Letting Go in Costa Rica
2020 has been so unbelievably wild that we decided to dive straight into 2021 - quite literally, as you can see in the picture above - without any fears or trepidations. So we used our flight credits we were given back by American Airlines last May for our trip to Paris that did not get off the ground and booked our tickets to San Jose, Costa Rica!
After a very short and enjoyable flight from Miami (a non-stop 2 hour 20 minute flight), we landed in San Jose and straight away proceeded to pick up our rental car. We used Vamos car rental service, and we absolutely loved it! If you are planning a trip to Costa Rica and doing a research on car rental agencies, you are undoubtedly hugging your head in despair and wondering if renting a car there is such a great idea after all. Well, we loved Vamos. They picked us up at the airport, took us to their office just around the corner from the airport, provided us with all the paperwork - and were 100% professional and transparent all the way through. They even provide you with a smartphone with a local SIM card and navigation system - which was a huge plus. I really don't think we would have made it anywhere without that phone, to be honest with you. :).
A note for fellow travelers: if you rent a car in Costa Rica just go ahead and get the full deal insurance they offer (like we did), as things can get complicated otherwise on pick up and you may end up feeling frustrated on your first day of the trip.
Anyways, after we got into our 4X4 (oh yes, a 4X4 is an absolute MUST in Costa Rica), we plugged in the address of our rental home and hit the road! On the way to Jaco (pronounced Haa-co - something I realized a few days into our trip :), we stopped at the internationally famous Crocodile Bridge. They have a local restaurant there (I wasn't the biggest fan of the buffet food there, but if you are super-hungry, it will do the trick) and a few vendors selling colorful towels and clothes. The bridge and the crocodiles are a fun excursion, but - bear in mind that the guys selling stuff there are pretty aggressive as far as their selling techniques go (for example, we somehow got talked into buying two crocodile teeth necklaces lol). So, if you don't like being pressured or if haggling is not your thing, be prepared :).
Our home away from home which we booked through Homeexchange.com was a 4-hour drive from San Jose, between the towns of Uvita and Dominical, on the beautiful Pacific Coast of Costa Rica. The drive was fabulous, especially as we reached the Pacific coast by Jaco and took a turn down south, taking in the unforgettable multicolored sunset over the ocean. However, the sun sank behind the horizon pretty quickly (it being early January), and we suddenly realized that we would be arriving at our location in the dark. As we were approaching what looked like our final destination, it also started to rain (of course!) and we took 3 wrong turns up the mountain. Which also meant that we had to back up and head back down the mountain. What a great first introduction to Costa Rican mountain roads (which are, by the way, mostly unpaved) it was! When we finally made it to our house and Chris revved our 4X4 up the final 90 degree hill, our kids were all wide-eyed and super-excited. The whole scenario got even more surreal, when I read out the instructions sent to us by our host:
"Look for the key inside the statue by the door, under the flower pot."
At which point our 8-year-old son Max declared, his eyes glittering with anticipation, that he felt like he was playing the Indiana Jones video game. Ahh, this was the best praise a parent in the 21st century can receive - that real life is just as exciting as a video game!
After relaxing in our new abode, we all peacefully fell asleep, dreaming of the adventures the next 8 days would bring.
Waking up in Costa Rica
The next morning we woke up to the strange, unfamiliar sounds of the jungle. I tiptoed out of the bedroom only to find our 11-year-old son, Liam, sitting up on the couch, wide-eyed. And I couldn't blame him! Had Chris and I not traveled to Belize many moons back, I would have also been terrified. But we did travel to Belize, and I knew that the "blood-chilling" sounds outside were just howler monkeys. Even though they did sound like an army of King Kong's out the window :). Anyway, you can watch the video below and see (and hear) for yourselves!
On our first morning, we got out of the house relatively late and headed out to eat at a restaurant that would become our absolute favorite during our stay in Uvita and to where we would come back two more times - Sibu. The food there was absolutely fabulous - fresh, colorful and yummy!
After the breakfast, we followed one of the recommendations provided by our gracious host and drove down to Playa Ventanas - a spectacular tropical beach nestled in a cove, amidst bright-green, super-tall palm trees. The beach got its name thanks to the caves ("ventanas" - "windows" as translated from Spanish) that can be explored at low tide and that fill up with water at high tide. We went there on a Saturday, and I got the impression that this beach had a lot of locals hanging out there, which was super cool! If you decide to go there, stop by an ATM in Uvita and get some Costa Rican money (colones) since the beach charges a small parking fee and they only accept cash. Plus, you can get some cool drinks, souvenirs and ice cream there, too! (By the way, if you can't find an ATM and if you have cash in US dollars, you can just buy something at a store, pay in US dollars and get the change back in colones).
After frolicking in the waves for a couple of hours, we went back to our beautiful Costa Rican home where we hung out a little, eating delicious mangoes and pineapple we had bought at a fruit stand, and watching the sun, shimmering with all shades ranging from pale-pink to dark-violet, set behind the horizon from our balcony. Watching the sunset became my favorite pastime in Costa Rica, by the way!
We finished the first day by having a delicious dinner at Phat Noodle, a cool Asian fusion restaurant in Dominical. If you are ever in the area, you should definitely check it out and make sure to order Thai Chai (I'm pretty sure that's what it was called - and it's by far the best cocktail I have ever had in my life!).
Our villa came with a trampoline for the kids! How cool is that? :)
Uvita Waterfalls and Playa Hermosa
The next day we woke up bright and early and drove to Uvita Waterfalls - a cool local park with a butterfly garden, majestic waterfalls and a few natural waterslides (one of them being rather tall, as you can see below) and a great outdoor restaurant perched on top of the mountain overlooking the falls. Get some cash if you decide to go there since they don't accept credit cards. Try the three meat nachos too. They were amazing.
Chloe made some cool friends too! :)
There are a few things you can do at the falls - jump off a platform (Chris and I did it, as well as our sons who were 11 and 8 at the time), swim, slide down the small slides or do a really super crazy thing and slide down the 30 foot waterfall. As to the latter, I did it twice, even though it was a bit scary, especially when you climb all the way up top and realize there's no one there to tell you where you should slide down from and how you should do it. But then it becomes pretty obvious that there is only one place you can sit down and just... let go and let the water take you down. You do get a bit disoriented once in the water, and for one split second I even panicked a little. But then you emerge on the surface pretty fast, and everyone claps as if you were a super-star :) - and then everything is all right again! So, yeah, check out the video below to see it for yourselves!
Jumping down waterfalls and hiking usually make one pretty hungry, so we were very excited to find out that the restaurant was just a short walk up the steps from the falls. If you are there, make sure to order their strawberry milkshakes and nachos. So delicious!
Best strawberry shake since our trip out to Bear Lake on the way to Wyoming last summer. You can read more about that trip here.
Tired, but still refusing to give in, we headed over to Playa Hermosa in Uvita. The name speaks for itself, as you can see from the photos below. We all had so much fun playing in the waves and soaking in the unforgettable tropical atmosphere, that we spent the rest of the day and the evening at home, chilling and re-energizing for the adventures that were still ahead of us.
Oh and yes - we also made a belly dancing video. :) When I'm not writing or blogging, I teach belly dancing, and I thought that Costa Rica was an absolutely fabulous location for a full belly dancing class. So, if you were ever curious about belly dancing, check it out below and don't forget to subscribe to my YouTube channel :).
Quepos and Playa Biesanz
The next day we woke up and drove north, to the city of Quepos, to meet Alan (an acquaintance of our good friend Irina) who owns Hotel Costa Verde - a one-of-the-kind hotel, which consists of a number of 80's era jet planes that have been transformed into tropical hotel suites that are now nestled in the jungle, some of them offering a breathtaking view of the Pacific Ocean, just next door to the famous Manuel Antonio National Park. I had previously seen this hotel featured in a Ukrainian travel show that I watch, Orel and Reshka, so I was very curious to check out the hotel and meet the owner.
And so off we went to Quepos! We first planned to do some ziplining at the Quepos Zip Coaster, but we were incredibly disappointed when we got there and found out that the place was permanently closed. It took Max a while to recover from this news, hence his sad-sad face in the picture below.
We also realized that we were in Quepos on Monday - the only day when the famous Manuel Antonio State Park was closed - so, we couldn't go there either, and we had about two hours to kill before we were meeting the owner of Hotel Costa Verde, with three kids in the tow! Some Tripadvisor searching paid off, and Chris announced that we were heading to this amazing beach, the name of which we didn't know at the time (after some thorough research, aka looking at various maps online and comparing the pictures, I found out it was Playa Biesanz). As we parked and started walking down to the beach (it was about a 5-10 minute hike through the jungle), the skies opened up and it started to rain. All I remember was that everybody else was leaving the beach, as we were persistently hiking through the jungle, in the rain, while our kids were going: "Why do we always have to do this? Everybody else is leaving!"
However, upon arriving at the beach, the kids answered their own question - we always do this because what can be more fun than playing in baby-blue waves, on a magical tropical beach, amidst crazy, warm rain when ya go that extra mile? What can be more fun than just going with the flow and seeing where this insane journey called Life takes you? Especially when you can buy the best margarita you ever had right on that very same beach? (Well, that goes only for Chris and I, obviously). Even though, as you can see from their smiles in the pics below, it looks like our munchkins enjoyed the ride, too!
The downside of going with the flow is that sometimes you might end up looking a bit weird to other people - like when you show up to meet someone you don't know completely soaked. We had fun though, and Alan, the owner of Hotel Costa Verde, treated us to lunch at El Avion restaurant with the spectacular view opening up onto the Pacific coast and then he gave us a fantastic tour of his hotel. Seeing all of these old plane fuselages transformed into suites was definitely a sight to remember! And the sunset from the pool deck of the hotel will definitely stay with us forever :).
Welcome to the Jungle baby!
Mr. Danger messed with the cactus and then tried to squash the sun between his fingers!
We spent the next day relaxing on the beach, going to various restaurants and hanging out at the house. It's funny how it goes, but Pura Vida definitely grows on you when you are in Costa Rica - a slower pace of life, getting to appreciate small things in life, and just watching every day pass by, from sunrise to sunset. I've got to say - I already miss it!
Chloe dug the natural fruit flavors!
The pretty drive up to the house...
Hmmmm....crocodiles at the beach. We had to think twice about that one. But we still did it! Just down the road a little bit.
Our HomeExchange villa came with surf boards too, which made the trips to the beach even more fun!
We loved the outdoor balcony patio! It has so many places to sit and chill out!
I'm pretty sure we were listening to Eros Ramazzotti when this shot was taken!
Max likes to dine out in diving gear, which always left Chloe a bit confused!
The next day we woke up, planning to go ziplining - and not being able to do so - again! Luckily, I managed to make a zipline reservation for us the day after, and we decided to spend the day ahead of us by going to the beautiful Nauyaca Waterfalls. Should you also decide to check out these gorgeous falls, make sure to visit this website to see the tour schedule or call them (by the way, I realized that it's better to call everywhere in Costa Rica as opposed to doing the online thing). I would highly recommend getting a tour (which means that a 4x4 will take you there) since the hike is about 8 miles (4 there and 4 back). And it looked hard. Very hard. When I saw the people who were hiking as we were bumping along in our 4x4, I felt so bad, I wanted to take them all into our vehicle! You can also go on horseback, and at the time of writing this blog article, the tours (4X4 and horseback) were available every day except Sunday. So... if you want to check out these breathtaking falls, just doublecheck everything first.
Since we arrived a little too early, we got to hang out and have some fabulous coffee and pastries at a family-owned café right next to the Nauyaca Waterfalls office. We unfortunately can't remember the name of the place, and I couldn't find it on Google Earth, but it's right next door to the falls office, and the view from the terrace is absolutely spectacular and the people that run it are wonderful! They even gave the kids free candy.
After a pretty long and seriously adventurous ride in the back of the 4x4, we finally arrived at the falls. We first headed over to the upper falls where I belly-danced as everyone looked on, dumbfounded :). But the view was totally worth a few minutes of embarrassment, I think!
This was right after Chris busted his ass after slipping on some wet rocks in his waterproof non-slip shoes
After the belly dance performance was over and all the pictures were taken, we headed down towards the lower falls - where you can chill out, snorkel and see some really big fish, and even swim right up to the falls and stand under them. I once again felt like I was in one of the Indiana Jones or Lara Croft movies! :)
Nauyaca waterfalls are considered to be the prettiest and most majestic waterfalls in all of Costa Rica.
After the long day of adventure, we still decided to go out for dinner to Beehive, a Mediterranean restaurant in Uvita, and we really - really - enjoyed it! It had nice Italian fine dining vibe.
And then, of course, we spent a few hours hanging out on our unforgettable terrace. I don't think I would ever get tired of looking at these pics. This is truly the veranda of my dreams!
What first sounded like a great idea (who wouldn't want to zipline over the Costa Rican jungle, wild and free from all inhibitions?) somehow turned into a rainy morning, with all five of us sitting at the back of an open 4X4, staring into the fog all around us and wondering what in the world compelled us to sign up for a ziplining tour 2000 feet high in the mountains of Ojochal. But here we were, all signed up and "ready" to go - including our 3-year-old daughter who was going to be strapped to one of the guides. I know we all look crazily confident in the pictures below - but believe me - we felt nothing like that at that moment!
But, as my Chris put it, "Once you see your child disappear into a cloud, you have no choice but to follow!!". And so we did! We had to let go - and oh, what an amazing experience it was! The zipline tour offered by Osa Canopy Tour includes 8 platforms, 3 rappelling stations and an optional Tarzan swing (more on that later) - and once you start, there's no coming back :). But then again, we didn't want to come back. Nothing in this world can compare to zipping 300 feet above tree tops and canyons, feeling the tropical air on your skin and warm wind in your hair - while also taking in the amazing vistas of the jungle, the Pacific Ocean and even some waterfalls!
The tour included three rappelling stations with the last one being 80 feet high.
Chloe, our 3-year-old was timid at first, but by the third platform, she was laughing and saying that she wanted to fly over the trees like a bird some more:). I also have got to point out how amazing the OSA Canopy guides were. They were so good with the kids, so professional, patient - and funny!
For the full sensory ziplining experience, check out this video and listen to the sound the zipline makes once Chloe and the guide start moving along the line! This is one of two that are over 1 kilometer long.
Thanks to all the adrenaline surging, before we knew it, we were done with our last zipline platform, and the guides gave us all Tupperware containers with cold fresh fruit (yummie!) and bottles of spring water. We enjoyed the delicious snack at a picnic table overlooking a gorgeous valley and a few of us even ended up doing the Tarzan swing after all!
Exhausted after a day of incredible adventure, we still stopped to take some pics and hang out with some Jurassic Park dinosaurs - before going back to the house for some well-deserved relaxation.
Monkeys, iguanas, dancing bugs, and saying goodbye
On our last day we decided to take it easy and just chill out. After all, as you already know, we found our Costa Rican home rather enjoyable, to say the least. We started feeling a little bit sad, since it was almost time to say good-bye, and the locals must have sensed it and decided to pay us a visit. And by "locals" I mean a troupe of "white-face monkeys". Lots and lots of them! Check out this video that Chris took in our backyard :).
Oh yes - and there was also a very funny green bug on our veranda that would start dancing every time a song came on. And when the music would stop, it would stop dancing, too! Oh, by the way, bugs are really big in Costa Rica. Every morning Chris had to go out on the veranda to sweep them away with a broom after they had crashed into the glass windows with a loud clang the night before. :)
After that we headed out to Dominical to buy some souvenirs and then to Playa Bahia Ballena - to film yet another belly dance video and just to have some fun in the sun. Apparently, all the local creatures decided to come out and say goodbye to us - including really large and super friendly beach iguanas. See if you can spot one in the pics below!
I spent the rest of the day taking pictures of the house, drinking wine, watching the sun sink behind the clouds, and contemplating on... well, who knows? Maybe one day we could make the move? After all, Costa Rica helped us all let go and fly!
A few important tips if you plan to visit Costa Rica:
Rent a car from Vamos (you will also get a smartphone with a local SIM card);
Rent a 4X4 - since you won't get far in CR without one;
Download Waze app on your smartphone. It's way better for directions in Costa Rica than Google or Apple Maps;
Bring some cash in US dollars. You can buy stuff in CR for USD and get change back in colones; Some places (like beaches and parks) only accept cash;
Don't forget to use a turn signal when you drive. And don't ask me why ;);
Always call before going anywhere. Even if Google says the place is open - still call. Even if you can make a reservation online - call. Just call :);
You can tip if you like, but the 10% gratuity is usually already included and extra tipping is not expected;
If you can fly from Fort Lauderdale, do it – it’s so much cheaper!
Relax and let things be – it’s Pura Vida, baby 😉.
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