Follow along on our first international family vacation with our toddler – it involves sunburns, scorpions and lots and lots of ice cream!
But before you read on, I’d like to preface this post with a couple notes. Although we’re professional trip planners, this was essentially an unplanned trip. As most Northern Americans can relate to, life had grown beyond crazy for us this past spring. Too scheduled, too over-committed, too fast-paced and we needed a break. I had been down on the fact that we own and operate a Latin American travel company, but had been too focused on it to take our toddler on an international trip. So when Knowmad Trip Specialist Jean moved from Argentina to Costa Rica, we jumped on the chance to meet halfway and soak in some much-needed vitamin D.
So, in spite of the fact that Knowmad Trip Specialists have traveled extensively in Costa Rica and planned many seamless, dynamic itineraries for travelers there, our personal trip was thrown together in literally 30 minutes. Resulting in an adventure? Yes. But seamless? I think not.
I booked the first flights I found, practically chose a villa with my eyes closed and we found ourselves at Playa Langosta in Guanacaste, Costa Rica in a matter of weeks. Upon arrival we realized we were in the hottest part of Costa Rica during the hottest time of year…during a drought. Rivers were dried up, monkeys were coastal-bound to drink pool water at the resorts. We spent seven days there, sneaking in work while Trey slept, managing our sun exposure during his waking hours and getting some great laughs with even better company out of our escapades. Next we traveled south for a stay at Hotel Punta Islita, a beautiful and breezy refuge perched high on a Pacific Ocean peninsula. On day 11 we survived an epic travel day and arrived home in Minneapolis.
Costa Rica Family Vacation
Day 1: Travel Day
Our alarms have been set for the God awful hour of 5 am. We get up, get dialed. Do the thing that every parent absolutely loathes and wake a sleeping child to get to the airport 2 hours before our international flight to Costa Rica. Plane ride is alright. Trey’s cranky and we’re working it to stave off a meltdown but are prepared enough with Daniel the Tiger’s Neighborhood downloaded, lots of snacks, trucks and coloring. Of course, he falls asleep in our arms through customs right when we need to drag our luggage around but we don’t care; it’s endearing and we’ve escaped a 12 degree wind-chill in Minnesota.
After an hour and a half drive from Libreria airport we arrived at to our destination. Our villa, equipped with its own pool and kitchen, was part of hotel Cala Luna – a casual boutique hotel situated on a calmer part of the coast with lots of tide pools. Trey was overjoyed by his first view of the ocean and was throwing sand in the air like it was confetti. While we enjoyed beers and a poolside dinner we started to think the stress of leaving plus the travel day was well worth it. But we thought-to-soon; that night we had one of the most horrendous bedtimes since infancy and finally had to let him cry himself to sleep.
Day 2: Groceries, Pool & Naptime + Old Buds Reunite
New day and a new start! Although we were initially put off by how touristy Guanacaste was, we appreciated the amenities of a coffee shop, internet and grocery stores. Loaded up with papaya, avocados, and fresh ceviche that you can buy at the deli counter we settled in to our abode. Jean and her family (husband Chris and son Oliver) came over. Oliver and Trey had spent a month together when Jean was training at Knowmad’s base in Minneapolis. Reunited, they marveled at what “big boys” each other had become and happily played trucks together for the better part of the evening.
Day 3: Playa Negra, Grieving Our Travel Freedom
Today we decided to venture out and it was a disaster. Jean had clued us in to the Waze App which is miraculous for finding your way on dirt back roads. But our journey was ill-timed and by the time we got to Playa Negra, a black sand beach with great surf, Trey was over-tired and ‘hangry’ but the road was too bumpy and he was too hot and sandy to sleep in the car. No amount of singing or snacks would quell his mood.
By the time we got home and got him down for a nap, Mama and Papa’s patience was beyond tested. I burst into tears. Why did I drag us all here? This wasn’t relaxing, this wasn’t fun! Jordan calmed yet another meltdown and assured me that this family vacation would bring us closer together. These experiences were meaningful and we were just finding our travel legs with our toddler. Things would look up! The reality was I was in mourning. After a couple years of pregnancy and nursing I had been craving that feeling of freedom that I got from travel. I felt like those days of spontaneously exploring an unknown beach with nothing but a sarong and some foreign coins was forever out of reach.
But Jordan was right, post naptime we felt refreshed and wandered to the beach, discovering the wonders of tide pool micro-environments. All’s well that ends well, right? Not so fast. Before the end of the day, Trey stepped in a colony of fire ants and Jordan, whom we’ve recently discovered is allergic to bees, gets stung by some unidentified insect in the pool and develops an allergic reaction. Luckily Benadryl did the trick and by this point it was laughable.
Day 4: Mama + Trey Go to the Grocery Store (Again) While Papa Goes Surfing + Best Lobster Ravioli Known to Man
Four days into the trip we started getting the hang of it! I spent the morning with Trey while Jordan went surfing. I did get stung by a scorpion but I didn’t realize it at the time. I was picking up some clothes from a shady, cool corner of our villa when I was stung on my hand. It swelled a bit and when I saw a hornet later I deduced that that was the culprit and thought nothing more of it. It wasn’t until the next day when I saw a dead scorpion about three inches long fall out of my shorts that I started freaking out. Fortunately, scorpions aren’t fatal in Costa Rica, but you can bet we closely inspected Trey’s room and shook our clothes out carefully for the remainder of the trip.
That evening we met Jean and company for the sunset at Playa Grande and ate the most amazing lobster ravioli at Café del Pueblo, a restaurant owned by an Argentine-Italian couple. Jordan could barely sit he had burnt the back of his legs so badly surfing, but we were in high spirits.
Highs / Lows:
Mama – Iced latte, perfect sunset / scorpion sting
Papa – Catching a wave / burnt calves
Trey – Peppermint candy at the Italian restaurant / newly-developed fear of ants
Day 5: The Search for Surf Breaks and Ice Cream
Trey perfects rolling down the car window and putting his arm in the air. We almost lose the surfboard due to a poor tie job on a ten-minute drive to Playa Tamarindo. Jordan gets pummeled by waves meant for more experienced surfers while Mama and Trey sit in the shade under a tree with a giant bee’s nest, but we manage to leave the beach in search of ice cream unscathed.
Note to all parents: Don’t promise a toddler ice cream until you’ve actually located ice cream.
With ice cream finally located, we return to our villa for nap / work time. We spend the evening at Playa Suizo playing in the “grande” waves as Trey calls them and watch another lovely sunset. We grabbed dinner at Green Papaya, a taco joint with swinging benches and find the mental space to laugh off our earlier escapades.
Day 6 – 11: Family Vacation Perfected
These blur together. We fell into a rhythm: fresh fruit and media lunas (directly translates to “half moons” and means croissants) pool side for breakfast; Trey’s sleep schedule adjusted to the elements and he started taking long siestas during the hottest part of the day while we worked; and we spent our evenings catching waves and sunsets at the beach. We ate lots of ceviche and even more ice cream.
For our final weekend we traveled to Hotel Punta Islita where we were truly able to disconnect. Jordan treated himself to a kayak and I to a horseback ride. Trey splashed in new pools. We had learned to slow down, need a little less, relax a little more.
Home felt like home when we returned; cozy and familiar. Exhausted, but with smiles on our faces, we prepared to face the week with a renewed sense of what was essential. Travel does something to press reset in our lives, reminds us how important it is to simply spend time with each other and to go about our day-to-day with a sense of wonder.
This is what I call the Knowmad spirit. Join the community of freedom-seekers, searchers-for-the-unknown and use #Knowmadspirit when sharing your adventures, big and small, on Instagram or Facebook. Be it a hilarious failed attempt at a grocery run with a tantruming toddler, a new early morning running path, or possibly a whirlwind trip to another hemisphere – but don’t limit yourself to that. Find that essence of travel in your everyday.
Un Beso, Tara
Tara is the Co-Founder, Marketing and Operations Manager at Knowmad Adventures, a company dedicated to creating unique, private and custom trips in South America. She first traveled to South America in college and is endlessly inspired by the cultures, food, colors and idiosyncrasies she discovers there. Read Tara’s biography and more about the Knowmad team.