Capturing the Spirit of Independent Travel in Costa Rica

It had been a while since my last independent travel experience prior to our family trip to Costa Rica this summer with my wife, Ingrid, and my children, Anders, 9, and Annika, 6. A while is an understatement. It was 1998 when Ingrid and I, Lonely Planet founder Tony Wheeler, LP author Stan Armington and a small group, walked from Nepal into Tibet, around Mt. Kailesh, onto the monasteries of far Western Tibet and then across the country to Lhasa before flying past Mt. Everest as we made our way home. Nice little trip.

As the US General Manager for Lonely Planet during the 1990s, you could say I took travel opportunities for granted. Whether it was snorkeling in the South Pacific or on the Great Barrier Reef, mountain biking in Tahiti or skiing in the Alps, I was out of the country on some adventure at least once a year—but that was all before kids. What’s happened since is a pleasant blur of summer trips to Northern Michigan and Colorado in the winter to visit grandparents and cousins, with a bunch of Northern California weekend getaways and Tahoe ski trips thrown in.

The blur would have continued, except Ingrid earned a two month sabbatical and was determined to make the most of it. We considered Venezuela, Spain and Thailand, but eventually settled on Costa Rica, since it was relatively close and provided a variety of opportunities to keep the kids engaged, including surfing, zip lines, canopy tours, volcanoes, national parks, monkeys, bright green frogs, mariposas, iguanas, and two oceans! Both of our kids had also attended a Spanish-only preschool but stopped speaking it as soon as they started kindergarten. We hoped an extended trip to Costa Rica, and their natural desire to play with other kids, would bring back their Spanish.

Without a sabbatical, I could only join for the first two weeks. In the months and weeks before the trip Moon Costa Rica, written by veteran travel writer, Christopher P. Baker, became our bible—especially for Ingrid who had to plan for five weeks on the road, including three with just her and the kids. You definitely can’t beat a well researched and written guidebook when planning an extended trip, and by the time of departure it was full of yellow Post-its and notes in the margin.

We rented a place in the Pacific coast town of Tamarindo for the first two weeks with the idea that we could explore other points on the Nicoya Peninsula through a series of day trips, including the turtles and pristine sands of Playa Grande, Playa Flamingo, Rincon volcano and surfing at Nosara. I’ve had success finding accommodations with the website in the past, and gave them a try comparing what I found there with other sites. VRBO can be especially good for longer stays.

After a couple of emails, we reserved a two-bedroom, two bath apartment a very short walk to the beach and town. Besides an ideal location it featured a gated entrance, a safe, WiFi, and a small pool for the kids. We flew into Liberia and caught a shuttle for the hour-long trip to Tamarindo.

A young girl rides in to shore on a surfboard.
Annika learns to surf in the gentle waves of a Costa Rican beach.
Photo © Eric Kettunen.

For the next several days we lived on the beach, and I was thrilled when both kids learned to surf—something I hadn’t done until my thirties. I thought I’d have to talk Anders into lessons, and was surprised when six year old Annika wanted to join. We developed a friendship with the surfing instructor who also had kids and shared information about schools, vacations, what our kids enjoyed, etc. He gave us plenty of suggestions on local places eat and see—as well as recommendations of other parts of Costa Rica to visit.

Getting around was easy. In addition to an extensive and easy-to-use bus system, there are several major car rental agencies in Tamarindo. You can get a reliable car for as little as $40 a day, but it’s worth it to spend an extra $30 for a small four wheel drive SUV as many of the roads are in rough shape.

Our first trip was to the Rincon Volcano, about 80 KM and two hours from the coast, including 20 or so up a long rutted dirt road. When we arrived we embarked on a two hour loop hike that included hot springs, mud baths and a spectacular waterfall. The hike turned out to be more challenging than expected, and Ingrid and I were already taking turns carrying Annika after the first hour when it started to rain. I should have mentioned, if you’re going to visit Costa Rica during the rainy season, expect…rain. Before long, the trail had turned into a muddy river and everything we were carrying was soaked—including my faithful Moon Handbook. At one point Annika and I became separated from Ingrid and Anders and the rain was pounding so hard that they couldn’t hear me although I was yelling at the top of my lungs. I felt like a soldier trudging through the jungle, but instead of schlepping a 100 lb pack I carried a very sad and wet six-year-old.

Eventually we reconnected, and by the time we finished the sun was shining and the nightmare of the previous hour was already transforming into a memorable adventure. Our Moon Handbook had been soaked, but eventually dried out and was completely functional except that the color map, photo and highlights section at the beginning had fused together.

A rain-soaked Moon Costa Rica Handbook dries out.
Drying out Moon Costa Rica after an unexpected downpour.
Photo © Eric Kettunen.

We had several other day trips to interesting destinations on the coast and inland, including a memorable horseback ride through the mountains and down to the beach. The end came way too soon for me when it was time to head back to California. In the nine years I’ve had kids I’d never been away from them for more than a few days, and I wasn’t looking forward to spending the next three weeks in our empty house. Saying goodbye the evening before my morning departure was tough, but I’m so pleased my kids had this early opportunity to experience a different country and culture.

Even after just two weeks, I could tell they were growing as a result of their travel experiences, and I couldn’t wait to hear about the second part of their trip. They are now travelers—and that’s a great thing.

So how has independent travel changed and remained the same over the last ten years? I think it’s almost all for the better. Sure, special, “secret” spots can get overbuilt as they become more popular, but for each of those there are dozens waiting to be discovered. What hasn’t changed is that it’s enriching and exciting to see a country and discover new places on your own and get to know the people that live there. Whether a surfing instructor on the beach in Costa Rica, or a Buddhist monk in western Tibet, people are interested in meeting visitors from other countries and generally like to share knowledge about their community and culture. Something I knew, but didn’t fully appreciate before this trip, is how traveling as a family can remove any social or cultural barriers. Kids have an innate desire to play and interact with other kids, wherever they’re from. It’s an international language, and our desire as parents for them to grow up safe and happy, and gain new skills and experiences is shared by families everywhere.

What stands out for me as the biggest change is the degree to which you can stay connected at practically no cost while on the road. I was surprised at how ubiquitous WiFi connections were across Costa Rica. With my wife’s iPhone, we were able to use the internet to supplement our guidebook and get the latest information. Before I left Costa Rica I downloaded a Skype app onto Ingrid’s phone, and each night I talked with her and the kids and heard about their adventures that day, usually with the clarity as if they were in the same room. Although I brought my bulky HD video camera and SLR back with me, Ingrid takes very good quality videos and stills with her iPhone and then posts them to her Facebook page where they can be instantly shared with friends and family.

Independent travel is just as exciting, inspiring, enriching, and interesting as it has always been. What has changed is that it’s now so easy to stay in touch with your world and those important to you, wherever you choose to go.

Anders and Annika hug with the dramatic view of Mt Arenal behind them.
It’s never too young to become travelers.
Photo © Eric Kettunen.

Related Travel Guide