Every traveler’s worst nightmare is getting sick or stranded in a foreign country, and that’s exactly what happened to my family.
Traveling during the pandemic with children has been daunting. Above the extra hassle of required tests, enhanced cleaning routines, and keeping the children masked, the greatest deterrent has been the fear of contracting the virus and falling sick, especially in a foreign country. This is exactly what happened to my 11-year-old daughter during a family trip to Costa Rica this past summer.
After going on solo trips during the pandemic and not getting sick, I knew that my family could travel safely with the right precautions, so I accepted the risk and booked our trip to Costa Rica. The vacation was the break my children needed after having been cooped up all these months. Costa Rica’s pure air, beautiful landscapes, and biodiversity were exactly what the doctor would have prescribed if I had asked.
As we hopped around visiting towns, eating amazing food, and swimming in either the ocean or pool, the stress of the past year seemingly melted away. We steered clear of crowds, masked up when eating out or doing any activities that involved other people, and used hand sanitizer or washing stations frequently. Even amidst Costa Rica’s Pura Vida lifestyle, there was no escaping the constant reminder of the ongoing global pandemic. Still, it sure felt better thinking of it while laying on a beach.
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We stayed in three main towns: Playa Hermosa, Monte Verde, and La Fortuna. La Fortuna was our last stop before our scheduled departure on July 4. On July 1, we went to a local clinic to get tested for COVID, as required for re-entry to the United States. The next day, amidst hot weather and gathering rain clouds, we awaited the COVID test results while taking refuge from the storm and heat in our bungalow.
“They’re here!” I said excitedly as my email refreshed to reveal the test results. After traveling for eight days, my family was ready to return home. I opened the email and saw one word staring back at me: POSITIVO. I checked the emailed results once again, but even with my limited Spanish, there was no mistaking what it said: my 11-year-old daughter had tested positive for COVID-19, and the rest of us didn’t.
How was this possible? We all went to the same places and shared the same spaces and food. Most importantly, what were we supposed to do next?
Before traveling, I had looked up Costa Rica’s COVID-19 requirements and quarantine rules. Unlike other countries, Costa Rica doesn’t require a COVID test to enter but does require all visitors to purchase travel insurance that covers a minimum of $2,000 in lodging expenses in case of quarantine and $50,000 in medical expenses related to COVID. The government offers its own insurance, and to my knowledge, World Nomad’s is the only third-party insurance they accept. You are also required to fill out an online form that collects information on where you will be staying in case of a positive diagnosis or contact tracing and will have to present the QR code generated to be admitted into the country.
If someone tests positive for COVID while in Costa Rica, they must quarantine for 10 days. Ten freaking extra days in a hotel room, alone, with three children, one of whom is a teenager! All I could think was, just shoot me already.
My mind was reeling as the magnitude of the situation set in. My children were on summer break, but I was expected back to the office. Because the United States doesn’t make any provision for quarantining, any time used would be classified as personal time off or unpaid leave. I’d have to call the hotel to let them know we would be extending our stay, and if we did stay here for 10 days, our travel insurance would only cover a small fraction of the bill (not to mention the meals we’d need to be delivered to our room).
The room got very quiet as I told my children the news, which was greeted with a mix of disbelief and tears from my seven-year-old. It was all fun and games when we had the choice to use the pool and go out for activities, but being confined to a single room would prove an entirely different experience.
My daughter reported no new symptoms other than a stuffy nose she had two days before the test. No one from the Costa Rican health department had contacted the hotel or me. The day proved quiet and uneventful as I emailed my boss back in the States to explain the situation. With no fights (yet), my family and I signed up for Apple TV and ordered meals to the room.
Nowhere to Stay
On our second day into quarantine, we received an email from the Costa Rican Ministry containing a mandatory quarantine order for my daughter. Although the email was sent in Spanish, I used Google Translate to glean the most important information. From what I could gather, my daughter was expected to quarantine for the entire 10 days while the rest of us were free to leave.
As I processed that email, the hotel called to say they were fully booked and couldn’t extend our stay. I called the number on the quarantine order to get some guidance on what to do. Still, after being passed around for a bit, it became clear that there was no set policy for quarantine orders and that the language barrier was a major hurdle. I began searching for new accommodations amidst the first sign of fights amongst the children (someone didn’t want to watch the show her sister picked. Ugh!).
Moving into an Airbnb
Thankfully, I found an Airbnb home with a pool and enough space for us to spread out. As a bonus, Airbnb was cheaper than our hotel but would present additional challenges such as getting groceries. I called the Costa Rican Ministry hotline again, this time requesting help and guidance on how to get groceries. Unsurprisingly, they did not prove helpful.
I decided to don two masks and venture to the supermarket, where I quickly grabbed as much food as possible. I knew it was a gamble, but I figured the risks were low with my being fully vaccinated and my recent negative COVID test. In our new Airbnb, junk food and a private pool lifted our spirits.
A False Positive?
By day four, no one exhibited symptoms, and everyone seemed fine. At this point, I began to wonder if my daughter’s COVID test had been a false positive? Could her cold have skewed the test? I called the hospital, and the doctor told me there was a 2% chance of a false positive. Even so, I requested a re-test.
Another COVID Test
With no sign of symptoms in any of us, my daughter received her second COVID test of the trip.
The wait proved agonizing as I tried not to think of surviving five more days of squabbles.
Popping Bottles Around
The next day, I incessantly checked my emails for the COVID results. It had been nearly 12 hours since the test, so when they finally arrived, I was almost too nervous to open it.
NEGATIVO! Hallelujah! In celebration, everyone began popping bottles: my daughter popped open a Fanta, my teenager opened a Coca-Cola, and my son snapped open a Sprite. As for me, all I needed was my drinkable yogurt. Did I mention Costa Rica has some of the best drinkable yogurts around?
Of course, we weren’t out of the woods just yet. It had been over three days since our COVID tests, the rest of my family needed to get new COVID tests while I searched for a new flight home. We cleaned and disinfected the Airbnb and departed for San Jose, where we checked into another Airbnb closer to the airport. I decided to take a chance and trust that we didn’t have COVID and booked our flight out for the next day.
On our final day in Costa Rica, we all got tested, and within three hours, the results were delivered with the result of NEGATIVO. Without waiting another moment, we left for the airport, returned our rental car, and boarded our flight home.
Twelve days after that positive COVID result landed in my inbox, I received another email from the Costa Rican Ministry of Health saying our quarantine had officially been lifted. As scary as our ordeal was, I’m glad it wasn’t worse and that no one got sick. Still, I am left grappling with many unanswered questions, like why doesn’t Costa Rica require a COVID test for entry, but mandates travel insurance? Why does Costa Rica institute mandatory quarantine but won’t require hotels to set aside rooms if a guest tests positive? Or at least offer assistance if the hotel is fully booked?
Despite it all, our Costa Rica trip was an unforgettable holiday—in every sense of the word.