Big Little Trip: A Mother and Daughter Travel Adventure

Part 5 – Costa Rica, Pura Vida

Reading Time: 9 minutes

Lisa has spent almost a decade juggling her career as a television producer with single motherhood, she is now taking a year out to go backpacking around Latin America with her nine-year-old daughter, Lily. You can read more of her posts here, and this post was written by Lily.


There it was again, a weird whooshing sound near my ear.  I peered into the pitch blackness of the unfamiliar bedroom and wondered what on earth it could be.  I snapped on the bedroom light and was startled to find a large bat doing circuits of the ceiling fan.  I looked in alarm at the creature then at Lily snoozing gently in the bed beside me and breathed a sigh of relief that the light hadn’t woken her.  My daughter has harboured an irrational fear of flapping things ever since several butterflies landed on her head during a disastrous trip to a butterfly house when she was a toddler.  I’d witnessed the levels of hysteria a fluttering butterfly could provoke and had no desire to unleash the head-spinning drama that such an erratically flapping mammal might inspire.

Me and Lily on the slope of Arenal volcano

Bats in the belfry

It was our first night on the wild Osa Peninsula in the south west of Costa Rica and we were going to spend the next month living with a Canadian family on the second ‘workaway’ placement of our trip.  The family ran a successful sports fishing business in Puerto Jiménez taking tourists into the Pacific Ocean to catch enormous sailfish, tuna and snapper; I was going to help homeschool their kids in return for free lodging in their beautiful casa which was set in a remote location amongst lush, tropical vegetation. My intention was to get closer to nature and experience some of the extraordinary wildlife of Costa Rica but what I’d failed to appreciate was I wouldn’t be able to pick and choose the animals that I would be getting up close and personal with.

Bats! In Costa Rica

The next morning, after debating the best course of action with Cara and Cory from my host family, we decided to block up any small holes in the rafters where the bat might have got in.  I explained Lily’s phobia of all things flappy and we agreed to keep the nocturnal visitor under our collective hats. As I lay in bed that evening, I was hopeful the room had now been sealed to unwanted guests however less than an hour had passed before I heard the unmistakable whooshing sound once more.  I flicked on the light – Lily stirred but didn’t wake and the dazzle sent the bat swooping for the safety of the rafters. My host family had explained that such encounters were part and parcel of living in a jungle location and that the best thing to do was just open the door and wait for it to fly out.

I flicked off the light, flung open the door and after a minute or two of circling the room in darkness the bat flapped out of the bedroom.  Lily slept on, I breathed a sigh of relief and fell into a grateful sleep…for about half an hour…before a whooshing noise woke me once more. Was that a second bat in the bedroom?  Before I had time to sit up and switch on the light I heard a strange pinging noise and then a rodenty thud as something warm and furry landed on my shin. I thrashed my legs about in terror and flung myself at the light switch, heart racing.  There on the floor was a dead bat! This one had accidently flown into the ceiling fan, killed itself and had fallen onto my legs. My literal knee-jerk reaction had then propelled its furry body to the floor – I was aghast, this was turning into a horror film!

But as I looked as the motionless bat on the floor and saw its dear little face I realised how stupid I was to be afraid. It was a tiny, harmless thing and I was sorry that it had died.  I put a towel over its lifeless body and got back into bed hoping that would be the end of it. However, over the next few hours I was woken by several more bats doing circuits of the bedroom – each was smaller than the last and the penny finally dropped that there had been a family of bats roosting in the eaves of our previously unoccupied room.  Every time one had woken me I managed to get it out through the door and by the morning four had flown to freedom with only one falling victim to the ceiling fan.

Pura Vida

As the sun came up I was weary from broken sleep but confident all the bats had gone.  Over the course of the nights activities I’d formed something of a bond with the furry critters and spent the morning reading up about them.  Of the 1,100 bat species on earth, 112 of them can be found in Costa Rica – they have many important functions in the ecosystem including pollinating flowers, dispersing seeds and eating gazillions of mosquitoes many of which carry deadly diseases like malaria.  The quality of all of our lives are dependent on the planet’s biodiversity and bats are a crucially important part of this. Granted you don’t really want one of the furry fellas in your bedroom, but bats are our friends and despite an alarming couple of nights I’d gained a new appreciation of these little flying mammals.

A scarlet macaw on the Osa Peninsula

In fairness, I was also getting want I’d wanted.  I’d been desperate to escape the concrete jungle of London and immerse myself in the natural world.  It had been a toxic year characterised by death and destruction; the loss of my job at the BBC, the painful death of my father from pancreatic cancer and the terror attacks visited on my community were some of the horrors that had catapulted me out of the country.  I had no particular plan for adventure when I set off, just a revulsion of London life. I left town with the Harvey Weinstein scandal ringing in my ears and the emerging details were made more repulsive to me when I realised I knew one of his accusers.

After two decades working in the media I breathed an enormous sign of relief to be stepping away from a world in which monstrous behaviour is often tolerated simply because someone is seen as ‘talent’ creating an industry in which sanctioned bullying is not uncommon.  I had a yearning to surround myself with beauty – to cleanse myself mind, body and soul. I didn’t know much about Costa Rica when I arrived but I’d heard that the nation has a mantra of its own – pura vida – which literally means pure life. I soon learned that the phrase “pura vida” is used as a greeting, an exclamation and a kind of philosophy by which the citizens of the country conduct themselves.

Paradise protected

Costa Rica is jaw-droppingly beautiful, it has over five percent of the world’s biodiversity and an extraordinary network of national parks that make up over a quarter of the country.  The first stop for Lily and I was the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve – the first kernel of which was set up by pacifist Quaker families who had come to Costa Rica from the USA in the 1950s to avoid being drafted into the Korean War.  Monteverde was hugely expanded in the 1970s thanks to the joint efforts of scientist George Powell and Quaker Wilford Guindon and today it is made up of over 10,500 hectares of virgin cloudforest. As Lily and I hiked the trails surrounded by huge trees and ferns we saw our first howler monkey in the cloud canopy and marvelled at a spectacular tarantula relaxing in its nest.

A hummingbird in Monteverde Cloud Forest

From Monteverde we travelled to Arenal Volcano National Park by bus and boat – catching our first glimpse of the volcano from the water.  In 1968 the volcano, which had been dormant for hundreds of years, erupted violently and unexpectedly killing 87 people and burying three small villages.  It remained extremely active until 2010 throwing hot rocks, ash and lava from its top every day. As it is now in a ‘resting’ phase Lily and I were able to walk some way along the rocky lava trails with a local guide who pointed out a deadly ‘eyelash’ viper sunning itself on a tree truck as well as several colourful, magical toucans sitting in the branches above our heads.

Lily crossing the water toward Arenal volcano

Friends and conservationists

Next on our adventure was a boat trip down the Rio Tempisque in the Palo Verde National Park which brought us in close contact with some huge and fearsome crocodiles as well as an abundance of birds.  From there we headed to our homeschooling exchange and after a month with our heads in textbooks, I decided we’d earned a few days of luxury at a hotel bordering the Corcovado National Park – said to be one of the most biologically intense places on earth.

At the hotel, we had the good fortune to meet Polly and Keith, retired pastors from Boston and two of the loveliest people in the world.  Polly was in Costa Rica following in the footsteps of her late father, Allston Jenkins, founder of the Philadelphia Conservationists. In the 1970s Allston has learned about the efforts being made to preserve the habitats of Costa Rica and develop the national park system – he’d raised huge amounts of money for the cause and was rewarded for his dedication by the Costa Rican government with the honour, “Pioneer of the conservation of natural Costa Rica”.

Polly and Keith

Polly also cares passionately about the environment and we joined her and Keith in a visit to a nearby turtle hatchery.  Turtle numbers have been decimated thanks to fishing practices, plastic pollution and tourism but the Ticos are trying to boost their numbers by collecting and hatching turtle eggs then protecting the newborns as they make their way across the sand to the ocean.  Our visit coincided with the release of some baby turtles so we helped to shoo away predatory birds and cheered the tiny creatures on as they made their way down to the water. We weren’t perhaps the most professional of conservationists but no-one could fault our enthusiasm.

Releasing baby turtles from the hatchery into the Pacific Ocean

Jellyfish in Jurassic Park

As Polly and Keith headed off to Monteverde, Lily and I circled around to the other side of Corcovado where we took another extraordinary hike through primary forest the highlight of which was a rare daylight encounter with a Baird’s tapir.

We then took a boat to Caño Island, the biological reserve off the coast of Corcovado which is said to be the inspiration for the book Jurassic Park and it certainly didn’t take much to imagine the head of a Brontosaurus poking up above the foliage.  We snorkelled the pristine waters around the island spotting parrot fish and barracudas – even the jellyfish that stung both Lily and I couldn’t spoil the day.

Our final stop was Manuel Antonio National Park which, despite the shock of the crowds after the remote Osa peninsula, was able to seduce with its extraordinary beauty.  We saw our first sloth in the wild and were kept entertained on the beach by gangs of white-faced capuchin monkeys and thieving raccoons rummaging through the bags of unsuspecting tourists.

Manuel Antonio beach

As I watched the visitors wrestle their possessions back off the animals it suddenly struck me what a fragile balance this all is.  It also became clear that everything I’d seen and loved in the country would have already been lost if it wasn’t for the actions of many far-sighted people – the Quakers of Monteverde for cherishing their land, the people of Costa Rica for preventing reckless drilling, deforestation and poaching as well as visionary conservationists like Polly’s father Allston for raising money to protect these natural riches – and it dawned on me what a huge debt of gratitude I owed them all.  I’ve fallen hard for Costa Rica, but my love for the country is bittersweet because it has given me such clarity about the environmental damage that has been done to the planet.

To live a Pura Vida is to live in harmony with the natural world not in ignorance of it and it is a lifestyle we’d all be wise to strive for before everything of any real value is lost to us all.

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  • I love following your adventures here & on IG Lisa – keep the updates coming! Lily is going to have so many wonderful memories to look back on in the future, what a perfect age for it xx

    • Ah – thanks so much for your feedback Claire. It is really great to know that people are reading and enjoying these pieces as I tear my hair out each month over what to write! Lily is certainly getting into her stride with travelling – it has been quite an education for us both xx

  • This was such a beautiful read! Your photos are stunning, but your words even moreso. You went to all my favorite places in Costa Rica! And you articulated perfectly why this country is so special to me. Pura vida!

    • Thank you so much Elizabeth and for taking the time to comment. It is such an incredible country and I have definitely left my heart there – pura vida indeed!

  • Hola dear Lily and Lisa,

    Keith and I are humbled and flattered by your pura vida post and just want to say that knowing the two of you was a highlight of our stay in Carate. And what brave and tolerant souls you were as we motored clumsily through the dry riverbed and sometimes in the river!, trying to find the entrance to the park!

    Your biglittletrip blog is a treat and the photos magnificent.

    We certainly hope to meet again someday.

    • Hola Polly and Keith
      Yes I hope we can meet for more adventures one of these days – the pleasure was all mine!
      I hope you are both keeping well
      Lots of love from a boiling hot Nicaragua
      Lisa xx

  • What an amazing trip! And beautifully chronicled. Can’t wait to meet up with you both in Nicaragua. Can you stay up all night and cover bat security for my room too, please? XX

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