Welcome to the Costa Rican Jungle: A Six-Week Family Adventure
When you find your family’s “happy place,” you just know. We did. After immersing ourselves in a world of active volcanoes, lush jungle, breathtaking beaches and friendly “Ticos,” Costa Rica was most certainly ours and we couldn’t get enough. My husband and I had been seeking an alternative to the frenetic pace of our life in New Jersey, and we loved getting unplugged and sinking into the barefoot surf and yoga culture on the Pacific coast.
But I wanted to know if we could really live like this and model the healthy lifestyle we recommend to our patients. So we set out on a six-week family adventure to Nosara, Costa Rica. We made arrangements to cover our Chinese medicine practice, rented our place and crossed our fingers. Paradise awaited us.
I did not anticipate the hoards of large insects and tiny reptiles that turned up after sunset, nor did I imagine sharing the coffee table with a moth the size of a vampire bat.
But an oppressive reality settled in on me the first night of our trip as I sat in the master bedroom beside my sleeping six-year old, twitching at the flicker of motion sensor lights that alerted me to the nocturnal jungle activity. I was no longer on holiday.
“Real life” Costa Rica, it turns out, is not well-represented on tourism websites or AirBnB photos. We got lost seven times that first day, thanks to language barriers, poor directions and roads that barely qualified as roads. I quickly learned that getting lost on narrow, dirt roads surrounded by jungle made me claustrophobic.
I thought of a hopeful stack of condoms that might never be unpacked. So much for sex in paradise.
My claustrophobia symptoms include palpitations, shortness of breath, sweating (even more than I normally do in oppressive heat and humidity) and the desire to jump out of the car screaming maniacally. I did a pretty good job of concealing it from my kids, but my face hurt from the forced smiling.
The view from our hilltop hacienda was even more spectacular than the photos, which was probably what caused me to overlook so many practical details when I sent off a sizable deposit check months before. I imagined spending the evenings sitting out on our outrageous deck overlooking the infinity pool and 25 miles of pristine Pacific coastline.
I did not anticipate the hoards of large insects and tiny reptiles that turned up after sunset, nor did I imagine sharing the coffee table with a moth the size of a vampire bat. And then it started to pour. This was not the nature I had envisioned. So at dusk, rather than enjoying the outdoor living, we retreated to the tiny indoor living room and blasted the air conditioning.
Our three-bedroom house turned out to be two separate living spaces on separate floors. Since I refused to have two sets of locked iron doors separating me from my kids at night in a noisy jungle, my husband and I split up the kids and parted ways at bedtime. I thought of a hopeful stack of condoms that might never be unpacked. So much for sex in paradise.
My eight year old burst into tears, begging to go home as we got ready for bed. She didn’t feel safe. I couldn’t really blame her—an isolated house perched on a mountain at the top of a steep, windy, unlit dirt road in Costa Rica during rainy season may not have been the wisest choice for a first ever rental.
Wrought iron gates covered every door and window in the house, and their decorative flourishes did little to offset the clanging prison sounds they made when I tried to open them. Furthermore, I couldn’t seem to match all the keys to the locks. The sounds I had loved from the safety of a secure resort property were unnerving when I couldn’t find all the light switches or lock the safe.
I didn’t yet know that I would fly through the jungle in my favorite yoga pose or make play dates for my kids at the tide pools. I hadn’t yet watched sea turtles trudge up the sand to lay eggs or gazed at bioluminescent waves that glowed after dark.
The “security” page of my giant orientation binder wasn’t much help. In the event of an emergency I had an 8-digit number to reach a Spanish- speaking man with a moped two miles down the dirt road at the base of the mountain. Since the wifi wasn’t working, three members of my family were 30 feet away and I had absolutely no way of communicating with them unless they knew Morse code and had a broomstick handy. Scratch that—I didn’t know Morse code.
Seeking solace, I paged through my orientation binder. Here are some excerpts:
“There is a phenomenon here in the jungle called Army Ants. They are not looking for food but are on the lookout for small sugar ants or are just marching through. They will come by the hundreds and will be ‘marching’ in more or less of a long line. You may see them on the outer or inner deck or they may come through the house. Just move away from them or leave the house. They will simply march through and be gone in one to three hours. DO NOT SPRAY OR TRY TO INTERRUPT THEM IN ANY WAY OR YOU CAN BE BADLY BITTEN.”
“Occasionally we see scorpions. You can kill them with a heavy shoe. Do not leave towels and clothing on the floor or ground for them to crawl under.”
What did Buddhists do, I wondered?
“It is a good idea to close the windows in the sunroom at night as they (raccoons or pesotes) have been known to crawl through the screens and come into the kitchen through the gate looking for food.”
I started rethinking the freshly prepared meals I had planned to make every day in our kitchen. I started rethinking a lot of things. Two of my kids were already complaining of ear pain. It was raining. HARD. I smelled like a middle school wrestling tryout but was afraid to get in the shower after reading the manual.
That first night, it was the promise of a good cup of Costa Rican coffee and a visit from the property manager in the morning that kept me going. I didn’t yet know that I would fly through the jungle in my favorite yoga pose or make play dates for my kids at the tide pools. I hadn’t yet watched sea turtles trudge up the sand to lay eggs or gazed at bioluminescent waves that glowed after dark. But I was about to learn that Pura Vida is the exhilaration of navigating that whole crazy, scary, beautiful journey with the people I love most.