Costa Rica

Recently contributor Rachel Cala took a trip with some friends to Costa Rica.  Here are her travel notes from her journey:

We arrived in San José, Costa Rica, and were met by our guide and driven to our beautiful hotel, Melia Cariari, just minutes from San José the capital city. 

After we settled in and viewed the pool we had dinner and met some of the other guests, 30 in all on our tour.  Costa Rica us about as big as  West Virginia and has about 5 million residents.  Spanish is the main language and about 70% of the population is Catholic.  For dinner we had chicken and beans and rice.   Dessert was delicious flan.  On our tour we had beans and rice three times a day, all prepared differently, depending on our locale.  At almost every meal we were treated  to freshly-picked bowls full of fresh mango, pineapple, watermelon and papaya.  We had a milk cake which was composed of a white cake saturated with three milks, condensed, pasteurized and evaporated.  Very tasty and refreshing.

The next day, we left by bus then transferred to boats waiting to wisk us to Tortuguera National Park.  Here we stayed at Pachira Lodge, so named for a beautiful flower that grows in abundance there.  The Lodge is  “going green” and is particularly careful not to waste electricity, which meant there was no air conditioning.  It didn’t matter, however, because we cooled ourselves by taking boat tours of the Rain Forest and using the beautiful pool, shaped like a turtle.  Also present at the pool were a family of howler monkeys which served as our alarm clock. Over 300 species of birds abound. 

It rains up to 500 inches a year in Costa Rica.  The canopy of the jungle shades the ground and the vines grow upwards to catch the rays of the sun. Sticks from a boro tree can be planted into the ground and grow rapidly.  They are used to form a natural fence around cow pastures.

The next day our boat took us to a native village where we could purchase souveniers.  We viewed many birds, a red-eyed frog,  and many turtles, who spawn eggs along the Tortueguera River.  We also saw many male anhingas (a water snake duck) with long necks, who dry their wings by spreading them on logs in the River.  We learned that the white-face monkey is the bad guy of the forest; they eat anything, including iguana and other baby monkeys.  Their predators are snakes and cats.  For dinner, we were served with a buffet of chicken, fish, rice and beans and a delicious coconut cake.

Our next venture was to Sarpiqui where we stayed at the Sueno Azul, which was a former cigar factory, modernized for our comfort.  The tricky part was that we had to cross a bridge by foot to reach it.  We saw a cashew tree and saw how it has three parts: on top of the plant is a flower, then an encasement with juice and finally on the bottom is a single nut,the cashew.  No wonder they are so expensive!  From here we left for a banana plantation which was being manned by many Nicaraguans.  The bananas are taken from the fields right to the packing plant, put in boxes while still green and sent to the USA. The packing is done in a large outdoor space with a roof over it.  

We stopped along the way at the home of our guide’s friend.  Maria Luise gave us a “heart of palms demo.”  She picked up the stalk, whacked it with her machete, split it open, chopped it and passed it around for us to taste.  Next she served us some that was already boiled, served along with ketchup and mayo.  Next, she served come that was chopped and mixed with lemon, cilantro, and red pepper.  She called it ceviche-  In some parts, of Costa Rica, hearts of palm is substituted for fish.   She also mixed heats of palm, chopped again,  with some rice and red pepper and served it on a tamale. 

Next on our stop was a pineapple farm.  They are picked green, at which point they stop ripening.  So make sure you buy a green one, because once they are yellow they start to go bad quickly. As they are picked and sorted by size, they are covered with a wax protectant then packed immediately for travel.  Costa Rica is the biggest producer of pineapple.  Dole started the processing, originally from Brazil.  There are 6 kinds of pineapple plants.  While at this farm, our guide picked a juicy pineapple, trimmed it with a machete right on the bus and gave us each a taste-how sweet it was,   Imagine farm picked and eaten right on the soil.  Some of the smaller pineapples are used for jams and cooking.

That night we drove up to the Arenal Volcano, which  has almost daily activity.  The road was rocky and there were hair-pin turns.  But most buses had no problems with the roads as the drivers are used to the conditions. The next day we stopped at the Ecotermales Hot Springs for a dip in the curative and relaxing pools built into a beautiful old Spanish house and grounds.  That night we had chicken dinner with beans and rice, and birthday cake for one of our fellow tourists.

The following day, we visited a coffee plantation and learned how it is grown, in little cups to start the germinating process, then planted right into the ground.  They had just finished harvesting when we arrived. They grow eucalyptus trees to shade the coffee plants.  Incidentally, Starbucks is their biggest customer.  They roast their own coffee, but to make decaf, it is sent to Germany for decaffination, and then the caffeine is sent to various companies to make things like aspirin and soda pop. We tasted about five different types of coffee, all very strong for my palette, but I brought some home for my family who likes it strong.

There are 113 volcanoes in Costa Rica, so the next day we visited  the crater at Poas Volcano National Park, There we saw the giant caldera which is 5,000 feet by 1,000 feet. It is considerably cooler up closer to the top  and even the vegetation is different and much sparcer. There we were able to  see the caldera from above.   The nearby trees are growing rapidly, because since 1996 their President declared no more chain saws.  He was awarded Pulitzer prize for his efforts.

On our way back to our hotel we stopped at the beautiful La Paz waterfall for one last view of nature at it’s greenest and finest and a farewell dinner to our “30 new best friends” and then it was back home to the USA.

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