The Uneventful Week in Costa Rica That Wasn’t

We expected the final week of our family gap year — in a small Costa Rican beach town — to be simple and uneventful. It was anything but.

When we travel, we don’t look for trouble. In fact, we take steps to avoid it. But the seasoned traveler comes to expect the unexpected adventure.

Nevertheless, for the final week of our year abroad, we just wanted a few weeks of uneventful pleasure seeking. Was that too much to ask?

We recently had our fill of mishaps. Just weeks prior, the police in Ecuador tried to extort a very large sum of cash from us. Our road trip in that country was otherwise awesome and thrilling, but we needed some time to let down our guard and recuperate before our big return home.

This should have been easy to pull off in Costa Rica. It’s a country we were already familiar with. It’s one of the safest and most developed countries in Latin America. All we had to do was book a nice place to stay.

Table of Contents

A Disappointing Arrival

We spent several days and countless hours poring over Airbnb listings for our ten-day stay on the Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica’s popular Pacific Coast destination. We wanted it to be perfect, comfortable, beautiful, stocked with entertainment options for the boys. Our price filter kept creeping upward until we were getting results that rivaled U.S. prices. Who cares? It was our grand finale!

One option stuck out above the rest. It was the microcosm of a tropical paradise. It had a wooden deck with an in-ground pool, small enough to not be overwhelming for the kids. It was surrounded by a wall of greenery and palm fronds. The long wood slab dining table looked out through a large open arch to the pool. Perfect for watching the kids play while we took care of business.

Bonus amenities included a foosball table, a pool table, and a TV for watching movies on rainy days. This place had everything!

It’s only drawback was that it was a new listing with no reviews. It was also the most expensive option, but as I mentioned before, that didn’t matter much to us. Pictures don’t lie, we reasoned, so we went for it.

When we arrived we immediately regretted our choice. Coming down from months of travel in high altitude locations with mild temperatures, we weren’t accustomed to the oppressive heat and humidity of the coast. It put us in a foul mood. All of the sudden, we realized our foolishness in not choosing a place with air conditioning.

And those perfectly lit photos somehow masked the fact that this house, which was actually a defunct hostel, had seen better days. Right away, our four-year-old stepped into the large gap between the outside deck and inside floor and hurt his leg.

I inspected all the amenities. The foosball table lacked a ball, and the surface was so warped by age and humidity that it was unplayable. The pool table worked, but was in poor condition. We searched all over for the TV, but there wasn’t any. We wished we could cancel the booking and go somewhere else, but we couldn’t even connect to the internet they apparently had provided.

Settling in For the Long Haul

Actually, no WiFi was a ray of hope. If it didn’t have good WiFi, we would use that as our excuse to back out of our non-refundable stay. After all, we’re digital nomads and that would be a deal breaker.

From a coffee shop ten minutes away, we were finally able to contact our host. He apologized for having the old WiFi info listed on the app. He provided the new info and assured us the WiFi was strong. Unfortunately, he was basically correct. We couldn’t complain about the WiFi.

After much debate, we resigned ourselves to staying.

A photo of our front porch and pool. Looks can be deceiving.

Intruders in the Night

Another major downside was that big gaping archway in front. It had no door. We could only lock ourselves in our bedrooms at night. Perhaps when it was a hostel, someone was there at all hours to monitor the common area from the front desk. But now all we had was a security camera looking out over the pool area.

Of course, one doesn’t think about how creepy that will be until you have to live with it. And it especially hits home when you wake up at 2 am hearing soft foot steps creaking around on the wooden deck just a few steps from your bedroom door. Liuan and I both lay in bed, terrified, for a long while.

The following night it happened again. We heard footsteps and noticed the motion sensor light kept turning on. This time I worked up the courage to face the intruders. I put on a pair of shorts to make myself only slightly less vulnerable. Then I flung open the bedroom door to give whomever was on the other side an initial scare.

It was just three dogs nosing around the pool. One had short black fur, another had shaggy reddish fur, and the third was light tan, bigger than the other two, and had an ugly scrunched-up face. I’ll call him Big Ugly. The dogs looked up, unmoved by my surprise appearance, and lazily sauntered away into the darkness.

Doing homeschool at the dining table. The big open archway in the background has no door.

A Bunch of Gangsters

I guess I’d rather the trespassers be dogs than human burglars or some wild beast. But these dogs were not sweethearts coming to beg for a food offering. They chewed up a decorative wooden turtle and a foam futon mattress. They knocked over our laundry drying rack. Socks disappeared. Shoes ended up scattered around the yard. These guys acted like gangsters.

Once, late at night, there was a canine street fight right by our bedroom window. We woke up to shrill panicked yelping and then every dog in the entire town of Nosara went wild, including the pack of dogs in our yard. The barking went on for twenty minutes or so and didn’t seem like it was ever going to let up. We covered our ears with our pillows, but eventually lost our patience.

Finally, I flung open my bedroom door and roared furiously, “HEY, SHUT UP!” The dogs in our yard and every yard within a few hundred feet quieted down, while further away the ruckus continued. Good enough. We fell back asleep.

Because of the midnight visits, we made it a bedtime habit to gather up our shoes and the clothes on the drying rack and hide them in our bedrooms.

The Final Straw

One evening, Liuan and the boys walked down the street to the corner grocery store at dusk. I stayed behind to work on a blog post at the dining room table.

As Liuan and the boys were walking back I heard vicious barking. Liuan yelled. I immediately threw on my shoes and ran out to help. I had been bitten by a dog in Bolivia. More recently, Finley was bitten on the face by a pit bull in Colombia (it was a nip as the dog defended his food, Finley’s ok). I wouldn’t say we are now frightened of dogs, but we’ve learned to treat them as a credible threat.

We both arrived at the gate at the same time. Everyone made it back ok. I took off my shoes on the deck just outside the archway. It was 6:30 pm, the last time I could confirm that both of my shoes were not missing.

I continued writing my blog post at the dining table. Liuan cooked dinner in the adjacent kitchen. The boys were around playing.

After dinner, around 8:30pm, I went to collect my shoes to store away in the bedroom. But there was only one.

At first I blamed the boys. It couldn’t have been an animal because we were all right there the whole time! I told them they either needed to remember where they put my shoe or keep searching until they found it.

We searched under the furniture, under the deck floor boards, in the pool. After searching everywhere possible inside the house and in the pool area, it became clear that the boys hadn’t done it. It had to be a dog. But how did we not notice?

With my phone’s flashlight I looked on the adjacent property, owned by the same person who owned our place, where I had sometimes seen the dogs go. Nothing.

I decided to search the street and find those damned dogs. I left through the front gate and two dogs in the property across the street raced over making a ferocious noise. Fortunately, they were behind a tall iron gate.

I walked down the street and more dogs ran up from a different property, threatening to tear me to pieces. I prayed that those dogs were also restrained, but to my horror, they were not. They came charging out of the dark into the lighted street. It was Big Ugly and his two toadies.

I wanted my shoe, but I wasn’t going to fight a pack of dogs for it. I started walking back toward safety. But when I looked over my shoulder, they were trotting toward me and barking up a storm. As a bluff, I turned around and started charging them. It worked. They put some more distance between us but continued barking. We went back and forth like this for a few rounds before I got close enough to my gated entrance to dash inside.

I was fuming and unhinged. For one, those shoes were brand new and I really liked them. I was pissed that I was wasting time tramping around anxious about my shoe when I should have been chilling in a hammock. I was sick of those dogs bullying us and taking our stuff. It was time for some payback.

I gave up looking for my shoe and started searching for softball-sized rocks.

Dreaming of Revenge

I found four good throwing rocks and an old glass bottle. On second thought, the glass bottle seemed like a stupid idea so I threw it away. The rocks I lined up on my nightstand. When they woke me up at night, as they surely would, I was going to let them have it.

I also leaned a broom next to the door. In the unlikely event that they ran at me instead of away, I wanted a good close-range weapon on hand. One should be well armed when planning an attack on a pack of dogs in nothing but boxer shorts.

Meanwhile, Liuan made another attempt to search the property next to ours. The effort paid off! She found my missing shoe on the front porch. It was still intact, but covered in dirt and dog slobber.

That night I slept until 5:30 am. That’s when Liuan woke me up and whispered, “They’re here.” They were padding around in the back of the house, not the front. I was groggy and didn’t feel motivated to walk all the way around the house to go after a bunch of dogs. I fell back asleep.

I Get My Chance

At eight in the morning a kid knocked on the door. Liuan and I kept our eyes closed and didn’t answer. More knocking. “What!” I said in my gruffest voice.

“The dogs!” Oliver announced.

I left my room, stone in hand. The boys were huddled up on a lounge chair. Only a few paces away, the dogs that had threatened them on the street the day before stood at the pool’s edge lapping up the water.

Throwing a stone at this point seemed like a terrible idea. I would likely miss and damage something. Anyway, firing a stone point blank at a living thing is more difficult to stomach in reality than it is to imagine it. I just yelled at them to leave.

But as they trotted off into the parking lot I recognized that this was my chance. It wasn’t a clear shot, there were bushes in the way, but I could throw a rock without breaking anything. Besides, I reasoned, they were farther enough away now that I had given them a fair enough chance for a miss. I half-heartedly lobbed the stone in their general direction.

It made contact. The pained yelp from the other side of the bushes confirmed it. I couldn’t see which dog was hit (I was hoping it was Big Ugly) or what it injured. Oliver thought I hit it above the tail, but he couldn’t tell me which dog.

The gang left in a hurry. To my chagrin, I heard a woman from across the street exclaiming something just as the dogs left our compound. I didn’t catch the words, but the lady sounded concerned. I assumed she was the owner.


I immediately felt sheepish for what I’d done. In my mind, the blame lies with the owners for allowing their dogs to roam free, stealing and menacing. (And of course, every dog owner claims their dog doesn’t bite, though their bark be vicious.)

Nevertheless, the last thing I needed was a major conflict with the locals. I wondered how bad I had injured the dog and whether the neighbors would threaten legal action. Or maybe they would seek their own form of justice. I tried to determine if I was going to deny it or explain why I did it.

I waited half the morning for the knock at the gate. Fortunately, it never came.

Beyond risking a conflict with the neighbors, I felt shame for how I had acted. What kind of example was I giving the kids? Those dogs were mostly just acting like unsupervised children, and I wouldn’t throw rocks at a child. I promised myself I wouldn’t throw any more rocks, even if the dogs came back (which they did less than 12 hours later).

Actually, We Had An Awesome Time In Costa Rica

In spite of all the annoyances — not to mention the dog wars and and the ridiculously loud frogs that sit around the pool and sound like toddlers having a bike horn honking contest — we will look back fondly on this time.

After a couple days our heat rage subsided. With no air conditioning, you acclimate. And the heat makes the evenings and the times when the clouds roll in feel like a treat.

Liuan and I paid for a private surf lesson at Playa Guiones (check out our instructor’s sweet surfing videos). The day after, we rented a surf board and tried catching some waves without the instructor. I’m proud to say, we both did it! Almost every day we’ve gone out and explored the different beaches in the area. Every day our tans deepen.

We’ve been eating great, taking advantage of the locally caught blue marlin to make ceviche. Thankfully, the place has a working blender so we frequently cool our tongues and stay hydrated with icy fruit drinks.

While the disappointing details remain, our hosts are friendly and seem like they’re trying.

Overall, we’re glad for these final days of our family gap year to enjoy the sweetness of doing nothing. There is a lot that didn’t turn out as expected. But this proves once again that any experience is what you make of it. In other words, this week is just another typical week of world travel for us.

Liuan catches a wave.
Guiones beach at sunset.
  • Matt

    Matt is a software consultant by day and a wide ranging hobbyist at night. He enjoys baking, art, music and lives for travel experiences. But what gets him out of bed in the morning is fresh roasted coffee.


Matt is a software consultant by day and a wide ranging hobbyist at night. He enjoys baking, art, music and lives for travel experiences. But what gets him out of bed in the morning is fresh roasted coffee.

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