Costa Rica: Adventures in Swinging in the Trees
By Kathy Chin Leong

 "One night we were sitting outside at the resort during 'happy hour' when we saw one tree rustle, and then another. And then all of a sudden out of the trees came thirty spider monkeys running around the whole place. It was like watching a show right before our eyes. They were not dangerous but very entertaining."   For Brenda Vinnicombe of Los Altos, this scene was one of the highlights of the family's trip to Costa Rica.

Last November, Brenda, her husband Bill, and three teenagers flew with her younger sister for an adventure-filled expedition that lasted 10 days. For the Vinnicombes, the trip has created memories that will last a lifetime as the clan zip-lined through rainforests, learned to surf in emerald seas, and talked to howling monkeys in the tropics.

WHERE TO START

Once the secret of naturalists and scientists, Costa Rica is becoming one of the world's hottest international destinations. This Latin American country now lists tourism as its Number One moneymaker, and it's easy to see why. Costa Rica is an outdoor lover's dream. Rainforest hikes, kayaking and rafting, ancient ruins, volcanoes, exotic and rare birds, monkeys of every variety...

Within the past ten years, travelers have unearthed a  tropical paradise, and now the country is responding with high-rise hotels, resorts, and golf courses while protecting its environment. Many outfits are hawking eco-tours and offering competitive vacation packages.

Traveland.com , for one, currently advertises a $799 special for 8 days and 7 nights to Costa Rica. But read the fine print, and you'll find limited travel dates, and after taxes and additional fees, it actually costs $1,000 per person if you fly out from San Francisco.  For a family of four, consider that $4,000 for hotel, transportation, and touring fees compared to a trip to Hawaii, which can run about the same, or a little less.

Like Hawaii, the flight to San Jose, Costa Rica takes about five hours if you go direct, notes Brenda. You don't need any immunizations, but each person does need a passport.

While her sister who used to teach in Costa Rica escorted the Vinnicombes throughout the land, Brenda says the country is very easy to get around by car alone. According to Brenda, distances between tourist sites are not far, but the potholes on small roads are plentiful.

In fact, Costa Rica's  small footprint enables tourists to hit all the highlights in a week.  "Costa Rica is very safe, modern, and very clean," she observes. "It is not a grimy country. People are industrious and well educated." 

Once tourists land in San Jose, it's largest and most popular airport, the rest is up to them. There are so many things to see and experience, Brenda says they were lucky that her sister was able to steer them to all the fun places they wanted to visit. The family wanted a lot of beach activity so the Vinnicombes stayed primarily on the Pacific Ocean-side of the country. "We all wanted to see monkeys and volcanoes and go surfing. It was all beautiful," she says.


FAVORITES

In the town of Arenal, they witnessed an active volcano that was steaming.  The family stayed at the base and dipped into natural hot springs and pools.

Near Arenal, the members each braved the  zip-line, a steel cable that connects one mountain to another. Passengers don a helmet and harness, and off they go "zipping" from tree to tree. In this case, the zip-line adventure consisted of at least 15 zips through the rainforest. During the hour and a half of zipping and hiking, they saw flying creatures of every color, large spiders and scorpions. And to Brenda's relief, no snakes. "There were huge bugs the size of your hand, but during this time of year, mosquitoes were not a problem."

According to Brenda, the zip-line is a common tourist activity in Costa Rica. Horseback riding through the rainforest is another one which they also enjoyed.

Beaches in Costa Rica are bath water warm and as sapphire as the gemstone. At Tamarindo Beach , the Vinnecombes hired a surf instructor for the entire family.  "We had to stay away from this special estuary," notes Barb, "because we didn't want to lose ourselves to the crocodiles."

The beach is also home to many giant sea turtles. On the day they went, a sea turtle was stuck on land and needed to go back to the ocean. The family helped local rangers push the creature to the sea, an adventure in itself.

On another day, the family hired a tour guide to see wildlife. They went on a boat near Tamarindo, then hiked through the forest where they saw howler monkeys. The guide explained to the family in order to talk to the monkeys they had to howl. The Vinnicombes called out to the monkey tribes huddled in the treetops and were delighted when they answered.

Another popular destination in the country is Manuel Antonio National Park , cited often in the guidebooks.  When the Vinnicombes went, they were amazed to see this beach and rainforest terrain covered with multi-colored birds and white-faced Capuchin monkeys. Sitting on the beach, Brenda recalls seeing throngs of monkeys come and comb the beach for food, sauntering right up to tourists on their blankets. "One guy was eating, and then a monkey jumped up, took his sandwich and ran." 

The family definitely saw and experienced their share of animals. Right outside their hotel window, they saw a pair of sloths with a baby sloth which was a rarity.

UNPLANNED ADVENTURES

Some highlights were not planned, and the surprises gave everyone a jolt. On the drive to Manual Antonio National Park,  Brenda says the old bridges were rickety, and the kids could see the crocodiles in the waters below. They drove across cautiously. Recalls Brenda,  "It added a fun and exciting component  to the trip."

The oldest daughter Laura, 15,  had wanted to play soccer with the local kids even though in Costa Rica the girls are not encouraged to play sports. One day at the park, she was able to communicate with some boys that she wanted to get a soccer game going. Within minutes, one of the boys emerged with a soccer ball, and the Vinnicombe kids had a scrimmage. Laura's wish was fulfilled.

And since November is the end of the wet season, torrential rains poured down in sheets off and on during the afternoons. It was unpredictable, notes Brenda, but pleasant.  "It didn't last a long time, and there were many thunder and lightening storms.  It sounded like those tapes of nature sounds, but this was real."

For Brenda, a personal highlight was sitting on the hotel balcony and simply being still, listening to the rumble of a tropical storm rolling in. "It was gorgeous. I could hear the animals and all the monkeys."

At home where these animals are only found in zoos, in Costa Rica, she reveled in the fact that they were only outside her hotel doorstep. "All the sounds and smells...it was like being in a tropical (movie) set."

WHEN TO GO

Brenda recommends going to Costa Rica during Thanksgiving, for the weather is perfect, and compared to the spring, travelers can find  great deals on food and hotels.  During the trip, inland areas were in the 70s and in the 80s on the beaches, never oppressive in heat. Between November and May is considered the warm and drier season in Costa Rica.

"Everywhere we went, there were no crowds," she says.  One very nice dinner in town, she remembers, cost only $40 for six people. 

Her favorite hotel was the luxurious Tamarindo Diria , located on the beach. It was safe enough, she notes, so that her kids could wander into town by themselves in the day.

However, thievery is big in Costa Rica, and while pickpocketing is not as common as it is in Europe, breaking into cars is rampant. "Things will get stolen if you leave things out," says Brenda.
  
WHAT NOT TO EXPECT
 
As an American, Costa Rica is a relatively easy country to travel through. People are polite, friendly, and warm, she says. 

And compared to the United States, service in general seemed to lag, she adds. "The pace of life is slower and everything seems slower."

The food they ate was good, but not exceptional, she adds. Seafood, however, is great because they were on the coast.  Tropical fruits such as papaya and mango are also a sweet treat. Italian fare is also a very popular option.

Folks used to big city adventures will be disappointed. High-end shopping, art galleries and museums, and fancy restaurants are not part of the scene, at least not yet. There is very little in terms of culture compared to other more developed countries, she notes. People who love to dress up will be disillusioned as well. The country is very casual, so you can leave the suit and ties at home.
 
For now, the Vinnicombes are happy with their photos and memories. "You go to Costa Rica for the experience and the beauty of the environment," says Brenda.  The three teenagers, plus the parents, had an opportunity to do what each really wanted. "There were are places we definitely want to go back and see. It was very satisfying. At the end of ten days, we all felt like we got the best of Costa Rica."

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WHEN YOU GO, BE SURE TO...

  • Bring your umbrella and binoculars.
  • Bring lots of casual clothes, fancy duds not necessary.
  • Pack good walking shoes.
  • Go with an open attitude; food is slightly different than what you are used to in the U.S.
  • Be willing to rough it a little.
  • Be aware people drive very fast, and the roads are not all smooth.
  • Purposely build in down time for rest.

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