Traveling With Parents: Costa Rica

My parents are troopers. They’ve always been down to go on an adventure. When we were kids, we’d take to the road in our van and explore the U.S. for weeks at a time.


By the time I was 10, I’d been to every U.S. state but Maine and Alaska. In essence they gave me the travel bug. I learned to travel from them in the same way that I learned to walk, and talk, and read, and have manners, and socialize, and not tackle my brother in public. These lessons, including not tackling family members, have obviously helped create my sense of self.

And yet, when I started traveling on my own, I carved out my own style. Like them, I wanted to see it all. But unlike them, I didn’t bother with reservations, plans, commitments. I went wherever looked interesting at the moment. And found myself in many remarkable situations, both good and bad. My whimsical way of experiencing the world had gotten me to every continent but Antarctica, connected me with friends from latitudes and longitudes I had only gazed upon on globes, and had taught me more than school ever did.

However, when I was fresh out of college and my parents suggested we travel together to Costa Rica, I wasn’t exactly sure how things would go. Especially since the last time we traveled together, I abandoned them in Europe to go wander through the Middle East, and the time before that, they had picked me up from a Semester at Sea in Seattle, and I basically had them drive me to Sacramento so I could meet up with my friend Jon and take off for an extended tour of North America. See a pattern?

It’s not that I didn’t like traveling with them. Really. I mean, other than the generally young adult angst that most 20-somethings feel towards their parents, I actually loved (and still love) traveling with them.

So of course I agreed to a couple weeks in Costa Rica. And of course I was imagining plenty of free time to explore this enchanting country in the same adventurous ways I had grown used to.

After a couple days, all I’d seen was a couple monkeys, some giant butterflies and the toes of a sloth up in Monteverde Cloud Forest. We’d been catered to in our swanky resort, and gone on a minimal waterfall hike. So to spice things up, I suggested we go on a jungle excursion on the Sevengre River.

Let me just add that my parents have signed up for their share of adventures beyond their expectations. My dad went skydiving with me and broke both his legs (which I still to this day feel ridiculously guilty about); my mom explored the backroads of Kauai on my dime; and they even took their wild, teenage daughter to the Mexican coast and didn’t blink when I became friends with a crew of 22-year-old Brits who fancied it hysterical to sneak margaritas my way.

Little did my parents know that when I suggested they rent a 4WD in Costa Rica, bounce along unpaved roads for hours, and arrive in a jungle ripe with cell-phone sized bugs, poisonous snakes and a very excitable guide, ready to take us on a kayak adventure through the white water, that this might be their craziest adventure yet.

And that is saying a lot since the last time my parents and I were in a boat together, we were in Yellowstone during a crazy storm, stuck out at sea, praying that we didn’t drown.

After getting schooled on safety procedures, my mom attached herself to our guide Arturo, making him swear to protect her from anything that might be floating in the waters. Arturo found her brand of nervousness charming and obliged. So that’s how dad and I got stuck in a two-person kayak, wading through the white water in a screaming match and completely working against each other.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

You see, we are both individuals in the strictest sense. He is an accountant, and I am a writer, and when someone tells us to work together, we have always tried to find ways to show how strong we are going solo.

Of course, this is not how you raft down a Costa Rican river, especially not your first time white water rafting, or kayaking.

As you might expect the drop in was mellow, adventure tours do this, I have since learned: Dropping you in the waters on the glassy part so you can practice your stroke and paddle. Well, dad and I just could not get our groove. Like a good father/daughter pair, just as the grown daughter is priding herself on her adulthood, I was loathe to listen to his orders and the more he yelled, and screamed and hollered at me to paddle right, no left, no, right!, the less I heard.

“Stop telling me what to do,” I moaned in my best “I am not a teenager, but I act like one when I feel challenged” voice.

And then smack. We ended up in a whirlpool, pinballing between a lush green riverbank and a sandbar, with mom screaming, “Save them!” as monkeys hooted with laughter from the surrounding trees.

Arturo had to abandon my protesting mother in the kayak to dive in and save us — a totally hot move, by the way — especially as he warned that we would not survive if we continued to work against each other.

Arturo then tutored us on how to work together, the give and take of it, the trust, and ultimately how to let the person in front be the guide and letting the person behind follow just enough to support their lead (even if it is the daughter manning the boat). Wise lessons. Important lessons. And ones I am still grateful for as I try to parent, and travel with, my own children.

The take away on this is that balancing the needs of everyone on a trip requires a careful dance, especially as parents take to the road with their grown children; and especially when their kids have experience as travelers without their parents. It might be hard not to baby your kids by reminding them to sunblock themselves or not stay out too late, but in most cases, when you treat your kid like a child, she will start acting like one.

Once mom and dad realized this and started allowing me to be the twenty-something that I was on this particular journey, then the rest of our trip was surprisingly smooth, complete with a sweet visit to Arenal and a leisurely week in Manuel Antonio lounging by the sea.

As my parents got used to traveling with their adult daughter, the trip started to change. They relied on me to craft the itinerary more and communicate with my college-level Spanish. They let me guide (a bit), and they didn’t cringe (much) when I was out late at the club sipping coconut margaritas with some girls from the East Coast.

They gave me just enough space to feel grown up, but held me close enough to feel that we were experiencing the world together, something I always valued about our trips when I was young. Because of this we have since returned to Costa Rica together, though the next trip they spent more time by the pool and I spent more time exploring the beaches and jungles.

The moral here is that when parents allow their grown kids to be themselves on holiday, the kids will want to travel with their parents again. Sure maybe when they are young adults, it’s because mom and dad foot the bill (something I don’t let mine do anymore). But in the end those experiences you share traveling as peers can cement the family bond in myriad ways.

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