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Traveling Costa Rica with Young Kids: The Good, The Bad, and the Monkeys

Right. So THIS is why some people don't enjoy traveling with little kids. I've had that thought a lot over the past couple of months. Because we have been traveling A LOT. With little kids (3 and 4.5 yrs. old). As I explained in my previous post, there were...

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Traveling Costa Rica with Young Kids: The Good, The Bad, and the Monkeys

Right. So THIS is why some people don't enjoy traveling with little kids. I've had that thought a lot over the past couple of months. Because we have been traveling A LOT. With little kids (3 and 4.5 yrs. old).

As I explained in my previous post, there were many reasons we chose San Ramon, Costa Rica as a destination for our current live abroad adventure. One of the primary reasons was because San Ramon would serve as a centrally located hub for touring other parts of the country.

In the past 1.5 months, we have taken advantage of that hub and done the following:

  • A 10 day trip to Cahuita on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica combined with a "border run" into Panama to spend time in the tropical archipelago, Bocas del Toro.
  • 5 nights in La Fortuna, touring around the absolutely stunning Arenal Volcano.
  • 3 nights in Manuel Antonio National Park, splashing in the waves and dodging ripe mangoes tossed from above by the troupes of monkeys feasting on them.
  • 4 nights in Playa Hermosa on the Guanacaste coast with my lovely in-laws who came to celebrate Marcella's 3rd birthday with us.
Umm, beautiful. This was taken with my brother's drone from the Arenal Volcano National Park.

If you're thinking that doesn't sound like a very economical month for a family that tries to keep its expenses low, you're right. It wasn't.

I think it's worth sharing this past month of adventure anyways though because:

1. Adventures are cool and worth sharing! I get so much of my inspiration from other people's stories.

2. It wasn't all sunshine and rainbows. I think we envision sipping margaritas in the shade while our kids happily self-entertain in the sand, finally catching up on all the reading we've been longing to do for months. That was my goal, anyway.

Of course, it didn't exactly work out that way. With other families out there considering travel adventures with kids, I think it's worth painting the full picture. Not just the pretty parts.

Here's a Summary of the Highlights We Experienced Traveling around Costa Rica (with a short dip into Panama).

  • Monkeys! Unless you're from a tropical place where they're as common as deer are in the Midwest, it's so cool to see them! I couldn't stop thinking that they look like a cross between a cat and a human.
  • Crystal blue water. This was especially true on the Caribbean side. There's something so rejuvenating about standing shoulder deep in the ocean and being able to clearly see your feet.
  • Sipping fruity cocktails while the kids played in the sand. This did actually happen a couple times! But no books were involved and the moment felt fleeting as we squeezed it in between naps and dinner.
  • Sloths! I think this needs no explaining.
  • Dolphins! All we really saw were their backs cresting the water before their tales broke through, but each sighting was such a thrill for me.
  • Snorkeling. Even the kiddos had on the gear and Leo was able to put his head in the water and use the snorkel to breathe. Marcella mostly just giggled.
  • Interesting strangers. We met a nice Argentinian couple on our shuttle bus to Panama. Their accent in Spanish was really hard to understand, but they kept Leo entertained for much of the two hour ride, for which I was super grateful.
  • Relaxing in a hammock. The place we rented in Cahuita had one on the porch. I spent the kids' nap times relaxing in that thing… although usually drifting off myself just as they were ready to get up.
  • A volcano! A symmetrical, lush and green volcano served as the backdrop of our entire trip to La Fortuna.
  • Hot springs. Lounging in the thermally heated river waters at the base of the Arenal Volcano.
  • Walking across hanging bridges in the jungle. I kept reminding myself to enjoy the moment as I clung to a child with one arm and the railing with the other.
  • Sunsets on the beach. That lighting is just magic.
  • Quality time with family. My brother and his family were with us for the Fortuna/Manuel Antonio trip, and the kids got some concentrated time with their grandparents in Playa Hermosa.
A human crossed with a house cat, right?
My view from that Cahuita hammock. Kind of tropical.
End of the day sand play in Bocas del Toro. We probably should have removed the empty beer can before taking the picture.
It took us about 10 minutes longer than everyone else to get ourselves into the water, but we did it!
The ground is so far away.
Not only is this time of day completely gorgeous… with the sun about to disappear, but we get to skip the sunscreen!
He reminded me of one of those stuffed monkeys with the hands that velcro together. Except he was real. And he was a sloth.

Now Here's a Summary of the Not-So-Pretty Moments

  • Monkeys! The white faced Capuchin monkeys were the most bold, getting way closer than we wanted. We found ourselves walking down a narrow walkway in Manuel Antonio with a monkey on each side of us. Suddenly, both monkeys bared their teeth at Leo and I watched as Michael flung Leo down to keep the monkeys from getting too close to him.
  • Sweat. So much sweatiness. Even though I don't like to be cold, I'd rather be somewhere cold than hot. It feels like you can always add more clothes, but you can't take anymore off.
  • Sunscreen. Ugh. Lots of sunscreen. Every time we were going to be outside. Which was pretty much always.
  • Sun. It's silly to complain about this, but when you're that close to the equator, the sun is intense. See the above bullet about sunscreen.
  • Sand fleas. These things were no joke in Cahuita and Bocas del Toro. By the time we got back from that trip, we were all covered in bites. For something so teeny tiny, their bite feels very big.
  • And sand. Everywhere. In swimsuits, in between toes, behind ears, and all over the floor.
  • A broken bone in a remote part of a foreign country. Marcella fell out of the bed when she leaned into a mosquito net, enthralled with the novelty of it. We spent a stressful night researching ways to get back to a modern hospital with an x-ray machine. A phone call to my step-brother (the doctor in the family), gave us enough peace of mind that she'd be okay until we could get ourselves back to San Ramon.
  • Hangry children. Our accommodations in Bocas del Toro were supposed to include breakfast at the restaurant next door. Our kids woke by 6am and the restaurant never opened any earlier than 9 (even though the listing said 7am). We walked up and down the beach looking for a place to eat, the kids' whines and complaints getting increasingly more grating, until it was finally 9 and we could just eat there anyway.
  • Managing Airbnb troubles from afar. Back to back, we had guests in our home who caused extensive damage that our super awesome co-hosts had to deal with for us. In between Wifi signals, we had to submit a claim to Airbnb for reimbursement. It's not worth divulging all the details, but the highlights included a hole in the wall from one group and still soggy vomit left behind on the futon couch (which the person stealthily flipped over… thinking maybe no one would notice??).
  • Transitions. Each new hotel, Airbnb rental, or return home afterwards involved packing, unpacking, and packing again.
  • Expenses. I decided at the beginning of all of these trips that I wasn't going to worry about the total cost, as long as I did my best to do things economically along the way. So, copious amount of time was put into choosing affordable (i.e. $100 or less per night) places to stay, and shopping for breakfast/lunch/snack options to minimize the number of meals we had to eat in a restaurant. Despite all that, though, we still ate out A LOT and did a lot of touristy type things (most especially in La Fortuna where we did the Hanging Bridges tour, paid to swim in a resort's hot springs, a boat tour, etc.). It added up. I still haven't tallied it all (Michael has and he was unimpressed), but suffice to say it was in the thousands over the course of the last 2 months. That might be normal for families that are used to taking a yearly vacation to somewhere fancy, but it just isn't normal for us. (I think it's worth acknowledging here that we're fortunate to have enough money that we can spend the thousands on vacations. Even if it hurts in retrospect, it's a privilege I definitely appreciate).
  • Days planned around naps. Our kids are finally at an age where they survive without a nap. But our youngest really can't go more than a day or two without a good solid rest in the middle of the day. So, despite the inconvenience, we tried to set up our day to involve 2 hours back in the rental or hotel so that they both had some much needed quiet time. That can be nice for the grown-ups too, but also incredibly inconvenient.
  • Toddler time. When you travel with kids, everything just takes LONGER. More bodies to get dressed, more surface area needing sunscreen, more mouths to feed, and a complete lack of urgency on their part, even when you have to be at a tour in twenty minutes. The obvious antidote to this is to just not plan anything, which is mostly what we did. However, I'd find we'd have a nice long lazy morning but by the time we were "ready" to do anything like go to the beach, the window of time before they had to be back for naps was so small it felt almost not worth the rush. But, then why travel if you're not going to see or experience anything new? That's the thought that drives my urgency to get out the door, anyway. And then I'm the mom on vacation who feels like she's definitely not on any vacation.
  • Kids are heavy. Our kids are old enough to walk a lot on their own, but definitely not always as far as we would like. Especially when they're hungry or tired, the best option is to just pick them up. That's exhausting. Especially when you're ALSO tired and hungry.
Moments before this monkey and a monkey on the parallel railing both started baring their teeth while staring at Leo!
This is the face of a little girl who is not appreciating the expensive boat tour she's on.
The kids are happy because the really nice waitress was letting them feed the fish and turtles to cheer up Marcella. Marcella is soaking wet because moments before this was taken, she had fallen into the pond with all of those fish.
Adrift at sea somewhere near Bocas del Toro with a broken boat engine. My first thought? I hope we have enough snacks for the kids.
Let's stop to look at this really cool centipede even though mommy wants us to hurry up and get to the beach so we can have fun.
By the end of our travels, Leo said he didn't want to go to the beach because "then I have to get cleaned off."
Cute I know, but carrying a 30+lb sleeping toddler for an hour through the jungle is not actually very fun. I forgot my carrier.

So, with that big picture in front of us, is traveling with little kids worth it?

Absolutely!

  • Traveling with kids expands our zone of comfort. I have always loved to travel because with each step outside of my comfort zone, it stretches and gets bigger. That undoubtedly applies to my kids' experience as well.
  • Now is the time when we have the most flexibility with their schooling. We currently have no plans to homeschool, so this is the time of their lives when we're not beholden to the school calendar.
  • This is an incredible opportunity for them to acquire another language in an environment that is natural and immersed in play. Hearing them use words and phrases in Spanish is so cool.
  • They may not remember it, but they will grow from it. I've heard it said that it's not worth traveling when kids are too young to remember what they did.

That's hogwash, of course, for a couple reasons:

  1. Just because we have little kids doesn't mean we grownups don't get to keep enjoying our lives with new and exciting experiences.
  2. These are the building blocks upon which they grow. Just like language development. They don't remember all of the stories read to them or the conversations we have with them before they're too young to adequately articulate their own speech, but those experiences are still crucial to learning how to speak and eventually read and write. I think travel can be thought of in the same way. Just because our kids might not remember much of what we've done these past couple of months (and years), it doesn't mean it hasn't provided the foundation for their ability to adapt to new situations, develop a sense of wonder, and view the world from a broader perspective.

Yes, there have been hard moments. But I've also had SO many moments when I've had the thought, "Right. So THIS is why people travel with kids!"

Want to know why they're smiling for the camera? We told them not to… works every time.

There's something else I think is worth mentioning here. We are in a unique position to do what we're doing. What an honor it is to travel, catching glimpses into the vast amount of natural beauty and diverse cultures this world contains. For me, it's a way to enhance my life and enrich the experiences that I can share with other people. What a shame it would be if we had the dream and the means, but squandered the opportunity that so few people are lucky enough to have.

With that said, there are many families like ours that are out there traveling with kids of all ages. And there are so many who are taking the time to share their experiences and stories. For those on similar journeys, I encourage you to keep sharing. Let's see it all. The pretty and the not-so-pretty. It's all part of the adventure of adventuring with kids.

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10 Comments

  1. Anita

    That stinks about the Airbnb situation. You always had good luck with your renters before!

    Reply
    • Ellen

      I know! And they’ve all been great since then too. Just a couple of bad apples… we’ve since raised our deposit which we hope will deter anyone interested in using our home as a place to just drink themselves silly.

      Reply
  2. Life Outside The Maze

    I just found you guys and am excited to read more. I have been to many of these places in Costa Rica but it has been about 17 years. I fear returning and seeing the cute fishing village in my memory turned into a Marriott but so it goes. Ditto on having monkeys in both categories. So cute and fun and also so annoying and loud (howlers) when you are trying to sleep. Way to make adventure and family happen at the same time.

    Reply
    • Ellen

      I can only imagine how much Costa Rica has changed over the past 17 years, although I bet there are still many of those untouched fishing villages. And yes, the howlers! The first time I heard them at about 5am in Cahuita I kept thinking how grateful I was that I actually knew what they were. If I hadn’t, my first assumption would have been post-apocalyptic zombie killers.
      Thanks for taking the time to read the post!

      Reply
  3. Jill Franzel

    Hi Ellen! It’s so nice to see that you are enjoying your trip. Kids are exhausting but worth every minute! We’ve traveled a good amount with our kids in the last 20 years and just because you’re “on vacation” or “slow travel in another country” doesn’t mean you won’t have good and bad moments, just like when you are at home. I have to sometimes remind myself that I don’t always have good days either – I can wake up sick or tired or grumpy for no reason, just like my kids. The benefit of “slow travel” – although I realize some of this was “vacation” while “slow traveling” 🙂 – is that nothing has to happen in “one day” – the way it does when you are on a one-week vacation from regular life.

    I have LOVED traveling with my kids and the experience you are all living is worth everything you go through to do it! Love seeing all the beautiful pictures of the things and places you’ve visited, as well as your smiling faces! Enjoy every minute you can and thanks for inspiring the rest of us!

    -Jill, Longmont

    Reply
    • Ellen

      Hi Jill!
      All so true! If I take the time to pause and think about why the kids are having a particularly unpleasant moment, it can almost always be explained by hunger, sleepiness, or just a need for some undivided attention. Those are simple things that can be easy to forget when you’re busy trying to have fun. 🙂 Thanks for reading!

      Reply
  4. Jason W

    Great article and appreciate you sharing your story! No kids for the Williams’ yet, but as travel lovers the topic of traveling with kids is a constant one. Enjoy your time in Costa Rica!

    Reply
    • Ellen

      Thank you! If you do end up with kiddos, it’s great that you’re already thinking about what it might be like to travel with them. I’m grateful we had a pretty major life shift shortly after Marcella was born that got us thinking outside of our box. We had otherwise talked generally about living abroad “someday” but when the kids were much older. So glad we didn’t wait!

      Reply
  5. Physician on FIRE

    I love it!

    A healthy dose of reality amongst the many Instagram-worthy pics. The Airbnb issues? Not good… makes me wonder if we’d really want to offer up our home for travelers someday. Wow.

    We also happen to be traveling with our family in Central America, and I can’t wait for our next stop.

    See you tomorrow!
    -PoF

    Reply
    • Ellen

      Yay! The sheets are in the laundry machine… fingers crossed they line dry in this rainy weather before anyone wants to sleep tonight! Looking forward to spending time with you and your family. We’ll give you the inside scoop on the ups and downs of renting out our home through Airbnb. It has been mostly really good. Safe travels!

      Reply

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