The Van Winckles do Costa Rica

The immense sun hangs low, dropping slowly and heavily towards the horizon, casting pink and orange hues over the lush rainforest. From our perch, volcanic giants rise up along the skyline, bathed in blue and purple complimenting the cobalt waters of Salinas Bay as it arcs gracefully towards the Pacific.

Tonight, we are dining al fresco at a local restaurant in the rural community of La Cruz, Costa Rica. Beside us, two young, blond-haired women chat in Scottish and Australian-accented English about their volunteer work in Nicarugua. For a moment, I am brought back to the many hours I spent drinking mango smoothies, lounging in hammocks while journalling and chatting in hostels and cafes across South-East Asia while backpacking in my twenties. It feels good to be traveling again, but this time, I am not alone.

In Indonesia ten years ago…

Across the table, Henry shovels spoonfuls of deep-fried calamari into his mouth, his face smeared with butter. Beside me, Alice laughs as the geckos flash across the walls, clicking their noisy calls. I sneak in bits of black beans and rice into her open mouth in between her gleeful chatter. It is our first family trip outside of Canada and we have ventured to the rural, northwestern Guanacastan province of Costa Rica in search of wind.

At the impressionable age of ten, Blake stepped on a windsurfing board and a life-long passion for wind was born. Throughout his life, Blake has been a wind-seeker in the summer months opposite his constant need for fresh powder turns in the winter. Thankfully, having grown up on the shores of Lake Joseph in Muskoka, I too developed a love for water and wind sports which has continued into my adulthood. Together, we have spent many a date night sipping beer aboard our 19-foot, 1969 Lightening sailboat, cruising across Abram Lake. 

Henry on the sailboat when he was about ten months

Like any couple, my relationship with Blake has grown and changed, arched and bent under the stresses of two young babies, juggling erratic work schedules, endless laundry and housework and the day-to-day demands of a young family. Since Henry’s birth, we have tried hard to find time to spend together – an hour here and there to enjoy each other’s company, but what we have really been missing is the rush of an adventure.  
Our answer came in the mutual yearning to learn how to kite board. As we searched the internet for international locales to take lessons, we came across a small kiteboarding school located on the beaches of Bahia Salinas, Costa Rica.

Here, abutted next to the Nicaraguan border, Salinas Bay is a world-class kite boarding destination owing to its consistent winds, blowing from November straight through to April. We checked the calendar and booked ourselves into four days of private lessons. There was only one problem. What would we do with Henry and Alice while we were out in the ocean for four hours a day!? We approached our amazing babysitter, Blythe with our proposition – come to Costa Rica for a week! Thankfully, she agreed and away we went. 

On our 5 hour flight from Toronto to Liberia, Costa Rica. We had gotten up at 5am to take a flight from Tbay to Toronto. Alice slept maybe 20 min the ENTIRE DAY. It was the longest that she has ever been awake. Thankfully she was happy but so squirmy! Henry, thankfully, did pass out. I guess one out of two isn’t bad!

In Toronto
After we landed in Liberia, we were hit with a WALL of humidity and heat. It was like you couldn’t breath or move. I immediately undressed Henry down to his diaper (we were all dressed for Fall Canadian weather) for the drive to the hotel – thankfully the van was air conditioned!

5 hours of driving, 5 hours of flying and another 2 hours of driving later and we finally pitched our three suitcases, stroller, two car seats and crib into our teak-wood villa – our home for the next few days at the Ecoplaya Hotel. Being somewhat budget conscious, we had booked at Ecoplaya due to it’s convenience (the kitsurfing lessons were right on their beach!) and the very low nightly rate. The reviews on Trip Advisor had been abysmal and I was slightly worried at what we would find. Don’t get me wrong, I have done my share of roughing it while traveling many developing parts of our globe, however, with two young kids and Blythe, I wanted at least to be comfortable.

Arriving at Eco Playa
At the beach that was literally steps from our cabana

Our first impression of the hotel was it’s eery emptiness. Except for the handful of staff milling about, we were the only souls to be found. Hmmm. Maybe not the greatest sign. Our villa, however was just steps from the beach and had unparalleled view of Salinas Bay and Isla Bolanos, a national wildlife refuge and bird sanctuary. We were blown away by the expanse of the bay, the seclusion of the beach and the untouched nature that surrounded us. After unpacking our bags in the dingy, fluorescent-lit rooms, we headed to the vacant pool to cool off from the oppressive 30degree heat. As Blake and I sipped on local beer, we took stock of the crumbling and run-down appearance of the resort. You could almost see how, 25 years ago, the hotel would have been a five-star vacation destination. However with the wear of constant rain and wind, everything looked a touch weary. Thankfully, where there is roughness, there is almost always character and we weren’t disappointed.

Being virtually the only guests in the forty-something rooms of the hotel, we came to know the staff quite well. Chito, the server at the restaurant became Henry’s best buddy. Henry quickly picked up some Spanish phrases and soon he was greeting Chito with: “Hola Chito! Pura Vida!”, which was followed by, “Heuvos, por favor!”. Due to the time change, both Henry and Alice greeted the day at 4:30-5:00am and so we were up and about by 6am. As soon as Chito saw Henry, he would say good morning and then go scramble up some eggs for his breakfast. It was like our new family 🙂 Henry also became well-versed in ’80s and ’90s music as Chito constantly had one-hit wonders from that era blasting on the TV.  Two weeks later, Henry still wakes up signing “Karma Chameleon” !

Alice and I up at 5am for a morning walk on the beach 
At least one of us is happy to be up so early!
Salinas Bay
Inspecting the shells and rocks that Henry collected on the beach

What a cool dude!

Wild horses on our beach

The pool

Henry and I hanging out and exploring the beach

Taking a break from swimming with Dad-Dad

Swimming with Blythe

Henry at the pool at Eco Playa

Blythe has it all under control!

The pretty run-down pool
Henry jumping to Blythe, which he did a million times over
Alice hanging out in the restaurant

Happy baby!

Our villa

Hanging out at the beach in the early morning

How can you be upset at this face even if you get woken up before 5am?!

For the next four days at Ecoplaya, Blake and I would leave the kids in Blythe’s capable hands and head to the beach for our kitesurfing lessons. We were the first kiters of the season and we lucked out with four days of wind that allowed us to pick up this new sport. Starting out first at the beach, Blake and I learned how to control the power of the kite before eventually jumping into the ocean to be dragged about in the salty water. Oddly enough, despite constantly feeling like I was partially drowning or being terrified about stepping on a stingray, I quickly became addicted to this sport. It was like nothing I had ever done before and required mostly brains and very little braun. I loved the challenge of learning the technique of kite control and was desperate to keep up with Blake. By day four, both Blake and I could launch our kites, get out into the water and get up onto the boards. We were super stoked and our instructors were impressed 🙂

Thanks to Blythe, for four hours a day, my brain wasn’t focused on the million things I had to do that day or the needs of others, but was fixed blissfully on something completely new and challenging. It was the first time since Henry was born that I had spent so much time away from the kids (other than for work) doing something purely for fun. Best of all, it was a joy to watch Blake succeed and enjoy himself, share in each other’s successes and big bails and to do something completely new together. It wasn’t Blake’s sport, nor mine, it was ours. It is now our hope that we continue to share in our mutual new-found passion for kitesurfing at home in Sioux Lookout and eventually in Terrace, B.C.

Finally getting out of the water on our fourth day
Blake looking like a pro already!

What a beautiful, secluded place to learn! 

After our mornings of kitesurfing, both Blake and I were pretty exhausted and spent the afternoons hanging out by the pool as the kids napped. In the later afternoons, we took the rental car down the rough dirt “road” (more like a track) to nearby beaches, small towns and villages. Stalled by unhurried cattle, chickens and children, our 13-km trip to the nearest town of La Cruz took well over 45minutes. The drive was well worth the breathtaking sunsets over the Bay as we dined on local Costa Rican fare of plantain, fish, beans and rice. It was neat to visit such a non-touristy destination and get a feel for local culture.

Exploring the nearby beaches. Unfortunately, it was so so hot, that even Henry ran back to the car and tried to get in (it had A/C!)

In La Cruz

At a local restaurant, enjoying the view

Salinas Bay

Sunsets!

Having dinner at a super neat hostel/restaurant

A few days before our trip, I had been a bit concerned about the awful reviews at Ecoplaya and had booked a last minute 50% off deal at a five-star resort just down the road. We kept it a secret from Blythe, who, at four days into our stay at Ecoplaya was definitely getting bored. After our last kitesurfing lesson, we packed up and told Blythe we had decided to give another place a try. When we pulled into the reception area at Dreams Las Mareas, we excitedly spilled the beans that we were going to round out the last four days of our vacation at an all-inclusive resort!

Dreams Las Mareas did not disappoint. With side-by-side suites next to the family pool complete with a kids wading pool and water slide, we spent each morning and afternoon sipping cocktails while the kids swam and played in the water. In the evenings, we’d have an early family dinner, then after the kids went down to sleep, Blake and I went out to one of the numerous fine dining restaurants within the resort. Coming from Sioux Lookout where we only have one restaurant, we definitely felt spoiled! It was like a week date nights where we gorged on amazing food and Blake got his fill of 25 year-old local rum 🙂

Checking into our side-by-side suites at the Dreams Las Mareas – a BIG step up from the previous hotel!
Fancy dining!
Chilling out at th pool
Loving the shallow kids pool

Splash!!!
We often had the kids pool all to ourselves!

Henry never got tired of jumping in and out of the pool!

Playing with Blythe and the kids

Blythe enjoying the ocean 

The stunning beach at the resort
Blake, Henry and I went on a fishing excursion one afternoon while Blythe and Alice hung out back at the resort.
Of course, Henry wanted to drive the boat…!

Henry’s selfie 🙂

Henry and Blake snorkelling. I was surprised that Henry had no problem jumping into the salt water with Blake!

Henry trying on the flippers for size

Gearing up to go snorkeling 

We unfortunately didn’t catch one fish to Blake’s disappointment

A beautiful sunset
Lots of pelicans along the shore

Poor Blake – he lost his sunglasses while kiting, so for the rest of the trip he had to wear Henry’s spare ones! Hahah

Loving the water 

Just chilling out with a good book – just like Mom!
The life! Cocktails, a book, a pool… what more can you ask for?

Blythe and Henry in front of the main part of the resort
Swimming all day, every day

The best babysitter ever!!!

Henry the daredevil. He just wanted to jump and jump and jump. He eventually got bored of just jumping off the side, then pulled over a side table, climbed up and then jumped into the pool off the table!
But then that wasn’t even enough, so he decided he wanted to jump off this ledge (see below) in the pool.
What a crazy kid!

SO MANY SMOOTHIES (Blake and mine were alcoholic!)!

Cuties!

Going down the amazing water slide. Over, and over, and over…!

The view from our balcony (which, incidentally had a massive jet/soaker tub on it!)

The resort and waterslide from our room
Henry and Alice were insitent on waking up at dawn regardless of when they went to bed.
Here is Henry and I having our morning coffee, watching the sunrise. 
Off we go for a stroll in our jammies while everyone still sleeps!

One afternoon, the activity coordinator convinced us to try some acrobatics…

…not very graceful! haha

Henry’s turn 🙂

Breakfast al fresco

Henry’s tired out from all of that swimming!

Family photo

Alice & Blythe

We took Henry out for a special dinner to celebrate his birthday – it was a Japanese tappenyaki

Henry was pretty captivated

Blake and Henry hanging out at the ‘Preferred Club’ where Blake spent a lot of time drinking very expensive rum!
A 6am walk on the beach

Pretty beautiful!
Alice chilling out

At a super neat little cafe for our last meal in Costa Rica

At the airport

Getting ready to board our plane for Toronto. Poor Alice is already tired! Despite being exhausted, she refused to sleep the entire way (AGAIN!). 

At least Henry passed out eventually (on Dad’s lap). 

Thank you Gravol! 🙂

Arriving in Thunder Bay! Now for the 5 hour drive home 😦 

All in all, our week-long family retreat to Costa Rica was a success. Of course there were moments where things did not go well (i.e. on our car-ride home from the Thunder Bay airport, when Henry SHRIEKED constantly for over an hour causing Alice to wail uncontrollably!), but it has opened up the possibility of future sun-soaked adventures for our family.

Can’t wait for our next trip!

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