Pura Vida. Full stop.
We intended for our time in Costa Rica to be “vacation time” – after almost 2 months of constantly being on the move with the trailer, we envisioned we could use some sedentary time. We would stay in one spot, and learn to surf. We were all excited for the downtime.
But we first had to get there! After Disney, we left our hotel at 5am in the morning, excited for the first true international leg of our trip. All went seamless. Elyse at some point during the flight yawned “but I am not tired!”, only to closer her eyes a second later. We arrived late afternoon in San Jose, exhausted but happy. By the time we got to our hotel for the night, dark clouds were hovering over. We dropped our bags, and walked a couple blocks to a restaurant for dinner. Not long after rain came pouring down. And I mean p-o-u-r-i-n-g. Our raincoats did not stand a chance. We were soaked to the bone when we got back to our hotel. It had me worried, as we were on the verge of the wet season. It turned out that the central and northern part of Costa Rica would see extraordinary amounts of rain, with rivers overflowing, bridges collapsing etc. But in the south-east of the country, were we stayed, we were largely spared. Thanking the weather gods!
The next morning, we took the public bus to Puerto Viejo. We had burnt our daily budget in the USA by renting truck and trailer, and needed to make up. The public bus was … as you imagine a public bus. Full, hot and humid. One English lad was super sick on the bus, and we felt for him. I also had to lean into the hallway and keep my eyes on the winding road!
We stayed in Cocles, a tiny town just south of Puerto Viejo, on the Caribbean sea. Cocles is an amazing beach – white sand, palm trees, and nearly deserted this time of year. We decided that we would get around on bikes just like the locals (and avoid an expensive rental car). Elyse’s spot was on the handle bars of Steven’s bike, and the boys were fitted onto their own small-but-still-kind-of-too-big bikes. My heart skipped a beat more than once as we conquered the roads. The contrast with our biking experience in the US was ginormous. In one of the US campgrounds where we were the only souls, our kids got scolded for not wearing a helmet. Here, they looked at us as if we were crazy when we asked for helmets at the rental place. The local drivers honk and pass and drive crazy, and oftentimes our kids sway way too far to the middle for comfort, but no-one got hurt. Not even in the dark, when we improvised head- and taillights with a combo of headlamps, flashlights and i-phones. Adventure!
Anyways. The public bus dropped us of by the side of the road, literally in the middle of nowhere after I explained in my best Spanish and with the help of a new friend, where we needed to be. We weren’t quite in the right spot, but our AirBNB host found us nevertheless and her 4×4 took us to our “home” for 2.5 weeks. We knew we had rented a special place, but could not imagine just how special. The house was newly built around a recycled sea-container. The back of the house (kitchen, eating and sitting area) was completely open to the jungle-ish backyard. The shower connected to the outdoors as well, and the upstairs had a yoga and meditation corner. An incredibly “zen” house, that felt like a cocoon. Those first couple days we had quite a few bouts of heavy rains, and it was actually very nice to be surrounded by the thumping of rain on the tin roof. The yard had all sorts of super-plants and herbs; a papaya tree, a gigantic mango tree, two orange trees, banana trees and coconut palms. Every morning we could pick 3-4 ripe oranges to make smoothies and popsicles. We also took care of the house cat, and now the kids want a pet even more desperately. A hammock made the picture complete. Truly a little sanctuary.
We lived the Pura Vida life. Cooked at home, did the dishes by hand and got up shortly after dawn (not by choice, those birds and monkeys are loud!). Sometimes we did an activity in the morning, sometimes not, sometimes we focused on schoolwork, oftentimes we the took a dip in the ocean, drank another iced fruit juice, or played a board game. I finally ticked two “heavier” reads of my reading list. We lived at about the pace of the sloths we found all around us.
The Puerto Viejo area at large felt a bit hippie, and we loved that! Especially Vincent, as there were lots of yummy vegan options at the restaurants and even the bakery, so he could have muffins, and pancakes (Vincent is allergic to eggs). There were yoga studios on most corners, and just generally that typical Caribbean feel with reggae music, street coconut vendors and a if-not-today-then-tomorrow attitude.
Our first day or so we went to the beach, and I swear I have never ever swam in such water. The waves breaking on the shore were a bit rough, but once past those, the water was still shallow enough to stand, and so warm! We basically just floated about; better than a bath. Picture a deserted beach, lined by jungle, pelicans flying over, and a couple dolphins in the distance. Paradise? Oh yes.
Given we got around on bikes, our activities were all close to ‘home’. We all took a surf lesson with Hershell , but Matthias and Elyse quickly decided it was more fun to build a sand castle. Vincent really got hooked and loved everything about it. The fact that Hershell was a super cool dude helped, of course. He wanted more, but unfortunately the waves did not cooperate. We rented boards once more to practice, but the waves stayed flat. In contrast, our last 2-3 days the waves picked up so much, that they went over Steven’s head.
We spent a morning at the Jaguar Rescue Center which, despite the name, does not have jaguars. But lots and lots of other animals: monkeys, cats, birds, sloths, snakes, deer, wild pigs, and more. They had a truly good story about rehabilitation of injured animals, through education, healing the animals and re-introducing them step by step to the wild. They own a large swat of “primary forest” (ie never deforested and re-grown), that borders a larger national reserve to release. The center runs on volunteers mostly. In fact, I sat next to a girl who was going to work there on the flight over. I hope our children will be inspired to do something like this one day. If you are ever in the region, we highly recommend a visit to the center. The kids LOVED it. We coupled a lesson to our visit, and this time it was easy to motivate our kiddos for school. Easier than to motivate them for a lesson on Costa Rica !
We also joined a chocolate tour at Caribeans in Cocles. Our expectations weren’t too high, to be frank, as we did an excellent chocolate tour last time we were in Costa Rica. But were we wrong! This tour was incredibly informative, and explained the complicated history of cacao in Costa Rica, as well as the process of chocolate making from bean to bar. Little did we know that chocolate is like wine. The soil, temperature and location of every single cacao tree determines the specific flavor of the bean. We learned about harvesting the beans, fermenting and drying them. Roasting, grinding, and melting. We were initiated into the “choco tribe” with a traditional, very bitter (and yucky) drink. Our kids were bored by it all, until we got to taste different dark chocolate varieties, “paired” with different sweet, salty and spicy additives (garlic, cayenne, vanilla, … ).
Our kids filled their bellies, and so did we. Maybe one day, every bar will show not only the % of cacao (>75% is my favorite!), but also the bean variety. Corporations will typically use chemical processes to ensure consistency of taste. We were impressed with owner Paul who shared his vision and passion for the region, preservation and supporting local communities. His story was inspiring as he talked about how he learned and tinkered his way into chocolate making, step by step, teaching local communities that there is value in cacao farming. In the 70’s, the cacao crops were destroyed by disease, and farmers turned their back on the beans. Did you know most global commercial chocolate is harvested in Ivory Coast, under very harsh ‘employment’ conditions? Buying fair trade does make a difference!
Finally, the very, very, VERY best part of our stay in Cocles was meeting another traveling family. We had longed for adult conversation, and playmates for the kids. I am so grateful for the Facebook group “families on the move”, as it enables connections with like-minded travelers. All of us clicked like old friends from the very first minute. As soon as Tracie, Johny, Livy and Anneke arrived in Cocles we had dinner and basically hung out for most of the next week. Livy celebrated her birthday, and I was proud of my kids when they thought of getting her a small present. They picked out a bracelet at the local farmer’s market, but more importantly, spent almost a full afternoon gathering, sanding, carving and decorating coconut shells, making and coloring bracelets, making cards etc. Tracie had bought a cake, and all of it together made for a festive evening. The last couple days we also met an English family (hello Joe, Dan and Esmee), and as the saying goes: the more, the merrier! The kids bonded, and we were all so very sad to say goodbye… It was good for our souls to make friends. We hope to meet again somewhere, sometime soon!!
We also spent a fantastic day at Punta Uva together, about 9km south, acclaimed for the best snorkeling in the area. There is a coral reef right of the beach. Our kids got to use the Lambers’ family snorkeling masks, and off they went. Matthias especially enjoyed it a lot. We did not see or hear our kids for hours as they all played in the surf. We stopped for empanadas at a tiny road-stall, which were delicious, and the local fisherman just arrived to sell his catch off the day … lobster.
We learned an important lesson though … our family does better when we are moving a bit faster. Those last couple days, we “overstayed” Cocles. Add to that some stress when we found out that the ground water levels had dropped so low that the house well might run dry …. And finding out at the last minute that a lot of our “winter gear” got mold during our stay … It was time to move. Back on the public bus to San Jose, and from there onwards to Peru!
Some people ask more specifically where we stay, eat and play, so I’ll try to add a little list of places we loved:
* Playa 506: hostel in Cocles with a fantastic outdoor seating area. Small menu with excellent food. We spent many hours here playing boardgames and sipping a cocktail.
* Stashu’s Con Fusion: great host and staff, and great fusion dishes with accents from all over the world (India, Thai, …)
* Alain’s Bakery: a small tiny bakery, 5 minutes on the bike south of Cocles, on the left hand side. Croissants, baguettes, …
* Todos Es Posible: another restaurant where we had excellent food
* Restaurant X – I forgot the name! It’s just south of Cocles beach, and past the Super Cocles, on the right hand side. It has a sign in the yard to “Inspire, Laugh, Love, Hope, Dream, Smile”. Great pizza, and super fish dishes.
* Surf lession with Hershel, from Puerto Viejo Surf
* Chocolate tour at Caribeans: www.caribeanschocolate.com (also a coffee corner with yummie icecreams and vegan treats)
* Animal rescue: Jaquar Rescue Center: http://www.jaguarrescue.foundation/
* Snorkeling: at Punta Uva beach