When we mentioned our half-year visit to Costa Rica with our boys, nine and twelve, people often asked us wouldn’t the kids be missing school. Well, they may have missed school, but they certainly got an education. Here are some of the many things we all learned.
People make the journey. We met many friendly people in Costa Rica. Two stood out. One was Jorge and his family, themselves expats from the US and Asia. We both belonged to the
same international organization, and a query to the president in San Francisco had put us in touch. Jorge immediately invited us to crash at their place while we got our bearings. All they asked was for us to deliver the airbed they were going to offer us, and the wine for a toast. Their girls and our boys hit it off as well, so it was a great start to our adventure.
Our second find was Alex Martinez who ran a small B&B and ecotourism operation in the Caribbean Lowlands. We met Alex through another B&B & tour operator that we found on the Internet. Alex was a wonderful guide and host, and the boys loved him. To top it off, he shared a first name with our younger son. Costa Rican custom allowed them to call each other “El Tocayo” or “Toca” for short. We all called Alex “Toca” although only Al was the namesake. We ultimately took a couple of two week trips with Alex, covering much of the Southwest and Interior of the country, and staying in small-scale accommodations run by agricultural coops and other local operators.
Do one good thing every day. We learned this lesson in “slow travel” while staying for a month in a dilapidated country house on a forty-acre farm near the village of La Garita de Alajuela. We shared it with a single-mom from back home and her two kids, friends of ours. Plus one pair of emaciated dogs, a flock of scrawny chickens, and more insects than we ever knew existed. There was one bus a day if we wanted to go anywhere. Sometimes we didn’t. We could lie under a mango tree beside the small pool out back, and watch the neighbours harvest sugar cane with bull-drawn carts. Or chat with the woman who ran a tiny chicken shack down the road about how she was helping her daughters through college in the US. When we took the bus and went on day trips, we were tempted at first to schedule a full day: “In the morning, we’ll go to the snake farm, in the afternoon to the ox-cart display.” This always had us rushing to make the second appointment, and kept us from following our hearts with whatever came up in the morning. So, we resolved only to do one thing a day. It was one of our most important lessons in Costa Rica. Even now, when life feels rushed, we remind ourselves of this one.
Don’t ignore the bugs. About two-thirds of Costa Rica’s half million species are insects. We were sure that ants comprised one quarter of all animal biomass in the country. Apart from the more mundane activities – marveling at unusual beetles, walking sticks, and the ants swarming on the kitchen counters or carrying leaves along an ant highway – we had some more exciting adventures. An ant bit Dennis while we were trekking through the rainforest to swim in a jungle
pool. Fortunately, it wasn’t the fabled Bullet Ant. Our most notable insect adventure had us chased through the mangroves by a swarm of Africanized honeybees – otherwise known as killer bees. How many kids can say that? Both boys were stung a few times, but managed to outrun the rest of the swarm.
There’s a naturalist in every child. “Toca” was an avid birder and bird watching guide. He was engaged in conservation efforts for the Great Green Macaw. Before long, he had our nine-year-old hooked; Al spent six weeks of pocket money to buy the definitive Costa Rican bird guide, and logged more than 150 species over the next six weeks. Al was waking me up before 6AM to look for the Oropendula in the grounds of the pre-Columbian ruins at the Guayabo National Monument. On our flight home, he struck up a conversation with a professional bird guide returning from Belize – it was amazing to hear them comparing notes about their recent field experiences.
We are lucky and we have so much. Our friend Alex took us to visit a poor family near his place. Like many of the poorest in Costa Rica, they were refugees from the recent proxy war in neighbouring Nicaragua. The father had recently passed away, and the oldest boy of thirteen had to leave school to help his mother support her five children by carving wooden key-chain fobs. It was eye opening to our boys to see how this family lived in a shack with earthen floors.
Closer to home was the single mom and her kids who lived in a small house on the farm we inhabited for a month. The landlord employed her to keep an eye on the place and do cleaning, and she would do laundry for us at a very low price. When we first moved into the house, the absentee property owner had asked her to tie up the dogs at night. Big mistake. That very first night, while she was at a nearby New Year’s Eve party, someone broke into her place and stole her TV. This was a very big loss to her. After that, we encouraged her to let the dogs run free. As mean as they sounded and looked, within a few days, they had befriended the children and were gentle as puppies.
Treasure your family. Despite the many adventures we had in Costa Rica, some of our best
memories just came from hanging out together. After years of always working family time around work commitments and school schedules, it was wonderful just to be able to kick around together, even when there was no agenda. Wandering around the neighbourhood. Playing cards at night under a dim fluorescent bulb. Or talking about what we’d just seen or what we wanted to do next.
We also stayed for a month with a large family in the capital, San José. A small newspaper ad from a homemaker offered rooms plus meals to students in the area near the University. We applied for a month, and ended up with two rooms, two meals a day, and all laundry for about $700 for the month. The matriarch of the household was nearing 80, but she still cooked for a family that appeared to number about 50 people in total. There were smaller buildings out back where two of her daughters lived with their families. They would often come in for meals. One of her sons drove a city bus, which he’d stop outside the house so he could come in for mid-morning coffee. It was a lively place. If we lingered at the table after breakfast, we would be treated to a stream of visitors and constant conversation. Our Spanish improved immeasurably.
Volcanoes are amazing. We visited the top of Irazú once, and Poás twice, both still steaming. We passed Turialba more than once. The best by far was Arenal, one of the most active volcanoes in the world. We were fortunate to visit at the tail end of a period of higher activity, with remarkably few clouds – it was amazing to watch the smoke puff from the top, followed by booms like muffled canons. Most memorable of all was the evening we spent on a recent lava flow on the flank of the volcano. Not only could we see the orange-hot rock sliding down from the peak, we could actually hear it. Grandma was with us that evening, and despite her nervousness, stood her ground.
In half a year, a family can have a lot of adventures. We took a fisherman’s open boat through the mangroves and the surf to a deserted bay. We had lunch in the home of an indigenous chief. We huddled in primitive cabins while the roar of the Howler Monkeys reverberated
through the valleys. Broke bread with the Israeli consuls. Adopted a baby turtle. Saw every museum in the county. Stalked the elusive Resplendent Quetzal on the Mountain of Death. Walked across a river into Panama, on a rickety train bridge high above the crocodiles. Went zip-lining and whitewater rafting. Just to name a few.
Some of the other lessons we learned in our “summer” in Costa Rica included:
- The world is getting smaller.
- Politics suck.
- Tourists are annoying.
- Join the local economy.
- Pay it back, and forward.
The most important lesson our family experienced while slow traveling around Costa Rica?
The world is your school. Go get your diploma!
What do you think?
While what we learned about Costa Rica more than a dozen years ago likely won’t help you, here are a few starting points for your own exploration:
- Costa Rica Tourism Institute
- Costa Rica Tourism (Lonely Planet)
- “Top 10 Ways to Spend your Costa Rican Vacation“
- Global Family Adventures in Costa Rica
- Thirteen years later, we’re still in touch with Alex Martinez and his Andrea Cristina B&B. He now also runs an animal rescue centre called Tierra Hermosa – “the Beautiful Land.” Alex will take care of you – just don’t call him “Toca!”