There's a tree found in the cloud forests of Costa Rica that grows in an unusual direction — from the top down. As with so much of the plant life that feeds off one another in these dense forests, this tree's seeds become lodged in the dirt high atop the canopy, and as it grows, its roots extend down deep onto the forest floor.

"Many people think they are vines but they are roots," said Rodrigo Solano, my family's tour guide through the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve last month. Solano grew up scampering through the <i>senderos</i> (trails) of these forests, home to more than 400 birds, 120 amphibians and 3,000 plants. As a boy, he and his friends would cut the tendrils and swing from them.

"But they were amazing," he said slapping one root, now thick as a trunk. "They always grew back."

Eventually, as more roots grow and bury themselves deep in the earth, the plant envelopes the host tree like a gloved hand wrapping around a twig, until ultimately the host tree dies. Thus it gets its name, the "Strangler Fig."

As we stood amid the cascading greenery of this forest — which supports some 20 percent of the world's plant diversity — I saw myself in his story. Many of us probably do.

After college, I spent two and a half months exploring Europe with friends. Before my flight touched down at SFO, I was already planning my return. I had dreams of being a a travel writer, maybe studying at the Sorbonne or touring South America. But as so often happens, the demands, problems and obligations of life conspire to alter our plans until ultimately those responsibilities sort of take over, like the roots of a Strangler Fig.

That sort of explains how my family and I ended up in Costa Rica this summer, out of concern that the roots were winning and — given that my oldest was about to start high school — a conviction that we needed to try something different as a family.

We also recognized that not just our family is changing but the planet is as well. According to Solano, birds that used to be seen at lower elevations are showing up more frequently in the cloud forests, while other animals that once made their homes in Monteverde are harder to spot. Worse, the clouds themselves are disappearing. Whether a result of climate change or deforestation in lowland areas, scientists say that the fog on which the cloud forests of Costa Rica survive are moving up or disappearing.

The result is that many people are coming to Costa Rica to get a better understanding of our planet and, perhaps, to see these places before it is too late. This country has become the mecca of that growing industry known as eco-tourism.

We also were there because we were taking part in another growing trend in travel: volunteer family vacations.

Why? Call up the usual suspects: A desire to give back, to challenge ourselves, to have our kids not just get outside of their Sonoma County bubble but to make a dent of a difference in the lives of someone somewhere else. This isn't rocket science.

The truth is one can vacation in Costa Rica and never break a sweat in learning Spanish or altering an American habit. Many destinations take American dollars and most hotel and restaurant workers and zip line operators not only speak English but will gladly offer you guides and menus and maps in English. Even some signs posted along the Pan-American Highway not only are in English — usually calling attention to uniquely American destinations such as a Denny's or Holiday Inn — but they indicate the distance in miles, not kilometers.

But many people want more than that. We met one family, with two children the same age as ours, who were en route to the Puntarenas area to help at an orphanage. One gentleman was helping with Habitat for Humanity in the San Jose area. Two young women were clearing trails in the mountain regions. And many people we met, from Texas to Holland, had come to help through their churches.

Volunteer vacations are one of the fastest growing areas of travel, particularly among families and older Americans. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, roughly 73,000 Americans 65 and older participated in international volunteering in 2008. By 2012, that had grown 75 percent to 127,000. For those between the ages of 55 and 64, volunteering overseas jumped 57 percent from 2004 to 2012.

This has given birth to groups such as Global Volunteers, GlobeAware, Voluntary Projects Overseas and Experience Mission which offer opportunities to travel abroad from anywhere from one week to months on end doing anything from building houses and providing medical support to teaching art.

Where we ended up — before our break to see the cloud forests — was well off the beaten path in the central mountain range of Costa Rica, within view of the large, and active, Turrialba volcano. We were among 20 people, most of them from Sonoma County, sponsored by First Presbyterian Church of Santa Rosa, who spent 10 days volunteering at Voz Que Clama Mission in the town of Tuis, building a children's center and kitchen, learning Spanish, running afternoon children's program including a sports camp and painting. Three of the days were spent taking supplies to and visiting with the indigenous people of Chirrip?National Park. A remarkable experience.

Volunteer vacations are not always easy or cheap. But a side benefit is that the money spent on food, lodging and such things as language programs goes directly to host families and the sponsoring agencies, creating jobs and investing directly in communities. In most areas, the economic boost is needed.

The father of our host family, for example, works in a Rawlings baseball factory in the town of Turrialba, where workers, from what I can tell, bring home about $65 a week. It's a coveted job. But the downside is his left shoulder is injured from the repetition and his right index finger is permanently hooked as a result of pulling the 108 double stitches required of each ball. Alexander makes on average about 45 balls a day.

His wife, Carolina, cooked and cared for us daily and has treated us as her <i>hijos</i> (offspring) ever since. She and her three children and our two have carried on their friendship with the help of Facebook, Instagram and other connections that are beyond my skill set to understand. What's not hard to understand, however, is that these are the kind of trips that do more than leave us rested. They plant roots — the kind we want.