Travel writer, Jane Dunford, heads to Costa Rica for some auntie/niece time and gets more adventure than she bargained for!
If you don’t have children, traditional family holidays, with all their trials and tribulations, aren’t part of the annual calendar. Perhaps there are trips where other people’s kids are around, or breaks with parents, but summer vacations with endless days spent entertaining offspring just don’t feature.
But this year, with my sister’s daughter Georgia just turned 12, I decided to try my own variety of family getaway. One with just me and her. An auntie-niece escape. We’d never had just ‘us’ time – so it would be a chance to bond, to get to know each other.
Rather than a jaunt to Cornwall or even a beachy week on the Med, I wanted something different, something she’d really remember. And so, here we are in July, rafting on a river in central Costa Rica, eyeball to eyeball with a caiman lazing on the bank, just a couple of metres away.
“Wow, that’s so cool,” says Georgia, as I ponder the etiquette if there was an attack… I’d be expected to sacrifice myself to protect her, right?
The Central American country is about the size of Denmark, but it’s home to 5% of the world’s biodiversity too – cramming incredible wildlife experiences into a small space. Costa Ricans use the phrase “Pura Vida” (Pure or Simple Life) as a greeting – and this week was going to be just that, full immersion into nature, a world away from Georgia’s ‘aspiring make-up artist’ Instagram feed.
As we continue down the river we see wildlife at every turn: green Jesus Christ lizards that can walk on water, iguanas hanging out in the tree-tops, spider monkeys swinging through the canopy – and a rather large crocodile. Those little white lies parents tell their children are okay, I decide, when Georgia asks, “Are you scared Auntie Jane?”
Our trip had begun with a night in the capital San José – the only time I question the sanity of my plans, when tiredness and jetlag briefly leave Georgia a little teary and homesick.
The next day all is well and we drive three hours to La Fortuna, a small, pretty town close to Arenal volcano, where we stay for two nights. It’s a hub for endless outdoor adventures in the area and after rafting we learn how to make proper hot chocolate, grinding the cacao seed first, before an afternoon hike in the national park. The route takes us through forest and across black lava left from the last eruption in 1968, with amazing views over lakes and mountains and the soaring volcano as a backdrop. Later we soak in thermal waters at natural hot springs, sipping mocktails and cocktails under a starry sky.
In the spirit of really getting under the skin of the country, I’d signed us up for a rural homestay. So in the morning we drive on to the Juanilama community for a night with a family in a traditional Tico village. Beyond Santa Rosa de Pocosol, the tarmac roads give way to potholed mud tracks and we don’t see another soul for miles. After a few wrong turns (having a child in tow makes me more anxious about getting lost than if I’d been exploring alone or with a friend) we arrive, and Eli, our host, welcomes us with homemade empanadas.
Our home is a wooden cabin in the garden, clean and simple, with Georgia sleeping under a mosquito net. “I feel like a princess,” she says. I don’t speak much Spanish, so we communicate with the family with smiles, nods and Google translate – not always accurate but fun to use. Georgia practises the Spanish she’s learnt at school, talking colours and numbers with Eli’s three-year-old granddaughter Victoria and playing with Snow White (Blancanieves), the kitten.
We explore a farm on an agriculture tour, discovering pineapples grow on a single plant and take a year and half to form. “I’ll remember where they come from when I buy one from Tesco,” says Georgia. And Eli’s sister Jamy teaches us to cook cassava and cheese croquettes in her kitchen.
The highlight of the trip, though, is probably our time spent in Maquenque Eco-lodge up near the border with Nicaragua. We drive through lush scenery, mist hanging in the valleys, and bumpy roads lead us deep into the countryside where we abandon the car for a boat to cross the river. There are just 15 spacious wooden bungalows with little verandahs spread around a lagoon (I ignore Georgia’s comment that it’s just like CentreParcs) as well as four treehouses in the forest.
The lodge is in the heart of a vast protected reserve and is wildlife-rich. We take canoes out and join day and night hikes on trails through the forest. The list of creatures spotted is endless: howler monkeys with babies on their backs swinging through tree tops, families of raccoon-like coati, turtles, caiman, huge iguana and green and orange tree frogs. And with over 400 species the birdlife is constantly impressive, from toucans to giant red parrots.
Georgia makes friends with other kids and plays in the forest-shrouded pool and we enjoy three-course evening meals in the restaurant overlooking the water (plantain and ceviche are delicious).
Our last day comes and, wanting to leave on a high, I book us a half-day kayaking trip on Tres Amigos river. No one has ever fallen in our guide, Cristian, tells us. So it comes as much as a surprise to him as us, when 10 minutes later we’re in the water – and yes crocodiles do live here – clinging to the kayak.
We’re soon back on and although Georgia’s laughing, it takes time for my heartbeat to normalise and for thoughts of having to hide in the jungle forever if she got eaten to quieten. We return to the lodge still wet but on a high. A beer never felt so needed.
One final push and we make it to the airport on time, the car returned without damage, my niece still with me and in one piece. I loved Costa Rica. I loved the wildlife, the outdoors activity and how well it really is geared up for families. I loved having a pre-teen to sing along to Dua Lipa and Janis Joplin in the car (one for her, one for me). Though I can’t pretend I wasn’t relieved when we touched down in Gatwick and I could proudly hand her back to her parents intact, I had the best adventure. I think she did too.
Rickshaw Travel offers tailor-made itineraries to Costa Rica, with experiences made up of three or more bite-sized trips.
A suggested 13-day Costa Rica: Pura Vida en Familia costs £2,125 per adult, £1,115 per child, flights extra. The three-day Lava Flows of Arenal Volcano costs £235pp; the two-day At Home with the Tico costs £98pp and the three-day Nature Calls costs £245pp.
Transport (either transfers or car hire) and flights extra. British Airways’ direct flight to Costa Rica from London Gatwick takes 11 hours.
For more information go to visitcostarica.com