Andi, Tory, Aden and I, along with Andi's mom Janie, hopped on an airplane in Minneapolis early Tuesday morning and traveled seven hours south to Liberia, Costa Rica. From there, we rented a car and drove three more hours to a small town called El Castillo situated in the heart of the Costa Rican rainforest overlooking Lake Arenal. That's where we'll stay until Saturday, then we'll head to the beach for another four days of blissful vacation.
Ten hours of travel might seem like a nightmare with a four-year-old and two-year-old in tow, but Tory and Aden have been fabulous companions on our trip. With three adults along, it's fairly simple to tackle luggage transport and supervise the kids. Our airplane ride was smooth sailing compared to our last trips to Mexico, especially since Tory and Aden were seated comfortably in their car seats (aka: not seated on our laps).
Andi promised Tory she could have ice cream everyday in Costa Rica so the minute we landed on the tarmac she turned to Aden with a sparkle in her eye and said, "This is the place we get to eat ice cream EVERY DAY." Oh, travel through the eyes of a child ...
The first part of our drive from Liberia to Canas, Costa Rica was smooth sailing. Andi prepped Janie and I for bumpy dirt roads with limited signage based on his past experience, but we were surprised to find most of our car journey to be paved two-lane highway. In Canas, the road began to climb in elevation, and our environment quickly changed as we looped around Lake Arenal on a tight two-lane road. We drove up! up! up! (or, more like around! around! around! a curve) for two straight hours. My amazing husband drove the entire way dodging motorcycles, dogs, people on foot, and even cars parked right in the middle of the lane. Did I mention it was raining and pitch-black outside? Talk about stressful. We were all thankful for Aden's levity when he broke into song the last 20 minutes of our trip. The ABC's sung by a two-year-old never sounded so good. Hungry and exhausted, our crew finally arrived at Nepenthe Bed + Breakfast around 6:30pm that evening.
Andi grabbed take-out from the on-site restaurant called Agustino's and after we unloaded our bags from the car, we chowed down on fresh guacamole, a cucumber and tomato salad, fried rice, chicken fingers and french fries. We were all beat from a long day of travel, so we headed to bed shortly afterwards.
Our family is renting the owner's house at Nepenthe. Typically, guests stay in smaller one bedrooms with a kitchenette, but our big house features 3-bedrooms, 2-bathrooms, a full kitchen, living room, dining room, sun room and a bar area along with sweeping views of Lake Arenal. The house is located next to the main building on property where breakfast is served every morning. We also have our own private pool and a coup full of chickens as next door neighbors. Tory and Aden love feeding the chicken scraps of food, but none of us particularly love the cock-a-doodle-do's heard from 4:00am - 6:00am!
Wednesday, the five of us woke up feeling fresh after a good night's rest. Breakfast wasn't served in the restaurant until 8:30am (and we all know kids are up waaaay before that) so Andi, Tory, Aden, Janie and I decided to take a drive around El Castillo to familiarize ourselves with the surroundings. We hadn't seen much on our drive in the evening prior since it was dark and raining.
The town of El Castillo is a small village located 35 minutes west of the more popular town, La Fortuna, in the area. There are a handful of local family restaurants in El Castillo, a small market with grocery essentials, and a few other bed + breakfast hotels. I think it's safe to say, all five of us had the same reaction: WOW! The scenery around us is absolutely breathtaking. We are nestled in the heart of the rain forest. Everything is so lush and green ... and wet!
We returned to Nepenthe (climbing the steep, bumpy dirt road by SUV) and enjoyed a hearty homemade breakfast of fresh fruit, pancakes, sausage and fried plantains. One of Tory's resolutions in 2016 is "try new things" (self-prescribed), and I was so proud of her for trying plantains and guava fruit for the first time. She didn't like the plantains, but enjoyed the guava fruit and that's a big win for our picky eater.
At breakfast, we also met the owner of the bed + breakfast and chatted with a few other guests staying at Nepenthe. Andi picked up a few activity recommendations from the property manager and we watched in amazement as the cook summoned in a parrot from the trees and fed it a breakfast of fruit and pancakes on the table. Wednesday was already shaping up to be an interesting day!
This particular area in Costa Rica is known for its natural geothermal hot springs. After breakfast, we decided to drive to nearby La Fortuna to check out the town and visit one of the hot springs in the area. Aden fell asleep during the 30 minute car ride, so we stopped by the grocery store first and bought some snacks and fruit to munch on back at the house. Visiting the local grocery store is one of my favorite things to do on vacation. It's so interesting to see what products are available, what's similar to back home and what's unique to the area. Tory was amazed by the pink and blue-colored marshmallows and identified a pack of Oreo's to share with Aden right away.
Next, we visited a natural hot springs near La Fortuna. There are actually two hot springs in the area: one is free of charge but has no changing area or bathroom (it's basically a natural hot springs off the side of the road); or, a second one with more modern amenities and $35/pp. We decided to check out the free hot springs first to see if it was even something we could do with the kids. We parked our car and climbed down a slope hill to discover a mix of locals and tourists soaking themselves in the rapids. Except, rapids they were. The fast-moving current seemed too dangerous for the kids, so Andi found another entrance on the other side of the road with calmer water. We had to off-road on foot a bit to get there, but once we hiked down a path and into the trees, an opening cleared with the most amazing scene and in that moment, it hit me: we were in the Costa Rican rain forest!
The water was as warm bath water and bubbly like a hot tub. The calming rapids soothingly massaged against our skin as we sat on the rocky bottom. It was unlike anything I'd ever seen or done before! Our dare-devil little boy, Aden, begged us to let him swim down the small waterfall into rougher water. Then he noticed a group of guys cruising down the rapids on an intertube. Aden's eyes lit as he shouted, "I want that!" over and over. That's when we knew our time at the hot springs had come to an end.
Wet and hungry, we hopped back in the car and drove toward our rented house at Nepenthe. On the way, we stopped for lunch at La Ventanita Cafe. Andi ordered a tico bowl, cheese quesadilla and wrap de pollo for our group to share. A local woman cooked the food to order while her children homeschooled in the back room. We ate and enjoyed the peacefulness of dining outdoors in the jungle.
Afterwards, we stopped by the town market for ice cream. A dad has to live up to his promise: ice cream everyday! As Tory and Aden sat on a bench together outside the market, a crowd of local men smiled onto them. Our two kiddos were having such a great time together as they sat under an awning, rain falling around them, eating their ice cream.
Next, we headed back to Nepenthe for a little rest time. Both kids were tired, but neither were giving into the idea of an afternoon nap. We laid low for a while and watched two episodes of Curious George on Spanish television before we eventually decided to pull on our rain jackets and go for a walk around the property.
Here's the thing about vacationing in the rain forest: it rains - A LOT. Like, it hasn't stopped raining since we got here. The air is warm and humid and everything around us is wet. Honestly though, I don't mind it. We came to the rain forest to be in the rain forest. Andi, Janie and I want to make the most of every moment we're here, so we all dress for the weather and get out there to explore!
Aden, in particular, is enjoying his time in the rain. He stomps in every muddy puddle he comes across, and hides under big banana leaf branches. Nevermind the fact his shoes are constantly wet since it takes so long to air-dry things here.
As we returned to the house after our walk, we ran into the property's gardener. He was carrying two pieces of fruit he'd just picked off a tree and we asked him what they were. Unable to communicate with English he said, "naranja," and handed them to us to take. "Gracias," we said and immediately took them back to the house to eat.
The given fruit were oranges; more firm than ones we're used to seeing at home, also more tart and more juicy ... but equally delicious. Andi cut an orange into slices and the five of us sat on our patio and ate them with sweeping views of Lake Arenal around us. Pinch me, it was perfect!
Overall, we had a wonderful first day in Costa Rica. I'm excited to see what adventures unfold during our next three days in the rain forest!