In our family, my husband and I take turns choosing a summer vacation locale. When it was my turn, I decided that I’d like to take the family — my husband and I and our then-8-year-old son — to Costa Rica. The country had been on our list for some time, since it has beaches, rainforest, animals galore and it wasn’t too long of a trek from our home in Austin. Although I don’t get a chance to practice it often, I was a Spanish major in college and have experience traveling in Latin America. We purchased our tickets and made an appointment for my son to get his first passport. Not only would it be my kid’s first international trip, but it would also be my first time out of the country since my husband and I were engaged. We purchased our tickets to San José, the capital city, for 10 days at the end of July.
As soon as I started asking around, I realized a lot of friends had already made the trip. In addition to getting their advice, I spent many nights on Trip Advisor, trying to plan our itinerary. I started a Google doc to cut and paste trip ideas. I read books and blogs to decide where to stay. I wasn’t sure when or if we would make it back, so I wanted us to have a chance to experience as much as we could of Costa Rica during our stay.
After lots of thought and research, we decided upon our plan: three nights near the Arenal Volcano outside of La Fortuna, three nights in the Monteverde Cloud Forest and three nights near the beach at Manuel Antonio National Park, before returning to a suburb of San José for a night to be ready for a morning flight home. This itinerary would give us a chance to experience three areas of the country without spending too much time in the car, driving from place to place. Here’s what we did in each place:
We had read that driving around Costa Rica in the rainy season could be treacherous, and that it was foolhearty to leave San José in the afternoon, headed practically anywhere, because you would be driving in the dark on pothole-ridden roads with few road signs and fewer lights along the way. We also knew that we didn’t want to spend an extra night in the capital city, if our adventures would take place elsewhere. With that in mind, we disembarked from our plane, hurried to pick up our four-wheel drive rental car, entered our destination into the GPS and headed on our way toward La Fortuna. As we entered the countryside, we wound our way through hills, thick fog and winding roads. Despite our hurry to arrive at our hotel before dark, we stopped along the way to give my son some fresh air, as he had started to get carsick. After that short stop, our trusty GPS kept us going in the right direction, even as the sky started to darken. As we passed over bridge after bridge with rushing water, it became clear that it was indeed the rainy season. I kept expecting to see the Arenal volcano in the distance, but never did.
I had reserved a room for us at the Arenal Observatory Lodge, which was past the town of La Fortuna and is the closest hotel to the now-dormant, but still impressive Arenal Volcano. The Lodge has miles of trails, free walks led by naturalists each day and lots of chances to see wildlife. As we went past the town and towards the road to the Lodge, a light rain started to fall. The road changed from paved to dirt, and along with it, was riddled with minefield of potholes. We rolled down our windows to listen to the sounds of insects and animals outside. We weren’t in Texas anymore.
What was only 9 kilometers took what seemed like forever, especially as my anxiety rose about my son, who hadn’t had dinner and who was subsisting on Goldfish and other snacks in the back seat. Along the way, we had to navigate around a car which had gotten stuck in the mud. Locals were helping pull the car out with the help of a fabric cable. I could suddenly understand why a four-wheel drive vehicle was recommended, why lots of travelers choose to hire drivers and why car rentals are so expensive. When we finally got to the gate of the Lodge, the guard asked for our last name. He scanned his list and furrowed his brow. We weren’t on his list.
I started to panic. Our options were very limited at this point, and we were all tired from a long day of traveling. The Lodge was one of the rare places that I found that had a toll-free number you could call from the States, but perhaps my reservation got lost somehow? He opened the gate and waved us on anyways, and we drove up to check-in. Thankfully, the hotel had our reservation and we were even able to order dinner at the restaurant before it closed, although my son only had a few bites and was ready to call it a day.
We awoke to the sounds of bird chirping and opened the curtains to our room, which I had reserved since it has the best view of the volcano. Still, no volcano. It was the rainy season, after all. We donned our rain jackets and made our way to breakfast, which was amazing. We had brought our binoculars and were treated to a toucan hanging out at a nearby tree, other exotic birds helping themselves to fruit the Lodge puts upon a tall platform and the sound of howler monkeys, which we later saw swinging in the trees. We set out on the naturalist walk as a drizzle set in. As our fellow travelers girded for the rain, the guide made a comment about how wonderful it was to get rain in the rainforest. While this was absolutely true, I found myself hoping the rain would let up during the tour.
After changing out of our wet clothes, we got some lunch at a soda (local, family-run restaurant) and got ready for our next adventure: ziplining! While ziplining is available throughout the country, I had read that it was the most spectacular in Arenal, since you could get a view of both the volcano and Lake Arenal as you were whizzing through the treetops. Although I’m not a fan of heights, I had recently had the chance to zipline here in Austin and so I knew what I was getting myself into.
My son proved to be the fearless one in the family, volunteering to go first on each of the 8 ziplines. The scenery was breathtaking and the experience was exhilarating. As with the other days we spent in the area, we still only saw a vague outline of the Arenal volcano. On the last zipline, the weather took a turn for the worse. The guides mentioned that we had been lucky to have no rain, and so we quickly finished our last zip and made our way to our car before the rain began falling harder. We made our way back to the hotel to hang up wet clothes (again) and drove to a nearby town for dinner at Pizza John’s.
The next morning, we set out in search of a free hot springs right outside of Tabacon Springs. There are several hot springs you can visit for the day, but I had read about this one on Trip Advisor. It was wonderful and relaxing, and we practically had the whole place to ourselves, since it was the morning and it seems most people visit at night. After lunch in La Fortuna, we made our way to Proyecto Asis, which is a wildlife rescue and rehabilitation center. While families and teens can stay for extended periods during the summer, we chose a wildlife tour and volunteering, to give us a chance to learn more about the work of the organization and determine whether we would want to return.
It was great to have the chance to learn more about the animals Proyecto Asis had taken in which the organization was hoping to return to the wild. We had a chance to feed many of the animals during our tour and interact with them. Although ecotourism is understandably big business in Costa Rica, I was happy to help support an organization which has the well-being and safety of the animals at the forefront. For my nature-loving boy, this was the highlight of his trip.
The next morning, we stopped at the La Fortuna Waterfall for another damp outing before collecting our soggy clothing and selves and hitting the road for Monteverde. While we knew we were traveling during the rainy season, the rain did put a damper on our visit. I explained it to friends this way: it’s similar to sitting in the Splash Zone at a waterpark. You know you are supposed to get wet, but you don’t really believe it until you are soaked. We are from Texas, after all, where it rains about 30 inches a year. In just the month of July in Arenal, the average rainfall is 20 inches.
The drive from La Fortuna to Arenal, around Lake Arenal, provided some of the most stunning views in my almost 40 years. The roads are in better condition along this stretch, so no risk of car sickness. We were also able to take our time on our way to the town of Santa Elena, near the Monteverde Cloud Forest. My husband remarked that the landscape reminded him of a Hidden Valley Ranch commercial.
I was slightly nervous about our stay at the Rainbow Valley Lodge, which consisted of three suite-like accommodations (another was under construction). Since it is so small, Rainbow Valley does not take credit cards nor reservations. The Lodge operates on the honor system. All my fears were allayed when we drove up and met Christian at the front office. In addition to checking us in, he did us the huge favor of getting our clothes washed from Arenal (we had been through virtually all our clothes because of changing out of wet clothes several times a day). A few neighborhood boys were playing soccer on the front lawn, and, after a long car ride, my son eagerly joined them. Once we got settled into our room, my husband and I joined in. Playing soccer with two local kids on a makeshift field in the middle of Costa Rica is a memory I’ll always treasure.
The next day, Christian led us and several other visitors on a tour of the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, which started off with a bang with a stop at hummingbird feeders which were also visited by a rarely-seen olingo. After the tour concluded, we explored the reserve on our own, going over a huge suspension bridge, spotting brilliant butterflies and crossing over vegetation-covered stepping stones. Our next adventure took us to El Trapiche, which is a family-owned farm which grows sugar, coffee and cocoa. We had the opportunity to see how each crop is planted, harvested and processed. If I had to guess, I would think that my kid’s favorite part of the tour was eating the candy he made out of sugar cane.
Our next stop was the Monteverde Butterfly Garden, run by a two-person team of transplants from Canada. We had our own private tour of the gardens, provided by a student intern, and even my fact-filled 8-year-old learned a lot. I was very excited about our next outing, which was a night tour. So many rainforest animals are nocturnal that a night tour provides a much better chance to spy wildlife. Sure enough, we added to our running tally of animals spotted by seeing bats, huge spiders and a bright yellow humongous venomous viper (the last of which was, thankfully, just hanging out, high up in a tree).
We felt satisfied about our three days in the cloud forest, and so we packed up and headed for the coast. We had another beautiful drive on roads which were in the process of undergoing improvements. We stopped for lunch in Tárcoles, a major tourist trap where hordes of visitors line a bridge and watch crocodiles sunning themselves down below. We drove on to Quepos to check in at Hotel Byblos, which we had learned was owned by an Austinite. We walked to El Avión for dinner, which is a bar and restaurant known for its views and which has a Farchild C-123 cockpit which you can climb into.
The next morning, we started off our day at Manuel Antonio National Park. We opted not to go with a guide this time, since we had done that at Arenal and Monteverde, and we had already seen dozens of animals with the help of the guides. We went straight to Playa Espadilla Sur Beach, which is a very short walk from the very popular main Playa Manuel Antonio. We practically had the whole beach to ourselves, if you don’t count the racoons which are expert at getting into your bag and absconding with your food. It was easy to see why this national park and its beaches receive accolades as one of the most beautiful places on the planet. We spent the rest of the day exploring the trails in the park before returning to the hotel.
Costa Rica has some beautiful sunsets, so we set out again for dinner to Ronny’s Place, where we overheard a fellow patron talking about being from Austin (he was from Dripping Springs, but pretty close!) Small world. The next day we again headed to Manuel Antonio, although this time we spent the majority of our time on “our” beach. We were still surprised to find so many few people there. We found sand dollars, had hermit crab races and shared a beach with an iguana. We were sad our vacation was coming to an end.
The following day, we returned to the beach and packed up our things to drive to Alajuela to spend the night before our return home. We felt like we had definitely gotten a taste of la pura vida in Costa Rica, which literally means “the pure life”, but which I had come to understand to mean “the good life”. I think it’s safe to say the trip merely whetted my family’s appetite for more adventures in the future to this beautiful country.
Have you ever been to Costa Rica? If so, where do you go and what is your favorite thing to do?
[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’]http://www.livemom.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/Nicole-Basham-Sara-Marzani-Photography-livemom.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]A native Austinite and soccer-playing mom, Nicole uses her 9-year-old son as an excuse to rediscover her hometown through his eyes. In Thoreau’s words, her mission is to “suck out all the marrow of life”, or in her son’s words, to cultivate in him a love of “advenchers”.[/author_info] [/author]