Following my bliss, inspite of myself

When I was young my mother used to talk to me about “following my bliss.” It was eye-roll worthy in the most adolescent way. I was a pragmatist and a realist and cynical and tough. I did not do bliss-following. I didn’t care if Joseph Campbell was some sort of genius. If my mother suggested it, it could not possibly be a good idea.

I still have a slightly allergic response to the phrase, perhaps because it just sounds so…mushy. I do not do yoga. I do not meditate. I do Useful Things and am Very Efficient. I am a planner; I always think wayyyyyy ahead. Following your bliss sounds like something a long haired hippy does while wandering barefoot through a field of wildflowers. The very image makes me itch. Who does that? There are chiggers and ticks and copperheads and how do you plan for health care needs or retirement just chasing bliss (whatever that is) wherever it leads?

Yet when I sat down to write this post about gardening (yup, that’s where this was headed. We get there eventually), I was surprised to find I had misrepresented my own story…to myself. My biggest and best life-altering decisions had, in fact, been made by following my gut when it was in sync with my heart, which is really the crux of what Campbell meant about following your bliss.

When I was 21 my then-boyfriend and I planned to walk the Camino de Santiago during the summer. Five hundred miles in 28 days across northern Spain. He was from the Basque Country and had walked parts of the Camino with his own father as a teenager. We trained together, walking 15 or 20 miles in a day along the roads and paths in our town. Then he found out he couldn’t get the time off from his lab. It was terrifying, but I decided to go by myself. It had become something I needed to do.

On the way to Spain I was robbed of everything I owned except my backpack of clothes and gear for the Camino. After a harrowing adventure securing a new passport and ticket with no identification and no money, I finally arrived…and promptly came down with the worst stomach virus I’ve ever had. I was forced to seek refuge with my boyfriend’s family, the only people I knew in the whole country. After 5 days in bed I had  lost all the stamina built up from months of training. His mother nudged me out of the house to walk around the village and I was exhausted and ready to crawl back in bed after ten minutes. But there was no more time. I had to go or not; I couldn’t postpone indefinitely. The trip had an end date.

I convinced my boyfriend’s sister to drop me off at the tiny village of Roncesvalles at the French border with no money, no cell phone, no credit card, and my insides glued together with Fortasec. I got up at 5am and walked 15 miles the next day. Other pilgrims offered me food because they thought my diet of plain bread was due to lack of money, which was also true. The first day a couple from Barcelona saw my feet and showed me how to sew a loop of thread through a blister after treating it with iodine in order to keep walking without getting an infection.

Going alone was the best thing I could have done. I saw in ways I would not have with a partner and interacted with others in ways I would not have, had I gone with company. The people I met became dear friends. Those 28 days remain the most formative of my entire life. It was–literally and figuratively–a moment of choosing a path, and one that would have been so, so easy to say no to.

Three years later, I made another unlikely, uncomfortable, path-shifting decision. I was about to move to Chicago to work with an amazing scholar in a PhD program I was deeply excited about. I had found a roommate and we were apartment shopping. But I had just fallen in love with a hometown boy. After two weeks dating we knew. He was going to commute between North Carolina and Chicago to be with me while I was in graduate school. I was on my path!

And then one day I was out for a run and, on the side of a busy road, I just stopped. My life with this person was the path. Why was I continuing on the old path as if nothing had changed?

I decided in that moment to stay in my home town and not go off to school. I felt my brain doing somersaults. All my plans and expectations shifted in the blink of an eye. A week later we moved in together. He was so excited he promised never to eat fast food again–a promise he has mostly kept (except on our wedding day when his friends kidnapped him and took him to Bojangles).

I thought everyone would think I was crazy. Mostly they did. I had to arrange a meeting with my most beloved professor and tell him why I wasn’t going off to school, despite the wonderful letter he’d written me and all his advocacy on my behalf. He encouraged me to apply to the local R1 universities and find a way to make it work if graduate school was still what I really wanted (it was and I did).

I worried that my mother would worry about me giving up my life plans for a man. It was just about the least feminist thing a girl could do. But I should have known. My mother smiled and hugged me and said “I wondered whether you might consider staying.” She for sure figured I was following my bliss, but probably knew better than to say it.

I do not look back on these experiences and tell myself I should be a more impetuous and spontaneous person. They do not make me want to buy an open ended ticket to somewhere wild and hope it works out. Most of what has gone well in my life has been the result of good planning and research. But when it came to getting the really big, scary decisions “right,” planning and research only got me part way there.

There have been big decisions since then: choosing to have a baby while in graduate school, asking my family to uproot itself and travel with me for my dissertation, choosing to finish my program even after realizing that I did not want a career until after my children were bigger (if then), choosing not to work for money, having another baby…but all of these life choices were less loaded because the overall trajectory seemed “right.” The stakes were lower because of these pivotal moments where I gave myself permission to find out how strong and capable I really was and take a chance on what I really wanted.

What got me thinking about my mom’s well worn advice to follow my bliss was my gardening problem (told you we’d get here eventually).

Today I went to visit the backyard of our old house, which I fenced off when we let go of the house and moved further out of town. My gardening makes no sense. It is a liability. I spend way too much time on it, and when I am honest with myself I know this to be actually, truly true. My partner is more supportive than I could ask for and only periodically complains that on the weekends he doesn’t see me. I don’t need him to point out that paying for childcare so you can grow food is inefficient. Or that when I say “I just need to go grab a couple of herbs for dinner” it is for sure going to be at least half an hour. Or that maintaining a second large garden 15 minutes away from where we live is ridiculous. I tell myself and everyone else that it’s to save money, to be more self sufficient. None of that is untrue, but well, it kind of is.

What is real is that I don’t listen to the radio when I drive out there because my mind needs empty space. When I open the fence and stoop under the branches of the huge magnolia and into my secret garden, full of song birds and color, everything else disappears and my burdens fall away. Today I worked for three hours in a drenching rain. I worked until my fingers hurt. I didn’t think about anything except pulling weeds and planting sweet potatoes. It’s rare that I get alone time in the garden because I’m with my kids full time. When I head home after gardening alone it’s like coming up for air after being underwater for a long time.

I am not a religious person, or even especially spiritual. I find dirt and stars amazing and that’s enough wonder for a lifetime. I still don’t do yoga or meditate. Campbell suggests that doors will open to your path when you find your “sacred space” and give your mind uncluttered room to connect with your soul. I find it hard to get past all the mysticism, but once I do I can see the moments in my life when I’ve been in that place.

The long hours of solitude on the Camino were a concentrated dose of what I’d attained in fleeting moments throughout my childhood. Dancing vigorously. Doing physically arduous yard work for my dad. Sitting in the silent woods behind my mom’s trailer in winter. Playing hide and seek with my sister in the corn field across the road. Nights around a campfire in the mountains. The natural world and empowering physical effort were clearly at the heart of this. But now I’m busy so often I no longer make these opportunities for myself. Except that I’ve found a way: in my garden.

I’ve been “following my bliss” without realizing it, in spite of my disdain for the concept. I would call my mama to laugh about it together, but I think she already knows. Maybe I will anyway.

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Maximizing the Magic: Harry Potter World with kids

We are super not theme park people. Neither my husband nor I have ever been to Disney anything, nor have any desire to go with our children…for a number of reasons (being feminists, coming from a Jewish family, coming from a communist family, coming from a poor family…there are probably a few more). But Harry Potter is near and dear to me and so many of our friends loved their Harry Potter world experience without reservation (and we could do the hotel, hotel food, flights, and admission with reward points), so we decided to give it a shot.

We have literally never heard a bad thing about it, except for the lines. We thought we had nailed it by going in the off season. Unfortunately, as clueless homeschoolers who pay no attention to the school calendar, we didn’t realize it was spring break until too late. Even with the extra bustle, it was just about one of the most fun things I’ve ever done with my family.

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one of several spots where wands purchased at ollivander’s can perform real spells and make magic.

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I got my yummy butter beer and pumpkin juice here where the lines were shorter. a very tired looking mom of 3 got in line and asked me, very seriously, at 10:30am “but do they have REAL beer??!!” oh yes. oh yes they do.

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There are some excellent posts out there that helped us prepare for our early April excursion to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter (here, here, and here). I won’t reinvent the wheel. Here are the extra tidbits we learned and things we loved, plus the WHY of why some of those travel tips we got mattered, or didn’t.

  • Stay in the park. Because we were booking a rewards trip with credit card points, we did not have this option. But next time we will choose a hotel in the park, regardless. While the Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress is one of the nicest hotels in Orlando, it’s 20 minutes away. We spent a lot of time driving, dropping off, picking up, and paid a lot for parking. The hotel shuttle times were infrequent and inconvenient so that part of our plan was a bust. We did not end up wanting to explore Orlando in our down time, so next time we’ll also forego the rental car, which staying in the park would allow us to do. The money would be a wash.
  • The non-transferability of tickets is for realz. To save money, we only bought a ticket for my husband and 6 year old. We thought the one and a half year old’s needs would dominate the experience and it was a birthday trip for our big kid. I was going to hang out at the hotel pool with the baby. But if your spouse gets sick and you show up to see if you can use your spouse’s ticket, there won’t be much they can do, though they will try. We knew tickets weren’t transferable, but everything online was about people trying to sell them. We thought, with the same name and to accompany a child who can’t go alone, they might be able to do it. Guest Services was amazing and in the end they helped me buy a highly discounted one day ticket, but their computer system literally will not let them make changes like that. The physical space is designed to accommodate everyone–they really want it to be easy and fun–so next time we’ll get tickets for everyone and take the baby.
  • Get a multi-day pass. This trip will be expensive no matter what. If you want it to be memorable with kids, getting a multi-day pass is key. Three days was perfect (we deal hunted and got the 3rd day free and the whole thing discounted). The first day you are learning the ropes. You will make mistakes, miss things, and figure out what you really want from the experience. Because you have a third day, the second day will probably be the best. It’s low pressure, you can take your time just going with the flow. This was our magic memory day, and it would have been enough, but we couldn’t have done it without a buffer day on either side. The third day was for doing whatever was left.
  • Go morning AND night. Everything we read said to go first thing in the morning. This is kind of true for like 30-60 minutes at the very beginning. But if you are chasing small kids who aren’t going to do the scary rides anyway, the lines are hard to predict and sometimes ebb and flow in odd ways, so it may not matter as much. There are a lot of people all the time, just be ready. The waiting times app was super helpful. What’s guaranteed is that being there midday blows. It’s hot, your kids are tired, and it’s the busiest time. I think people don’t suggest evening with kids because they think it’s a non-starter. But if they’ll nap and you can let the schedule shift, it’s worth it to go in the evening. Everything there is more magical in the late afternoon light–the smoke from the Hogwart’s Express, the view of the castle, the shows in Diagon Alley. Our best day was the day we were all there together from 4-8:30pm. Those are the memories that tingle (seriously, the place tingles).
  • Enjoy the lack of drunks…and drink the beer. Universal has this figured out. Yes, they serve alcohol, but don’t be afraid to hang out with kids until closing. Their one person-one drink policy likely helps. And they take it seriously. Like, when your husband is standing beside you holding a squirming toddler they will not let you walk off with a beer for each of you. But if you look like you might cry they will get someone to carry your drinks for you. Which leads us to…Drink the house draughts. There are different house brews at the Three Broomsticks and the Leaky Cauldron. They are really good. Please do not order Newcastle.
  • Expect and enjoy awesome service in the park. We interacted with many Universal staff people every visit and we never had anything but stellar experiences. They take their time with you, and somehow it never seems onerous if you are waiting while they take their time with someone else. When your kid buys a wand they will, with a straight face, ask them how old they are to be sure they aren’t using an anti-aging spell. At the Knight Bus the driver will chat for several minutes and take pictures with you. At Guest Services (which is Universal Studios, not HP specific) during our admissions debacle, the sweet and fabulous young woman talked with my son about Harry Potter, pretended to be levitated by his well executed Wingardium Leviosa spell, made him a birthday name tag and gave us 4 passes to bypass lines because it had been such a hard morning. When part of the back patio of the Leaky Cauldron was closed off (by gentle people, no gates or barriers) for a special party, we chatted with the staff as we tried to keep our over-sugared kids out of the area. They nonchalantly told us it was the CEO of Universal Studios Japan. We apologized for our kids being super wild, they said “no worries, they are having fun and that’s the point.” Everyone we asked for help was cheerful and all about making the experience awesome for the kids. No one will ruin this for you. There were even pee-free toilet seats every time we needed to go. I am hard to impress, and I was impressed.
  • Don’t take little kids on the rides. Despite what park staff may tell you, none of these rides are really for young kids. Especially if your kid is on a diet of limited screen time and doesn’t play video games on a big screen tv. It will be sensory overload. Two different staff people told us the Gringotts ride would be fine for our just-turned 6 year old because there was only 1 drop and it wasn’t that fast. These things are very subjective. Our kid is adventuresome and not afraid, but it was too much. He didn’t get upset or freak out, but he didn’t have fun. The rides are awesome, use the kid swap rooms and you’ll enjoy it a lot more.
  • Budget time and energy for getting in and out. It takes a good 20-30 minutes just to go through security and get to Diagon Alley/Hogsmeade. It will seem twice as long when your big kid is exhausted and wants to be carried.
  • Don’t be afraid to take a stroller. They’ll help you with it on the train and it may save your life. Carrying anything more than nothing requires using the lockers for the rides anyway, so you might as well take what you need.
  • Take snacks and water. As long as you don’t have coolers or big cold bags it’s fine. There are often long lines for food and it’s pricey (but pretty good in Harry Potter world). You can Uber to the grocery store when you arrive in Orlando and still save money.
  • Give your child a budget. Our son took his own saved up allowance and birthday money to spend. We gave him $10 a day to spend at the park. He managed it all himself and we were hassled to buy things exactly zero times. We set that expectation months in advance so he’d have time to save, but kept the per diem as a surprise. It worked like a charm.
  • Go between spring break and summer vacation, or just after schools start in the fall. There are hurricanes in the fall, it’s busy at Christmas, the southern hemisphere comes in January, Daytona events mob the park in February and March, spring breaks are all over the place around Easter…but there’s a sweet spot in late April/early May before summer, and again just after school starts in September (but obviously don’t go Memorial or Labor Day weekends). Try to go during the week, this is so much better than school!

We had a million small things not go right on our trip, but none of them were the park. It was so, so good. You will not be disappointed.

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Costa Rica: Tulemar with Kids

I’ve written several posts about our trip to Costa Rica this winter. It’s hard to say forcefully enough what a beautiful country it is and how exceptionally friendly it is for families. Because it was a rewards-points-financed vacation, we stayed at more resort-y places than we otherwise would have. But Tulemar is basically the perfect resort for people who don’t like resorts.

The Gist of It

Tulemar is ranked the #2 resort in the world for families on Trip Advisor, and for good reason. It is an incredible combination of a full service hotel with a much more private and natural setting than a big resort, as well as more space. The staff are lovely and, like everywhere else we’ve been in Costa Rica, great with children. The beach is glorious and the wildlife is better than what you’ll see while chasing tired small people around Manuel Antonio National Park. There are a few things that were a challenge with a toddler, but for this region and this type of tourism, it is definitely the best place out there.

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Our Stay

Tulemar Bungalows were built in the 1980s on a 33 acre property overlooking one of the secluded crescent shaped beaches typical of the southern Pacific coast of Costa Rica.

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Tulemar beach

They are in the process of updating the bungalows with microwaves and full fridges and flat screens (though why anyone would stay here and want to watch TV I can’t imagine, but regardless it’s tastefully done). The bungalows are the most economical option of the properties that are part of Tulemar/Buena Vista, though still not cheap (we did the trip on Barclay Arrival reward points and stayed in Bungalow #114).

The shared amenities of the community are great. There’s the main pool and restaurant, side by side. That pool is often busier and not as good for families as there is no shallow end. But there is a family pool a short walk downhill. Or you can call the shuttle, which will take you anywhere at any time (and the shuttle drivers are wonderful with kids). The family infinity pool has a couple of fun features including a waterfall, a separate toddler pool, and ledges most of the way around. There were other families there every time we visited, which was nice since we were all ready to exchange children by then.

Mostly, though, the ocean. We didn’t even visit the pools until we’d spent two full days at the beach and were tired. I’ll get to the beach in a minute. You can walk down but do not try to take a stroller or walk the real little ones, it’s steep and too long for them. But the shuttle will pick you up and drop you off. You can also order food on the courtesy phones from any of the pools, your room, or the beach and they’ll bring it down. On the weekends they set up a restaurant down at the beach and you can eat and watch the sunset. It was a hot mess with our toddler but no one cared and we had a lovely time. The food is great.

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you learned that the stroller was a no go, but mama still thinks we should use our own feet. buahahahaha. too bad you can’t hear whining in a photograph

The bungalows are awesome for families. There’s a trundle bed in the living room, enough room for kids to spread out their crap, and the bedroom has plenty of space. The spaciousness and view are where Tulemar beats even the nicest rooms of a fancy resort, hands down. Monkeys climb on the roof (and might try to come right in the window if you open it) and birds perch on trees right outside. The look out over the ocean is breath taking.

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his quiet time spot

A few things to look out for with kids. If you are anything like us and don’t let housekeeping in until you can’t live in the room any longer, and then have to clean and put the furniture back in place before they can come in, well you can’t do that here. Because you can’t throw toilet paper in the toilet (you can in big, new installations, but that’s an exception, this is the norm), you really do want them to come every day because you don’t want to be in a tropical forest with dirty toilet paper ripening for more than a day.

If you have a small toddler, there are a few inconveniences, but none of them were that big a deal. The beds are attached to the headboard and can’t be moved. I’m sure hotel managers don’t want to think about people pulling the furniture around, but if IMG_20160206_164853527_HDRyou’ve traveled with small children you know that making a big family bed is sometimes the only way to sleep. There are also no high places in the bungalows. The counters are low everywhere. So when your toddler decides that dumping the potty trash is awesome, you may find yourself setting it up on top of the bathroom light array to get it out of reach. Just remember to get it back down before you need to use the bathroom :).

Finally, if you have a child that gets up horribly early in the morning, there just isn’t anywhere to go to let everyone else keep sleeping. It’s dark and you are in the middle of the jungle. People will be at the restaurant doing stuff by 6am and you could watch them and get in their way, which they will be very generous and sweet about, but what will you do for the 2 hours before that? Again, not a big deal but different from staying in a hotel where there are things open and happening 24 hours a day.

Basically, Tulemar is wonderful for families, but just a smidge adventurous with a very small toddler. It’s in the mountains on the side of a cliff, so everything is climbing up and down. You will be carrying the toddler a lot and they will fall a lot. We don’t care about the falling. The carrying was also no big deal for our friends with normal sized children, but since our 20 month is the size of a 3.5 year old, we called the shuttle a lot more than we might have otherwise. Ultimately, there are very few places in the world besides your own home (if that, let’s be honest)  that are any kind of comfortable to be in with baby-zilla.

Now, let’s get to the good stuff. The beach. Oh my god the beach. The physical beach is amazing but Tulemar also makes it easy to enjoy with kids while still feeling secluded. There is alabaster and jade and agate all over the sand. Every available shell has a hermit crab in it and they flow along the sand, getting out of your way, like a little scuttling wave. The kids were happy for several days just chasing crabs.

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hermit crab fiesta

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There’s a neat circle of rocks that makes a wading pool protected from the waves at low tide. I thought they built it for kids, and was very impressed. But I did some digging and it turns out this land was a Quepoa indigenous settlement about 950 years ago and the pools are turtle traps that have been there nearly a millenium.

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turtle traps of the Quepoa

Parts of the beach are shaded long into the morning, which let us stay out much longer than we otherwise could have. The water is warm and wonderful. There are baby toys, boogie boards, towels and chairs, kayaks for guest use–all free. The rip tide is real and the waves are unpredictable, a feature of this entire coastal area. It’s a big deal, and easy to be overconfident. But if you stay vigilant it’s fine. We took our fearless 20 month old out past the breakers and jumped the swells while he cackled. Our 5 year old wore a puddle jumper and hung out in the surf and breaking waves, hooting and yelling for hours. Luckily we were nearly alone on the beach most of the time.

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All the wildlife you can see (if you are lucky) in Manuel Antonio, you can see at Tulemar. If you have little kids, skip the park and just hang out at Tulemar beach. The gardeners and staff would come get us to show us howler monkeys, sloths, and other critters. They are as knowledgeable and the pace is much more enjoyable. We had an amazing time and would go again in a heartbeat!

 

How to take a responsible Costa Rican mangrove boat tour

A few days ago we (4 adults and 4 kids, 1.5-5yo) went on a boat tour of the Damas Estuary near Manuel Antonio National Park. There are a lot of tours to choose from, but fundamentally you want a place that will tell you NO if you ask to touch the monkeys (or other wildlife).

It’s so tempting to want to participate in the observation, but these rich wildlife habitats are already stressed, so let’s not push it. The guides are also under intense economic pressure to please tourists, so it’s crucial that you, as a visitor, take the lead in setting expectations. Let your guide know from the start that you know it’s not okay to touch the wildlife, particularly not the sociable capuchin monkeys. And don’t pressure them to take you closer for photo ops. If the animals are disturbed, the animals are disturbed. It’s their house and it’s possible to enjoy them without being all up in their business. Take a good camera and a pair of binoculars.

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Sweet bats resting under an old train bridge

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Weeeee!

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Little Whiptail lizard

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Majestic Mangrove Black Hawk, just checking us out

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Egrets

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Beehive

We booked our tour through the concierge at Tulemar Resort and our guide, Jason, was excellent. He had been a rafting wildlife guide for 10 years before starting to do the mangrove tours. The company is called Avenatura and if you are in the area it’s easy to book. The concierge at Tulemar made it clear that the guides only take you out at high tide, so there’s no flexibility with the start time–you go when they go. That’s a first sign to look for when booking your trip. We’ve heard of guides taking people out at low tide when the mangroves were barely navigable.

In our case that meant leaving at noon (naptime!). Jason picked us all up and brought us to a small restaurant hotel just outside the mangrove forest for a delicious lunch before heading in.1-IMG_8578-001

He stopped at the side of the road and grabbed a leaf off a tree. “Costa Rican toilet paper!” He laughed. One side was rough and the other velvety soft. He asked our kids what color the leaf was “olive!” but he smiled and rubbed the leaf between his fingers. When he took his fingers away they were blood red. It was a teak leaf, he explained. The red came from iron and was used by indigenous peoples for paint. Now, as we know, it’s a valuable export wood for all kinds of other reasons.

We talked local politics as it was an election day. He answered our pent up questions–why were the buses so much fancier than we’d seen other places in Central America (and honestly, even in the US where public transport in most places is a lame afterthought)? He explained that the Costa Rican government recently began requiring that all buses be from the year 2000 or more recent, and have a set of features and safety standards. As a political science PhD, this was my kind of tour guide!

When we arrived he checked everyone’s shoes and said that, because it was a new moon the water was a foot and a half higher than normal at high tide and the little sand bag pier was a bit under water. Our fearless 5 year old walked out holding Jason’s hand, but the boat figured out how to pull up to shore so we didn’t have to wade.

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Jason made a few too many jokes (for my taste) about us all being eaten by huge snakes if we fell overboard, but was an incredible guide. He had a great sense of humor and was wonderful with the kids. When they got rowdy he said, “eh, it’s pretty shallow, but here’s a picture of the poisonous snake we saw yesterday, that was something we hadn’t seen in a long time” and showed us a little brown snake on his phone.

The wildlife was incredible. There were so many birds! Jason explained the different types of mangrove in the estuary–white, red, and black–and the differences in their appearance. His explanation (all in English) of the way the roots take in salt water, process it, and return the excess, as well as “breath” creatively in low oxygen environments, was eloquent. He talked about the number of species that live in the tropical forests here and in the mangroves, and why maintaining them is so important.

One of the first birds we spotted was a Roseate Spoonbill. Jason said “ooh, it’s been 8 months since we saw those here. Look, there’s the female, that one is the male, see how he’s more apprehensive about us and beginning to posture?” He explained that the babies are born white, but turn pink from eating mollusks.

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Because we were trying to keep our 5 year old from mimicking someone else’s 8 year old who was hitting trees with a long stick and trying to grab the branches, as well as keep our 1.5 year old from jumping overboard to see things, I can’t remember all the names of everything he showed us. As a side note, my husband did not see any wildlife because he was on the toddler while I took photos and managed the big kid. For young toddlers, you’ll have to weigh for yourself whether it’s worth it to take the whole family (also no carseats for the drive out). But it was still one of the coolest things I’ve ever done.

Jason caught a tiger face crab with quick fingers–tiny little thing–and held it up for us to see, then tossed it to a lizard on the shore to convince it to unfreeze so we could spot it.

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This was when I really began to get a sense of the dance these guides do. How to make the experience interesting and memorable for foreign tourists in a way that doesn’t invade too much. We came across another boat full of kids and a few adults where the guide was mashing banana into one person’s hand after another and calling down capuchin monkeys to eat off their hands.

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What your guide should not let you do

Jason said nothing, but did not follow suite. I switched to Spanish and quietly asked. We aren’t supposed to be touching the animals are we? No, he replied, and actually held up a laminated sheet with ten reasons not to feed the monkeys written on it, and began to explain. We have bug spray and sunscreen on our hands. We have our own gut bacteria and microbes. We make them sick. He said “look at that monkey, see how it sniffs the hand before eating? That’s a monkey that’s had a run in with sickness from eating off a human hand before and now knows to smell for things that seem off. It can make them very very ill.” He went on. Some of these monkeys have rabies, so if you get scratched by accident you can also get sick. But they are ultimately in the most danger. He said softly “tourists just always want to feed the monkeys.” And shrugged. I was grateful no one in our group had asked, it was obvious that they face a lot of pressure to please visitors.

As we were starting to get tired (they’ll tailor the length of the trip to your group’s stamina) Jason reached out and grabbed a fern from the bank, laid it on his arm, and asked my 5 year old to slap it. The underside of the fern left a sort of chalky tattoo, it was lovely and the children were thrilled.

The mangrove boat tour was awesome, and we are so glad it was an option and feel lucky that–without knowing ahead of time the environmental issues or thinking it through at all–we landed a responsible guide. There’s so much to see!

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Can you spot the Iguana?

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Heron

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Cherrie’s Tanager

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Great Blue Heron

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Costa Rica: The 10th Day

I am predictably tired of travel by day 10. It’s totally consistent, like a light switch. I’ll be fine and then all of a sudden all I can think about is my garden and my bed at home. It’s hard to think beyond exhaustion when the toddler thinks 4am is a good time to wake up and the kids keep falling out of bed in the middle of the night.

If we had this trip to do over again (which we will do our best to make happen!) we would reverse our two long stays–do Tulemar first and Los Sueños second. Tulemar is in the Manuel Antonio area and the amount of adventuring options is incredible. We couldn’t miss the opportunity to do a few amazing outings. But even without kids several days of that will wear you out. With kids, well, as I write my husband is passed out on the couch while the baby naps and the big kid does quiet time. We are pooped.

Because this is a coastal area with big rocky cliffs overlooking alcove beaches, in a tropical forest, it attracts folks interested in active tourism. Now, toddlers are *interested* in active tourism, except on the uphill parts, when they want to be carried. They are keen to run on slippery rocks at the bottom of waterfalls that you carried them 2 hours on horse back to get to. And kick their horse to trot when they’ve never ridden before.

Almost every single thing we have done has been a ridiculous success–especially given the company–which continues to amaze me. But it would have been strategic to follow this up with 5 days at the flat crazy resort where you just waddle across the lawn to the pool, fall in, and stay there all day. With free childcare. Live and learn.

Today was the closest we’ve been to a fail, and even then only because we had the rest of the trip to compare it to. The baby fell out of bed twice last night (the big kid once the night before) and then got up for the day at 4am. We threw back tiny cups of coffee and tried to pull ourselves together to go to Manuel Antonio National Park. We leave the area tomorrow and after 4 days we still hadn’t been. We were tired and the kids were exhausted after the previous days’ adventures (a full day horse back ride out to Nauyaca waterfall yesterday and boating out in the Mangroves in the heat of the day, at nap time, the day before). But we knew we’d feel regret if we missed it…since we were literally staying on its doorstep.

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Big kid’s first time on a horse!

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Nauyaca falls

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Great Blue Heron in the mangroves

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Mangroves at new moon high tide

Manuel Antonio opens at 7am. We couldn’t find any reliable information on whether or not it was stroller friendly but we were guessing not. The kids kind of ate. It’s all a blur. We sort of packed the diaper bag and trudged out to the car. It was a quick ride. The toddler had accidentally been put in his carseat with a mouth full of cheese toast and had taken it out and stuffed it into the colored pencil case his brother was using to draw Ron Weasley being smashed off his horse in the final chess match of the Sorcerer’s Stone. I hold it up accusingly “what is this?” and he looks at me like I’m a moron. “Num-a-num.”

The entrance to the park is fairly chaotic, but if you are planning to go with small children and you have a sturdy jogging stroller, for the love of everything you hold dear, TAKE IT WITH YOU. The main path is flat and wide, if rocky. Nothing a jogging stroller can’t handle. And the only thing we did right was to go at 7:30am because by the time we rolled out of there, passing out from heatstroke after having to carry both children the entire way (because of course if the 5 year old tells you before you leave the house that he has no interest in going and you make him go anyway and then don’t take the stroller and he is so tired he can barely keep his eyes open…well the mommy guilt for leaving him in the dust in a foreign country when he refuses to walk is not good, so you’ll carry all 60lbs of him), there were lines of sweaty tourists waiting outside the gate. They have a daily quota and by 9am they were maxed out and only letting folks in for each person who left.

We made it to the first main beach, Playa Manuel Antonio, sat panting for half an hour, then went back. We saw two brown throated three-toed sloths, tons of capuchin monkeys, a few howlers, some beautiful blue morpho and postman butterflies, an interesting spider, and a raccoon. It actually makes me feel better about the trip just writing it all down.

The density of easily visible wildlife is considerably greater at Tulemar beach where we’ve been staying, likely because it’s much more secluded. We’ve seen all those lovely critters several times over the past few days. It’s a lot more fun to spot the occasional creature than to hurriedly try to see as much as you can before everyone implodes. And by the time we were leaving at 8:30am, the walkways were totally packed and barely passable and the noise levels were pretty high. The beach is beautiful, but there are lots of beautiful beaches.

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Beautiful big old trees at Playa Manuel Antonio

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Capuchin monkeys are the most outgoing

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“Doo doo-WAH!” as he waves his magic stick

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This raccoon had an ouchy and stopped to rest on the sidewalk

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Termite nest, which we can spot without a guide thanks to the Kratt Brothers

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Brown throated three toed sloth!

This place is gorgeous and amazing…it’s just that there’s lots of gorgeous and amazing in Costa Rica and we were not at our peak capacity for enjoying the scenery. I’m pretty sure I’m the only one that saw the sloths because my husband was blinded by sweat and trying to keep the baby from walking off the edge of the raised walkway (no guard rails). It speaks volumes of the trip as a whole that this was the least successful day.

We limped home to regroup. We did not want to eat the pathetic stuff in our fridge left from 10 days of picking up bites here and there. The baby fell asleep in the car on the way home but woke up screaming when we arrived. Take two! We got back in the car and drove the short way to El Avión, this super cool restaurant with great food where we ate the day we arrived. It was 11am. They don’t open until noon.

First world problems, we can do this! We headed to Café Milagro, a place we’ve been wanting to try but whose two parking spots have always been full. Ah, it was great. Fish tacos, an ingenious kid’s menu that includes a salad with honey on top (what better way to get kids to eat greens? First kid’s menu I’ve ever seen in my life with something green on it). We got a delicious salad with roasted red pepper and avocado with a banana vinaigrette. The baby devoured it, we had to get another one.

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yum.

“Hmmm, honey, does the baby’s face look like it’s getting red again around the mouth?” “It’s just the heat.” No, it’s not the heat. The toddler is having the same contact allergic reaction he had at El Avión when we ate there. It didn’t bother him and went away in 2 hours, but I really wanted to know what it was. Oh look, and this time it’s worse and it went all the way into his eye and turned it pink. Fascinating. Last time I guessed it was mustard because the other things he’d had–mango and shellfish–were things he’d had before. I got the ingredients of the dressing (sneaky me, gonna make that baby at home, it was amazing!) and sure enough, mostaza.

The big kid had an enormous banana split and we let him watch My Neighbor Totoro on the tablet. The baby had been charming everyone so we’d met every other diner and all the wait staff by the time we were done. He dragged a crate around the whole place for 20 minutes and I followed along, enjoying the cuteness. But I was getting tired, where was my husband? Oh, trapped by the former tobacco plantation owner from Virginia and debating gun control. I suggested amicably that they agree to disagree, as it was ramping up and I could see the racist commentary was about to start. Once they dropped a “wish the thugs would all just kill each other and then we’d be safe” I left and ordered a beer.

I love me a good Imperial, but it was a special occasion so I ordered a bright red beer made from flor de jamaica and called it a day. It’s 1 o’clock.

 

Costa Rica with kids: Los Sueños on reward points

One of the hardest things about making use of someone else’s review is to know where they are coming from in terms of expectations and preferences. I’m not a resort person and I have a hard time fathoming paying cash to stay at a luxury place like Los Sueños. But I’m picky about food and service when I’m staying somewhere nice. We spent 5 nights at Los Sueños in early February, 2016 with a 19 month old and almost 6 year old.

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The Gist of It

This place is wonderful and we are having way more fun than I was expecting. If you are normally a crunchy treehugger (like me), you will need to suspend some aspects of your righteous indignation to enjoy yourself here…but not as much as you might think. This is a wonderful place for children and an easy place to be a grownup having fun with your children. If you can do it on points, DO IT!! If you are able to pay cash for this kind of luxury, then by all means do that too. We could never have, but it’s not like there’s some alternative fancy hotel we’d be spending $400 a night for instead, it just wouldn’t be happening.

Our Stay

The key selling points for this place are the pool, the service, and the food. The pool is amazing. It’s an interconnected system of pools, lazy rivers, waterfalls, and even a swim up bar and café. The salt water is warm and the chlorine is at an absolute minimum–cold water and chlorine are what I hate most about swimming pools so I was actually happy hanging out with my kids all day in the water, a novel feeling for me. The hotel spaces in general are awesome. We ran into the General Manager one morning and chatted about the space. He explained that they had found people weren’t using the lobby so had totally redone it with more lounge-esque furniture, board games, PS4, etc to make it more inviting. It worked. You’ll feel welcome everywhere.

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When staff are unhappy and turnover rates are high, you can tell. People won’t look you in the eye or be comfortable chatting and the basic maintenance has no rhythm, which is where a lot of service problems come from. This place runs like a well oiled machine and while there’s really no way to know what the reality is like for staff (Costa Rica has high unemployment rates, which keeps wages low as jobs are in high demand), every single employee we interacted with engaged us with confidence and openness. They talked and played with our kids, they answered questions with certainty, and we got everything we needed. We were there long enough to see some of the same folks over and over and enjoyed talking with everyone. The place is adequately staffed, so no one seemed stressed or acted hurried.

The rooms are expensive, but once you are in a room they don’t nickle and dime you for everything else. They don’t care if you bring outside food and drink to the pool, they offer tap water at the restaurants if you want it, no one looks at you oddly for washing your own clothes and hanging them to dry on the patio, etc. The kid’s club is awesome and offers four hours a day of free childcare for children over 4, with fun activities (arts and crafts mostly). Unlike a lot of hotels they don’t have the attitude that you must have come to get away from your children so they should keep them at all costs. We felt comfortable leaving our big kid precisely because they escorted him out to find us whenever he was ready to rejoin us–once out at the pool, once back to our room. It was a really pleasant surprise.

We tried nearly all of the eating options: room service, the coffee shop, the upstairs bar, the pool bar, and the main restaurant. The food was really good at every one, and I am picky. The food is fresh, not overly fried and fatty, and creative. It’s also different at each locale so you can try lots of different menus. The buffet breakfast is pricey, but you should do it once. I don’t even know where to start with how good it was. Local specialties, creative and delicious versions of the stuff foreigners are used to, fresh fruits and juices, really good coffee. I saved room for a huge fresh belgian waffle with thick whipped cream and fruit after two plates of incredible local fare. Yum.

Useful tips for making it fun, easy, and more affordable

First, if you can avoid arriving on a Sunday afternoon/evening we would recommend that. On busy beach weekends the main highway from the airport to Los Sueños is turned into a one way road back into the city. It was a nasty surprise to find our GPS trying to send us constantly to Highway 27 and every time to find it blocked. We had printed a map and also had one from the car rental place so, combined with stopping three or four times to ask directions and eventually calling the hotel and being emailed back road directions, we got there. But the trip took twice as long and me and the big kid were both horrendously car sick from the winding mountain road by the time we arrived.

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at least the view was nice 🙂

It’s easy to keep eating costs down (relatively, it’s still a resort) with a few tweaks. Stop at the really nice grocery store just outside the entrance and stock up on yogurt, vegetables, fruit, beer, whatever you need. If you drink tap water at home, drink the tap water here. The different restaurants have different food and different prices. Some of it is resort prices, but not all, and even when you do pay for the nicer places or room service, the quality of the food is incredible and is easily comparable to what you’d pay at a restaurant for that same food at home. We ate breakfast several times with the kids early in the morning at the 24 hour coffee shop, where food is served at the counter and you can sit anywhere you like. It’s cheaper than everywhere else. The kid’s portions are large and the upstairs bar has a kid’s menu, so we often ordered food for our kids and then just grazed on their leavings or shared a salad. Generally we tried to do two meals a day, with snacking in between, which made it more affordable.

Explore the area. There is less cool stuff to do nearby than in some other places, this is a place you mostly go for the place itself. There are all kinds of adventure services but they were pricey. We went to Pura Vida Gardens, which was neat but we’d recommend going in the early morning to make the most of it, as it was very hot. It’s very accessible for small children and the elderly. And if you double the weight capacity of your jogging stroller and burst a tire, for $2 you can get it fixed at the Bike Doctor in Jacó (if you have small children, this is probably the only thing you’d want to do in Jacó. It has several nice restaurants, but also a lot of prostitution and nasty men’s clubs to service tourists).

As we are foodies and were headed to Manuel Antonio rainforest after our stay at Los Sueños, we focused our explorations on food. Puesta del Sol is an awesome local fish spot (get the whole red snapper, or whatever the bilingual wait staff say you should get). You can walk down the beach to get there. We went at sunset and our kids took over the juke box while the mix of local and foreign fisherman cheerfully tolerated their antics. If your kid will only eat hamburgers, they have that too.

Dolce Vita and Lanterna Ristorante Italiano–in the marina complex–are awesome. Dolce Vita serves breakfast, lunch, and evening dessert and coffee. Lanterna is just for dinner. The food is great–they make their own yogurt, granola, bread, etc. We saw lots of folks stopping in to pick up orders of fresh bread. Lanterna is a nice restaurant, but they welcomed our kids in a way that, if you have small children, might make you cry at the end of a long day. The food was exceptional and their pastas are all homemade. That was our one evening restaurant splurge and it was worth it. The kids loved sitting outside watching the lights on the boats in the marina and throwing nuts and leaves into the water.

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the marina

There are some special things not to miss. Climb the big tower from the lobby to watch the sunset. The view is incredible. Our kids ran up barefoot, us with grocery store beers in hand, and had a delightful visit with the retired golfers we met up top. On the ground level there’s a huge hanging boat with messages in old glass bottles attached all the way around. It’s sort of tucked away, but really neat. The hammocks are amazing and are in shade most of the day. They are really comfy. So are the massive outdoor beds you can hang out on. For free. The beach is a hidden treasure of soft, black volcanic sand. It’s not fancy. It’s public. It’s almost completely deserted and warm and gentle. We spent three afternoons there through the spectacular sunset.

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top of the tower

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black sand at the beach

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sunset swim

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enormous leaves!

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jasper, shell, and coral

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nearby Playa Hermosa

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sunrise with papa on the beach beds

It was greener than I anticipated. All the food packaging and take out containers are biodegradable. The lights are all LEDs. Yes, it’s a golf course and a ridiculous use of water to keep all that stuff green in the dry season. But the gardens are all native plants and they did a better job of appropriate watering than any place I’ve ever been. All the watering happened between dusk and dawn–if your kids don’t get you up at 5am you won’t even see it. There are trees everywhere, shading parts of the pool at all times of day as well as keeping the playground in shade. Key for enjoying the day with little ones.

Two mornings we saw a mist of something puffed out over the grounds making a vaporous cloud. My little organic heart lurched and I wagged my finger at my husband and said “I knew it, covered in poison!” I saw a gardener and asked if it were a chemical spray. He said in surprise “Oh no, they fumigate with diesel fuel to prevent mosquitoes.” Sounded gross, but not as gross as poison. I was fascinated. It left no residue, no smell, and there were honey bees, birds, and wildlife all over. Turns out it’s a common practice at resorts and while you don’t want to stand in the grass while it’s happening, it’s about as benign as such things get. I want to go home and spray my yard with diesel fuel all summer.

Oh, finally, the critters. So many awesome critters! The iguanas are huge. They like to lounge on the roof of the poolside bar so that’s a great place to catch them. There are all kinds of birds around. Mapaches (raccoons, though cuter than ours, or maybe that’s just me) sometimes explore at night.

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little crabs

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observing the wildlife in its natural habitat

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pelicans diving for fish

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iguanas chomping

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squirrel eating almonds

Suspending self righteousness

I probably ought to write something with this title regularly. But at the moment life is a fuzzy blend of the surreal and the quotidian crap that comes with young children, whether you are at home or traveling.

We arrived in Herradura, Costa Rica, after a long day of travel culminating in a stressful 3 hour backroad detour because the main highway had been switched to one way (not our way) to speed tourists back to the capital after the weekend.

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luckily someone thinks the airport is fun

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lovely traffic at sunset

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heading out of town

Our 5 year old was car sick and hysterical that it would be too late to swim. It was pitch black but we suited up and jumped right in. We ate fish tacos on the side of the pool, totally alone, looking at the stars and listening to the ocean. A big coati waddled out to see what was happening. It’s been 4 low key, delightful days since then. The kids are in heaven. The work of home is hundreds of miles away. No one is sunburned and my children are even eating vegetables.

Right now I’m snuggled in bed with my toddler asleep in my arms. An orange tabby cat just pranced across our patio. My big kid is gazing at me lovingly (I just threw a chocolate milk at him like a zoo animal to keep him happy and quiet until dad returns). Ah, there he is. My super partner just walked in all sweaty from a midday emergency drive in to Jacó to repair the busted tire on our stroller. He’s glowing with self satisfaction  and showing me his treasure like a price-is-right model: organic crackers, beer, and coconut oil.

But the successful stroller repair is his crowning achievement. It’s the only place the toddler will sleep besides on me, latched on like a leech. But we’ve done enough travel that our expectations were modest when we heard the explosive sound of rubber bursting (after hauling 90 lbs worth of children around the Pura Vida gardens yesterday). Our first-world hearts raced as we skyped the bike shop (there is a bike shop!) and my nervous husband rapidly described the problem in English. There was silence, then “can you repeat the size please?” I jumped in and we switched to Spanish. 16 by 1.75 inches. A small bike? No, a stroller. He laughed with good humor and reassured us it was an easy repair and no problem. Now, it might not have been, but it was (a new tube for $2) and now it’s time to celebrate.

We are in Costa Rica! It’s a new place for both of us, though I’ve read about politics in the region and taught its history in my Contemporary Latin American Politics class for undergrads. Costa Rica is the Sweden of Central America. Most of the region has struggled under the economic and political yolk of first Spanish colonialism, then long years of US intervention in support of nasty dictators (hey, as long as they were capitalists they got our vote, right up through G. W. Bush’s support for the attempted Venezuelan coup in 2002). But gracious, we did not know what to do with Costa Rica. To the US, the 1948 civil war looked like a fight between communists and socialists and we tacitly supported the lesser of two evils. The social democrats won, phew. The military was abolished and over the past six decades of unbroken democratic governance, investment in education, health, and infrastructure has made Costa Rica a significant regional outlier. Add in several decades of state support for eco-tourism, with decent environmental regulations, and you get a country that is a pretty good place to live, work, and visit.

I’ve already shared the story of how we ended up staying at this fancy place. But I guarantee you my husband has lost some sleep over how obnoxious I’d be when we got here. But by preparing for utterly excessive excess, I’ve been won over by its demure excessive excess. I’ve successfully avoided thinking too much about how much water is used to keep this place gorgeous in the dry season. I managed to wait for the natural lesson of driving by a parched field where forest had been cleared for pasture to explain to my kid that he needed to start eating something other than hamburgers.

I am not not caring, but I’m suspending my self righteousness. This place is here and it’s actually pretty marvelous. The staff are outgoing and confident, children are welcomed everywhere and guests and staff alike dote on them with genuine enjoyment. The pools are the most fun I’ve ever had and I hate pools. All the food packaging is biodegradable. All the gardens are native plants. It’s not all white foreigners.

The beach looks unimpressive and no one hangs out there. But it’s a secret treasure of gentle currents and soft black volcanic sand. The beach pebbles look brown until you get up close and see the rainbow colors. The beach is public access and a stone’s throw from the pool is a local fish restaurant and dive where local and foreign fishermen mingle and teenagers tailgate around a makeshift grill.

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If grumpy, stingy me were going to enjoy a resort, this would be it (there, I admit it, I’m having fun). I washed our clothes in the bathtub and hung them on the patio and no one cared. They don’t nickle and dime you for every little thing. They don’t care if you buy beer at the grocery store and drink it at the pool. Pura vida, as they say.

Tomorrow we leave, heading to Tulemar in the Manuel Antonio rainforest for the next leg of the trip. After some vigorous vegging, we are ready to go!

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