From the October 2015 issue of Traveler magazine
My husband, our three kids, and I are 45 minutes into a bumpy ride along a dusty, winding road on the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica when I flash back four months. Sitting pretty on a groomed beach on Long Island, my husband, Manny, and I were talking about—well, what does anyone talk about at the end of one vacation but the planning for the next? Tired of spending a fortune on the same conventional family trips everyone else we knew was taking, Manny vowed the next one would be different. We would travel to an unfamiliar place to live like locals, or as close to locals as we could get. Which is how we find ourselves en route to the small seaside settlement called Mal Pais—"bad country," a name derived from the area's steep, rugged terrain, not suitable for farming.
Or so the story went.
"This can't be the restaurant," says my 11-year-old son as my husband turns our rental jeep onto a sand parking lot. "It looks like a dog run."
On the far side of a rope, dozens of dogs are running free around a few haphazardly placed plastic tables. Don't be so narrow-minded, I want to scold him. Only I'm thinking the same thing. Could this really be Banana Beach, the lunch place recommended by Bruno Demarco Quiroz, the young Argentine manager of Hotel Moana, where we're staying? Then a couple of beers go by on a tray, and my husband all but jumps from the car, commanding us to follow.
There is not enough shade at our table, the food is slow in coming, the kids' milk is served warm. But rather than complain, my children peel off one by one to gape at the same thing Manny and I, veteran island visitors, can't help but stare at: the enormous, savage beauty of the unspoiled jungle beach.
Usually when we travel, we have to stick the children in some pricey day camp to grab even five minutes alone. Here there's nary a counselor, ball, or sand bucket in sight. All that's left is what's around us—and our kids become more absorbed in an exploration of this new world than they've been anywhere else.
This means Manny and I are free. Soon we notice we are the only Americans here; the people around us are speaking Spanish, French, German. No one seems to be talking about the stock market, real estate, or the best after-school sports programs. If they are, we can't understand them.
We haven't come to Mal Pais expressly to see wildlife; for that we'd visit Manuel Antonio National Park or some of Costa Rica's many other reserves. Yet by staying at the small Hotel Moana, we now live in close proximity to the natural world, a fact underscored early the following morning when we're awakened by the very loud calls of red-furred howler monkeys. At breakfast, on the lodge's vertiginously cantilevered dining pavilion—featuring, perhaps too literally, drop-dead views of the swirling ocean below—we spy iguanas in the treetops. Vultures circle in the distance.
"So you like Tico style," Quiroz observes. Tico? "Native Costa Rican. You know, laid back, pura vida, live and let live." We all nod, and, assured, he gives us his next recommendation: a surfing school at Playa Hermosa, or Beautiful Beach.
TO GET TO BEAUTIFUL BEACH, we first must drive through Santa Teresa, a small, hectic town that is crammed with surfboard and sunglass shops in a swirling cloud of dust. People buzz around on mopeds and ATVs, nearly all wearing bandanas over their faces. We drive by a French bakery and an open-air chicken restaurant, where we see whole chickens being cooked on a grill on the ground only a few feet from our passing tires.
The Shaka Surf School is just off the road, but we miss it because it looks like little more than an encampment. Pulling up to it, I find myself wondering about the safety protocols of this "school." But before I can mortify Manny by questioning a staff member, he quickly, perhaps preemptively, hires Brent Newell, a 23-year-old blond transplant from Cocoa Beach, Florida, to coach him and our oldest son.
"Yup, that be the town from I Dream of Jeannie," says Newell. True to the spirit of the long-running TV show, he all but makes us disappear by steering us to a through-the-jungle shortcut that he assures us will lead to the beach. Or not.
The path quickly turns into a river of mud. With my husband and 11-year-old off on their lesson with Newell, I'm left to slip-slide along it with no assistance, one younger child hiked up on each hip. Together the three of us pass under a canopy of giant trees bedecked with dozens of mud clumps: termite colonies, a fact I keep to myself. Little brown spider monkeys up in the branches rain nuts down to the ground. Kerplunk! Kerplunk! Then we see it, a beach even bigger, more wild, and more beautiful than the one we visited yesterday, the only commerce on it two men selling coconut water out of the husk.
By now the kids are getting hungry, so I ask Newell for suggestions. "Koji's," he answers. "Awesome sushi. And don't worry about having the right clothes," he adds, reading my mind. "This," he points to his bare chest and board shorts, "is dressed for Costa Rica."
We descend on Koji's—a roadside eatery near Playa Hermosa—in our beach cover-ups and flip-flops. The food is amazing and the crowd casual, in a St. Barth's-beautiful-people sort of way. Still, the vibe is decidedly Tico, with friendly dogs roaming between our tables.
And so begins the routine of our two-week trip, although really it'll be the opposite of routine: We'll try something new each day. We will hike, or try to hike, waterfalls near the neighboring town of Montezuma, for which my cautious husband will wear sneakers, unlike the barefoot Ticos. This will cause him to slip and bang his leg, prematurely adjourning our excursion to a beachfront Italian restaurant, Playa de los Artistas, where we will enjoy perhaps the best, and most artfully arranged, meal we've ever had. We'll ride horses Tico style—helmetless—with a 16-year-old guide named Josué, who, as he leads us through a campground, will warn, "There will be some dogs, do not act scared," just as a ragtag pack of, oh, 20 or so fierce hounds charge at us and our horses.
Hundreds of ants will invade our room back at the lodge, and one night our air conditioning will not simply break but have a breakdown, spewing balls of hail in our faces. Yet everything will be fixed, and anyway, none of these setbacks will matter. We will lose track of time, forget what day of the week it is, and, near the end of our stay, discover a beach with tidal pools where hundreds of snails cling to the primordial rock. Our children will play here for hours, splashing among the hermit crabs, starfish, and other sea creatures.
"It's like SeaWorld," I tell them.
"No," my 11-year-old will correct me, "it's the real one."