Casa Corcovado: This Jewel is More Polished Then Ever

Corcovado MacawThe Osa Peninsula has always been a rustic place.  But that is a good thing.  National Geographic magazine spent some time here a dozen or so years ago, and called Corcovado National Park the “most biologically diverse place on earth”.  High praise indeed.  But I think it could be true.  We have always enjoyed our visits here.

Though I have had to warn my less experienced travelers that this is a remote place.  Sometimes, the accommodations can be rustic and food choices limited.  You can go a whole day without power.  But the payoff is the dazzling variety of nature and world class hiking in the primary rainforest.  My advice has always been to “suck it up”, deal with some of the issues and just get out there.  It is worth it in the end.

A huge exception to this rule has always been Casa Corcovado.  I tell my guests that the folks here make going to an unforgiving environment as comfortable as possible.  I also tell them that this lodge is very well run, and fires on all eight cylinders.  My guest reviews have consistently been very positive.

We like to inspect every property we offer at least once every couple of years.  More often than that if we happen to be in the region.  We have been in business since 1992, and we have a pretty good network of suppliers.  So most hotels are gracious enough to offer us a short stay to get to know their property, so that I can properly represent it to our clients.

If I stay in a hotel for a few days, I will always take a day to check out what might be new and interesting in the area.  I also look in on my existing suppliers to make sure that they are still offering a consistent product.

But this is a tough one.  Getting to this part of the Osa requires round trip airplane and boat rides.  When you stay at any of the lodges down here, food has to be included.  Most of the time, there are tours included too. There really aren’t any other options, so it all becomes part of the package.  A free room for a night is one thing.  But these extra expenses make it hard for me to ask for a freebie just so we can come down and look around.  Consequently, I had not been onsite at Casa Corcovado in a decade.

I have worked with the management team here for years.  The owner Steve and his manager in San Jose, Geovanny have always been terrific.  Most of our contact is with the folks in the reservations department.  We always find everyone on their team to be extremely professional.  But more than anything, they are also just really nice folks, and a pleasure to work with.  When Geovanny heard I might want to come down with my wife, he immediately invited us.  Of course, we gratefully accepted.

When the day came, we flew down from San Jose on Sansa.  We had fun flying along the coast and snapping pictures of Manuel Antonio from the air.  We were greeted at the Palmar Sur airport by Jacob, who was to be our guide for the next three days.  He Casa Corcovado Welcome Center (Before boarding the boat to the lodgepacked us into the van, and we drove through the plantations to the lodge’s “Hacienda” welcome center on the Rio Sierpe.  This was our chance to relax for a few minutes with a cool beverage, use the restroom, etc.  We sat at a table on the river and watched the local boat traffic.  Everything from modern boats used by the lodges, to some old fishing boats that didn’t look very seaworthy at all!  We waited here while some other staff members arrived to begin their stay at the lodge.  They all have their own schedules.  They commute in and out, and stay for days or weeks at a time.  We had a pretty full boat by the time we pulled away from the dock.

We rode down the river towards Drake Bay.  The driver diverted from the main river and into the mangroves that grow thick along the river near the ocean.  We slowly navigated the narrow canals, while Jacob explained the importance of the mangroves in the local ecosystem.  Very cool.  I’ve been in a mangrove forest before.  But these were extensive.

We eventually cleared the river mouth and crossed Drake Bay to make a landing at the beach in front of Casa Corcovado.  It was high tide, and we had to roll up our shorts and hop out into knee deep water.  But nothing too difficult, and the guides stayed close to prevent any mishap.  We hadn’t even reached the lodge yet, and we were already enjoying our adventure.  We left our luggage to the staff, and boarded the tram (actually a trailer pulled by a tractor) that took us up to the lodge for lunch.

Wow.  Things had changed.  One of the things that I have always appreciated about Steve, is that he is not a guy who is content to lay on a beach.  He always has a new project, or an idea to improve the guest experience. He closes the lodge for two and a half months during the rainiest months of the year.  The staff members that want to take vacations, do so at this time.  But the lodge employs a lot of local folks who depend on the lodge to support their families.  They can’t afford a ten week vacation.  So they are welcome to stay on to help with Steve’s many projects and general maintenance

Since I had stayed here ten years ago, there have been massive improvements to this already stellar lodge.  There was a new pool to compliment the existing spring fed pool.  The open air bar had been expanded and is now used for lunch and dinner when there is low occupancy. The old kitchen building is gone, and replaced by a beautiful new restaurant with high ceilings and stained glass windows.  The staff area has been improved for their comfort, and all of the guest bungalows have been enlarged and reconfigured.  They have also built some new Jr. Suites for family groups.  They have improved their trail access, and rebuilt their little sunset rancho where drinks are served every evening.  Oh yes, they are off the grid and generate their own reliable electricity.  We were blown away.  This wasn’t even the same facility from ten years ago.

Casa Corcovado Honeymoon bungalow

After a delicious lunch and brief orientation, we were shown to our Honeymoon bungalow.  It was stunning.  There was a huge four poster bed with high quality linens.  There was a large vanity area with closet and shelf space.  The commode was in it’s own water closet, and there was a huge outdoor shower (with hot water, of course).  This was lots of fun.  It was lit with blue LEDs, and was a great place to shower and look at the stars.  There was also the usual compliment of quality grooming products and a stocked honor bar.  Not bad for the middle of the rainforest!  I do have to mention that their fragile power system can’t support air conditioning.  But the evenings cool down quite a bit, and we survived very well with the strong ceiling fan over the bed.

Our luggage had been brought up from the boat, and placed in the bungalow.  We had some free time to move in, then put on our bathing suits to check out the new pool.  We enjoyed a beverage and lounged about for an hour or so, before going back to our room to change.

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By then, it was time to stroll down to the sunset rancho for a margarita before dinner.  This became a ritual every evening.  This is an active place.  Plan on expending a lot of energy having fun here.  A beautiful sunset and adult beverage is always a great way to finish a busy day.  They serve some good boca’s (appetizers) at the rancho too.

Corcovado Sunset

We happened to hit the lodge during a lull and there were only two other people at dinner.  They were leaving the next morning.  So we had the place pretty much to ourselves.  Jacob stopped by to give us the plan for the next day.  We were going on a day long hike in Corcovado National Park.  The lodge was bringing us lunch at the ranger station.  It was going to be just the two of us and Jacob.  A private tour.

We were up early the next morning for a delicious breakfast.  The meals here are not buffets, we could order whatever we wished from the menu.  Jacob was waiting when we finished.  We went over to the “guide shack” to be outfitted Squirrel Monkey Corcovado National Parkwith rubber boots and walking sticks.  Off we went into the woods.  It was muddy, and there was a fresh fallen tree blocking one of the paths.  But it was easy enough to get around.   This day was so much fun.  Jacob was an excellent guide and interesting guy.  Smart and well traveled.  He knew his stuff, and seemed happy to realize that we wanted to know everything we could.  He worked really hard at finding all sorts of flora and fauna.  We soaked it up.  Birds, monkeys, poison dart frogs, odd trees, fruits, insects, and flowers.  It was a great morning.  We stopped for an hour at the ranger station for lunch.  Jacob cut Poison Dart Frog - Corcovado National Parkfruit and laid out our full lunch of fruit drinks, lunch meats, fresh bread (baked at the lodge), gallo pinto, cheeses, etc.  He then disappeared for a short while to visit with his ranger friends.  We relaxed some, and checked out the beach.

After a bit, he came back and we started our walk back along a river to the

Tiger Crane-Corcovado National Parkwaterfall.  I had been here a decade ago, and it was as beautiful as I remembered.  There were several pools downstream.  One of them was good for swimming.  Another held a seven foot long crocodile.  He was in a pool upstream from us, and Jacob assured us that it was okay.  The guides apparently knew this fellow.  So we took a nervous quick dip (it was hot and humid, we really wanted to cool oCrocodile - Corcovado National Parkff).  Jacob didn’t join us.  But I did notice that he had positioned himself where he could keep an eye on both us and our croc friend.  So I felt a little better.

We eventually headed back to the lodge the same way we had come.  When we arrived back at the ranger station, we found several huge scarlet macaws foraging in a tree.  We were able to get very close, and take lots of pictures.  When we arrived back at the lodge we were two very happy campers.

One quick note, this hike ain’t for wimps.  Don’t get the wrong idea, it isn’t an iron man competition.  But I don’t want to give the impression that this is just a stroll in the park either. I’m a middle aged (if I live to be 120) guy, who does light to moderate exercise every week.  I had no problem handling it, so I think most people can do it.  But this is an active destination, and it is hot and humid.  We had sweat right through our clothes by lunch.  You will find yourself stepping over felled trees and branches, wading in mud, and navigating the occasional narrow path.  By the end of the day, we were a little worn out.  But it was worth every single second.

After our hike, Melissa grabbed a shower, and went to get the massage she had booked the day before.  I toured the property with the resident manager, Steven.

He showed me all the improvements, and the various accommodations.  I particularly liked the Jr. Suites, which were new since my last visit.  These are two adjoining one bedroom apartments each with 1½ baths.  They can be combined.  With the sleeper sofas open, you end up with an accommodation with two private bedrooms, two sleeping areas in the living rooms, two full baths, and two half baths.  Perfect for a family group.  After my tour, I went back to the pool for a dip and to wait for my wife.

Melissa came back energized and gushing about her massage.  She said it was the best she ever had.  I immediately booked mine for the next evening.  This evening’s routine was much the same.  We had drinks at the Sunset Rancho and another wonderful meal.  Jacob stopped by our table to tell us we were going snorkeling at Isla del Cano the next day.  A very nice couple had come in that day, and we had spied them in the pool earlier.  We met them at dinner and found out that they were Costa Ricans, who were also involved in tourism.  They were coming with us on our tour the next day.  Jacob had also offered to take Melissa and I out on a morning bird tour before breakfast.

That night, Melissa was awakened by a horrible racket.  There was some kind of animal carnage going on in the nearby woods.  From her description, the guides thought that a puma or some other wildcat had gotten hold of a monkey.  It goes to show how close to nature the lodge is.  It also made me think about those wildlife films we have all seen.  The prey always gives in so easy.  That apparently wasn’t the case here.  But then again, I slept through it.  I’ve also once slept through an earthquake in Costa Rica.  Go figure.

Our absolutely Incredible Guide, JacobWe were up early in the morning to walk the lodge property with Jacob.  What a fun way to work up an appetite for breakfast.  We had seen the day before that this guy had a good eye, as he was spotting animals every where.  He proved it again this morning.  He would hear a bird call from a couple hundred meters away, and in a half a minute he would have it sighted in on his amazing scope.  We had a least a dozen good sightings, then it was time for breakfast and to board the boat to the island.  Along with our boat captain and Jacob, we had the other two guests and another guide with us.  We had a nice morning snorkeling with lots of colorful schools of fish. There was a beautiful little beach, and we had fun shooting a video of the hermit crabs for our grandson.

But the big adventure of the day was yet to come, as we were riding back in the boat.  I was very relaxed, and quite content.  I was literally thinking that I could not imagine a better day.  Then a huge humpback whale breached in front of our boat.  Right where I was looking.  This has to be one of the most spectacular things I have ever seen.  The whole boat erupted with shouts of “Whale!’  We hung around for about 15 minutes, and it surfaced a few more times.  The guides were very happy.  This was the first of the season, and there was a lot of chatter between the staff about it at the lodge.  Once we arrived back at the lodge, we walked along the shoreline to where they had set up lunch under a palm frond pergola on their pretty little beach.  We ate with our new friends, and the guides said that we were welcome to stay and swim.  But I had to drag myself away.  I had booked my massage with Cynthia, and I wasn’t going to miss it.

I don’t know how to describe it.  How do you describe a massage?  But I have to agree with Melissa.  Absolutely the best massage ever.  Afterwards, Cynthia had brewed some tea.  Melissa joined us and we had a chance to chat.  Cynthia turned out to be a delightful young woman.  She had went to a massage school in San Jose, and supplemented her training with some Hungarians that hold workshops in Costa Rica from time to time.  She was also a yoga instructor, and told us that she was taking her dream trip during the break.  She was going to India with about 15 other yoga enthusiasts for a month.  She was beaming.  We beamed for her. It is always a wonderful thing to see someone follow their passion.

All in all.  We were thrilled to see that Casa Corcovado had morphed into a luxury resort, with a minuscule environmental footprint.  They are truly off the grid.  They are generating their own electricity, purifying their own water, and dealing with their own sewage and trash.  It really is an amazing model of sustainable development.  The surrounding forest is untouched and the management is a responsible steward of the nature they share.  They take their responsibility seriously.

We reluctantly packed up the next morning for the journey back to San Jose.  We were not ready to go.  We were ready to move in.  We wanted to hang out with our new friends, eat great food, and hike in the woods.  But our real lives were calling.  So we left happy, and appreciative of the gifts working in this industry gives to us.  And we hope to do another “inspection” sometime soon.

Sunset Margaritas

Cell Phones Are Now Available to Foreign Tourists

Many of my customers ask me if their US cell phones will work in Costa Rica.  My answer is an unqualified “maybe”.  It depends on the carrier.  The government owned phone company finally has some competition, and the game seems to be changing weekly.  But even if your US phone does work, it will be expensive.

However, I recently found something pretty cool.  I was able to purchase a prepaid cell phone in the San Jose airport for twenty bucks, and it came with 300 minutes of local calls.  Actually, the phone was free and I just bought the time.

This is kind of a big deal.  Until lately, non residents were not allowed to own phones.  We were there in December 2011, and heard that this was now possible.  We spent half a day driving around Liberia, and couldn’t find anything.  But the San Jose airport kiosk was fairly new.

The phone is able to accept international calls.  This is really great for a tourist that needs to be available if there is an emergency at home.  It is lso handy if you get lost in your rental car.  You can call your hotel for directions.

I was able to take it a little further.  Since I spend so much time in Costa Rica, I have always needed a way to keep in touch with my office and family.

For several years, I have had an 800 number that can be forwarded to any phone in the world.  It is only nine cents a minute to Costa Rica from the US.  When we are at our house in Costa Rica, I forward the number there.  I also forward it to hotels I am staying at.  Anyone with the number knows the drill, and will ask for my room.

I also have a callback service.  I use my laptop to trigger a “callback” to whatever number I have available.  The phone rings, and I have a US line.  I can then call anywhere in the US for fifteen cents a minute.  This works great at my house, but it is a little tricky at a hotel.

So I set up both services to be used with my new cell phone.  It worked like a charm.  This last trip was a work trip.  I attended the annual travel convention, and spent a couple of days inspecting hotels.

My wife and assistant were able to call me on my 800 number whenever necessary, and I was able to call home without any issues.  I was travelling over Mother’s Day, and it sure came in handy.  These calling services cost almost nothing to set up, and you can do everything online.  But most folks probably won’t bother with that.

But these phones could be very useful.  So I just thought I would share!  It is also important to note that these are SIM card phones.  So you can use them while travelling in other countries.  You just need to buy a new card when you arrive in the country.

But even if you used it for only one trip to Costa Rica, I think the peace of mind is worth the small cost.

Tiles, Pottery, and a Lotta Bull

Note from Pat: This is not about a fascinating subject.  It is about buying kitchen tile. But lots of folks ask me about home ownership, and living in Costa Rica.  This just shows how something mundane and routine, can become complicated and sometimes an adventure!

“We need a new kitchen”  Yes, I know.  This has been my wife’s mantra for a couple of years.  It comes up every time we talk about Monteverde, where we own a small vacation home.  I love my wife, and she is definitely not a nag.  But if Monteverde comes up in the conversation, she mentions the kitchen.

We renovated our cute little Tico style home when we purchased it a few years ago.  A contractor friend and a couple of guys from his crew came down from New Orleans to get the ball rolling.  One of the projects was a kitchen counter top made from huge planks of beautiful local hardwood.

The only problem was that the wood had not been dried.  As it aged, it “cupped” or curved.  It got to the point that even a wine glass wouldn’t stand up straight.  The hot plate wobbled, and forget about mixing anything in a bowl.  Yes dear, we do need a new kitchen.

We had renovated our kitchen in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.  Our special order three bay sink arrived blemished, and the manufacturer sent us another.  They did not want the other one back.  The blemish wasn’t really that bad, so we put in in the attic.  It sat there for five years.  We eventually decided to bring it to Costa Rica, and did so a year ago.  We brought it down as checked baggage, for a big fee.  It had sat in our “bodega” ever since.  It was time to get something done.

We had met with a local contractor, Manuel Mata during our last visit.  We have used Manuel in the past, mostly for electrical projects.  But he is also known locally as a very skilled “constructor”.   He is also just a very friendly and easy going guy.

We outlined our plan, and asked for his input.  We settled on a slightly larger L shaped ceramic tile countertop, with shelves below.  Simple and functional.  All we had to do was purchase the tile, and coordinate his schedule with our next visit.  We have learned from experience that we want to be around when big projects are being done.

We arrived in Liberia on a Wednesday afternoon.  We had left New Orleans early and were already toasty from lack of sleep.  We still had to shop for tile, and hit the “gringo” grocery store for supplies.  We mentioned the tile to the rental car guy.  He told us to go to Santa Cruz, about 45 minutes away.  We could buy handmade tiles from Guatil.

Guatil is a locally famous little town, and Melissa and I had always wanted to visit.  They have been making pottery for at least 200 years.  Literally everyone in town is involved in this local folk art.

Tile from Guatil sounded great.  But that would add an hour and a half of driving to an already long day.  We decided that we would just shop in Liberia, before making the 2½ hour drive to Monteverde.

The first stop wasn’t promising.  The “ceramica” was either way too plain, or way too gaudy, or just weird.  Plain primary colors or fake wood.  Overly detailed fake marble abounded.  There was one tile that had water splashes printed over fake marble.  I had seen this pattern in every public urinal in the country.  I wasn’t putting it on my countertop!

We tried a few more places, and quickly realized that everyone had the same tile.  We finally found the gringo ceramic store.  Lots of beige and rough stone.  It was all expensive, and what you would find in a suburban McMansion.  Our home is simple and we like the rustic feel.  This wasn’t working for us either.  We finally threw in the towel, and drove to the house.

We met with Manuel the next morning.  He agreed to come the next morning to start demolishing the old kitchen and roughing in the new one.  We also learned that we needed some plumbing parts that were not available in our little town.

So Melissa and I decided to take a day trip.  It would be fun day.  We would leave early on Friday, and buy the plumbing parts in Liberia, then go to Guatil for the tile.  Then we would finish the day with a stop at “Bob’s”, in the little beach town of Playa del Coco.

Bob’s place is actually named Papagayo Seafood.  Bob is the owner and chef, from Baton Rouge.  Local friends from the tourism business had taken us there years ago, and it is a favorite stop for us when we are in this part of the country.  Fresh fish and shrimp, done by a fellow Louisianan.  Well prepared and spicy.  Just our style.

This was shaping up to be fun excursion.  Plus if we got done early enough, we might even get an hour or two of beach time!  But I have been to Costa Rica enough to realize that maybe I was being a little optimistic.

We got a late start.  But the drive back down the mountain was very nice.  It was a beautiful clear day.  On the east side of the road, we saw one beautiful vista after another.  Rolling hills, huge green valleys, and an ever changing cloudscape playing over the mountains.  On the west side we could see all the way to the Golf of Nicoya.  Even after twenty years of visiting, I still marvel at these views.

We rattled down the bumpy road to Las Juntas, where we joined the Pan American highway.  This is THE major traffic artery in Costa Rica.  They had been repairing a bridge when we came in from the airport.  But we hit it right, and the delay had not been bad.  The bridge repairs were continuing this day too, but now they were also paving the road.  Again, we hit it right.  But we saw a two mile long delay in the oncoming lane.  We dreaded the return.

We had to knock around Liberia for over an hour before we found the plumbing parts, then it was on to Santa Cruz.   It was getting late in the day, but we figured that there might be a store that stocked Guatil tile.  So we asked around.  “Ceramica Senor?  Si, here is some that looks like wood.   No?   Here is one that looks like water splashes.  Perfect for your kitchen!”  We headed for Guatil.

Guatil was extremely fun and interesting.  The pottery from there is widely sold in Costa Rica.  So we were already familiar with this beautiful folk art.  We have a couple of pieces in our home, and have purchased some as gifts for friends.  But we knew little about the town.

We had heard that many years before, the community had gotten together to build a kiln for all to share.  But these days, it seemed that most folks had their own.  Just about every house had a wood pile, and a little igloo shaped stone kiln.  We stopped at one little “tiende” that had a group of guys working on pottery in back.

We asked for ceramica.  We were met with a blank stare.  The guy spoke passable English.  When he realized what we were asking for, he just shook his head.  The material was not durable enough for a countertop.  Maybe for a backsplash.  But they didn’t make tiles.

We still enjoyed our visit and he took us though the whole process.  Local clay of different colors is collected from around the region.  The pots are made from a clay that dries white.  Then thin layers of the desired colors of clay are applied with a paintbrush.  We watched as one of the artisans “painted” a monkey on a pot with clay.  Then the clay dries for a few more days.  They go back with a stylus, and cut grooves down to the different colored layers to finish the design.  The pot is then finished with wax, and fired.

The result is a wonderfully detailed piece of pottery.  Most of these are nature themed.  Monkeys, butterflies, waves, birds, etc.  There are some artesians making more abstract patterns as well.  We purchased a couple of small pieces.  Including one for my ever diligent assistant, Jennifer.

One of the fun things, was the tools they were using.  Whenever you find folks without a lot of money, you will be amazed at how well they improvise or re-purpose an item.  It was no different here.  We noticed that all the potter’s wheels were actually the flywheels from an old motorcycle engine.  The bearings made it spin smoothly, and the weight of the flywheel kept it going for a long time.  Very ingenious

But we still needed tile, and it was getting late.  So we continued our trek, and ended up in Nicoya.  We stopped at one store with more of the same old stuff, and found another high end “salon” or showroom.  We were met by a pretty and stylish young woman.  They had exactly what we wanted, small glazed coffee colored tiles.  They were more expensive then we planned, but we were getting desperate.  We told her what we wanted.  She said we could pick them up in five days.

This wouldn’t do!  We needed these now.  She saw our anguish.

I wish I could remember the name of this store.  I would love to tell her boss how sweet and helpful this young woman was.  She called a large store in downtown Nicoya, and though it was getting late, she told them we were on our way.  She gave us directions, and we dashed off.

Did you know that there are no street addresses in Costa Rica?  It’s true.  Our directions were “From the INS (national insurance) office go 400 meters west, the go 200 meters north”.   Usually, (but not always) 100 meters translates to one block.  We forget to even get the name of the store.

We hit downtown Nicoya at rush hour.  The main drag was a parking lot.  It seemed that one cop was trying to direct traffic for the entire town.

We picked our way through the traffic, and stopped a couple of times to ask local folks for directions to the INS office.  We just couldn’t find it, and the traffic was defeating us.  It was almost 5:00 PM.  We were getting tired and stressed.  We had not eaten since breakfast, and now we were not going to get tile.  It wasn‘t going well.

I have always told me wife that one of my many attributes is my “impeccable sense of direction”.  She always gives me a loving smile.

I don’t know how I pulled this off.  But I figured that I would just head four blocks west, and wing it.  I just made the turn and went.  Melissa was unconvinced, and told me so.  I told her not to worry, as the street kind of ended at a residential section.  I turned north.  I said the store should be right….here.  And there it was.  We had pulled up to “Pisas de la Bajura”.  A tile warehouse.  A big one.  Only 15 minutes before closing.

They must have thought that these two giddy gringos were on drugs.  They had lots of choices, and we were happy to say the least.  They had exactly what we were looking for.  We settled on a simple 6 inch terracotta tile, with a rustic edge for the countertop.  We chose an understated pattern with leaves and flowers for the backsplash.  Not a water splash patterned tile in the place.  And the prices were the best we had seen all day.  We left as happy campers.

Melissa was navigating, and had the map in her lap.  She pointed out that we were so far south that it didn’t make sense to go back through Liberia.  We should just drive twenty miles, and cross the Tempisque river bridge back to the mainland.  We would end up hitting the Pan American highway near Las Juntas.  At first, I resisted a little.  I wanted to go to Bob’s!

But I guess my impeccable sense of direction has rubbed off on her.  She pointed out that on a normal day, this was at least an hour shorter, maybe even quicker than that.  We would also miss most of the traffic jams due to the roadwork.  She had me there.

So instead of Bob’s, we got to eat at our favorite BBQ restaurant, Tres Hermanos.  This is at the corner of the bridge road and the Pan Am highway.  Ya know, nothing’ says good eatin’ like a twenty foot tall statue of an anatomically correct brahma bull.  Nothing says Happy Holidays, like putting a giant freakin Santa hat on it.

The construction traffic on the Pan Am highway was backed up way past the restaurant, but we slipped in from the side road.  We ordered up some drinks.  Melissa had the pork ribs, and I had a very good 16 ounce rib eye.  They cook over a real wood fire here, and really know what they are doing.  The owners are from Texas, and they even host an annual BBQ competition.   They even make thier own Texas style sausage.

While we ate and drank, we relaxed and watched the traffic.  It seemed that the stoppage alternated directions every thirty minutes.  We started to time the delays, and had another drink.  We did this to kill some time.  Plus after the day we had,  we really wanted another drink.

When we edged onto the road again, we were close to the actual bridge construction.  Less than a minute later, the traffic started to flow.  We breezed through, and turned off at Las Juntas for the ride back up the mountain.

We were tired, and felt every bump on the unpaved road.  But ya know, it had been a pretty awesome day!

The New Kitchen!

 

Taking our own Culinary Tour of Mal Pais / Santa Teresa

When you hear about this area, it is always about the great surfing.  The problem is that we are not surfers.  But we do have big fun eating!  We hit the mother lode here. 
 
There is a huge International community in this area, mostly European.  Every restaurant we ate in just rocked.  We found great value too.  All the meals described here were under $30.00 per person, and that often included a glass of wine.
 
In another post from last year, I raved about the food at Tropico Latino.  Is it possible that it could have gotten even better?  We had two meals here, and they were amazing.  Emiliano, the talented young chef from Florence, is still there.  We stuffed ourselves on antipasto with cheese and sausage imported from Italy, scratch made pasta, amazing beef carpaccio, fresh tuna, and more.  We ate our first two dinners here, and could have eaten here every night.  We really had to force ourselves to venture out to some of the other restaurants. Though we did return to enjoy some hand thrown pizzas and brochetta while we hung out at the pool a couple of afternoons.
 
Our server here one evening was Emiliano’s very lovely wife Luz.  She is a Tica (Costa Rican) with a diverse background.  She has traveled extensively in Europe and lived for a time in Italy with her husband.  She picked up several languages along the way.  We really enjoyed getting to know her a little bit, and having a Lemoncello with her at the end of our meal.  Anyway, we asked Luz where THEY go out to eat.  She directed us to a restaurant further down the road, owned by a Chilean chef.   We decided to go there the next night. 
 santa teresa sunset
The next night, we went to Las Brisas del Mar for drinks at sunset.  The climb up here was a little difficult for our little underpowered van.  Steep, rutted, and pot holed, the “road” here is really suited for a 4WD vehicle.  But there was a payoff at the end.  Las Brisas was an interesting place.  It features a huge deck, perched high up on a hillside.  This makes for a spectacular view of the sunset.  They also had a very creative drink menu.  The menus are hand printed on a chalk board that they move from table to table, and set up on some chairs (like an easel).  Some of the gang took the exotic drink route, I stuck with Bavaria Gold (my favorite local beer).  The hostess / server was very friendly, and took our drink order. 
 
Looking at our table of eight, she told us that we were really missing out if we didn’t eat there.  The food menu was also displayed on a chalk board, and it looked very ambitious.  But we were committed to our reservation at the restaurant that Luz recommended, so we had to decline.  But I will note this place for a future visit, and report back.  The menu was very promising, and the comfy laid back atmosphere was just our style.
 
The rain came during our first drink, and we had to desert the deck.  So we headed over to Restaurante Alma a little early.  It was a little deceiving.  It is a smallish place, and did not immediately give the appearance of somewhere you would expect amazing food.  But once we were seated at the sushi bar, I could look back to a very bustling kitchen.
Our host was Rodrigo, a very friendly guy with an air of sophistication.  We let him know that we had been referred by the folks at Tropico Latino’s restaurant, and he just beamed.  He knew our new friends well. 
We began by ordering drinks, and I noticed Pisco Sours on the menu.  I started to tell my gang about the friendly rivalry between Peru and Chili about the liquor, Pisco.  Both claim to have invented it, and both consider it their national drink.  Each thinks their Pisco is best. 
 
Well, I guess I was telling the Peruvian version of the story.  Rodrigo stepped in, and good naturedly filled in the blanks of my history of Pisco.  He also explained that Chilean Pisco was the best, and that to him, there was no dispute about the origin at all!  Now, I am not going to wade into those murky waters.  But his Pisco sour was one of the best I have ever had.
 
Dinner here was fabulous.  A very eclectic menu.  Sushi, Veal, Thai, and Seafood.  We had more great carpaccio.  I had a Thai Chicken Curry that had just the right level of spice.  My wife told me that her sushi was some of the best she had ever eaten.  I have never been a fan of veal, but I did sample from the other diners plates.  The marinated veal was very tender and flavorful.  I regret that I forgot to order the Peruvian ceviche that I spotted on the menu. This is a little different than the Costa Rica version.  I guess I have to go back.  This place was a home run.
 
moana lodge restOur other big meal, was at the restaurant at the Moana Lodge.  This is another place perched high up, and I have to give a caveat about the stairs.  You have to park in the parking lot, and take (literally) about 100 steps to get to the restaurant.  So be aware of this if climbing steps is an issue.  But the payoff is the fantastic view.  The open air setting, gives almost a 360 degree vista.  I would guess this would be another spectacular place for a sunset, and the restaurant has an elegant and modern feel.  We were there after dark, and watched the lightning play over the ocean.
 
We had a funny moment when ordering.  They serve a limited menu here.  The salad description said something about tumbleweeds.  We quizzed the waiter about this.  He told us that tumbleweeds were a plant from the US.  All but one skipped the salad course!  A tumbleweed salad did not sound very appetizing at all.  But when that lone salad arrived, we saw that the “tumbleweeds” were actually crispy little fried potato strings arranged in gorgonzola cheese.  Several of these accompanied a beautiful green salad.  More plates of this excellent starter were then ordered.  I loved mine.
 
I mentioned that the menu was limited, but everything on it was extremely good.  I had a simple, but well prepared skewer of huge jumbo shrimp and fresh veggies.  They were fresh, lightly seasoned, and perfectly cooked.  One of the offerings were two mini “slider” hamburgers.  Sounds weird, I know.  But I was happy to help my wife finish hers, and they were some tasty little morsels.  One of the other woman at the table had a small Angus steak.  North American style beef is a true rarity in Costa Rica.  I had a taste of hers, and it was very good.  Some members of our group ordered calamari.  I have never cared much for squid.  But those that had it were very pleased.  They said that it was not rubbery, but crisp and well seasoned.  Again, a restaurant I would return to.
 
Here are a couple quick hits on our smaller meals.
 
The Board Cafe.  Small little place on the main drag.  The proprietor was a friendly German woman.  The World Cup was on, and a couple of German expats had gathered there for breakfast and the game.  Fun little place.  Costa Ricans are dog friendly, and you often find them in restaurants.  The dog here was a beautiful and friendly Bull Mastif.  A gentle giant.
 
I had the French Toast, and was surprised to find very thick slices of bread rolled up tight and more savory than sweet.  Very different than I am used to, almost like a savory bread pudding.  But it was delicious, and the light touch of sweet syrup was perfect.  My wife had a huge breakfast burrito loaded with cheese and potatoes.  Exactly her style, and she was quite pleased.  It was so big, she had the other half for breakfast the next day. 
 
Playa Carmen Pizza.  Playa Carmen is the beach between Mal Pais and Santa Teresa.  We heard the pizza was good here, but that’s not what we came for.  We really just happened onto it when we were walking on the beach.  We were in our bathing suits, and had very little cash on us.  So we just ordered up some tuna carpaccio and guacamole and chips to go with a round of cold beers.  The tuna was a true disappointment.  Not very fresh at all.  In fact,  I was a little concerned about food safety.  The guacamole and chips were nothing special.  With all the great options around here, this is not a restaurant that I would recommend. 
 
Plus, this place has something weird going on.  They have huge stadium lights on poles for night surfing.  I am sure that the surfers like it.  But I can’t help thinking that thousands of watts of lights can’t be good for the local turtle population.  The coast in this area is home to lots of nesting turtles.  Most hotels make a point to keep the beachfront sides of their properties dark, in order to not disorient the turtles.  The restaurant here is locally owned, and their lack of concern surprised me.  The whole thing left me scratching my head.
 
Finally.  Let’s talk desert!  Two of the woman in our group walked to “town” for an afternoon of shopping.  They came across a bakery that they tell me was simply called “The Bakery” (I could use some help with this, I couldn’t find it in my Santa Teresa phone book). 
I don’t know where the owners are from, but I suspect that they have to be European.  The fare here was very much like I have found on our trips across the pond.  Our friends brought home a selection of beautiful pastries.  Fluffy eclairs, chocolate tarts, papaya cheesecake, a layered kinda chocolate mousse pie, and more.  All of us snacked on these for a couple of days both as deserts, and as a little treat with breakfast.
 
My wife and I are fortunate to live in New Orleans, a food paradise.  But we found it hard to leave Santa Teresa.  It is a rare treat to find an area with such a concentration of great eateries.  I realize that I have only scratched the surface here.  I can’t wait to go back for more research! 

Staying at the Beach House, Mal Pais

beach house verandasAdditional postings from this trip, and last year are found elsewhere in this blog.  Look for Mal Pais / Santa Teresa on the sidebar.
 
This year, we came back to Santa Teresa with a group of friends, and rented “The Beach House”.  This immediately adjoins the Hotel Tropico Latino, and has the same ownership.  So all of the facilities at the hotel (pool, restaurant, beach chairs, etc) are available to guests at the house.
 
beach house bathroomThe house slept our three couples and two “single” gals quite well.  The gals shared a first floor suite with two bedrooms with king beds.  Each bedroom opened onto the beachfront deck and had its own access to the bath.  One couple also had a first floor room with two beds, and private bath.  Again, it opened onto its own covered beachfront deck.  The other two couples had suites on the second floor, each with a king sized bed, private bath, and small beachfront porch.  One featured a second bedroom (double bed) and the bath here was amazing.  Double vanity, shower, and large jacuzzi tub.  The lower half of the wall was wavy free form cement, and the top half was screened in.  Very nice.  We all did the paper, rock, scissors thing, and my bride and I were lucky enough to score this suite.
 
In between the first floor suites, was a fairly well equipped kitchen.  This was the scene of our daily “family” breakfasts, and where we did some serious research on our Bloody Mary recipes.  There was even a single trundle bed in the dining area, that would be a good place for some kids to crash.  All in all the house was nice enough, but not so perfect that you felt that you had to be overly fussy.  So it was a very comfortable place to hang out and socialize when we weren’t on the beach or on an activity.  I can see this place easily sleeping a dozen family members, or close friends when absolute privacy is not an issue.  It will sleep four couples with full privacy, and five or six if some don’t mind sharing a bath.
 
beach house verandaAll the bedrooms and the kitchen were air conditioned.  The house came complete with fast and free WiFi.  There was even a cat!  Although, I have to say that this was more of a pleasure for my wife and I than for some other members of the group.  We are very cat friendly, and it was nice to have this little guy hanging around.  Very sweet, and seems to know where the food is kept!  He even followed us out to the beach every day.  Though he would hang back and cry out to us if we got too close to the surf.  Must have had a bad experience! 
 
If you aren’t a cat lover, you could shoo him away.  We noticed last year that he liked hanging around the hotel.
 
Although none of us were surfers, we thought we might come back next year for lessons.  Great surfing was right outside the door!  This is a good news / bad news kinda thing.  The water here is turbulent, and the shore can be rocky.  So it isn’t a great swimming beach.  We were told that we could walk down the beach a ways, and find a spot there.  We never looked for it.  But we enjoyed wading, and walking down the beautiful beach.  The hotel pool was very nice, and we were there cooling off almost every day.
 
The location here is perfect.  It is only about a thirty yard walk across the lawn to the beach and some very inviting hammocks.  It is close enough to the hotel to be convenient, but not so close to feel like we were without privacy.  Our gals were even comfortable using the outdoor shower, when they had a small plumbing problem in their suite one day.
 
It is a short walk to the concentration of shops, restaurants, tour companies, and other small businesses in this area.  Not a metropolis by any means.  But there are dining and shopping options nearby, and secure parking for your vehicle right outside.
 
This was a great spot for our group of friends, that enjoy being together.  I could see it working well for a large family group, or a gang of surfers.  The suites can also be rented individually at a reasonable price.  You must rent at least two, to get the kitchen.
 
We have already booked it for next year!

Helpful travel hints for your perfect vacation

These are the helpful hints that I share with all of my clients.  It is extremely long.  You may want to just print it out! 

PASSPORT 

You must have one, and it cannot expire within 30 days after your arrival.  This is very important.  This is required by the Costa Rican government, and is non negotiable.  Otherwise, they will send you home on the next flight.  They are very serious about this, so check your passport! 

Now scan the first page with your picture and the other important info.  Now send the file via Email to yourself and a friend who is not traveling.  If you lose your passport, a good copy will make things a heck of a lot easier at the embassy.  Make a photocopy while you are at it, and carry this day to day in Costa Rica.  You can leave the original in your room safe.  Although chances are slight that you will ever be asked to produce it, the copy works just fine.  You are supposed to also have a copy of the page from when you entered the country too.  But unless you are under arrest, this copy should be good enough. 

ENTERING THE COUNTRY 

When you arrive, you will go through immigration first and then customs.  All pretty routine stuff.  There are free luggage carts in the baggage claim area, but these can’t be taken outside the building.  They are handy for going through customs.  Unless you look like an international arms smuggler or drug addled loser, you will find customs simple.  You will be asked to place all of your luggage on a conveyor belt at the x-ray machines.  They only open your luggage if they see something suspicious on the x-ray.  Once you exit the building, you have to surrender the cart.  But there are guys there to assist if you need it.  Just stay with them.  I always get a little nervous when someone grabs my bag and takes off. 

Something fun about this airport is that they have a duty free shop in baggage claim.  You can buy wine and liquor to bring into the country.  Imported liquor is expensive in Costa Rica.  So if you can’t go the week without Johnny Walker, this is a good stop.  The wine prices are good too.  We usually buy a couple of bottles for our room or to give as gifts to friends.  The shop is located to your left as soon as you arrive downstairs in baggage claim.

Do not exchange money at the official looking currency exchange in baggage claim!  See below. 

SECURITY  

Violent crime against tourists is almost non existent.  Unless of course, you are looking for trouble!  

But petty theft is a real problem.  So it is important that you keep an eye on your stuff.  Do no leave luggage in an unattended vehicle, or anywhere else.   Keep an eye on your belongings at the beach too.  Use the security box in your room. 

99.9% of the locals you meet will be very friendly, honest, polite, and willing to bend over backwards to assist you in every way.  Everyone is so nice, it is easy to relax and forget the rules.  Don’t let that happen.  When you relax, that is when that tiny part of the population is looking for their opportunity.  My best advice is to treat your belongings as if you were visiting a large US city.  Practice the same due diligence, and you won’t have a problem. 

DEALING WITH THE TICOS (the locals)  

It is almost a little embarrassing to have to mention this.  But there are some cultural differences.  Latin folks tend to treat each other with a little more kindness than we sometimes do here in the States.  Even though we mean no offense, our rushing around and efficient manner sometimes comes off as rudeness. 

The waiters will treat you very well, but there is a different philosophy in play here.  No one will fawn over you, even in an expensive restaurant.  But they will treat you like an honored guest in their home.  Play along, and be a great guest.  You will be amazed at the warm treatment you will receive.  Be demanding, and suddenly the service is horrible. 

The pace here is slower.  It isn’t laziness, it is just relaxed.  We call it “Tico time”.  So if your food takes a little while, don’t stress.  Just order another cerveza.  Also, be aware that you will never get a restaurant check without asking for it.  Ticos consider it rude to bring a check too early.  To them, it is the same as telling you to leave.  Maybe you wanted another cup of coffee or another cerveza?  Many folks mistake this as slow service or laziness.  Actually, they are being polite.  

It is best to go back to what our mothers taught us.  Say hello (Hola) when entering a business establishment.  A simple “Please” (Por Favor, or even just Porfa), goes a long way.  Thank (Gracias) everyone for everything. 

One last thing.  If things are not going well, keep your temper.  Ticos tend to be non confrontational, and polite.  Even when they are boiling inside.  Yelling at a waiter or hotel clerk is extremely bad manners (even if you are in the right).  You may not be aware of it, but this loss of control is extremely embarrassing for everyone.  Especially for the one causing the commotion. 

MONEY 

Again, do not exchange money at the official looking currency exchange in baggage claim!  The commission they charge is an outrageous rip off.  Period.  

Your US money spends well here.  Just bring small bills, and make sure they are in good condition.  The one hundred dollar bill is the most counterfeited in the world, and is always viewed with suspicion.  Don’t bring anything larger than a twenty.  

You will probably want to use local currency.  It is just easier.  Your hotel can usually change a small amount of money for you.  But they are not a bank, so they don’t keep a lot of cash on hand.  You can also get money from an ATM.  They usually give the best exchange rate.  Most big US networks (Pulse, Cirrus, Maestro, etc.) are in use here.  But not at every bank.  So when you find one that works, make note of the name for future reference. 

Stash some US money for the last day of your trip.  Costa Rican colons are hard to exchange back home, and you will get murdered on the exchange rate.  You want to spend all your colons, and live on US money at the end of your stay.  

If you are going to be using a credit card, it is a good idea to let your provider know.  They will often turn a card off when they start seeing a bunch of foreign charges.  A quick call today can save a hassle and expensive international call later. 

STAYING HEALTHY 

You can eat the food and drink the water just about everywhere.  Bottled water is widely available.  I drink it out of convenience, but not out of necessity.  So food and drink are not a concern.  I find that the biggest problems my guests encounter are sun poisoning and digestive problems. 

You are only slightly above the equator here.  The sun is a lot more intense than it seems.  If you forget your hat and don’t wear sunscreen, you are asking for trouble.  Sun poisoning will lay you out for a full day or longer.  It is just like the flu.  Sniffles, nausea, diarrhea, fatigue.  Take precautions, and you will be fine.  I can’t stress the importance of this enough. 

You should bring some Imodium or other anti-diarrhea medication.  Sometimes just a change in diet will cause this kind of problem.  The good news is that it probably is not a problem caused by bacteria.  If you are affected, lay off the fried food.  They use palm oil a lot, and it is hard to digest if you are not used to it.

There is a very slight incidence of tropical diseases.  But they are not nearly as common here as in other parts of the third world.  Most of the things that can affect you are mosquito borne.  Just use your repellent, especially in the early morning and at dusk.  Pay close attention to your ankles.  In seventeen years, I don’t think that any of our clients have come home sick.  But take your precautions.  It is always better to be safe than sorry. 

If you are going to be drinking alcohol at the hot springs, make sure you hydrate!  And no, a frozen margarita doesn’t count.  Hot springs are great fun, but extremely dehydrating.  Mix this factor with alcohol, and you can see the party ending early.  An occasional bottle of water is the smart thing to do. 

TIPPING  

All restaurant checks have a 10% tip, and some tax added.  By law, they have to give you a bill.  This 10% is a starting point.  If your waiter has been good, then add another 10%.  

If you are being transferred a long distance, make sure you take care of the driver / guide.  Tips are an important part of their income.  If you are just a couple people or a family in a small van, figure $20.00 is good.  If you are part of a large group, figure $5.00 per person, per day. 

The drivers doing local transfers in San Jose should get a couple bucks, but taxi drivers are usually not tipped.  There are usually some guys that will help with your luggage at the airport.  Tip like you would in the US.  Tip anyone that helps with your luggage at the hotel.  Figure a buck a bag for the luggage assistance. 

Don’t forget the chamber maids, figure a buck a day, unless you are really messy!  Some hotels leave an envelope in the room.  Others have a box in the lobby for staff tips.  A buck or two left on the table after the free breakfast buffet is always appreciated. 

KEEPING IN TOUCH 

The best way is by email.  Internet cafes are pretty common, although not all of them offer a high speed connection.  Most hotels now offer some form of Internet access for guests.  If you must call home, I don’t recommend that you use your US based calling card.  They usually are your worst deal, and it can get expensive quickly.  If you must call home, purchase an international phone card from a pharmacy or large grocery store.   These are sold in US denominations ($5, $10, $20), and are your best deal at about fifty cents per minute. 

LEAVING THE COUNTRY 

All carriers want you to check in two and a half to three hours in advance.  You have to comply.  This is a small airport.  If two or more big jets are leaving around the same time, the security lines get long.  If there is an elevated threat level in the US, they search every bag by hand.  You can see how this can slow things down.  

You have to pay your exit tax before you get in line at the ticket counter.  There are two places to do this.  They are located in the corners of the terminal, across from the ticket counters. The lines appear long, but they move quickly.  If the line at the closest one is crazy long, then go to the other.  There always seems to be next to no one there.  Go figure. 

I hope that you find this information useful!  Enjoy your stay, you are going to a very special place.

Driving to Monteverde

We have flown into Liberia on our last couple of trips. I like the San Jose airport more.  It is more modern and full service, and I always enjoy visiting with our San Jose hotel friends.

But the drive to Monteverde from Liberia is an hour shorter.  While American Airlines is absolutely my least favorite carrier, they have a flight to Liberia that goes through Dallas.   This allows us to avoid the headaches of the Miami airport. 

We drove up the road through Las Juntas. This is the first time we have gone this way, and it is the best road that we have found yet. There is a very good paved road from the Pan American highway that leads into Los Juntas. You have to navigate a little in town, but if you can find the statue of several Campesinos, you are on the right track. Turn here, and you are on the road to Santa Elena. There is good paved road leading out of town, and only the last twenty kilometers (twelve miles) are unpaved. Even then, this road is in very good condition and is generally not as scary as the other road up from the Pan Am. It probably is not worth the extra drive from San Jose. But if you are coming from Liberia, this is by far the best choice.

Gallo Pinto, a great way to start the day.

Gallo PintoIt is a typical morning in Costa Rica, and my lovely bride is craving a “Tipical” breakfast.

Costa Rica has always been an agricultural economy.  Even though tourism is now the #1 industry, many folks still work close to the land.  This hearty meal is just the ticket to “fuel the furnace” for another active day.  Tipical breakfasts include eggs, delicious local cheese, plantains, tortillas and Gallo Pinto.   Of course, a cup or two of excellent local coffee completes the equation.

Gallo Pinto is the national dish of Costa Rica.  The main ingredients are black beans and rice.  Recipes vary, but most cooks add onions, bell pepper, and cilantro, all fried together in a little oil.  During the cooking process, the rice takes on the color of the beans.  This gives the dish a speckled appearance, hence the name, Gallo Pinto.  Or “Speckled Rooster” in Spanish.

Gallo Pinto is omnipresent and served in virtually every restaurant in the country, from the fanciest hotel to the Burger King at the airport.  If breakfast is served, you can bet that Gallo Pinto is on the menu.

There are slight variants around the country, where local ingredients find their way into the dish.  In Guanacaste, it is not unusual to find hot peppers.  On the Caribbean side, we were surprised to find some shredded coconut.  There is always another local favorite on the table too.  No dining table in Costa Rica is complete without a bottle of Salsa Lizano.  This mildly spicy condiment adds extra zip to Gallo Pinto, and almost everything else consumed here!

Here kitty, kitty, kitty….

Okay.  I will admit it.  My wife and I are into cats.  Big ones or little ones, it doesn’t matter.  We have four in our house, and one in my office.  We have a small colony of ferals that we feed in the yard.  I have a cat in my lap as I write this.  We haven’t quite reached the level of “crazy cat people” yet.  But that is a line that we are well aware of, and we try our best not to step over to the other side. 

We like dogs too, but we don’t own any.  We have always had fun with our neighbor’s dog in Monteverde.  She is a bouncy golden short hair lab.  She comes to visit, and hang out in our kitchen.  When Melissa is cooking, “Lady” will beg for a taste.  Or she will keep me company while I handle minor repairs outside.  She has always been part of our Monteverde experience.  Just a big old sweet dog. 

During one trip, we didn’t see Lady at all.  We heard her barking a couple of times, but she never stopped by.  One night, we were coming in from dinner with friends.  We have some small lights along the walkway from the driveway.  When we flipped them on, we saw Lady lying in the shadows near the forest.  Melissa started to talk softly to her, and walked over to give her a little scratch.  She got about fifteen feet away when Lady raised her head and looked at her.  Then she got up, and walked into the woods. 

Melissa called to her, and then came back to where I was standing.  She was puzzled as to why Lady was being so standoffish.  After all, she was very friendly and usually glad to see us.  But we also noticed something.  Lady didn’t “bounce” away like a Lab.  She slunk away.  Like a big cat.  A really big cat.  I felt a chill, and we hurried inside. 

Our friend Holger stopped by for coffee the next morning.  He is also our sometime carpenter and a guide in one of the local reserves.  We told him our story, and together we walked over to the area of the yard where “Lady” had been.  Puma tracks were everywhere.  Holger had no doubt at all.  We went down to the road, and found more prints high in the soft earthen berm where it had crossed over.  Yep.  My bride had tried to pet a mountain lion! 

This is a very rare sighting in Monteverde.  The woods are dense enough to support some other big cats.  One night, we heard the sound of a large “something” that sounded like a child screaming in pain.  Friends said that this was probably a large cat.  We didn’t see it.  To be honest, we didn’t want to look for it.  It was a little spooky!  We have also encountered a Jaguarundi on the bridges at Selvatura.  This is a much smaller, kinda ugly cat that has an almost weasel like look.

But we had never seen something this big.  A large predator like this needs a lot of territory.  Over the last few years, the local conservation groups have been buying up land to protect existing “biological corridors” and create new ones.  They do this so that animals can move around, and keep the gene pools diverse.  If they are confined to a small area, in-breeding will eventually doom an isolated population.  Holger speculated that our visitor might have been a young male passing through, looking for love.  There had been a strong cat urine odor outside the evening before.  I had just assumed it was a local tom marking his territory.  Now, I am not so sure. 

We visited our neighbors.  We wanted to let them know what we had seen, and to make sure they kept Lady in for a day or two.  They were understandably a little skeptical.  Their daughter said that she wished she could have seen it.  She had never seen a big wild cat before.  We were very glad that our friend Holger stopped by, and was able to verify our sighting.  We were not just dumb gringos mistaking something else for a big cat.  This was the real deal.  And now Melissa has a great story to tell.  The night she tried to pet the lion!  

I think she is taking this whole cat thing to the extreme.

Get out if You Can! and other favorite Quepos restaurants

I had an office in Quepos / Manuel Antonio for almost two years.  I would visit at least once a month, usually for a week or so.  Sometimes with my missus, often without.  I ate everywhere.  The worst meal I ever had was at the “Mexican” restaurant downtown.  The most reasonable was excellent ceviche at the bus station / market for under three bucks.  This posting is devoted to three of my favorite restaurants, and the ones that I visit again and again. 

Michael&MarcelaSalsiOne of the most fun nights you can have here, is a visit to “Salsipuedes.”  This loosely translates as “get out if you can”.  I have to admit that there have been times when we were having so much fun that it was hard to get out!  

The people responsible for all these good times are the young couple who own and run the place.  Mike is Costa Rican, and from this area.  His dad had a commercial fishing concession in the area, and Mike grew up around fish.  This has served him well in his career as a restaurant owner.  His girlfriend and partner is a lovely Argentine gal named Marsala.  This is a happy and fun couple.  Their personalities and positive attitudes only adds to the welcoming atmosphere.  Their English is perfect (Mike went to school in the US), and they are hands on owners.  Mike runs the bar, and makes sure that everyone has a good time and meets the other patrons.  Marsala runs the dining room, and is usually the first person to greet you when you enter. 

The setting is unusual.  The building was Mike’s childhood home, and it commands a great view of the ocean sunsets.  To take full advantage of this fabulous view, Mike removed the entire front wall of the house.  The end result is a basically a huge covered deck.  This is the perfect setting to enjoy their “tapas”, or what we have been calling “small plates” in the US.  This place is a great value.  Nothing is over about three or four dollars, and three plates can usually more than satisfy a hungry adult. 

They make some terrific ceviche, and the tuna can’t be beat.  I usually over order, and get first four items on the menu.  These are the ceviche, the tuna sashimi with wasabi and ginger, the seared tuna, and the spicy tuna picante.  Can you tell I like tuna? 

Much more upscale and romantic is the restaurant at Hotel Makanda by the Sea, The Sunspot Grill.  This is where I go with my wife for a special meal.  It is a little pricey by local standards, but a very good value for tourists seeking great food in a beautiful setting.  The dining area is composed of colorful “tents” scattered around one end of the infinity pool.  These are actually metal forms stretched with brightly colored fabric.  

On a recent visit I feasted on a perfectly grilled tuna steak that was literally two inches thick.  It was complimented with prosciutto wrapped asparagus and a very interesting fresh salad.  Most items here are done on the grill.  Since we are on the coast, the menu is dominated by fresh seafood.  You will find fresh fish, lobster, huge shrimp, and of course my favorite, tuna!  There is also a respectable wine list, featuring a variety of Chiliean and Argentine wines that are popular in Costa Rica.  All is served up by a happy, professional staff.

Another favorite casual restaurant is at Hotel Plinio.  This is an old standard, and I have been coming here since my first visit to Costa Rica twenty years ago.  The original owner was a Tico.  This was before the big tourism boom.  This area was a little plantation backwater, and had a little bit of a wild west atmosphere.  The story goes that Plinio did not like tourists very much, and kept a gun behind the bar.  He would shoot it into the air when obvious tourists pulled up.  It usually did the trick.  He sold the bar and hotel to new owners, well before I ever even dreamed of visiting Costa Rica.

Hotel Plinio is much more welcoming now.  Like so many restaurants here, it is open air.  There is a very friendly bar with five or six seats.  There really isn’t much of a view.  So the owners have planted huge elephant ears, that reach all the way up to the second floor.  So the setting here is kind of like eating in a tree house.  They offer the most varied menu in the area.  Steaks, pasta, seafood, pizza, even Vietnamese dipping rolls!  The previous owner was German, as are the current ones.  So the kitchen staff can even turn out some pretty delicious German specialties.  All of the dishes are well prepared, and the prices are very reasonable.  They bake their own bread too. 

Because of the varied menu, I often recommend Plinio to families.  The kids can get a pizza fix, and mom and dad can get some more interesting food.  That is not saying that the pizza isn’t good, because it is!  There is something here for everyone, and I can honestly say that I have never been served a bad meal. 

I first visited Costa Rica almost two decades ago.  The food choices then seemed to be beans and rice with chicken, rice and beans with beef, or beans and rice with fish.  But the restaurant community has matured to the point, that even the most dedicated foodie will find something to love.  You will certainly find this to be true in the Quepos / Manuel Antonio area.  Buen Provecho!