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!

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.

The Quakers of Monteverde

In the 1948, four young Quaker men in Fairhope, Alabama declined to register for the draft. This was shortly after WWII, and feelings of national patriotism were running high.  To stand up for their beliefs at this particular point in time was an extremely courageous decision. 

The young men were sentenced to a short prison term, of which they served four months (one young man served a little longer).  Upon their release, the young men returned to Fairhope.  Along with their families and other members of their meeting, they began to discuss the possibility of leaving the United States and make the move to a less militarized country.  They considered several Central American countries, before eliminating them for various reasons. 

Costa Rica turned out to be the perfect choice.  The government was stable (the oldest democracy in Central America), the economy seemed sound, and the country had recently abolished its military.  In October 1950, a group left Fairhope to travel overland for the arduous journey to Costa Rica.  Over the next year or so, a total of 48 Fairhope Quakers arrived in Costa Rica.  More joined the group in Costa Rica later. 

Several locations were considered around the country, before they hit upon this mountaintop.  The group was able to purchase 3400 acres, and the community was established in mid 1951.  When you think about it, this was really an amazing undertaking.  Some may even say foolhardy.  Many of these people were not farmers back in the US.  There was no electricity, no telephones, no hospital, nor a school.  Plus, if you think the road up the mountain is bad now, can you imagine what it was like a half century ago?!  But they had a strong community and an even stronger will.  Eventually, the community thrived and became what you see today. 

Another interesting development from the Quaker influence here is the Monteverde Cloudforest Reserve.  The Quaker holdings at the very top of the mountain were originally set aside to preserve the watershed for the farms below.  This also preserved the delicate ecosystem that is a tropical cloud forest.  In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, the area was discovered by biologists.  Eventually, the Cloud Forest Reserve was established.  This also marked the beginning of tourism in Monteverde.   Tourism is an important source of income for the community today. 

This is an extremely brief history of the Quakers in Monteverde.  If you should be fortunate enough to visit, look into picking up a copy of the “Monteverde Jubilee Family Album”.  This was published in 2001 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the community.  Drawn from old letters and personal recollections, this is the most comprehensive record of the history of this area.  Even if you don’t know a soul here, it still makes fascinating reading.  Except for the occasional mention of generators and jeeps, it reads like something from the homestead days of the US.  The later chapters refer to much more recent developments in the area, including local conservation efforts, and educational opportunities. 

Look for the light green soft bound book at the Reserve gift shop or in the book store in Santa Elena.