10 -15 years ago travel in Central and South America was an adventure for the young and foolhardy only. No responsible parent would have dreamt of taking their kids to the Amazon or the jungles of Costa Rica.
Much has changed since then - Latin America has become an exciting family travel destination - though it still appeals mostly to 'young-at-heart', adventurous families. The very same people who discovered the natural beauty of these destinations some 20 years ago, as young students or Peace Corps are now returning to introduce these wondrous worlds to their off-spring. and even families who have never traveled in Central America are now daring to venture beyond Cancun or Acapulco.
Likewise, hotels and lodges have also changed greatly over the years. Many have maintained their small, homey feel, yet considerably upped their standards. Guided by the principle of 'small is beautiful', they provide small scale operations with top quality services keeping social and environmental sustainability in mind. And some of these operators have specialized in family orientated adventure travel.
Families with kids have different needs - spacious family rooms or cabins, flexible staff, flexible programs, activities suited to children, guides that can communicate well with kids and an environment that is safe enough so parents can relax without having to constantly worry about the kids.
While it is not advisable to take very young children to tropical countries due to health concerns that should not be ignored, kids from about the age of 7 will be absolutely thrilled by the adventure.
Safety first - safety is the biggest concern for families with young children. It is important to realize that the rain forest is not a zoo, or a theme park. It's the real thing and one should never fail to respect that. Well trained guides make all the difference in making thrilling adventure travel safe and accessible for kids and families.
These considerations should be taken into account by travelers of all ages, whether traveling solo or with the family, but they are most important when traveling with kids:
Keep in mind that even malaria pills are not 100% effective and nor are mosquito repellents. Cover up at dawn and dusk or whenever you go into the forest or swamps where you are likely to encounter bugs. The most effective preventative for sand flies is coconut oil - they drown in it. Use lavish applications if you are in an affected area.
Is your lodge screened? Make sure your lodge is fully screened or that mosquito nets are provided. If in doubt, bring your own mosquito net. DEET is deemed the most effective mosquito repellent, but it is also very toxic. If you use Permethrine based applications, be very careful as to how and where you use it and how you dispose of the bottle. Permethrine is highly toxic to fish and other small animals, so never dispose of it carelessly.
If you want to escape the bug problem in the tropics, head for the highlands rather than for the sweltering, humid lowlands. Also, areas known for their windy conditions are usually a safe bet that you will not be bothered by bugs. There are virtually no mosquitoes at higher elevations and while there is still lots of lush tropical vegetation of a special kind known as 'cloud forest' you won't have to worry much about being bitten by critters. Also, temperatures tend to be spring like, airy and pleasant throughout the year, with increased rainfall during the summer months, the so called green season. The highlands are often known as 'the land of eternal spring'. The mountains offer many rewarding adventure opportunities, such a canopy walks, zipline adventures, white water rafting and horseback riding. Cloud forests are among the most biodiverse habitats on earth and chances of seeing exuberant plants and wildlife are higher here than in almost any other type of ecosystem.
If you are heading for the beaches of Central America it is also very important to know whether the area you want to visit is safe for swimming. The Pacific is a very large ocean and there is virtually nothing for thousands of miles that breaks the swell of waves. Thus, some areas may be great for surfing, but can be very dangerous for inexperienced or weak swimmers, due to very strong undercurrents. Some areas on the Caribbean coast are also affected. You may also find that your dream Caribbean Island has mostly sharp edged coral rock instead of white sandy beaches, and is not very suitable for swimming right off the beach. Most hotels located in such areas offer a swimming pool or you can rent a water taxi that will take you to better beaches. Some beaches are supervised by life guards. But you should check into it before you go and never assume it is going to be safe. It is also a very good idea to wear rubber beach shoes, not just to protect against sharp stones but also to protect yourself against inadvertently stepping on a sting ray or some other inhospitable creature.
The tropical sun is very strong. Children are especially vulnerable to sunburn and sunstrokes. Try to avoid direct sun during the middle of the day - do as the locals do - take a siesta, or take an excursion into the shade of the forest. Always drink plenty of water and bring filled water bottles on excursions. Many hotels provide tanks of potable water from which you can refill your bottles. Dehydration can be dangerous. Use sun screen, hat and sunglasses whenever you expose yourself to the sun.
Traveling with the family can be expensive. Some lodges offer special packages or give significant children's discounts to help families with kids to have the adventure of a lifetime. It's worth asking about these when you are planning your trip.
Make sure activities offered in an area will be interesting enough for all of you and that there is plenty to do. Some hotels are located in beautiful areas and may offer the best food and excellent services, but if there is nothing much to do except play in the pool you will get bored. Also, very remote locations are difficult in cases of emergencies - doctors and hospitals may be hours or even a full day away. Even getting to the nearest pharmacy could take hours.
If you are not afraid to drive in Central America, fly and drive packages can be a good way to give you maximum flexibility while you explore the country on your own schedule.
Prepare yourself for your trip - do you need a visa? Are your immunizations up to date? How much extra cash will you need and how will you take it? Don't assume everyone takes visa cards or even that you will find a bank or ATM everywhere you go. Check with the lodge if they have a suggested packing list. It is best to be prepared for everything, even in the dry season. Apply the 'onion principle' - layers are easy to add or take off. If you travel to the highlands it can get nippy at night. Even in the Amazon occasional cold fronts coming down from the Andes can create rather cool conditions. Although in most tourist areas of Central America many people will speak or understand at least some English, it helps a great deal if you familiarize yourself with some basic Spanish. I some remote areas even Spanish might be the second language of the local population.
If you visit the humid tropics, ziplock bags will be invaluable to keep your things dry. Forget leather items - they soak up the moisture and will get very heavy only to turn hard and brittle later. You will ruin them. A flashlight and spare batteries can be exceedingly useful - some lodges don't have electricity, and even those that do might have intermittent power outages.
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