A family vacation to Costa Rica

The world is definitely a surreal place right now, and being on vacation in a foreign country a seven-hour flight away from home during a world health crisis is definitely the most conflicting experience I have ever had.

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A frangipani tree blooming (and a sweet reminding me of Bali)

Now, to be fair, the trip didn’t begin with such a sense of tension.

Our March family trip to Costa Rica had been booked in November 2019, an amazing gift from my generous mum and her partner, Orville.

I knew that I would have the month of March completely free so I decided to extend the trip by one week and do some solo exploring once my family went home, so my return flight was booked separately.

Near the end of the first week of March of 2020, the number of cases of covid-19 in Canada was less than 40, and the only travel advisories were regarding avoiding non-essential travel to China, Italy, and Iran.

We felt confident we would do all that we could to remain safe as informed & proactive travellers. We armed ourselves with plenty of soap, hand sanitizer, alcohol wipes, and an added air of caution about not touching anything or anyone unnecessary, and we headed to the airport for a red-eye flight.

We arrived in Liberia, Costa Rica on March 6, 2020 at about 7am, and drove to our resort, still sleepy and adjusting to the time and temperature, and folded ourselves into the shaded hammocks by the pool. When we left Calgary, it had been about -4 degrees Celsius. In Costa Rica it was +34.

Hammocks are one of the greatest inventions of all time, by the way.

Pina coladas aren’t too shabby, either… 😉

We stayed in the area of Guanacaste, at Playa Hermosa on the Pacific side of Costa Rica, where it is nearing the end of the dry season. Aside from the hibiscus bushes, palm trees and manicured gardens trimming the edges of the resort property, the view of the hills and landscape around us was primarily brown; almost entirely scratchy bare-branched trees and dry grass. We were informed that they even have forest fires occur at this time of year and there were some hazing smoky days while we were there, strangely reminding me of summertime back home.

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The local fruit stands were always full of delicious choices, and we loved the local mango and pineapple, and even tried new-to-us fruit like purple starfruit!

Our first adventure was on Saturday, when we had a tour booked to Monteverde and the Selvatura Adventure Park for ziplining. On the way, our amazing driver and tour guide Harold pointed out some beautiful photo op spots and promised to stop on the way home, in addition to finding a little spot in a town on the way to get a snack of delicious chicken skewers and grilled corn on the cob.

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As a bonus to the day we got to watch dozens of shimmering emerald and sapphire feather humming birds flutter around feeders at the edge of the bridges trail. If you were patient enough and stood at a feeder with your fingers balanced between a couple spouts, there was a chance a tiny jewel-tone humming bird would use your hand as a landing place! I couldn’t believe the magnificent rush of joy when one bird’s micro feet perched on my knuckles as it drank out of the feeder! It felt like such a gift. 🙂

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We spent almost 90 minutes walking back and forth across the cloud forest through numerous suspended bridges, marvelling at the view and the height we got up to, occasionally hearing the whiz of zipline travellers passing through the canopy on either side of us. It was misty and surprisingly cool up in the mountains, and even rained while we ate lunch before heading out to zip line. (We agreed we would all highly recommend bringing something with long sleeves, and windbreakers/rain jackets just to be safe!)

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After some hot Costa Rican coffee to warm us up we then geared up for ziplining. I still marvel at my fearless mum and Orville suiting up for this thrill seeker activity!

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There were 13 lines and a lot of hiking in between platforms, so this trip is not for the mobility-challenged adventurer! A few of the lines were short and quick in little zigzags through the canopy, but a couple were much longer and even required pairing up with a zip line buddy to get across with your combined weight.

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I was the odd man out in our group so I spent two of the long trips across clipped to one of our guides. This is the first zip line I have done where we were given gloves and were taught how to keep from spinning by holding an ‘okay’ sign with our dominant hand up above and behind us and brake ourselves by pressing the thick reinforced leather palm of the gloves onto the wire.

I have always thought the best lines are the longer lines where you actually have time to look out at the view and down at the tree tops below. The whir of the trolley rolling over the cable and the wind in your face became this wonderful humming underscore to a view that was hundreds of shades of green and gilded with trailing mist and clouds. Disappearing through the low mist on one particular line made it feel like we were entering some mystical place for a few seconds.

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By the end we really wanted to go back to the beginning and go through it again! We left absolutely delighted and still felt like we were flying as we stopped for photos to admire the mountain and valley view, complete with a rainbow to frame the scene.

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It was an incredible day, and we thought Harold was such a great tour guide we made sure to book him for an adventure later in the week.

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I relished the quiet early mornings at the main pool, as the daily blaring party music had not yet been turned on and all you could hear was the bird calls and bubbling water jets of the pool. This was a great time to see flocks of lime green parakeets flitter around the treeline, and see pretty little kiskadees swooping around the pool.

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Seriously, the birds here are all beautiful. Even the scavenger black birds (aka ‘great-tailed grackles’) had tails that looked like swooping black ink brushstrokes, and the white-throated magpie jays (looking like a sophisticated version of the blue jays we see in Canada), had beautiful crests of feathers on their heads that somehow made them look like royalty.

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The beach at Hermosa has dark sand (it looks lighter in photos) and boy oh boy is it HOT! Thankfully, the granules are fine and smooth and once you are in the water it’s heaven. If you are lucky, you’ll catch pelicans corkscrew-diving to catch fish, and a couple times we were stunned to see the shining white diamond bellies of stingrays doing full twists and flips out of the water!

The beach has these great bending tree branches that offer sandy shade and are perfect to hang your stuff on, towels to dry, and even better to secure hammocks to dangle above the lapping waves as the tide swept in each afternoon.

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There were kayaks available through our resort so of course at my first opportunity I took one out and spent about an hour following the shoreline all the way to the other end of the shore and back. The rip tides of the Pacific Coast are strong so you boat and swim with caution. My habit is always to stay along the shoreline to be safe in case a storm or wind picks up and I need to paddle in to shore.

I actually ended up joining in to play beach volleyball after kayaking, which if anyone had offered it up before as an activity I would have thought “no way- it’s way too hot” (35 degrees and all, in full sun)! Somehow the time flew and I played for over an hour with a combo of locals, tourists and the activity staff and we had an amazing time, cheered on by my mum and Orville and other folks enjoying the shade and lounge chairs along the tree line!

I love travelling with my family. On our stay-in days at the resort we had a great rhythm of meals, pool time, beach time, sunset watching, and card games. Naps were often added bonuses, and then we felt extra rested and relaxed when we went out on our exciting exploration days.

Sunsets here are beautiful, with a perfect gradation of pastels in peach to yellow to rose to periwinkle. And the vast sky sure showed off a great deal of stars after dark!!

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We could hear the howler monkeys call out from the treetops in the evenings and occasionally could see them jump and swing from branch to branch high up in the hills. Once we even saw them down at the beach make their way over our heads!

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photo compliments of Orville

I was always on the lookout for wildlife and I regularly amused my family when I took to calling out “monkey monkey monkey!” before I was certain of what it actually was, and in two cases it turned out I was pointing out racoons and coati (a similar type of animal with a longer nose) that were regularly seen in the area. We also came across loads of iguanas here ranging in sizes from small to very large, and tiny lizards that clung to walls like magnetic decorations.

Also, many stray cats seemed to live on the resort property and were always around at meals. We named them as we saw them, and somehow the theme for naming them all became: nuts. We saw ‘Cashew’ and ‘Pistachio’ regularly, and ‘Peanut’ often joined us at the pool, hanging out in the shade under our chairs.

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Another regular sighting during meals were the magpie jays. These birds were so bold they would swoop down through the windows or down from the rafters in the restaurant and confidently perch on the back of an empty nearby chair, landing on a table the moment people stepped away. We saw them steal sugar packets, bread slices, potatoes, scrambled eggs, and even a huge pineapple wedge right out of someone’s drink.

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Our next adventure away from the resort was a beach and snorkel adventure, and we were told that Playa Conchal was the place to go. A whiter, shell beach was about an hour drive south of us, and then we actually had to walk in from the beach town Brasilito that is the closest place accessible by road.

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We were told that we could rent flippers and any necessary snorkel gear on the beach once we got there, which was great because though we all brought our own masks, we did not pack flippers. If you have ever done that you’d know it dictates a much larger piece of luggage!

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It turned out there was no place to rent snorkels but it was just as well. This month had apparently been particularly windy for Costa Rica, which was a blessing for us with the heat, but it made for choppy, murky, and cloudy water.

Staying somewhat close to shore we bobbed and kicked our way through the silt and sand curling around the black rocks and saw a couple of small schools of fish swim by, and then one zebra-striped angel fish gliding along the swirls of the sand on the bottom. And that was sort of it. I imagine you need to either be on the Caribbean coast or take a boat further out to islands off the coast to really get to prime snorkelling areas. Next time, we decided. 🙂

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We dried off in the partial shade of the beach trees and drank from coconuts we bought from a wandering seller.

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On the way home, our driver Luiz stopped on the side of the road to show us a cashew tree, one of the coolest things I have ever seen. Each flower produces one cashew nut that needs to be dried and roasted in order to be eaten. The fruit that grows above the nut is also edible and often made into jams and chutneys. Raw, this ‘cashew apple’ tastes like a chalky, sweet and tart and soft red pepper.

The activities team at the resort had many events planned during the day and I was asked to join into the foosball competition one afternoon while everyone else was having a nap. I love foosball so I was happy to join in. I ended up winning the tournament and I was awarded a beautiful bottle of sparkling peach wine, which we ended up enjoying on our last night all together on our balcony at sunset.

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Our third booked adventure was aimed to check three boxes: waterfalls, sloths, and toucans. (Yes, those very specific things! We even told Harold that we weren’t going home until we saw all three, and we were only very slightly joking.)

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We left early in the morning to get to the Llanos de Cortes waterfall, which was only a 45-minute drive from us, and gets busier as the day goes on. The water was beautiful and we soaked and swam and floated, snapping a few photos in the morning sunshine (it was already 32 degrees at 9am), and then ventured back to the van headed towards the jungle again in hopes of catching sight of some more wildlife.

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Costa Rica has a strong “no animal selfies” policy as they want to protect their wildlife and don’t want any unnecessary impact on animals and wildlife, so we jokingly took photos of toy/stuffed/souvenir gift sloths when we came across them (and we came across them a lot).

We arrived at Bijagua Ranas, a Frog observation site in the Alajuela area and were showed around by our volunteer tour guide Stéphanie. She pointed out all sorts of local flowers and plant life as we walked through the lush grenery. My favourite was the ‘maraca’ plant that holds water and a liquid between its petals that is a natural bug repellant and actually smelled wonderful in a sort of citrusy way. (Somehow I did not get my own photo so this reference photo will have to do.)

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maraca (yellow heliconia)

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Stéphanie showed us a bright green bump on the underside of a leaf, and then she washed her hands and picked up the hiding frog, setting him gently back on the leaves so we could see him stretch out and move and it was amazing!

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As we wandered the winding pathway we kept our eyes up to the treetops and caught sight of howler and capuchin monkeys swinging in the trees, and then one sloth, then another, and by the end of the afternoon we had seen a total of six sloths up in the trees!

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another shot captured by Orville on his amazing zoom lens camera

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Cute capuchin monkey! (Orville’s photo, again!)

This area is actually along a travel route the sloths take to get from one jungle area further north to another jungle further south and east of us, so there are both two-toed and three-toed sloths that regularly pass through the area.

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The first sloth was a ball of grey-brown fur high up in a tree, likely sound asleep, hard to see in a photo even with a good zoom because he was tucked into the shade and was similar in colour to the branches he was wrapped around. We learned that sloths go higher up to sleep safely, and also will climb further up in trees when it rains.

The most exciting sight was a mama sloth and her baby hanging upside down and eating leaves only about 10-15 feet above us.

Photo courtesy of Orville

And before we left we even were able to see a toucan way up in a treetop before making our way back to the van to head home! All boxes checked! 🙂

Zoom in camera for the win!

 

Lunch was delicious local food at a local restaurant (which they call ‘Soda’s in Costa Rica). We were given the option of chicken or fish, plantain, queso fresco, pasta and beans and rice and veggies!

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There was a butterfly enclosure attached to the restaurant so we were delighted to watch several kinds of butterflies flutter between tropical flowers and bushes and occasionally land on the slices of pineapple set out for them.

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We had another beach day where my mum and sister and I went out kayaking, which was a blast! I was really surprised more people don’t take this opportunity to use the freely available kayaks at the resorts here, because it was easy and relaxing!

Shade was a vital part of beach time because the sand is so hot, so we would chase the shadows created by the trees along the shoreline as the sun moved across the sky (even if that meant changing hammocks! 😉

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well, I don’t hate it. 😉

On this day, we enjoyed an iced snow cone made by a local walking up and down the beach pushing a cart that had a huge ice chunk inside. He would shave the ice into a cup, and then mix it with powdered milk, cherry syrup, coconut cream, and sweetened condensed milk! (Garnished with a wafer cookie and a marshmallow).

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Unlike anything I have ever had before!

On Saturday night we went for dinner at the beachside restaurant of Aquasport, and it was one of the best meals of the trip. We shared easily the most delicious onion rings we have ever eaten and then all had different dinners, from Mahi Mahi Chaufa rice to Tuna Poke, all the while listening to live music and watching a group of kids enjoying the huge tree swing in the middle of the restaurant’s courtyard. Carly and mum had a bit of a swing before we walked back to our hotel along the shore, enjoying the smell of a couple bonfires locals had going on the beach, and the vast clear sky of stars.

 

 

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Last sunset together in Costa Rica (photo courtesy of my sister)

As I bid my family farewell on Monday morning, they jokingly threatened to kidnap me and bring me back on their (likely) full flight home. I was definitely a little bit nervous to stay another week solo with everything escalating and I promised to keep in touch and stay informed about airlines and airports and border closures and look into the possibility of getting an earlier flight back just to be safe.  Until then, I would get as much sun and beach time as possible before heading back to winter and self-isolation!

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2 thoughts on “A family vacation to Costa Rica

  1. Sara, Once again you have brightened the day with your lovely, descriptive tales and beautiful photos of yet another wonderful, travel experience.
    Thank you and all the best. -Ellie

  2. What a thrilling adventure you all had besides giving yourselves amazing memories.to last forever. Your comments. Sara ( I think they call it blogging) added so much to the awesome pictures. Certainly some our favourites of five gloriously happy and contented travellers.
    I can’t thank you enough for including us in your activities. Having been to. Costa. Rica via. Cruise you delighted us with a totally different perspective.
    There is so much more to be said but we will stop now to say once again. THANK. YOU for being able to share in your amazing adventure.
    Love. Ralph and. Gwen

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