It's a jungle out there: DL family spends week in Costa Rican treehouse
April Thomas knows she has a little bit of a crazy side.
"You only get one shot at life, right?" she said, fresh off a trip to Costa Rica, where life was anything but "normal."
The Detroit Lakes woman is known among her family members as the one who has a knack for "finding the fun," but so far, this latest trip idea of hers may be taking the cake.
"I had originally been looking for little beach houses to stay at, but then up pops this treehouse, and I just thought...how cool," said Thomas.
So, on Christmas Day, she rounded up the crew, which included her husband Dave, their children, Evan, 11 and Brooke, 5, as well as her parents, Bruce and Mary Beckman of Detroit Lakes and they all "flew the coop," leaving below-zero Minnesota weather for the very balmy, humid rainforests of South America. It was roughly a 115-degree difference between Minnesota and the tropical place National Geographic has called "the most biologically intense place on Earth in terms of biodiversity."
Once they landed in San Jose, the family of six hopped on a tiny 12-passenger propeller plane for a half-hour flight to Puerto Jiminez, the southernmost tip of Costa Rica on the Osa Peninsula.
The airport was little more than a half-mile long landing strip lined with barbed wire and a cemetery. Yes, a cemetery.
"When I saw that I thought, well that's certainly an efficient way to handle things if the flights go bad," laughed Dave Thomas, who admits this wouldn't be his first pick for a vacation, but was still up for the adventure.
Costa Rica is considered a third-world country — or two-and-a-half, as the Thomas family learned local residents prefer to call it — and so luxury wasn't everywhere they looked. They were reminded of this when they all squeezed into a small, rented, four-person Chinese car that they'd never heard of. It was not the sort of vehicle suitable for the washed out, bumpy, "cruddy" roads they encountered. A hurricane a month earlier had severely damaged the gravel roads, leaving them potted out and narrow, with steep ravines on the sides and no side rails.
"So we're driving, and the car is bottoming out really bad on these roads with all the deep, deep potholes, just scraping as we went," said April, adding that things got even hairier when they came to a fork in the road and took the wrong way. Getting off the beaten path proved "adventurous" for the family, as that little Chinese mobile couldn't handle the big hills, forcing most of the family out to push it up the hills.
"Poor Dave, he had mud and gravel all over him," said April, who admits it probably wasn't the best start to the vacation, but says things improved dramatically once they arrived at what would be their home away from home for the week — the Lapas Nest Treehouse.
Designed, built and run by an American couple, the treehouse looks like something straight out of Swiss Family Robinson.
"In fact, before we went, we started reading that book to the kids," laughed "Grandpa Bruce."
Twirling up a large tree, the structure has different floors for bedrooms, a kitchen with modern appliances and dining area, as well as real bathrooms.
"The treehouse really was an impressive engineering project that this guy did," said Dave, who adds that everything in the treehouse was wide open to the elements of the forest, except the bedrooms, which were screened off. Living in an open-air situation had its perks in that it gave visitors an authentic feel of living among the jungle's creatures, but it also had what some would call a downfall, for exactly the same reason.
"So, as the sun went down, it wasn't like having a bug in your room — you're in the bug's room," said Dave, a self-proclaimed "city boy," who also happened to be the one that bugs seemed particularly attracted to.
"Yeah, if there was a big bug to be had, it was finding Dave," laughed April, adding that they had a cockroach in their treehouse the size of an Uno card.
"I mean literally — we had a deck of Uno cards, so we took a picture of the bug next to it, and it's the size of an Uno card!" she said.
In fact, attracting "undesirable creatures" is a common concern for guests of the treehouse, which means standard operating procedure after the sun goes down is for people to shut off all the lights, except headlamps, which is what they all wore as they settled down for the evening to play cards and games.
"There was wifi there, but I wanted this to be a vacation where we were totally unplugged," said April, adding that they did use internet to search for and identify bugs and creatures when they encountered them — and they were everywhere.
Rainbow-colored Scarlet macaws, toucans, tree frogs, capuchin monkeys, spider monkeys, sloths — the jungle was packed full of the world's most interesting creatures that, to the outside world, are typically only seen in zoos and other captive environments, but this family was smack in the center of the real thing.
"One day we were sitting there and a troop of squirrel monkeys — hundreds of them — came swinging by with their babies," said April, "and they were jumping and stopping to eat and looking at us...and I thought, we're really in the wild!"
One early morning things became particularly "wild" when the family woke to the sounds of the loudest land animal on the planet sitting right in their tree making itself heard — the howler monkey.
"We thought it sounded like a gorilla," said April, who had done research on the different animals they might see before going on the trip and had read all about this magnificent creature and its sounds that carry for miles. "It was the craziest sound — it was so loud, and it was only about five in the morning, and I was like...that's a Howler monkey!"
Peculiar noises were mysterious to the family at the beginning of the week, but by the end of it, they had all learned to be able to match the noises with the creatures simply by sound. One type of critter they saw very little of though, to their surprise, was mosquitos.
"I thought they'd be bad and we'd be covered in Deet all week because we worried about the zika virus and all that, but I think we saw four mosquitos the entire time, and they weren't like Minnesota mosquitos — they were lazy and didn't bother us," said April.
The family got into a routine — during the day they'd go out on different excursions around the area, including swimming with the dolphins, exploring areas around the neighboring Corcovado National Park, ziplining through the jungle and more.
"I really enjoyed the ziplining — I had never done it before," said Bruce, who is 72 years old. "I'd like to do that again." His grandson agrees. Eleven-year-old Evan says the zipline was his favorite part of the trip, along with cracking a coconut on the beach. Five-year-old Brooke says she loved seeing a two-day old baby monkey at an animal rehabilitation center and being at the dark sand, warm water beach.
The crew all agrees that the trip was rigorous and exhausting, particularly, said Bruce, for his wife, but they all agreed they're glad they did it. It's what they'd call a "bucket-list" trip that they can now all check off.
"It was a chance to see animals that you'd normally never get to see, except in captive environments, and we got to see them in their own environment, and that was really neat," said Dave. "I was really proud of the family; the days were long and the hikes were long, and not every 11 and five year old would be up for something like that, but they did great."
In fact, April says at the end of the week, the kids — and her — could have stayed even longer.
"I knew it would be epic either way - if it was horrible, we'd have awesome stories to laugh about in a couple of years, or it would be epic cool," said April, "and it was epic cool."