Saturday, December 22, 2018

Costa Rica Wrap Up: Alturas for Day 7 & Mexico City for Day 8!

The final chapter of the Costa Rica chronicles! I'm cuddled under my fuzziest blanket on the couch. Both girls are napping, James is swimming, Landon is on an outdoor adventure climbing trip he won in a raffle at a climbing competition, and every bit of my Christmas prep is done. Father of the Bride 2 is on TV, I'm swimming through my last round of vacation pictures... all is calm and bright indeed.

And so we go back to Dominical, Costa Rica where we woke up on our 7th day of vacation, after sleeping our last night in our beautiful rental house. We had to check out at 10 a.m., but we fit in a morning swim along with all the packing.

Happy Thanksgiving!

A family of Howler monkeys even walked across a tree on the property, three adults and one with a baby on her back! (Video at the bottom of this post.) They hung out for around an hour, howling and jumping about. A toucan also flew into a tree near the stairs, so we got to say hello to him too. It was such a great Thanksgiving treat and goodbye gift.

Once packed and all sweaty for it, the house manager stopped by to check us out and open the Jurassic Park gates to the house for us one last time as we drove out. We headed to Dominical to stop along the beach tables one more time so each kid could pick out a souvenir with their saved money. Dominical is so low key, there really aren't a lot of opportunities for shopping, and what there is is very chill and friendly. After MUCH agonizing, Cora settled on a small stuffed sloth, Claire got a beaded purse, and Landon chose two toucans carved out of wood. (And, not to be left out, I got a sundress!)

We said goodbye to our local beach and went across the street to a little Soda (small local restaurant) our chef had recommended the night before. Called Tiki Bar and located right next to the little grocery store we visited near-daily it was fabulous and probably our best meal of the trip.

We ordered everything. Patacones (Landon's new obsession), nachos, another round of patacones, casado con pescado, arroz con pollo, and that was just the adults! Cora requested a burrito with beans, rice, and cheese and was rewarded with a burrito the size of her head- and possibly bigger!

Concerned about future tummy aches, I reminded her to only eat as much as her stomach says it wants.

"My tummy is telling me to eat ALL of this mom," she told me very seriously. And she nearly did.

After lunch we headed to the Alturas Wildlife Sanctuary, a short 10 minute drive away.

We'd saved this activity for our last day, knowing we'd have to be out of the house and hoping to not get wet before our 3 hour drive back to San Jose to spend the night.

The Wildlife Sanctuary is part of a tract of land owned by the Villas Alturas hotel. The hotel owner donated the land when he heard that a different animal sanctuary was closing down and all the animals would be euthanized. It's a gorgeous spot, with the best views of the Pacific we'd had on the trip. The tour guide met us in the hotel lobby- an American expat who started as a volunteer and is now a full time employee of Alturas.

The sanctuary was an amazing and touching experience. There are people doing such wonderful work in the world.

If you're on the central Pacific coast, I highly highly recommend a visit for any age. It's a busy and active wildlife rescue and rehabilitation center and most of it is not open to the public to avoid stressing the animals or interfering with the process to dehumanize them and reintroduce them back into the wild, but there is one small part for their permanent residents- animals too physically or psychologically scarred to be released, and we got to tour that. We got to hear each animal's story- many heart-breaking, but all ultimately hopeful as they found their way to Alturas.

I won't do any of the stories justice by trying to recreate them here, really you just need to go to Dominical and go on the tour. From Julietta, the parrot who was kept in a tiny cage of a hotel in San José with French owners, who doesn't know she can fly, mimics kids laughter, and sings to French Opera; to the Aracari with a badly broken wing that even once set wasn't functional anymore who gets visits from a local Aracari flock who deliver him his favorite nuts through the slats of his habitat; to the 2 and 3-toed sloths, to the monkeys, capybara, and even a small deer. They'll take in any animal delivered to them, have a full time vet on staff, and a former orthopedist (for humans!) who retired in the area and comes to read x-rays and help set bones when they need it. They once had a baby hummingbird brought to them and they fed it on demand every 15 minutes 24 hours a day for 30 days until it was strong enough to be released. They also work a lot on education to reduce animal trafficking, working with the Interior Department to build monkey bridges over highways, and more. They're a 501(c)(3) if you're looking for an animal cause to donate to! (It was Landon's chosen charity this year.)

The wildlife tour took about 2 hours and then we started our drive back to San José to spend the night before our crack-of-dawn flight the next morning. We got to the hotel (the same one we stayed at our first night in Costa Rica), walked to get some dinner, and then went to bed at 7 p.m., setting our alarms for the unholy hour of 2:55 a.m. to get up for our 6:00 flight. We were in the hotel lobby by 3:30 and on our way to the airport with the transfer van the hotel arranged for us (the free shuttle begins at 5 a.m., which should be early enough but sadly for us, was not). The sweet overnight desk clerk had packed us a breakfast to-go since we were missing the buffet and that kept the kids busy on the short ride to the airport.

We were at the airport by 4, which is horrifically early, but the kids were great and security took about 3 minutes. The kids insisted on sitting together on the plane, so I got to watch chick-flicks uninterrupted on the in-flight entertainment while James slept and kept the plane in the air by gripping the armrests and everyone was happy. We landed in Mexico City about 9 a.m., went through customs, and went to put our bags in the lockers I'd read about online only to find the lockers were full. So back up the stairs we went to the departures counter and asked if we could change our carry-on only status to add five checked bags for our next flight. That was no problem, so off went our suitcases for our 4:00 p.m. flight, and out we walked from the airport, each with just our backpacks that we'd originally also hoped to store.

We caught a cab van to head into the historical Zócalo city square. We had a 5 hour layover and were determined not to spend it all in the airport. So the Zócalo it was. The 5 mile ride took 45 minutes- traffic was insane and eye-opening. Very much revealing the very large, very different city that it was. Cora fell asleep (she's like a cat) but the big kids watched, eyes wide, as bicycles, motorcycles, trucks, vans, cars, and cabs squeezed through two lanes in and around each other on our journey.

We got dropped off in the Zócalo and explored the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. Wikipedia informed me it was a "simple" and "not ornate," but we found it impressive all the same.

After wandering the square we asked a tour guide for a recommendation on a good local lunch. We followed his directions down the República de Brasil to the Plaza de Santo Domingo for street-corner quesadillas, flautas, gorditas, and chicharrones.

We ate on overturned buckets and ordered food until we were full.

9 plates and $12 later and we were immensely satisfied with our Mexico City excursion. My quesadilla had french fries in it- I can't think of anything better than that.

Lunch complete, we walked back to the Plaza de la Constitución and flagged a cab for the airport.

It took a little while to find one that would take US dollars (and understand our attempts at high school Spanish - two things that were never once a problem in Costa Rica), but find one we did and off we went. The kids and I crammed into the back, James trying not to get car sick in the front.

The kids were delighted and amazed by the manual window crank. There were major negotiations on who got to roll down the window and how many times and Claire exclaimed for the first time on the trip, "Mom! I wish my friends were here so I could show them this amazing thing!"

We got back to the airport about 1:00 with plenty of time to go through security and charge up all our devices before our 3:30 flight. The kids were total troopers- we'd been up for 12 hours by the time we were boarding flight #2 and they were still full of smiles.

We landed at DFW around 6:30, went through customs (Mobile Passport app FTW!), took the bus to our car, and then drove home, walking in the door about 8 p.m., 17 hours and 3,000 miles away from where we woke up.

I can't believe we've been back for less than a month- it already feels so far away! It was an extraordinary trip. Bright, beautiful, fun, and friendly. I can't recommend Costa Rica as a destination more highly. Links to everything we did and where we stayed below:

Condo: VRBO rental
Flight: Booked through Cheapoair (I obsessively shopped flights and ended up getting ours for $305 roundtrip/person, which is pretty great. We had a layover in Mexico City each way, but that's nearly impossible to avoid without paying 3x as much, and on the way back we opted for a longer layover to get out and see a little bit of the city.)
San Jose Hotel: Country Inn & Suites by Radisson, Aeropuerto, San Jose. We had a 2-level, 2-bedroom, 2-bathroom suite for $98/night with a fantastic breakfast included. Highly recommend.

Car Rental: Adobe (through the discount code on this website: 20% off and free car seats). They delivered the car to the hotel and then we were able to just leave it there and leave the keys with the front desk when we got back; it worked out great and they were easy to work with.

Zip Line: Osa Canopy Tour
Snorkel Trip: Bahia Adventures
Waterfalls: Nauyaca Falls & Catarata Uvita

- Tiki Bar
- Porqueno
- Cafe Mono Congo
- Soda Ranchito Dona Maria
Playa Hermosa
- Bowie's Point

Random/helpful info:
- The local currency in Costa Rica is colones. We never exchanged money as everywhere we went took US dollars, from the toll booths to the local grocery store and shops. You'll generally get change back in colones, and the few times I bothered to check the math on my phone their exchange rates and change making was always correct. We generally used cash for smaller shops, local restaurants, and tolls and credit card for the larger businesses like the tour company and restaurants that were part of hotels.
- Spanish is the local language, but English is everywhere too. Every menu in every restaurant we went to, no matter how tiny, had English translations under all the Spanish menu items (though the cost was listed just in colones). All the guides and anyone in anything related to tourism spoke fluent English and anyone else we came into contact with had enough for us to get by, even if we hadn't had several years of Spanish between us. James loved trying to pick his Spanish back up, whereas I got nervous each time I tried and reverted back to only translating what the locals said to the kids.
- The food was fantastic- fresh, healthy, and flavorful without being spicy (my favorite). Very little is fried and rice and beans are present at every meal. The little Sodas we went to loved having the kids and pancakes were available at every meal along with the rice and beans (my kids' version of culinary heaven).
- Gas is full service only and the price is regulated by the state, so it costs the same anywhere you stop. Gas stations were plentiful enough that it was never stressful to find one, but you do want to fill up when you get down to a 1/4 tank because many (most) of the towns along the coast do not have one.
- Navigation was done through Waze or Google Maps. Both worked great, even on the tiny unpaved road to our rental house, and even though very few places have actual addresses or street names. I'd just type in the name of the destination and off we'd go, turning whenever my phone told us to. Driving was far less stressful than I thought it would be based on what others had told me. (If you're in Dominical you definitely need four wheel drive, you couldn't drive up to our house or several of our other destinations without it.)

If you have any questions, let me know! We'll be back to our holiday programming soon!


  1. Did your vrbo house have a specific name (casa de something maybe?) to help search for it? The link above isn't connecting to one currently, so I'm not sure if it's just a modified link or if this house isn't on vrbo any more. Thank you!

    1. Hi there! I think it's off VRBO now, but the private rental company still lists it. It's called "Gorda Vista" and is in Dominical. We'd go back in a heartbeat!