The phrase ‘single mom traveling’ does have a lovely ring to it, but upon my daughter’s birth, I was utterly devastated by the thought that it would be impossible to continue my traveling ways with my child. But like the seasons- thoughts, possibilities and people change. After a year and a half of settling into motherhood, I discovered that traveling as a single mom with my nineteen month old by my side, was not impossible after all. Our very first trip was to Costa Rica for 35 days. We visited five different locations starting with the Central Valley, then on to the Caribbean Coast, the Northern Central Valley and finally to the Pacific Coast. We encountered many hours of travel, new places to adapt to and unforgettable memories.
I think that traveling remains in a child’s psyche and shapes their character in a conscientious and positive way. I saw it first-hand how truly positive the experience was for my daughter Natalia and I plan to continue traveling as much as we can. Natalia was ecstatic when we would finally arrive to our new destination after hours of travel. She would check out our new home and say “Natalia’s house” and we would both gracefully ease into every new destination and travel situation that we encountered.
The Central Valley was the first place we settled for seven days. I wanted to see where in Costa Rica we would possibly like to settle down for a year or two in the future. I would be teaching and dabbling in real estate and Natalia would be getting a bilingual education and basking in the sun. I was pining for the beach, but I did not want to limit my options to just the beach. Most of the jobs in Costa Rica are in the Central Valley and I wanted to get to know the Central Valley first hand so that I could compare my experiences once I ventured out to the coasts. I also wanted to see what would be more enjoyable as well as practical for the both of us, with a good job market, good schools and a kid-friendly atmosphere. I would then decide on the best option for my toddler daughter- discovering life and growing, and for me- a teacher, world traveler and fun-loving single mother.
The Central Valley is a massive area with many cities including San Jose, Heredia and Alajuela. When I was researching these cities, I was getting advice from people and from the internet to avoid them. I have never been to Central or South America. I did not want to overwhelm myself with a big Central American city, while I would already be overwhelmed with my small travel companion. If I were traveling single or with friends, I would gladly check out the big sprawling cities, but with a child, I felt that I should be more low-key. I wanted a homey small town feel with a two bedroom place and a kitchen so that Natalia and I would get acclimated to living daily life in the Central Valley like the locals.
We chose a small village in the country hills called Pan de Azucar which means ‘sugar bread’ in Spanish. Pan de Azucar is in the outskirts of a cozy little town called Atenas. Atenas has a central park in the center and is surrounded by quaint family run businesses and restaurants called Sodas. Atenas has a simple cathedral, Tico-style residential homes and rolling mountain ranges in the background. It is a mellow town, with kid-friendly shops, including a candy shop, toy shop and a delicious bakery right across from the park. It had treats that Natalia loved to eat, like the carrot bread. Atenas also boasts that it has “the best climate in the world”, which was the deal breaker for me. There is something very wholesome and exclusive about the “best climate in the world” and I wanted me and my baby girl to experience it.
After many dedicated nights of research, I found a cozy two-bedroom house on-line through a comprehensive website that rents vacation homes by owner. In my opinion, when staying for longer periods of time and traveling with children, a home type of environment is the best option. The property where we rented our house is Japanese owned and is called ‘Casa de Megumi’. In Spanish and Japanese, it means ‘House of Blessing’. ‘Casa’ means house in Spanish and ‘megumi’ means blessing in Japanese. Finding a Japanese run vacation rental in Costa Rica was a great coincidence for me because of my recent Japanese-oriented past. I lived in Japan for a year and a half, was pregnant in Japan for five months, and it was the last place I traveled to before going to Costa Rica. Since I have a profound fascination with all things Japanese, Casa de Megumi was automatically kindred to me. Moreover, once I got to know the earnestly helpful owner of the property, Hisano Bell, a Japanese woman from Yokohama, I knew in my gut that Casa de Megumi was the right place for us to start our Costa Rica adventure.
Hisano became like a travel guardian-angel for us in the Central Valley. Even before we arrived to Costa Rica, Hisano and I were in constant contact. She had all sorts of provisions made for us, like getting our groceries before we landed. When I sent Hisano my gorcery list, I forgot to put coffee on the list but Hisano provides local Costa Rican coffee for her guests; I did not even have to worry about that. On the evening we arrived, we enjoyed a traditional Tico meal that Hisano arranged for us with the cook at Casa de Megumi. Hisano’s thoughtfulness was endless. She would even drive us into town occasionally and offer knowledgeable travel tips, like where to exchange money for the best rate. That is what I call Japanese service and hospitality. The Japanese people pride themselves on how well they serve others. When I was living in Japan, I learned a lot about providing sincere quality services to my clients, students and anyone I chose to help, paid or not. These same qualities of good service that I observed in Japan were the same qualities that Hisano shared with us. The coincidence of Casa de Megumi was a true blessing.
Come to think of it, more coincidences followed at our stay at Casa de Megumi. I view these coincidences as omens or as indications that even though I was traveling to an unknown land with a child all alone, these omens were like familiarities along our journey, to make us feel secure and like we were on the right path. I am a huge fan of Paolo Coehlo’s philosophies and I am spiritual, so for me the pleasant coincidences at Casa de Megumi were magical and welcomed at every step.
On the Casa de Megumi property we stayed at Casa Verde, a pristinely clean and newly remodeled two bedroom house with all the amenities, access to fertile gardens with avocado trees, magnificent central valley views and a sparkling pool. Hisano lives in Casa Grande, the other house on the property with her family. I was totally enamored by Hisano’s mother. She is an elderly woman with graceful mannerisms and always dressed in traditional Japanese regalia. Natalia and Hisano’s dog, Jon-Jon were pretty much inseparable during our entire stay at Casa de Megumi. It felt like we had an automatic pet upon arrival and it was heartwarming to see my daughter creating a bond and caring for an animal. She had many more opportunities to be in contact and care for animals throughout our trip in Costa Rica. Animals and pets are part of an integrated and populated mix in Costa Rica. Kids love animals and that is one major reason that makes Costa Rica so kid-appropriate and fun.
One of the perks of staying at Casa de Megumi was getting to know Hisano’s family and having the traditional Japanese dinner at Hisano’s house. Hisano prepared an array of tempura, miso soup and mochi for dessert. Hisano offers this unique hospitality to guests who stay at Casa de Megumi for three nights or longer. It was a an exquisite treat to be in Costa Rica in the tropical mountains, having a traditional Japanese meal with a Japanese family, overlooking the vistas of the lush central valley- an experience of a life time really.
Another striking coincidence at Casa de Megumi was when I was looking for a trustworthy and good- hearted babysitter to care for Natalia, while I would be out interviewing or working at home. Hisano introduced me to Stella. As soon as she said the name ‘Stella’, again it brought up Japan in my mind. My delightfully dynamic Australian roommate in Japan was named Stella. Stella took great care of me when I was pregnant for the first five months. She went with me to every doctor’s appointment and to emergency rooms in the middle of the night if I thought there was something wrong. She was always watching out for me, buying delicious food and always being there for me and my little bump during our fun and crazy times in Tokyo. It was a striking coincidence to hear that Natalia’s potential babysitter in the Central Valley would be named Stella.
The Costa Rican Stella was not only Natalia’s babysitter but also the cook at Casa de Megumi. Stella makes traditional Tico meals with rice, beans, salad and a protein and an incredible vegetable soup. When guests at Casa de Megumi don’t feel like cooking, they can order a casado from Stella. Her food was fresh, authentic and made with love. After eating Stella’s homemade food, meeting her and spending some time with her, I knew she would be great with Natalia. She conveniently lived across the street and she would come over with her grand-daughters and care for Natalia while I was out interviewing or busy working at home. When Stella was unavailable, her daughter who was also coincidentally named Natalia and who was also a single mom, came to help out. Having Stella and her family over and getting to know them, instantly made me feel part of the community in Pan de Azucar. We were getting to know the locals and it made the adapting process familiar and easy.
Natalia and I would go out for long walks along the country road and we would meet the local farmers and spend time with them while they grazed their cows. At first we would get timid waves but eventually the locals got used to us taking walks, snapping pictures at every turn and going to the few markets in the village. We also took the 80 cent local bus on occasion down to the town of Atenas. After a while the faces on the bus became more familiar and friendly, and easy to converse with. Everyone was extremely helpful on the bus. If I had too many bags, Natalia and the stroller, people would carry my stroller in for me so that I could settle us in quickly and be on our way. On the whole, people in the Central Valley love children and are extremely respectful, helpful and tolerant of mothers and their children. I would have to say, the majority of venues in Central Valley that we visited were child-friendly. In my experience and from what I have read, mothers traveling with children are a priority in Costa Rica. Natalia and I felt very welcomed and cherished in all the parts of Costa Rica and particularly the Central Valley.
I had one great concern before going to the Central Valley with Natalia and that was, should I rent a car? I did a lot of research that said a car is not necessary. This may be true if you want to stay in one location, like the beach town Samara, where everything is accessible by foot or by a bike ride, but in Atenas, a car was definitely necessary. I was a little weary of this because of the serpentine roads that are at times unpaved or inches from cascading cliffs. For a single mom with a 19 month old in the back, it did leave a little lump in my throat. After all my research, I decided to ask Hisano about whether I should rent a car. Renting a car in Costa Rica can be quite expensive because of the insurance, which is usually as much as the car rental itself. Hisano said that maybe the better and more economical option would be to just hire a driver; and she recommended her driver Carlos. Carlos was extremely reliable and a total blast to chat and tour with. It was actually more economical to hire Carlos and his car than to rent a car and it was an ideally comfortable situation for us. Carlos took us everywhere our hearts desired, equipped with a safe car seat for Natalia. I spoke both Spanish and English with Carlos because he is bilingual. He is a local and has immense knowledge of the area. He gave us impromptu tours and treated us to some very good ginger candy.
The places that Natalia and I both enjoyed in the Central Valley were the Doka Estate Coffee Plantation and Butterfly Garden, and the renowned Zoo Ave. At the coffee plantation we took a tour, learned about coffee production, ate a delicious traditional Tico lunch and after lunch we visited the butterfly garden, all for under thirty dollars. Natalia loved the Butterfly Garden and she was very well-behaved and attentive when mommy was indulging in all the coffee knowledge and in all the coffee. Carlos even gave Natalia chocolate covered coffee beans. I know this is not as tolerable in the US, but in Costa Rica I have spoken to people who mix a small amount of coffee with milk and give it to their toddlers on occasion. I thought ‘when in Rome…’ and allowed Natalia to enjoy some coffee treats. I associate it with allowing Natalia to drink chocolate milk once in a while. She experienced no adverse reactions just a purely good time.
Zoo Ave is another place that fascinated us both. It is not a traditional zoo but a very large refuge for local rescued animals. Zoo Ave is high in the mountains with exotic animals like pumas, monkeys and sloths and thousands of exotic plants. Natalia took a long nap after discovering all the animals while I sat and took in the sights and jungle sounds. Across the street from Zoo Ave is a well-renowned resort called Resort Martino. I researched and visited the resort and it seemed pristine. Resort Martino is kid friendly, fifteen minutes away from the airport and another great option to consider when staying in the Central Valley with kids.
The Central Valley of Costa Rica was truly a picture-perfect first destination to settle in before hitting the beaches. The Central Valley had many fun activities that kept us busy discovering, but in a relaxed atmosphere at Casa de Megumi, which was safe and perfect for my daughter. In the afternoon, I would go on a few interviews in Heredia and Alajuela or we would take an excursion with Carlos or we would play at the pool. In the evenings, we would have our neighbors over or settle in for the night having dinner, skyping with our loved ones, bath time, story time and bed time; just like at home. We would wake up in the early morning and go straight to the hammock to take our time waking up and to take in the sounds of exotic birds and roosters, to be enveloped in pure nature and to enjoy the best climate in the world. Pura vida.