Hansen Dam Aquatic Center

Hansen Dam Aquatic Center is an oasis in the San Fernando Valley.

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While there is still a bit of summer left, I want to recommend the pool at Hansen Dam Aquatic Center. To get there we took the 101 to the 405 to the 118 to the 210 and exited on Foothill Blvd. That may seem like a long way to go for a swim, especially when we have Lindero Country Club right around the corner, but I took my kids to Discovery Cube Los Angeles for a day trip to check out the newest exhibits. It was a Tuesday when LAUSD was back in school and LVUSD wasn’t yet, so the center was not crowded and the kids blew through everything in 2 hours. Since we had time and I had packed our swim suits just in case, we went over to the pool.

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We haven’t explored the Hansen Dam Recreation Area at all, before or since having children, so our visit to the Hansen Dam Aquatic Center was a delightful surprise. The center is a giant – like enormous, endless – pool with 2 waterslides next to a big manmade lake. Admission for swimming is $1 per child and $3.50 for adults (which is actually kind of backwards in my opinion since I went in the water for all of 5 minutes and the kids spent an hour in it!).

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There is a food truck on site for snacks and at that time there was also a nice lady with a little ice cream cart. There are plenty of restrooms, showers, and changing rooms, and you can even rent a shade tent to stay out of the sun. We got there at 4pm so I was able to set up my chair in the shade of a tree.

Swimming Lake

The pool is referred to as a “swimming lake” as opposed to the larger recreational lake behind it. It is surrounded by a sandy beach, and you walk into the pool just like into a lake, except the bottom is concrete like a pool. At one end are the two waterslides, which you access by walking through a giant curtain of water (I guess to rinse you off whether you like it or not). One waterslide is closed, and that’s the one I went on because the open one was not operational that day. The closed waterslide was rather terrifying for a second, since you can’t see which way you’re going. But the kids didn’t seem to mind and they went on it over and over again. You can’t wear a rash guard on the slide – the lifeguards made my boys take theirs off.

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Visit Soon!

The pool and waterslide are both open every day in the summer from 11:00 AM to 6:00 PM. Starting September 6, they are only open Saturday and Sunday through September 25, and then they close for the season. But there are lots of other things to do at the recreation area so we will report back when we explore it some more!

Costa Rica With Kids

Costa Rica with kids is totally worth it…depending on your attitude, and your kids.

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Fishing on Lake Arenal in Costa Rica. That’s a volcano behind them!

Back in March we got our boys’ first passports. I thought I was preparing us well ahead of time, but it turned out I should have started the process much earlier. In the end, the passports came safe and sound, in plenty of time for us to travel to Costa Rica with the kids!

This was our first international trip as a family. In fact, it was the first really big vacation that we took as a family. We often travel short distances by car, and for the past few years we have traveled to Connecticut to visit grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends. But for us to fly to Central America and explore places none of us have ever been was a true adventure, a first for the Princes.

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As it turns out, even though being in a Spanish-speaking country whose customs and general way of living are very different from our own, travel to and within Costa Rica was very easy. That newness and difference was the whole reason I wanted to take my family there. Everything we did felt new and adventurous.

Directions and Driving

People warned us about driving at night, and there are certainly hazards to be aware of: un-illuminated bicyclists and pedestrians walking or cycling too close to the road, livestock, poorly marked or missing signs, etc. Maybe I’m remembering it a little more fondly because my husband was the one driving I was mainly the navigator. Or at least, I was reading the crazy treasure-map directions!

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People in Costa Rica give you directions like this: “Over the bridge, 3 speed bumps through the town, ocean to the left… Tikis to the right. CONTINUE on paved road and take a right.” This goes on for an entire page, with gas stations, banks, and cow pastures as landmarks, but no names of roads at all. We rented a GPS unit to go in our rental car (a tiny Hyundai economy sized car) but it was basically useless, because it used the numbers of roads, and barely ever showed us the names of the towns we passed through, much less the locations of banks and bridges and speed bumps!

You can hire shuttles to get from the airports to where you are going, but it was easy and safe, at least in our experience, to drive a rental car, once you let go of feeling like you have to be anywhere “on time.” Ours ran us about $450 for the entire week.

Cell Phone and Wifi

Most hotels and even restaurants have free wifi, so if you don’t feel like you need to call anyone when you’re on the road, you don’t need to worry about having cell service when in Costa Rica. You can keep in touch with family and friends back in the States (like the people who are feeding your cat) using email or Facebook messenger. However, I wanted to make sure my husband and I could reach each other, and that we could call our friends who lived in Costa Rica at the time, in the event of an emergency. That was one extra step I really wanted to make because we had our children with us.

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Depending on your phone, all you have to do is unlock your SIM card (the process varies by carrier, but with AT&T I just had to fill out a request form online and receive the confirmation that it was done). Then when you get to Costa Rica, go to any super, or little grocery market, and they all sell SIM cards and pre-paid phone cards to load minutes onto the SIM card. With a little help with the language from the hotel front desk clerk, I was able to set up my SIM card on my phone, while my husband’s was much easier. I wasn’t very good at calculating the exchange rate, but I’m going to estimate that I spent about $15 US to get both my husband’s and my cell phones working and able to call each other and our in-country friends.

Money

The exchange rate changes, but it was about 520 colones per dollar back in June. That means a $1,000 colones bill is worth just over $2. I kept getting it backwards and overtipping wait staff and hotel helpers, but I didn’t mind. Everywhere we went, the local economy is supported by tourism, so I was happy to help with my bad math.

Costa Rican businesses accept both US dollars and colones, which was lucky, because both my credit card and debit card were newly issued chip cards, and our first hotel and a few restaurants were not reading them correctly, so we wound up paying for that first hotel stay in cash!

Food

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Complimentary breakfast includes guayabana jelly for your toast.

Typical Costa Rican food is rice and beans, chicken, and fried plantains. In fact “típica Costa Rican” breakfast, lunch, or dinner is something you’ll find on many restaurant menus, because tourists want to sample the local food. When you’re driving around in Costa Rica, you’ll see sodas in any town, or small cafes that serve up quick homemade delicious plates.

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Being in the tourism industry, though, they all have hamburgers on the menu, but those might come with actual ham or ham and bacon on them too! My kids pretty much ate a hamburger wherever we went. Actually my younger son got sick of them after a while so he started ordering spaghetti and meatballs if he saw that on the menu. A beachside tiki bar made him a plate of fettucini at 2PM because he was so hungry and serious looking!

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I loved ordering the típica meal, and sampling the different fruity blends of beverages, and drinking the Coca Cola Light (vs. Diet Coke). The boys liked the boxed chocolate milk with Spanish labels because they were so foreign looking. One favorite activity they enjoyed was strolling to the Super Wendy and getting chocolate milk and packaged cinnamon rolls, then chasing sand crabs down the street.

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Every eatery has fresh fruit: watermelon, papaya, pineapple, bananas and more. It was sweet and juicy and delicious, and probably grew within a mile of where we ate it. We also liked going into the markets and looking at all the different packaged foods, fresh meats and freshly baked breads. At a bakery in La Fortuna near Lake Arenal, we spent about $7 US on fresh breads and loaded up 2 big bags because everything smelled and looked so good.

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We mostly stuck to simple family restaurants, but the funny thing is that the best food we ate in all of our travels was at the Hilton Garden Inn across from the airport in Liberia on our last night. Best hamburger, best spaghetti, best BLT (for my husband), and the best Costa Rican rice and beans with chicken. Or maybe we were just so hungry after the day’s adventures that it sat better. Either way, that’s how we remember it.

Adventures

We traveled to two different areas: Playa Potrero with a day trip to Playa Tamarindo, and Lake Arenal. At Playa Potrero, we mostly hung out with our friends who were living there at the time, so we got a warm welcome and a friendly guide to the local activities. At Las Catalinas, a beach resort area, we hiked, played in the sand, swam, swung in hammocks, and found a geocache (naturally!). Every day we strolled down to the beach and the kids frolicked in the waves, and we spent plenty of time in the pool.

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See more photos on my personal blog, where I’ll be sharing more pics of our vacation in the weeks to come.

After three nights at the beach we headed inland to Lake Arenal. This popular area for tourists features the Arenal Volcano and the lake, and hot springs that flow from the mountainous area, heated by the volcano itself. We enjoyed those hot springs, and also went ziplining, horseback riding, fishing, shopping, geocaching (that was just me), and exploring.

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Many of these activities had a cost, but we had saved money for them in anticipation. While we certainly could have spent the entire time sitting in our chalet at Arenal Lodge watching the clouds, sun, or lightning over the volcano, we also wanted to seize the day and have as much fun as we could.

IMG_6765Waiting for our flight

Even our last day, when we were supposed to depart at 9:30 AM, was an adventure. An intense thunderstorm on the previous night had knocked out the airport’s runway lights, so the incoming flight was re-routed to San Jose. When we checked in for our flight, we learned there was a 5-hour delay because the plane had to come all the way back! Instead of waiting all day at the airport, I insisted that we go back across the street and wait it out by the hotel pool. The Hilton staff was nice enough to allow it. We basically sat there all day playing on our various electronics.

Kids’ Activities

A note about the electronics. We traveled with 2 smart phones, 2 iPads, and 2 Nintendo 3DS units with plenty of games. We brought multiple charging cords and portable charging sticks. All of this came in handy on the 5.5-hour flight. That is a LONG flight, and I didn’t mind having the kids’ heads buried in screens. (They did bring along other things to do. Books, notebooks, playing cards, and small toys.)

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Since I was so entranced by the beauty and adventure that awaited us, however, I did not want to spend my entire time in Costa Rica with kids obsessed with their video games. So after a few days of them heading straight for the tablet or even turning on the TV as soon as we got into the hotel room, we made a pact: if we’re in the room resting between activities, your screens are fine. But “hanging around the hotel room playing on the iPad” cannot be the default activity on our vacation! Given a stretch of a few hours between lunch and a party we were attending later, I rounded them all up and led them on a walk to the beach. It was gorgeous, strange, new, and relaxing. No charging cord necessary.

Sun and bugs

Bring sunscreen with you, because it’s super expensive in Costa Rica, but if you’re stuck, you can always buy some. We got long-sleeved rash guards for each kid and brought floppy hats and made them wear them. They have fair skin and the sun is very strong closer to the equator. In the rainforest it wasn’t as sunny but there were still plenty of moments when we needed sun protection.

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Okay the bugs are for real in Costa Rica, both by the beach and in the rainforest. We applied insect repellent whenever we stepped outside, because the hype about the Zika virus was on the upswing. In fact, we were greeted in the Liberia airport by a giant poster with the silhouette of a deadly mosquito.

Despite our precautions, our older son got bit up pretty badly. He counted over 20 bites on his back one morning. I had brought along hydrocortisone cream, but that wasn’t helping him, so when we got to La Fortuna (the bigger town near Lake Arenal) my husband and I made pilgrimage to a farmaceria, where through a combination of bad Spanish and sign language, we managed to convince the pharmacist that we needed “strong cream for the itching.”

Moral of the story: get the strongest bug spray you can find, but don’t panic. There are places where you can buy what you forgot or didn’t think to bring.

A Dream Come True

When people ask me “how was Costa Rica?” I always say the typical thing. “It was amazing,” or “we had lots of fun,” or those easy things to say. But the truth is it really was a dream come true for me to go to Costa Rica with kids. And husband. Yes, the husband too. He really wants to return there without the children, and I do too, but since they’re getting older so quickly, and they’re finally at an age when they can remember and appreciate our experiences together, I am eager to have as many of those experiences as we can before this brief window closes. Family travel can be truly magical. We have to do it while we can!

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Sunset on our last evening

The special thing about Costa Rica was the relaxed wonder we all felt while exploring there. There is a saying, “Pura Vida!” that locals say to each other and to visitors. It is a way of life, a greeting, and a wish. It translates to “pure life,” but what it really means is, “I’m doing okay and you’re going to be okay too.” At least that’s how I interpret it, after listening to so many locals tell me what it means to them. How can you not feel that way, when you’re surrounded by so much beauty?

Pura vida!

New Location for Watermelon Festival August 13 & 14 [Win Tickets!]

Enter to 4 win tickets to the 54th Watermelon Festival!
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Southern California is a great place to celebrate food. Coming up on August 13 & 14, the Watermelon Festival will take place at the Hansen Dam Soccer Field – it’s a 54-year-long tradition!

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I have to confess, I hadn’t heard of this one before, but that’s just another instance of being a tourist in my own town, something that I just love about Los Angeles. There’s always something new to discover, even if you’ve lived here for 20 years!

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As with other food festivals, the Watermelon Festival is a great family event. The two-day fair will feature free watermelon, food, carnival rides, games, contests, live entertainment, and a Kids Zone.

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And of course, there will be watermelon related hijinks! There’s a carving contest, a seed spitting contest, and a watermelon relay. You can also stroll the booths at the arts & crafts marketplace. Live entertainment will include a Battle of the Bands and the Melon-Dramatic Puppet Theater.

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Our family is looking forward to checking out this new-to-us event. As you can see, my kids really like watermelon!

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And I’m giving away a pack of 4 tickets to a lucky reader! Simply leave a comment on this post (remember to include your email address, it will not be displayed) by Sunday, August 7 at 11:59 PM to enter. Winner will be drawn randomly and contacted by email Monday August 8 to arrange mailing of tickets. Good luck!

Watermelon Festival

August 13-14, 2016
11AM – 10PM Saturday
12PM – 10PM Sunday
Hansen Dam Soccer Field
114800 Foothill Blvd.
Lake View Terrace
Tickets: $10 adults, $6 kids 3-12, FREE kids 2 and under
Website: watermelonfest.org