Parenthood isn’t the end of adventure, it’s the opportunity to introduce your mini-me to new food, architecture, customs, and languages. While some things simply don’t mix, like small children and large prey animals, the world is full of safe, age-appropriate destinations. Three to try: cultural immersion in Peru; Borneo, a nature lover’s paradise that’s also affordable for families; and Costa Rica, great for kids under 10 as well as eco-conscious tweens and teenagers.
Peruvian culture is family-oriented, so kids are a great ice-breaker and will help you connect with the already friendly population. Because children are cherished in Peru, homestays can be a great option for introducing your family to a new culture in a warm, relaxed way. Kids can participate in caring for llamas and alpacas, or learn about weaving and cooking trendy Peruvian cuisine.
While the incredible ruins of Machu Picchu are on everyone’s bucket-list, make sure you check out the entire Sacred Valley. Endless marches through the ruins can turn off even the most cerebral child, and the Sacred Valley offers high energy-adventures like white water rafting along the Urubamba river, ziplining through the rainforest canopy, and biking ancient trails. Teenagers love exploring the narrow streets and alleys of the Centro Histórico de Cusco, which include incredible Incan stonework walls incorporated into Spanish Colonial buildings. The mix of architectures provides a visual, tactile representation of the scope of history.
If your family loves animals and nature, Borneo is a deeply appealing option. Borneo’s most charming and intelligent animal inhabitant is the orangutan (pygmy elephants and sea turtes round out the Borneo top three). Visiting orangutans at a wildlife refuge helps fund conservation efforts to protect these sweet and intelligent primates. The Borneo Rainforest Lodge in Danum Valley, Malaysia offers both orangutan conservation and a 1000 foot canopy walk (slightly less than a ¼ mile), about 80 feet up through the trees. The Poring Canopy Walk in Malaysia, while only about half the length of the BRL Canopy Walk, is a spectacular 140 feet high, putting you truly in the ancient forest canopy. It’s also next door to the family friendly Poring Hot Springs, which is very popular with locals and full of other noisy kids (so yours won’t stick out). This isn’t a typical Oregon hot spring - everyone wears bathing suits in the outdoor pools - but there are private indoor tubs for rent. On hotter days you’ll enjoy the cool pools, shallow pools for kids, and a slide pool. Another fascinating option for young explorers: the Gunung Mulu National Park in Malaysia is a UNESCO world heritage site that includes an enormous system of underground caves you can (safely) tour.
Note: Keep in mind that Borneo, the third largest island in the world, is home to three separate countries with different visa rules and entry points. Malaysia and Brunei are located in the northern part of the island, with Indonesia to the south. Because family vacations can get expensive, you’ll be happy to hear that Indonesia and Malaysia both made it onto the biennial World Economic Forum Travel and Tourism Report top 20 list for price competitiveness, with Malaysia coming in at number three, and Indonesia at number five.
If your tweens have an interest in sustainability (and a well-developed BS detector) they will be impressed by the recycling and energy saving activities they see in Costa Rica. The country has pledged to be carbon neutral by 2021, and they are on track to hit that goal: currently 93% of electricity for the country is produced by renewable resources, and national parks, protected lands and wildlife reserves make up 26% of the country’s total land mass. The Costa Rican Tourism Board has created a Sustainability Certification Program that rates hotels on a sustainability scale of one to five leaves, so you can easily choose the greenest lodgings available. Like hotels, tour companies are ranked on a scale of one to five, making it easy to pick the greenest option. And because sometimes a 30 minute flight is preferable to a day of driving in a strange country (and hearing “are we there yet”) consider booking flights within Costa Rica on the affordable and carbon neutral local airline Nature Air.
One particularly inspiring place to visit with kids is the Bosque Eterno de los Niños (BEN, or Children’s Eternal Rainforest), a reserve that was purchased with money raised by schoolchildren all over the world. BEN offers rustic lodging and educational programs such as night walks through the rainforest, and all proceeds go back to supporting the reserve.
Essential Packing List
- Reef-safe sunscreen, especially for Costa Rica. Surprisingly, eco-friendly Costa Rica doesn’t have sunscreen regulations and reef-safe sunscreen is both expensive and not widely available.
- Matador Pocket Blanket for picnics and sandy beaches
- A few distractions for kids (and adults): Outside Inside Backpack Bocce Ball set, ZIPIT’s interactive coloring books that make colors and stickers come alive through their free app
- Matador Travel Earplug Kit mutes noisy monkeys (a real issue in Borneo)
- Matador NanoDry Shower Towel and Matador Droplet XL Dry Bag to stash your wet stuff
While there will be tears, tantrums and misadventures, re-experiencing the world through the eyes of a child, and raising a global citizen, is worth the (sometimes steep) price of admission.
In the words of Mark Twain (from The Innocents Abroad) “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” In this period of global prejudice, fear and instability, there is nothing we need more than to raise open-hearted children, who grow into broad-minded adults. And there is no better way to accomplish that than through international family adventure.