When my mom was an undergraduate at the University of Kansas she spent two semesters studying in San Jose, Costa Rica. That was back in 1960, and her group was the very first to participate in what KU now describes as the oldest inter-university exchange of its kind in the entire Western Hemisphere. I really admire my mom’s decision to join that program. Even today it’s pretty adventurous to spend a year of college in Latin America, so how bold a move would that have been sixty years ago? More impressive than any traveling I’ve done, for sure.
Our whole family benefited from my mom’s college experience when she took us with her to revisit Costa Rica in the 1980s, when I was a teenager. We went twice, and both times my mom’s brother Jim joined us too. My favorite memory from those trips was a visit to the Poas volcano on a day clear enough that we could see both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans from a single spot.
Later, in 1998 and again in 2000, I returned to Costa Rica, this time with friends. We stayed on the Pacific coast, near Manuel Antonio National Park, and spent most of our time trying – with only limited success – to learn how to surf.
Meanwhile my Uncle Jim also continued visiting Costa Rica, and, surprisingly, he decided to buy a home in San Jose. Several years ago Jim sold that place and bought a condo in Jaco, a Pacific coast beach town that’s grown dramatically over the past twenty years. Jim spends about a third of his time in Jaco and the rest back in San Diego, where he’s lived for over fifty years.
Jim has always been an interesting character. He joined the Marines before finishing college and went on to attend medical school and become a doctor. He’s a pilot who at one point built his own plane. Years ago, when Jim was in his 60s, my mom asked if he wanted to join her on a trip. “I can’t,” he said, “that conflicts with my graduation from law school,” which was news to my mom, who hadn’t even known he’d been studying law. He’s a die-hard conservative who supports Trump and takes pride in being politically incorrect. Jim is 83 now, and – while he’s not working at the moment – he’s quick to point out that he’s still licensed to practice both law and medicine.
Marie and I had been thinking for a while that we should visit Jim in Jaco. My sister Ann and her husband Dan had the same idea, and it worked out that we could all head down in mid-February. Marie and I flew to Costa Rica before Ann and Dan and spent a day wandering around San Jose.
The next morning, before catching a ride to Jaco, I was taking a quick shower in our hotel room when a loud alarm suddenly started blaring from the ceiling. Soon there was a knock on our door and I heard a woman shouting frantically at Marie in Spanish. Marie opened the bathroom door and yelled, “The shower is setting off the smoke alarm!”
“Fumar!” I heard from the hallway. “Agua caliente!” I’d already finished my shower and the alarm had stopped, so I wasn’t sure what else to do. Thankfully the shrill woman at the door went away, leaving Marie with a big smile on her face. “Look at you and your steaming hot showers causing problems,” she gloated, shaking her head. I’ve taken showers in a lot of hotel rooms in a lot of different countries and that was definitely a first for me.
We arrived in Jaco early enough to have lunch with Jim. I did my best to get him to talk about why, after decades of saying how much he dislikes traveling internationally and flying on commercial airlines, he’d decided to buy two different places in Costa Rica, but I didn’t make much progress.
That afternoon Marie and I took our first dip in the ocean. The beach was just a block from our hotel, so that evening – and every evening of our stay – we walked down to watch the sun set. Costa Rica’s motto is “Pura Vida” (roughly translated as “Pure Life”), and it’s definitely an easy place to relax and appreciate the moment.
Ann and Dan arrived the next day, and we had a great time catching up. Our normal routine was to hit the beach in the morning, spend some time at our hotel pool, take a short siesta in the afternoon, head back to the beach for sunset, and then have a couple of happy hour drinks before meeting Jim for dinner.
Marie’s priorities started and ended with beach time, but one morning Ann, Dan and I felt ambitious enough to hike up to El Miro, an outlook point just outside of town. The heat, humidity, and steep climb took a toll on us, but it was fun to do a little exploring.
That afternoon Dan decided to borrow Jim’s kayak and do some paddling. I missed all the action, but apparently things did not go smoothly. Battered by the surf on his way out, Dan lost his glasses, a water bottle, and one of the kayak’s plastic attachments. We searched the beach but only found the water bottle. “I’m gonna hide behind Ann when you tell Jim you lost part of his kayak,” I told Dan. Bravely, Dan took his medicine like a man.
On our last full day in Jaco we made our only real excursion, a day trip to Manuel Antonio National Park. Manuel Antonio is Costa Rica’s smallest but most-visited National Park, with sandy beaches and a network of trails that wind through tropical forest. We hoped to see monkeys and weren’t disappointed. Almost right away we came across a group of White-faced Capuchin monkeys trying (often successfully) to steal food from visitors’ bags.
I hoped to get a decent photo of a sloth, and thankfully our guide – Jovanna – was able to spot distant sloths that were effectively invisible to the rest of us. Over the course of our visit Jovanna found five sloths, along with bats, snakes, lizards, deer, a frog nesting in a tree, and an agouti (a large tropical rodent).
Before leaving Manuel Antonio we spent an hour at one of the park’s white-sand beaches, where gangs of White-faced monkeys roamed through the area stealing food and sowing chaos. “We call them the Mafia,” said Jovanna.
The next day we Ubered back to San Jose and flew home. All in all it was a great trip. Jim was as entertainingly curmudgeonly and inscrutable as ever, Marie and I had a lot of fun hanging out with Ann and Dan, and Costa Rica continues to be a beautiful country to visit.