Most parents of young children avoid international travel, particularly to locations where treacherous unpaved roads, tarantulas, and rodents of unusual size are common. We are different. When my husband Gary and I began discussing vacation destinations for this winter, the conversation quickly moved from, “nothing involving long car rides,” to “preferably some place warm,” before eventually sliding down a long slippery slope and landing on “Costa Rica – of course!”
So there we were in Costa Rica, just me, Gary, and 16 month old Charlie, plus my mom, who had come down with us from Minnesota, and my dad, who had flown in from Palm Springs to meet us as well. I spent three months in Costa Rica during graduate school and was eager to visit the families I had stayed with, in addition to introducing Charlie and my parents to the wonders of a country where everything is alive. We made a loop from San Jose south to the Panamanian border before coming back along the Pacific coast. Along the way, we toured a coffee plantation and processing cooperative, stopped in to visit a small farm near San Isidro where I stayed for a month in 2003, and followed the world’s steepest rocky road down a mountainside near Agua Buena to explore a rainforest cave where bats flew thick. Eventually, we made it out to the ocean, where we looked forward to several days of rest and relaxation on the beach. Pura vida, right?
Upon arriving in Uvita, a small town on the southern Pacific coast, I was shocked to see how much the area had developed in only ten years. This was the town where I had once slept on the beach because there were no hotels in sight and the only bus out of town was the one I had just come in on. In 2010, however, a paved road was built from Quepos south, and as a result, dozens and dozens of small hotels and restaurants have sprung up all along this stretch of coastline. The Marina Ballena National Park still protects a swath of land along the ocean near Uvita, and the town itself remains nothing more than a couple of dirt roads, but as Bob Dylan would say, “The times, they are a changin’.”
We checked into a hotel on the main highway after the owner assured us that the beach could be accessed via a short ten minute walk through the jungle. “There is one place where you need to cross a river,” he added, “but the water is only knee high. It shouldn’t be a problem.” He also apologized for how muddy the river was that day, saying, “Usually the water is clear but earlier this week there was someone doing something with a bulldozer.”
Ten minutes later, we had changed into suits and I loaded Charlie into a backpack for our hike down to the ocean. When we reached the river crossing, I entered gingerly, testing my footing as I went. “Oh gee, it’s up to my knee,” I called out as I took another step. “Oh my, now it’s up to my thigh!” I turned and eyed a fallen tree that lay across the river, just as my mother nervously wondered, “Are there crocodiles in this river?” Feeling motivated by the thought, I heaved myself up onto the log, baby and all, and began creeping across the river on my hands and knees. For once in his life, Charlie, a child of perpetual motion and noise, sat motionless and silent as I narrated our progress, “Look at silly mommy crawling across a river!”
Thankfully, we reached the beach without incident and the view was worth the journey. We arrived just as the sun was starting to set and layers of pink and orange folded from the sky down to the sand. Down at the beach, the river was only inches deep, perfect for Charlie to play in, and the ocean, meanwhile, was warm and inviting. Looking inland, there were neither gaudy hotels, nor imposing mansions, just a wall of rainforest and palm trees. In the coming years, Costa Rica’s southern Pacific coast will undoubtedly change as the new road brings tourists and development to the area. The optimist in me hopes for a tourism-based economy, built on locally owned businesses, that protects the forest and ocean and benefits the people who live there.
Here in the St. Croix Basin, we deal with similar challenges when new bridges are built and country roads are paved or widened. With improved transportation infrastructure
comes new homes and businesses and additional tourism revenue. Careful planning is needed, however, to ensure that new development protects the St. Croix River, woodlands and lakes that attract people to our region in the first place. For this reason, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and local units of government like the Washington Conservation District work hand in hand with local communities to ensure than policies and plans are established to protect natural resources during development and redevelopment. A recently developed Community Assistance Package will give cities guidance on ordinances and codes for erosion control, stormwater management, and protection of trees and vegetation. Establishing protections now will allow communities to control development instead of letting development control them.
If you’re looking for a tropical paradise, I know of a great Costa Rican beach at the end of a jungle trail. It’s easy to get there, even with a baby, because the day after I crawled across the river, a man came and built a bridge.