We settled in slowly. Because we'd planned the trip late, in typical fashion, all that was available to us was the single nicest lodging in the place, a house called the Villa Mar, just uphill from the main resort. (Costa Azul has 28 hotel rooms, all with an ocean view, that are simple and okay but showing their age, as well as eight condos that big families would do well to look into. Large, surprisingly beautiful expat houses can also be rented in the hills and along the beach around the resort, a neighborhood known to locals as Gringolandia.) With two bedrooms, high ceilings, many couches, and a long porch overlooking the sea, our villa practically begged us to stay put. So we hung out a bit, sleeping in and discovering that the guest manual wasn't exaggerating when it warned about the little scorpions that sneak in from the adjoining woods. (We might never have noticed the one on the wall near Margot's side of the bed, except that Asa has an eye for arthropods. Trapped without incident, it survived in a Baggie for days and days. In case of stings, which we never heard of anyone suffering during our stay, a good hospital is right in town.)
There were many families with young children about, and all of us quickly met. None had chosen the pricey package that the resort tries to sell, with all meals and the children's program included, and none regretted it, with one caveat. It turned out that unless you bought the package, Costa Azul did not guarantee a kids' camp every day—the coordinators might be taking a day or two off. Fortunately, by the time our kids were ready to spend a few hours away from us, Costa Azul was ready, too. Their young counselor, Daly (short for "Dalila" and pronounced "dolly"), who had grown up right in town and dressed in surfer wear, delighted Nell with poolside crafts projects that involved a little Spanish—learning how to say "horse" (caballo), for example, and then making one out of clay. When the group got too hot (and covered with paint), it was time for a swim and then a hike along the resort's jungle trail; or, another day, a walk into San Pancho to see a monkey and sample the local lollipops. Margot and I rode mountain bikes, swam, napped, and read on the beach.
The whole family went on a daylong excursion to San Cristóbal estuary at San Blas, and from our small launch we saw owls, crocodiles, snakes, herons, anhingas, iguanas, a giant termite nest, and the furry mammal called a coatimundi. Lunch was at a backwoods restaurant on an astonishingly clear natural pool called La Tovara, where those of us awaiting our meals—cheese quesadillas, red-snapper tacos—could swing high over the water on a trapeze and plunge into the drink as other diners watched. Asa startled us by leaping off the six-foot platform and bobbing up thrilled.
With the kids happily returning to their program the next day, Margot headed to a Mexican market 40 minutes away in the untouristy town of La Peñita, and I was free to take a surfing lesson, my first. Our group climbed into vans en route to the nearby beach at Sayulita. (The beach at Costa Azul is lovely, but the waves are generally too rough for beginners, whether surfers or swimmers.) Most of the students taught by Aaron, our very freckled instructor from Quebec, were teenagers, part of a group of families from Laguna Beach, almost all with surfer-businessman fathers. The California parents looked on approvingly as we placed surfboards in the sand and, while lying on them, rehearsed the motions of paddling and making a fast turn for the shore when a wave approached, and the graceful, gradual standing-up.