I’ve been taking photos in one form or another for 30 years. I love wildlife photography, but accessibility to wild animals is obviously always a challenge and so most of my photos are of landscapes at wider angles. I’ve taken around 10 that I think are really top notch.
Photographing people though has never been my thing. I don’t think I’ very good and spontaneity is tricky nowadays. This image that I took today though is, in my opinion, one of my best of all time. I absolutely love it and it has nothing to do with the fact that I’m in it! I love the light on the face, the eye peering out, the frame around the face and the blurred background.
The thing though is that very little of this image isn’t pure luck! It was only a selfie with my Android phone! No fancy lens or camera, no planning of light or location. Just a point and shoot right before I left the park to go home to send around on social media. But everything just clicked (pun intended) and it came out being one of my best.
Photography remains a mysterious mistress after all this time and it’s awesome!
This post serves as a collaborative journal between the 4 of us (especially where food is concerned 😂), so may be a bit verbose in areas. Hopefully readers will find some of these details useful.
The Lead Up
After a crazy year, both from work & life perspective, the Heunis family needed a proper break to really recharge. We wanted to visit Central America especially after a “all-in” vacation to Mexico a few years ago. We had a great time in Mexico, but we wanted more of an authentic experience. However with Mexico’s drug & gang problems leaving the resorts are not recommended so we were on the lookout for an alternative.
When I then happened to see in a news feed that Costa Rica had re-opened their borders for visitors on 1 November, I thought this might be a great opportunity to go on this dream vacation, COVID-19 notwithstanding. And so, despite a minor complication with Cara’s passport, we booked the trip from Sunday, 20 Dec to Tuesday, 29 Dec. With regards to COVID-19, Costa Rica has eased restrictions to a large degree. Really you just require a Costa Rican Health Pass. To get the Health Pass takes 10 minutes but it requires you to have travel insurance.
Day 1 – Sunday
From a snowy New York, we flew with JetBlue from JFK’s Terminal 5 at 6pm. Our flight was delayed by about 40 minutes and the in-flight entertainment wasn’t working, but otherwise it was an uneventful 5-hour flight with everyone being very respectful and compliant with regards to the COVID-19 measures. We did have to show the Health Pass QR codes that are required before we were allowed to board the flight.
It’s so awesome when after 5 hours you leave the plane and it’s a warm 77F at 11pm! The San Jose Airport is small, but modern and clean. Going through immigrations and customs was a breeze. They did scan our QR codes though. I exchanged $50 for Colones (the Costa Rican currency), but honestly everyone takes the mighty Greenback (US Dollars for non-American readers).
We booked the Hampton Inn near the San Jose airport because it was such a late flight. Cara (11) felt it was “sketchy”, but it’s really just a place to catch up on some sleep before the adventure starts. It cost us a $110 for the 4 of us.
Day 2 – Monday
We took an Uber to Walmart. Uber operates just fine in San Jose but outside the capital is less predictable. Traffic in San Jose is W-I-L-D! The main reason for the Walmart trip was to purchase SIM cards (for cellphone service) and some groceries. The SIM card was $11 for 3GB and we got it mostly for Google Maps or Waze, which seems to be the preferred provider here mostly because of local community engagement. The staff were very friendly although not everyone could speak English.
We rented a very small car from Vamos Car Rental, across the street from the hotel, because they have better reviews than most car rental companies, but Car Rental in Costa Rica is not straightforward. See my Costa Rica car rental notes. We ended up paying $560 for the week with a $2,000 hold on my credit card!
Drive to Puerto Viejo
The drive down from the mountain and from Limon down the coast – the last part, are really beautiful. About an hour out from Puerto Viejo one begins to realize you’re entering a special part of the world. We left San Jose a bit later than we anticipated so we arrived at Puerto Viejo when it was already dark.
Driving in Costa Rica is quite challenging especially when you’ve rented a manual (stick), but you haven’t driven manual in 6 years! It’s a two-lane highway for most of the way with so many big trucks on the road. There are also disruptive roadworks for most of the journey not to mention pot holes that put even Pennsylvania to shame! Many traffic rules are also considered optional by much of the locals. Lene was a nervous wreck and took a few days to calm down after the 5-hour trip. Also Cara threw-up 🤮 from the windy road down the mountain! But despite the hair-raising moments and the threats of divorce🤭, it’s a very interesting drive.
Terrazas del Caribe
We checked in to Terrazas del Caribe at around 6pm. It’s a few miles outside of Puerto Viejo just behind Playa Cocles. (“Playa” means “Beach” in Spanish) and a ~3-minute drive up a steep gravel road away from the main road. Check-in was very easy and our room was great and the pool even better. There is a decent kitchen and a superb patio as well.
We were all tired from the day’s driving so we spent the rest of the evening at Terrazas.
Day 3 – Tuesday
Had brunch at Bread & Chocolate, a charming coffee shop with excellent service. Elke and Cara had French toast & Smoothies.
Afterward we explored downtown Puerto Viejo. It was very interesting with fishermen coming and going. Puerto Viejo was originally named Old Harbor and was founded as a fishing village.
It started to get hot and we went for our first swim at Playa Cocles.
After working up an appetite in the waves, we had dinner at La Nena’s. I had Ceviche and Sea Bass which were both delicious. Elke & Lene had Veggie Burritos and Cara had Chicken Fingers. Loved the Caribbean atmosphere.
Cahuita is a beautiful, albeit small, national park. It isn’t well marked and there are a few cagey folks hanging around the entrance, but we didn’t have any issues. You can take a guide at a steep price, but we passed on that. Especially when hearing that we’re from Africa, the guide seemed way more interested in discussing African wildlife then Costa Rican wildlife.
It’s a walking park with the trial starting at the entrance. We found our first sloth curled up in a ball before it started to bucket with rain, but we found shelter and hung out with some Ticos before eventually finding a beautiful beach under the mangroves where we took a swim in the Caribbean. Don’t be alarmed when folks switch their clothes for their swimsuits right there on the beach. We did the same!
Cara was afraid of the Yellow Pit Vipers on the way back, but we returned to the car without being bitten.
On the way back we stopped at the charming Aroma Coffee Bar & Restaurant. Delicious milkshakes, fries & cheesecake, but Cara’s French Toast didn’t cut the mustard. We all had a good laugh at her reaction. Elke had Crepes and I had a burger all while watching the pouring rain. Many Restaurants in Costa Rica only a roof with no walls because it’s always warm enough to be outside.
We all swam at Playa Cocles again. We were warned about the dangers of this beach due to rip tides and sadly someone drowned here during our stay. The vibe on the beach is really cool though with all the surfers and other alternative folks hanging out. I didn’t get any sense of sleaziness or feel threatened in any way. Elke took a bunch of photos and created a timeless BTS shrine in the Caribbean sand.
On the way back Lene shopped at the Super Cocles supermarket. We all wanted her to hurry up and she got mad at all of us for rushing her. The PTSD from the drive down was apparently still an issue! 🤐
Day 5 – Thursday
After making breakfast in the room we traded places and moved to Shawandha Lodge just behind Playa Chiquita. We were amazed by this place. All the lodges are inside of this stunning forest garden with numerous gigantic trees – some up to 70m! So many wild animals and birds live inside the grounds and the plant life is really just a tropical wonderland. There’s also an adequate pool although we didn’t spend much time there because of the proximity to the beaches. The lodges themselves are also superb. The only issue is that there are no kitchen amenities so if you stay here, you have to eat out which can get expensive.
After getting the paper work done we couldn’t check in just yet so we walked through a beautiful strip of forest on to the magical Chiquita Beach. We found paradise. The pictures don’t do it justice; so stunning. We all swam, despite the sea being a little rough.
Afterwards we had a wonderful dinner on the beach at Sol del Caribe. An awesome vibe looking at the sunset over Playa Cocles. I had the Caribbean chicken, Lene had Coconut Shrimp Curry. Cara had Burger with fries. Elke had Beans and Rice with Coconut milk with veggies. Simply brilliant!
We went for Ice Cream at Tsunami’s afterwards and chatted to the very friendly owner. He said beaches are totally safe, except for the rip currents.
My best day of the trip.
Day 6 – Friday (Christmas)
Woke up and opened Christmas presents. Had breakfast at Lodge which was tamales. I thought they were delicious, but not everyone thought so. We phoned family and friends.
We drove to Tarponville Lodge but we couldn’t quite find it. We found the spot, but there was nothing there! Also the area was very crowded with Christmas celebrators so we took a pass and moved on to lunch at a restaurant next to the Punta Uva Dive Centre. This is confusing because it’s not actually at the main Punta Uva beach. And although the location was excellent, the service was not. Cara struck out twice with OJ and Pizza. The only restaurant that didn’t deliver.
After that we drove to the real Punta Uva beach with the help of the guy running the Dive Centre, who gave us directions. Punta Uva is famous for it’s natural beauty and it didn’t disappoint. We walked on the beach, but decided to return for a swim the next day.
Later I went to Playa Chiquita on my own to photograph the sunset. I got a few good images – stoked!
For a late snack we had fries and smoothies at Soul Surfer, a restaurant with a stunning location and a wonderful service. The waitress was also an expat from Canada. She said that their sales were down 70% because of COVID-19.
Day 7 – Saturday (Boxing day)
Checked out from Shawandha Lodge and checked in to El Nido. We couldn’t go to our rooms yet so we went back to Punto Uvo for that swim.
It was a perfect day for swimming. We had coconut for the 1st time, Delicious, but we found out afterwards that they overcharged us. The going rate is 500 Colones and we paid $2 which is about 1200 CRCs – they saw us a mile away! I spoke to a local who said the beach was very dangerous. He said not to bring valuables and to avoid initiating conversation with locals. He said he was watching our bags, although we also never lost sight of them even as we were swimming. Although in hindsight I did flaunt my camera a lot with all the photos I was taking – yikes! 🤔
We couldn’t quite figure out why it’s so dangerous, but afterwards people said it’s an area controlled by “Narcos” so maybe that’s it. But there’s so many conflicting stories about safety, I’m still not sure what the exact state is. When we were there it was overwhelmingly families so the dangerous claims don’t quite add up.
We had a late lunch at Tasty Waves, an American / Canadian Cantina. Great food and vibe. The only place we found that showed US sports. Lot’s of super interesting, laid back characters. Cara had the Quesadilla, Elke and Lene shared Nachos and I had Pulled Pork Burrito. It was superb. We spoke with the waitress, a Canadian expat who has lived in Costa Rica for 4 years. She also said Playa Cocles was completely safe but that there were isolated instances of robbery in the past and that this was what drove an outdated narrative.
Lene and I went for a magical walk to Playa Chiquita where I swam in the channels. Lots of Ticans celebrating Boxing day.
We ate a late dinner of Ramen at home and sat on the porch until midnight appreciating the amazing nature around us. Was astonished to see every member of the neighboring lodge spend 4 hours on their mobiles without talking to each other or doing anything else all while in paradise! Teachable moment right there!
Day 8 – Sunday
Had very nice breakfast (included) at the Lodge.
Went to much renowned Jaguar Rescue Centre. Not super organized. We couldn’t get tickets because it was full.
Drove into downtown. Did some souvenir shopping and met the really nice San Francisco ex-pat owners from Sloth Toes (leave review). The owners gave us tons of background info about the whole area.
Light lunch at Bread & Chocolate.
Swam at Playa Chiquita. On the way back we saw a sloth get stuck in the power cables with a benevolent bystander trying to help the little guy down. Eventually the ER folks came to rescue him, but all the commotion was scaring him so we left to not aggravate the situation further.
Day 9 – Monday
We drove to Gandoca Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge, but they only allow 200 people in per day and when that number has entered they close down the park even if some of the initial entrants come back out. They say it’s a COVID-19 rule, but it makes no sense to not keep the numbers at that rate until closing time. Disappointing.
Having lucked out at Gandaco, we drove to the Panama/Costa Rica border post at Sixaola just to get a sense of the region away from the tourist areas and it was totally worthwhile. We saw a number of birds, raptors and even a dead snake with what seemed like some good primary forest although it changed to banana plantations half way there. The majority of the road was also not really suited to our vehicle 😂. We were the only vehicle on the road without 4×4 and folks were staring at us with WTF expressions!
The border post is very chaotic as it’s on a bridge which is closed due to construction. Lene also didn’t feel 100% safe so we took a quick snap for evidence and quickly moved on to Bribri, which was just a standard Central American town, and then returned to Puerto Viejo.
Day 10 – Tuesday
Went for one last treat at Gustibo’s in Puerto Viejo.
Drive back was very eventful. Saw multiple accidents on the way up the mountain as well the police going full SWAT on a guy in a pick-up. We have no idea why, but suspect it was related to drugs or car theft.
Checked in without any issues, but had to wait ~4 hours for the flight to board. Also someone arrested inside the airport, again with no idea why.
A fantastic vacation! 110% worth it despite the extra planning and execution required. The natural, cultural, adventure and relaxation requirements were all met for us and then some. Everything we had hoped for. As always we learned a few things which I mention below, but these were quite trivial compared to the awesome experience.
If you have kids, even better. They absolutely LOVED it. And it really is a superb way to reconnect with your kids. I just can’t imagine that we won’t come again! Pura Vida!!
Car rental is complicated in Costa Rico. It’s ultimately very expensive although it isn’t advertised that way. I took a lot of time to research It has to do with government-mandated 3rd party insurance called Liability Insurance, which is NOT covered by Credit Cards or your US insurance. The Car Rental companies all exploit consumers by adding massive non-transparent margins on this insurance. For a week or very small car cost us $560. They also added a $2,000 hold on my credit card for CDW coverage, which IS covered by your major credit card! Based on reviews some companies are very creative in trying to find ways of deducting payments after your vehicle is returned. So be very thorough when logging damage beforehand. Read more about Costa Rican car rental.
I will seriously consider another way next time. During our stay in PV someone said that folks fly in to Limos from San Jose so there may be options.
All accommodation prohibited one from flushing toilet paper. Instead you had to put it in a provided bin next to the toilet. It’s a little strange, but we all got used to it quickly – even the kids.
Best areas / accommodation
For families, I strongly recommend the area behind Playa Chiquita. It’s far enough from the nightlife which can get a little lewd in Puerto Viejo, but close to the best beach in the area in my opinion. The gardens and forest are also so intertwined that it’s choc full of interesting wildlife. The Howler Monkey “howls” are something to behold – scared the bejesus out of both Lene and I on the first night!
Contrary to my research, many people don’t speak or understand English. However I downloaded Google Translate app (and the Spanish data set) and that worked like an absolute charm when I needed it. Highly recommend it.
Driving is one of the things to be careful of in Costa Rica, especially in Puerto Viejo. Everything is very informal. There are no designated parking spots or lanes so people just drive and pull over next to the side of the road. And most people bike around so sometimes there’s only enough space for one vehicle at a time. It’s fine if you can “roll with it” and take it slow until you get the hang of it.
Shops and restaurants
There are plenty of well stocked supermarkets with fresh bread, fruit and veggies. Groceries is not an issue.
So many great great restaurants. Usually very small, but great food, service and atmosphere. Not super cheap, but not expensive either. Between $40 and $60 for a family of four. We only got a little ripped of once where the food didn’t quite match the price tag.
Packing for the trip
Bug spray & suntan lotion
Bring both. The bugs aren’t nearly as bad as in Outer Banks for example, but they are pesky in some areas. The sun is very harsh at the equator when it isn’t cloudy. Bring suntan stuff that isn’t harmful to the local reefs.
Cheap flip flops and one pair of hiking boots is all you need. Everything else is a waste.
I would recommend getting around $50 worth of Colones just for emergencies. We never needed any though. Everybody takes US Dollars and most places take the major Credit Cards.
Kid’s devices (electronics)
Don’t! It’s really pretty straightforward; just leave the kids’ devices at home. This is the kind of trip to appreciate the incredible surroundings and to break bad electronic habits. There is no reason for kids to have devices on this trip. Trust me on this!
Yesterday we took a(nother) Philly sightseeing trip. This time we took the train with SEPTA’s Independence Pass. Friends informed us of this pass and for folks in the suburbs like us, it’s perfect for a day-trip to Philly. I always say this when we go in to Philly for fun, but it’s a great city. So much to see and do there at any time of the year. But between Christmas & New Year’s the city makes an extra effort.
We went to China Town, Macy’s (saw the Christmas show) & Dilworth Park where Elke – always up for a challenge – went ice skating. Then we had dinner at El Vez, an outstanding Mexican Restaurant.
It was such a nice day. And to top it all the Eagles won their game to reach the NFL playoffs so that added to the great vibe.
It’s taken a few years, but today Elke and her team finally won an EBYA soccer league. Although she’s been playing for a few years now, this was Elke’s first year in the Girls 6th – 8th Grade division.
Coach Ron and the assistant coaches were fantastic. Elke learned a lot and the team had a great spirit throughout the season. The girls trained & played hard, especially in the semi-final. The final was a little bit easier, but the girls did very well to stay focused.
I was deeply shocked and saddened by the events that occurred in Paris on Friday. Such calculated and extreme violence against an overwhelmingly tolerant and free society like France is very disturbing. It doesn’t ever compare to the horror for the victims, but seeing it on TV and social media brings it home in an unprecedented way. I hope France reacts decisively. On occasion and reluctantly the liberties of a free nation has to be defended.
The thing that has me searching for answers is the following: what about the other regions with similar extreme violence, but without the TV cameras? Exactly one day before the Paris attacks 40 people were killed by suicide bombers in Lebanon, Beirut – also by ISIS. I didn’t even know about this until- and because of the Paris attack.
In South Africa, my home country, there have been about 4,000 farm murders since the end of Apartheid. These attacks target almost exclusively white farmers. The reasons are complicated and not always clear. My personal view is that it is a combination of greed and political/racial motivation. People are murdered, raped and/or tortured after all that can be stolen has already been taken. As I’m sure it is in Paris, these events have a devastating effect on not just the victims, but so many people. I lost a great friend, a remarkable man and loving husband with 2 children and a third on the way, in a brutal unprovoked murder along similar lines 5 years ago on a day that I will never forget as long as I live.
And yet there are no prime time tears for these victims.
So while I empathize completely with the Parisians, I can’t help but be sad that there isn’t a bigger outcry over the terrors that continue to play out in South Africa. I understand why; most people have no concept of farm life in South Africa whilst Paris is… Paris. It’s not fair, but it is so.
So here we are. We have been proud USA residents for 6 months now!
Needless to say, but with a wife and two kids, but not the dog :-(, it has been quite a change from our somewhat idyllic lifestyle in Boesmansriviermond on South Africa’s Eastern Cape. Although there are fundamental political, crime & race issues in South Africa, the main reason we migrated was to explore career & personal opportunities. The US-based company I worked for in South Africa, had earlier indicated that they wanted me to join their team in Malvern, Pennsylvania. I was very happy to oblige, because a) I had always wanted to explore everyday life (like we had in the UK) in the USA and b) it was a great opportunity to further my career hopefully as part of the fantastic company that brought me over. Really the US is where most of the Software Development action is and therefore this is the best place for me as a Software Architect to be.
In terms of adapting to our new life, there have been ups and downs, but all things considered we’re doing well. I had been to the company before on business so I had experienced the horrendous Winter weather as well as the glorious Spring weather and thus had a clearer picture of the overall weather, but my wife and kids were very unimpressed when we landed at JFK International on 8 January – literally the coldest day of the Winter! I could see it in my wife’s eyes… she was thinking: “where have you brought us??!!” We had all the luggage we brought to the US with us on that flight and so we had to rent the biggest SUV the rental agency had. This was at 7pm during a Winter storm after a 48 hour journey. Everyone was tired and we had to drive on the “wrong” side of the road. To top it all off, we took a wrong turn in New York and got bustled slap bang into Manhattan with it’s associated traffic. That was a tough journey that I wouldn’t want to tackle again!
We did eventually make it out of New York without a scratch on our Monster Truck or anything else. We arrived at my cousin’s house at around about 11pm and just like that we had effectively moved to a new continent!
Our first night we were very tired, but they were lovely and to the kids their house was magnificent and I could slowly see some excitement building in the kids. Lené though was in her get things done mode. There was no time or inclination for the excitement I felt and began to see in the kids. Although I respect her for it, it is 100% the opposite of my outlook. That brief excitement along with the anxiousness is something I will treasure for the rest of my life.
The next week or so we had to get all our ducks in a row, Move into our new, as yet unseen, house; register the kids into the school along with all the other associated tasks; buy a car; set up bank accounts as so on. One doesn’t realize how much work is involved. But this is where Lene’s attitude was priceless; she was a rock star! And once Elke was enrolled in school and Cara’s school was organized Lene began to feel more at ease.
Now 6 months later the kids are on Summer vacation and absolutely loving it. We joined a very pleasant Swimming Club for the summer and the whole family spends a lot of time there. Both Elke and Cara have made friends aplenty. I would say that Elke’s friendships here are pretty much on par with what she had in South Africa. This is largely due to her joining a soccer team and lucking out with an amazing team with amazing kids and parents. Being a shy child, I would say that Cara has done better than we expected, but she hasn’t quite found the Murray Baxter type connection that she had at Boesmansriviermond. Hopefully that will come. But she isn’t unhappy at all. In fact she adores Elke’s friends and they are very good to her as well. In truth the kids are thriving; I couldn’t have hoped for better. For a parent that is a major component of one’s own happiness.
Welcome to the US gift from The Beukes family
Elke’s first school bus
A car… finally
It’s cold.. damn cold!
The future is BRIGHT!
Marsh Creek frozen over
Our back yard
Spring has arrived
Kids keeping busy
Summer fun… late nights
Lene has also settled in, but in a sense this move was always going to be the most challenging for her. She had three or four dear friends in South Africa (you know who you are!) and they were very ingrained in pretty much all aspects of her life. Now it’s all new and she doesn’t have a job or school to focus on. As I expected though and thankfully, I do think she has made some great friends here already and I think she’ll be just fine. Although the “inner circle” will never be replaced. 🙂 I’m also very happy that she is playing lots of tennis again. We weren’t sure if that was going to be achievable in the USA and where we live.
As far as I’m concerned I love it here. That doesn’t mean I love Boesmansriviermond any less or London for that matter. It doesn’t have to be a competition. I say this because with the political situation in SA there are sensitivities around people moving away from South Africa and I certainly don’t want to offend those. I am fortunate to have a great job and that’s half the reason why I love it here, but there are also other aspects that make this a very good fit for us. If one is able to earn over a certain threshold here, the quality of life is high. Even more so for kids. The education in the good schools is of a high standard and the sports facilities are great as well. Where we live, in Downingtown, it’s still quite rural and yet its very close to Exton (15 minutes), King of Prussia mall (35 minutes), Philadelphia (an hour) and even New York City (about 3 hours).
A big aspect of the quality of life here in the North East is the weather. OK so the Winter is not easy for us newbies from the Deep Deep South, but Spring, Summer (so far) and Autumn or Fall is really brilliant. Warm (sometimes very hot), sunny and long lazy hours makes the Winter bearable. And the same as in Europe, the locals embrace Winter. We’re aiming to really try hard to appreciate Winter next time round.
There is so much that is really very good about this country and Pennsylvania that a single blog entry is obviously insufficient to cover much. However it isn’t all moonshine & roses. There are also some things that I really dislike. Foremost is medical expenses. Medical services are very expensive. And it’s complicated.
The other gripe I have is with the credit qualification process. I have always had a very good credit record. I remember in the UK I had absolutely no problem to get credit, but here in the US you have to build up to a decent credit score to qualify for any sort of credit. There is no other mainstream way to get credit and that has been a big hurdle for us on a few occasions. Fortunately Volkswagen is the one car manufacturer that does have an alternative mechanism based on the same indicators that one sees in the UK and South Africa. This is how we managed to get a car in the beginning. Since then and somewhat due to that, I now do have a somewhat respectable rating and we are able to function.
Notwithstanding these hopefully minor pain points I am very positive about our move to the US and specifically this area and this employer. I think was a risk that has already paid off, but I’m hoping it doesn’t end here. My employer is going through a very good patch currently and I feel like I can play a very important part in getting us to be giant killers in our industry.
It certainly was not a cold winter by any means, but it is always exciting when Spring shows it’s colours. This week there was a shift in the air. Not convincingly or completely, but hints of the freshness and warmth. Also the plants in my garden have started flowering. Spring has arrived! There is just something so refreshing about this, right? If our lives go according to plan, we won’t experience a wonderful South African Spring for at least a couple of years so this has special meaning for me.
We went for a typical Sunday morning stroll at the beach when we ran into some great friends. There wasn’t an intention to go swimming, but it was so gorgeous outside that the kids voluntarily started swimming.