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.

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.