Thursday, May 23, 2013

Peru > Colombia > Costa Rica: A Family Trip Ending in a Cross Continent Move

Landing on Juan Santamaria airport in San Jose with 24 hours delay, we were greeted by our close friend Esther, who had arranged for extra transport next to the 4x4 we rented, so we could safely haul our luggage to her house. Esther lives in Escazu, a beautiful suburb just outside the city of San Jose and it was great to spend some time with her and her family. We had also made arrangements with her to leave our suitcases in her house until we would come back to live in Costa Rica in August, so here we said our 8 month goodbye to a lot of clothes…

After 16 years of living and working in multi-million people cities, both Karin and I have reached a point where we want to explore a different lifestyle. For ourselves and for our children we have been looking for a place to live that is more nature-bound, less crowded, less crazy, more laid-back and where life after work and school revolves around nature-bound activities focused on physical health and mental balance. We have looked at several places before aiming our guns at Costa Rica and within that country we finally decided that we prefer the Pacific coast, where we hoped to find that ideal combination of life-work-school. Karin and I can basically work anywhere, as long as there is a good internet connection and some sort of escape route to an international airport and we both have been fantasizing about living away from the hustle and bustle of a large city for a while. However, we are not alone anymore and whatever we decide to do has to be good for our girls, which means the decisive factor in the whole story is finding and being accepted at the right school…

We had a plan for the coming weeks, which consisted of visiting 3 locations in the country where we felt we would be happy to live and where we managed to find schools similar in standard to what our daughters are used to in Argentina. Karin had done some fine research before and managed to find 3 bilingual, Montessori schools with IB certification, contacted those, sent over our girl’s schoolwork and made appointments for interviews with each of them. 

So, our route was fixed: San Jose – Tamarindo - Nosara - San Jose. After a few lovely days with Esther in and around Escazu, we loaded our SUV with what we thought we would need and took off for Tamarindo. Nicely enough Esther and her family had decided to meet us there for a long weekend’s holiday, which meant we spent our first days there enjoying beach life, renting surf boards (still really meaning to get the hang of this…), feasting on red snappers, driving around getting to know the area and imagining life here. 

Here is a short description of Tamarindo I found on Wikipedia and which I feel needs no further explanation as to what attracted us:

Tamarindo is a town and distrito located on the Nicoya Peninsula on the Northern Pacific coast of Costa Rica in the Province of Guanacaste. The district has a population of 3,525, although the town itself is about 500. But it can swell to 5,000 people or more during the tourist season and during special holidays. The main attractions are surfing and eco-tourism.
Playa Tamarindo is a long beach, with excellent waves near the mouth of the estuary. Currents can be strong, especially on a falling tide. Tamarindo has two main breaks for advanced surfers: Pico Pequeño a rocky point in front of the Hotel Tamarindo Diriá and the excellent river mouth break across from Cabinas Tsunami called El Estero. The rest of the beach breaks are perfect for learning. The biggest waves can get up to 12 feet, although only during November and December.

Playa Grande beach is also where the Leatherback Turtle comes to lay its eggs. The leatherbacks take over the beach from November to April, digging their nests up to one meter deep, lay their eggs and cover the pit with sand, and return once again to the sea. After 60 to 90 days, the hatchlings emerge and immediately make their way to the water.

There are other eco-friendly activities including watching turtles during their nesting season at night, diving, snorkeling, body surfing, zip-lining, estuary trips, horseback riding and fishing. During the December to April period when the water turbidity is low, fishing may be done from the shore.

Tamarindo Beach, Guanacaste is the most accessible location along the northern Pacific coast of Costa Rica with an airstrip. Scheduled daily bus service to and from San José, as well as surrounding communities, is available. There is also a paved highway from San José. The average time from San Jose to Tamarindo is 5 to 6 hours depending on traffic.

Once Esther returned to San Jose, we went and visited the school of our choice here, which was a great example of driven education. Really keeps amazing me how people can go to a place, fall in love with it and create a life out of seemingly nothing. I know we did the same, but in my book there is an important difference between doing the above for yourself and doing it with a more altruistic motivation. Setting up a school, bringing a level of education to an area and a community that did not have access to it before and slowly but surely creating opportunities for people whose parents never even dreamed of them, is quite a feat. The school we visited here is not only a well-worked out concept of exactly that, it thrives on the positive reactions within the community it got started in. Kids get “bussed in” from as far as 70 kilometers south of the school’s location, which not only means there isn’t any similar quality school in the wider surrounding area, but that people living in that wider area actually consider this school to be so good for their kids that they make the effort to have them go there. Having decided to move 15kms closer to our daughters’ school in BA, we know very well how difficult it can be not to be close to the educational facility where your kids grow up and find the source of most of their early social life. So, my hat off for this school (not mentioning it in public for personal reasons, but if you want to know, feel free to shoot me an email) and if you like living on the beach, enjoying a warm, relatively dry and sunny climate year-round, Tamarindo and surroundings might be a very good option for you.

We left the town with a good feeling, seeing our dream of living in Costa Rica get one step closer as we felt sure about the school, which basically was our final threshold for cutting the umbilical cord with Argentina and taking the leap of faith we had been thinking about for so long.

Nosara was our next destination, and here is what Wikipedia says about it:

Despite the Nicoya peninsula being one of the last locations with large areas of unpaved roads in Costa Rica, Nosara is one of the oldest expatriate communities in the country, as well as a fishing and agricultural area.

Unlike most coastal tourist towns, Nosara lacks nearly any development directly on the beach as much of it consists of the Ostional Wildlife Refuge (necessitated by the presence of breeding Olive Ridley and Leatherback sea turtle populations). Nosara is also a surfing destination and the location of a world-renowned Yoga school.

The official town center is located 6 km inland from the beach. Within "Nosara town" is the market, pharmacy, post office, churches, school, police station, David S. Kitson public library and Red Cross clinic (Nosara lacks a hospital facility). There is a Banco Popular branch located in the small commercial area near Playa Guiones. In 2007, a new private school was opened with a bilingual Montessori and International Baccalaureate Organization (IBO) curriculum.

I guess everybody has his or her own ideas of what life would ideally look like and my experience is that this view changes with time… We very much like all of the above.

We have been in Nosara about 11 years ago and then already felt a strong “pull” when crossing the sandy roads, walking along the beaches and simply sensing the atmosphere. The same happened this time. We had decided to set up our base in a small hostel, tucked away in the woodlands on a hill in the Nosara Natural Reserve, 5 minutes walking from a small bay located next to Guiones beach.

We looked up a German couple whom we had met the last time we were here, and who were at the time setting up a horseback riding facility. After some digging around we found them and their new ranch, sitting on the edge of the beach, right next to the place where the Nosara River ends in the Pacific Ocean. Amazing Costa Rican criollo horses… man, each was more beautiful then the other… We decided to go riding for two days, making the best of our wait for the interview at the school. Two amazing days followed, during which we crossed lush forest in the Nosara Natural Reserve, rode through town, completely at ease in our gaucho roles and feeling like we already belonged there, and the best parts (well at least for me); going from a difficulty maintained standstill into a perfectly stretched running gallop over a pristine beach in the early morning, speeding along the waterline, leaving the horse to give it all it has, total release of energy… If you manage not to get thrown off by that first explosion of power when you allow your horse to take off, you are in for an adrenaline rush. It requires a bit of confidence and trust, and you need to not only know how to ride a horse, you need to become one with it, but holy cow, you know? I am sitting here 8,000km and months separated from those moments and I still get sweaty palms reliving them. Karin was still hurting from her two broken ribs as a result from the December trip in Corrientes and Edie was a little bit more careful than normal, so this was one of those few moments in which I actually outrode both of them (not usually the case I can assure you) and the macho in me had a blast, too.

We all had a great time, even 5-year old Noa, riding by herself connected to our guide only by a piece of rope; I am so proud of her. Edie is an amazon in her own right and already rides as well as her mother, sometimes maybe even a bit better. She has no fear whatsoever, which in some cases we feel the need to instill to avoid her from completely forgetting everything around her and making her first bad mistake… But then when you see her go, merged with and in complete control of an animal 20 times her bodyweight, beyond the surprise that catches up with me when I have a good ride, simply because she grew up riding and this is genuinely normal to her… reminds me why we are moving away from the city. 

Karin and I recharged our batteries here and it soon became clear that this is where we want to live: Nosara, a hamlet of maybe 2000 souls, spread out over this piece of the Nicoya Peninsula like pixy dust, connected by dirt roads and a strange intense social network, which we haven’t come to figure out completely yet. 20% of the people here are genuine “Ticos”; the rest is made up of 20 different nationalities, amongst which pensioners, movie stars, serial entrepreneurs, laid-back (former) surfers, yoga /dance & kickboxing teachers, singers/songwriters, restaurant & hotel owners, and a few long-distance workers like us.  Can’t say I am not looking forward to this new episode in our lives.

Next day we went to see the school and it too was what we had hoped for and kind of already felt it would be: An international, bilingual Montessori school with IB certification, part of the Blue Flag program, with 100 students divided over 7 grades, situated on a beautiful plot in the middle of the forest maybe 5 minutes from the ocean. Let me not go overboard on this one, as while I am writing this we still need to get a final confirmation that we are actually admitted, but in short it is exactly what we are looking for, plus the kids get surfing lessons as part of after school activities! I mean, awesome, or what? We had a very nice introduction to the school by the director himself, who showed us around the premises and the different classrooms, library, sports fields and the school’s own flock of sheep, doubling as lawnmowers. According to the director he feels our girls would fit the school system perfectly and he is putting his weight behind our application, so hopefully soon we will receive the word that we can start packing for real. We have already started, given that we leave Argentina end May to take an intermittent holiday to Kenya to visit some close friends and see the big 5, but it is weird to prepare your own Great Migration knowing that you are still waiting for a signature that could completely throw your plans out the window, if it wouldn’t come… But what the heck, we are good to go.

We have learnt to live in the now. Frustration, anger and sadness about the past and worries about the future are mostly useless time wasters; you can only do your best today. You can do so knowing what you have learnt in the past and what you would eventually like to achieve in the future, but in the end doing your best today is the basic gist of what it all comes down to, living life.  We have given this step to Costa Rica every bit of positive energy we could have given it on any of the moments that it mattered. Now it will either happen or it won’t and we will cross that bridge when we come to it. Life turns out to have a certain flow and after having tried to manipulate and force that flow into the direction I thought it needed to go, I am now a lot more inclined to listen to it telling me where I need to go. Life is easier this way, a lot less cluttered, more focused and more productive, and on top I have a lot more time to be with my family, which is actually all that matters…

Happy campers, we rented and intensively used a couple of quads for the following 2 days, doing some more exploring of the surrounding beaches and hillside landscape, eating out somewhere else every single day so by now we know where to buy the best ice-cream, bread, pizza, steak, etcetera. Knowing we had found the place for us and hoping it had found us too, we loaded the car and drove the 4,5 hours back to San José, where we spent a few last days with our friends before we hopped back on the plane to Lima and Buenos Aires. Another trip, another experience, another dream. Life is great.

Class Adventure Travel offers South America tours across Peru, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Bolivia currently. We're well on our way to adding Colombia, so stay tuned!

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Peru > Colombia > Costa Rica: A New Years Family Trip, Part 4

Next morning we got up early as we had been told the nearby beach was worth a walk. So after a light breakfast we made our way to the shore (a 1,5 minute walk) and took a left. Pristine blue waters, crashing on the beach in fairly large waves on one side, dense forest in all shades of green on the other, white sand under your feet; cobalt blue sky over your head, sun already powering up for another 12 hours of scorching heat, but a freshly chopped coconut in your hands, straw and all, moisturizing your inner being with its lush milk… nothing can defeat you, this is the life. Kids were going crazy, running over the beach, looking for all kinds of building blocks for the sandcastle I had promised to build with them and we walked on. Until at once, we realized we were walking on a thinner and thinner strip of sand, ocean still on one side, but the vegetation receding on the other, making room for the Palomino River, flowing lazily down the Sierra Nevada foothills for its last, reluctant push into the Caribbean.

 Imagine: You sit on the beach, no notion of the sea except for it crashing in waves on the shore at your back, and you’re looking over this meandering sliver of clear mountain water, bordered by jungle on both side, all kinds of herons standing in the shallow water while modestly sized eagles soar overhead, both in search of fresh fish in abundance. And while you take in this beautiful picture you slowly look up and as the sun warms up and the curtain of clouds vanishes you see the silhouette of the Snow capped Sierra Nevada Mountains, framing one of the most incredible natural landscapes I have ever seen.

We basically did nothing more then sit here for three days, basking in the sun (abundant fresh water supplies and factor 75 sun screen existential!), talking, taking in the view one more time, cooling off in the slow-moving river, while the kids ran around, building sandcastles, plunging in the river and flat-out having fun. We managed to make a short, half-day excursion, which almost dignified the fact that we spent three times more on a 4x4 then on a normal car, but we decided it was ok. The last days of our hectic Colombia trip were spent in quiet relaxation and we drove back to Cartagena, dropped of the car and flew back to Bogota renewed.

Bogota delivered us our new Colombia Region Manager, Chris (welcome aboard Chris!) and reconnected us to our long-time friends José-Luis and Marcela, owners of See Colombia (look it up, it is great) and their beautiful baby daughter Maria del Mar. We thought we’d only have one evening with them, but faith decided otherwise. JL and Marcela are special people in our lives, but life & work & plans had separated us for a while. This dinner had been long awaited and was over too quickly for all of us. Apparently that message was heard somewhere.

Next day, we had a nice long breakfast before being picked up by our transfer, wedging all our suitcases in the van and heading out to the airport. We walked toward the check-in desk, 2 carts full of luggage and gave our passports to the lady behind the counter. I was already loading the first of the suitcase on the scale, when the lady asked us, oh so politely, if she could see out yellow fever vaccinations.

Full stop.

“Ehrm… we don’t have any, ehrm no, we forgot them back in Argentina, ehrm, can we get them somewhere here on the airport perhaps?” “No, sorry, they need to have an incubation time of at least 10 days for Costa Rica to let you in. Sorry, next!”

What followed is not something I am prepared to share just now, but let’s just say the lady behind the counter did not get to her next passenger, eventually turned white and disappeared. When I finally located her supervisor, she was standing behind her, holding up a copy of a page of the Costa Rican Embassy website, the passage referring to the obligatory vaccination already highlighted. I managed to ask how come we had not been informed about this and the lady informed me the airline only had the obligation to check if its passengers actually had the vaccination going on board, not to notify them of the obligation to have one. Basically they are over-selling seats, expecting a few unlucky souls to be bumped off the flight anyway.  Or maybe Colombia likes to extend its slogan: “The only risk is that want to stay… or have to due to lack of vaccination”. Anyway, stupid of us (and honestly, we have been bumped in the past, due to wrongly stamped passports, out of date residency papers or because we simply forgot to board on time, so the blame is entirely on us) and I went to the ticketing desk to change our flight to the next day, heading a line of people canceling their Costa Rica vacations. The simple fact that we did not have to is that somehow we managed to find a doctor who was kind enough to see us the next morning and taking the hastily faxed over copies of our actual vaccinations for proof enough to write out new certificates. Thanks JL and Marcela! Needless to say we found a van, headed straight back to JL & Marce’s apartment, had a really great evening and made it onto the plane the next day, no questions asked.

Class Adventure Travel offers South America tours across Peru, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Bolivia currently. We're well on our way to adding Colombia, so stay tuned!