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!

  • The bus station in Quepos.  I know that sounds strange.  The bus station snack bars don’t look like much.  But the food at these stops is usually the cheapest in town.  The ceviche here is particularly good, because this is a fishing town.  The owners have access to the freshest ingredients.
  • 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!

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.

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!

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.

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.

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! 


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. 


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. 


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. 


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. 


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. 


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. 


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. 


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. 


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.

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!

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!

“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.