Food, drink, film and other random thoughts from The Lone Star State.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Manuel Antonio

Wow, I'm going to need to wrap up this Costa Rica thread before I completely forget the details.

Manuel Antonio is the everything area of Costa Rica. By that I mean that there will be something for everyone. Whether your thing is lounging by the beach, exploring the jungle's wildlife, adventure sports or pretending to be EuroTrash and hoping from overdone spa to overdone spa and bar to bar, you will find it here.

One thing I loved about this area was how easy it was to navigate on foot. There is only one road and it leads either to the neighboring city of Quepos or the Manuel Antonio National Park. Beware, the hill coming and going is about a 30% grade, so its not for everyone.

Beach, Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica

White Faced Monkeys, Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica

Sunbathing Iguana, Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica

Toucans, Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica

Aside from the zipline, which I highly recommend, the other must do item in this area is the Manuel Antonio National Park. Almost all of my photos of wildlife came from the tour of the park. You can walk it yourself but it better to hire a guide, they will point out many things that you will miss on your own. Plus, they are usually very entertaining. Our guide was great, Paul Gonsalves (506-27773442), he was definitely the alpha guide and I'll leave it at that :)

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Tuesday, January 19, 2010


After spending a few days based in San Jose I boarded a bus to Manuel Antonio. Manuel Antonio is the most popular beach destination. Calling the area a beach community is probably a misnomer since only part of the area's appeal is beach related. The jungle and rivers also appeal and they do so in the form of adventure sports. I tried just about every activity: rappeling, waterfall repelling, ziplining, hiking and so on but my favorite was the zip line.

After being outiftted and walking a bit to the first platform I came face to face with the first jump. The first one was kind of weird, if only because I had no idea how it would feel to fly through the air attached to a pulley, fastened to a steel cable, hundreds of feet off the ground. I'm not afraid of heights but I am afraid of falling, arms and legs wildly flailing about and screaming like a 10 year old girl, to my death.

Blah, blah, blah -- just jump.

In a nutshell, its super fun!

Titi Canopy Tours is the way to go for an intro to ziplining. Their run is 12 lines and takes about 2 hours. The crew is great! Each of the four guys will go first down the line. 2 on either end of the line will make sure you get on and off safely. Oh, and the camera guy will be there to capture any and all of your mistakes so your friends can point and laugh later!

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Monday, January 18, 2010

Grecia y Sarchi

Before we move on to the beach area, Manuel Antonio, there are a pair of smaller cities that earned honorable mention.

Grecia is a small town, very small, but they have at least two things that are interesting. One is the sweetened condensed milk treats they make. Sometimes mixed with cocoa, sometimes coconut, these treats are so dense and sweet that they put fudge to shame. The other is a church made entirely from metal.

Apparently, the community here became annoyed with rebuilding this church everytime an earthquake rolled through. So, on their final iteration, they decided to build it out of metal. Hard to tell from the paint job, but it is indeed steel.

Metal Church, Grecia, Costa Rica

This "Halloween Beetle" decided it liked my neighbor's Kindle.

Halloween Beetle, Grecia, Costa Rica

Sarchi is known for one thing, Ox Carts. Of course they are still in use, don't be silly! But these are hand painted, and beautifully so, so you might not want to use them to transport your coffee harvest into town. If I had a place to put one of these, I would have brought one home.

Ox Cart Wheel, Sarchi, Costa Rica

World's Largest Ox Cart, Sarchi, Costa Rica

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Tuesday, January 12, 2010


It comes as no surpise to anyone that I would visit a coffee plantation. Doka Estate was a fascinating half-day, if only to see the whole coffee production cycle.

I had never seen a coffee plant before. Interesting that they first grow them in small, protective cages before transplanting them into the ground. Noone would tell me why beyond the vague and general - it ensures their survival. Coffee fruit (the beans are inside) are deep red when ready to be picked. I picked a few and squished out the seed, which to my surprise was almost white. I guess roasting is actually essential :)

Coffee Cages, Doka Estate, Costa Rica

Coffee Plant, Doka Estate, Costa Rica

But before the coffee can be roasted, it must first be dried. This they do in big open areas. The coffee guy rakes the beans over and over all day long. Thanks coffee guy, us addicts really appreciate your efforts!

Coffee Dry Out, Doka Estate, Costa Rica

The rest of the story is roasting and optional grinding. Interestingly the coffee guy basically vilified decaf coffee as if it were a destructive force send straight from hell. I had never heard anyone so opposed. Of course, I agreed, coffee sans caffiene is just, well, brown water.

Coffee Guy Grinds It, Doka Estate, Costa Rica

Doka Estate shares coffee mafia status in Costa Rica with another company, Cafe Brit. While I thought both had great coffees I liked a smaller local roaster better. We'll get to them later when we visit Manuel Antonio.

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Sunday, January 10, 2010


The next volcano I visited was Poás. The Poás volcano is park of a national park. As you can imagine, being a national park, it is far more comercialized that others. However, the scenery is much more dramatic. What looks like clouds hovering over the volcano, is actually the volcano bubbling away.

Poás Volcano

If your up to it, there is a walking trail about 3/4 mile long that leads up to a beautiful lake. Don't be fooled though, this path looks innocuous enough, however, it is about a 30% grade all the way up. I saw many people stop and turn around. I thought about it but refused to let it get to me.

Poás Trail

Poás Lake

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Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Lankester Gardens

We made one more stop before returning to the big city, the Lankester Botanical Gardens. A total must see, if only because of the 1200 varieties of orchids found in the country, half of them can be seen here.

Jardín Botánico Lankester, near Cartago, Costa Rica

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Orosi Valley

Continuing down the volcano, we spent some time in the Orosi valley. The first stop was to see the most important church in Costa Rica, Basilica de Nuestra Senora de Los Angeles. As the story goes, before the church was built, on its site, a young girl found a small figure of the Virgin Mary holding an infant Jesus. She took it home only to find the figure was back at the site the next morning. No matter where they took the figure it somehow returned over and over to the same site. The towns people decided it was a sign to build the church at that exact site.

Basilica de Nuestra Senora de Los Angeles, Cartago, Costa Rica

In August there is a massive 1.5 million person visitation of this church ( in a town that only has 4000 residents). The truly faithful traverse "the path", a 22 kilometer stretch, on their knees. Yeah, they crawl. They bring silver figures of body parts that need to be cured.

Leg Figures @ Basilica de Nuestra Senora de Los Angeles, Cartago, Costa Rica

I saw a couple of ladies crawling up the aisle of the church, both had small silver figures of a head in their hands, which they placed at an altar. I really wanted to take a picture of the whole progression but it felt wrong.

Later we had lunch. The patio overlooked some beautiful scenery and the food was excellent. Every meal in Costa Rica, including breakfast, comes with black beans and rice. Sometimes separately, sometimes mixed together into what is known as Gallo Pinto. This lunch was no different. We also had a delicious Dorado and carmelized plantains with lime and butter.

La Casona del Cafetal, Orosi, Costa Rica

After lunch we completed our descent off the volcano. We stopped briefly to see the oldest church in Costa Rica. It was small and unassuming but still amazing, since it was the only structure to survive the many earthquakes in the region since it was built in the early 1700's.

Iglesia de San Jose Orosi, Orosi, Costa Rica

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Monday, January 04, 2010


While in San Jose I took day trips to other nearby locations. My first was to the Irazú Volcano. This day also included my first exposure to another element of Costa Rican culture - nicknaming. If Costa Ricans like you, you will know it because they will give you a nickname straight away, usually something to do with a physical characteristic. Within 5 minutes I got mine from the tour guide, I was El Rubio (the blonde).

With my new name in tow, El Rubio set out to see Irazú.

I'm not sure why I'm fascinated with volcanoes, the large protruding masses of instability which at any moment could bring total destruction to those in its path, but I am. Its odd really, those characteristics in a person would cause them to be systematically removed from my life.

Anyway, Irazú, like most volcanoes in Costa Rica, are mostly shrouded in wispy clouds. However, I was able to catch a couple of shots as the clouds momentarily broke away. The whole site is eerie. What is left of the volcano is a deep water-filled crater. One side is hilly with dense plant life. The other side is a flat, black swatch of land resembling something like the surface of the moon. Guess which side caught the fury of the last eruption.

Volcano Crater, Irazú, Costa Rica

Flat Black Side, Irazú, Costa Rica

The trip up to Irazú is an experience in itself. The country side is beautiful. On the way up the side of the volcano, I was mesmerized by the vegetation and the many small, hidden villages that would inexplicably appear at a turn in the road. I was so engrossed with one side of the road that I missed many things until we came back down.

For instance, this random hotel and restaurant combination that is literally in the middle of nowhere.

Random Hotel and Restaurant, Irazú, Costa Rica

When I saw this collection of empty but well preserved buildings, I asked the tour guide what it was. An old leper colony, he said. LEPER COLONY? Yes, apparently there was an active leper colony here until the 40's. I had them stop the bus so I could trudge up a muddy hill to get this shot. The wispy fog hovering over the tops of the trees gave it the appropriate creepy feeling. Not to mention there was nothing else around this complex as far as the eye could see. There was no sound whatsoever but the wind. The tour guides were uncharacteristically UNchatty about the leper colony or what it was being used for these days. Somethings might be better left undiscovered.

Decommissioned Leper Colony, Irazú, Costa Rica

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Sunday, January 03, 2010

San Jose

Everyone told me to avoid Costa Rica's capital city, San Jose. "Oh just skip it, its loud, busy, dirty and dangerous!"

Oh ok. Sounds like every major city in Latin America. Advice appreciated but rejected. And I'm glad I didn't listen. 60% of Costa Rica's population live in and around San Jose. It seemed to me that if I wanted first hand experience with the real people of Costa Rica I would need to spend some time in San Jose. This is one of the main reasons I travel outside the US.

San Jose is absolutely loud, dirty and busy, so there was no disappointment there. Dangerous? More so than Dallas or Houston, less so than Rio or Mexico City. I followed common sense rules for travel and had no bad experiences. However, I would not recommend walking long distances in the city at night alone if you don't know Spanish very well; petty theft is relatively common downtown.

Downtown San Jose has a density of museums which can be seen in one day on foot. This is a nice way to spend either the first or last day in the country. The history of Costa Rica is very well documented in these museums and they will give you a clear understanding of Tico culture. I particularly liked the Pre-Colombian Gold, Jade and National Museums.

Museo National, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo National is located in an old bullet ridden fort, an artifact from the country's civil war in 1948. Ironically housed, since Costa Rica no longer has a military. It is the most comprehensive collection of art and history, if you only have time for one museum.

Museo National, San Jose, Costa Rica

Downtown proved to be the best place to find the typical Costa Rican meals. Sodas (small takeaway restaurants) were gold mine for me. I could get the national dish of casado or arroz con pollo for about $3. My meals in San Jose for 4 days were less than $35, and they were extremely good!

Two steps away from the busiest square is the stately and peaceful Gran Hotel de Costa Rica. A wonderful place to momentarily escape the rush-rush and just sip a cup of coffee.

Gran Hotel de Costa Rica, Downtown San Jose

I learned in San Jose that Costa Rican men have a full contact culture. By that I mean they will take every opportunity to touch you. I found it typical for them to grab my arm or thigh while talking to me. I also experienced arms draped around my shoulders, pats on the butt, light pinches and hugs that last a little too long by North American standards. None of this was a come on, its just the way they are.

Also, I learned there is a small but visible Chinese population in Costa Rica, I think they immigrated in the 40's and 50's. I saw the second and third generation of these immigrants wandering around town. I found it very disarming to see people of Chinese ancestry speaking beautiful Spanish. I don't know why that surprised me, I mean it is their native language. A bonus, great Chinese food in Costa Rica, not something I expected in Central America!

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Friday, January 01, 2010


I'm back! After I get used to speaking English again I'll start posting about Costa Rica, lol :)