I landed in Liberia and had a ride arranged to take me and my two daughters to Nosara where we would be staying for an entire month. Now, many of you travelers out there, especially those ones from basically anywhere outside the US may be saying to yourself, what to you mean an entire month – why travel for anything less.
Yet on the flipside, most readers from the US are now reading, eyes popping out of their heads, an ENTIRE month? How the hell do you pull this off? And wait, a dad taking his kids alone to Costa Rica for a month? This guy is insane!!!
That’s ok. I’m used to getting that look, or that actual sentence. After all I chose to homeschool my kids this year so that we could do all sorts of stupid things that people didn’t understand but are now figuring out how to do since the pandemic has locked them all in the same room together.
I had traveled to Costa Rica many times over the years, and we had done a scouting mission to Nosara as a family the year before, so I was feeling totally comfortable that this was going to be not only manageable, but totally awesome.
The flight was easy and our familiar driver was there to grab us, so we were out of the airport quickly and on the road south. I knew everything would be fine as soon as we got in the car and the kids were lost in the adventure, staring out the windows as this foreign land rolled past – smoking fields of sugar cane and general Central American roadside chaos serving as a far better show than any iPad could ever provide.
We decided to get a driver this trip for a few reasons. First, renting a car in Costa Rica is unbelievably expensive. Forget that $25 a day option that you see in the states. Also, despite whatever insurance you have or what your credit card covers, you’ll have to pay for the Costa Rica insurance. It’s one thing to do this for a week, but for a month it really adds up.
The next reason for this is that we intended to just get around Nosara by golf cart. When you get to town you’ll see places to rent these things all over the place, and from our previous trip here, my kids realized that getting a golf cart and being allowed to drive around town, through its muddy roads and lake-sized puddles (not that this is actually permitted), well, this was one of the best parts of the trip.
There are rental car places right in Nosara, so if you need to grab one there for a side trip or for a few days, it is possible and you won’t have to pay for it to sit around most of the time.
Finally, this wasn’t a road warrior type trip. We weren’t trying to see as much of Costa Rica as we could in the month. Our goal was to go local, surf a ton, get strong in the water, the girls would go to the local school while I took Spanish lessons.
We were here to dive into life in Nosara.
Ok, back to the drive.
Although your trusty Google Map will say that the drive from Liberia to Playa Guiones will take about two and a half hours, I’ve found that it is generally closer to four by the time you account for the last stretch of destroyed dirt road typical of the Guanacaste Peninsula.
After heading through the larger town of Santa Cruz we continued to the town of Nicoya which makes for a great rest stop. Still a large town with a bustling energy in its main center, Nicoya is your last stop before heading to the beach towns that now cater mainly to tourists and where everyone has learned that speaking English is a core skill to ensuring a job.
Here in Nicoya though, speaking English at a clean, popular roadside restaurant will still elicit funny looks and quizzical smiling faces from the wait staff while you regroup and begin figuring out what the kids will like and how to communicate it. Still groggy from the red-eye flight and having survived your first minor culture shock experience, you get to kick back and enjoy the local life congregating at the Ricardo Briceno Park out in front of the Colonial Church of Nicoya – old men in straw cowboy hats chatting under the immense shade trees and school kids practicing coordinated singing and dancing routines, perhaps for a festival to be held sometime soon.
Whether you are driving yourself or arranging a ride, I greatly recommend taking this little stop in Nicoya. After going straight from the plane and into the car, you’ve been sitting for hours at this point, and you may have been lulled into the false idea that the roads in Costa Rica really aren’t that bad, that all the talk of the Nicoya Peninsula having the worst roads in Costa Rica being just a myth.
Well, fear not my friend, they will soon present themselves when the pavement runs out just west of Nicoya. It will take you more time to do less actual distance on the next part of the drive. Now that you’ve had a chance to work out some of the kinks and have a stretch, let’s get going.
The next part of the ride is where things get interesting, as if dodging people on bikes and motorcycles and horses and all the vans filled with tourists passing busses carrying locals on the main road wasn’t interesting enough.
This interesting is a bit different, less for what’s going on on the side of the road and more for what’s going on in the road – and that’s potholes. Deep ones. Filled with water in the rainy season like little lakes that disguise their depth or the severity of the slope up to the top. And because of this, the drivers avoid them like the plague that they are.
And this means swerving. A lot of swerving.
So much swerving and turning and gassing and braking and slipping in the mud that one time when we did this trip with another family, the other dad, green with carsickness and vertigo begged to stop so that he could slip on his running shoes and just jog out the last 10km or so into Guiones despite the tropical heat.
He couldn’t take it anymore.
Admittedly, this is an extreme case. I’ve never personally felt compelled to abandon my car on these drives, but it’s hard for people who don’t get carsick to sympathize with those who do sometimes.
Driving from this direction, you’ll know you are getting close to Nosara when you get to Playa Garza. On this stretch of road you’ll finally get a glimpse of the ocean as the road here sweeps just along the beach of this little fishing village.
While you may not feel like stopping at this point, or if you have hired a ride they’ll just be pushing on, Playa Garza is a place that you will definitely want to revisit (perhaps more than once depending on the length of your stay) at some point during your trip.
Of course, if you are in no rush to check into your house or hotel and unpack the surfboards (which, let’s be honest, who isn’t just absolutely frothing to get into the surf at this point, but really people do visit Costa Rica who aren’t surfers. Honest!), there really aren’t many better places to pull over and begin to unwind than right here at Garza.
First of all, the reason Playa Garza is still a fishing village and not a blown out surf town like Nosara just a few kilometers up the road is because of the protected bay that it is comfortably nestled within. While there can still be a pretty strong shorebreak here due to the large ocean swells, they do not break outside which allows for some restful floating around and swimming, getting the dust of the road and the dirty recycled airplane air off of you for the first time.
After your refreshing plunge into the azur water of the Pacific, you may decide, you know, I’m not in a rush to get going just yet. Lucky for you, some of the best ceviche on the planet is waiting for you, fresh off the fisherman’s boats at Pilo’s Bar and Restaurant right on the beach – couple of cold Pilsens and some ceviche, drip drying on the sand with some strangling dogs at your feet.
You’re Welcome, your Costa Rica vacation has now begun.
But I digress…
Since we had hired a driver, we didn’t do this stop. But we would certainly be back a few times, doing the bumpy dusty drive in our golf cart and hoping the rattletrap wouldn’t completely fall to pieces on the way.
Just past Garza, we saw our first troop of howler monkeys slowly making their way along the power lines that follow the road. I knew this because of the shrieks of ‘Monkeys!’ from my girls as they pulled open the sliding side windows and stuck their heads out into the dust. Our driver smiled widely and slowed down to accommodate, also pointing his head out the window to check out the scene despite having seen this his entire life.
Soon after our monkey sighting, we were pulling into Guiones and found our home for the next month on Calle Los Mango on the north side of town. Most streets in Guiones aren’t named or labeled, instead giving directions via landmarks, but Calle Los Mangos has both a name and a street sign, homemade of course, so it is easy to locate.
On our previous, shorter, visit to Nosara we had stayed right off of the main street behind the popular surf and coffee shop Olo Alaia. However, in this short time we could see the changes that were happening on the north side of town, and found a fantastic place to stay there.
Exploring the town the year before, it seemed to me that the south end of town was a bit more ‘neighborhoody’ and possibly could require longer walks to the beach or town, depending on where you were staying.
But one of the things I really needed to make this month with the kids work was the opportunity for independence. Even though they were just 8 and 10 at the time, I wanted to be able to give them a few colones and go get ice cream on their own, and I felt that the north side of town offered more opportunities to do this (maybe other people will be able to offer their experience to the contrary).
In the end, I felt like this worked out pretty well. Drawing on their familiarity from previous trips and the ease and comfort of getting around, it wasn’t long before they were exploring on their own, taking the little jungle path between Pacific Azul Restaurant and The Nomadic over to grab ice cream at Robin’s on the main drag, negotiating the order and money on their own with the friendly local women who run the counter speaking some english but not a lot.
Now, this isn’t to say that my wife has the same comfort level that I do letting the kids stretch their wings like this. She might call while they were out and ask what the kids were doing. To which I would answer, I don’t know.
This wasn’t her favorite answer, and by the time she joined us here in a few weeks, we would be on a different level that would take some adjustment – the girls now accustomed to running around town and my wife uneasy with the newfound freedom that they aren’t allowed home in the US but somehow are ok with in a dusty surf town in Central America.
We arrived mid-afternoon on a typical rainy season day, steamy and hot but comfortable in the way that only being hot close to the ocean can be. Our new home for the month was modern, yet had the traditional Costa Rican touches of local wood beams of Spanish Cedar the decoratively shaped bars that cage the windows and sliding glass doors – a reminder that security is still an issue despite the relative safety of Costa Rica compared to its neighbors.
You don’t even have to be outside the house to feel one with nature here. Despite being a solid, modern home, the barrier between the incomprehensibly alive jungle outside – creeping and loud and multitudinous – and the climate controlled barrier of interior is vague at best.
Screeching parrots and the throaty, gasping growl of the howler monkeys penetrating the home while the orderly troops of army ants who don’t go around, they go through, march silently from one hole in wall to another, always taking the shortest distance. The steady whacking of jungle by a man with a machete, the constant, quiet battle for maintaining your space in the rainforest. The chainsaw of a motorcycle with no exhaust, ubiquitous around the world, the only sound of the modern world.
It was easy to unpack our small bags, even a long trip here only requires a few items – mostly of them to protect our fair gringo skin from the intense, blazing sun – bathing suits and long sleeve swim shirts, wide brimmed hats, large tubes of sunscreen. The large shared pool, cool from the daily rains and clean from the constant upkeep, desperately refreshing in the muggy heat, was calling, and we dove in for a quick cool-off and then took off for the beach.
There would be plenty of time spent here. There’s something about kids and pools. Later in this trip we would meet up with some friends who were traveling around the world for a year. Whether it was in New Zealand or Bangkok, Costa Rica or India. If the lodging had a pool, you had to beware. It was impossible to get anyone to do anything else.
Despite the kids contentedness, I was desperate to get in the ocean, play in the waves, not surfing yet as I had to play lifeguard for the moment – oh, and because I sprained my MCL snowboarding two weeks before this dream trip and was in a large knee brace with metal supports and squeaky hinges, the neoprene velcro straps a less than pleasant development in the tropical heat.
The mental anguish of injuring myself before a month-long surf trip to Costa Rica was something that would require desperate meditation and tequila. It was rough. I was beating myself up, but trying to make the best of it.
Surfing while I had the kids to myself was always going to be a tricky part of this trip. Do I go out early for dawn patrol sessions and leave them home alone, or surf closer in while they swim? I’m comfortable with the waves here, but they can get big. There are always some risks, and I’m not above taking a good pounding once in a while, but I would have had to play things a bit more conservatively. Additionally, lifeguard duty is required.
Part of the plan was that the kids were going to be attending a local school for a couple of weeks to work on their spanish and, admittedly, give me the space to get in the water without having to be on lifeguard duty. Now, they were still going to be going to school, but I would be doing PT under the shade of the trees by the pool. I couldn’t bare to go stare at the waves and watch the surfers while I was doing this. I was torturing myself for my stupidity bad enough as it was.
One of the many amazing things that has made Nosara a haven for expats and long term travelers here in Costa Rica is the existence of the infrastructure you ‘need’ to live among all of the simplicity that life here entails. By infrastructure I mean internet, of course, coffee shops, organic grocery stores. You could even get an organic juice fast delivered to your door each morning if you wanted.
But along with all of that are schools, a few options for them actually, the largest and most established of which is the Del Mar Academy – a self-described green, Montessori, and International Baccalaureate school. What this means is that you could live here full time and have a high quality education for your kids all the way through high school – often a limiting factor when looking for a place to plop down and get away from it all (or at least most of it).
Del Mar Academy also runs what they call the Splash program. This program is geared towards all of those people like me who are staying for an extended time, but not a full school year. You can enroll by the week, but have a somewhat structured academic program.
I had enrolled the girls in this program for two weeks to see how it went. As it turned out, we would make it through one and then bail out on the other. Since I couldn’t surf there was less enticement to maintaining the up and at ‘em schedule and packing lunches. Plus we almost destroyed three golf carts making the commute up into the hills above Nosara where the school was located – the roads much more suitable for the Range Rovers and Land Cruisers that lined up in the parking lot at drop off and pick up times.
The reality is that Del Mar Academy had a program that fit our temporary needs, but for full time school it’s the most expensive option around. While they run scholarships to fund tuition for some local kids, this is the school for people with money.
It all came crashing to a halt on the Thursday of the first week when one of my kids came down with a fever. I missed the numerous calls from the school, who then went on to contact my wife back in the states. Of course. Once I got the message I hurried up to the school as fast as golf cart can make the drive without crumbling to pieces and picked up the kids, judgemental eyes daggering from all directions, including virtual ones from up north.
Well. It was a nice try. If we were going to bounce around dusty highways in a golf cart, bandanas across our faces, avoiding dump trucks that were passing us on the steep up-hills, we could be going to other beaches instead of school. After all, I didn’t homeschool the kids so that we could have more structure in our lives.
It ended up being fortuitous that we bowed out of school for the second week. After all, the early mornings meant early to bed and all of the regular hurrying that comes along with getting kids out the door at a certain time, or any time for that matter.
However, the second week was going to take on a life of its own as I had a couple of old friends coming down to visit which was sure to mean later nights, sleepier (aka hungover) mornings, and the desire to explore around the area a bit more. After all, this was a new place for them.
They both showed up, one with his wife the other with his girlfriend, and rented a place on the far south side of town in the gated area of Nosara called the Guiones Beach Club. It was great to have this pull to another end of town that we hadn’t explored too much before, my ten year old daughter thankful for the reason to log some serious miles driving the golf cart through town and quickly becoming an expert at managing the deep puddles, random dogs, and signless intersections.
The beach club has its own path through the trees and to the beach and is close to the tidepools that are an amazing place to play and explore on low tide, snorkeling in the shallows, chasing eels and fish.
My friends aren’t really hard core surfers, so were content to longboard in the shorebreak, and the tidepools were a great place to play with my bum knee. Plus, this growing party became more of the daiquiri before leaving the house and loading up a cooler with beer for the beach sort of vacation.
These days, when I come here I’m surfing a ton, and recovering the rest of the time – maybe a couple of beers at dinner and a good afternoon espresso at Olo Alaia, but really that’s about it. In fact, on a subsequent two week surf mission that took me from Nosara all the way to Pavones and back, I wouldn’t drink at all, instead going for the full-on surf and health mission and coming back with my trunks barely able to stay up – waist shrinking, shoulders broadening.
But with a hefty knee brace, now squeaking all over town from the salt air and humidity, and my kids totally content to swim, play, and explore,, there was no use in resisting the more traditional beach vacation – the one with beach chairs and lounging and plenty of alcohol to go around.
It was cool to have some fresh energy in the mix, and also the ability to play host and tour guide to these friends who are new visitors to a place that I love so much and have embraced fully over the years. We would load up and go grab ceviche at Pilos in Playa Garza, or go check out Playa Pelada to the north. They had a chance to catch some waves and just feel the Pura Vida lifestyle.
Aside from catching an arm reaching through a torn screen in the middle of the night, trying to grab anything that could be found on the nightstand, things went pretty well.
A good week went by with many hours spent between lounging by the pool and exploring the beach. Looking back, there are a few things I wish I had done while they were there since they had cars and I wasn’t surfing – perhaps a drive up to Ostional and San Juanillo and dinner at La Luna in Playa Pelada – but that’s how it goes.
I tend to settle in and just take what is close and walkable to be my new and simple little world and seek contentedness within those limits. In a place like Nosara I find this to be very easy, and if other people want to explore more, well then they can instigate that.
Their leaving led into the third phase of the trip, the part where my wife arrived to join us for the second half of the trip. The girls were psyched that she was coming and I was glad that she would get a well deserved break from work. I was starting to feel like I could push it with the surfing a bit, but the thought of having a leash tug on my leg (my back knee was the injured one) was unthinkable, so I would just manage somehow, but still not going all the way out to the main breaks.
My wife arrived without any problem, the same driver we used picking her up from the airport in Liberia and bringing her down on the familiar yet tortuously bumpy road. She ranks among those who experience vertigo and car sickness, so this part of the trip wasn’t something she was looking forward to. But she survived, and was glad to be here, falling into the mellow pace of pool, ocean, smoothie, ice cream, simple dinners with ease and growing nervously aware of the freedoms that my kids had become accustomed to under my loose watch.
Having the full crew back together was a welcome change, although not without some adjustments. Just as when I had taken other long trips where part of it was solo and then a friend or brother or someone else joined midway through, the addition of another personality is always somewhat bittersweet and rarely pure bliss.
The joining party is always at a bit of a disadvantage having yet to adjust to the pace of the new place and unknowing of the subtle routines that have been established. Given a few days, they usually conceded a happy defeat to the whims of the now-professional vacationers – early surfs, afternoon naps, late night bonfires, and a lot of not knowing exactly where the kids are.
There is also the adjustment to the jungle – the heat, the mugginess, and mostly the bugs. Things that seem extraordinary when you arrive somehow becoming normal. Others, while remaining worthy of note – look at the size of that spider! – yet not eliciting the fear that they did at first. Now, the newby, yet to adjust to the critters, seeming unnecessarily fearful – mom, they’re just ants!.
In this particular trip, the final week would go on to take on yet another distinct phase, the competition of the four phases of the month, and one that we hadn’t anticipated would be so impactful and amazing.
There was a family that we knew from home, kids in the same class, saying hi at school events, but had never deeply connected with in the buzz and busy of everyday life and routines of get-togethers and meals with people we already know. While we had taken the year off to homeschool and travel, we were still anchored by work so it looked a bit more like random road trips, spontaneous camping, and mid-week skiing – and a month in Costa Rica.
This family, on the other hand, was living the dream of a year on the road, world schooling as it was, with trips to Nepal and Thailand and New Zealand before coincidentally being here in Nosara at the same time as us.
In this time and place, we were able to connect as we never had back at home, and in fact haven’t been able to maintain since we returned. But in that time our relationship changed and deepened, getting to know each other over long meals and short run-ins around town – being in the unique space and frame of mind that long-term travel allows to discuss values and minimalism and experiences over stuff and all of the problems with home that we so easily slip right back into.
But at least the conversation happened, and the experiences were had, to provide a real frame of reference, some relativity to the ridiculousness we call the American Dream.
Of course, it also provided all of us a unique opportunity for space and new perspectives. After being on the road for a year, they were happy to talk to someone familiar yet new at the same time, the kids running off to surf camp together while the adults had sunset beers on the beach.
It was also, of course, interesting to get their perspective on Nosara, this place that is rapidly developing into the posh, tourist friendly version of the Costa Rican experience, expensive and written about in the New York Times and changing so rapidly that your next visit is sure to have a new hotel or restaurant that wasn’t there just last year.
In Nosara, you’re sure to run into people from home, as we were, and you will probably be left wondering if organic juice cleanse delivery is really what your Costa Rica experience is supposed to be all about.
After their year on the road, you could tell they were struggling with the guilt of enjoying the balance of good food and ease with beauty and beaches without the adventure of danger and stomach bugs.
It’s a guilt that we all feel to an extent.
The month wound down and it was time to leave, to say good bye to the neighbors who were staying for a year and we got to know because their toddler kept coming over to play with the girls, to the barista at Olo Alaia who made me an espresso every afternoon. But you also realize that despite the beauty of surfing in Costa Rica and its people, in a month in a town like Nosara you really haven’t connected deeply and probably haven’t spoken much spanish. But these things can be done with just a little effort as I would find out on a subsequent trip. I would find that there are plenty of opportunities for this if you just try a little, and I would make sure that this effort would be a part of any trips back here in the future.
I know there will be more trips to Nosara, because of and in spite of all the development and change, and organic juice deliveries, because it is the balance of safety and food and beach and dirt and monkey and pothole and fresh fish and surf that we’re looking for when we travel.
And while I long to find new places and new experiences, the idea that there is a place down in Central America where my kids feel right at home, where they can get around and would feel comfortable perhaps taking their first solo trips, is priceless. They talk about Nosara the same way other kids talk about the place their family drives to a couple hours away – excited yet casual, acknowledging the difference, yet feeling as if it is something they can do at any time.
They feel the same way about Costa Rica at 10 years old as i did when I first started going in my 20s, and that is something I never knew I would pass on to anyone.