Rincon de la Vieja: Geysers, Mud Pits, and Horses

We had always wanted to visit here. The Rincon de la Vieja is a compound volcano, kind of a small version of Yellowstone. There are nine craters, with some oddly shaped peaks, geysers, mud pits, hot springs, and cold waterfalls. It sounded like nothing I had ever seen in Costa Rica, and we found that to be true. 

This is an area that is not promoted very much in the US. This seems to be because the couple of hotels that have been there for awhile are European owned, and they have been promoting to their home markets. Also, until recently the road has not been very good. My wife and I made an attempt a few years ago in a Toyota Corolla. We had to give up, the road was too bad. But now ICE (the national power company) is building a geothermal power plant in the area, and has improved the road. 

We had the opportunity to inspect three hotels, all completely different. 

First up was the hotel we stayed at, the Rincon de La Vieja Lodge. This is a diamond in the rough. It is very rustic, and not without a couple of problems. But the staff is very sweet and the new manager is trying to put it into shape. If you are a serious hiker on a budget, and want to stay close to the entrance to the National Park, then this would be a good choice. 

The standard rooms were small, but looked comfortable. The log cabin bungalows are a legitimate bargain at only $80.00 per night, including tax and breakfast. Ours had a view of one of four ponds on the property, and you could hear the small river rushing behind our unit. There were small porches front and back. They are better than most rustic accommodations, but it would be easy to make a few improvements. The shower was serviceable, but not attractive. The bathroom needed a countertop and better light. Small complaints, I know. But easy to fix and would have made the unit much nicer. They also turn the electricity off after 10:30 PM, but I was told that this was being remedied soon. 

The restaurant serves typical food at a reasonable price. I had a steak that was pretty good, and my wife had a chicken and mushroom dish that she enjoyed as well. There are no menus and the staff speaks very little English. We speak enough Spanish that we were fine. But we could hear confusion around us as those less fluent tried to muddle through. 

The new manager is still working on implementing some new tours. So there was not a lot to choose from. We took a very nice horseback ride to the hotel’s own natural hot springs, and to a beautiful mirador (scenic overlook). We did not have enough time to take a whole day ride back to a beautiful waterfall and cold swimming hole in the national park that looked very inviting. There is also a good network of hiking trails within the national park. The hotel has its own canopy (zip line) tour. 

One intriguing activity was an overnight canopy tour. About halfway through, there is a platform with a tent. The guides leave the guest with coffee and chocolate for the morning. You then finish the canopy tour in the morning, and go to breakfast at the lodge. 

I forgot to ask what they offer for overnight bathroom facilities! But it sounded like it could be fun and romantic. 

So the short review on this property is that it is good for someone on a budget, and may be the best choice for the serious hiker. It is lacking attention to details, but my hope is that the new management is able to whip it into shape. The reasons to stay here are the price, access to the park, and the fact that it is located in an absolutely beautiful setting. 

borinquen hotelThe other end of the scale was the Hotel Borinquen. For those in the $300 per night range, this place will knock you out. The rooms are beautiful and fully appointed. Great for a getaway or honeymoon. They have bubbling mud pits on site. Their sauna is actually built over one. There is a wooden slatted floor, and the steam comes up through the floor. Their spa appeared to be first rate with beautiful views into the forest. This is also built over a rushing river, that I am sure would be great background white noise to listen to during a massage. They offer different treatments with the volcanic mud. There is a very nice pool, too. The hotel offers a full compliment of hikes and horseback tours into the park. They also offered “ATV safaris” and have a pretty decent canopy tour onsite. I was only able to glance at a menu (there are two restaurants), but it looked like the chef is creative, and there were some interesting options. 

Strangely enough, their hot springs were not anything special. There were just a couple of circular pools maybe 12 feet in diameter. I was surprised that such an upscale place that had done everything so right did so little with such an attractive asset. 

The short review on this property is that those with the higher budget will like this place. Great for honeymooners. Anyone that wants to see the hot springs and mud pits, but does not want to rough it, will be very comfortable. You will also have the opportunity to be one of a few North Americans that have even heard of this place! 

In between, there is the Hacienda Guachipelin. This was a pleasant surprise. It has zero curb appeal, we drove past it on the way to the Rincon de la Vieja Lodge. We were not impressed, and kept going. On the way back from the Lodge, we drove past the back of the hotel and glanced into the area where the rooms were located and saw a beautiful lawn surrounded by attractive low buildings. So we thought we would check it out. 

This was a genuine find. The rates are very reasonable with standards going for around $80.00 per night, plus tax. The superiors are larger and only about ten bucks more. No TV, no phones, no a/c, no problem! The rooms were very clean and nicely appointed. We happened to be here for lunch. We did not stick around to eat, but I did check out the buffet. It looked very good for the price ($12.00). Fresh salads and veggies, the usual choices of chicken, pork and “tipical” Costa Rica dishes. 

waterfall

The nature is the attraction here. They offer a full compliment of tours. One of the more interesting to me was the whitewater tubing. Helmet and life jacket while floating on a tube. It looked like big fun. Like the other properties in the area, they offer horseback rides (they have their own horses) and hiking into the park. They also have a canopy tour. Some of these can be combined, and they had a canopy / rappelling tour that looked pretty neat.  Funny thing was that after we returned home, we caught an episode of Samantha Brown’s show on the Travel Channel.  She was doing the white water tubing and rappelling tour.  She liked it! 

They do some things with horseback riding to the mud baths too. They have a spa, but it is located offsite. So we did not have a chance to inspect it, but the pictures looked good. 

We found that this hotel was a great mix of comfort and activities at a reasonable price. It will probably be the one I recommend the most to my clients. 

We only had time to fully inspect three hotels. I heard good things about the Buena Vista Lodge as well. I guess we just have to go back!

Italian Sophistication on a Costa Rican beach

Our first impression of Hotel Tropico Latino was a little misleading.  We arrived after dark, and all we could see was a small parking lot and a small guard hut.  The guard directed me down a dimly lit gravel pathway.  I really did not know what to expect, and have to admit that I was wondering what I was getting into.  I needn’t have worried.  As my eyes adjusted to the light, I realized that this was actually a very nice tropical garden.  Along one side, there were small bungalows with porches and hammocks.  I came to a clearing and there was the open air bar and restaurant.  I could hear the pounding surf and soft Latin jazz.  Reception was closed, but they were expecting us.  The very personable young Argentine woman behind the bar had our room key, and checked us in with no fuss or ceremony.  We dumped our bags, and returned to the bar for drinks and dinner. 

Hotel Tropico Latino restaurantOver the next couple of days, we grew to love this place.  The hotel is Italian owned, and the  bar/restaurant staff are almost all either Italian or from Argentina. Fun group, and amazing food. The chef is from Florence, and really knows his stuff. He had owned a restaurant in the area, and the owner persuaded him to move it to this hotel. Sure, it was a little pricey by Tico standards.  But it was a very good value by US standards, and we felt as if we had been transported to Italy. Fresh seafood was the specialty, and all was prepared in a very imaginative fashion.

We ate here that first night.  It had been a long travel day, and we were ready for a little spoiling.  We were totally blown away.  This was my bride’s birthday trip.  Before we left on our trip, she told me that all she wanted was a lobster while we were at the beach.  As good as the food was, I noted that there was no lobster on the menu.  My plan was to find a restaurant that would be able to satisfy her request.  But the next day, my wife told me that she loved the restaurant.  She didn’t care about the lobster anymore.  She wanted to eat there again! 

So I made a point to find the chef when she wasn’t around, and ask him about surprising her with a lobster. He was a very nice younger guy and obviously passionate about food.  It was Sunday, and early afternoon before I found him. He was excited about a surprise, and promised to do what he could.

When we arrived for dinner, I was informed that they were not able to find a lobster on such short notice. But I was told by the bartender that the chef had spent the better part of the afternoon calling fisherman, and trying to locate the owner of the (closed on Sunday) fish market. I was very appreciative for the effort, and his kindness left an impression. Dinner still rocked, and we were quite happy.

We stayed in a Garden Bungalow. Not right on the beach, but less than a hundred feet away. They offer beach front bungalows too, for a little more. These have nice little ocean view porches. But the Garden Bungalows were bigger, and we liked the extra space. All rooms have a fridge and a microwave. Our room had two huge king beds, and the best A/C I have ever had in Costa Rica. It was needed too, this area is hot!

The hotel also offers a two bedroom beach house, and a huge house that sleeps a large group (12?). It is big enough that it can be split into separate units.

The only knock on this hotel is the very expensive breakfast. It seems like a different crew is in the kitchen during breakfast. It was more expensive than what I paid in Manhattan! I am not kidding. I know that hotel breakfasts are sometimes expensive in Europe. Maybe that is what the owner is thinking here. But another guest clued us in, and told us about a cheap breakfast spot across the street. That seems to be the way to go. All in all, I didn’t let this one little bump in the road change my opinion of the hotel. I thought everything else was a great value, and we are counting the days to our next visit.

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!

Choosing a reputable rental car company

In all my years packaging Costa Rica, the single greatest challenge has always been rental cars. Companies come and go. Less reputable companies run damage scams. Some overbook. Others do not have replacement vehicles if there is a problem, or offer proper support.  Some just have old beat up cars. 

How new are these vehicles? The roads can be tough on rental cars to begin with, and customers tend to drive them harder than they would a vehicle they actually own. Rental cars have a short shelf life.  This is important.  The better rental car companies tend to buy brand new vehicles, and turn them over before they put too many miles on them.  Turnover like this is expensive. 

The cars are sold at auction, often to other rental car companies.  So a car that one company deemed to old for their customers becomes the newest car on the lot at another company.  This is something to consider if two companies are offering what appears to be the same model and the same year at vastly different prices. 

How many offices does the company have? If you break down in the boonies, is there support close by? What if you break down at night, will someone answer the phone? 

Are you going to have a problem with false damage claims? Other than the company’s own testimonials, what kind of references do they have? It is difficult to challenge a foreign credit card charge. What recourse do you have if there is a problem?  

Will they accept any credit card coverage that your credit card offers?  There is a government mandated liability insurance that you must buy.  But sometimes you can waive the comprehensive coverage if this is offered by your credit card company. 

A good rental car is essential for a positive travel experience. Look at it this way:  A family spends $2000.00 on airfare. Say you spend another $1500.00 on hotels and tours. This means you are paying well over $500.00 a day to be there. When you factor in what you pay for hotels and airfare, paying an extra $100 for a week of is not much in the whole scheme of things. 

It is something to think about when your rental car is broken down in Northern Guanacaste. A large national company will get you a replacement from Liberia in an hour or two.  It might be difficult to get anyone on the phone at a small company that only has a few cars. 

I have seen one of the companies that I deal with bring a replacement car on a flatbed truck up the mountain to Monteverde, AFTER DARK. That’s worth $100.00. Anyone who has driven that road in the daylight will agree! 

This is where postings in the travel forums or an experienced Costa Rica tour operator is important.  You cannot make this decision based on price alone.  A US badged company is also not a guarantee.  Many of these are smaller companies paying a franchise fee.  Educate yourself as much as possible.  This is one case of getting exactly what you pay for.

Driving and Bribing

The whole reason I host this blog is to share the country I love with others.  Most of the time, it is paradise found and one of my favorite places on the planet.  However, it does have a few problems.  While the government has stiffened penalties on corrupt cops, you will still need to be aware of what to expect if you run into one. 

Most importantly, you probably won’t have any problems if you obey the traffic laws.  So of course, that is the best policy. 

We have been stopped three times, when (I have to admit) I was violating the speed limit.  The first time, I feigned a complete lack of Spanish.  But I foolishly let the police officer see the contents of my wallet, and there were quite a few bills inside.  I hadn’t driven in Costa Rice much before this, and I was intimidated enough to give the guy $40.00.  I really regretted it. 

The next time was a little scary.  The road was a little remote.  The cop got me out of the car, away from my wife.  He spoke perfect English, and told me it would take hours to find a judge to pay the fine.  I paid the bribe, only because this guy was so smooth that he scared me.  I was afraid if I refused the bribe, he may suddenly “find” drugs in my car. 

But these two experiences hardened my resolve not to pay again.  So my third run-in actually turns out to be a fun story.  This happened recently when my wife and I were driving down the Pan Am highway, only a couple of hours after we arrived in the country. 

We rode right into a speed trap.  The stop was legitimate. I was speeding. I gave the cop my passport and license. He took them and asked me to walk back to his car with him. I had just stopped at an ATM, and had a huge wad of cash with me. I waited until he stepped away, and gave all my cash to my wife. I retained 10,000 colons (about $18.00) and joined the cop. 

He had a tattered traffic law book, like something issued to a student driver. It was in Spanish, and he had the fine for speeding underlined. He explained to me that he really did not want to give me a ticket that he (falsely) claimed would cost $200. He offered to give me a “warning” if I paid 20,000 colons on the spot. I was pretending not to speak much Spanish, and we chatted a little in “Spanglish” while discussing this. I was determined to talk my way out of this situation. We finally settled on the 10,000 colons that I had pulled out of my pocket, and he took it.   This is less than the fine would have been.

During our conversation, he saw the several CR stamps in my fairly new passport. He asked me what I was doing in Costa Rica. I gave him my business card. I explained that I was there working with ICT (the government tourism bureau) on promotions for Costa Rica. I noticed a look on his face when I mentioned ICT. I told him we were scouting locations. 

My Spanish was improving by the minute. I could see he was a little uncomfortable, as he processed this new information. I looked for an ID on his uniform, and saw that it was reversed and tucked under his vest. He noticed me looking. So I stepped to the side and looked at the number on his car. He definitely noticed this, and stepped with me to block my view. I stepped back to the other side and continued the conversation. I think I was asking about locations. I continued looking at the number on the vehicle. 

The guy suddenly gave me back my passport and license, and the 10,000 colons! He told me that since this was my “first time in Costa Rica”, he was letting me off without a warning. He told me to be careful because there were lots of police on the highway that weekend. Then he told me to go. Now. I quickly obeyed. 

To be fair, this is only the third time that this has happened to me in twenty years of travel in Costa Rica.  I guess that three times in twenty years is not a lot. But I have driven daily in the US for almost forty years and I have never been asked for a bribe by a cop here in all that time. 

I love Costa Rica, and never enjoy speaking negatively about it. But this kind of thing is more common than folks like to admit. 

If this happens to you my advice is to be polite.  It sometimes helps if you don’t speak (or pretend not to know) a lick of Spanish.  Keep any large amounts of cash out of sight.  Unless you are in an accident or driving drunk, the fines are usually pretty small.  You can just pay them to your rental car company.  Don’t pay a huge bribe.  The ticket will have the police officer’s information on it.  You can complain later.

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!

“Over the top” in Arenal

Costa Rica is known as the land of the reasonably priced boutique hotel.  But sometimes, it is fun to splurge at a top resort, too. “Over the top”, is exactly how I would describe the new “The Springs Resort and Spa” at Arenal. We did not stay here, but we were invited to use the springs one evening. We went back the next day to tour the grounds and see the suites. 

springsThis property is owned and was developed by Lee and Cindy Banks, the owners and creators of the La Paz Waterfall Gardens and Peace Lodge. I first met Lee about ten years ago at the yearly tourism convention. He owned the land that was to become La Paz, and had just installed the first paths and walkways. Here was this young guy in probably the worst location in the exhibition hall. But you could tell he was a very dynamic person, very bright, and full of energy. The videos he had of the waterfalls were very impressive, and you could see that he was on to something. Over the years, we have all seen what La Paz has become. 

Was it possible to improve on La Paz? I would not have thought so. But this is an amazing development. My first impression of the place was that a whole teak forest died to construct the main building. It IS beautiful. I didn’t say anything, but I was a little sad. I perked up when it was pointed out to me that the wood was not teak at all. It was laurel, a local renewable wood. It was just stained to a teak color. The huge planks that supported the stairs, roof, etc. were not wood at all. It was the expertly painted concrete and fiberglass. The color and grain were a perfect match. Seamless. I know that it sounds Disneyish, but they did a great job of it. At least it is sustainable, and keeps the natural feel to the place. 

They were in a “soft opening”. Many of the amenities were still under construction. Men and women currently share the same spa. But eventually one whole floor (14,000 square feet) of the main building will be dedicated to the health club and separate men and women’s spas. There will be a casino too. Not my favorite activity, but there is a market for that kind of thing. There is a formal restaurant, and a more casual one. 

But the Springs were amazing. Twelve pools in all, with more on the way. Yes, this place is open to the public for day trips. But I don’t see it becoming as crowded as the other springs in the area. The pools are split between some modern ones of different temperatures, including one with a swim up bar. There are several more natural appearing pools with waterfalls, in the woods. These were our favorites. 

springsresort3There are several different room classes. From beautiful standard doubles, to full blown villas. All high end, and very well done. This is not a cheap option by any means. Rates start at $375.00 per night in high season, and go all the way up to $1400.00 for two attached villas. 

The admission for a day package at the springs is $40.00 per person. Meals and beverages are extra.  

They are also opening a wild cat exhibit soon, and this will be included in the day package.  There was a shelter that was being closed near San Jose.  These were animals that for one reason or another could not be released in the wild.   There was a fear that the animals were going to be destroyed.  The owners here stepped in, and are putting the finishing touches on an exhibit of these beautiful creatures. 

In short, I think that the day package is definitely worth it. The rooms are worth the price, but not in everyone’s budget. Like the Peace Lodge, these will be great for honeymooners or just as a splurge. But even at this price point, I think they are a good value.

Ceviche, the perfect snack!

Gaia CevicheCeviche (also spelled Cerviche) is almost as important to Costa Rica Cuisine as the ubiquitous Gallo Pinto.  It can be found all over the country.  From bus station counters to high end restaurants, you will almost always find this fish cocktail on the menu.

I live in New Orleans, and I am a gumbo junkie.  Working from essentially the same ingredients and spices, everyone here produces a different gumbo.  All local cooks have their own recipe, and all are (usually) delicious.  I almost always order a cup or bowl of gumbo when I see it on a menu.  I want to taste everyone’s individual creation.

Ceviche is the same way.  It is served throughout Latin America.  Every country, and every cook, has their own spin.  But the basic ingredients in Costa Rica are fresh fish, lime juice, minced onions, cilantro and minced peppers.  Some cooks add fresh pepper and salt as well.  There are some variations and secret ingredients, and it is always delicious.  The fish varies.  Most of the time it is either Tilapia or Corvina (Sea Bass).  I have also enjoyed excellent shrimp Ceviche.  I have even had “meatless” Ceviche, that is made with chayote (a Latin squashlike veggie) or mangos.   Ceviche is never actually cooked over heat.  The trick here is that the dish is marinated in the lime juice, and the citric acid “cooks” the fish.  It also adds a very nice astringent feeling on the palate.   This is the perfect refreshing and cool snack to enjoy at a beach side soda (small outdoor restaurant) with a cold brew. 

Some places serve it with soda crackers, and some with tortilla chips.  I prefer crackers.  I also usually prefer tilapia over corvina, because I sometimes detect a slight fishy flavor in the corvina.  But both are fine.  The spices are usually pretty mild.  So most of the time, I mix in a dash or two of hot sauce. 

I have “researched” this extensively.  In no particular order, here is a list of my favorite ceviche in Costa Rica.  So Far!

  • Orquideas Inn, Alajuela.  Served in a half a coconut shell, this tilapia ceviche gets high marks for presentation.  But presentation means nothing if the ceviche isn’t good.  This is very good.  We stay at the hotel frequently, and this is usually what I am looking for as soon as I clear customs.  I know that I have arrived in Costa Rica when I am sitting at the Marilyn Monroe bar with a Bavaria Gold and a “bowl” of this excellent ceviche.
  • Salsipuedas, Manuel Antonio.  All the fish at this tapas restaurant and friendly bar is good.  The owner’s father once held the commercial fishing concession in this area.  He grew up working with fish, and knows how to buy the freshest.  Reasonably priced and mildly spiced.  This is a great appetizer to enjoy before digging into the excellent fresh tuna (done several ways) and watching another beautiful sunset from their open terrace.
  • Hotel Gaia, also in the Manuel Antonio area.  A more upscale version, with some different ingredients.  But this restaurant serves some amazing food, and the ceviche is no different.  We like their Euro feeling and elegant open air restaurant, that feels more like seaside Italy than Costa Rica. 
  • Palenque Garabito.  Located on the Pan American highway, between Puntarenas and the turnoff to Monteverde.  This is a roadside soda, that is a slight cut above your typical soda.  Of course it is open air, casual, and inexpensive.  But the waiters wear ties, and seat you.  The ceviche here, is an always fresh corvina version.   This is a required stop for us whenever we pass by.  During football (soccer) season, all the waiters line up in the dining area to watch the game and kibbutz with the Tico clients.  True local color.

If you happen to come across really good ceviche during your travels, let me know.  I am always up for more research.  Buen Provecho!

The Painted Oxcart, from humble vehicle to national symbol

 PAINTED OXCARTThe town of Sarchi has become well known as the home of that colorful symbol of Costa Rica, the painted ox cart.  Yes, miniature versions have become popular as mini bars purchased by tourists to ship home.  But the history of the ox cart is much more interesting, and they have played a very important part in the economic development of this country. 

During the colonial period, they were used for the transportation of coffee, sugar cane, tobacco and other agricultural products.  Teams of two oxen would pull the product laden carts down the treacherous paths from the Central Valley to Puntarenas for eventual export.  On the return trip, they would be filled with manufactured goods from Europe.  This includes the famous metal church in Grecia, a small town near Sarchi.  This huge church was prefabricated in Belgium in the 1890’s, and shipped to Puntarenas.  It was then transported piece by piece by hundreds of the relatively tiny oxcarts, a process that took a period of several years.  If you visit this magnificent edifice, take a moment to think about the drivers from a century ago, walking every step next to their oxen, and exposed to the elements.  It was a difficult life. 

The owners of the oxcarts painted the carts to preserve them.  But as time went by, the painting became more and more elaborate.  A kind of competition eventually developed over who not only had the finest team of oxen, but who had the most beautiful cart.  A national icon was born.  Nowadays, you can still find the occasional ox cart in use in the rural areas.  However modern truck tires have replaced the gaily painted solid wooden wheels, and you usually won’t see the intricate designs of days gone by. 

But the painted oxcart lives on as a locally beloved art form.  When you are in Sarchi, stop by one of the oxcart factories to purchase souvenirs.  Take some time to check out the artisans working in the rear.  They fabricate the different wooden parts on site.  If you are lucky, you will see them methodically laying down the layers of paint necessary in each design.

In 1988, the government designated the painted oxcart as the National Symbol of Work.  This was in recognition of the huge contribution that the humble oxcart made to the economic and social development of Costa Rica.

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?