Back when my three boys were little toddlers running around the backyard catching bugs and filling their days with wonderment, it was pretty obvious that these little guys were captivated by nature. I took them to the Milwaukee Public Museum exhibit of the rain forest in Costa Rica and instantly they darted off in search of adventure and discovery. We went back to that exhibit many times and decided that our next family vacation should be that place, the field research station deep in a virgin Costa Rican rain forest. I had no idea how that place would also capture my interests and change my life. Welcome to day 2 of my bucket list adventures, hiking through a virgin rain forest.
We arrived at Tirimbina, a rain forest research center in Costa Rica, totally unaware of what we are about to experience. It was late afternoon and the daytime critters we’re getting cranked up talking about their day’s activities and plans for tomorrow. We couldn’t wait to go explore the forest, all of us, so we threw on our boots, fanny packs and other assorted REI essentials, and headed to the suspension bridge. This massive bridge crosses over two rivers onto this island that is rain forest reserve, protecting vegetation that has never been cut down. The boys were 4, 5, and 7 at the time.
I was super excited to see large mammals in the forest like tapirs, monkeys, anteaters, sloths, and jaguars. But I felt a little ill-equipped to protect my boys without a rifle slung over my shoulder, a revolver and machete hanging from my hip. I was pretty sure that’s what the dad in the first Jurassic Park movie had on him at all times. I did have a hat and handkerchief around my neck though.
Crossing over the bridge was thrilling as it swayed back-and-forth, creaking a lot and felt appropriately rustic. I’ll never forget stepping off the bridge into what felt like a world that has been preserved in time. I know that sounds totally cliché but it really is true. There was something totally different about being on the soil in this forest. You could feel it in the energy. We marched forward with our rain forest guide to expose the wildlife that was hiding in plain sight and watching her every move. The trees are so big we couldn’t hold hands and surround some of them. Leaves looked like green surfboards hanging from limbs. The air was thick and the smells were humid. We saw so much wildlife in that first afternoon that I couldn’t believe it all existed in one spot. But don’t worry, I’m not gonna tell you about it because I know you’ll want to experience it yourself just as I did, unaware and mystical. But I will tell you one thing that amazed me the most. I found myself spending almost 2 hours with my four-year-old son following the path of leaf cutter ants, looking for the source of the leaves, where their nest was and watching how they interact together. It was absolutely mesmerizing and I could have spent the rest of the trip just exploring these tiny creatures. I’d forgotten all about searching out large wildlife.
Here’s the other thing that took me by surprise and was the catalyst for the change in my life that wanted to come. Exploring this forest with my three young sons was something that we are doing together as equals. None of us knew much more than the other and we were all filled with wonderment, curiosity and excitement. None of us wanted to go back to our cabin or the restaurant because we didn’t want to miss a thing. We knew that at any moment something super awesome was going to happen and we were trying to learn how to look for those things. I have never experienced being with my kids like this before. It was something that reached deep inside me and begged me to question how I could spend more time with my young children doing things like this.
Over the next few days we spent time in the forest at night, tracking frogs and other nocturnal animals, capturing bats in mist nets and helping scientific students catalog them and release them, sloshing around in streams looking at organisms, and of course roaming the island and learning how to see all the amazing things that were unfolding all the time. We were scientists too, unlocking the mysteries of ecosystems and discovering how one creature plays a role in the ability of all creatures to exist. It’s pretty cool when you can learn and understand these concepts with your children who are 4, 5, and 7 years old.
As many of our friends and family who have to travel with us to Costa Rica know, this experience inspired me to move to Costa Rica with the boys three years later. It was planned to be just a two year sabbatical but turned into something longer and more meaningful. We created a travel company and started building our boutique hotel Tierra Magnifica. We also created a video series called Super Natural Adventures so we could share these experiences with the kid’s friends back home. I have a link here that shows a Super Natural Adventures episode of my youngest son William talking about leaf cutter ants back at this time.
For a family adventure that is not only educational but inspiring, a virgin rain forest is the stuff for me. Let me take you and your family here so you too can be inspired by nature.
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