3 Weeks in Costa Rica: Part 1

Video of our first day! (Pardon the popping and hissing on the audio. The used GoPro camera I bought had a microphone issue.)

Apparently, our family of 6 now qualifies as its own tour group in Latin American countries. Duly noted.

The sun was beginning to set and I wasn’t very excited about my first driving experience in the country occurring after dark, so after playing some Tetris with our gear (and our kids), we discovered we could squeeze 2 car seats and 1 big kid across the second-row seat, while the most nimble big kid, that would be Carly, could squeeze into the 30% of the 3rd-row seat that remained uncollapsed.

As I eased our large rental SUV out onto the street, I couldn’t help but think that we were finally starting our Costa Rican adventure.

An adventure that almost never happened.

Unexpected Early Retirement

Just one month earlier, my team at work shuffled into a conference room only to be informed that we were being laid off.

One month later, newly retired and without any job obligations holding us back, our family of 6 hopped on a plane to Costa Rica for a 22-day adventure.

I suppose that’s not how many people would do it.

We actually considered canceling the trip entirely. I mean, who gets laid off of work, then spends thousands of dollars on a 3-week international vacation?

It sounded just as foolish to us as it did to everyone around us.

But in the wake of the shifting sands beneath us, my wife and I realized we weren’t losing a job, we were gaining freedom.

We were being given the gift of living our lives on our own schedule.

Not going to Costa Rica would have been a choice made in fear. A choice produced from the deep chaos of an uncertain future.

Instead, we chose to create the future that we wanted.

A future where we could explore another country and experience the beauty of people and cultures and landscapes that we had never experienced before.

We chose to keep living.

Not So Fast, Mr. Unemployed

My amazing wife had been planning the trip for months.

She had done all the logistics. We had picked our travel dates, narrowed down the cities we would visit, and selected the Airbnb’s we would stay in.

But due to my new employment situation, there were a few last-minute wrinkles that needed to be handled.

First was signing all the paperwork at work. The HR department had scheduled this for 3 days after we were supposed to leave. I think I threw them for a loop when I requested to sign everything earlier because we were about to leave the country.

Second was securing new health insurance for the family. The easiest solution was simply to continue with my same work health insurance through COBRA. That involved signing even more paperwork and navigating the maze of my now former company’s HR website.

All of that fun added a bit more stress to the preparation, but once all the details were finalized, we could finally relax and embrace the exciting adventure that awaited us.

It’s Different This Time

My wife and I have both had the pleasure of traveling abroad on different vacations and mission trips, so we were pretty familiar with international travel.

(In fact, all 4 of our kids already had passports due to our adventure through Canada the previous year, so that was one less thing to prepare.)

Valarie and I loved our international trips and the connections we were able to build with many of the people in each place.

What we didn’t love was the brief and hectic motions of air-dropping into a country for 7 days, rushing around and doing all the things and meeting people in rapid-fire fashion, then rushing back to the day-to-day operations of our normal life.

We completely understand where the phrase “needing a vacation from my vacation” came from.

But we also understand why most vacations are planned like that.

Because people have jobs!

Getting time off work is a struggle.

Even for those who have extended vacation time, taking large portions at one time – like 3 consecutive weeks – can be nearly impossible at worst, or at least highly frowned upon at best.

For us, this trip was going to be different for two really BIG reasons.

  1. I no longer had a job – meaning nothing was dictating our return date and no pile of to-do’s or emails or tasks were piling up while I was away. (Huge stress reliever right there!)
  2. We were bringing all 4 of our young kids, from age 9 all the way down to 23 months – right below the 2-year-old-and-younger-fly-for-free threshold.

These were HUGE changes from our past trips.

Remaining in the country for 3 full weeks would give us a greater opportunity to explore and experience the country, while also building connections and meeting people.

Val and I have always loved connecting with people from different cultures.

Even on our vacations to places like Jamaica or Aruba or Cozumel, we always gravitated toward connecting with the locals more than with the other tourists like us.

As far as traveling for 3 straight weeks with all 4 kiddos, we weren’t as confident in how that would go.

The toddler hanging out with all our luggage at home before we load up the car.
All packed and ready to go!

Don’t get me wrong. Our kids are all awesome.

But kids, in general, can be a handful when not adequately rested, and our youngest wasn’t even 2 years old yet, so that’s always a recipe for, “Wow! Never saw that coming,” at any given moment.

Knowing this was a full family adventure, we planned for slow travel. Toddlers need naps. Kids need rest. And weary parents need some downtime too, so that was all baked into the schedule.

To be fair, we had kicked the tires on this kind of extended adventure in 2018 when we spent 10 days in Toronto, Canada and New York at Val’s brother’s wedding, so we had a small idea of what we were getting ourselves into.

We were also planning to be part of a mission trip during our very first week in the country, but with all 4 kids with us, we knew this was definitely going to be different than anything Val and I had done before.

With all our best preparations complete and suitcases packed to the ceiling, we were as ready as we were ever going to be.

It was time to turn our plans into reality.

Getting There

We’ve had the privilege of flying with our young children several times, and for us, priority number one when embarking on air travel with kids is finding non-stop flights.

I know, I know. Trapesing through massive airports, standing in long lines, going through security, toting luggage and backpacks, finding adequate food, and providing proper entertainment during long waiting periods sounds like tons of fun with small children…oh wait…no it doesn’t.

And that’s exactly why we prefer to only do it once.

Carly and Giabella enjoying sharing a seat on the airplane.
Sometimes you gotta share a seat with your little sister.

We flew non-stop to Toronto last year. We did it again when flying to Washington D.C. a few years ago. We did it 5 years ago when flying to Indiana, way back when we only had 2 kids!

Trust me, non-stop is the way to go with young kids.

It might cost a bit more, but in my mind, and in the minds of those unsuspecting passengers that will be traveling with us, it’s money well spent.

To make that magic happen this year, we first had to drive 3 hours from our home in San Antonio to Houston.

That may sound like a poor add-on to the trip, but we actually grew up in Houston and our parents live there, making a quick stopover in Houston a bonus.

In fact, we spent a week in Houston on the back-end of our trip hanging out with family before making the drive back home, turning the whole adventure into a solid month-long journey.

From Houston, we were able to catch a quick non-stop flight directly to San Jose, the capital city of Costa Rica.

Upon Arrival – Money, Phones and Rental Cars, Oh My.

Upon arrival at the San Jose International Airport in Costa Rica, we had 3 major objectives beyond picking up our extensive pile of luggage.

  1. Exchanging some of our U.S. Dollars for Costa Rican Colones.
  2. Grabbing local SIM cards for our cell phones so we could use cellular data on our phones.
  3. Picking up our rental car that would serve as our personal shuttle across the country for the entire 3 weeks.

Exchanging Money

Exchanging money was quite easy. There was a currency exchange desk right next to the luggage carousels where we picked up our aforementioned pile of luggage.

U.S. dollars are accepted in many of the more touristy locations across the country, but we knew we would be spending a good portion of our time in less trafficked areas and wanted to be prepared.

Also, even when places accepted U.S. dollars, because of the exchange rate, it was typically cheaper to pay in Colones if possible, so we wanted that option available.

Of course, we paid for most of our expenses using our travel rewards credit card, so having physical cash in either currency was only used occasionally.

Local SIM Cards

Right next to the currency exchange desk was a vendor that sold local SIM cards.

We opted to get 2 SIM cards, one for each of our iPhones, for about $10 each. These came with 2gb of data usage pre-loaded and could be reloaded with more data anywhere in the country at conveniently located kiosks.

At least, that’s what we were told. It turns out we never had to find out because we barely used any of our data for reasons we would soon discover as we picked up our rental car.

Rental Car – Party of 6

Being a family of 6, we roll pretty solid in a minivan here in the states.

Guess what country doesn’t do minivans?

A lot of them, including Costa Rica.

We worked with a great local rental car company in Costa Rica called Adobe Rent-a-Car. They were fantastic.

They worked with us to get the largest “7-passenger” SUV they had, a brand new 2019 Mitsubishi Montero Sport.

Upon arrival, we discovered that with the 3rd-row seat in the full upright position, we could either fit our family inside the vehicle or our luggage, but not both.

For all the shade people like to toss at minivans, the combination of passenger and cargo space just can’t be matched.

Our Minivan
Our minivan at home fits our family and our luggage with room to spare.

We stood around the car with the rental agent for several minutes trying to figure out a solution.

The agents at Adobe Rent-a-Car did their best to work with us, but this was the largest vehicle they had unless we wanted to upgrade (upgrade?) to one of those tour-group mini-buses. But even then, none of those were available for the full 3 weeks.

Apparently, our family qualifies as its own tour group in Latin American countries. Duly noted.

The sun was beginning to set and I wasn’t excited about my first driving experience in the country occurring after dark, so after playing some Tetris with our gear (and our kids), we discovered that 3 of our kids could squeeze across the second-row seat, while the most nimble big kid, that would be Carly, could squeeze into the 30% of the 3rd-row seat that remained uncollapsed.

It wasn’t awesome, but it worked.

As far as we were concerned, this was all part of the adventure.

Our kids were learning that being uncomfortable is not an excuse to be ungrateful. We had one of the nicest vehicles on the road the whole time we were in Costa Rica. What a blessing!

Also, with our 3-week rental car purchase, we got a free Wi-Fi hotspot with unlimited data to use for the duration of our trip.

This meant having unlimited Wi-Fi access in our car wherever we went.

This was an amazing benefit!

Between the Wi-Fi in our Airbnb’s and our Wi-Fi hotspot always on in our car, we were connected to Wi-Fi well over 95% of the time.

Therefore we hardly used the data on our locally purchased SIM cards. It was easy enough to just wait until we were in the car or in our Airbnb to do anything on our phones that required data.

In practice, this meant we could use our phones in the car for maps, uploading pictures, social media, FaceTime calls with family, or whatever. The Wi-Fi hotspot was an absolute game-changer that was completely unexpected, and we were so glad we had it.

Once we were done squeezing kids and suitcases into the car, we finally pulled out of the rental car parking lot with our fancy “7-passenger” SUV packed to the brim and headed toward our first AirBnB in San Jose.

The First Night

We only stayed in San Jose for one night before heading off to our official first destination, Liberia, in the morning.

Though our stay was brief, our experience in our first Airbnb was ultimately a test of our kids’ ability to all sleep all in the same room together – something that would be required for most of the trip.

The apartment was a small 2 bedroom / 2 bathroom unit with a small living room, dining nook, and kitchen. It was very similar to many such apartments Valarie and I have lived in here in the US – albeit when we had fewer kids.

The kids’ bedroom had a bunk bed on one wall along with another twin bed on the opposite wall, perfect for the big 3. And there was just enough space at the foot of the twin bed for the baby’s Pac-n-Play.

As concerned as we were with them having trouble sleeping, it turns out an exhausting day of travel does a pretty good job of helping them all quiet down and fall asleep.

What we weren’t expecting was for the sun to be up at 6 a.m. and shining directly into their room.

That meant at 6:05 a.m. all the kids were up and ready to start the day!

We quickly learned that the sun would be up at 6 a.m. every day while we were in Costa Rica (the earth is funny like that), so early mornings quickly became part of our daily routine.

Bigger Isn’t Always Better

About the only thing that was a little awkward about our apartment was the tiny parking space.

Though massive SUV’s are a dime a dozen here in the US, most personal vehicles in Costa Rica seem to be small compact cars similar to a Toyota Corolla or Hyundai Accent.

Therefore the driveways and parking spaces are built with these types of vehicles in mind.

By contrast, our Mitsubishi Montero SUV rolled through town like a Hummer.

It barely fit in the designated parking space at the apartment.

The doors wouldn’t open all the way on the side closest to the apartment wall, and on the other side, I was afraid the doors would hit the tiny car owned by the person in the apartment next to ours.

Our SUV in the parking area at the base of Volcano Arenal.
To be fair, our SUV doesn’t look so big at the base of a volcano.

This would be a running theme throughout the trip as we discovered our SUV, though cramped for us, was much larger than most of the infrastructure around us was built to accommodate.

From parking lots in grocery stores and restaurants to the parking spaces in the several apartments and condos we rented, our vehicle was almost always the biggest – and most ill-fitting.

A minivan wouldn’t stand a chance in Costa Rica.

Title image showing picture of Volcano Arenal in Costa Rica.

We successfully made the flight to Costa Rica, picked up our chariot for the next 3 weeks, and are comfortably sleeping in our first AirBnB apartment.

Now move on to Part 2 where we’ll dive into our first week in the country, from our tropical Airbnb location in Liberia to the incredible people we met from all over the world at the sports camp we participated in.

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