity, variety of terrain, cheap flight options and the ability to even gut it out and do the drive (you can make it in around 15-16 hours). As an avid skier, I made the drive to Colorado at least a half a dozen times over the years and most recently have enjoyed the short two hour non-stop flights from Minneapolis-St.Paul International Airport (MSP) to Denver. The launch of more no-frills airlines into MSP such as Sun Country, Frontier, and no-frills Spirit Airlines have put pressure on hub-based Delta to keep prices down. All that means Colorado is very accessible yet a family ski vacation is not cheap. Adding on car rental, lift tickets, lodging, food, gear (if you have to rent it) and ski lessons (if necessary) can make a family ski trip to Colorado a very expensive one.

I confess to being a bit reluctant about the notion of skiing in April given our notoriously long, cold winter in Minnesota. However spring skiing in Colorado proved to be an extremely fun, memorable family vacation and although we weren’t wearing our swim suits on the beach the weather in Colorado was equally delightful with baby blue skies, bright, warm sun and fresh mountain air kissing our face. In fact, we had so much fun that we agreed to do it all again next year.

So how did we ensure that our first big ski trip to Colorado would be a success? With careful planning, research and a bit of luck.

Here are my top 6 tips on how to have a fabulous, memorable family ski trip without busting the bank. 

All smiles for a family shot at Mid Vail

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My Epic Family Travel Guide to Costa Rica

Last Spring, we did our first big family adventure trip to Costa Rica and it was one of our best family trips ever. Trying to figure out the best place to bring two kids, ages 10 and 12, was a bit of a challenge but after researching Costa Rica I knew it would be the perfect place for an unforgettable family adventure and I was right.

Since our trip, many friends of mine have been asking for advice on how to plan the perfect Costa Rica trip so I decided to put together a Family Travel Guide and am hoping this will become a new series of mine as I begin to bring my children out into the world. There is so much I want them to see and explore!

A family shot at Arenal Volcano.

Why Chose Costa Rica?

Costa Rica continues to be one of the hottest destinations in Central America for nature loving and thrill-seeking tourists. Not only is this small country one of the safest in Central America, Costa Rica’s well-developed tourism industry affords numerous options for all different kinds of travelers: Eco, Adventure, Luxury, Beach, Solo and Family. Furthermore, Costa Rica’s insane biodiversity makes it a place where nature enthusiasts can see some of the most unique species of flora and fauna on the planet, a lot of which is endemic to the country. To put it simply, Costa Rica offers the perfect combination of awe-inspiring beauty, nature, beaches, rainforests, volcanoes, culture and adventure for people with all sorts of interests. It is an amazing place!

Where to go with older kids in Costa Rica:

Costa Rica is home to tons of beautiful beaches and resorts along the Guanacaste coastline which is ideal for families especially with younger children. You can make it really easy by staying in an all-inclusive resort offering children clubs, childcare and as many activities as your heart desires. Plus most of the resorts are just a hop, skip and a jump from Liberia International Airport making it a very easy beach and sun vacation. However, our two kids, ages 10 and 12, are not into laying around the beach and swimming all day. Nor are we!

Instead, we wanted to give them a more cultural view of this amazing place and seek adventure as well. We didn’t want to stay in just one location and preferred to move around a bit to give them a real feel of the different parts of the country. That was the hardest part with the planning as we didn’t want to move too much as that would be stressful for everyone. With nine days, we decided on three unique places staying three days each per place and allowing travel time: Manuel Antonio, Arenal and Rio Celeste. We felt these three destinations would each have something a little different and unique to explore and we were right.

Getting around:

Costa Rica is home to two international airports, centrally located San Jose and Liberia in the north which is only an hour drive from the beaches of Guanacaste. Unfortunately we made the mistake of purchasing our tickets based on price and chose Liberia which would have been fine if we stayed in Guanacaste. Little did we know, it was going to be a long haul (about four and a half hours driving time without stops) down to Manual Antonio where we began our trip.

Flying internally in Costa Rica is easy but not cheap and it is on small planes which I try to avoid. Initially we were going to rent a car for the entire trip but decided to break it up by using a driver for part of it and minimizing the stress. We hired Morpho Vans for a few of the long legs of our trip and it ended up being fantastic. We loved kicking back and having a local driver who could tell us all about Costa Rica and do the driving for us. One word of caution: Be sure to rent a car with all-wheel drive so you can handle some of the bumpy gravel roads and water crossing in some areas. Also, get a GPS!

An overview of our route:

We landed in Liberia at 11 am and had to make it all the way down to Manuel Antonio that day (from A to B). It was a long day but we made it just in time for sunset. We spent two full days in Quepos/Manuel Antonio, then drove back up to Arenal/La Fortuna with Morpho Vans, rented a car and spent two days at Arenal. We dropped off the car in La Fortuna, and had Morpho Vans pick us up to bring us to Rio Celeste where we spent the next two days before returning back to Liberia to catch our flight home.

All in all, our trip gave us an amazing overview of the country and each place offered unique things to see and do. We did not visit the beach area of Guanacaste or the Osa Peninsula. You could easily add on one of these destinations if you have another 2-3 days to spare.

Our route

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You can see the Grand Canyon off in the distance

A Weekend Skiing the Arizona Snowbowl

“You can ski in Arizona?” asked a friend confused. “How on earth can you ski in a desert”? Until a few years ago, I would have also been equally in disbelief that it is actually possible to not only ski but ski real mountains in the state of Arizona. Little did I know, the college town of Flagstaff, Arizona, located about two and a half hours north of Phoenix, is home to the Arizona Snowbowl, Arizona’s best skiing.

As an avid skier, I confess to believing that there was no way that the Arizona Snowbowl could possibly compare to the skiing in Colorado, New Mexico, Montana or Utah, all places I’ve skied over the years. Yet after a long weekend skiing the Arizona Snowbowl with my father and two children, I realized that the skiing is actually pretty darn good and worth the trip. If you live in Phoenix and want a taste of the snow and mountains, then even better!

Flagstaff, Arizona

The Arizona Snowbowl is located in Flagstaff, Arizona about 2 1/2 hours north of Phoenix. Photo courtesy of Google Maps.

With an average of over 240 inches of annual snowfall and normally beautiful sunny blue skies, the Arizona Snowbowl has the longest ski season in Arizona as well as the largest beginner terrain in the Southwest. It is a great place to go with kids as there are plenty of nice long cruiser runs, a good ski school and it is very family-friendly. For those who want more challenge, you can take the Agassiz lift up to the top at 11,500 feet and climb up to the Upper Bowl where there are plenty of double black diamonds to take your breathe away. For moderate skiers, there are some nice blues and blacks where you can fly down at breakneck speed and feel the thrill of spring skiing in February. Best of all, are the incredible views on top where you can see the Grand Canyon off in the distance.

Flagstaff, Arizona

View of the sunrise over the mountains from our hotel in Flagstaff, Arizona

So why on earth did we travel from Minneapolis to Phoenix to ski in Flagstaff, Arizona over President’s Day Weekend? Simple. My parents live in Tucson and Flagstaff offered the perfect meeting place for us to do a three-generational ski weekend. We had tried Utah, New Mexico and Colorado before so we decided why not try something entirely new. Plus it is free to ski for those over 70 so my dad was pleased to ski for free.

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Parque Andino Juncal, Chile

A Magical Hike in Chile’s Parque Andino Juncal

“Frigid winds blow as we turn into the glacier’s gorge. Without foreseeing we begin to step on ice that shines in between the fallen rocks of surrounding towering mountains” – Nicolás Echenique, our guide and the founder of Coigüe Expeditions. 

One of my absolute favorite things to do is to hike and there is no one I’d rather hike with than my dad. Growing up, my dad instilled a deep love of hiking and being outdoors. Over the years, we have continued to hike together as much as possible when I visit my parents in Arizona or on one of our annual trips. Together, we have hiked the Andes of Argentina, Peru and Bolivia, and there was no way we were going to Chile without doing some hiking on our trip.

I was thrilled to discover that many amazing day hikes are reachable right outside of Santiago. On our first full day in Chile, we did an incredible “warm-up” hike to El Morado Hanging Glacier with our own private guide, Nicolás Echenique (Nico) of Coigüe Expeditions and it was a wonderful adventure. We knew we were in for a special treat when we signed up to hike with Nico again in the pristine Parque Andino Juncal, home of the largest glacier in Central Chile.

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Morado Hanging Glacier, Chile

At the Doorstep of the Andes: A Hike to El Morado Hanging Glacier

When most people plan a trip to go hiking in Chile, they immediately head south to the Chilean Lakes District and Patagonia, a landscape lover’s paradise awash with too many stunning national parks to count. While some of the most breathtaking landscapes in Chile are found south of Santiago, I was surprised to discover that equally as divine landscapes exist right outside of the bustling cultural mecca of Santiago, where over half of Chile’s population live.

When my dad planned a week’s getaway to Chile basing ourselves in Santiago, I confess that I was a bit skeptical that we would find any good hiking in Central Chile. As an avid hiker who has trekked in some of the best parks in Patagonian Chile and Argentina, I naively thought that the best hiking would be down south. However, I was proven wrong and was wonderfully surprised with the intense, dynamic beauty of the day hikes we found right outside our base in Santiago.

While the Andes stretch all the way from the southern tip of Chile to their terminus in Tierra del Fuego, it is in Central Chile where the Andes rise to some of their highest elevations. Just east of Santiago near the Chilean border with Argentina lies the mighty Aconcagua which at 22,841 feet (6,962m) is the highest mountain in the Western hemisphere.

Perhaps what makes Chile such an exciting destination for hikers is the amazing diversity of its landscape. In the north is the Atacama, the driest desert in the world with its salt flats and open barren stretches of land. In the Center, the Andes rise dramatically high with vast glacial valleys and snow-capped peaks whereas in the South, their appearance is startling different: Craggy, jagged mountains rimmed with glacial lakes and temperate rainforest. Finally, at the southernmost tip in Patagonia it is filled with ice and glaciers and is home to the second largest contiguous ice field in the world, the The Southern Patagonian Ice Field. No wonder Chile is such an amazing place to explore! 

Andes, Chile

Flying over the incredible Andes as the morning sun rises

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Coastal Kayak Tours, Alligator River Wildlife Refuge, NC

An Afternoon Kayaking in Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge

We arrived at our arranged meeting point promptly before 3 at the Walgreens parking lot in Kill Devil Hills, a sprawling seaside town in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. A tall young man, barefoot and dressed in a t-shirt and shorts, greeted us with a smile and introduced himself as Brett, our tour guide from Coastal Kayak Tours.

Brett would be taking our family of four to kayak in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, an area of over 152,000 acres of protected and preserved wetland habitat that is home to black bears, red wolves, snakes, birds, and American alligators. He advised our group to use the facilities and buy any water at Walgreens before we headed out in the 12-passenger van to the refuge. It would be around a 35 minute drive over two bridges and an island, to reach the refuge and once there we would only have access to a Porta Potty.

Grinning ear to ear as he told us to climb inside the van, I could tell that Brett was going to be an excellent guide. Originally from Ohio, this was Brett’s first summer spent working as an adventure tour guide in the Outer Banks with Coastal Kayak Tours. The Alligator River Tour was one of his favorites and the weather was perfect for a late fall day. Bright blue sky, no wind and temperatures in the 80s. We couldn’t have asked for a more picture perfect day.

As we headed east towards Roanoke Island, Brett told us a bit about the history of the area as well as the wildlife refuge. Unbeknownst to me, the first group of English settlers arrived on Roanoke Island in 1587, three decades before the Pilgrims arrived in Jamestown, VA and Plymouth, MA. The mysterious, unexplained disappearance of these settlers gave the name “The Lost Colony” to this area which later became called Manteo. I was amazed to have never known this important historical fact.

As we continued east along Highway 64 past Manteo and onto the mainland, the windows were rolled down and the music on. I watched the beautiful landscape out the passenger seat of the van, the place I always prefer to sit so I can get the scoop on my surroundings from the driver.

The Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge is located on the eastern shore of North Carolina. It is bordered on the west by the Alligator River and the Intracoastal Waterway, which is crossed by the 2.8 mile Lindsay C. Warren bridge; on the north by Albemarle Sound; on the east by Croatan and Pamlico Sounds; and on the south by Long Shoal River and corporate farmland. Map used with permission from VisitOB.com.

Nestled by the Alligator River in the west and the Intracoastal Waterway in east of North Carolina, lies the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge was established in 1984 to protect the unique wetland habitat that runs roughly 28 miles from north-south and 15 miles from east-west along North Carolina’s Coastal Plain. There are many diverse types of habitats in the refuge however the most dominant habitat is known as “pocosin”, a name given by the Algonquin Indians meaning “swamp on a hill”.

In addition to pocosin habitats, there are also pine and cypress-gum forests, fresh and brackish water marches, swamps, bogs, rivers and lakes as well as farmland. The refuge is home to the densest population of black bears in the eastern United States and also has the world’s only population of red wolves. If we were lucky, perhaps we would see some wildlife.

We arrived at a long gravel road that brought us to the entrance of the refuge. A few bumpy minutes later, we pulled alongside one of the many creeks in the refuge and unloaded the kayaks. We had both single and double kayaks, and all in all our group of nine were on six. I had my son with me and my husband brought my daughter. I figured I’d sit up front so I could take lots of pictures and let my son do the arm work when I needed a break (silly me, I forgot he is only 12 yet he already towers over me in height).

Slowly, we drifted into the dark murky waters of the creek and paddled out to a larger, open waters of Mill Tail Creek which feeds into the Alligator River. All I could hear was the splashing as our paddles hit the water and the cry of the birds.

Coastal Kayak Tours, Alligator River Wildlife Refuge, NC

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Key Tips for Travel Planning with an Eco-Impact

“The declaration by the UN of 2017 as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development is a unique opportunity to advance the contribution of the tourism sector to the three pillars of sustainability – economic, social and environmental, while raising awareness of the true dimensions of a sector which is often undervalued.” – UNWTO Secretary-General, Taleb Rifai.

There could be no greater time in history as a traveler to impact our future and the world than now. As the international community embraces the Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), approved by the UN General Assembly last September, tourism has a significant opportunity to support three of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) ranging from promoting sustainable, inclusive economic growth to conserving and sustaining the use of the oceans, seas and marine resources.

There has been more talk than ever about sustainable travel but what exactly does sustainable travel mean?

“In its simplest definition, sustainable travel can be defined as travel that positively impacts the community, environment and economy of the destination visited” states Kelley Louise, Executive Director of Travel+SocialGood, a global community of changemakers, passionate about transforming the travel industry into a force for good.

As a member of Travel+SocialGood and a strong supporter of sustainable travel,  I am continually on the search for sustainable travel resources and operators. I have been highlighting sustainable travel opportunities on my blog for quite awhile to help readers discover these experiences in one quick and easy place. (Here is a list of the past 20 posts in case you missed them).  

I hope you enjoy this guest post written by Jonny Bierman, founder of Eco Escape Travel,  a community-based ecotourism content hub with the mission to provide reliable ecotourism and adventure content that aims to grow a community of responsible travelers and inspire ethical travel. A special thanks to Sue of the fabulous travel blog Travel Tales of Life for introducing me to Jonny. Here is the post.

Avatar Grove. Photo credit: Eco Escape Travel

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Tubing in Rio Frio, Costa Rica

Tubing Down the Rio Frio in Costa Rica

“We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures that we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open”. –  Jawaharlal Nehru

We decided on a whim to do something different and spend the afternoon tubing down the Rio Frio in Costa Rica. It wasn’t the first adventurous thing we had done since we were there. We went canyoning and zip lining in the jungle near Manuel Antonio. However, that adventure actually ended up feeling tame after our experience tubing down the Rio Frio.It was by no means the leisurely gliding down the river, enjoying the beautiful scenery go by. Instead, it ended up being a pretty wild and crazy thrill ride. We honestly had no idea what we were getting into when we signed up to go with our guide Wilson who had spent the morning with us touring Tenorio Volcano National Park. I guess that is what made the whole experience so memorable.

We met Wilson after lunch for our forty-five minute drive to the river. Along the way, we picked up his son as well as his partner who would be our river guide and safety man along the two-hour ride. We stopped briefly at the “Abrol de la Paz” (the tree of peace), perhaps the biggest tree I had ever seen in my life, and took some pictures. I didn’t catch the type of tree but it had to be hundreds of years old. It was magnificent!

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We drove over bumpy gravel roads, passed a few cowboys along the way and ended up at our destination, a fenced in pasture and farm with grazing horses. There were no tourist signs, no buildings or anything in sight except the endless gravel road and the barbed wire fence. It was nothing like I had expected or conjured up in my head.

We got out of the car and Wilson inflated our tubes and grabbed us helmets. I looked around us a little confused. We were in the middle of nowhere and there was no river in sight. Wilson signaled to follow him. We ducked under the barbed wire fence, and began walking through the grassy pasture avoiding cow dung and snakes along the way. It felt like a moment out of an odd dream or a movie. We were lost in translation, not really understanding why we were hiking through a private farm carrying inner tubes and wearing our bathing suits, to get to the river. Apparently Wilson has a deal with the owners who let him use his property to do his tubing tours. We were the only guests.

Tubing in Costa Rica

Driving down the gravel country road to our tubing launch

Rio Celeste, Costa Rica

Tubing in Costa Rica

Inflating the Tubes

Rio Celeste, Costa Rica

Setting off to find the river

Rio Celeste, Costa Rica

Walking through the pasture avoiding manure and snakes

Rio Celeste, Costa Rica

Getting ready to launch

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Tenorio Volcano National Park/Parque Nacional Volcan Tenorio, Costa Rica

Exploring the Rio Celeste at Tenorio Volcano National Park

We met out guide Wilson early in the morning at our hotel and were on our way to Tenorio Volcano National Park. Although the park is only about a fifteen minute walk from our hotel, the Rio Celeste Hideaway, we drove and in the end it was a good decision due to the high heat and humidity that day.  It was overcast and had just rained that morning leaving a thick humid mist to the air and lots of mud.

Wilson recommended we pay the $4 to rent a pair of mid-length plastic mud boots and despite the discomfort it ended up being an excellent decision. The trails were slick in fresh, thick mud and my new hiking shoes would have been ruined had I worn them. The only downside was the boots were too big, a bit cumbersome and needed knee-high socks to avoid rubbing. I clumsily walked last in line during our three hour hike but at least I saved my shoes.

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Tenorio Volcano National Park (Parque Nacional Volcan Tenorio) was created in 1995 and encompasses over 18,400 hectares of rainforest and cloud forest as well as the Tenorio Volcano itself. Although the volcano is no longer active, there is still a large amount of volcanic activity present. There are hot springs and bubbling water within the river where the volcanic gases are released way below the ground.

The prize possession of the Tenorio Volcano National Park is the Rio Celeste “Blue River” that meanders through the jungle. As you hike along the trail, you can visit a spectacular waterfall as well as see where two rivers converge to create the celestial blue Rio Celeste, a natural phenomenon.

As we entered the park, the first thing Wilson pointed out was the green walking trees which are endemic in this park. They can live in water because it passes through them and a special sap drops off the ends for animals and birds to eat. Although they don’t actually walk the trees do move a small amount each year.

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Rio Celeste Hideaway, Costa Rica

Our Costa Rica Family Adventure: Rio Celeste Hideaway

“The clearest way into the universe is through a forest wilderness”. – John Muir

After two absolutely fantastic days in Arenal, it was time to head to our last destination for our week-long family adventure in Costa Rica: Rio Celeste. We had heard about the Rio Celeste Hideway, a gorgeous resort tucked away within the jungle surrounding the Rio Celeste, from a good friend of mine who spent a year living in Costa Rica with her family. This part of Costa Rica is not as well known however the Rio Celeste is world famous for its magical technicolor turquoise waters. The color of the river is like nothing I have ever seen anywhere on earth. It is so brilliantly blue that it looks surreal or like something out of a Disney movie.  Just to see the Rio Celeste is worth the drive north.

We rose early on the farm not sleeping too well due to the rumbling of the guests above us. I didn’t realize how paper thin the floor was at our Air B&B rental until a family of five arrived the night before. Unfortunately every movement above us was amplified and it sounded like they were playing musical chairs all night with the furniture. I made a mental note to write in my review to not stay in the bottom unit unless you wear ear plugs.

We left Parrot Hill Ranch after breakfast and drove back to La Fortuna to drop off the rental car. We would not be needing it for the rest of our trip as we had a driver picking us up for the short 2 hour ride to Rio Celeste. We were happy to leave the car and not have to worry about driving anymore. (Our route below: We traveled from E to F).

Our route

We drove through the lush green countryside of Northern Costa Rica passing pineapple farm after pineapple farm. Our driver Alfredo told us that Costa Rica is now the top exporter of pineapples in the world supplying over half of all pineapples imported to the US. Alfredo said that ten years ago the land was filled with cows and pasture for them to graze on. Once farmers realized that they could make more money in pineapples the farms were converted over and pineapples became the largest exported agricultural product in Costa Rica. Concerns about poor labor conditions and environmental issues have left a bittersweet taste to Costa Rica’s pineapple industry. I must confess that Tico pineapples are amazingly juicy and delicious though. Just like their coffee, they are something special.

Our drive took us through many small towns, farms and tiny roadside markets. As we approached the long drive up the hill to our hotel, Alfredo pulled over and bought us some fresh coconut milk to try. The farmer opened it on the spot and stuck a couple straws inside for us to drink. Its creamy watery taste hit the spot.

We arrived at Rio Celeste Hideaway just in time for lunch. Since we would not have a car for the rest of our stay and we were staying in a fairly remote location we were beyond pleased that the food at the resort was absolutely delightful. We always had service with a smile, and ate breakfast, lunch and dinner at the gorgeous open-air restaurant. Besides standard American fare, they also served Tico food and I enjoyed my rice and beans each morning with eggs and fresh sour cream.

The Rio Celeste Hideaway is built within the verdant thick rainforest that surrounds Rio Celeste and borders Volcan Tenorio National Park. It is a spectacular place! There are 26 spacious, beautifully appointed casitas (little houses) that literally are tucked up into the jungle. Each casita is decorated immaculately with hand-carved wood furniture, high-pitched ceilings made from sugar cane, open-air showers and a large balcony jutting out into the jungle. There is nice pool with a swim up bar, a hot-tub, game room, and their own little hiking trail that leads you to the “blue river” (Rio Celeste). It truly is a gem of a find. I fell in love with this place and wish we could have stayed longer than three short days.

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Mistical Arenal Hanging Bridges Park, Costa Rica

Costa Rica Family Adventure: Horseback Riding at the Foothills of Arenal Volcano

“Live, travel, adventure, bless, and don’t be sorry.” – Jack Kerouac

We woke up early to the sound of chickens and life on the farm at our stay in El Castillo at Parrot Hill Ranch. The morning fog was rising over Arenal and the surrounding jungle was coming to life with the roar of howler monkeys and constant squawking of scarlet macaws. Outside, morning dew caressed the closed petals of flowers and the ground was wet and moist. It had rained hard last night.

We only had one full day in Arenal and with so many exciting, adventurous options, we had to make a family decision on how to best use our time. Besides the volcano, Arenal is known for its hot springs and spas as well as its incredible zip line park and aerial tram that sweeps you hundreds of feet above the jungle. Since we had already done zip lining and canyoning in Manuel Antonio, we opted to spend the day at Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park, a stunning property on the foothills of Arenal filled with lush tropical rainforest where you can hike, horseback ride, go birding and more. If we had time, we’d go for an afternoon swim at one of the many hot springs.

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Before breakfast, we made the mistake of attempting a morning hike on a makeshift path near the farm called the “Monkey Trail”. We heard about it from the American neighbors who also run an Air B&B just down the gravel road from Parrot Hill Ranch. The owner boasted how he made the trail by hand and it was almost complete. He told us to go early in the morning for a chance to see howler monkeys and other nature. We were unable to convince our 12-year-old son Max to get out of bed however 10-year-old Sophia was game for the hike. Thankfully so were the farm’s two dogs, one of them a tiny Chihuahua named Bobby who was spirited and had a big dog personality.

Parrot Hill Ranch, El Castillo , Costa Rica

Our morning hike

Parrot Hill Ranch, El Castillo , Costa Rica

The homemade path

In my eyes, a morning hike with monkeys sounded like a dream come true!  Yet little did we know, the trail would be very dark, narrow and literally inside the thick of the jungle. With a hesitant start, we entered the dark,deep jungle and the first thought that came to mind was I hope we wouldn’t see any snakes. The dogs went first and it made me feel a little better (I jokingly thought of them as “snake bait”) yet after about twenty minutes we turned around not wanting to take a chance with fate. Costa Rica has many species of venomous snakes, spiders, frogs, and other insects. Oftentimes you cannot see them until it is too late. If you are attacked and can’t reach medical attention soon, it can be fatal. We heard way too many spooky stories to mess around so we decided to hold off our hiking until we were at the park with an experienced guide. Looking back, I’m glad that we trusted our instincts as our guide pointed out three highly poisonous snakes at the park later that day and we never would have seen them due to their meticulous camouflage.

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