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!

 

Monteverde restaurants

On a recent visit to Monteverde, we spent our last evening in Monteverde at Johnny’s Pizza.  This is one of our favorite spots, though the name is a little misleading. Sure, I have had some good pizzas there, and my wife tells me that they have the best vegetarian pizza that she has ever eaten. But they make some other very interesting dishes as well.

For starters, we shared a huge stuffed tomato with red sauce for an appetizer. I know that doesn’t sound that interesting, but you will just have to trust me on this. They also do a baked mushroom au gratin appetizer that is really good too. My favorite entree is the baked penne pasta. They have a wood fired oven. The pasta and sauce is baked in a metal bowl, the top is smothered with cheese that melts into the dish. It is already good, but the secret here is that if you ask, they will let you add some pizza ingredients. So I usually add fresh tomatoes, olives, some kind of meat, etc. Beats the heck out of rice and beans! 

We also found something totally unexpected for this area. There is a new restaurant in downtown Santa Elena, the small town that is the home to most of the local businesses in the Monteverde area.  “Trio” shares the same building with the supermarket. You have to look a little to find it. It is at the end of the parking lot, and not where you would expect an upscale restaurant to be. It was my wife’s birthday, and Susanna (the owner of Arco Iris Lodge) had made a passing reference to a delicious passion fruit mojito. It intrigued us, so we thought we would check it out. 

We walked in and were a little confused. This place looked like something you would find in a modern European city. Very urban and hip. Gray walls and lots of metal or black accents. There were free form lamps, and hardwood floors. The wait staff was wearing the obligatory black, and fusion jazz played softly. Not at all what I thought I would find in our little Quaker / Tico / farm town! 

But we figured we would take a shot. After all, there were passion fruit mojitos and we were not going to be denied! The food was actually very good, and they had some interesting twists on the usual fare. One was hamburgers with figs and sun dried tomatoes and some interesting toppings that escape me now. I love ceviche, and theirs was made with the usual sea bass, peppers, lime juice, and so on. But they included coconut milk, and some other surprises that really made it sing. They also offered a “tower” of tomato, avocado, and palmito. Everything was well presented. The prices were high by Costa Rica standards, but much cheaper than you would pay for similar fare in a similar setting in the US. 

While the appearance of this place was much hipper than I will ever be, in the end it was still a little slice of Costa Rica. Ticos and Ticas can’t hide behind a facade of sophistication for long. They will never be disinterested urbanites, no matter how trendy the setting. When the waitress heard that it was my bride’s birthday, she was excited and as sweet as could be. After dinner, she surprised us with a dessert and candles. The bartender was friendly and accommodating. He remembered us, and we were warmly welcomed when we stopped by a couple of days later for lunch. And yes, the mojitos were excellent!

Two Dozen Things to do in Monteverde

I spend a lot of time reading and sometimes responding to forum posts in the different travel web sites.  I know that a lot of the folks there enjoy the beaches and the volcanoes of Costa Rica.

But I also notice that many people have said that there is not a lot to do in Monteverde. My guess is that this is because the activities here are not as “in your face” as they are in other parts of the country, or on an organized tour.

I always bristle a little when I read this. As a (very) part time Monteverde resident, I have to disagree. Sometimes you just have to look a little harder.monteverde reserve

So here is my list of two dozen things to do in Monteverde:

  • Canopy (zipline) tours. Invented here, and still the best in CR. Maybe the world.
  • Hanging bridges. Ditto.
  • The Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. World famous, for good reason.
  • Check out any of the other reserves. The different altitudes create different ecosystems. You will be amazed at the bio diversity up here.
  • Check out the numerous art galleries
  • Hike to the San Luis Waterfall
  • Take a horseback tour through the countryside around Canitas.
  • Tour the Rainaro (Frog zoo)
  • Tour the Serpentarium (Reptile zoo)
  • Tour the Insectarium (Insect zoo)
  • Have Kattya Corrales take you on a private local tour in her little three wheel and partially enclosed motorcycle. Very inexpensive, and she customizes each tour to your particular interest.
  • Take the “Trepiche” tour. A local family farm. They take you from the harvest to the farm’s own production of coffee and sugar. Sweet family, and much more interesting than I expected!
  • Check out the Bat Exhibit (with flight cage), more than you ever wanted to know about bats. But fascinating.
  • After you visit the bats, go upstairs to the little restaurant that makes their own chocolate. Great food here too, Argentine owned.
  • Tour the cheese factory, then enjoy the best milkshake you have ever had. 
  • Visit the Orchid Garden just outside Santa Elena.  The self taught horticulturist here has created an amazing garden, and even discovered a previously unknown species.  We were amazed by the tiny orchids that you need a jeweler’s loupe to see.  A perfectly formed orchid in miniature.
  • Take a guided night tour into the forest
  • Have a coffee and great fresh pastry at Stella’s bakery
  • After your visit to Stella’s, walk across the street to shop for handicrafts made by local women at the CASEM woman’s arts cooperative.  You can also buy local coffee from the roaster next door.
  • Hear live music at Moon Shiva. Jazz, folk, Latin, etc. Always entertaining.
  • Check out the Saturday farmer’s market. Definitely some local color. Sometimes there is music, and there is always local food to eat on site. Good Ceviche!
  • Ride the little tram through the woods
  • Go to the hummingbird gallery. Great photo ops of dozens of hummingbirds.
  • Eat at any of the “International” restaurants. We are getting some interesting food up here!

Ziplining: a safe and thrilling adventure!

monteverde-canopy-tourThe zipline tours through the forest canopy originated as a commercial venture in Monteverde.  There is some dispute about  how they were invented and by whom.  One    of the local businesses even has a copyright on the term “canopy tour”, which has become the catch all    term that many use to describe this adventuresome activity.   I won’t get involved in this argument, but I will tell you that this is one of the most fun things you can do during your adventure in Costa Rica.  They are scattered all over the country.  But I feel that the best ones can still be found around Monteverde.  There are some slight variations on the mechanics.  But all are basically long cables stretching from one hilltop to another.  The participant (that would be you) wears a harness, that was borrowed from rock climbing gear.  There is a pulley mechanism that fits over the cable, and this attaches to your harness.  You stand on a platform, lift your legs, and let gravity take over.  

Soon you are flying through the trees, and over valleys, sometimes several hundred feet up.  You can get moving at a  pretty good clip too.  There are guides with you constantly, to assure your safety.  They help you get your gear on, and hook you to the cables.  They are there to stop you at the end of each run.  Sometimes, the platform is high up in a tree or on a tower.  In these cases, you are attached to a safety line before you are released from the main cable.  The pulley system itself has some redundant safety lines too.  So this activity is a lot safer than it first appears. 

It is not for the faint of heart, or those with a fear of heights!  But it is exhilarating and lots of fun.  The typical tour will have at least ten platforms, sometimes more.  As each new tour opens, it brings improvements.  So the established tours scramble to keep up.  I have heard of a Central Valley tour that offers a long “superman” style cable.  Here, you lay straight out and face down.  The cable is above, so you fly like Superman.  Sounds great.  At least one Monteverde operator has added a “Tarzan swing”  as a side attraction.  They hook you up to a swinging bungie cable.  You free fall about ten feet, and then take a long lazy swing out over a little gully.  It is scarier than it sounds!  But still fun.  

The zipline tours are meant for all ages, as they really are not that strenuous.  Obviously, the littlest kids are not going to be allowed.  But I have seen kids as young as five years old on the tour.  They usually ride double with a guide.  The cables are very strong.  A guide once told me that they could support a car.  But some do have weight limits, that will restrict the largest folks.  So if you think that this may be an issue for you, it is best to check ahead of time.  

Two of the Monteverde tours also offer bridges and walkways through the cloud forest canopy.  This is a great place to walk with a guide or by yourself to see what you can spot in the treetops.  It is also an option for the less adventurous to enjoy while the family daredevils are on the cables.  One tour operator has expanded into a full blown nature park with butterfly and hummingbird gardens, insect exhibits, a reptile and amphibian exhibit, and a full restaurant.  You can enjoy a whole day here, and never leave the grounds. 

One last thing.  Some of the tours offer this up as a nature experience.  Other than the pretty woods, this is usually not the case.  The hooting and yelling tourists tend to drive the animals away.  But let’s be honest.  You will be standing on a platform and attached to a cable, preparing to speed high over the treetops to a destination that you may not even be able to see.  Are you really going to be thinking about birds and flowers?