We return to Costa Rica after a vacation there six years ago. We liked it then but enjoyed it much more this time. I remember our complaint back then was how developed and Americanized everything was. That is still true. But after seeing the rest of Central America, Costa Rica’s landscape and wildlife are truly special. Being able to speak a little Spanish and travel slower also give us a different perspective this time to see beyond the well beaten path.
After spending three weeks in Costa Rica, we get why it is such a popular retirement and travel destination. For a nature lover it is really wonderful. Within a few hours drive of anywhere, you can find jungle, sea, wildlife, and first world modern conveniences at the same time. But the country is not just the peace loving, nature hugging place that makes it so popular. On this trip we hear about coastal towns where school is only a few hours a day because of insufficient funding, beaches where you can’t leave anything alone or it will get stolen and drug problems around the country. It is a reality check that Costa Rica is a country with regular problems like any other. Compared to what we have driven through though, it is still pretty close to paradise.
Our first stop in Costa Rica was – surprise – another finca. This one named Finca Canas Castilla is run by a Swiss couple who have lived in Costa Rica for twenty years. They do everything here it seems. They rent cabins and camping space, serve food, raise cattle, tilapia, and grow moringa trees for their medicinal seed pods that they sell on the internet. During the two days we camped on the farm, we saw new cattle being brought in, moringa being harvested, and on top of it all, they had guests in a couple cabins that required breakfast, lunch and dinner served. This couple does it all and are busy all day and night. I don’t know what kind of life they led back in Switzerland. Because this life that we witnessed sure did not look “easy”. But it is another reminder that easy doesn’t translate to good as they look all too zen, fit, and so present in their lives and surroundings.
For the first time we saw cattle being branded. Two cowboys roping the beasts and a hot iron waiting on the side while my boys stared in awe and amusement.
Costa Rica is the first country where we started seeing all the wildlife that Central America promised. Howler and white-faced monkeys were in the trees all the time. Every time there was a rustle you can be sure it’s some monkey business up there. The finca borders a river with crocodiles so swimming is not safe from camp. But a short walk to the main road is a safe swimming spot under a bridge where we swam in the afternoons to cool off. Why that is safe I do not know – it is the same river? In addition to monkeys and crocodiles, frogs of all sizes come out at night. In the evenings the big activity was, again, firefly catching. We also saw a mother sloth with her baby in the trees. And the owner has a rescued baby sloth that she suspected was purposefully dropped by that same mother, as nature can be harsh that way. But the abandoned baby is taken care of very well and we fed it hibiscus flowers and leaves. We touched it, stroked it, and it took food from Ty’s fingers. It was really cool.
BABY JAMIE IS NOT SO BABY ANYMORE
Costa Rica is where Jamie really blossomed. We started noticing it in Nicaragua and now we are just amazed at the changes every day. He is no longer contented to be just a sweet baby. He wants to do everything himself and copies everything Ty does. With that, he is given more boundaries so he has found the power of his teeth! Ty was never a biter so this is something new for us to deal with. Actually, a lot of Jamie is new to us. The brothers can not be more different. It is very exciting and funny to watch Jamie’s personality take its form. He is a biter and a fighter, he will run across the room with a mean face to hit us when he is displeased. It is the funniest thing to watch and seriously, we don’t do that ourselves, he is not copying us! He is a roamer, with no fear to explore and to touch . He is very tough, rarely cries more than two seconds unless he really hurt himself and it’s been a long time since he cried from fear. He is still not a good night sleeper. Great day napper but wakes up multiple times at night to feed and melt in my arms. He finds his brother to be the funniest person on earth. He is a great communicator with bird-like shrieks, and he tugs and drags to show us what he wants. He is full of bright smiles and mischievousness. At only 16 months. It’s incredible.
SÁMARA, NICOYA PENINSULA
After a few days on the farm, we left for the beach town of Sámara on the Nicoya Peninsula. The mission here – school for Ty! Back in Guatemala, after being away from traditional school for over 6 months, he had an awesome time with his private teacher at the Spanish school. So we wanted to keep the momentum going and get him more classroom experience. Luckily we found a school that accepts visiting students. So on to Samara we went.
Sámara is a nice beach town. It is small with a mix of locals and foreigners. It is not full of fancy restaurants, spa retreats and eco-lodges. I can think of just a couple restaurants and hotels that can be considered “nice”, the rest are pretty laid back. The campground has an amazing beachfront location, so we parked our beach house there for a week. Aside from the location though, the campground itself left a lot to be desired, as the caretakers seem to have given up. But we met great neighbors next door at Pato’s Surf School and Drift Massage, and a woman from Germany who biked from Alaska to Costa Rica over 10 months all by herself! We spent our days taking care of the kids, playing on the beach, nursing my strep throat, surviving the heat and mosquitoes, enjoying 2×1 happy hour, catching hermit crabs. Good times.
Not much else really happens on a beach, besides….big smiles and sandy feet.
MONTEVERDE CLOUD FOREST
We tried to visit new places that we hadn’t been to the first time around. But something about the tranquility of Monteverde really appealed to me. This area was all about diary farming before tourism took over. The diary farmers back then (many Quakers) had the foresight to preserve the cloud forest to protect the watershed. So these mountains are incredibly lush and healthy. Thousands of acres are now protected reserves.
We enjoyed the hummingbird garden a lot. It is just a tiny place with a gift shop and cafe with some feeders. Everybody else came and went in under 15 minutes but we hung around for a couple hours. Ty has always been one to enjoy taking his time at animal exhibits. Even when he was two years old and his favorite animal was the lion, we would stay at the zoo’s lion exhibit for the entire visit every time. At the hummingbird garden and all over Monteverde, there was something to look at and to catch in every corner. Even I had to “relocate” three scorpions one night.
On our last day in Monteverde, Ty started to burn up with a fever. We ended up going to and staying in San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica, for a week. On the third day of having a fever at 104 degrees, we took him to the hospital to test for dengue. I was sure he got dengue from Sámara. Dengue is not uncommon in Nicoya Peninsula and our neighbor Kate got it twice in three years. But thankfully, it was not. It was some unknown virus that made him feverish for 5 days and then it was gone.
Our only real outing in San Jose was going to the Chinatown gate, and playing with the pigeons in the square. The rest of the time we went looking for car stuff, or just managed Ty’s fever. Ty can be so sweet sometimes when he is sick. In the middle of one feverish nights when his temperature registered 104 again, I sat up next to him to hold a cold towel on his forehead. He woke up and whispered “Mama, you lay down and sleep. I can hold it.” Ty can really break hearts in so many ways.
If there is one place that I regret not spending more time in since we accelerated through Central America, it would be Osa Peninsula. This area is big and most of it is protected within the Corcovado Park, which we didn’t go to. We went to Puerto Jimenez on Golfo Dulce and drove down the coast to the southern most tip of the Peninsula. The part of Osa that we saw is wild, wet and so mysterious. I can only imagine what it is like within the Corcovado Park where there is zero development. But going there requires quite a bit of planning. You must have a guide to accompany you at all times and the park is best done via a multi-day hike. So another day, we will come back.
We spent a lot of time in Playa Matapalo, the last beach at the tip of Gulfo Dulce before it opens up to the Pacific Ocean. There were great tidepools in the mornings to explore, surfers to watch, and a jungle behind the beach filled with monkeys and scarlet macaws. The macaws are incredibly entertaining to watch and just stunning when in flight.
It is the beginning of rainy season and every night the thunderstorms rolled in with an impressive lightning show. One night they reported 12 inches of rain in the first hour! We stayed at Cabinas Jimenez in a top floor room where we could hear bats living in our ceiling. It was eerie at first but it was quite alright as bats kept the mosquitos away. In many places in Costa Rica we have been amazed at how few mosquitoes there are, where the ecosystem with bats, birds, frogs and lizards keep the mosquito numbers low.The highlight of our stay in Puerto Jimenez has to be the dolphin boat trip. One evening while we were playing in the pool, the owner invited everyone for a quick sunset cruise. It was supposed to be a no-biggie 10-minute ride around the bay. But within the first minute we spotted an olive ridley turtle, and a few minutes after that, a pod of dolphins on the horizon. We went after the pod and then spent the next hour watching dozens and dozens (maybe even hundreds?) of spotted dolphins playing, eating, jumping all around us. They were so close, within arms’s reach, and there were so many of them, surrounding us. All the while it was utterly peaceful and calm on the bay with the sun setting behind the Corcovado rainforest. Ty hovered over the bow of the boat and had dolphins splash water onto his face. We did not have a camera with us but it was an experience I will never forget.
At the hotel we met a family from Illinois, and Ty took a liking to the girl. I overhead him asking her, “What is your name?” “Hazel” she replied. “That’s easy to remember,” said Ty. I remember thinking, what a mature exchange. Then, he proceeded to call her “Weazel” the entire time.