The Caribbean coast of Costa Rica is where it’s at, with “it” being beautiful beaches, insanely lush jungle wildlife, and that enviable, mellow Tico lifestyle.

My family spent a week there in December, at a vacation rental called Congo Bongo in tiny Manzanillo—Puerto Viejo is about 15 minutes north. Manzanillo is down near the tip of Costa Rica, close to the border of Panama. It’s a sleepy fishing village, located within the Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife and Marine Refuge.

Manzanillo is a popular day trip for locals—buses from the nearest city, Limon, disgorged a beachful of people on the weekend mornings, and families picnicked among the coconut trees and frolicked in the water. There are plentiful national parks nearby, with beautiful nature walks through the jungle. Cahuita National Park, about 40 minutes north, afforded us views of sweet-faced, curious capuchin monkeys and carefully camouflaged insects.

The days generally went like this: wake up, hit the beach for a morning swim. (Are Caribbean waters always this warm? Mindblowing for this west coaster.) Explore the nearby flora and fauna, sample the local beer (Imperial) over lunch, more swimming along various stretches of beach, then cocktail hour while gazing at flickering fireflies. Lounging in hammocks was another daily event. It was a delight to have our own kitchen, stocked with crucial appliances like a blender (read: frozen cocktails). We would pick up fresh fish in nearby Puerto Viejo and delicious tropical fruit from roadside stands—then cook it all over a grill. The howler monkeys howled deep into the night, and sloths did their slothful thing high up in the trees.

A visit to the Jaguar Rescue Center was a lovely, kid-friendly event; no jaguars, but it was great entertainment to get a look at ocelots, toucans, caymans, red eye tree frogs, and more extremely poisonous snakes than I feel comfortable thinking about. After hearing about those vipers, in particular the terrifying fer-de-lance—the most poisonous snake in Costa Rica—hiking through the jungle in flip flops became a little less palatable. But no one succumbed to the deadly venom.

This video by Joe Baur, shot in and around Puerto Viejo, pretty much sums it up.