Christmas in Costa Rica
My parents, sister, and her children visited us during the holidays. In a country that is about 90% Christian (of one denomination or another), Christmas and Easter are Costa Rica’s two most important holidays. As such, Heather and I were somewhat concerned that large crowds and long lines could adversely impact their stay. Fortunately, other than utter chaos at the airport, the increase in tourism had no negative consequences on their vacation. In fact, not only did their visit go smoothly, but this Christmas was easily one of the most memorable we’ve ever had.
We had booked a home for my family months before their arrival. Soon after, the property manager for it was fired. Then, because there was no property manager in place, I somehow became the de facto property manager of that home and another one in our development (I’m happy to report that an actual property manager has since taken over). Thus, as their stay approached, I ran around all over the place in an effort to make sure their home would be ready. It ended up not being perfect, but it was good enough for them to be comfortable. Most importantly, it was just a few doors down from us. Atticus got used to them being there and would walk out of our house each day and knock on their door. He was quite sad when he realized it wasn’t a permanent situation. In fact, when the next vacationers came, he wanted to know why other people were living in Gee Gee’s and Poppy’s house.
Aside from being concerned about the place in which they were staying, we wanted to make sure they would be pleased with the activities we had planned. When Heather and I go on vacation, one of the aspects at which we typically fail is the “relaxation” part. If we’re visiting a place for a short period, we absolutely try to cram us much into that time as possible. On one hand, it’s great because we sometimes see more in a short timeframe than others might see over a period of months. On the other hand, we often return from vacation thoroughly exhausted. Even though treating your vacation like it’s a job and the objective is to maximize every minute is something we regularly do, I don’t think it’s a healthy or a very smart approach. Thus, I wanted to make sure my family’s time here was a decent mix of down time and sight-seeing. In no particular order, here’s what we did.
Jaco gets a lot of criticism for being an overdeveloped, party town. Either people used to party a lot harder in Jaco back in the day, or the fact that I went to undergrad at a university where burning couches is a regular occurrence has colored my view on what constitutes over the top partying. To us, this area is family-friendly, with a mix of expats and locals. That’s not to say there aren’t some real characters here. There are. But, by and large, it doesn’t deserve the reputation it has. Moreover, since Costa Rica is small and we have a car, we are able to regularly spend time in the nearby communities of Herradura, Hermosa, and Esterillos. Thus, even if we didn’t like Jaco, we wouldn’t have to be stuck here day in and day out.
Although we live on the beach, the mountains are just a mile away. We take advantage of their proximity as often as we can. One of the places we like to go is Miro’s Mountain. The story behind Miro’s Mountain is a sensational tale, one that involves death, divorce, fraud, and prison. But like a lot of things in Costa Rica, it’s best to simply appreciate a place for the natural beauty it has to offer instead of delving into the details of the problems humans created around it.
Despite various “No Trespassing” signs, Miro’s Mountain offers a free hike up a variety of different trails. Locals and tourists alike walk, run, bike, and take horses up the mountain. Depending on the trail, there are remnants of what was allegedly intended to be a restaurant, as well as several suspension bridges and zipline platforms. Not only are the views from the top of the mountain stunning, but, if you’re lucky, you’ll find monkeys, sloths, toucans, scarlet macaws, and poison dart frogs. Unfortunately, on the day we hiked with my family, we didn’t see a lot of wildlife. We did, however, enjoy the views. If you’re wondering about the difficulty level, my 5 year old niece walked all of the way to the top and back down quite easily. Then again, she’s pretty tough. Atticus is just one year younger and he’s ended up riding on my shoulders just about every time we’ve done it. The hike was simultaneously peaceful, good exercise, and a bonding experience.
Volcanoes are one of the fascinating natural attractions that Costa Rica has, and there are several we could have visited nearby. We chose Poas in part because it’s doable in a day trip from Jaco. To avoid arriving when the crater was completely covered by clouds, we left Jaco early in the morning. In some ways, Costa Rica reminds us of Hawaii. Since the only other volcano Heather and I have seen up close is Kilauea on the Big Island, visiting a volcano here definitely triggered the comparison in our minds.
Heather and I found Poas to be absolutely beautiful. I think everyone else was happy to have seen it, but they were ready to move on to the next sight after 15 minutes or so. Aside from the fact that the hike to it is fairly steep, the sulfur dioxide and other gasses that are regularly released irritate anyone who has breathing problems like asthma. So hanging around there too long isn’t recommended. My family took heed and was ready to head back down once they had had enough. Heather and I also explored the little side trail to Laguna Botos, which is a small lake that occupies a nearby inactive crater. It was a beautiful walk through a really dense forest that reminded us of the children’s fairytale, Hansel and Gretel. At the end of the path is a brilliant blue lake. If you’re going to see Poas Volcano, I would recommend also doing this short hike to Laguna Botos.
From Poas, we drove to La Paz Waterfall Gardens. Of all of the outings we had planned, I had the lowest expectations for La Paz. It’s not that I thought it wouldn’t be beautiful. It’s just that I didn’t have a clear understanding of what it was. We have been to Niagara Falls a few times. Granted, Niagara Falls isn’t Angel Falls or Khone Falls, but it’s pretty impressive in its own right. I wasn’t sure if I’d feel like La Paz was just some small stream in comparison.
Well, La Paz Waterfall is enchanting, and the surrounding grounds are undeniably beautiful. The area is a rain forest. As such, the vegetation is astonishing. La Paz also offers a wildlife refuge with butterflies, hummingbirds, snakes, monkeys, and jaguars. Because some of the animals are in cages, it feels a little zoo-ish. Having seen so many animals in the wild both here and in other countries, we’re not big fans of zoos per se. But, of the roughly 100 species of animals at La Paz, all of them are there because they allegedly have been rescued. Not only does it house rescued animals, but La Paz maintains a commitment to environmental causes through its environmental education program.
For the young kids, I think this activity might have been the highlight of the trip. They got up close and personal with all types of animals, including having butterflies land on them in the butterfly conservatory and snakes wrap themselves around them in the serpentarium. I’m not going to lie. The steepness and the amount of stairs required to navigate the waterfalls and grounds is fairly daunting. If you have bad knees, this attraction might not be for you. If you have bad knees and a squirmy 4 year old on your shoulders, be careful not to fall.
In the run-up to their visit, my Mom would regularly inform me of the number of days until their arrival each time we spoke. She was looking at this as a once in lifetime trip and told me she wasn’t going to let anything slow her down. Thus, although she is scared of heights, she came to Costa Rica with the right attitude and wanted to zipline through the forest.
We decided to do it in a place in Jaco not too far from our home. Since Heather and I have ziplined only one other time, we are by no means experts. With this in mind, I paid keen attention to the instructions this outfitter in Jaco was giving us while we got ready to head out. As I listened, it began to dawn on me how unsafe our first excursion was. Not only did the company we went with in Manual Antonio not have a second safety line, but we had to stop ourselves with a glove. Nothing went wrong when we did it the first time, but a lot could have. The company in Jaco has two lines, so that if one of the cables snaps for some reason, you won’t die. Additionally, they have an employee on the platform you are heading towards who stops you instead of you having to stop yourself. It’s just safer all around.
Although they were fairly busy that day and seemed to rush our group a bit (which was the exact opposite of our experience in Manuel Antonio), we all loved it. The Aerial Tram ride up the mountain was fun and peaceful, and ziplining down was a tremendous rush. If it were a less expensive outing, I would do this every week. As for my family, I was seriously impressed by every member. No one was scared. Everyone had the right perspective. No one got caught in the middle of a run. It was a perfect day.
Tortuga Island is an absolutely gorgeous island in the Gulf of Nicoya on the Pacific side of Costa Rica. There are a variety of different outfitters who offer a day-long trip there. Based on reviews we’ve read and people we’ve asked, it sounds like who you choose can partially impact the time you have. To that point, days after we took this journey, a catamaran transporting a tour group to the island sank and 3 tourists died. Hearing that really reminded us of how badly our outing could have gone.
Luckily, our boat didn’t sink. But there was a scare of sorts. To those I’m friends with on Facebook, you might have already read about this in a post. I apologize for repeating myself, but the best way for me to relay this story is to essentially recap what I’ve already said.
The first sign that we were not going to receive a lot of instruction should have been the fact that nothing was mentioned about life jackets until well over an hour after being out to sea. In the meantime, what was going on was salsa dancing to extremely loud music and free drinking if you wanted to partake. By the way, even if you’re on vacation, if you feel the need to pound a bunch of alcoholic drinks before 10:00 am, you probably should sincerely reflect on your life and question your overall decision-making.
Our outfitter offered different activities we could partake in once we got to the island. Because my mom had never snorkeled, we all chose that option. Since it was her first time, she was a little apprehensive. Heather and I have snorkeled a lot over the years, so we confidently assured my mom she had nothing to worry about. We were wrong.
After receiving absolutely no directives whatsoever, our group was boated out and dropped near a smaller island by beautiful Tortuga Island. When my dad got in, the force of the water, coupled with his life vest shifting up (because they put it on him wrong and didn’t properly tighten it), opened the waterproof case around his neck that was holding our valuables. Everything in it got wet. Luckily, my mom noticed it was open. So we caught it in time to prevent all of the items from being dumped onto the ocean floor. Losing our identification cards, keys, and money could have drastically changed the day and possibly the vacation.
More importantly, as we began to swim, we realized the current was extremely strong. Costa Rica is known for rip currents, and this one didn’t disappoint. Everyone was caught in it, but my dad was the worst off since his life vest had collapsed around his neck and was now sitting on his shoulders about 12 inches above his head. He looked like a floating buoy with arms. At this point, I fought the current to get back to the boat to tell the operators that my parents needed help. But I was laughing so hard while I was swimming, I repeatedly gulped loads of saltwater. By the time I made it to our original boat, I saw that my parents were getting rescued by a different boat. I looked around, wondering if anyone else thought the situation was funny. Then, in the distant background, I heard an evil cackling sound that could have only been the laughter of my sister. As a testament to how strong the current was, the boat my parents got into also rescued some guy who wasn’t even on our tour. He had lost one of his flippers. So he put the other one on his hand and was just paddling aimlessly in the ocean. As for the kids, they did great. Atticus and Alana loved seeing all of the fish, and Maddie and Omar showcased their strong swimming skills.
After snorkeling, we had a catered lunch on the island, relaxed in the sun, and played in the waves, all in a setting that belongs on a travel poster. Of everything we did, Tortuga Island was perhaps the most fun. But that might have more to do with my family’s sadistic sense of humor than with the island itself. Don’t get me wrong, it is worth the trip. But if you were to ask me why it was so much fun, telling you it was enjoyable because all of us almost drowned probably isn’t the best endorsement. Not only that, but it might cause you to question our sanity (which you should).
Beach and Pool
We also found some down time for simply relaxing. We strolled on the beach, played in the rough Jaco waves, and walked on the rocks nearby. But what everyone seemed to enjoy even more was our community pool. After all, it was winter back home in Pittsburgh. So what better way to soak in the sunshine than to splash around in a nicely-landscaped pool.
Despite all of the fun we had engaging in various tourist activities, the main reason their visit was so nice was because it reminded us of what is truly important in life. Our Christmas tree was small and there weren’t a lot of gifts under it. That was just fine with us because you can’t package what we gained during their Christmas visit anyway. Spending meaningful time together was the real gift. Through good times and bad, it always has been.
My parents left to catch their extremely early flight in the middle of the night a day before my sister and her children had to leave. When my sister’s departure time arrived, I drove her family to the airport. As we got onto the highway from Jaco, however, we saw bumper to bumper traffic and were notified that the entire highway was closed all the way to San Jose. For those of you reading this who are familiar with the Pittsburgh area, this scenario is worse than trying to get to the airport from Monroeville and not being able to access 376 at any point. After multiple awkward Spanish conversations with patient folks in various small towns, we got directions and took a picturesque route through the mountains of Costa Rica.
As is often the case here, it was hot that day. As we continued to drive, we passed countless cars which had broken down from apparently overheating. No sooner did I start to worry about our car also overheating than our “high temp” light came on. We limped along the rest of the way and finally made it to the airport with no time to spare. Because it seemed as frenzied as when I had met them on their way into the country, I parked and went in with my sister to help navigate the chaos and make sure they would actually make it on their flight, which they barely accomplished.
I took the scenic route back as well because I wasn’t sure if the highway was open yet. After several stops to add oil to the engine and to give the car a break, I finally made it to Jaco. Once I got home, I looked under the hood again and noticed the serpentine belt had deteriorated, come slightly off track, and broken a metal pulley. Even though I knew that meant a call to our mechanic, which, in turn, meant more money down the drain and no use of our car for a while, I was extremely thankful the vehicle didn’t fully break down to the airport or back.
Not only was it great for us to see my family during their visit, it was good for them to see what our lives are like here. If you follow the blog, you have a better sense of what it’s like than those who don’t. But, like many things in life, you can’t totally get it until you actually experience it. I guess that means we’ll just have to arrange for more visitors. Who’s next?