Family vacation, Costa Rica

Family vacation ~ Pura Vida

One of my biggest dreams has been to travel with my family. Well, this summer we've finally gotten a taste of it, and we are all hungry for MORE! Unfortunately, my husband couldn't join us, but I was able to take the kids on an amazing trip to Costa Rica.

I was lucky enough to do a lot of travelling when I was younger, BC (before Calande/before children). It's an enriching and life changing experience, and I wanted my children to feel the thrill of seeing another country, hearing another language, smelling exotic smells, tasting new tastes, and being immersed in a different culture. Being that my children are really adults, 21 and 19, I also wanted to throw in some excitement and adventure. Costa Rica was the place for us. It's exotic, yet still safe for travelling. The people are educated, warm,  and friendly. Tourism is one of their main sources of income, and the country has done a wonderful job of making travel easy, while still being eco-friendly, which is important to us. Over 25% of Costa Rica is composed of conservation and natural protected territory.

Planning our trip was a blast. What a difference from when I was backpacking around the world and carrying around the Lonely Planet and Frommer's guides. Even the most recent of those books would be passe information, and one never knew if there would actually be a bed at the end of a day. Nowadays, every aspect of planning is at your fingertips, with immediate, up-to-date information, pictures and even reviews.

After filling my head with firsthand accounts, statistics, and stories, I started narrowing down an itinerary ~ La Fortuna, Monteverde and Manuel Antonio. Reading about the horrendous state of the roads, lack of addresses, possible criminal activities on the roadways, I quickly tossed in the keys and opted not to drive. Time and time again I came across a company called Desafio. Their Trip Advisor reviews were plentiful and positive. They did not steer me wrong, because Desafio delivered and was a dream to work with. We used them for adventure connections and tours five different times, and would use them again in a heartbeat.

When I told my daughter that we were travelling with only carry-on, the look on her face was priceless. We were arriving at midnight, and I did not want to wait for our luggage, or even worse, deal with lost luggage. With a little finagling and some ingenuity, we made it work. Moistened towelettes and solid sticks do not count as liquids, so we had bug repellent towelettes and solid stick sunscreen. Travelling in the "green" or wet season called for quick dry clothing, which is very lightweight and packs well. We were thrilled with our Eddie Bauer and Marmot gear. The heaviest things we packed, but were glad to have, were a pair of good walking/hiking tennis shoes and rain gear (jacket for sure and pants if you're going to zipline.)

The biggest difficulty was getting to and from Costa Rica. Our travel days were nearly a full day each, with arrival and departure from San Jose, Costa Rica after midnight. When United offered an upgrade to first class for $200, I took it. Being in a more comfortable seat, decent meals, and use of the lounge with beverages and snacks included during our extremely long layovers made the upgrade well worth it. A side note, the lounge in San Jose closes at 8:00 pm, and if you have the opportunity to fly on their "Dreamliner", do it.

One good thing about arriving after midnight, there were no lines! We were greeted by a smiling immigration officer, who quickly stamped our passports;we scooted through customs; and we were on our way. For peace of mind, I had pre-arranged a driver through our hotel to pick us up. We could have easily hired a taxi, though the cost would have been about the same.

Our stay in San Jose was short and sweet, a mere six hours. The Hotel Grano De Oro was very comfortable, and I wish we could have lingered for breakfast in their beautiful establishment, but our Desafio driver was prompt and waiting by 7:00 am. We took our breakfast to go as we sleepily, yet excitedly climbed into his comfortable van, equipped with wifi and air conditioning if needed.

He safely drove us out of the sprawling city of San Jose, through hillsides of coffee and sugar cane fields, smaller villages, to our destination for white water rafting on the Balsa River. Our driver stayed with the van and our belongings as we were outfitted and guided down the Balsa. Pura Vida, and welcome to Costa Rica!

Our guide was so knowledgeable and funny. He pointed out iguanas lounging high in the treetops, a variety of birds, all types of flora and fauna, even bringing us a blue jeans frog to look at close up before carefully placing him back, all along our white knuckle ride down the river. It was thrilling, a little terrifying, completely fun, and I felt safe and well looked after.

We lunched afterwards in a local "soda" or small restaurant. I had read that the food in Cost Rica was not so great, but we all found that not to be true. We tried and enjoyed everything!

We were taken through the town of La Fortuna, to our hotel, the Tabacon. The hotel is very pretty, but what really stands out are their hot springs. After a full day of travel and white water rafting, it was exactly what we needed. 

The hot springs grounds are magical. They are natural hot springs and streams that have been rocked in and landscaped into Shangri La. There is a portion of the hot springs that are for hotel guests only, 
with cabanas dotted around for your lounging enjoyment.

We were picked up in the morning at our hotel and taken to the Arenal hanging bridges, in the Volcan Arenal National Park. I was impressed by the care that was taken to preserve the natural resources, while facilitating tourists in seeing these natural treasures. There were paved paths and, of course, sky high hanging bridges. The scenery was spectacular, and I was so glad to have our guide point out many wonders that we would have passed right on by without seeing. A tiny hole in the side of the mountain proved to be a tarantula abode, and our guide used my son's iphone to film the tarantula moving about. A great learning tool and what a memento (not for the spider squeamish!)

Our next day we traveled from La Fortuna to Monteverde via a taxi boat cruise along the Arenal Lake.

We learned much about the coffee industry in Costa Rica at the Don Juan coffee and chocolate tour. We are self-admitted chocolate snobs, and were eager to know how it's grown, processed, and sample seeds from the pod and fresh milled cocoa nibs. Heaven!

The Hidden Canopy Treehouse in Monteverde was our next stop. Jen, an expat from Santa Cruz (where we used to live) is the proprietess extraordinaire of this lovely establishment. The kids and I really enjoyed our stay here.We arrived just in time for "happy hour" ~ savories, sweets and sangria, oh my! My son was 18 and legal in Costa Rica, and we all enjoyed Jen's delicious sangrias and the breathtaking view over the valley.

We were all a bit road weary and decided to take advantage of the local take-out, ordered in, and watched a video, "Animal House", rather surreal while staying in the cloud forest in the middle of a jungle. Breakfast was included and divine, a wonderful way to begin our day at the Selvatura Adventure Park for ziplining and touring the hummingbird and butterfly sanctuaries.

Ziplining was every bit the thrilling, heart stopping, adrenaline overload expected, while still being able to enjoy the over-the-top scenery. Nothing like it. Seeing so many hummingbirds and butterflies was a sweet experience.

At night, after happy hour of course, we took a taxi into town to the Cafe Cabure, for a fresh, delicious dinner and hand made chocolates to take away. That day we took advantage of Jen's laundry service. For $20 a load, it was a good deal and much needed, as the humidity made for wet, soggy once worn clothing.

The following morning we were picked up by Luis, our driver to Manuel Antonio. Luis was another cheerful, knowledgeable, congenial Costa Rican. He answered our constant barrage of questions about the scenery, Costa Rican life, the education system, trade and wildlife. We stopped to view the crocodiles along the way ~ huge, primal beasts, dozens of them! He even pulled over to point out a pair of macaws that he spotted.

We soaked in all the different terrains and landscapes. There is a plethora of diverse eco systems in a relatively small space in Costa Rica, and we were fortunate to see a number of them.

Manuel Antonio is a gorgeous juxtaposition of ocean and jungle. We arrived at the Hotel Parador, high on the peninsula hill, with the ocean on both sides, and the jungle to our back.

After being in the relatively "cool" weather (temperate 70's) of the north, we were hit by the overwhelming heat and humidity of this new area. We checked in and made haste to the pools.

Sun sets early in the Costa Rican rainy season, around 5:30, so we went on a night hike, and further explored a totally different world. Colorful frogs, toads, lizards, snakes, as well as sloths and monkeys were pointed out by our guides.

I'll never forget the evening we sat on our balcony and watched the storm roll in with its spectacular lightening show.

Our next day dawned early and clear, and we decided to take advantage and headed down to the beach for parasailing and boogie boarding.

One of my favorite things about Costa Rica is the warm water. Whether in streams, rivers, or the ocean, it was such a treat to swim in its temperate waters.

We stayed in Manuel Antonio for five days and enjoyed its beaches, snorkeling, hiking their National Park, kayaking in the mangroves, bike riding through a small village, and seeing wildlife. 

Mamma humpback whale, baby at her side. 

We were enchanted with the monkeys. We saw many different types, and there was a troop that came right by our room every day. What an experience to just sit back and watch their daily migration from one feeding spot to another.

They would pick the mangoes right from the trees, peel them, nibble away, then toss them down when finished ~ be warned of falling mango pits!

Our last day came all too quickly. From the open-air airport in Quepos, we boarded a tiny (and I mean tiny) plane back to San Jose.

Since we had all day until our midnight flight back home, I again relied on Desafio. They arranged a walking tour of San Jose, a visit to a traditional mask maker's home, and dinner in a locals' dinner house. Again, we were impressed with the amount of information imparted to us and the charm of the locals.

                                   (Thanks, Davis, for your most awesome photographs.)

I couldn't have asked for a better introduction to travel for my children. I know, this was a more "coushy" trip than I used to travel in my younger days. My kids can experience that thrill of travelling with their compatriots in the trains, sleeping in the hostels (or rooftops as sometimes happens), and winging it when they decide to travel on their own. I know they'll love it, just as I did. But for this trip, this was just what I wanted and all I could have hoped for.

"One destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things."  - Henry Miller


  1. Patti, I'm so happy for you that you were able to have this experience with your kids. I'm sure lifetime memories were made. I know how much you enjoyed seeing and experiencing the world and it's wonderful you got to share that.

  2. Jealous. That really looks like a great experience. My daughter is only 3 but hey, I'm ready for it.

  3. My youngest was about three when I started dreaming of Costa Rica. Hopefully you won't have to wait quite so long before visiting this beautiful country :)