Under the Costa Rican Sun

Words by Shelly Brown
Photos by William Hereford & Shelly Brown

I walked up the rock stairs in Costa Rica’s Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio. I had heard of the beauty, the lush landscapes. Everything I had expected came blossoming to life at the top of those stairs. The coastline that stretched out from the cliffs was unlike anything I had seen before. The sun pouring over the lush National Park continued onto an endless sea. There was nothing man-made to take your breath away, only the splendor and beauty of nature. The view felt enticing, and serene, for endless possibilities under the Costa Rican sun.

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The beauty of warm destinations when traveling with kids is this: less stuff. A bathing suit, shorts, and T-shirts—and you’re good. I was raised by a Delta pilot and grew up flying standby, which never allowed for anything beyond a carry-on. When traveling with children, it’s easy to buy into the idea that every gadget and device is a necessity. It’s not. I crammed all we needed for six people into one checked bag that even caused the Delta rep to give me a high five for the packing skills. When the zipper opened to unleash warm weather wear at our arrival, the bathing suits didn’t return until our departure. There’s a mirroring that happens with the simplistic beauty of Costa Rica, that repeats itself in how you spend your time there.

The kids ran around with their welcome drinks at the Arenas del Mar Hotel. A mixture of coconut milk, pineapple juice, and mint leaves poured down their cheeks with the warm weather freedom to not care at all. As our shoulders began to relax and our bare feet felt the warm sand, the excitement came flooding in with the waves. The expansive coastline left ample room to run around and crashing waves for diving into. The tourist industry is filled with options for adventures that all ages can enjoy. Before we left Atlanta, I had made the plans for snorkeling, hiking, and beach time. I’m not one to over plan, so I left plenty of free time to see what we could do once we arrived. As much as we were excited to hit the beach, the idea of sloths hiding in the trees piqued our highest interest.

The first day allowed us to sink into our surroundings. We left the 32-degree rain in Atlanta for 75 and sunny, the warm air on our skin was enough to enjoy—no activities needed. I was amazed at the power of the ocean on the Pacific side. You didn’t have to walk far out at all to be playfully tumbled by a rushing wave. As the giant waves swelled above our heads, I reminded my girls to dive into them, with the hope of life lessons being filtered through this memory, of this being one of those moments they put in their pocket to use in a difficult season.

With this new life lesson tucked into my pocket, we headed to our first dinner. I was reminded that my favorite part of a coastal stay is the law of casual. If you want to dress up, you dress up, if you want to stay in your swimsuit and pass on the shoes, fine. I opted for the latter. The Arenas del Mar hotel is a Cayuga Collection Luxury Sustainable Hotel, one of a chain of boutique hotels throughout Central America. Not only are their locations exceptionally beautiful, they employ local staff, protect over 1,500 acres of rainforest, and support local communities. The food is as amazing as the ethos—sprawling platters of colorful fruit, fresh fish, and homemade tortillas, all creatively displayed by the warm smiles of Manuel Antonio’s locals.

Day two began our adventures. We woke up early to stuff ourselves with more papaya and head to the beach before a tortilla-making class. The morning rays are always the most beautiful to me—filled with promise of a day primed with potential. The dark gritty sand held a path of coral pieces, jade green rocks, and shells to scavenge. With our sack of treasure in tow, we went up to the lobby to learn how to make traditional Costa Rican tortillas. In keeping with the theme of simplicity Costa Rica carries, three large black bowls sat in the center of the table near a round cast iron tortilla pan. Corn flour, cheese, and sour cream lay in white and cream heaps, contrasting the darkness of the bowls. As the chef passed us our individual bowls, we were instructed to mix two parts flour, one part cheese, and one part sour cream to make the dough. Pat the tortilla flat and place it on the pan, creating the perfectly browned, rustic roundness we had expected. There is something about a homemade tortilla with the sound of waves that is good for the soul.

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The afternoon was even more exciting with a parasailing adventure by Aguas Azules Parasailing Tours. When I arrived at their beachside office, comprised of a folding table and pamphlets, I immediately recognized an accent that didn’t belong. One of the owners, Melanie, was a Virginia native who had lived in New York for most of her life before meeting her Costa Rican husband, Miguel. The two had lived in Costa Rica for 12 years raising their daughters. She said she couldn’t imagine going back. As she gave us the instructions for lift off, we were strapped in with no turning back. The rope began to pull from the boat and we were told to start walking. Before we knew it, my daughters and I were swept into the air and flying. The bird’s-eye views of the spectacular coast were enhanced by the giggles and stories I got to hear from my girls.

Day three’s cloudless blue sky morning views from the Arenas del Mar Hotel were breathtaking from every angle. To wake up to such splendor was truly a gift. As the day unfolded, we chose a snorkeling excursion arranged by the hotel. We piled onto a small fishing boat with two other families, all with young kids. As the music blared and kiddos climbed up to the second level of the boat—and back down, we arrived at our first spot to anchor. The turquoise water set the perfect backdrop for the tropical fish that weaved in and out of the rocks below the surface. While everyone reached out to try and catch the fish, I couldn’t take my eyes off the playful smiles on the faces of all the kids. Families from different countries huddled so closely together that I couldn’t tell whose feet were whose, all laughing and squirming at the sight of what was below the surface. Another moment for Mom’s pocket of wisdom.

Throughout the days spent in Manuel Antonio, we got to enjoy nature’s splendor from all of its glorious angles—from the sky above, from the sea below, and from the ground in the rainforest canopies of the National Park. And yes, there were sloths. The kindness of the people and love for their environment was palpable. The activities at the Arenas Del Mar were as hands-on as the white faced monkeys swinging above in the trees.  

The balance between responsibility and escapism can be tricky. So many people dream of what they don’t have, of that grass that’s so much greener. We get caught up in the daily tasks of life when we are busy, then turn around and get bored when there is too much freedom. Maybe the balance lies in our relationships. We all need to dive into the waves when we see life approaching with unexpected force. Whether it’s kids, spouses, parents, or great friends, having people around who dive in beside you can give purpose to every responsibility and peace to every escape. No matter where this happens, it always leads home.


One Day in San Jose

San José, the capital of Costa Rica, is an easy flight from the U.S. While the city itself doesn’t offer a ton for families, with a two-hour drive, you can see the magic that Costa Rica has to offer.

Where to Stay:

Hotel Grano De Oro

Originally a tropical Victorian home, this boutique-style hotel offers a step back in time in the center of metropolitan San José.

What to Do:

9:30 a.m. - Depart San Jose for the 45-minute drive to Toucan Rescue Ranch. (Illustrations: baby sloths, coffee)
10:30 a.m. - Enjoy the “Slothies and Coffees” tour at the Toucan Rescue Ranch, complete with coffee, juice, and pastries. You can easily be here for several hours visiting with the rescued animals.
Noon - Depart for the Peace Lodge and La Paz Waterfall. Enjoy the two-hour drive through the lush rolling hills of the Costa Rican countryside filled with quaint markets and humble farmhouses. (illustrations: roads leading down to waterfalls, hummingbirds, tree frogs)
2 p.m. - Once inside the park, you can grab lunch at one of the restaurants that offer traditional Costa Rican meals.
3 p.m. - Take your time walking through the park as you meander toward the waterfall. A butterfly garden, hummingbird haven, and traditional casita are among a few of the places to linger amongst explosions of bougainvillea blooms.
5 p.m. - End the day at the massive waterfall.You can feel the natural beauty and power as you explore the park’s immaculate trails.