In Costa Rica, Reconnecting With My Teenage Daughter


“You can do it, Mom,” shouted my daughter, Malu, 21, as I hung from a zipline that would take me into the clouds far below.

We were in Monteverde, the second leg of my family’s eight-day-trip through Costa Rica. It was to celebrate Malu’s graduation from college, but really, it was to breach the slammed phones and strained silences that had become a feature of our mother-daughter relationship. During her time home during COVID-19, I found myself turning into a passive-aggressive shrew, dumping my neurosis and expectations on Malu. A civilized conversation felt far away. So, when my husband, Ram, suggested Costa Rica as a post-graduation family trip, we had jumped at the chance—for different reasons. Malu figured that an active trip would foster little or no conversation—I knew my daughter, and thought long hikes—and adrenaline-pumping ziplines—would help us connect. I surely hoped it would.

Zip Line
A zipliner gliding through Monteverde’s cloud forest
Malena Barrios/Getty

Our itinerary was tight. We would fly into San José, the capital, rent a car, and drive the La Fortuna region where the dormant Arenal volcano loomed over the landscape like a benevolent pyramid. From there it would be onward to Monteverde, one of the last remaining cloud forests in the world. Finally we’d head to Jaco beach, beloved to surfers, before flying ‘home’ to San Francisco. My husband and I live in Bangalore, India, most of the time, while our daughters live in California—Malu in Los Angeles, and our eldest, Ranju, in San Francisco—but the latter is a second home base for us, where we keep a one-bedroom place.

Malu and I largely crafted the itinerary—while my husband and Ranju came along for the ride. Malu wanted to see sloth bears, the national symbol, and howler monkeys. I wanted to see the resplendent quetzal—venerated by the Aztecs—and hummingbirds. But what really drove our family’s decision was Malu’s research on climate change. Costa Rica has been lauded by watchdog agencies as being on track to be carbon neutral by 2050, doing better than most countries including the US and Germany. Through many conversations—Malu in the US and me in India—we chose activities and hotels. Trip planning, I discovered, was a non-threatening way to engage with my daughter, especially if I let her take the lead.

The night we arrived in Costa Rica, we witnessed an array of wlidlife at Mistico Park in La Fortuna: bright yellow frogs, an emerald basilisk lizard, more butterflies than we could count, snakes coiled up inside rocky outcrops, and the national bird, the clay-colored thrush, whose lilting song heralds the coffee-picking season. It’s true what they say, about being out in nature. We were agog at what we saw; I could feeling my blood pressure drop and Malu’s shoulders soften. Out in the wilderness, we playfully side-bumped each other like we used to when she was little.

On day two, we went rafting on the Balsa river. Our guide, Orlando—tall, lithe, and funny—literally had our girls eating off his hands by the end of our three-hour trip. As some 60 tourists pulled their rafts on the bank, the guides laid out a melange of fruits on top of an overturned inflatable. Orlando handed us cut oranges, cantaloupe, and mangos. We tore into them with our bare hands, then threw the peels into the fast-flowing water. No plates, plastic, or paper. “Ticos tread lightly on the Earth,” murmured Malu, using the nickname Costa Ricans have for each other.

As I watched Malu in various settings: enraptured by the sloth bears, her mouth open as she looked through the spotting scope, delicately picking through new tastes and flavors, questioning guides about conservation and history, I caught myself smiling and sighing at the same time. A large part of parenting grown-up children is matching reality with nostalgia. In Costa Rica, freed from our roles, I could observe them without the usual judgement that I foisted as a parent.

Monteverde was cooler than La Fortuna. On our first hike through the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, our guide pointed out tiny wild avocados that bell birds pollinated. And then suddenly, as birds do, a three-wattled bell bird appeared high up on the trees, surreal and otherworldly. “It’s beautiful,” muttered Malu, enraptured.  I hugged her. “Isn’t it?” I said, hoping, maybe, she’d one day become a birder like me.

sandy volcano, rich coast
The La Fortuna region, whose landscape is dominated by the Arenal Volcano, was the writer’s second stop.

I know that engineering ‘quality time’ is a fool’s errand. Connection and memories happen during unexpected, snatched moments: a hug while facing a volcano, or an eye-lock in the midst of a rapid. But it doesn’t hurt to create the conditions for them. We were due to go ziplining the next day at Sky Adventures park—where, to my luck, there was a supposed to be a quetzal nest.

“Over 50 percent of Costa Rica is returned to nature,” said our ziplining guide. “The official figure is 25 to 30 percent but even commercial reserves like this one leave large parts of the land untouched.”

Ziplining above a cloud forest is, theoretically, not as scary as ziplining over a canyon because of the dense forest cover below. If I fell, the trees would catch me, I told myself. But on the last, longest zipline, both girls took my hand, their eyes worried. As I strapped up, Malu high-fived me. “You can do it, Mom,” she said, before I took off.

I didn’t see the bird that day—but I did manage to slip out the next morning while the girls slept in, and after scarlet-thighed dacnis, guans, and yes, lots of hummingbirds, I finally got my quetzal: two, actually, a glimmering emerald green female, and a transfixing male.

All too soon, it was time to go home.

As a family, I realize we have been fortunate enough to take good trips together. Morocco was one; New Zealand, another. Costa Rica, I have a feeling, will be among the top three. It was for me. As a mother to two strong-willed fiercely independent girls, I walk the line between pride and sorrow. The geographical distance is hard, and I miss their dependence on me. Costa Rica helped me change my perspective: they weren’t slipping away; they were forging ahead. Sometimes I’ll be there, and sometimes I won’t.

As I watched them move gracefully in the forest, giggle with each other, and peruse menus, I realized that trips together would have to be the way that we overcome the continental separation that I feel acutely and daily. Costa Rica connected us in the way that a trip in a new land does. You are all in it together—as a family. Yes, my girls were all grown up. But they were still mine. As Malu said on the last day, “Ma, we aren’t children any more but we are still your kids.”

Originally Appeared on Condé Nast Traveler