Monday, April 6, 2015

Exploring the Monteverde Cloud Forest & Selvatura Adventure Park

For years I have wanted to visit the Monteverde Cloud Forest region in central Costa Rica. The first two times my husband and I traveled to Costa Rica, we explored the western coastal areas of the Guanacaste province, and then had an amazing trip to the Arenal volcano and the town of La Fortuna. Last November, however, my new little family of three was finally able to rent a car and drive up the crazy mountainside to the cloud forest for an unforgettable experience.

Giant trees in the Monteverde Cloud Forest in Costa Rica

To be clear, the 'Monteverde Cloud Forest' is not just one place that you visit. The name is a descriptor of the entire region, encompassing nearly 15,000 hectacres of land which protects several native species of plants and animals. There are many parks to choose from when deciding to visit the cloud forest - I learned this when planning our trip. One cannot simply Google "Monteverde Cloud Forest" and find a singular website with entrance fees and walking tour guides. There are several places that allow access to this protected zone, and you have to choose which park works for you and your travel companions.

Strange plant pods in the cloud forest

The main parks that I encountered online included the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, the Selvatura Adventure Park, and the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve. A few hotels also offer some walking trails and zipline opportunities, but the three main parks will probably offer you a better experience than a hotel trail.

We chose to visit the Selvatura Adventure Park as our destination due to its multiple family activities: the hanging bridges, the zipline adventure, the butterfly gardens, the reptile and amphibian enclosure, the Superman adventure, and the insect museum to name a few. Of course, with a 10-month-old baby and a wife suffering from extreme morning sickness, some of these options were even unrealistic for us (this time around - I have every intention of going back when the kids are 10 and older so they can try EVERYTHING with me!).

Before I even get to describing the park, I would like to give you some tips and warnings about actually getting to Monteverde.  There are some important things you should know.

1. The Road(s)

For about half of the drive up the mountainside to Monteverde the roads are great. They are nicely paved, smooth, and although not extremely wide, still provide ample room for two vehicles to move past one another. It was a great drive, or so we thought (despite me throwing up every 30 minutes due to morning / car sickness that day, but that's another issue altogether).

Hard to photograph - the bumpy, rutted road up to Monteverde

After the halfway lookout point we visited (see below), the story changes. The road narrowed, turned to dirt and gravel (and boulders), and had ruts so deep I thought our car would fall in and never return. We had to slow right down, and the rental car we had began to squeak in protest as its shocks quickly eroded into nothing. Avy loved the bumps, but my barfing amplified quickly, and Joey's knuckles turned white on the steering wheel. For any of you wondering if the roads are 'as bad as they say they are'... they are. Be prepared. Do not rent a Porsche for your Monteverde excursion.

2. The Lookout Points

However, it is not all bad. Just before the roads turn sour, there is an amazing lookout point that I suggest you dare not pass by. It is unreal, both for its amazing vista and for the lovely customer service. We stopped for multiple reasons (photo opp, bathroom break, diaper change time) but I'm sure glad we did, no matter the purpose. The lookout point is actually on private property in someone's backyard, but they've done a stellar job on landscaping and do it all by donation (so please donate - we did).

The beautiful and peaceful gazebo at the lookout point

You walk past this nice lady's house, down a path, around a corner, and encounter a cliff-side with a gazebo resting peacefully on the edge. From there, you have a view of the Pacific Ocean far off in the distance, as well as the rolling countryside in between. Sheep and cattle graze in the fields below. It is stunning.

The view from the lookout point

To top it off, the lady that owns the place generously served us some cold orange juice to enjoy while we soaked in the view. She was super nice and obviously very proud of her property. Avy had more interest in the lady's lethargic puppy than the view, but to each their own!

The lady who owns the lookout point LOVED Avy Bear

3. The Climate

It is much colder in the rainforest of Monteverde than the rest of Costa Rica, at least the parts I have visited. Which I had read about, but then forgot. Hence, I did NOT pack warm enough for our stay. I had to buy a hoodie while there since I hadn't brought a jacket or sweater of any sort. I thanked my lucky stars I had packed at least one pair of capri pants instead of all shorts! Make sure you bring some warm clothes: you may be in a tropical zone, but high up in the rainforest where it is humid and rainy, you'll need to have some cozy outfits too!

Me wearing the hoodie that I had to buy while in Monteverde - brrr!

Now onto the park itself. I can't speak for what it is like to visit the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve (said to be more natural and mainly just walking trails), or the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve (although I hear it is quite similar to Selvatura) but if anyone else has had the pleasure of exploring these places, please leave your impressions in the comments section below! I'd love to see how your experiences compare to ours!

We booked a morning tour to Selvatura through our hotel conceirge, which just seemed easiest. The next day, a Selvatura shuttle bus showed up at the hotel lobby and picked us up. After adding on a few more passengers (making the bus very full!) we were on our way. The road was bumpy, but nothing compared to the actual road to Monteverde (or maybe it was, the only difference being we weren't in a tiny rental car).

View of the rainforest canopy from one of the highest bridges in Selvatura

The cost to visit Selvatura varies greatly depending on which experience you want: we could not do any ziplining or Superman-ing, but wanted to see the hummingbird garden, so we were able to pick and choose our experience and the price reflected our choices. When we arrived at the Selvatura main office, we were handed colored tickets for each activity we had purchased, and a map of the hanging bridge trail. Off we went!

The hummingbird garden was the closest activity to the main office, so we began there. It is a small garden with about three large hummingbird feeders, some benches, and a flurry of activity from not only a wide variety of hummingbirds, but some scary-looking bugs, too. We saw purple, blue, orange, red, green, and multi-colored hummingbirds flitting here and there, chasing one another, and of course, gorging on the sugar-water provided.

A vibrant blue hummingbird approaches the feeder

Avy loved the birds, even if they often moved too fast for her to really focus on.  I was less impressed with the gigantic spider-beetle-wasp-mosquito things that were so big they sometimes pushed the poor hummingbirds out of the way to get to the feeders. Yuck! But it was a relaxing and pretty way to begin our tour.

Father and daughter both enjoyed the hummingbird garden

Once we'd had our fill of hummingbirds, we headed to the hanging bridge trail head. We handed in our colored ticket and began our 3 kilometer hike. The pathway is bricked and cobblestoned together to create a somewhat smooth road, peppered with stairs, log retainers, and the occasional accidental root intrusion.

The cute pathway through the Selvatura Adventure Park hike

I would not say the path is wheelchair-friendly, especially during the times when you have to climb a few steep metal steps to access the hanging bridges. We didn't have Avy's stroller with us, and I was glad we didn't. It would have been a total pain to cart around. (We also didn't have her baby carrier, which I did regret. We had to take turns carrying her, and after a while, that kid gets HEAVY!)

Lugging a sleeping baby over 8 hanging bridges!

The rainforest scenery was gorgeous - lush, green, cool, with pockets of really exotic plants and leaves to discover. Random pathways darted off of the main road, chained off to indicate they were not open to the public. Gullys and steep edges provided the opportunity for hikers to see just how big the rainforest trees can grow.

An alternate (and inaccessible) pathway in the Selvatura rainforest

We didn't see a great deal of wildlife, however. Our day was sunny and warm, with no wind or rain, so I was expecting to see more than we did. I had read that it was best to hire a nature walk guide so that he or she could point out wildlife that you would otherwise miss, but it was an extra cost we weren't willing to shell out. I had my eyes peeled pretty good. I just think the wildlife was avoiding the pathway area due to the busyness of the nice day.  What we DID see were a clan of coatimundi, way up high in the canopy above us. At just that moment, a couple who had hired a nature walk guide came our way, and we were able to overhear some interesting facts, such as how it is only females who live in the packs. The males 'come of age' and then leave and go live on their own. In fact, the name 'coatimundi' means to 'wander the world alone' (or something similar to that; I can't remember exactly what the guide said). We did see a baby coatimundi up close - it had wandered down a tree trunk before realizing we were there, and upon seeing us, skedaddled back up the tree again.

The baby coatimundi running away from us

My favorite part of the hike, however, was crossing the hanging bridges. They were fun to walk on, and provided some really amazing views of the rainforest canopy. There are 8 hanging bridges in Selvatura, some quite short (50 meters) and others surprisingly long (170 meters). They also range in how high above the ground you walk - sometimes you are only about 12 meters off the ground, which isn't that impressive, but a couple of the bridges were about 60 meters off the ground. Those bridges made me a little dizzy to be honest!

One of the eight hanging bridges in Selvatura

After our awesome hike, we had lunch at the restaurant near the main office. The prices were fairly reasonable, so we were able to order a decently portioned meal. Unfortunately, I was feeling quite sick and didn't eat much, and Avy Bear decided to use that time to destroy her clothing with a poorly-timed poop break. So lunch was not so successful for us that day! However, don't feel that you must pack a picnic lunch in order to eat at the Selvatura Adventure Park, as their diner is well-priced and well-stocked.

A fallen flower in the rainforest - I have no idea what it is!

All in all, I really enjoyed the Monteverde rainforest experience, and would recommend the Selvatura Adventure Park to families wanting to mix in some quiet hiking with some exhilarating activities. I know I would like to return with my children when they are old enough so we can all try ziplining and Superman-diving into the tree tops.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Dog Sledding in the Canadian Rockies

For my husband's 35th birthday, I was out of gift ideas. We are planning for baby #2 (already - who knew we were so fertile!) and so have been downsizing and minimizing like crazy to make room for a second nursery. Peanut is only 13 months, so the two babes will be 18 months apart, and that means lots of baby items, toys, and messes. My office has now completely disappeared, and my husband's office now doubles as a spare room. Boxes of books, trinkets, clothes, and much more have been carted out our front door to various destinations, just as long as they are not in our house.

So the last thing I wanted to buy Joey for his birthday was more STUFF. What I did buy was a fun family experience that Joey and I enjoyed (but maybe not baby Peanut so much): we went dog sledding in the wintery Canadian Rocky Mountains near Canmore, Alberta.  What a cool and exciting day we had!

My birthday gift to my husband - a family adventure of dog sledding in the Canadian Rockies!

I booked our morning tour with Snowy Owl Dog Sledding Tours, which was a very professional company that is run by third generation 'mushers' - it was begun in 1981 and is still being family run by the original owners' grandson and his family. There are 120 dogs and they are all very well cared for and seemed to genuinely love what they do. I was very happy with the quality of the company. The tour itself was a bit pricey, but in the end, very worth it if I may say.

The beautiful scenery around Spray Lake in Canmore, Alberta.

We arrived in Canmore early in the morning at 8:15 after driving over an hour from Calgary (we stayed with Joey's parents the night before to avoid renting a hotel room). We gathered at the Snowy Owl headquarters in downtown Canmore before boarding shuttle buses, where we were driven out to Spray Lake in the middle of the Rockies. It was a steep drive up a mountainside, but the views were lovely and the landscape covered in fresh white snow that had just fallen that morning.

Sledding across the frozen surface of Spray Lake

Once we arrived at Spray Lake, we immediately saw the excited dog teams tethered to their sleds, lined up along a trail and super ready to roll. They were yipping and barking, but in a friendly way. Most wanted to be petted before taking off, although a few were a little more shy (those ones had red bandannas to indicate they didn't like pets or were wary of strangers).  Avy was able to pet a few, but eventually all the barking and conversing between the 110 dogs became too much for her, and she started to cry (and then didn't really stop the rest of the way).

Petting the sled dogs before we begin our sledding journey

With 14 dog teams consisting of 8 to 7 dogs each, there was a lot of commotion to begin with, and several people sledding with us. We had an initial safety and information talk with our host, who not only taught us the proper terminology for dog sledding, but also how to guide a dog sled. Several sledders were riding without a guide or instructor as part of their purchase package, and some of us, including Joey and I, were riding a sled in tandem with an instructor. Joey was in charge of driving the sled, since I was six months pregnant at the time and not inclined to run with dogs up the steep hills.

Let me reiterate some of the dog sledding rules we learned that day. The most important rule of dog sledding is DON'T LET GO! Always have at least one hand on the sled, or the dogs will notice you not hanging on and take off. Before you are even aware of what is happening, you will be flying butt-down into the snow and the dog and sled (and your passengers) will be 14 feet ahead of you without any sign of slowing down. That scenario alone made me willing to give up the reins to Joey for the duration of the trip. I wanted nothing to do with crashing Avy into a tree in the middle of the mountain wilderness! Other rules included stopping whenever a dog needed to use the washroom, mainly for the comfort and dignity of the dogs, but also to prevent having your passengers sprayed with... well, you know. When going uphill, help the dogs to pull the sled by getting off the steps and running along behind the sled to lighten the load. Always encourage the dogs with a hearty, "Good doggies!" loud enough for them to actually hear you and be encouraged.  And once again, don't ever let go without having the sled tied down first.

Getting some important dog sledding lessons from our group leader

With those wise words of wisdom, we were off. Avy and I were bundled into the sled and tucked into some warm blankets, and Joey and our guide took to the sled steps. We were third in line out of the 14 sleds, so we got to experience the snow in its mostly fresh state. The dogs showed boundless energy and were happy to be out running - the day was -7 and almost too warm for them our guide explained. We stopped a few times for some puppy potty breaks, and I was able to enjoy the snowy scenery of Spray Lake. Avy enjoyed crying (she usually likes dogs, but she was just very 'off'' this day).

Dog sledding in the amazing Canadian Rockies near Canmore, Alberta

At one point, we were going down a pretty steep run when one of the dogs needed to go #2. Due to our momentum and speed, we were unable to stop to allow him a dignified poo, and Avy and I got to witness it first-hand! Oh well.  At least it hit the snow and not us.

We crossed a portion of Spray Lake, swishing across the snow-covered ice silently. That was my favorite part, as the view was incredible and the hushed sound of us riding the snow quite peaceful. The breeze was very cold blowing across the open lake, though, and Avy voiced her displeasure. We had her bundled up very well, but she is a lot like her momma and not really a winter fan.

Our "in action" shot from the Snowy Owl Dog Sledding Company

After our adventure, we gathered around a picnic area which had a roaring fire blazing, and drank hot apple cider and ate brownies that the dog sledding company provided for us. They provided a couple of professional shots for sale. I bought one even though they were a little expensive, since all my shots were from within the sled and we didn't have a group 'in action' photo.

Banff Upper Hot Springs in winter time

To warm up after our winter adventure, we drove into Banff and soaked for about an hour and a half in the Banff Upper Hot Springs. Avy is definitely a water baby and had a lot more fun in the water than in the sled! We have been to the hot springs in both summer and winter, and both seasons offer spectacular and unique views of the mountains.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

What to Expect on a Road Trip Around Costa Rica

Driving in a foreign country can often make travelers a little nervous. There are unspoken rules to the road, local expectations, and unknown laws that drivers need to become aware of before getting behind the wheel, and that can be intimidating. Of course, you can always just wing it and get in the car and drive (what we usually do, to be honest), but it can be helpful to read tips and tricks about foreign driving from other travelers to help guide you. (Or learn from local drivers, like we did on our road trip through Iceland.)

So that's what I am doing - trying to make your cruising experience through Costa Rica a little easier. Here are some helpful tips and tricks on what to expect when undertaking a road trip around the land of "Pura Vida" (an endeavor my husband and I have accomplished twice now, so hopefully we can impart some wisdom your way).


This is a big difference between 'North American' driving and driving in Costa Rica. In my experience, when crossing a bridge there are typically two lanes and, although the road might be a bit narrower along the bridge than along the rest of the highway, there is ample room for two vehicles to pass one another. Not so in about 90% of Costa Rican bridges.

Road sign indicating a narrow bridge is in your driving future

Bridges in Costa Rica are typically built to accommodate one vehicle at a time only. The road narrows and the bridge is shaped like a capital "I", widening again at the other end. It is fairly easy to figure out the issue of right of way when crossing bridges. As you are driving along the road, you might see a "Puente Angosto" sign depicting an oncoming bridge (which means "Narrow Bridge"). This tells you to slow down, because you might be coming to a complete stop soon.

At the actual bridge, lines on the road stating "Ceda" show you where to properly wait, and if you are to give right of way to the other vehicle, a sign saying "Ceda El Paso" will be posted at the mouth of the bridge. "Ceda" means "give way", while "Ceda El Paso" translates to "give way to pass".

"Ceda" means "Give Way" to oncoming traffic

You must wait while the oncoming vehicle crosses the bridge. If you do not see a "Ceda"sign on your side of the bridge, then you have right of way and can cross without having to yield first. (We always slow down regardless, just in case the person on the other end of the bridge isn't familiar with the "Ceda"rule or just doesn't care.)

Rules of the road make it easy to navigate Costa Rican bridges

I have never actually had a problem with anyone improperly crossing a bridge, so don't stress about this one! It gets smoother every time.

Road Conditions

One thing Costa Rican roads are notorious for are their gigantic potholes. We've swerved around ones that could quite literally swallow a goat. (Or other farmyard animal of such size.) (Certainly a good portion of the front end of your car.) On our road trip to the Arenal volcano, my hubby and I hit a fair-sized pothole and ended up rolling into Nicoya on a flat tire. Drivers, you must pay attention to the road conditions while driving due to this fact! Potholes in Costa Rica can destroy your vehicle.

My husband fixing our flat tire after hitting a pothole in Costa Rica

I would also like to point out that this is not due to neglect or shabby workmanship. It is a matter of weather and climate versus money and maintenance. The tropical weather and heavy rains make it very difficult to build a strong, lasting road, while the sheer number of quickly eroding potholes makes it a nightmare for infrastructure to keep up. What we have noticed, and I'm not sure this is actually the case, is that once a road gets so many potholes in it, the government sort of waits it out until it gets so bad they can be justified in replacing entire stretches, rather than play a never-ending patch job game. It makes sense to me. Even if this isn't actually the plan, the moral of the story is to watch the road carefully when driving.

Potholes are a major problem in Costa Rican roadways

Another aspect of road conditions that you have to be aware of are the lack of dividing lines on the highways, even the major ones. They seem to come and go sporadically.  Sometimes you have a clear indication of where the center line is, and then out of nowhere, where you drive seems entirely left up to you as the center line disappears. This one isn't really a big deal, because anyone worth their driving salt can figure out where the center line should be. I just wanted to make you aware.  This is especially important if you are a driver who tends to 'drift'.  There are no rumble strips, sometimes no center lines, and not much for shoulders.


If potholes and no shoulders weren't enough to convince you to pay attention while on your road trip through Costa Rica, then the plethora of pedestrians strolling the sides of the roads and highways should be. Tiko towns are typically located quite close together, with many rural homes and small grocery stores dotted in-between.  People come and go all the time, using the barely-there shoulders of the road as sidewalks.

Cute Tiko home as seen from the road

Kids and animals are the ones that freak me out the most, because they can be so unpredictable. Always stick to the speed limit, no matter where you are, not because of the threat of a speeding ticket, but because so many people trust you to drive properly where they walk every day.


One big thing that might affect you as a foreigner or traveler in Costa Rica is the issue of navigation. Signage is not the greatest in Costa Rica. Major cities are advertised on highway signs with distances and the occasional directional arrow, but villages and road intersections are not usually clearly marked. My husband and I were looking for the turn-off for a major route, but could not find a sign anywhere that told us A) what road we were currently driving on, and B) what major roads were coming up. We basically just guessed and crossed our fingers that we were right. On the way to Monteverde, we guessed correctly and made it to our destination unscathed. On the way home from Monteverde, we guessed totally wrong and ended up in a town about two hours away from the highway intersection we'd originally been looking for.

My advice: rent or bring along a GPS device. It will help immensely, as the GPS system will tell you where to find major routes and highways, even if there are no signs anywhere along the road to guide you.

Speed Limits, Helmets, Seatbelts, and Fines 

Naturally, you will want to follow the driving laws of Costa Rica. Stick to the speed limits (found in kilometers per hour), which rarely go above 85.  Naturally, there are drivers that choose to go above the limit, but my advice is to NOT "just go with the flow". Roads are twisty, pedestrians plentiful, and potholes nasty. Speeding tickets are extremely expensive in Costa Rica (in excess of $600 we have been told), and police are more apt to target tourists as they typically have the cash to pay the fine. That being said, unless you are in the major metropolitan areas, you don't tend to see too many police patrolling the roads. We stick to the speed limit (despite getting passed by pretty much all the locals) mainly because we don't want to hit any pedestrians and be involved in an accident in a foreign country. So we get passed. It's not a big deal.

Good rule of thumb: ALWAYS slow down for a Costa Rican school zone

School zones come with their own set of rules too. Every settlement has its own school, by Costa Rican law, whether there are 150 students, 50 students, or 5 students. So you will encounter several school zones over a short drive. Slow down in school zones (photo radar is most likely to be found here) and don't even worry about what time of day it is. School zone speeds are in effect as long as students are found on the property, and this includes if they've come back to school later in the day to play soccer on the field.  If there are kids nearby, the school zone speed is in effect. To be safe, we always drive the school zone speed, even in the evening.  As you can tell, the goal in Costa Rica is not to see how fast you can go - it's about slowing down and enjoying the journey.

A couple of other rules: wear your seatbelt if in a car or truck, and your helmet if you are riding a motorcycle. Yes, wear them, even if you never see any other Tikos wearing theirs. If the police catch you riding a motorcyle with no helmet, it can be a hefty fine - although it seems like no locals ever wear them. You'll see entire families crammed onto one motorcyle (we saw a father, mother, and two little boys, with one boy carrying their dog, all on one motorcycle), and they rarely, rarely wear head gear. Doesn't matter. Like I stated earlier, as a foreigner you are more likely to be ticketed because you have the money to pay the fine, so practice prevention and follow the laws.

Stopping to Enjoy the Scenery

Rules, rules, rules and warnings - I'm sorry. I didn't mean for this post to be so 'doom and gloom'. The BIGGEST piece of advice I can give you regarding taking a road trip around Costa Rica: ENJOY IT! Stop to enjoy the majestic scenery, take photos, meet the people, grab a snack at a 'soda' (small restaurant), and get off the beaten path.

No matter your destination, never forget to enjoy the journey

The Tiko culture is super friendly and the people take immense pride in their villages and towns. Go explore. Take your time. And if you do get lost (due to signage?) just use it as an excuse to go explore some more.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Bucket List Item: Introducing Baby to Costa Rica

Last month, my family ventured to Costa Rica for our first international family vacation. Flying was surprisingly easy, as I discussed in my last post (which was about a month ago - I have been very neglectful of this poor little blog!).  The rest of the trip was just as stress-free, for the most part. We LOVED introducing our beloved Costa Rica to our 10-month-old babe, Avy!

Our first international family vacation was a success - look at that happy baby!

Because we had Avy with us, there wasn't a lot of sightseeing, eco-adventures, or excursions occurring. We did drive up to Monteverde to hike through the rainforest at Selvatura and learned about coffee growing and roasting at a true-blue coffee farm and mill, but that trip was only three days of our two week vacation. (I will, of course, be writing about those experiences down the road, and hopefully not a month from now!)

For the rest of the time, we relaxed, spent time as a family, swam in the pool, and visited the beaches at Carillo and Samara.  That was about it, and it was glorious. It was a complete break from my usual style of travel, which is go-go-go, but with a wee baby change is to be expected.

Here are the highlights of this particular travel bucket list item:

1. Introducing our baby to the ocean

She was not a fan. Not at all. The waves freaked her out, the sun was pretty hot and made her cranky, and we didn't like that she tried to eat all the sand and debris that washed up from the tide onto it. I am not implying Playa Carrillo is littered - in fact, it is one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, in my opinion.  Pictures and video cannot do that beach justice, as it is pristine and peaceful. But it is a beach just like any other, and chunks of driftwood, seaweed, and other assortments of ocean paraphernalia do find their way onto the sand after high tide.

Playa Carrillo is arguably one of the most beautiful beaches in the world.

We did have a fun day at the beach once we struck a balance - Avy was situated on a beach towel under the shade of a palm tree, with a pile of 'cleaned up' sand for her to spread all over herself.  My hubby and I took turns splashing in the waves, and once Avy was far enough away from the crash of the ocean she liked to watch the water, pointing to the waves and narrating her thoughts.

Our babe experiencing the ocean for the very first time.

We did manage to get her to swim for a little bit in the water, which made for some beautiful photographs (in which she looks like she's enjoying herself, but I know the truth). Next time, she'll be a little fish I'm sure.

2. Strolling the streets of Samara

Samara is a touristy surfing village near our home in Guanacaste. It isn't as touristy as Tamarindo, but it definitely lacks the 'locals only' vibe that Carrillo has. Still, I like walking its streets and dining at the cute restaurants that line its beautiful white sand beach. There is an atmosphere to the town that makes you feel hip and cool, even when you are pushing a stroller and have never stood on a surfboard in your life.

Strolling the streets of Samara in Costa Rica.

The beach in Samara is very nice, but I think it pales in comparison to Playa Carrillo. This is mainly because it is very populated - there have to be about seven surf schools in town and a TON of hostels and hotels - and also there is a coral reef some ways out into the water, which leaves sharp little pieces of coral embedded in the sand, just waiting to slice your feet. Carrillo has neither. But Samara Beach is still beautiful, as most Costa Rican beaches are, and worth a visit!

The beach at Samara, Costa Rica.

To Avy's delight, we even encountered a group of about 10 monkeys eating fruit in the trees above a section of the beach. Monkeys are currently her favorite animal, so we thought it was neat that she was able to see them for real, and not in a zoo setting.

Monkeys enjoying their day at Playa Samara.

3. Swimming in the pool at Grandpa and Grandma's house

And this is how we spent the majority of each day. Avy loves the water (except, ahem, not ocean water apparently) and so the pool was a huge hit. Grandma joined us often, although unfortunately Grandpa had an injury at the time that prevented him from coming in for a dip.

Avy Bear and her daddy enjoying a beautiful morning swim in our pool in Costa Rica.

The pool is so beautifully landscaped that you feel you are in paradise while swimming. Palm trees, ginger plants, colorful flowers, and primly trimmed hedges line the pool's edge, hosting several birds and animals such as parrots, squirrels, hummingbirds, and butterflies. We swam several times a day: morning swims, afternoon swims, and the occasional night swim to cool down before bed. It was perfect.

The landscaping is unreal - that's magazine quality gardening right there!

There wasn't much more to our vacation, other than the side trip I mentioned above, which will be featured in a series of posts later on. It was the first time I'd personally been on a vacation where I really did just relax. No agendas, no itineraries, no pre-planned potential blog posts to check off. It was nice to just spend time with my family.  HOWEVER, next time we go, I have a huge list of family-friendly adventures that we will experience - I haven't completely changed!!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Tips and Tricks for Flying with an Older Baby

My family and I just got back from a two-week holiday in Costa Rica, where my 10-month-old daughter got to spend some quality time with her grandparents in their Guanacaste home.  I was apprehensive but hopeful regarding the entire 'flying with baby' scenario, but due to being extremely prepared and well-researched, it all went smoothly.

Here I share my top tricks and tricks for flying with an older infant.  I hope it helps!!

1. Ensure you have a bottle for take-off and landing

After reading nightmare stories online from several mothers about screaming babies who cried from the moment the plane left the ground, I was nervous about taking Avy Bear up on a plane. Prior to becoming a mother myself, I was always one of those people that shuddered when I saw a family holding a baby walk up the aircraft aisle. Of course, I would never comment or criticize: I just never liked being trapped near a wailing baby, helpless to do anything to calm it. (I am a little control freakish, yes, but I'd never grab someone else's child or be snotty enough to lean over and give my two-cents' worth on how to keep that baby quiet...)

After a nice bottle at take-off, Avy drifts into sleep, along with her Daddy.

I DID read that many babies are great travelers; you just have to get over the pressure change in the cabin that notoriously hurts little eardrums.  Advice from several sites recommended feeding your baby upon take-off, and again as you felt the aircraft begin to descend for landing.  I am going to repeat that advice, because it was EXCELLENT.  Feed that baby, and help his or her poor little ears adjust slowly and comfortably.

Avy was hungry before take-off, and was starting to get squirmy. We occupied her as best we could, giving her little sips but keeping the bulk of the bottle in reserve.  As the plane began to pick up speed down the runway, we allowed Avy to finally eat her fill, and she drank all the way up until the plane was stabilized.  She didn't cry once.

As soon as my own ears began to notice the pressure change upon arrival to our destination, we began feeding Avy her next bottle. This time we portioned it and let her drink slowly, so that her ears would adjust as we slowly dropped in altitude.  She didn't even notice the pressure change, and played happily the whole way.  It took us two flights to arrive in Costa Rica, and two more to get home, and during those four flights, Avy only cried once (and that was because we forced her to nap when she was tired, and she cried for about one minute).  Thank you, other mothers, for the advice on timed feeding!

2. Bring LOTS of snacks and treats

Since timing your liquid meals is super important to the overall auditory health and comfort of your baby, it might be necessary to prolong the gap between bottles longer than normal on a three to four hour flight.  This is where the beauty of snacking comes in.

Avy enjoying her flight.  She got to eat like a kid at a sleepover, and she loved it.

It is also very hard to feed an older baby a true-blue solid meal if he or she has graduated to finger foods. Unless the food is specifically labeled as baby food and is still sealed, security most likely won't let you take it through. That means your hard work dicing and mashing a plethora of healthy and easy-to-eat foods for your baby could end up in the garbage. We brought a few pouches of Heinz pureed baby food for our daughter, but even so, opening them up, pouring them into a bowl, mixing with rice cereal, and feeding her with a spoon just seemed like way too much when packed like sardines in a three-person row on the airplane.

What we did was pack several bags full of different snacks: strawberry puffs, Cheerios, yogurt treats and vegetable puffs.  Not the healthiest way to feed a child for a day, but it IS only for part of a day, and it keeps everyone sane. Avy would play and flirt with other passengers, but when she started to get antsy - and that happened a lot - we'd pull out a little handful of snacks and she would settle back down.  Overall, she didn't eat very much, but the variety and the timing helped to keep her happy and occupied.

3. Don't pack too many toys

I totally over-packed on the toys. Many websites recommended bringing some favorite toys along with two or three new toys that baby had never seen before.  I think this is too much.  A) She only played with about two of her old toys that I brought, and only for about 5 minutes at the most with each, and B) she could have cared less about the two new toys I packed for her.  I tried to avoid toys with noises and lights, since I didn't want to disturb the other passengers, and they didn't seem to pack the punch I was hoping for.

Landing in beautiful Costa Rica.  Avy made flying with a baby easy!

But it didn't matter - Avy was more interested in looking at and chatting with the other passengers and the stewardess, playing with the papers in the seat in front of her, eating her snacks, and sleeping. This is not to say all babies are the same... except I sat beside two other babies during our four flights, and those two babies also neglected to play with any toys.  So save a little room on your carry-on and just tuck in a couple of favorite toys.  I'd put snacks in the saved space instead!

4. Do pack some antibacterial wipes

I'm not a germaphobe by any means.  I believe in building immunity through natural play with the world. But that's not to say I liked the idea of Avy shoving the man-handled safety card into her mouth and ingesting germs from all far-reaches of the Earth. So I did pack both wipes and Lysol wipes. I didn't scrub the plane down upon entry, but when Avy was looking hungrily at the back of the seat in front of her and all its hard-plastic chewy goodness, I did give it a cleaning before she inevitably licked and gummed it. I know from experience you can't stop her from shoving things in her mouth, so I was prepared for a little housekeeping on the plane. Just don't be that annoying person that disinfects EVERYTHING and EVERYONE - if you are holding your baby and keeping her occupied, she's not going to lick the entire plane and contract the plague.

5. If there's an empty seat, see if you can snag it

On the way down to Houston, we had a less than full airplane.  That meant we had an empty seat between us, and Avy had it all to herself.  What a blessing that was! She got to stand, bounce, crawl, and get all her wigglies out.  Usually planes are packed to the nines, so I realize this is a rare occasion.  But if you do happen to see an empty seat, sweet talk your stewardess to see if there's any way you can be placed in that row.

Hello Houston!  We made it through Avy's first flight with literally no problems!

6. Keep your wipes, bum cream, and diapers close at hand

On our way down to Costa Rica, I had a perfectly packed carry-on bag just for Avy. It contained ten to fifteen impeccably packed diapers all in a row, wipes, cream, bottles, snacks, toys, a blanket, a change of clothes, a spit-up towel and more.  It was perfect.  And then we got onto the plane and it was too large to go under the seat, so we had to put it in the overhead compartment, and basically we never saw it again until landing.  I lie: we pulled it out twice.  Once we needed it for a diaper change, and the second time we grabbed her snacks and a bottle for landing.  It was a total pain, since we had a stranger sitting on the aisle seat, and she liked to sleep through her flights.  We felt so disruptive and rude, although the lady was great and completely understanding.

My impeccably packed carry-on... it just didn't fit under the seat.

I learned my lesson and on the way home, I packed Avy's diapers, cream, wipes, bottles, snacks, and a couple of toys in my oversized purse carry-on, and slipped it under the seat in front of me.  So much easier!  Everything was on-hand, accessible, and we didn't have to disturb anyone. If you think you'll need it during your flight, keep it in a bag that can be stored under the seat. Anything else, including random emergency supplies (like an extra change of clothes for blow-outs) can go up top, since you might not need to use them.

Those are my top tips. Avy was a great traveler, which makes me hopeful that we can have many more family vacations like this one without too much stress. It was surprisingly easy to fly with a baby, and the only bump we ever had was when my travel-sized shampoo exploded in my carry-on (luckily it was in a plastic bag).

Our first family vacation was a success!  

Do you have any other 'flying with baby' tips?  Please share them in the comments below!