Costa Rica Then and Now

When I look back on my young life, I feel blessed to have had an idyllic childhood. While we never flew to Italy or Morocco, my parents had an adventurous spirit. I remember taking road trips, traveling to Florida often, and visiting the Caribbean with our family. 

From those memories, a love of exploration was cultivated. However, I did not travel in high school or even college. Instead, I got lost in the small town way of thinking and found myself doing the same things every weekend. Then, at 24 years old, I took my first international trip as an adult to Costa Rica. I went with a group of girlfriends and we had a blast. Years later we can still easily laugh about and reminisce on all of the memories that we made.  

Drinks and poke bowls with the girls!

Naturally, when the opportunity to visit Costa Rica years later a second time presented itself, I gave an enthusiastic “hell yes”. This time, I wouldn’t be going with my gal-pals. As a married woman and mother, I would be going with my husband and 10 month old son. 

Manuel Antonio on my first trip to Costa Rica!

So how did the two trips compare? What did I learn after going back a second time – in a completely different place in my life?

Adventure Then

Damn. I remember coming home from Costa Rica and feeling like I had seen some shit. I think to some extent – everyone feels that way after their first international trip. People at home just can’t relate and don’t get it. But, really. I had done things that for me were incredibly adventurous. Things I would never have thought I would find myself doing.

Ziplining

Costa Rica is known for its adventure tourism, and ziplining is more or less a right of passage. If you talk to anyone on a trip to Costa Rica or has been to the country – odds are – they’ve ziplined. Considering so many people zipline, before going it doesn’t even feel like such a big deal. However, I can assure you, once you’re looking down over the edge of your first platform…it is a very big deal. My girl friends and I went through the Los Suenos company for our ziplining adventure. n my opinion, I highly recommend them if you plan on going – professional, enthusiastic, and they provide free transportation to and from the hotels!

While getting suited up, I remember all of us girls jesting with one another and making jokes about falling out of the trees. I put on a brave face, but inside, I was a nervous wreck. During each step of the process, my heart would pound just a touch more. When it was our group’s turn – I was really shocked that I raised my hand to go first.

Four girls are suited up to go rock climbing
Too bad if you think we’re sexy. We’re all married.

It was almost as if my hand has a mind of its own. I gripped the rope with both hands and pushed off the platform. The wind rushed through every inch of me. I had never been simultaneously thrilled and terrified at once until this point.

I was thrilled because I had a full realization of how high in the air I was flying. It was me, and the trees. All I heard was the “whirring” of the line and my yelling to myself “Oh my God! Woohoo!” My heart was pounding once I landed. It was weird because even though I had the thrill of a lifetime – I remember saying, “I don’t want to go again.” Of course, there is no other option. I finished the course.

A few times I even got stuck and had to climb my way to the landing platform. I was so proud of myself, I felt like a professional. I don’t think I stopped shaking or smiling the entire time. However, one time was more than enough for me.

The Hike From Hell

I don’t remember who started it- but at some point all of us got it in our heads that the quintessential Costa Rican experience would be to see a waterfall. The entire week we were in Jaco we scoured for the perfect guide and the perfect excursion. Somehow, we found Ronald, his driver Andy, and Nauyaca waterfall in Dominical. 

A strong ant is able to hold the weight of a large stick in its mouth with no help
This ant can hold the weight of this entire branch in its mouth with no help.

How do I begin to describe Ronald? He is the Costa Rican version of Zamir from Parts Unknown. Ronald makes you do things you’d rather not do, and are really annoyed about, but always with a positive outcome. Often, he has a vision that is usually pretty hard to see at first. Also, he has an enthusiasm that feels oppressive, especially when you’re hot and hungover. However, he is knowledgeable, happy-go-lucky, and was committed, I mean, FULLY committed to making our day memorable. He’s an exceptional human and made the trip worthwhile – we still talk about him to this day. 

Amanda and the legendary Ronald himself

 None of us are athletes, yet somehow, decided a five mile hike upwards in mud and cowshit would be the perfect experience. This hike is so trying, to long, so hot – I remember thinking, “is this legal?” at least 500 times on the walk. There are parts of the walk which are uphill and too many times we slid, pulled, at weeds for stability, and had to put our bare hands on the ground to steady ourselves. I have never been so angry, so frustrated, or laughed so hard in all my life. The further we got along on our hike, the more I felt like I was in a different world. 

Random ass backwoods of Costa Rica, but the views are gorgeous!

What’s more – everything felt undiscovered. We were the only ones around wherever we went. We passed sheep on a really high mountain, unique bugs, and wide open fields. In addition to angry, frustrated, and giggling – I was also left quite speechless at times. I’d never experienced nature in the capacity that I saw during our hike. There were so many sites that took my breath away, and I was hardly sure they were real. Sometimes the mountains and fields seemed to go on forever. 

Killer views.

The first view of Nauyaca waterfall took my breath away. It was the most beautiful sight I had ever seen. There are seven levels at the bottom and even more at the top and the water cascades down powerfully into a giant and freezing lake. By that time we were drenched in sweat and couldn’t wait to dive in. Although – that was no easy task either. The first few feet into the water are extremely slippery and I definitely busted my ass more than once. The water is so cold that it numbs your body, but looking at the falls from the lake makes you forget all of that. 

In case you weren’t sure what a super elite athlete looked like.

The people climbing up high onto the falls make it look easy, but it’s definitely not! It’s extremely slippery and the jump from even the first level of rocks into the water is scary! This was one of my fondest travel memories even to this day. 

Nauyaca Falls - a cascading waterfall into a freezing cold lake
Nauyaca Falls

The hike back down was interesting to say the least. It began raining, and we began getting hot again and just wanted to get the fuck back to the hotel. The mud and cow shit became wildly slippery and our friend, Morgan, went sliding and landed on her back. She fell so hard that the tongue of her sneaker was all the way out to the side. We were really worried and I remember Amanda and I running to her and immediately thinking we needed to clean out her wounds. “NO!” Ronald exclaimed.

Morgan took a tumble, y’all.

“I know what to do.” His plan…was…weird. “First, I need one of your friends to push your back.” *Insert WTF meme here.* “Now, listen to me, I’m going to tie your shoe very tight, this will fix most of the problem.” We had no idea why he thought to do this, and we still don’t. We went from shock and fear to outright CRYING from laughing. No one can retell this story with a straight face – it’s so absurd. It took Morgan a really long time to heal from that fall, God knows how much longer had Ronald not tied her shoe really tight. 

Ronald fixed everything (not really.)

Adventure Now

We still went through Los Suenos tours – and this time I watched from afar as people suited up for the adventure of a lifetime. I remembered fondly that I had once been them. However, I don’t think I’d have the nerve to go soaring through the trees again! Now, we were embarking on a different journey offered at the adventure site – a chocolate tour. 

Using cacao in ancient times

We were able to follow the entire process of chocolate from start to finish. We tasted chocolate at each stage of the process. I have seen images of the giant cocoa fruit, and have always been curious what it tastes like. I finally figured it out, and the answer is Styrofoam. Generally, you scoop out the seeds and chew off the flesh around them. 

Preparing the hot chocolate of the gods!

Each stage of the process becomes sweeter and sweeter. We were even able to see that there is a noticeable difference in quality between chocolate that is handmade versus made by a machine. If you follow my adventures enough – you will see that I am a huge fan of ancient civilizations and Shamanism. 

Demonstrating how cacao seeds are carried by the wind

One story that stands out to me from high school history class is Cacao. Cacao is essentially hot chocolate. The Mayan people would make the drink and considered it a gift from the gods. Beginning in the 8th century (AD) the image of the Cacao god began to appear on pottery. I always imagined what this drink might taste like. No seriously – I spent a fuck ton of my childhood imagining what Cacao might taste like. I pictured bubbles and it being cold for some reason, but super thick and mildly sweet. I also pictured people drinking it through a straw. Basically, I pictured chocolate milk. 

Comparing hand made chocolate to machine made chocolate

I’m happy to say that I finally got to try it! It was essentially hot chocolate, but with a much more earthy and natural taste. 

Hot chocolate of the gods! The talk of every history class.

Relaxation Then

On our girls’ trip, we were apparently ALL about self care before it was even a thing. We treated ourselves to massages and yoga class on the terrace of our hotel:

High quality image; high quality zen

We also took a four hour ride (each way!) to visit the Baldi Hot Springs at the base of Arenal volcano. 

Baldi Hot Springs is a resort which offers a fuck ton of thermal baths to soak and relax in. Some have the look of a jacuzzi, some are more like pools, and others have water slides and waterfalls! The temperature of the baths range from hot to scolding hot, and a few cold pools to dip into as well. 

Relaxation Now

Yes, it’s possible to unwind and relax with a baby. Every morning we would take Henry to the pool and the three of us would splash around. The hotel had a baby floaty and Henry enjoyed peddling his legs underwater and being able to move on his own. We started him off in the kiddie pool, and wondered why more of the children weren’t using it.

Henry doing his first swim in the pool!

Then one day, we saw an iguana take a massive crap in it, and quickly switched exclusively to the big pool. Arthur and I were so much, and family time between the three of us is pretty much exclusive to the weekend, and sometimes, one day a week. It was such a joy and so relaxing to laze around in the pool with my two boys without a care in the world.

Sometimes, Arthur would swim with Henry and I’d make my way over to the deep end and just float. My ears would be submerged and I couldn’t hear a thing. I would just stare at the palm trees and be in the moment. I would just think to myself how grateful, lucky, and happy I was to be in Costa Rica with my family. When there is no clutter in your mind, no anger in your heart, and no maelstrom in your soul – that is the definition of relaxation. A smile on everyone’s face and a few laughs along the way doesn’t hurt either!

Grateful for the views.

Sunsets Then

We made a whole event out of watching the sunset. Villa Calletas is THE place to watch the sun go down over the water. The big draw is their stone amphitheater made solely for watching the sunset. It was so much fun to grab our bougie drinks, sit in the amphitheater, and watch the sun go down while having some much needed girl time and talk. We got dressed up, did our make up, and took some great photos!

Sunsets Now

While we couldn’t make our way to Villa Calletas this time around, the view from our balcony was just as stunning. The sunset in Costa Rica is perfect no matter where you are watching from. In this case, each evening, Henry napped in the room while we sat outside on our rocking chairs. Arthur grabbed us each a frozen drink as we talked about life and watched the brilliant orange sun go down over the water. We would talk about where we saw ourselves in a year, five years, ten, retired. We would talk about our dreams and our hopes. It was really nice to re-connect on such a deep level with such a romantic backdrop. 

Monkeys Then

I jumped at the chance to see monkeys up close and personal. On our trip to Baldi hot springs, our guide offered to stop at some random-ass house where guests can interact with the tiny tree dwellers. We paid $20 each to feed and hold them – which was definitely a fucking rip-off. But, experiences build experience – even negative ones. In my mind, I probably would have paid any price to experience something that I felt was so exotic. 

I still remember my heart beating as I washed my hands and walked to the tree after. The alpha climbed down and inspected us, even showing his teeth once to let us know he was the boss. After he gave us the “all clear” many more monkeys joined. I was sniffed, climbed on, and nearly had my sunglasses stolen. My hair was yanked, my arms were scratched, and I loved every second.  

Monkeys Now

We saw the monkeys again – this time through a monkey boat tour. Check out my blog post on the whole experience! It was still magical. I loved seeing this experience through the eyes of my husband and our son. 

Monkey time

Beach Time Then

There was plenty of time to explore the beaches on our girls trip! We laid out, drank daiquiris, and ate poke bowls at Playa Hermosa. I had never seen a black sand beach before and the ethereal fog among the palm trees made me feel like I was in Jurassic Park. While we had plenty of time to enjoy the beach, we didn’t spend a lot of time there. Our schedule was jam packed!

Beach Time Now

In terms of the beach, there is not a lot of difference between Costa Rica then and now! I was still wowed by the unique aesthetics of Costa Rican beaches. That familiar foggy, pre-dawn, jungle-esque feeling was all around. We spent our entire first day just walking up and down the shoreline and exploring. 

Baby takes a nap on our beach walk

As a family, we made it a point to get to the beach every day. Often, we would only stay for 20 – 30 minutes. Henry as a baby is susceptible to heat stroke, especially being completely covered because he can burn easily. We would go into our air conditioned room where he could have playtime. That wound up being fine with me, I’m not someone who can lay out on the sweltering sand all day. 

Arthur got to get a good surf lesson in while Henry took a nap in his beach tent and I did some relaxing and tanning. All in all, I was surprised by how much didn’t change. I was surprised that it was still possible to have a normal beach outing and do our usual stuff. Something that did change was that we used the beautiful beach behind the hotel to do a family photo shoot. I used to heavily make fun of travel bloggers who partook in professional photos. (I hate false candid.) However, I definitely see the value after getting them back. Professional photographers are able to come up with unique poses in flattering angles. These will be photos our family will cherish for a lifetime. 

Family photo shoot

Crew Hang Outs Then

Our first morning in Costa Rica started with a bang. We took a catamaran cruise to Isla Tortuga, and we started drinking insanely early in the morning – I really think it had to be around eight a.m. After a great breakfast, we boarded the boat with dozens of other young people. We laid out on the nets in front of the boat, vibed to music, and talked SO much shit about people back home. 

Drinks in the pool!

I remember first pulling up to the island and being inspired for a novel instantaneously. With the swaying palm trees, strong sun, warm sand, and lapping waves – I was transported to somewhere remote and relaxing. We drank beer and I tried ceviche for the first time and thought it was the most amazing blend of tastes in the world. I can still taste the freshness of the fish and tanginess of the citrus on my tongue! My best friend and I re-made the dish shortly after getting home. 

Isla Tortuga!

The day was an endless barrage of eating, drinking beer, tanning, swimming, and napping in hammocks. I remember walking into the water (in a fucking TWO PIECE) and feeling a sharp pain on my ass cheek. The island was so remote that I thought an islander shot me with a blow dart. I looked down, and I had been stung by a bee – good thing I’m not allergic!

My favorite memory of the day was snorkeling. A small, rickety, boat took several of us out to sea. When the driver pointed to each person – you were expected to throw your body backward into the water so as not to capsize the boat. I got so nervous that I jumped up on the seat and dove into the water – causing a COMPLETE panic on the boat. 

The resistance in the water was really strong – I specifically remember us being afraid of that. One of the guides dove to the bottom of the sea and pulled up some type of mollusk. “Cool, I wish I could dive like you.” I remember saying. “Yes?” The next thing I know he was deflating my life vest, thinking I wanted to go under water, and I was screaming NO while my friends cackled. It was a day full of that childish, side clenching, ear to ear smiling laughter – and I’ll never forget it. 

Views from the hammock!

Crew Hang Outs Now

We were still able to embark on excursions, but we had to definitely scale back the pace of how we travel. We only did two excursions on our two week trip, and one per day. One was the chocolate tour from above and the other was the monkey mangrove tour. The other days we were either taking Spanish lessons at Academia Tica, or just lounging and relaxing at the resort. Even on the days we hung back, we still would go out for lunch and take walks around the town. Life moves at a slower pace now.

My 2020 Costa Rica squad!

I noticed we also had to be very cognizant of time. Whenever we looked for an excursion, we had to consider if Henry could withstand being on “go mode” for X amount of hours. His max is about four to six hours, which is pretty freaking good for a baby. If a parent is reading, work your way up to this slowly! We also had to consider safety and be realistic. Would I have loved to visit Isla Tortuga again? Yes.

Beach time with my family!

However, realistically, could I imagine taking my 10 month old on a catamaran ride for two hours each way? No. Can I imagine us being stuck on an island all day long with no way of getting back if Henry was cranky, sick, or we ran out of food? No. So, it wasn’t so much about NOT doing so much as it was adjusting what we do and how we do it. 

Night Life Then

We went to the few bigger bars and clubs that Jaco had to offer. For some reason they all seem to be colors…”Orange” or “Blu.” I don’t recall being too wild and crazy, but I remember the freedom of being able to have four of five drinks with no responsibilities in the morning other than excursions. Flash forward, for a moment, to 2020. We took taxis everywhere at night at the advice of our concierge. Jaco can be pretty sketchy at night. For that reason I was shocked at remembering how we would walk around at night – sometimes late at night – to different clubs and bars. Although I do remember one night of piling into a taxi cab, barely fitting, and DEFINITELY no seat belts being worn. 

Late night drinks and tacos!

Nightlife Now

On our trip to Costa Rica – we turned in fairy early – usually by 10:00. I’ll be honest with you right now…I FUCKING LOVE IT. There is no greater joy than collapsing into clean sheets after spending all day in the sun. I didn’t long for one bit for being out until 2 in the morning and spending the next day sick from a hangover. 

Margaritas and dinner while baby sleeps

That is not to say we spent every evening in our polo sweaters playing checkers. We were still able to enjoy all of the “adult” things that we like. We drank margaritas, caught a lot of live music, walked the strip, and bullshitted over beers and greasy food on the beach. Henry slept through most of this and we were able to have legitimate adult time. 

A margarita and a banana daiquiri
Drinks for mom and dad during happy hour

What I Learned

I will always cherish the memories I made as a young woman who traveled the world. I’m so happy that at an early age, I invested in traveling when many of my peers were content to blow every last dollar at the same bars every weekend. Don’t get me wrong, I did plenty of that before I saw the light – but I got out early. My travels were full of time to do whatever I wanted without a care in the world beyond seeing everything on my itinerary and nursing a hangover.

Another high quality photo of me at Arenal volcano

Things are different now, but I have to be honest – not so much so. For the most part, when we travel, we are still able to do everything we want. We’ve still been able to eat out at restaurants, go on excursions, and engage in local culture and unique experiences. I now have the added benefit of seeing the world through the most innocent and excited eyes. I’m so grateful to get to share so much of the world and travel with him and my husband. Both trips to Costa Rica were so very memorable. I hope I will get to go back someday, I’m sure I will. Life is long. Arthur and I talk about retiring in Costa Rica. Maybe! Who knows? Writing this piece has been refreshing. It was really eye opening for me to see how my trips to Costa Rica from then to now have changed.

A late night dinner with Henry (dad somewhere in the background)