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Natural Awakenings Charlotte

Tech-Free in Costa Rica


by Shannon McKenzie

When you go on vacation and all your kid wants is to ‘take a shower, eat, drink water and go to sleep’—and she has an awesome time—something magical has happened.


Video games, smart phones and computers have been part of my household for some time. In that respect, I guess we’re a typical American family. But recently I’ve become more concerned about the role of technology in my children’s lives—not just how much screen time they spend, but also the material things they take for granted.

As my kids have gotten older, those topics have become a regular part of my conversations with them. (Deep down, I suspect my own dependence on tech has bothered me for some time, except for video games, which I have absolutely no desire to play.) So when I remodeled our fixer-upper, I intentionally wired it for Ethernet, and only in common areas, rather than setting up wireless. Part of my motivation was to minimize EMCs, but I also hoped to break myself of the habit of checking my electronic devices with every new notification. I didn’t like where that habit was taking me, and I didn’t want my kids to go there either.

This summer I got more ambitious in my efforts to cut my family’s technological umbilical cord. I took the kids on a no-frills vacation to a hard-to-reach area of Costa Rica, where we camped and cooked our own food. My hope was that immersing ourselves in this new, bio-diverse environment would give us all a fresh perspective of what a complete, fulfilling life can look like.

Here’s what Finn, my 12-year-old, had to say about the experience:

Costa Rica was one of my favorite vacations. We started by driving from San Jose to Puerto Jimenez, and I saw amazing views of black sand beaches from up high and down low. We also stopped at a bridge and saw a lot of big American crocodiles that looked like they came straight from Jurassic Park. Unfortunately we witnessed the circle of life when a crocodile snacked on a fledgling. In Puerto Jimenez, I saw my first Asian geckos (an invasive species) and tried to catch them, but they were too fast.

In Puerto Jimenez, we camped at a place that had lots of crabs running around, and there were also white-faced monkeys in the trees all around our tent. At around five in the morning, I heard howler monkeys, but I didn’t know they were howler monkeys—I thought they were jaguars. I didn’t think a monkey could produce such a noise.

We then drove from Puerto Jimenez to Corcovado National Park, and I saw a lot of scarlet macaws, coatis, anteaters and a bird that looked like an owl. It was an incredibly bumpy dirt road, and we had to drive through several creeks.

On our hike to the ranger station in the park, I saw lots of lizards, but I didn’t try to catch them because I didn’t know if they were poisonous. Midway through the hike, though, I noticed a tiny black lizard on a log and decided to try to catch it. It was so small, I didn’t think it would do too much harm even if it was poisonous. That was the first lizard I caught, and after that I caught tons of others. The Jesus Christ lizard was my favorite wildlife I saw in Costa Rica. I even saw it running on water.

On the hike, we came to a river, and I asked our guide, Rodolfo, if we had to cross it. He said yes. I asked him if there were any alligators in the river, and he said no. I felt relieved until he said there were no alligators—just crocodiles. I balanced my backpack on my head and followed Rodolfo closely across the river. Afterward, I learned that the crocodiles in that river were Cayman crocodiles, and too small to threaten people. For some reason, Rodolfo didn’t mention that.

Here’s what 10-year-old Tess remembered best:

When we finally got to the ranger station, I was exhausted. We had hiked 12 miles, and I’d never hiked that far. All I wanted to do was take a shower, eat, drink water and go to sleep. I really liked the ranger station. It was like a big outside house. There was a section with a bunch of bunk beds with mosquito nets, there was one big bathroom, one dining room, and a narrow deck that connected everything, but there were no walls. I saw a coati and a tapir from inside the ranger station.

The night before we hiked out of the ranger station, I couldn’t sleep well because I was worried about the crocodiles in the river we had to walk across. When we reached the river, I tried to walk fast, but the bottom was slimy and disgusting and slowed me down. I was looking around for crocodiles but didn’t see any. On the rest of the hike, the best things I saw were an owl butterfly, great curassows, scarlet macaws, agoutis, anteaters, lots of coatis, and spider, howler and white-faced monkeys. There were also lots of crabs along the beach.

We ended our hike at an eco-lodge on the ocean. There were hammocks you could lie in and see the beach view. We had our own cabin that had an outdoor shower with a coconut as the showerhead. The water was cold because there was no electricity. We used candles as our lights, and they made the cabin peaceful at night. I liked playing cards in the lodge, and I won a couple of games of Uno. I also saw one of my favorite animals of the trip there: squirrel monkeys. This was one of my favorite vacations, and I think my friends from school would really like it too.


Like Finn and Tess, I saw sights in Costa Rica that took my breath away. One of the biggest ones was the sight of my own children awestruck by nature, and engaged in life in a way that technology can’t touch. I hope this sort of trip is something we can repeat regularly, as I’ve realized that one of the biggest gifts I can give my kids is to help them understand that this is a really big world and there are many wonderful ways to navigate it.

Shannon McKenzie is the publisher of Natural Awakenings magazine in Charlotte.



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