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The shortest distance is behind a band of coatimundis: Costa Rica Spring Break

Updated: Apr 11, 2023

We made a critical error, a novice mistake — our bags were going past security and we were not.

“Do we pick up our bags here?” I asked the United flight attendant as we disembarked the first leg of our three-leg flight caravan. Our flight had been smooth and fast from Montrose to DIA. We spent more time de-icing the plane than we did in the air.

Large planes made a big difference between point A to point B.

“Big planes send gate-checked bags to the carousel. You can find them at number nineteen.”

“But this isn’t our final destination and our next flight is on Delta. We need them with us.”

“Please go speak with the gate agent. They can help you.”

Normally, we game the bag-system by not paying bag fees up-front and gate check for free (thereby freeing up overhead space). On small hoppers, we pick up the bag at the other end’s gate — not the carousel.

Two weeks prior, we re-planned our travel path to Costa Rica, a trip that we had booked for months. They had moved our DIA to LAX leg to an earlier time, so instead of driving the six-hours from Ouray to Denver, we booked the earliest flight on a Saturday out of Montrose — 6am. We had absorbed our flights and VRBO costs several months ago; therefore, it seemed like the more time-effective option to add a flight (always weighing whether we have more time or money.)

Thankfully, we had four-hours to kill before our next flight: DIA to LAX. The bag hiccup meant we had to go through TSA a second time. Years ago, we invested in Pre-Check and for the most part it has been a hassle-free travel pass well worth the price. At least, in the beginning. Walking through the arched scanners with our shoes on and our little liquid bottles safely packed made us VIP persons with implied TSA immunity. But now, everyone has it. So what’s the point?

After eating a slapped-together, triple-the-price, Sausage Mc Muffin, we left our son with our smaller carry-ons at the next Delta gate, and John and I disembarked the concourse and found our bags on Carousel 19. Knowing our next gate was in Concourse A, we snaked our way up to the walk-over security bridge. Much to our chagrin, this traveler’s secret had been discovered with a line longer than Space Mountain, and no fast-pass, pre-check option. John and I went to the regular Pre-Check and saw the line looped around the regular line like a den of snakes. We were not happy.

My father always said “coupons are for people who have more time than money” — I will pay a little more to get through lines faster, and sometimes I cut coupons. I still look for the best deal. But, Pre-Check is a deal for couponers now. I pride myself on managing (in fact, out-witting) the shortest distance between two points (whether it’s picking a line at the grocery store, gas pump, or taking the by-pass routes in cities). And when I travel, my situational awareness is acute.

There’s a line in “Up In The Air” by actor George Clooney about which line to pick when going through security (Up In The Air Hacks #10), my version is to look for the line without strollers, and with professionally dressed passengers. Business travelers already have their coats and belts off before entering the queue and do not re-dress at the conveyor.

We followed one such lady; she entered the short Premier line — we had not paid for Premier. She sized us up (my belt was off and our jackets with our son) and told us she’d tell them we were with her. Unfortunately, this was also the line for families with wheelchairs (that’s as bad as families with rogue sippy cups). It was short, it moved, but at a snail’s pace. After a few trudges forward, we noticed that those with able-body Premier passes were getting waved over to cut ahead of the Pre-Check line (without a grumble from the obedient Pre-Checkers who trudged the distance). We waited until we came to a gap in the stanchions and jumped the queue. No one questioned the transition. Unscrupulous, maybe… time-efficient, definitely.

And, the shortest distance between two points is sometimes a contact-sport.

But, before you get sanctimonious on me — by the time we landed on our third leg, thirty-six hours later, in San Juan, Costa Rica (and still facing a six-hour drive to our VRBO), we went through TSA again at LAX (because of concourse changes). It is our luxury to live where we do. It takes a hellion of time to get anywhere worth going, and I venture, you’d do the same thing, if given the opportunity. Or maybe not, and I can live with that.

Costa Rica has been found. Thirty years ago, my best friend’s father moved here. He was a master dive instructor. He was one of the earliest to change CR to what it is now. Danna used to tell me that four-wheel drive was necessary. Most roads flooded out and were flows of mud. Thirty years ago, wasn’t the size of CR that made for six-hour drives from San Juan to the coast, but the state of the roads. Which remains somewhat true. But, there is a lot more asphalt, cars and Sun Bum stores — but the locals are not in any hurry, either.

We witnessed the tourism growth when we went to the Diamante Eco Adventure Park (a one-hour and fifteen minutes, thirty-three-mile drive.) The term “eco” is loose in CR. This park adjoins the hotel chain Rui, with 500-rooms and a water park; further, the native animal zoo is not free-range conscious — although well maintained, the animals seem content, anyway. The roads to the longest zip-line in CR are paved and traveled by shuttles every twenty-minutes from the local hotel. However, the lines are not the length of US amusement parks, and my kids had a blast without crappy overpriced mouse tchotchkes, and it required some physical output.

We had five zip-line rides. The longest being nearly one-mile over the dry coastal canopy. Named “The Superman,” for the belly-down harness which carries you across the great divide. I never felt unsecured, but at the fastest speed, my eyelids flapped involuntarily. As a rower, our mantra was “you can do anything for two-minutes,” I only had to endure forty-five seconds — and remind myself to breathe. A thirty-foot free-fall/bungee jump and a wobbly one-hundred foot suspension bridge followed the superman. After, we walked around the animal park, and saw some sloths — the actual animal, not the great white NorteAmericanos. After all that, I was frinkin’ hungry. They include a lunch buffet with healthy (even vegan) food options. Gracias a Dios.

The food is fresh (and nice on the innards) in Costa Rica, but their version of spicy is palatable to most gringos (including my tenderfoot husband) and nothing like the spicy-mex Coloradans are used to. Be confident in ordering “spicy” in CR.

All families have something they like to do when they travel. Cruises (and their buffets), dive trips, backpacking, camping, RVing (and the list goes on). Despite John and I being dive certified (I by the above mentioned Master), and hikers across the Continental Divide and Moab, our family gravitates to the ziplines of the world. We have zipped in Mexico, Peru, and Costa Rica. Each country has their own standards of safety (or lack thereof). For a country with light construction laws and second-story balconies without handrails, the ziplines in CR were the most secure. Making us feel like we were bad parents when we let out little ones (10-yo) zip in other countries (ignorance is bliss and a lot of luck no one got hurt). They provided double lines, duplicate locking systems, and auto-engaged braking (yes, we have had to brake ourselves on other systems). But another joy for us is surfing.

Oh, god no, not me. But my husband and two of the three children enjoy renting surf boards and bashing about on the ocean’s edge. I do not see the allure of playing with a monster that can easily flick you into its belly upon its whim, with unseen rocks and compressed sand rising into disorientation. But they see it as a challenge to ride upon a cloud of brine.

I spend hours scrolling beach homes for short-term rentals. I found most hotels and rental homes near Tamarindo. And, unknowingly, I would have booked there except for the high nightly rates. The rumor was booking more south meant more dangerous, cartel-like, bad hombre exposure. And, when I received the check-in instructions for our beach home, I worried more. The house included an alarm system, a vault and safe, and codes to the neighborhood gates. This was Playa Negra.

And it was horrible. Don’t go. You’ll hate the expansive coca-black sand, clear blue ocean with tubular waves, and such prolific hermit crabs you must choose your path carefully not to crush one. I mean it, it’s awful, with its kitschy wood-fired pizza restaurants, gourmet Brazilian tuna ceviche, and cute diurnal surfers-turned-nighttime-servers. Did I mention the quiet neighbors? At first we locked everything up, then slowly, we left all our computers and phones sitting on countertops while we strolled to the surf-motel for an open-air sunset barbecue.

Meanwhile, in Tamarindo, you get to pay to park at the yellow sand beach (and the protection of break-ins if you tip the attendant); waves of beach chairs littered with a never-ending, white-skinned body count until the strand turns to cliff; and the nightclubs pumping with “nachos as big as your ass.” The only upside is the grocery store had air-conditioning.

My other daughter and I prefer a pool. Private Infinity? Yes, please. At a third of the price? Definitely. With empty beach and ocean views? I am not manic. So, a little longer drive (eight miles) for a lot more privacy. So now you know the secret, don’t spoil it for the rest of us. Alas, in thirty years, this area too may succumb to the ever-expanding pressures of cheap capitalism, and knowing I am part of the problem breaks my heart. Yet, like my girth from my menopausal weight gain that prohibits me from wearing a bikini, sometimes I have to pretend it’s a tomorrow-me problem, ignoring it to feel better about myself. I won’t move here, like many boomer expats, and I packed reusable bags in my carry-on luggage.


It happened to us twice, at least that we know of. Going the wrong way down a one-way. The first time, it’s pretty excusable. John had come off thirty-six hours of traveling, corralling the five of us through three airports, and hiring our rental car in a language that he learned on the soccer field. It was just a short distance down the wrong way, but the Costa Ricans got snarky. My experience: most NorteAmericanos make it very clear to turnaround by flashing the ill-directed with headlights, horns, whistles and points. In Costa Rica, they just intentionally move into your path of travel and slowly threaten to crash into you. The second time it happened, we realized their one-way and double way signs are identical, just with either a one-ended arrow or a double-ended arrow. Usually with several other signs or telecom wires obscuring the signage. Whatever the reason, in this case, their sloth-like driving skills helped us avoid any collisions and rectify our direction.

The national animal of Costa Rica is the two- and three- toed sloths, and the Costa Ricans have definitely adopted this mode of automobile travel speed. On our last day, since we were only staying at an airport hotel (our flight was another six-a.m-er), we went to the Arenal Volcano and hot springs area. Thinking we’d have lunch somewhere near the lake, maybe find a hot spring to dip in and see a lone cone

This is the rainforest area, and thus, the views were in rain clouds. It had been three hours; we were starving and needed to pee. Stopping at the first nice/kitschy restaurant we saw, we ordered a Guaro Sour. There were plenty of signs to other places, but this place was cute and not covered in Imperial beer advertisements. We hadn’t reached the volcano viewpoint yet. Natives walking in all directions on the road caused another slow down — a playful band of coatimundi wanted some attention. These cousins to the raccoon are adorable and worth a few moments to grab some snaps.

After passing what we think was the volcano with a cloud hat on, we stopped at a souvenir shop. It was actually really nice, and again, lacked cheap turismo pandering — which (hint) we prefer. Although… my eldest (and her pre-teen mentality father) purchased a native-painted phallic bottle opener as a legacy gift for her college roommates. They wrapped it up in tissue and I handed it to my daughter — I would not carry that through customs in my reusable bags.

Continuing our drive, we found various hot springs. Some were free along river beds, others at hotels that were jibing like casinos without the slots. We were not really in the mood to hot springs with a ton of grungy, hiking, hostel college kids getting their first rinse in days, nor the NorteAmericano millennial sun-burnt families having come up from Tamarindo. So, we kept driving, and driving, and driving, for another four-hours, until we got to our hotel.

It was too late to return the car and shuttle back to our hotel, so we went to a restaurant across the street from the rows of Marriott chains. Usually, these places are over-cooked hamburgers, but this place was an Argentinian restaurant: El Novillo Alegre Alajuela, with Waygu and tuna tartare. Surprisingly good for a restaurant with a high hotel walkability score.

Early to bed and early to rise… means you have a six a.m. flight to LAX. Since we had to return our car, we got up extra early, thankfully, because their version of TSA was as bad as Denver.

Side story: A German family in front of me had a little girl (probably not 2yo) who had a stomach bug. They knew she was sick, had a barf bag at the ready, but ugh (been there, and what do you do when you have to catch a flight?) I kept my family a safe six-feet away.

We got through TSA with time for pastries and coffee (yeah, I was still hungry despite the barfing kid). Here’s a traveler’s hint: if you are a Pasadena Spanish teacher returning with twenty-six spring-break kids, have each one carry-on a packed snack for the six-hour flight. Even if we wanted to buy food — the airlines didn’t offer any. I doubt the momma of the child who passed out from low-blood sugar was thrilled when she came to pick him up at school later that day.

We waited for the paramedics before we disembarked the plane. The kid was weak but walking. Then our eldest informs they canceled her flight to Portland. Our original plan was to all separate at LAX. One daughter to drive to San Luis Opisbo, one to fly into PDX, and the Ouray crew on to Denver, then Montrose. Well, our dear eldest was stranded at LAX with few options except, maybe, possibly getting onto a flight two days later. The line to Delta customer services was deep and not moving. John went to get the rental car with our SLO girl. I started tapping-away on my various flight apps. Any alternative same day flight on a different carrier had quintupled in cost. So, she hopped in her sister’s car, rode to SLO and flew to PDX two days later. It cost us around $650.00, but at least she had her sister, instead of alone at an LAX airport-shite hotel. (And I will deal with the Delta reimbursements once at home.)

Point A to Point B to Point C is not always a straight line, sometimes it’s a discarded ponytail holder with strands of hair tangled around elastic.

I didn’t want to go back to a snowy-cold home when I was sitting on my beach chair, dipping my toes into the infinity pool, watching our kids surf and joking around like when we all lived under one roof. But, we have to pay for our trips somehow. So, we did pack-up. While I enjoyed Costa Rica, our family agrees that Panama had a crisper life-style more to our liking. No, I have no intention of becoming an expat, but I do know why the snowbird flies south for the winter.

To read more of the Wood Family Circus travel adventures and older writings go to:

Books Read:

American Dirt by Janine Cummins

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx

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