First, the back story (according to Mom).
In July 2019, I took my two sons to Costa Rica on one of Intrepid’s family holiday tours. Zach, my oldest, had just turned 12 and Owen was 7. These boys were not international travellers. We had been to Mexico as a family years before for a destination wedding at a resort, but the only other times they’d ever even been on a plane was to visit their grandparents out in Calgary. As a family vacation, this was a first.
In fact, the evening that we were to meet our travel companions in San Jose, Zach turned to me and said “This isn’t like Quebec, Mom.” He’s a reserved kid; that he even said that was a sign that we were pushing some boundaries.
So why had I decided to take my kids so far away ̶ and so far out of their comfort zone? Because, like Zach had said, Costa Rica was nothing like Quebec and that was the point! In the words of Oscar Wilde, “To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.” Simply put, I was ready to really live!
I had just been through a very difficult and long health crisis. It had been a scary time for Zach and Owen, and now with that behind us, they needed to see their mom vibrant and energized, back in shape, and frankly, just back to normal. I also needed to do something for them: as young as they were, they had really stepped up ̶ helping out around the house, helping each other, and helping me. I wanted to say thank you, and I wanted to do it in a big way.
So that summer, we were closing one chapter in our family’s life and starting a new one. It was a rite of passage and I wanted it to be as colourful and thrilling and inspiring as the last two years had been grey and sombre and uncertain. I was looking for something EPIC. But also family-friendly. Where in the world could I find that?
As it happens, the answer lay on our continental doorstep: Costa Rica. It couldn’t be more perfect ̶ a jungle paradise, an adventure hotspot, and a place whose cultural philosophy is best summed up by the phrase you hear everywhere: pura vida. Pure life.
Now, I had been to Costa Rica when I was 18. It was my first solo trip, and it is no exaggeration to say that it was a defining experience in my life. So when Costa Rica came up in a conversation about possible destinations, I immediately knew it was right. We were going there.
We had a full two weeks criss-crossing the country on Intrepid’s Costa Rica Family Holiday adventure: from San Jose, on to Tortuguero, Sarapiqui, La Fortuna/Arenal, Monteverde, Manual Antonio and then back to San Jose ̶ and I loved it. It was the perfect mix of action and cool stuff to keep my kids’ attention, and I saw them grow and discover things about themselves that I’m not sure I would have otherwise seen in two weeks, or a month (or more) at home.
As for what Zach and Owen thought, read on!
The trip, according to Owen (7)
I loved travelling with another family and my mom and Tania, our trip leader. It’s just sad that they included my brother (I’m joking!). The other family we were with had a kid that knew how to sing part of that song, Old Town Road, so that was cool.
Tip for parents and carers: Have confidence in your tour leader and the arrangements made for travelling with families. Tania always had her eyes on the kids, and she was constantly thinking about what was best for them. Travelling as single mom, this was a huge benefit. Even Intrepid’s transportation arrangements made for an easy trip. For most of the tour, we had a private van, which was really low stress.
One of my best memories of the trip was going white-water rafting. We were in a raft, and the waves were splashing on us, and there was some pretty big waves. I was in the middle of the raft for the first part because I was too little to steer. There was a guy following us in a kayak and I got to go in the kayak for a bit and we saw a big lizard. Then we landed on a tiny beach and the guides brought food so that we could have a snack. Then for the second part, I got to paddle! At the end there was a special rapid called El Torro, where one of the girls got to ride on the front of the raft, and I wanted to do it too. I got to ‘ride the bull’ through the waves… and I survived. Everyone said that I was so hardcore!
I also liked going to see the sea turtle build her nest on the beach at night. When we got there, there was no turtle, so we had to go super fast in the boat to get to another place so that we wouldn’t miss the turtle that was there. It was really late at night and I felt surprised when we saw the turtle, because I didn’t know that she was going to be that big. It was exciting when we were rushing around in the dark.
My third best memory was going kayaking in Tortuguero. We all went in kayaks to explore the rainforest. Our guide took us to a baby shark nursery. We didn’t see any baby sharks, but we saw some birds.
Tip: Don’t let the weather slow you down. The day that we went kayaking, it was pouring rain. We could’ve stayed at the hotel because the weather wasn’t ideal for an excursion, but if we’d done that, my son would have missed out on one of his favourite activities. Instead, pack for all occasions and be ready to make the most of it!
The craziest thing I did
The zip lines! Of all my weak points, being scared of heights is the worst. Anything that is high above the ground scares me. I went on the Tarzan Swing and I had to drop off a platform and then swing through the jungle until I landed on ground. And then my mom had to do it too because she had to follow me. She screamed. When she landed, I asked her if she had the same funny feeling in her tummy as me. She said that she did. Then she gave me a big high five.
Tip: Make ‘yes’ your default answer, and support your kids in doing the same. The Tarzan Swing platform was 45 feet high. Jumping off it meant a 35-foot freefall before any swinging actually started. I wasn’t expecting Owen to say ‘yes’ when our zip line guide asked him if he wanted to try, but he was finding some courage, so I wasn’t about to hold him back ̶ even if it meant that I had to do something that I wasn’t sure that I was totally prepared to do myself!
The coolest thing I saw
We saw lots of frogs everywhere, and at the beach were so many hermit crabs. Some were big and some were really tiny. You could pick them up. But my favourite were the grasshoppers at the hotel in Sarapiqui because they were giant and impressive. They were black with an orange stripe and orange is my favourite colour!
Tip: Put your camera away sometimes. Costa Rica is bursting with photo opportunities, and it is easy to get caught up in trying to get the perfect shot. But trust me, some moments are just meant to be enjoyed as they happen, especially when you’re with your children.
The trip, according to Zach (12)
When my mom told me that we were going to Costa Rica, I was genuinely neutral towards the trip at first. We weren’t going to a resort, so giving up comfort for adventure didn’t seem like a fair trade to me. But when she explained what we were going to do, like visit a few famous locations and national parks, I thought we would have a wonderful time and when we got closer to leaving, I came to appreciate the opportunity to really visit a different country.
Then when she told me that we were going with another family, I was surprised and not sure what that would be like. I am an introvert so, when we first got there, I stuck to myself. But it was okay having another kid on the trip because it gave me someone other than my mom and my brother to hang out with, and to pass time with on the van rides from place to place. One time, we were going from the Doha Coffee Plantation to an animal reserve in San Jose. At the coffee plantation, there were chocolate-covered coffee beans in the souvenir shop so I bought some and me, my brother and the other kid ended up eating half the bag! We’d never tried them before, so no surprise, we were a little too excited for the adults’ taste.
Tip: Bring your own earphones, and your own portable battery charger. Travelling with a bunch of kids can be noisy! It’s wonderful to hear all the laughter, but sometimes you will want a little peace and quiet too.
My top five
In Sarapiqui, our guide Tania took us to a homestay dinner with a family that she knows. It was kind of a surprise because it wasn’t on the itinerary. The home was nice and quiet, and in a neighbourhood where it seemed like it was in the rainforest because we couldn’t really see the neighbours. The dinner itself was made of patacones (plantain tortillas), mashed beans and rice, with salad and desert. The food was irresistible, especially the patacones. I ate at least three plates.
What I ended up liking a lot on the trip were the zip lines in Monteverde. There were eight of them and the longest one goes for about two kilometres, the longest in Latin America. You cross high above the trees, and all you see is the rainforest in the valley down below. It’s majestic. And also fun. And terrifying! For me, it was very important to have those things mixed together because it gives you an adrenaline rush and there is the threat of danger. Otherwise, it would be boring.
But my favourite activity was the white-water rafting in La Fortuna. At the start of the rapids, me and another person got tossed overboard and it scared the soul out my mom! The rest of the ride was relaxing for some parts and intense for others. On one part, we could get out of the raft to just float down the river. After we were done, our next stop was a local sugar cane farm, where the owners let us press our own sugar cane juice. I think I pressed a full pitcher of it. And it tasted good! The lunch they gave us was really good too.
We spent our last days in this amazing place, Manuel Antonio National Park, filled with thick rainforest and cool culture and beautiful ocean and that was a wonderful time too. It was like a paradise. There was also this restaurant called the Costa Linda in the town right near our hotel, and it was so good that I got my mom to take us there to eat every night.
Plus all the hotels had pools so that was a huge bonus for me and my family. After a long day of activities, it felt good to decompress and sometimes, it’s fun to just have a pool day.
Tip: Don’t hesitate to ask questions, about safety or anything else. For the record, not once did I feel that anything was unsafe for my children. I was very comfortable with all the safety measures and protocols for all the activities that we did ̶ especially on the rafting trip. Zach was back in the raft in no time flat!
My final judgement
The hardest part of the vacation was having to leave! I have a lot of great memories and if I had the chance to go back, I definitely would.
Tip: If you can, arrive a day early. This will give you and your children a chance to rest before the tour starts, especially if your flight was long. You can also take some time to explore your starting city on your own and get a feel for the place overall. If your children have never been to a country where the customs or language is different than what they are used to, this can help them adjust and make sure the trip gets off to a great start… and ends that way too!
From mom: looking back and looking ahead
Once we arrived home, the summer started to fly by and before we knew it, our schedules had filled up, school had started and our weekends were booked with hockey. As any parent knows, family life can be incredibly hectic. And just how fast we were back to ‘business as usual’ made me realize something: as much as I’m a huge advocate of taking some time for myself to recharge my batteries and reconnect with that core part of me that is just me, as a mom, it is equally important for me to connect with my kids, solely as themselves.
In Costa Rica, I wasn’t with Zach the hockey player, at a hockey tournament. Or Owen, the social butterfly with a full calendar of birthday parties in a single weekend. Instead, it was just Zach and just Owen, without the roles and expectations of the various parts of their lives. Now, don’t get me wrong: both my boys have their passions and I support them both wholeheartedly. But sometimes it is a good thing to step back a little and see who these people that we share our lives with really are, just a little deeper under the surface. Travel takes us out of our ordinary, so we can do just that.
So what was my favourite memory? I can’t pick just one. The whole trip was my favourite. Will we do this again? Most definitely. Pura vida!
This article was written by Zach and Owen Bruneau (with a little help from their mom, Lani). Zach is an avid hockey player. His favourite subjects in school are math and science, and he takes a lot of pride in the fact that he is already taller than his mom. Owen loves snakes and can’t resist cracking a joke. He never leaves home without his sketch book, and he considers himself a carnivore. All images C/O Lani, Zach and Owen.