Photo: Stacy Funderburke/Shutterstock

9 Habits My American Kid Picked Up in Costa Rica

Costa Rica Family Travel
by Liz Galloway May 25, 2015

1. Rehabilitating sick and wounded kinkajous, sloths and titi monkeys.

Most kids don’t get to soothe orphaned baby titi monkeys or forgo the walls of a classroom for tropical reforestation outings — those are just a few of the weekly activities for the kids of KSTR. Kids Saving the Rainforest is a sanctuary for both kids and animals and is a foolproof resume builder for budding primatologists and earth enthusiasts. It’s a great place for kids ranging in age from 5 to 17 to make new friends and create valuable bonds. Kids are dropped off to trusted wildlife managers for educational rescue projects and parents get adult beach time.

Founded in Manuel Antonio, KSTR is bridging the gap between the dark side of rainforest sprawl and the health of the native wildlife. The small core crew takes in electrocuted, fallen, abused, or abandoned animals to heal them and get them ready for re-release. After a day of helping cuddly creatures, my kid always came back with new levels of maturity and was ready to share a full report.

2. Going through flip flops and beach shorts like they’re disposable.

In Costa Rica you may find yourself adding ancillary beachwear as an itemized line on your monthly budget. It’s the easiest, no-nonsense way to avoid the aggravation of the constant loss of your child’s beach costumes. The riddle of the missing flip flops has never been completely resolved, but I have suspicions it’s a mix of the notorious beach piracy organized by troops of titi monkeys, street dogs snatching up new toys, fast-rising tides sweeping away lazily cared for items and plain old forgetfulness. Best advice: don’t re-purchase your items in tourist areas. The nearer the vicinity of the coast, the higher the price. You’ll quickly grow tired of navigating the overpriced items and will find a much better deal in Quepos central. Stock up on generic sandalias (flip flops) and swimsuits with the knowledge that some will no doubt find a home in the hidden booty stash of the Titis. Regardless of this small scale stress, an epic beach day will put your mind at ease. Pura vida, mae.

3. Wearing the house gecko as earrings.

These velvety brown suction-toed creatures show up pretty much everywhere in Costa Rica, from your food storage, to mostly decomposed inside your electronics, to splashing about in your twilight cocktail. They make for humorous evenings with kids scurrying around tile floors ambushing them in corners. My son spent so much time chasing them he became the neighborhood gecko whisperer. His claim to fame: lightning speed moves to snatch them up followed by lulling them into a hypnotized state where they stayed, dazed, with their mouth agape. He then placed an earlobe directly in front of their slick black eyes. Their instinct — to clench down and hang on for dear life. It was a fun party trick to tap the shoulder of a tipsy dinner guest to show off these cold blooded ear ornaments hanging by nothing more than their mouth.

4. Avoiding the ocean after being caught in the pull of a rip tide.

Lifeguards in Costa Rica are pretty rare. Beach towns have been scolded for the lack of funding to keep lifeguards, so the occasional group is compiled of volunteers. It’s satisfying to know more are becoming professionally organized, well trained, and supported by public donations.

Though there have been many episodes of stellar beach rescues, people can be quickly lost in the brisk pull of a rip. Some stretches of the coast claim an average of 20 lives a year, and everyone has a personal story from a friend of a friend whose morning jog ended with a drowned swimmer brought in by the tide. My son didn’t trek into the ocean more than three quarters of a leg deep, without a surfboard at least, after feeling one of these insidious undercurrents grip at his thighs. Recognizing it quickly, he hastily struggled back to the beach with a new respect for ocean dangers.

5. Overeating arroz con pollo (chicken rice) or arroz con anything until sick.

While rice was never my kid’s favorite stateside (with the exception of sticky rice around an overpriced sushi roll), he now routinely gorges himself on volcano-sized platters of flavorful rice mixed with, well – anything, despite reminders from a vigilant mom that his cramped gut may not be too happy with him later. In Costa Rica he was a rice devotee and ate it whether mixed with chicken, tuna, beef, beans, potato chips or flavored with cilantro, achiote paste, or peppers. Add a generous pour of Salsa Lizano — Costa Rica’s sweet brown sauce — to a heaping dollop of rice and you have the perfect storm.

6. Discovering rainforest wildlife instead of characters on Playstation.

With Costa Rica being a playland to over 500,000 wildlife species from the unique to the remarkable, kids can spend their day with monkeys, lizards, snakes, bats, sloths, and insects. With miles of separation from our home country, it helped to get integrated with instructive and colorful books like Amphibians and Reptiles of Costa Rica to utilize as field guides. It was a big improvement from a Playstation fantasy world of Halo, Minecraft or Sims games. My son can rattle off scientific names of red eyed tree frogs and scarlet macaws with ease. You can experience wildlife in almost every corner of Costa Rica’s small country, but some recommended hot spots are the picturesque Drake Bay, cloud forests of Arenal and the turtle nests of Tortuguero National Park.

7. Actually appreciating malls and movie theaters.

Costa Ricans love their mega malls and the latest American movie releases just as much as most expatriates. You can find opulent malls in the Central Valley cities of San Jose, Turrialba and Escazu without much effort.

But after living in a beachside community hours from the closest likeness of modern benefits and fancy electronics, you will have a new gratitude for conveniences most take for granted. With a motto of ‘happy kid, happy mom’, there were requisite day trips to the capital for movies, shopping and gluttonous fast-foodery. Splurge on a theater with upgraded leather recliners, sushi menus, and adult beverage service -it makes watching the newest Pixar release that much better. Go to the ones listed subtitulada not doblada to retain the original voices of your favorite actors.

8. Speaking Spanish to such perfection he’s mistaken for a Tico.

It’s not uncommon to find yourself in the company of several nationalities at once while living in Costa Rica. Most Ticos and the expatriate community speak English, but they also speak an average of three other languages. So far that puts me negative two and a half. While I resolved to gain my Spanish vocabulary at work and from local taxistas, my son took private lessons that allowed him to wrap his tongue around the language much faster. Within months he was translating conversations and correcting my Spanglish. He was often mistaken for a Tico because he was so good at imitating the distinctive national accent — it didn’t hurt he already had some latino blood and a dark golden tan after months in the equatorial sun.

9. Fierce independence and confidence that lasts a lifetime.

It’s all about the attitude when living abroad and it’s precisely those happy and colorful expat kids (mine included) that grow up to be well adjusted, savvy and articulate adults. Moving abroad was hands down one of the most challenging and rewarding transitions for our family that heightened my son’s confidence and gave him an independence he may not have gained at home. With your support and the right tools — mainly openness and communication — your kid can forego the woes of culture shock.

Of course there will be the intermittent ego-bruising during acclimatization, but at the end of the day the strange aromas and hot and humid streets were no match for the confidence and fearlessness he embraced. Bonus: bragging rights about badass adventures in exotic lands make for interesting stories that last a lifetime.

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