Sunday, December 9, 2012

Frogs, Snakes and Tarantulas - Our Last Day in Costa Rica

Our last day in Arenal and once again we woke up to rainy and cloudy skies. It was clear that no more hiking will be done so we quickly jumped on our laptops to figure out a plan for the day. Our friends found out about a nearby self-sustainable farm and decided to go there. I have no interest in pigs and cows so we hung around the house and played ping-pong for a bit.

Not wanting to drive far in the rain, we decided to visit the Arenal Eco Zoo – a serpentinarium that was just a few miles up the road from our house. The Arenal Eco Zoo is a fairly small place owned by a local man named Victor. He greeted us at the entrance and sent one of his guides, Frank, to take us on a tour. The place was almost empty at the time so we got a personal 2 hour tour to the delight of everyone as we were able to see and hold so many animals.

The first part of the zoo were the snakes – they had a vast collection of snakes in their natural habitats and it was amazing to see how well these creatures hide. Even though we knew there was supposed to be a snake in each enclosure sometimes we stared at it for 5 minutes before being able to spot it. The vine snakes were the best at it – they just look like leaves and branches – but seeing all the snakes up close and personal we were sure glad that we saw none of them outside the zoo.

Costa Rica is a home to a large variety of snakes and it is very important for the local people to know how to spot them and what to do if they are bitten (do not try to suck the poison out and do not put a tourniquet around it as this will only result in having to amputate the arm or leg where you were bitten). Basically, you have about an hour to get the antidote and all you can do is try to remain calm so that you heard pumps slower and the poison moves slower through your body. Yeah, right…I could see myself keeping calm alright J

The second part of the exhibit were the lizards and small snakes – we were able to take them out of the enclosures and hold them since they were not poisonous. I am not a big fan but Victor squealed with joy when an anole jumped from the cage and right on his head. I just about had a heart attack when I saw it but Victor thought it was the funniest thing ever.

Last part was the frogs – Costa Rica is most often depicted with a picture of a cute colorful tiny frog (most of which are actually poisonous). But the red-eye frog is not and we were able to hold one of them in our hands and he was so incredibly cute. His tiny paws were soft like jello and he was super-friendly and not scared of us at all. What an unbelievable experience on our last day!

That afternoon we made another visit to Ecotermales hot springs to soak a bit more in the volcanic waters and after dinner it was time to pack and get ready. We said our goodbyes to Emilce and her husband Luis who took care of us so well on this trip. They did not speak a work of English but between our few words of Spanish and their smiles and food we got along perfectly.

The next morning we woke up at 5am and drove across the mountain again back to San Jose to catch our 12 pm flight back to the US. This time we decided to avoid Rt 702 and, at the advise of our chef, took Rt 35 and Rt 1, which are a bit longer in distance but are not as windy or steep. I have to say we were very glad we did that because the road was really nice for the most part except about 45 miles through the actual mountain. Everything was cloudy and congested for a long time and then all of a sudden we got above the clouds and everything around us turned green. What a great way to remember Costa Rica plus we managed to get back to San Jose in about 3 hours.

A little village above the clouds. Nice road but lots of traffic
This truck was so big he could not make the turn so they had to stop all traffic until he turned
Back down through the clouds
While waiting at the airport we asked the kids what was their favorite thing about Costa Rica and they said the hot springs and the monkeys. For me, it was being able to spend time with friends in a gorgeous environment and to have the kids experience a new place and a new culture. Yes, there were some meltdowns, and yes, there were kids screaming and crying, and yes, it was sometimes too loud and crazy, but this is the best school we can give them and if we can drink a few tequilas and hold a cute red-eye frog on the way, then it was a great trip after all.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Costa Rica with Kids Travel Tips

Planning a trip with kids to Costa Rica can be time consuming and I was not able to find a lot of info in the cyber-world so here is what we found in our experience:

  • Ticos (Costa Rican people) love kids and kids are generally welcome everywhere including restaurants, stores, attractions, etc. They want make sure that your kids are having a good time
  • Restaurants do not usually have facilities such as high chairs for little kids or Kids Menus
  • Food is pretty bland and you can find things suitable for kids 2+ in any restaurant. Typical Tico food is white rice, beans and some kind of grilled meat/fish so kids can usually find something to eat. Lots of fruit such as bananas, pineapple and mango is cheap and abundant.
  • Water is clean and OK to drink. We were told even tap water is fine to drink though we did not try. However, we drank juices, cocktails, ate lots of fruit washed with water and even drank water from public fountains in the parks and none of us got sick. Costa Rica is the exception compared to Mexico and other Central american countries where local water has to be avoided at all costs.
  • We saw a number of hospitals in the tourist areas, some open 24 hours. Luckily we did not have to try one of them but they seemed abundant if you have an emergency though they were all small so don't expect US style hospitals
  • Costa Rica is expensive! For a meal for a family of 3 in a restaurant in Manuel Antonio we paid between $40 and $80 (nothing too fancy). In Arenal and on the road, we still paid around $30-$40 for a meal for three. 
  • Supermarkets are much smaller than in the US but they usually have a good variety of items, however, are still expensive and would equal to prices in a smaller US city
  • Strong sunscreen is crucial if you will be spending any time at the beach. The sun there is the strongest I have ever seen and we all burned to varying degrees after a day spent at the beach in Manual Antonio even though we used SPF20 sunscreen and the weather was overcast
  • Roads in the more touristy areas are better that we expected and a rental car is a great option for families unless you are hiring a private guide to drive you everywhere. Majority of inter-city roads are paved and even though they are smaller than US highways, they are perfectly fine to drive. Just don't expect to go fast - average speed would be 30-40 mphBring a car seat or rent one. I'm not sure what the law is but the roads are very windy and some are bumpy so it's a good idea to have a car or booster seat even for the older kids- Renting a house is a much better option for those with more than one child. There are some great houses available in most touristy areas that can be found through sites such as and Prices are decent and you get two or three rooms and your own kitchen instead of being crammed in one hotel room
  • You are more likely to see monkeys and other wildlife outside the national parks if you have kids for multiple reasons: kids so not have the patience to sit and look around with binoculars for long periods of time, kids can be loud and scare the animals and kids get tired easily. However, many times you see animals from your house's porch or walking down the street or on the beach. Ask the locals and they would be more than happy to help you. At the beach one day the guy who worked at the restaurant called us over because there was a sloth asleep in the tree above which we would have never spotted ourselves.
  • English is spoken in some areas but overall it is a good idea to know a few words of Spanish. Locals are very nice and appreciate it if you try. Our kids learned to say muchas gracias (thanks much), por favor (please) and mi nombre is (my name is) and used it at every occasion and the locals really appreciated it
  • If you have space in your luggage, bring a bunch of small items (crayons, stickers, notepads, etc) to donate to a local school. We saw lots of local kids walking on the side of the road to school, and the schools seemed rather small and unassuming. Next time we definitely will bring items to donate plus it will be a great experience for your kids to meet the locals.

And finally, don't try to cram up too much stuff in your vacation with kids. Give them some time and space to run and explore. This will minimize tantrums and whining and will make them appreciate the other stuff more. Just have fun, take it slow and enjoy!

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Arenal, Sky Walk & Ecotermales Fortuna - Costa Rica, Part 6

We wake up and it’s rather chilly and foggy outside and the volcano is covered in clouds. We explore the house which has a beautiful view of Lake Arenal and a great pool & hot tub but it is so misty outside that the view is more mystical than real.

We had made plans to hike up the volcano with a guide this morning but when we call him he thinks it will not be a good day for a hike so we decide to try the Sky Walk/Sky Trek adventure as it is only a few miles down the road from our house.

The Sky Walk is a walk in the rainforest over suspension bridges and is part of the same location as the Sky Tram (open-air gondola that goes over the rainforest) and the Sky Trek (a rather large zip line ride). Two of my friends went on the zip line (including a very brave 8 year old) and the rest of us went for the walk. 

Coati crossing the parking lot at Sky Walk

It is a very pleasant 2-2.5 hour walk through lush vegetation and while we did not see any animals we did see a lot of butterflies and flowers including a very pretty see-through butterfly with cobalt blue trims on her wings (she was impossible to photograph as she kept moving around). The suspension bridges here were much longer (each about 40 meters long) than in Manuel Antonio and we also stumbled upon two amazing waterfalls though the water was too cold to swim in.

After the walk we reunited with the zip liners for a lunch in the Sky Trek restaurant which had gorgeous views of the volcano (the clouds has lifted a bit but still covered most of it).

Yummy ceviche at the SkyWalk restaurant
At this point it became clear that the rainy season was still in full force in Arenal and we may not be able to do a lot of hiking. So in was on to plan B – hot springs. I had done extensive research online as there are so many options to choose from and we had decided to try Ecotermales Fortuna – a smaller place tucked away right across from Baldi Hot Springs – and it turned out to be a great decision. It is literally like a little oasis of 5 hot water pools with varying temperatures. There is also a cold water pool to cool off in between. Everything was covered in natural stones and greenery and as the darkness fell we fell like we were in heaven. The place was almost empty and we spent a couple of hours lounging around the warm pools and waterfalls while the kids had a blast jumping in and out of the water. If you ever go to Arenal, you must go to Ecotermales!

Drive from Manuel Antonio to Arenal - Costa Rica, Part 5

We finally witness the rainy season in full force and it has been pouring rain since last night. We wake up to a misty cloudy day and even though we put some bananas on the terrace (we have bought upwards of 30 bananas to make sure we have a sizeable monkey population to observe) no one shows up. I guess the monkeys do not like the rain either.

Today, we will be driving off to Arenal and even though the GPS says it will only take us three and a half hours we decide to make it an early start and are loaded in the cars by 10 am. We stop on the Tarcoles River (about 1.5 hours from Manual Antonio) to watch the crocodiles for a bit and we have lunch as a small road-side restaurant and we feel pretty good because the roads are nice and we are making great headway.
Tarcoles River bridge

Rt 34 - nice pavement and little traffic
Well, not so fast. We get off the highway and start crossing the mountain and that’s when everything changes. Arenal is located high up in the mountains that divide Costa Rica’s North from the South. There are only two main roads that you can take up the mountains – 702 (which is the shorter but infinitely slower route as we soon find out) and Rt 35 which is longer in distance but somewhat better in quality. Our GPS takes us on Rt 702. Pretty soon the road changes to a one lane (no markings really) road dotted with small villages and greenery. 

There are tons of curves and it’s pretty steep up so we creep up slowly at about 20 mph. The target arrival time on the GPS keeps moving and goes from 4pm to 4:30 and then to 5pm. Then we hit the fog – thick, milk-white fog accompanied by drizzle. 

It is hard to see our friends’ cars in front of up so we just keep driving, at least the pavement is OK and there are very few cars in either direction. By the time we finally get to Rt 401 (the road to Arenal) it is already dark outside and I am in mild panic mode as I really did not want to be driving on dirt roads in darkness.

In Arenal we will be renting another house and the owner had sent me very detailed descriptions how to get there. The last part of the directions included driving for 7 km on an “unpaved road”. Well, 7 kilometers is nothing, right? Just under 5 miles is what I thought. Well, after 6 hours in the car we finally got on the “unpaved road” which was a muddy, super bumpy, windy, steep excuse for a road – our first encounter with “real” Costa Rican roads. It took us exactly 25 minutes of jumping up and down on my seat to get to the house.

But, the house itself was up in the mountain with a clear view of Lake Arenal and a large outdoor hot tub and, best of all, we had decided to splurge and hire a private chef for the 3 days we would be there. Considering that it took us 30 min to drive to town on the bumpy road, hiring the chef was the best decision we made. We arrive in the house and Emilce (our chef) is already cooking something that smells very good and the kids park themselves on the sofa to watch a movie while we unpack.