Driving in Costa Rica

Our 2010 Honda CRV – aka ‘white lightning’

Driving in Costa Rica is a little hairy as most of the roads are two lanes, very narrow, windy, hilly, and not in the best condition…though there are some nice exceptions. On the other hand, for all those same reasons, the drives around here are gorgeous and the vistas are often breathtaking. As we’re approaching the 6 month mark here (!!!), I thought I’d share a few things we’ve learned to watch out for while on the roads.

  • Landslides – As much of the country is mountainous and roads are cut through the mountains, landslides are very common after heavy rains and especially in the rainy season, and it sometimes take a day or two before they are cleared so it’s common for roads and major routes even to close after heavy rainfall.
  • One lane bridges – There are very few two lane bridges in Costa Rica except on a few of the highways, so you will often come across one lane bridges. There is always a “Ceda el Paso” (yield) sign on one side of the bridge and the other side has the right of way so you have to make sure to look for the sign so you know if you have the right of way or if you have to stop.

    ‘Ceda’ en Limón province
  • Potholes – They are everywhere and they can be deep.
  • Deep drainage channels at edge of streets means tricky parking in town and even on the highway so don’t go over the ‘cliff’ as there typically is no shoulder.
Atenas Centro after repaving
  • Use your 4-way flashers. Everyone loves their 4 way flashers and use them for just about everything: making a turn, slowing down, pulling over, and oncoming cars use them to warn of accident, landslide, police or just about any hazard ahead. If you see someone flashing them, best to slow down.
  • Motos are very common and love to pass on the left or the right (!!) especially when there is traffic.
  • Cyclists – Another bogey! I wouldn’t have thought cycling would be so popular here with the steep, narrow roads, but it’s huge! Again, there are really no shoulders here so passing can be tricky if there is heavy traffic.
  • Accidents – You can’t move your car if you’ve been in an accident in Costa Rica for insurance and police report purposes so traffic can back up for literally hours depending on the severity of the accident.
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We waited for over an hour in this spot waiting for an accident to clear.
  • Always be ready to merge. Even the major highways (the Interamericana and Route 27) go from four lanes to two lanes with little to no warning so you always need to be paying attention and be prepared to merge into one lane at any minute.
  • Roadside stands are fantastic. Stop and see what’s fresh and local.
One stand on the Interamericana selling jocotes, honey, peanuts and other local products.
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One of the many coconut oil stands in Limón area. 

And here are just a few more interesting driving related photos. 🙂

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Interesting maneuver – cars going off-roading and through barricades to pass cars on the right in San José.

Tractor trailer hauling oranges from Nicaragua to Costa Rica, banana plantations and truck hauling yucca.

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Beautiful views looking south from the Ruta Vieja (old road – route 3) between Atenas and San Mateo. 
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Our Favorite Typical Costa Rican Dishes

Costa Rican food isn’t known to be especially unique or flavorful, but we beg to differ. It’s always extremely fresh as most ingredients are local and dishes are homemade! We’ve loved the food we’ve found and are always on the hunt for new places to discover another favorite typical dish. Here are a few of our favorites.

‘Pinto’

Gallo Pinto (‘spotted rooster’) is probably the most famous food of Costa Rica. It’s rice and beans mixed with different spices such as cilantro, onion and peppers and served with any meal though we seem to see it most on breakfast menus. It’s a hearty beloved dish!

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Typical pinto breakfast wrapped in a banana leaf = eggs, pinto, fried cheese and maduros (sweet plantains)
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Traditional pinto at La Casita del Café with scrambled eggs and tomato, pinto, cheese and a tortilla. Not to mention fresh mango juice AND a view!

Casados

A Casado (literally ‘married’) is probably the most typical DISH of Costa Rica. They’re usually cheap and they’re found everywhere…from the tiny soda in the market or bus station to the large restaurants catering to all kinds of local and foreign tourists. They always include a choice of meat (chicken, pork or fish), rice and beans, salad and usually another side dish or two. They’re super delicious and super filling. Here are a couple that I’ve enjoyed (you see I LOVE a good casado!):

Pupusas

Alright, so pupusas are actually from El Salvador, but they’re quite common here in Costa Rica too. Most of the pupusa places are owned by Salvadorans. A pupusa is a thick corn tortilla stuffed traditionally with refried beans and cheese, or pork or all three…or really anything meat/veggie/cheese combo you like. You then put a spicy cabbage slaw on top and some hot sauce if you like! It is the perfect combo of texture (soft and crunchy) and flavor (savory and spicy). My favorite is the beans and cheese with lots of cabbage on top. We have an amazing place right here in Atenas called La Fiesta de las Pupusas that we frequent about once a week.

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Arroz con Camarones

Fried rice with shrimp or chicken or pork is very popular here too. It also typically comes with the same side dishes as a casado (salad, beans and/or plantains).

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Pescado entero

Whole fried red snapper is very common as more of a speciality dish and always seems to be cooked perfectly as the fish is super moist and flavorful! There’s a place on highway 34 near Tarcoles on the Pacific coast where you can find many fresh fish vendors standing on the side of the road with a string of freshly caught fish for sale. We are hoping to stop and buy one of these one day and try our own hand at pescado frito.

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Frescos Naturales

All of these dishes pair perfectly with a nice glass of fresh fruit juice of course. I enjoy them ‘en agua’ (mixed with water) but it’s common to request your juice ‘con leche’ (with milk) as well for a richer flavor.  Some common flavors are lemonade (with or without hierbabuena (mint), strawberry, blackberry, mango, pineapple, guanabana (soursop), cas (costa rican guava), papaya and passion fruit. They usually come in huge glasses, often larger than Alice and Oscar heads. 🙂

Our favorite flavors: pineapple and strawberry (Oscar and Alice), passion fruit (Palmer) and soursop (me).

I’ll leave alcoholic beverages for another post, but suffice to say, we’re totally on top of the boxed wine trend.  Ha!

Our Border Run to Nicaragua

We’ve been here for 3 months already (wow!), which means we needed to renew our 90 day visas and do a border run. Many longer-term expats in Costa Rica do a day trip to Nicaragua or Panama to take care of the visa, but we wanted make a weekend of it so we headed to the northwestern part of Costa Rica (Guanacaste), famous for its beautiful beaches, and visited Nicaragua at the border crossing of Peñas Blancas to get our visas renewed.

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Arriving back into Costa Rica after renewing our visas in Nicaragua.

The 4 hour drive from Atenas to Playas del Coco was an adventure in and of itself with beautiful views, mostly two lane roads and a variety of different landscapes – mountains, tropical forests, the Pacific Coast and finally the dry, flat Guanacaste region known for its sabaneros (cowboys) and cattle.

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Playas del Coco

We based ourselves at an AirBnB condo in Playas del Coco for 3 nights and enjoyed spending time at the beach, swimming in the pool of our little complex and exploring the area. Playas del Coco is a cute town once you get to know it with basically one dusty main street lined with restaurants, shops and a couple of grocery stores that ends at the beach. It seems that stand-alone houses are few and far between here. Rather, lots of condo complexes surround the town and there are many more tourists here than we typically see. The beach wasn’t our favorite in the area as the water was cloudy and the sand was rocky, but the sunsets were beautiful, the boardwalk was lively with food vendors, tourists and weekending Tico families, and we found some amazing sea urchins at low tide.

 

We also visited Playa Hermosa just north of Playas del Coco to watch the sunset and enjoy dinner at Aqua Sport, located in the sand right in front of the beach.  The made-to-order ceviche and whole pargo rojo (red snapper) were amazing. The sand was much nicer here and there were lots of people enjoying the long wide beach.

 

Last but not least, we drove the 10 minutes to Playa Ocotal located just south of Playas del Coco and spent our last morning there. An almost deserted black sand beach, this was unexpectedly our favorite of the three! It was a smaller beach with calm clear blue water, amazing tide pools with tons of life and lots of beautiful seashells. Snorkeling off the beach is also popular here. You do need to be aware of riptides as the signs note as it gets deep quickly and currents can change, but we stayed in the shallows. Apparently, Father Rooster’s is the place to grab lunch as they are right on the beach and well-known for their fantastic pub fare, but we unfortunately had to hit the road.

 

Thankfully our border run to Nicaragua overall went very smoothly. We planned for spending the better part of the day to make the 1.5 hour drive to the border, do the crossing and then drive back to our AirBnB, and despite an extra half hour getting there due to construction and an extra hour on the way home due to an accident ahead of us, it all went according to plan. We had amazing views of three volcanoes (Miravalles, Rincón de la Vieja and Orosi) just east of the route which also made the trip pretty special.

The crossing at Peñas Blancas is a busy one so there was about a 4km line of trucks waiting to cross into Nicaragua. They have to go through a different process so we were able to pass them and parked right in front of the Costa Rican border crossing. There were a lot of people wanting to ‘help’ us for a tip but we said no thanks as it’s a pretty straight forward (thanks to My Tan Feet for that). After paying our $7 per person exit tax, we waited in the short line to have our passports stamped out of Costa Rica. Next step is to walk or hire a pedicab over to the Nicaraguan border in order to enter Nicaragua. Of course, we opted for the quick and fun pedicab ride.

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Pedicab ride
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Nicaraguan border crossing office

The Nicaraguan border agent confirmed with us that we were just staying for the day, we paid the $12 per person entrance fee and he then stamped our passports. Then we were officially in Nicaragua which was a bit livelier than the Costa Rican side with a bunch of little stands and shops selling latest in wares as well as a number of small sodas (typical, family run restaurants) with meats grilling right out front. We chose one and enjoyed a delicious lunch (rice, beans, grilled chicken, cheese, tortilla and salad) complete with a Victoria, the national cerveza of Nicaragua, to celebrate our arrival.

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After our celebratory lunch, we turned around and headed back out of Nicaragua paying our exit fees and then pedicabbed it back to the Costa Rican office where we waited in yet another line to get stamped back into the country. All in all, it was a long day with two little ones, but it was an adventure and we were happy it all went smoothly.

We’re now trying to decide where our next border run will be in early February – Nicaragua again but maybe at Los Chiles instead of Peñas Blancas, Panama, or we may take a flight to Guatemala (to visit Antigua) or Mexico City and make another weekend trip out of the event.  Any suggestions?

It’s Not Always Rainbows and Butterflies…

…but it sure is exciting. It’s been a weird week with certainly some ups and downs, but the adventure continues:

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EARTHQUAKE!

There have been a number of earthquakes around the world this past week or so including the devastating one in Iran and Iraq with many lives lost. Our thoughts are with all of those affected and now trying to rebuild their lives. Tectonic plates seem to be shifting as many of you may have heard of the strong tremor that struck South Korea on Tuesday evening as well as another that hit Costa Rica this past Sunday night. The Tico Times article regarding Costa Rica can be found here.

Being from the midwest and northeast, earthquakes have never been part of our lives though I do remember feeling one in Boston many years ago when my computer screen was all fuzzy and we couldn’t figure what was happening.

So on Sunday night, the kids had just gone to bed and Palmer and I were relaxing. All of the sudden, we notice a loud noise and the windows and doors are rattling. I first think it’s the neighbor’s cat who likes to scratch on the windows but then realize it’s much bigger than that and for a brief second, I think it’s a big gust of wind or sudden storm, but it then quickly dawns on the both of us at the same time that it’s an earthquake. We both rush off separately to the kids rooms but the shaking soon stops and the kids continue sleeping. After regrouping and figuring out the emergency plan, an aftershock hits and we both run off again. For us, it felt strong though nothing fell off the shelves or broke and there was no damage. Neighbors did mention that their pool water was sloshing around and hanging plants were swaying, but we were certainly spared the worst of it as the epicenter was about 30 miles southwest of us. It seems that most of the country felt the 6.5 magnitude earthquake centered just south of Jaco on the Pacific Coast and it’s a fairly common occurrence here as we are located on the Ring of Fire, but I’d be okay with not going through any other tremors or earthquakes thank you very much.

HORMIGAS

Yes ants. There are lots of them here, and many different varieties from large leaf cutter ants that can eat every leave off a large plant in a day to regular looking ants to minuscule ants that appear around any crumb or dead insect inside within minutes. Well, Alice stepped on an ant hill in our yard while playing with Oscar and got ant bites all over her legs. Her poor leg is covered in itchy welts, but she seems to be dealing with it quite well despite the itchiness. There are so many different variety of insects here… so we are learning a lot about bug life here and what to watch out for. As a side note, scorpions like to hide out in our grill cover if we forget to put it back on the grill after cooking so that’s been ‘interesting.’

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Check out the leaf cutter ant highway that Oscar was entranced by.
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Pobrecita!

 

TYPICAL KID INJURIES 

Of course, with a 5 and 2 year old, we have injuries here just as we did in the states. For one thing, EVERYTHING is tiled here (entire homes, patios, restaurants, stores etc.) and it rains a LOT this time of year which means slippery ice-like conditions on the wet tile. Of course it was inevitable that someone would soon slip and take a digger, and Oscar took the prize this past weekend chasing a ball on the wet patio when his legs went out from under him and hit the back of his head on the tile. OUCH! Thankfully after some rest and some ice, he was fine. This event followed Alice falling face first into our ottoman in the living room the day before and her bottom teeth piercing her bottom lip almost breaking through all the way. Luckily, it was a clean cut and is already healed. I promise they are 100% healthy and happy!!  See?

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Afternoon rains and sunset

 

Cultural Immersion 101 – Día de Independencia

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We seemed to have arrived at a great time of year as we have celebrated a number of very special cultural events in the last month. The first event we experienced was Día de Independencia which was September 15th. It is an important holiday here celebrated with parades (traditional dance troops and bands), activities in town, and special school events.

At Oscar’s school, each student brought a ‘farol’ (lantern) to school and many of them were handmade with traditional symbols of Costa Rica (casa típica, oxcart, jungle animals, etc.). The symbolism of the farol comes from a woman named Dolores Bedoya who carried a lantern through the streets of Guatemala on the evening of September 14th, 1821 to urge people to support independence from Spain. All of Central America was still under Spanish rule at that time. The message that independence was granted didn’t arrive in Costa Rica until October 13th, but all of Central America celebrates September 15th, 1821 as their independence from Spain.

We went the cheapo route and bought Oscar’s farol at the store not realizing how families value putting the time in to find (or make) a meaningful farol. Now we know. 🙂

Alice’s teachers also asked each student to bring a farol made of recycled materials. I am very proud to say that Palmer took this very seriously and Alice/Palmer WON the contest for having the farol with the most recycled materials. I think the teachers had a good laugh. It wasn’t the prettiest and the ‘theme’ was very vague, but he got the job done. We now know what we’re in for next year and working on our ideas already. Alice’s school also held a special ‘acto’ (ceremony or special event) for Día de Independencia for the families of the students complete with traditional dances, special outfits for the kids, a small parade, typical food and singing of the national anthem. It was amazing how much thought went into each aspect of the event and how passionate each of the teachers were in making it a success.

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Oscar and classmates with their ‘faroles’ getting ready to parade around school.
Scene from Oscar’s school.
Parades around the main square in town

Special ceremony at Alice’s school

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A not-so-happy Alice and classmates parading with instruments
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Mrs. Karen (director of Alice’s school) doing a traditional dance.
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Alice’s winning ‘farol’ – hahaha!

La Casa Rosada

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Our new pad!

For the first month, we were in an AirBnB house, so we waited to find something more long term until we arrived and had a better lay of the land.  Well, after much online searching and talking to people in town as well as real estate agents, we found “La Casa Rosada” about a mile from Atenas centro and with lovely views of the surrounding hills. We moved in a week ago and are adjusting well to our new neighborhood, but I will admit there was some panic after the first day when we discovered that there is no water upstairs for most of the day, I blew out the very temperamental electric shower head (the only hot water in the house) img_1774

because of said lack of water and Alice woke up covered in red marks that we initially thought was a rash but actually turned out to be mosquito bites (no screens in windows). 😦  Thankfully we’ve made some adjustments and the water pressure issue is fixed as our landlord has put in a pump so we now have water throughout the day.

We have a family with a horse on one side of the house and Oscar loves to chase the rooster and chickens that wander our yard.  We also discovered a nice playground about a half a block away so we are starting to get to know some of the families in this little area.

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Our backyard with some fruit trees (bananas, guanábana (soursop) and limón)
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Front patio and mountain views!
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Second floor views
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Our kitchen and mini fridge

 

Watching the rains come in from the front patio

Schooling around

We knew we wanted the kids to attend some sort of school in order to really immerse ourselves with the culture, make new friends and for them to learn to speak Spanish, so we had done some research before leaving the states and had one school visit set up, Green Valley School, which we were looking at for Oscar.

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Green Valley School

Green Valley is a preschool through high school, private bilingual school just outside of downtown Atenas with amazing views of the countryside. We toured the school a few days after we arrived in Costa Rica and decided we really liked the feel of it and thought it would be a great place for Oscar to attend. It took a few days for us to get him enrolled – they had to interview him and us, and of course we had to fill out all of the paperwork. Fun fun! Though most of the staff speak some English, it isn’t their first language and so everything was done in Spanish. For Palmer and I, it was an exhausting process trying to understand how it all works – where and when to pay bills (at the bank, not at the school or online), how pricing works (registration, monthly fees, activities), uniforms (where to buy them (in San José rather than in town!) and what all he would need and what size he would be and what days he wears the gym outfit (Wednesdays) rather than the regular outfit, what food he would need to bring (lunch, snack and water bottle) or should we give him money for the cafeteria, pickup and drop off and after school hours. It was at times confusing and we certainly didn’t know how it would all work out, but we also felt pretty accomplished in getting it done (and all in Spanish!) and having Oscar start school just over a week from when we arrived. Whew!

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Oscar in his school uniform

But then the first drop off was a whole other story. Tears for me and my boy of course, but he did great and always comes out smiling. Since he’s at a school now rather than a daycare center, we drop him off at the door and the teachers make sure he gets to his classroom. It was so hard for us (and still is) not going to his classroom each day and seeing the work that they’re doing and chatting with his teachers to hear how each day goes. But we do have a ‘cuaderno de comunicaciones’ which seems to be a thing here. It’s a communication notebook that each student keeps in his/her book bag and the teacher writes notes to us about anything – how he’s doing in school, scheduling changes for the week, if he got hurt at school, etc. and we can of course let them know of any issues or questions we have. It’s old school, but I like it. We also have a WhatsApp group with Oscar’s teacher and all the parents in his class so we also see photos and get announcements that way.

Overall, it’s been a great experience and Oscar is making some new friends. We met a German boy in the park over the weekend who is in Oscar’s class and they had a ball in the playground, chasing each other and playing hide and seek. We’re still learning all the kids names but it seems he starting to remember them all.

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Oscar’s ‘kinder’ classroom
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Preschool play area

As for Alice, we found a Montessori school in town that opened just in January that is perfect for her. The school is more like a daycare in that it offers care for children from 3 months old until 6 years old, though most of the kids are toddlers around Alice’s age.

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SúperKids – Alice’s Montessori preschool

The school is filled with loving teachers who are passionate about early childhood development and show so much care and love to each of the students.  Again, the process of getting her enrolled took a few days, a few visits trying to track down la directora of the school, and a few different conversations, not to mention a visit to the local emergency ambulance service across the street from the school to pay $40 in case she needs to be transported to a hospital or needs any medical services. This will cover her until the end of the year apparently. 🙂  I also loved that on the paper that mentions all the things we should bring in for her, one item said ‘colonia’ which I wasn’t sure about. So I asked what that was (believing it could not be ‘cologne or perfume’ for a baby), but alas, it certainly is. “Para que se huele bien” (so she smells good), they told me. I’ve now seen the many different Johnson and Johnson baby ‘colonias’ that the grocery store offers – many different scents to choose from for your babe.

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Alice and Miss Kimberly feeding the fish on her first day

Alice’s first day also started with tears for both myself and her, but she also comes out smiling at the end of the day and they tell us that she does very well despite some tears for the first 5 minutes or so.  After about a week, we dropped her off and she calmly walked away hand in hand with Miss Kimberly, one of her teachers. No tears! They say she is very expressive and is repeating lots of words in Spanish, and she gets so excited when she knows that we are there to pick her up.  One thing I love about her daycare – they change her diaper, clothes and put her hair in a braid or pony as soon as we arrive to pick her up so she goes home fresh!  AMAZING!  She also has a ‘cuaderno de comunicacion’ so we know what she eats, how long she slept, etc. over the course of the day.  They provide lunch (they have a cook that comes each day and prepares lunch for all of the kids) so she’s getting some good Tico food too! Every week they seem to have some sort of special activity – from a little excursion to someone coming in to give them a talk or do a special activity.  And again, the director has created a WhatsApp group with all the parents so she is always keeping us informed about things to remember or activities coming up.

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Alice’s winning ‘Farol’ (lantern like thing that all the kids either make or buy for Día de Independencia) made with Palmer’s help. 🙂 Hers had the most recycled materials!

Día del Niño (Children’s Day) happened to fall during the first week they were at school which is a pretty important day here, so both kids had special school excursions. Oscar went on a minibus to San José to watch a play about a dog (we didn’t get much info about the actual play as I’m guessing because it was all in Spanish but he seemed to enjoy it) and Alice went to Zoo Ave, a zoo not too far away that has rehabilitated a number of animals. We had no idea how they would take about 15 toddlers/babies the 20km to the zoo without strollers and lugging snacks/diapers/extra clothes for everyone, not to mention how the transport would work (we were envisioning Alice sitting on someone’s lap…yikes!), but it turns out that everyone leaves their carseat at the center in the morning, they apparently install them in the taxis or minibuses and the kids walk once they arrive.  It sounded like it all went well, but we did hear that they had to carry Alice for a lot of the time. Ha! We’re still adjusting to this new lifestyle and momma and daddy are learning to let go a bit…but also loving it as we know these are experiences that would just not happen in the states.

Final thought: I didn’t think I’d like uniforms, but they are awesome.  No need to figure out what to wear each day (and no fights about what to wear either)!

 

Taking part in the special ‘acto’ at Alice’s school for Dia de Independencia.

Photos from around Atenas

We are really loving our new town as we get to know it better each day. We are located in the Central Valley (picture rolling hills, green mountains, coffee plantations and small towns) about 30 minutes west of the airport and 45 minutes west of San José. Atenas is known for supposedly having the best climate as it’s typically around 80 every day and in the upper 60s at night.

The church
Playground in the main parque
Typical colonial building

Views from near our current house
Weekly feria