The best and most important thing we did prior to the trip was to contact and communicate with various concierges. Costa Rica is all about eco-tourism. It’s what they do and they have it down to a science. Because of the size of our group, we realized that in lieu of hotel rooms for each family, we could spend less money and book a villa for part of our trip. The one we chose was called Villa El Cantico in the beautiful artsy town of Manuel Antonio. The very best part about choosing this particular villa was that it came with a concierge, Melissa, who was always at our disposal. She was willing to book and organize everything for us and I can’t tell you how helpful this was. We had phone conversations and email exchanges for months. She had suggestions, sample itineraries, and she answered absolutely every question we had, the first of which was about transportation. We knew that we wanted to start our journey with the Arenal Volcano and had heard that the hot springs there were not to be missed. The question was whether to rent vehicles or get by on shuttles and taxis. With a group of fifteen, we realized that it would be less expensive and definitely less stressful to arrange shuttles, which actually turned out to be more like party buses because our group took up the entire van. We didn’t have to worry about navigating or driving at all. We basically ‘Uber’ed around Costa Rica. Even though we wouldn’t see Villa El Cantico or Melissa until the second leg of our trip, she still arranged our pick up from the airport. Our driver Abraham was waiting for us and promptly stopped at a supermercado where we stocked our van’s cooler full of ice cold Imperial beers, sodas and waters. We piled in and off we went!
In Arenal, we stayed in eco-cabinas called the Kokoro Lodge, which was a very short distance to the desired hot springs. I am not sure if I am supposed to mention that my niece had a small (non-poisonous...we think) snake fall from the rafters onto her pillow that night. Welcome to the rainforest! The next morning was one I won’t ever forget. We woke up early to the sound of the rainforest. And you guys. I could HEAR IT! ALL OF IT! Those who know me, know I have severe hearing loss. The fact that I was awoken to the sound of macaws, cicadas and howler monkeys was magical for me. As soon as the kids and I stepped outside we caught our first glimpse of the massive Arenal Volcano that we couldn’t see in the dark the night before. It was breathtaking.
That morning we were off on our first Costa Rican eco-adventure. During our research and planning, we found companies who could accommodate our wide age and ability-range. We had learned that, “canyoneering” (rappelling into canyons in the rainforest) was excellent in Arenal. Fortunately I had found David Vargas, the concierge at Mistico Park, which hosts a number of activities perfect for our group. This was amazing because everything was all set up and ready for us, including the shuttle from our hotel to and from Mistico. We chose to do the canyoneering at La Roca (which is soon to be called Spider Monkey Canyon).
By Kelly Mitchell
This year marked my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. 50. FIVE-OH! This called for a very big and significant celebration. When you hit fifty years, what is it that needs to be celebrated? For my parents, it was simple...family. My family has always been very big on travel and we have racked up a lot of family trip memories. Memories are what life’s all about really, right? My parents wanted to have all three of their children and all of the grandchildren together on a family trip. A big one. The question was, how to incorporate a group of fifteen people ranging in age from five-years-old to seventy five? After tireless research, the choice was obvious. Costa Rica. Claro que si!
Why Costa Rica? None of us had been there, it’s a small, safe, egalitarian, peaceful, country (in fact, they don’t even have an army), and for an active family like ours, there seemed to be activities that fit everybody's interests. I don’t mean contrived theme park type activities, but organic eco-adventures. When I read that certain studies have shown Costa Ricans to be the least stressed and happiest people on earth, I knew it was the place for us. In fact, they boast a life expectancy of 77 years, one of the highest in the world. Who knows where their bliss comes from. Maybe they take a page out of the ubiquitous sloths’ “chill out” playbook, but I can attest to the fact that I have never met such happy, helpful and friendly people in all of my travels.
Once we decided on the destination, we needed to narrow down exactly where to go and what to do. If it sounds like planning a vacation to central America for fifteen people ranging in age from 5-75 was a daunting task, let me assure you, it was. International travel with two kids under the age of six in and of itself is enough to give you palpitaciones del corazon. We finally decided on a combination of exploring a town with an active volcano and hot springs, and a beach with as much rainforest (read: lots and lots of animals for the kiddos to marvel at) in the same area as possible. More than 25% of Costa Rican land is protected national parks and refuges and I knew my Wild Kratt kids and nephews would be in heaven.
Several mom friends have asked me to give them advice on how to plan a family trip to Costa Rica. So I will put some tips from my own experience here, and if you so choose to go to Costa Rica (as you should!) then here you go. VAMONOS!
Excursions aside, we had time to have a few mellow beach days with surfing, kayaking, exploring nearby coves and just chilling at our villa, which by the way had Wifi, much to the teenagers’ snapchatting delight. We also made a field trip to a local school so that our kids to see how schools can be similar yet different in other countries. We happened to go on a day when they had an anti-bullying assembly, which was pretty cool even if they didn't understand the language. It was good to engage the kids in a discussion about the universal topic of bullying.
The trip culminated with a surprise re-enactment of my parents’ wedding fifty years ago. We had been working on this throughout the trip during our downtime and it was really special. We thought it would be perfect to have the entire family there to witness their vows, albeit renewed, rewritten and edited by us. Later that night, everybody told their own stories of how they met and fell in love. Some of us have been married fifty years, some twenty and some under ten, but we all have great and unique love stories and we need to remind ourselves of that every once in a while.
On the shuttle back to the airport, with Abraham driving through torrential downpour, we all took turns recounting our highlights and lowlights of the trip. I loved hearing how different they all were. Costa Rica offered something for each of us, whether it was jumping off a cliff into a waterfall, spotting a sloth while on horseback, conquering the rapids, rappelling down a mountain, or feeding a toucan. In the end, it was all about togetherness, making memories, and celebrating family. We chose the perfect place to celebrate Pura Vida-PURE LIFE!
My six year old son rappelled for the first time, as well as my 75 year old parents. It was so awesome! Our guides Arturo and Royvine made sure that they kept us all at our own individual levels. The smaller kids were totally controlled by the guides, but the rest of us were on our own. The most daring of us got swayed into waterfalls and dropped into the river. We were shown wildlife along the way to the zip lines and canyons. We ended with fruit and water waiting for us at the end of the line and the whole thing was exhilarating. Once back at Mistico park, we ended the day with a self guided tour through the famous hanging bridges garden, which was gorgeous. There are plenty of other activities at Mistico to try, such as horseback riding and boat rides and you can book any of these things at www.misticopark.com
We then decided to try a new thing called “zorbing.” Basically it is a giant ball that rolls down a mountain. With you in it. There is water in the ball keeping you from flipping and rolling inside the ball, and it was a bit like being tossed inside a washing machine. Not that I have ever been inside a washing machine. Sounds a little gnarly? It was. Zorbing is definitely geared toward major daredevils and thrill seekers, and there are only four in the entire world. The one we tried is the only one in all of central and south America. While it was not my six year old son’s favorite, my nephews loved it. Allan, the owner could not have been more fun and accommodating. I would say if your family wants to try it, go first yourself, then decide if it is right for your crew.
We purposely ended our adventurous day at the relaxing hot springs. There are a few different options for visiting hot springs in Arenal, and since we only visited one location, I can only comment on the one we experienced. I have heard they are all wonderful! We chose the Springs Resort because it had a two day pass option, with unlimited access to the 16 hot springs, as well as a choice of two guided excursions at an on site eco-wonderland called Club Rio. It was perfect for our diverse group because we were able to choose adventures that suited each person’s individual interests. I chose to inner tube and horseback ride, while my son and nephews chose rock climbing. My daughter chose a special excursion to see a feeding of the rainforest animals in an on site sanctuary. In fact, we all got to visit the sanctuary for rescued and rehabilitated rainforest animals and it was definitely a highlight for everyone. Seeing sloths close up, learning all about the rain forest eco system and feeding toucans was a treat for all.
With our two day pass, we were able to explore all of the natural hot springs on the grounds, and they were unbelievable. This is a must for families visiting Costa Rica. Although most of our group said they felt three days was perfect in Arenal, I could have easily stayed a week. I was blown away. But alas it was time to press on to next leg of the journey...the BEACH!
Costa Rica is known for its beautiful beaches and there are hundreds of them. We chose to go to the national park of Manuel Antonio, and it was there we finally reached our picturesque Villa El Cantico. Melissa was there to greet us (as were several curious and playful capuchin monkeys on the back deck) after our five hour van ride. It was then we realized we had maybe made one of the best decisions of the trip-we had arranged a chef. We were reluctant to hire a cook because we are a do-it-yourself kind of family and it wasn't really anything we have ever done before. However, when we did the math, we realized that it was actually less expensive than going out to dinner (with a group of 15 people). We also thought about having to shop and cook and clean and just decided to bite the bullet and hire Ana. We are so happy we did! We arrived at happy hour and Ana had appetizers at the ready. We didn’t need to stop and shop, prepare, worry about finding a restaurant on our first night after a day of long travel. We had Ana cook us two meals per day, so were able to be flexible according to our busy itinerary.
With big group like ours, it made sense to get a villa as opposed to hotel rooms or condos. Villas are perfect to rent for family reunions, small destination weddings, retreats, etc. However if you have a smaller group, is was a place down the street called Pacifico Colonial, which is also managed my Melissa and is perfect for one or two families. I can’t recommend these enough. I feel like our trip was such a success because of all the help we had in planning. Check it all out at www.tropicalsunvillas.com.
The next morning we got up at the crack of early and headed out to our 7 am tour of Manual Antonio National Park. Another word of advice: get an official guide for a park like this! Our guide was Johan Chaves (Melissa arranged him for us of course), and he was so knowledgeable and excellent with squirmy children, and knew how to keep them engaged. We would likely not have seen 90% of what he showed us had he not guided us. He knew the park like the back of his hand and had telescopes that allowed us not only to see the animals up close, but to take pictures and videos through the telescope with our cameras and phones. The kids loved seeing so many animals in their natural habitat, and we all learned so much. We ended the park tour at the beach and immediately jumped in the 80 degree water. We spent the remainder of the day exploring the beach and the town. My son Curran took his very first body surfing wave and knocked his loose tooth out. It was awesome. Nothing like the Costa Rican tooth feria leaving “colones” under his pillow. What a memory!
The next day was our ATV tour with a company called Midworld. I am normally not a big moto-type person, but I’ll admit that I loved driving my daughter through the rainforest and hearing her scream and giggle the whole way. She loved it. The guides took us to a waterfall, which was the highlight for sure. More specifically, the highlight was looking up on top of a cliff to see my mom, our 75 year old “Nana,” jump off the cliff into the waterfall. I mean, that was the coolest! She later said this was one of her favorite moments of the entire trip. I didn't even have the cojones to do that!
Our next adventure was probably my favorite: white water rafting with Los Amigos Del Rio. I had no idea what to expect. It was a long van ride to get to the Savegre river (the cleanest river in Central America). The ride was part of the fun though, because our guide Romain, as in lettuce...his nickname is actually “Lettuce,” stopped the van along the way to show us crazy cool things, like a giant banana spider that makes a web so strong they use it for fishing line and make bullet proof vests out of it. He also made origami grasshoppers and flowers out of palm leaves for the kids. Romain was the BEST!
When we got there and suited up, I started to worry when they handed my tiny 5-year- old a paddle. I figured she would be sandwiched between us with no worry of falling overboard. But sure enough, they said “If you're in the boat, you will take a seat on the side of the raft and you will paddle.” So, with a paddle in her hand that weighed more than she did, she got in the boat and followed directions. Of course she lost the paddle within 20 seconds, but still, we were all impressed. When we approached rapids, she completely turtled into her vest and helmet. All you could see was her two big blue eyes full of...no se que. I think they were full of “gracias a dios I am still in this raft.” After that first trial and knowing she was safe, she was on board, literally, for all of it. As a matter of fact, a couple of times we were able to jump ship and float down the river which she happily did. I have to admit I was a little nervous when we started, because Romain was handling a boat with four children under 9. But wow, that dude could handle the river like a pro, and within minutes I didn't worry for one second that we were totally in safe hands. This is an experience you do not want to miss out on, trust me. Ask for Romain...or Lettuce. Lechuga!