Tag Archives: family travel Costa Rica

5 things Costa Rica taught me about parenting

We’re back from Costa Rica and I hope the pura vida philosophy will stay with us at least until the leaves come out and Calgary begins to resemble a habitable city instead of a brown and barren wasteland. The shock of re-entry is hard, but we bring with us precious memories of time spent exploring the jungle and jumping waves at the beach.

Another beautiful Costa Rica sunset.

Another beautiful Costa Rica sunset.

This was the first off-resort holiday we’ve done to a developing country with kids in tow, and I’m still surprised by how much I enjoyed it. I suppose I thought there would be more fighting, tantrums, ethnic food aversion, resistance to planned activities or utterances of “I’m bored.” Instead I can honestly say it was the best family vacation so far. It also taught me some things about the kids and our relationship; nuggets I’ll try and hold onto as the sounds of the jungle fade.

1. “Sometimes it’s better to be in the moment than to take a picture.”

Avery said this to me one night at Playa Grande after we’d watched the setting sun bleed the sky ridiculous shades of orange, pink and purple. She’d struck up a conversation with an American photographer (who also surfed, natch) currently living in Barcelona, who comes to Costa Rica every year. As we all took endless pictures of the glorious sunset, Avery asked him why he didn’t have his camera. His response obviously resonated with her, and it’s so true. Sometimes you just need to be present with kids and family, instead of recording life on an iPhone.

2. Your kids are more capable than you think

After Avery caught her seventh gecko all I could think was, “Where on earth did she learn to do that?” Goodness knows I have never caught a lizard (nor been inclined to even try). Ditto for fishing. Blake gave her a quick lesson in casting, they found bait the bass liked (bread), and then it was off to the races. Out to the pond Avery tromped every morning, reeling in fish all by herself.

And then there was Bennett, who constantly asks for my help with his shoes in Calgary. Suddenly in Costa Rica, when there were peacocks and chickens to chase around the yard, he became adept at putting on his own shoes in under 20 seconds. And when it came to the waves at the beach, he soon proved he could stand his ground and “body surf” with the rest of us rather than being carried off to sea.

3. “The fine details of nature are everywhere, you just have to notice them,” said Avery.

Or, have a child with you to point them out. I might not have noticed the fire flies that first night if Bennett hadn’t pointed into the night and said, “What’s that?” I squinted into the inky darkness. “What’s what?” I asked. “What’s that glowing, Mommy?” And then I saw the fire flies, the same way I saw a trail created by leaf cutter ants that Avery pointed out, and a tiny red blue jean frog she spotted hopping through the leaf litter. Children are like fairies that way. It’s as though they still believe in magic and notice the wonders that old eyes takes for granted.

Avery even noticed things about the butterflies I would have overlooked.

Avery even noticed things about the butterflies I would have overlooked.

4. The kids will be alright

Not an hour after we’d arrived at Villa Encantada, Bennett promptly stepped backwards off a ledge at the pool and completely scraped up both arms. A few days later he rammed into Avery on the waterslide and she bonked her head on the concrete. In both instances I immediately envisioned broken bones and concussions, when in reality they were the small scrapes and goose eggs of childhood.

One evening we ventured out for an adult dinner and left the oldest child, our friends’ son (age 13) in charge as a babysitter. I fretted a bit on the drive to the restaurant — What if there was a fire? What if an escaped lunatic descended on the villa while we were gone? What if they all got abducted like that British girl vacationing in Portugal? We returned to a quiet house where the only mishap had been Avery scraping her heel on the staircase. Note to this mommy: breathe, stop worrying and enjoy your night out. If they can fly solo in Costa Rica, the kids should be alright everywhere else.

5. Enjoy your littles. They’re going to be big soon.

How many more years will Avery beg us to go tide pool exploring with her, or come running to us to show us every caught frog and gecko? And how much longer will Bennett seek my reassurance about night sounds, or crawl into bed with me to cuddle as dawn breaks? They will always be precious, but there’s something so sweet and endearing about them right now. At age nine and seven. And I vow to soak it all up.

Love. These. Two.

Love. These. Two.

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Attempting to surf in Costa Rica

Surfing is big in Costa Rica. Everywhere you look tanned and toned locals, travellers and ex-pats are ripping it up and making it look easy. And though it’s never been an activity on my bucket list, when the opportunity to participate in a family surf lesson with Frijoles Locos surf shop in Playa Grande came up, I couldn’t spoil the fun for the rest of the clan.

Which is how I found myself standing on the beach at 7 a.m., giant longboard at my feet, with tanned and freckled Rob-the-surf-instructor telling us about the number one danger out there: All. The. Sharks!

“Really?” Avery asked, without a trace of fear. “No I’m teasing,” said Rob. “What you have to be careful about is your board.” He went on to explain board safety, and the many ways the surf board could turn into a violent head bonking, nose cracking smack-down device that was unfortunately chained to my ankle (he failed to mention its knee-twisting capabilities).

Then Rob showed us how to “pop up.” This is where you draw on your past life of high school varsity sports training — where the coach made you do push-ups and burpees until you threw up — and channel those adolescent skills into a graceful pop up movement that lands you in surfing stance from your stomach in under one second. They key, said Rob, is confidence. You have to look at the shore and act like it’s no big deal. “Got it?”

Rob pushes Avery out into the surf.

Rob pushes Avery out into the surf.

We headed out into the rising tide, white frothy waves crashing all around us, with Avery leading the way. Before I’d even waded past the little breakers Avery was standing on her board like a natural (Rob steadied the board for her and pushed it ahead of the swell to help her out). I was next, and promptly lost my nerve, looked at my feet (a big no-no) and did a header into the surf. Blake has surfed a couple times before and fared much better, standing up on his first try.

Avery is all confidence on her surf board, mugging for the camera.

Avery is all confidence on her surfboard, mugging for the camera.

And so it went for the next hour. Blake caught his own waves, Avery stood up every time and even jumped back and forth into switch, while I careened off my board and was churned through the water like dirty clothes in a washing machine filled with sand.

Me bailing. Again.

Me bailing. Again.

 

“You’re too far back,” coached Rob. “Arch your back and paddle,” he suggested. “Don’t look at your feet!” So I looked up — just in time to see my daughter riding her surfboard while doing a handstand — and was then unceremoniously claimed by the sea yet again. The next time I looked up Blake and Avery were riding a wave side by side, the surfing equivalent of carving powder-eights. I longed for solid water under my feet, to feel graceful atop snow instead of clumsy under water.

Avery and Blake enjoy a side-by-side ride.

Avery and Blake enjoy a side-by-side ride.

And then, finally, I surfed. It wasn’t pretty and it didn’t last long, but at least I can say I rode one wave in Costa Rica.

Woohoo! I surfed!

Woohoo! I surfed!

Volcano adventures in Costa Rica

Everywhere you go near Lake Arenal in Costa Rica, the perfect cone of the Arenal Volcano is not far from sight. We first spotted it on the southwest shore of Lake Arenal, then again two days later while driving to Tabacon Hot Springs. Its beauty and the stories surrounding it (an eruption in 1968 destroyed two villages, and its spewing lava lit up the night sky for years before it fell silent in 2010) certainly lured us in, so we visited Arenal Volcano National Park to get up close and hike in a lava field.

On the fertile lava field that leads up to the Arenal Volcano.

On the fertile lava field that leads up to the Arenal Volcano.

The basic park has three hikes and we chose the 1.6 km trek to the lava field. It was neat to watch plumes of smoke and ash streaming down the flanks of the volcano, but we all agreed the highlight was spotting two bright yellow eyelash pit vipers asleep in trees on the return hike to the car.

Even though the volcano hasn't erupted in five years, it still emits smoke and ash daily.

Even though the volcano hasn’t erupted in five years, it still emits smoke and ash daily.

The following day Desafio Adventure Company saddled us up with Lobo’s Tours for a brisk horseback ride to popular local attraction La Fortuna Waterfall. Unlike trail rides in Canada where you plod along slowly, almost falling asleep as your horse follows the tail of the horse in front of you, this was a horseback derby where each mount vied for the lead. The result was constant trotting and reining of horses so they didn’t gallop into the forest on either side of the wide trail as they sought leadership. It also made taking pictures of Arenal Volcano problematic.

The only time it wasn't a race was when the horses stood still at the beginning of the trail ride.

The only time it wasn’t a race was when the horses stood still at the beginning of the trail ride. Blake’s horse is Marlborough; Avery rides Millionario.

By the time we reached the waterfall Arenal was out of sight, shrouded in clouds. A winding (and in parts crumbling) jungle staircase of 475 steps brought us down to the main attraction, La Fortuna Waterfall, which was in full force dropping 75 meters into a large pool at the base of the dormant Chato Volcano. It was fun but impossible trying to swim out to the waterfall as the water surge kept pushing us back.

La Fortuna Waterfall  falls 75 metres and is gorgeous.

La Fortuna Waterfall falls 75 metres and is a top attraction.

After a crazy trot back to the ranch (and a final glimpse of the volcano), we were faced with one more white-knuckle adventure: driving back to Nuevo Arenal in the dark.

 

Ziplining at Selvatura Park

Zooming high above the cloud forest canopy I see only the tops of the trees below; a sea of green foliage that cachets hundreds of species of birds and thousands of butterflies. It’s not the best way to see Costa Rica’s abundant wildlife, but it’s certainly the most exhilarating way to experience the jungle.

At Selvatura Park 13 zips speed guests over 3.5 km of rainforest canopy.

At Selvatura Park 13 zips speed guests over 3.5 km of rainforest canopy. Here, Avery gets doubled by another rider.

We’re at Selvatura Park, a rainforest park that borders Monteverde, the country’s most famous cloud forest. For two hours we get to be like the howler monkeys that wake us up every morning, zipping from tree to tree while covering 3.5 kilometres in the air across a series of 13 zips. No sooner do I alight at one platform than a guide clips me onto the next cable and sends me screaming out over the green abyss.

Avery and I stop for a selfie on a zipline platform.

Avery and I stop for a selfie on a zipline platform.

It’s my third time ziplining (I have tried it previously on Maui and in Vernon, B.C.) and this is by far the best. As far as the eye can see there is only 50 shades of green and the wonder at what lurks beneath the canopy.

Fifty shades of green.

Fifty shades of green.

Avery holds a blue morpho butterfly inside the butterfly garden.

Avery holds a blue morpho butterfly inside the butterfly garden.

After, we join a tour of the butterfly garden, watch violet sabrewing hummingbirds whiz through the hummingbird garden, and explore the hanging bridges canopy walk, a three-kilometre hike around the park where we spot shrill bellbirds calling from the treetops. Avery even manages to catch another frog (her total for the trip so far: five).

The hanging bridges hike lets us spot birds that surround us in the forest canopy.

The hanging bridges hike lets us spot birds that surround us in the forest canopy.

At day’s end we brave the crazy Costa Rican roads on the long drive back to Nuevo Arenal. We never do spot a resplendent quetzal, the “it” bird of Monteverde, but after hours spent flying like one above the rainforest, it’s fair to say we’re ok with that.

Taking the waters at Tabacon

You wouldn’t think you’d need to visit a hot springs in Costa Rica (it being a tropical country and all) but after visiting Tabacon Grand Spa Thermal Resort and its numerous secluded pools and their accompanying waterfalls and lush foliage, you’ll vote in favour of “taking the waters” and boiling in their therapeutic, mineral-rich pools. Especially when the hot springs bubble up from a volcano that was active as recently as 2010.

Bennett and Blake peer over a waterfall at Tabacon Grand Spa Thermal Resort.

Bennett and Blake peer over a waterfall at Tabacon Grand Spa Thermal Resort.

I have never seen such an extensive and beautifully landscaped thermal resort. I am used to the “one concrete hot pool” variety so common in Canada. At Tabacon, they have gone to extremes to make the pools as natural as possible, building them around a stream that flows from the Arenal Volcano, near La Fortuna. The result is a series of cascading pools and waterfalls crowded with plants that help create natural grottos and hidden swimming holes.

Grammie and Avery enjoy our private hot pool at Tabacon. Photo by Lisa Kadane.

Grammie and Avery enjoy a secluded hot pool at Tabacon.

Avery loved scrambling up the warm waterfall “staircase” and searching for iguanas and basilisks, while Bennett was happy leaning over waterfalls to watch the warm water fall into the pool below.

Critters love Tabacon too. Avery was reptile hunter and found this basilisk (they can run atop water for short distances. How cool is that?). Photo by Lisa Kadane.

Critters love Tabacon, too. Avery was reptile hunter and found this basilisk (they can run atop water for short distances. How cool is that?). Photo by Blake Ford.

In the afternoon we found our Shangri-La — two pools sequestered at the end of a winding pathway. One was hot and the other cool, perfect for alternating between the two.

If there's water, you can pretty much get in anywhere at Tabacon, including this waterfall stream. Photo by Lisa Kadane.

If there’s water, you can pretty much get in anywhere at Tabacon.

Oh, and did I mention the spa? Sadly, with two kids in tow there simply wasn’t an opportunity to sneak away for a Volcanic Mud Wrap treatment. Next time!

Pura Vida in Costa Rica

After years of talking about taking a family holiday to Costa Rica we are finally here! And it is beautiful. We’re based near the small town of Nuevo Arenal, on the shore of Lake Arenal about one hour from the Arenal Volcano and adventure centre La Fortuna.

Family hike at Villa Encantada near Nuevo Arenal.

Family hike at Villa Encantada near Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica. Posing in front of a 400-year-old tree.

No resort for us — we’ve rented gorgeous Villa Encantada that sits on 40 forested acres and comes with hiking trails, a waterfall, a pond for fishing and kayaking, and a pool and water slide. If we run out of things to do there’s a bird feeder that attracts ridiculously colourful birds (identifying them in the Birds of Costa Rica book is hopeless, as there are so many different kinds), plus a slew of nearby adventure activities. We’ll be here another three days, then it’s off to a beach house at Playa Grande for the final week.

Avery enjoyed a soak in the waterfall at Villa Encantada. Photo by Lisa Kadane.

Avery enjoyed a soak in the waterfall at Villa Encantada.

Kayaking around the pond at Villa Encantada. Photo by Lisa Kadane.

Kayaking around the pond at Villa Encantada.

Everyone who comes to Costa Rica raves about it and now I get it. Fresh air, fresh fruit, unspoiled cloud forests and picture-perfect volcanoes. It really lives up to its unofficial national slogan: “Pura Vida!” (Pure Life). I’m excited to share some of our adventures over the next couple weeks, and write about experiencing the country with kids for an upcoming issue of WestJet Magazine. Until then, Pura Vida!

A turquoise bird and a green bird dig in to the papaya rinds. Photo by Lisa Kadane.

Tropical birds dig in to the papaya rinds.

Hiking Indiana Jones style at Villa Encantada. Photo by Lisa Kadane.

Hiking Indiana Jones-style at Villa Encantada.