Just like Jamaica last year, Steve & I this year traveled to a place we never thought we’d go: Costa Rica. We honestly never had a desire to visit Central America; it simply had no appeal for either of us. However, when Dad proposed this trip as a way for the whole family (Mom, Dad, three daughters, three sons-in-law, two grandsons) together to go someplace new and celebrate Older Nephew‘s graduation, what were we to say?
Sure, Dad. We’re in.
So, tickets were bought last September, a house was rented for a week, and activities studied and contemplated by one and all. And, since Dad and my younger sister, Danyah (mother of the nephews/grandsons) had already visited Costa Rica, the rest of us relied on them for advice and travel tips. They also unsuccessfully tried convince everyone to go zip lining.
For those of you who don’t know too much about Costa Rica, I’m going to attempt to give you a quick primer: Costa Rica is in the southern part of Central America between Nicaragua and Panama. Because it’s less than 700 miles due north from the Equator, the climate is tropical year-round (basically, it has two seasons – wet and dry). It’s sandwiched between the Caribbean on the eastern shore, the Pacific on the western shore, and a whole lot of tropical rain and humid forests with a few arid areas in between. The daylight and nighttime hours are split almost evenly (the sun would rise at about 6am and set about 5:30-6pm). More than one-third of the country has been placed under some sort of environmental protection, making it one of the most bio-diverse nations on Earth. In fact, in 2012, it had the highest environmental ranking of all the Americas.
The economy of Costa Rica has hit a rough patch over the last 3 – 4 years, but it is still one of the strongest in the Central American region. Its main economic sources are tourism (especially eco-tourism), electronics (mostly cash registers and calculators), and agriculture (bananas, coffee, sugar, rice, ornamental plants, potatoes, etc.).
Costa Rica was believed to be first inhabited about 10,000 years BCE by peoples from the Mesoamerican and Andean regions, and was still sparsely populated by its indigenous people (namely the Bribri and Maleku) before coming under Spanish rule in the 1560’s. It remained an outer colony of the Spanish Empire until independence as part of the First Mexican Empire (1821-23), followed by membership in the United Provinces of Central America (1823-1840; several more attempts were made to continue the union until 1885), from which it formally declared sovereignty in 1847. Following a brief but bloody civil war in 1948, it permanently abolished its army in 1949, becoming one of the few world nations with no standing army.
Even after Costa Rica gained its independence from Spain and declared full sovereignty in 1847, years of invasion, American colonialism – both political and economic, yellow fever, dictatorship, and civil wars, it finally becomes a democratic nation in 1949 when then-president Josè Figueres Ferrer (father of Costa Rica’s “unarmed” democracy) declared a new constitution that granted full citizenship and voting rights to women and minorities. He also created the foundation for the country’s modern welfare state. Indigenous peoples were finally granted rights of ownership in 1977, and the right to vote in 1994. However, the indigenous populations, like many in all of the Americas, still have their issues with the federal government taking over historically treatied lands and ignoring articles of protection.
In 1986, president Óscar Arias Sánchez, fully asserted Costa Rican independence by forcing out the Nicaraguan Contras the United States basically foisted upon his predecessor, Luís Alberto Monge, by again raising the banner of sovereignty and neutrality, and essentially drove them out of Costa Rica. Sánchez won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987 for uniting Central America and helping end the Nicaraguan War.
As it stands now, Costa Rica (literal translation: “Rich Coast”) is a green peaceful paradise with amazing wildlife, delicious food, wonderful people, and, as the Ticos like to say, “la pura vida”.
Day 1 – Monday, July 6
Steve & I drove to my parents on Sunday to be in full readiness for our 6am Monday flight. We had to leave the house by 4am so we could be at DFW Airport and at check-in by 4:30. As part of my over-anxiousness with anything having to do with air travel, I went ahead and checked Steve & I in online the day before. Dad parked in remote parking and so we hiked to the shuttle station for a ride to the terminal. We met up there with Sister Danyah’s crew. I couldn’t even see the airport from the parking lot. That’s when I decided I really do prefer smaller airports. That’s when I also realized I’d overpacked. Again.
After Steve & I checked our bags – and paying the additional $25 per – we headed to security leaving Mom & Dad with Danyah’s (Husband Heath, Older Son/Grandson/Nephew, and Younger Son/Grandson/Nephew) family to do their check-in. (Sister Haneen and Husband Mark were flying from Newark to meet up with us in Miami.)
We all kind of gathered again near the gate and then spread out to forage for caffeine and a breakfast-type snack. One of the few caffeine sellers open was Starbucks (ugh), so Steve got us each a beverage. Coffee for him, hot chocolate for me.
Finally, we all boarded. I distinctly felt like I was being herded onto a cattle truck. Only with a little extra leg room that I paid for and a cubby for my camera equipment. Not long after we had settled in, I heard from Danyah a couple of rows up that Haneen & Mark were delayed out of Newark at least 2 hours due to mechanical issues with their plane. Dad tried to contact them, but, no answer. Family theories started to make their way around. Dad basically said there was nothing anyone could do about it and he’d try to get in touch with them when we arrived in Miami.
After getting a lecture from the flight attendant about sitting in the exit row (Yes. I can open the exit door. Trust me, I’ll be the first one out.), I, for grins, took a look at the in-flight menu.
After this, the Dramamine took over and I essentially fell asleep until we landed in Miami.
Mom & Dad rushed off the plane to try to contact Haneen & Mark to check on their progress. The rest of us finally made our way off and headed to the next terminal and gate. (I have to say, Miami Airport is one of the most disorganized and confusing I’ve ever been through, and I’ve been through a lot of airports.)
When Mom & Dad finally caught up with us, they said they hadn’t been able to reach Haneen & Mark. Dad theorized that they likely caught a flight from Newark to Charlotte and then were going to meet us in San José. We all went with that; it sounded plausible.
After everyone had boarded, it was plain to see that it wasn’t a full flight. Once we were at cruising altitude, I moved over across to the aisle seat so I would feel like I had some breathing and spreading room (I was assigned the middle seat both flights). Bliss. Between dozing, reading, and talking to my sister, the flight was tolerable.
Finally, we landed in San José. Because our flight was early, we had to wait on the tarmac for 20 minutes before the plane was assigned a gate; I always figured this was planned somewhat in advance.
While we were waiting, the family grapevine passed the message that Haneen & Mark were only about 30 minutes behind us. They’d managed to re-book and be on their way sooner than we thought. Whew.
Then, there was passport control.
After queueing for 30 minutes, we discover that the flight attendant had given us the wrong forms to fill out. Or, rather, she had switched them – the family form and the immigration form. Hooray.
After the re-filling of the forms in the correct way and number and getting the passports stamped, we all met up at baggage claim where the bags were all neatly arranged and waiting for us. But, before we could leave the baggage area, one more security check. Just our luck, we were stuck behind a family who didn’t seem to know what they were doing; it was like they couldn’t figure out how to put their bags on the conveyor belt. Even Dad, the family model of patience, was about to lose it. Then, the other line cleared out and we took our opportunity. The entire Arafat clan got through while the other family was still plodding along.
Mom volunteered to wait in the security area for Haneen & Mark, but we persuaded her to go out with us; there was only one way out, so we decided they would figure out where to go.
Dad found our driver, Estilio, and enlisted him and everyone except he & Mom to take the luggage to the van that was going to take us on the 3-hour drive to Quepos.
My first impression of Costa Rica was green. So very green. The humidity hit me next. Then, the rain (we were there during the rainy season). However, despite being at the airport, the air still felt fresh and clean. Perhaps that was simply my brain fooling itself after being in airports and planes for the past 12 hours.
While we waited for the other two (Dad received continual updates on their progress), Danyah & I wandered a little.
Finally, after more than an hour of waiting, Haneen & Mark walk through the doors. And the rejoicing begins. However, Mark’s luggage had gone missing and he arrived with only his guitar in hand. The airline assured them that his bags would be delivered via courier the next day at the house in Quepos.
Ah… The joys of travel.
Mom & Dad finally rounded up the crew and we headed up to the van and Estilio. Dad asked him to stop somewhere for all of us to get something to eat since none of us had really eaten anything substantial since… a while ago. When Estilio asked him what we’d like, Dad said Costa Rican. Hell, we may as well plunge in.
Estilio took us to a restaurant in San José that was probably the best meal we had the entire trip – La Casona del Maíz (The House of Corn).
La Casona was a large, open-air restaurant with plenty of room to spread out. It seemed like it was built to blend into the landscape it adjoined. The rain had cooled the air, and while it was humid, the cooler temperature made it tolerable. The air circulation was certainly welcome.
Not long after we sat down, our server took our drink order (her in broken English, most of us in broken Spanish) and then she brought a couple of jars of some of the best pickled vegetables I’ve ever eaten. I ate a lot of the cauliflower out of the jar at my end of the table. It was just the right balance of tart and spicy. I’d like to think that they make these in-house.
Not long after we ordered our food, it started coming to the table.
Wow. Was it good. Better than good – amazing.
We came to the collective decision that if all the food in Costa Rica was as good as this, we were in for a great time.
While everyone was taking turns using the restroom, the rest of us stretched and wandered around the restaurant and simply took in the scenery.
Soon, we were all back in the van to Quepos. It’s only about 60km (about 38 miles) from San José if you go as the crow flies; but, because the only straight road is the Pan-American Highway, it’s really about 160km (about 100 miles) and takes about 2 – 3 hours to drive to Quepos. Most of the roads in Costa Rica, despite its excellent infrastructure, are small, winding, 2-lane affairs where you’re at the mercy of whatever is in the road and whomever is in front of you. I do have to give credit to the scooter and motorcycle drivers – they were a daring bunch of souls.
As everyone was conversing, dozing, or looking out the windows, we all began to notice that it was already getting dark, despite the fact it was only about 5pm. Certainly not something any of us expected. I can only speak for myself, but I suddenly felt very tired.
As we passed over a bridge, we noticed a large number of people looking over into the water. Estilio pulled over and told us that it was the Río Tarcoles and there were about 30 American Crocodiles living under the bridge. Who were we to say no to this.
After carefully walking either on the edge of the road or on the bridge walkway, there they were. In all their glory. And, because the weather was beginning to cool a little and it was getting dark, they were becoming more active.
After this little stop, we climbed back into the van and finished our journey to Quepos. It was fairly uneventful but it felt very long. I think everyone wanted just to get to the house. However, before we made it to the house, we had one more stop to make. We were meeting our property manager and local contact, Ana. Dad paid her for the week of our stay, got some paperwork, and we asked her a few basic questions about what we were to expect.
There was a full stocked kitchen equipment-wise, but we had to buy food. There was a laundry room and we could use their detergent. The maids come every day. There was air conditioning in the bedrooms. She and Estilio suggested that we go to the supermercado Maxi Palí to stock up on what we needed.
We didn’t see Ana again after that stop, but we talked to her quite frequently on the phone for the rest of the trip.
When we finally made it into Quepos, it was completely dark and only about 6:30. It felt so much later. Estilio pulled into the Maxi Palí parking lot and we all piled out. I have to say, trying to keep up with 10 people in a grocery store is like herding cats.
We stocked up on vegetables, fruit, cheese, bread, peanut butter, Nutella, Fresca, water, coffee, tea, sugar, lentils, eggs, tortillas, butter, juice, milk, the Costa Rican equivalent of Cheetos Puffs, a couple of shirts for Mark, and various OTC drugs. The guys also grabbed what they thought was a pound of bacon. (When I went to cook it a few days later, I noticed it was a kilo [2.2 lbs.].)
Finally, we made it to the house. Estilio had a little trouble finding it in the dark. The place we stayed was a gated community with no outside lighting. So, if one was unfamiliar with the roads, it was easy to get lost. Plus, to compound things, the hills felt like they were at a 45-degree angle. After a couple of aborted attempts, Estilio finally found the house – Happy Jacana.
I can’t remember who got the door unlocked, but I know I was one of the first in and managed to find the light switch in the pitch dark. Upon first glance, the house looked lovely, if a little stuffy, climate-wise. But, whatever; we just wanted to get the van unloaded, stake out our rooms, get the groceries put away, and go to bed.
There were two bedrooms in the main house while the rest of them were either separate or on a different level. Mom & Dad and Steve & I took the bedrooms in the main house; because, you know, we could. So, while Steve took our bags upstairs, Mom tasked me with putting away the groceries. Then, she took her & Dad’s bags up to their room while Dad helped everyone else find their rooms. It wasn’t easy in an unfamiliar house in the dark. I think it took close to an hour for everyone to find and pick their rooms and get settled in.
As for putting away the groceries, I put everything I could in the refrigerator when I noticed the various ant trails in the house.
Well, I figured, we’re in the tropics; not much we can do about the ants. Besides, the house geckos seemed to be enjoying their feast.
I think we were all in bed by 8:30-ish. Collective exhaustion had taken over.
But, just when we thought the fun was over, a transformer blew somewhere nearby and the electricity went out in the neighborhood about 9pm. I could hear Dad stumbling downstairs to call Ana. Whatever she managed to do, it worked. The electricity was back on by 11pm. Thank goodness. I was about to give up and go sleep by the pool. To hell with the bugs and whatever animals might wander by.
(A couple of notes here: a) We decided early on in the planning of this trip that everyone would do their own thing; we couldn’t and/or wouldn’t all be joined at the collective hip. I’m basically writing about what I, and those who were with me for various excursions, did during the trip; b) Also, because I can’t possibly write about what everyone ate every time we were together, I’m writing about my meals and, again, those who were with me or sitting near me in the restaurants or at the house.)
Day 2 – Tuesday, July 7
A little about Quepos: It is basically considered the gateway to Manuel Antonio National Park (7km – about 4-1/2 mi.) and is known for the abundance of sport fishing in the area. The town itself has a population of less than 30,000. The town is in the Central Pacific Region on the Pacific Coast and is the administrative center of the Puntarenas Province.
Quepos is a fairly small town that has managed, for the most part, to keep a decent balance between the needs of the local citizens and tourists. The town is laid out, grid-like, and, while there are no street signs, is still easy to get around if you simply pay attention to the landmarks. It’s not the most picturesque place, but, the locals are friendly, the food and nightlife are great, and it was within walking distance from our house.
There was one main road that ran in front of the gates of our enclave – go right, Quepos; left, the road to Manuel Antonio. Most of the higher-priced restaurants, hotels, and general tourist stuff was on this road. For the most part, we opted to stay and do business in Quepos.
I was fully awake by 5:30am. I went downstairs figuring that I might be the first one or just my mom. Nope. Mom, Danyah, and Haneen were all downstairs already. I think we all silently decided to enjoy quiet conversation for as long as we could because, when the menfolk decided to stir, quiet would be over for the day.
After my breakfast of green tea and peanut butter on toast, I went back upstairs to grab my camera and get my first real photos of the landscape around our rented house.
At this point, it was about 7:30 – 8am and just about everyone else was up and moving. Breakfast was (as it was most days) a fend-for-yourself affair. I was pretty obsessive about making sure the kitchen stayed as clean as possible because of the ants. Once everyone started throwing out their trash, the ants tended to congregate around the trash can. I was content to let them have at it if it kept them out of the rest of the kitchen.
After breakfast, Younger Nephew and I decided to have a look around in front.
I’m no botanist, but I know what I like, plant-wise. And just like in Jamaica, I remembered my love and enjoyment of tropical plants in Costa Rica.
After I took the picture of the Monkey Comb fruit, I saw my first Iguana in the wild. I was so excited, I wanted to get my wide angle lens. I wasn’t paying attention and walked right on into the wrong house. Luckily, they were nice about it after I apologized profusely. I told them there was an Iguana on their roof and I was just going to grab a piece of camera equipment so I could get a better shot. They came out with one of their children and had a look. It was then that I took my opportunity to get the shot and sneak off.
Younger Nephew was just standing there. Smiling. Punk.
When I went back to the correct house, I went to the back balcony again and chatted some more with Mom and whoever else was out there. Then, Mom saw it. A huge Iguana in the trees perfectly in our line of sight. She went to get her binoculars so we could all get a better look.
It was a large male Green Iguana out for a little morning sun and to, I presume, survey his kingdom.
It was time to get ready. Danyah, Dad, Heath, Older Nephew, Younger Nephew, and I were all heading to the beach at Manuel Antonio. Our original plan was to go to the beach in the park; however, when we arrived, the line for tickets was crazy long. Plus, we had no idea that we would have to pay $15 a head to get in just to go the beach. So, we asked our driver to turn around and take us back the public beach next door. It was lovely and free.
So, with a promise to pick us up at 11:30, the driver dropped us off.
Playa Espadilla (also known as Manuel Antonio Beach #2) is a large beach with a mix of dark gray and yellow sand. It’s popular with locals and tourists alike. There were vendors walking around hocking everything from pottery to coconut water still in the nut. The beach wasn’t too crowded and the rain held off, so it made for a pleasant morning.
Swimming in the ocean isn’t something I do often. I had to remember to keep my mouth shut so I wouldn’t swallow a bunch of salt water every time a wave hit.
Also, my attempts at body surfing were unsuccessful.
As always, I wandered a bit. I was done swimming for the time being. Plus, I was starting to feel a little sick from the sea water I swallowed.
Not long after this, Heath came out of the water to rest – the boys refused to came out of the water until we basically forced them to right before the taxi arrived. Dad, Danyah, and I took a walk around the beach.
While the others were packing up our belongings, I ventured back into the ocean to get the Nephews. They weren’t too thrilled about having to actually get back on dry land. We probably could’ve left them there and it would’ve taken them hours to notice.
So, back to the house to clean the beach sand off of weird places on one’s body and rinse out the swimsuits.
For our first full day in Costa Rica, it was decided that we’d go into Quepos for lunch. I don’t think we really had a plan; just find a place that looked good. We came upon a restaurant called Restaurante el Jardin del Mar (essentially “Restaurant Garden of the Sea). The food there was good and there was a lot of it. The restaurant wasn’t large, but it was open-air, and great for people-watching.
After lunch, there was the usual debate when you’re with a large group as to what everyone was going to do next. While this was happening, Steve and Haneen went onto a nearby book and record store. About 10 minutes later, they came back and told Mom and I about a tour at a spice plantation on Wednesday. I must have given Steve a look of pure joy, because he said “I can tell by the look on your face, you’re in”. Haneen went back to the store and booked Mom, Dad, Steve, herself, and me on the tour.
After this, I, Mom, Heath, and I can’t remember who else, decided to take the taxi back to the house while everyone else stayed in town for a little longer.
Later in the afternoon, this happened. A small show was put on for us by the local family of Red Back Squirrel Monkeys. We were told that there was a good chance we would see some monkeys during our stay. The best thing to do was just watch them and stay out of their way. Don’t engage or feed them. They bite.
I didn’t do much the rest of the day. I swam a little in the pool, read, rested, and was generally quiet. Dinner was a fend-for-yourself event. In fact, I’m not even sure I ate dinner.
Day 3 – Wednesday, 7/8
Mom, Dad, Haneen, Steve, and I were outside waiting before 9am for the bus to take us to our tour to Villa Vanilla. And, we waited. at about 9:15-ish, Haneen went back inside to call the tour operator to see what was up. Turned out there was a small strike among taxi drivers that day because the government reneged on a promised salary hike. But, once our bus picked up some of the other tour attendees and made it through the traffic, they’d be by to pick us up.
So, in the meantime, we entertained ourselves.
Finally, the bus arrived and we were on our way. There were about a dozen more people joining us on the tour.
The trip to Villa Vanilla took about 45 minutes. It’s only about 16km/10 miles way from Quepos, but once you’re outside of the main town and on the way to Naranjito, the roads become a little less vehicle-friendly.
We arrived at the plantation and were greeted by our guide for the day, Giselle. She was wonderful. The first thing she did was take us to a small building on the property to show us how the process the cinnamon, vanilla beans, and, unexpectedly, cocoa beans and turmeric.
The cinnamon trees they grow are ones that produce Ceylon cinnamon (the kind we know more here in the US is Cassia). Ceylon cinnamon is finer in texture and sweeter than cassia cinnamon. (Giselle kept calling it “true cinnamon”.) Both are from the second layer of tree bark, but the cassia is much more dense and hard. (Here in the US, you can find Ceylon cinnamon at Mexican/Latin markets. It’s labeled “canela”.)
Cinnamon trees grow in the tropics and it takes 8 years before a tree is ready to be harvested. The outer bark is scraped off and the inner (second) layer of bark (the cinnamon) is then carefully shaved off, dried, and stored. The remaining wood is used for firewood and/or made into charcoal that they use at the plantation.
After the cinnamon lecture was over, Giselle opened up the ovens for us so we could see what they were currently drying: cinnamon, cayenne peppers, and turmeric.
The next thing she talked about was cacao. They don’t grow enough on the farm for it to be commercially viable for them except as ground cocoa. Which is too bad, because we each got a small sample of how good their chocolate can be.
After the cocoa, Giselle started talking to us about vanilla beans. We quickly learned why they are so expensive.
The vanilla vine takes 2 years to become mature enough to grow the flowers needed for pollination. Because the flowers are only open for a few hours (3-4) one time, hand-pollinating is necessary to make sure that there will be a crop. This is done by running a small, thin stick through the pollen and then fertilizing another flower. Once the fruit begins to grow, it takes 6 months for it to come to full maturity. The immature pods are dark green; the pods are picked when there is dark yellow coloration at the tip of the pod and it begins to split slightly. At this point, the harvest is continual to be sure that the pods are picked before they over-ripen.
Once the pods are picked, the drying process takes 2 months and then the pods are aged for 1 year before they are packaged and sold.
Giselle said that the pods will last for 60 (yes – 6.0.) years if they are kept in a sealed glass jar in a dark, cook place.
When we were done with the ripe beans, Giselle, now joined by her son, Roy, began the tour of the grounds.
Giselle showed us a cocao tree growing in the front of the property. She explained that the pods aren’t ripe until they have turned yellow.
We began our journey through the rest of the plantation. It was dense with vegetation and wildlife. And, it was absolutely fascinating and beautiful.
Giselle stopped at the composting shed to show us what they use around the plantation. It is the usual mix of dead vegetation, some shredded wood, and sheep manure.
I did wonder what an immature one would be like. The thought did briefly cross my mind to pick and pocket one. Then, I thought the better of it.
It was at this point that I realized I had stopped listening to Giselle and became absorbed in taking photos. I honestly felt a little guilty.
But, Roy was there to help. Plus, I think he had a little crush on my sister.
Here was a surprise. Allspice (Pimento) trees. Allspice is grown all over the Caribbean. We didn’t see any berries on the trees, but Giselle pulled a couple of leaves off the tree. They smelled like allspice, too. I certainly wasn’t expecting that.
Next, we stopped by a pepper vine. I always thought peppercorns grew on bushes. She pulled off a bunch so each person could try a peppercorn.
I find them to be far more spicy fresh than they are dried. I couldn’t finish mine.
Peppercorns are green when they are harvested. After harvesting, the peppercorns are boiled briefly to clean them. The heat ruptures the outer membrane and this causes the peppercorns to turn black as they dry. White pepper comes from the outer husk being rubbed off. Green peppercorns retain their color with the addition of sulphur dioxide during the drying process. Green peppercorns can also be pickled. Pink peppercorns are actually members of the cashew family and generally aren’t considered to be real peppercorns. (Black pepper is part of the Piperaceae family.)
At the end of the tour, we were directed to a roofed, open-air seating area for a tasting. I don’t know if any of us knew about it so it was a wonderful surprise. All of the food either came from the farm or the nearby village.
Next up came the biggest surprise of the tasting. Cinnamon Tea.
It was literally the cinnamon from the plantation steeped in water for 12 hours. We all thought it had sugar in it. Nope. No sugar. Giselle insisted that the type of cinnamon used makes all the difference.
I will say right here that I am highly allergic to cinnamon. However, I really had to try this. While I didn’t have the reaction I was expecting, I did feel a little like I was on an alcohol buzz. It was a strange feeling.
Next up, Giselle broke open a ripe cacao pod for everyone to try. it’s really hard to believe that these raw white beans would’ve eventually became really good chocolate.
Next on the menu was a wonderful vanilla bean ice cream with a spicy chocolate cookie. Again, most, if not all, the ingredients were from the plantation.
Then, there was vanilla bean cheesecake with a bit of unsweetened chocolate sauce on top. It was a lighter texture than I’m accustomed to; in other words, it wasn’t New York cheesecake.
Giselle finished off the tasting with some unsweetened hot chocolate (we had our choice between regular and spicy cocoa [they put a bit of cayenne pepper in their spicy mix]) and a cocoa nib cookie. I think the cookie was everyone’s favorite.
Once the tasting was over, we all went (of course) to the gift shop where almost everyone stocked up on spices. I bought cinnamon sticks, cocoa, turmeric, cocoa nibs, cayenne peppers, and vanilla beans. I’m mot sure what Haneen or Mom bought, but I know Mom outbought me.
Unfortunately, Villa Vanilla doesn’t have mail order. They only sell from the plantation or in a few towns nearby. They also supply some of the local restaurants.
Huh. Now that I think about it, I wonder if it would be feasible for them to set up at the farmers market in Quepos. Or, if they even want to.
On the drive back, Mom & I decided that this was the best part of the trip. No matter what else we did, nothing would top this.
We were the first to be dropped off when the bus arrived back in Quepos. It was still fairly early in the day, so Haneen decided to do a little cooking so everyone could have some lunch. She made some egg salad, tuna salad with apples (I was surprised at ow good it was), and my favorite, a tabouli variation, but with lentils instead of cracked wheat. There really wasn’t anything left after all 10 of us landed on the food.
I come from a family of good eaters.
The running joke all week was how many bags of cheesy poofs we went through during the week. My count was 6.
After lunch, I cleaned up and rested for a while. That’s really all I had the energy to do in the middle of the day when the humidity was over 90%.
Later in the afternoon, I walked into town with Dad and Danyah. She needed to get some aloe for the boys’ sunburns and we needed more groceries (we were out of cheesy poofs).
Whenever we would walk into town, there was this one particular house we would always pass. We finally nicknamed it The Chicken Lady’s House. She had no less than 20 roosters, chickens, and pullets running around at any one time. She became our landmark going and coming.
After a successful shopping trip, we headed back to the house and passed the night uneventfully.
Day 4 – Thursday, 7/9
Another activity day. Some were heading out for zip lining, some ATV-ing, some of us (me, Mom, Steve) were headed to do a walking tour in Manuel Antonio National Park.
A walking tour is generally in my wheelhouse.
We were picked up by our absolutely fabulous guide, Pablo, and, after picking up a Dutch couple from their hotel, we were on our way to the park.
Manuel Antonio National Park was founded in 1972 so the region’s biodiversity could be protected from developers who were already decimating the surrounding areas. The local people convinced the central government to set aside and protect the land so it could be protected and so everyone could enjoy its beauty. It’s names after the conquistador who was buried near the park.
It is Costa Rica’s smallest park (1700 acres), but boasts almost 300 species of animals. Because of the size of the park, only 600 visitors during the week and 800 visitors on the weekends are allowed in the park at any one time. The popularity of the park belies its size; it’s basically the Yellowstone of Costa Rica.
Our first stop was at a tree near the park’s entrance. Pablo (who’s been doing tours of the park for 20 years) immediately spotted a frog in the tree. It took a while for the rest of us to see it.
After this first stop, we made it into the park. Almost immediately, Pablo set up his small telescope and pointed another creature out to us.
The park was crowded with both tourists and locals either on tours, walking on their own, or just heading to the beach. All the guides pointed out sights to each other (they’re a fairly close group) so no one – guides or visitors – would miss anything.
(Some of the photos I took were through the viewfinder of Pablo’s telescope; hence, the odd framing. They still look cool, though.)
And then, we saw them… Sloths. Two- and Three-Toes sloths are both common in the park. They are both arboreal, leaf-eaters, and are mainly nocturnal (although they can be active during the day). However, the Three-Toes Sloth cannot support its own body weight, so it only comes down to the ground once a week to defecate in a small hole it digs with its stubby tail; it is also a good swimmer. The Two-Toed Sloth can support its weight and is known to crawl on the ground.
We were also told by Pablo, they don’t make the best moms. The baby clings to their fur, but, if it falls off, the mother generally isn’t willing to climb down from the safety of the tree to retrieve it.
We would see more sloths, but first, other flora and fauna.
We finally made it to the beach. After traipsing through the humidity of the forest, the open air was welcome.
We stayed for about 30 minutes and rehydrated, rested, and took a few (more) photos.
We watched the raccoons search around for food in the usual places you would think (i.e. trashcans), but they weren’t shy about digging around in peoples’ belongings. And you thought only monkeys did that.
Then, we looked up; along just about everyone else on the beach.
She was just hanging out in the tree right above the beach. If she hadn’t’ve started moving, no one would’ve noticed her. As slow as people say sloths are, she moved around quite quickly and deftly. Also, the baby did its job and held on.
Steve & I walked around a little on the beach. But, it was very high tide at the time we were there, so there wasn’t much beach to walk on if you didn’t want to get wet. Pablo told us that the reason the tide was so high so late in the morning was because they were expecting a tropical storm later in the evening. If it happened, it didn’t make it to Quepos.
After this, we started the walk back to the bus. As fun as the tour was, we were ready to go.
We finally made our way out of the park. I noticed that the main gates were closed and we had to go through a sort of turnstile to the right (think the NYC subway). I figured the quota must’ve been reached and, if they were letting people in, it was on a one-on-one basis.
I decided to grab some coconut water for me, Mom, and Steve. I found a vendor who guaranteed his was cold, so, I bought some. Right in the shell. the price was right, too. 300₡ (Costa Rica Colones – about $.75)
Better than water at helping one’s thirst. Tasted better, too.
On the drive back to Quepos, we asked Pablo what his favorite place is to eat in town, he suggested a soda (small mom & pop local restaurants) called Soda y Pollo Frito Junior. Mom, Steve, and I were all hungry, and Pablo hadn’t steered us wrong all day, so we took his suggestion.
It was the second best meal we had in Costa Rica.
After lunch, we caught a cab back to the house and spent the afternoon talking about each others’ excursions. Finally, I cleaned up, had a nap, and was ready to stay in and just be quiet.
Mark had noticed a restaurant on the road towards Manuel Antonio – Emilio’s Cafe. He said it looked good, they had live music, and wanted to give it a try.
Sure. Why not?
But first, we had to contend with a couple of things.
To begin with, Older Nephew had a rather nasty sunburn that had kept him up the night before and had been made worse during the day. He said he’d worn sunscreen, but didn’t reapply. As Danyah put aloe on his back, it was decided that he was to stay at the house while we went out. He didn’t object.
Second – Some Capuchin Monkeys decided to give us a visit.
I don’t know how long they stayed.
As we were leaving, Steve told Older Nephew that he expected three of the monkeys trained when he got back: a butler, an accordion player, and a cymbal player. Older Nephew just gave him with a “yeah. right.” look.
When we arrived at Emilio’s, we discovered there was Flamenco that night. Cool.
It’s a nice space overlooking the ocean with a studied rustic charm.
The menu was billed as “Mediterranean”, but it was most definitely a fusion of Mediterranean and Costa Rican.
I wasn’t really all that hungry, so I opted for basically an appetizer for dinner. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to have a Passionfruit Mojito, though.
I was a little disappointed. The only passionfruit I could discern was the seeds. I drank it, though.
We decided to go all out on dinner; appetizers (entradas), salads (ensaladas), main courses (platos fuerte), and desserts (postres).
Younger Nephew, out resident Potato Connoisseur, helped out those who couldn’t finish their potatoes. I think he ordered the same thing I did and it wasn’t quite enough for him; he’s a growing 15-year old after all.
Then, dessert. Apparently, Emilio’s is known for its desserts and is quite proud of that fact. The waiter will take you to the display case where you pick your dessert like you’d pick a lobster in a tank. Then, they bring it to you in a floursh 15 minutes later.
I had Coconut Flan (that I failed to photograph). It was good, but nothing memorable. While the coconut flavor was definitely pronounced, the texture was a bit grainy; like it had been cooked just a little too long.
After dessert was finished, the Flamenco started. Now, I love Flamenco guitar and dancing. I find it, well, sensual. This group didn’t disappoint. They were fun to watch, and were all terrific performers. I have no idea whether they were local or a touring group. As far as I know, Flamenco isn’t native to Costa Rica. However, I’m sure with the Spanish colonization, it was introduced to the region at some point.
Unfortunately, we had asked our cab to pick us up at the restaurant at 7:30. We didn’t know about the Flamenco (it started at 7) and there was no way to contact the driver. So, a few of us decided to go ahead and go back to the house (me included – I was exhausted and starting to not feel well). We had to ask the driver to come pick up the rest of our group at 8:30. He didn’t look at all pleased by this; I think he just wanted to go home.
I asked later if he got a really big tip. Mom assured me he did.
Steve was disappointed that Older Nephew hadn’t used his time wisely and trained a monkey butler.
Day 5 – Friday 7/10
Overall, it was a pretty quiet day for me. I did make breakfast for most of the crew because we still hadn’t touched the bacon. So, I scrambled the rest of the eggs, fried up most of the bacon (there was no way I was going to stand over the stove and cook one kilo of bacon), put out some cheese, made some toast, and heated up some tortillas. Everyone who ate breakfast seemed happy. I finally managed to get a few strips of bacon and a couple of tortillas.
Then, I went all housewife and did my & Steve’s laundry. Ana had managed to get the maids to leave the laundry room key so we could use the facilities. It was like a dungeon down there. And, since my Spanish isn’t great, I had to use process of elimination as to which container held the laundry detergent. I finally got lucky. Then, there were the machines; their settings were in Spanish, too. (Well, of course they would be.) I must’ve done all right because I didn’t ruin any of our clothes.
About mid-morning, I walked down to Quepos with Dad. He wanted to check out the marina take a look around town.
We decided to walk down to the sea wall and towards the marina. The weekly farmers market takes place on the wall, and I wanted to be sure I knew where it was.
The next few photos are some of the bench art by the wall. I think there were about a dozen in all.
When we got to the wall, the breeze was a blessing. It was a hot, humid day with almost no breeze in the canopy.
We finally made it down to the marina. The marina was opened in 2010 as a way to rebuild the old pier built by the United Fruit Company and as a way to bring in new business and jobs to the town. It has some upper-end restaurants and shopping on the grounds, but the real viewing was all of the fishing boats and yachts the 1% keep at the slips.
I felt like I was spending money just standing there. The marina did look a little incongruous given the surroundings.
After exploring the marina, Dad and I decided to get some lunch. We went back to Soda y Pollo Frito Junior. I couldn’t resist.
After lunch, I did a little gift/souvenir shopping while Dad talked to the tour operator next door about something. After this, we headed back to the house and settled in for the afternoon.
That night, Steve & I decided to have a date night. We simply wanted to have a little time alone. Pablo told us of a place he liked called La Cantina on the Manuel Antonio road. He said they had great barbecue, especially their ribs.
Since it was on the Manuel Antonio road, I was skeptical of how good the food could really be. The restaurants on the road are generally catering to tourists rather than locals and the food can be rather dumbed down.
The first thing I noticed when our taxi dropped us off was the cold case carousel of entrees by the front entrance – for me, never a good sign. The second thing was the very heavy look to the place. As with all of the restaurants we’d been in so far, this one was open-air, but the very heavy wood furniture and fixtures still made the place seem somewhat claustrophobic.
To mitigate this feeling, I went all ’70’s and ordered a Piña Colada. I felt it matched the decor.
After the waiter took our order (we didn’t get any barbecue), we saw Squirrel Monkeys frolicking in the trees. They were a big favorite for all of the tourists in the restaurant. Any locals and the staff were unimpressed. I guess they see this every day.
After the monkey show, dinner arrived.
After dinner, we decided to go downstairs and see some music and get some dessert. The combo was a trio of local guys who sang old standards and Spanish cover versions of American pop songs. They weren’t great, but one had to give them an “E” for effort.
The staff seemed to be either overwhelmed or disorganized – it was hard to tell. The restaurant wasn’t that busy since it was still relatively early. Since our cab was picking us up at 8:30, and they seemed to be dragging their feet on getting Steve’s dessert and coffee, I had to do one of the things I know servers hate – ask them to speed it up because we had to leave. (I didn’t say exactly that, but you get my meaning.)
Steve finished, we paid, and we went to meet our taxi.
When we got back to the house, everyone else was there having a pizza party. I guess they enjoyed it because there was only one slice of cheese pizza left.
As I was falling asleep, I could hear the Howler Monkeys.
Day 6 – Saturday, 7/11
Honestly, this was the day I’d been looking forward to all week: Farmers Fair (Ferias del Agricultor). The ferias is set up on Friday night and is up and running full blast by Saturday morning. We went early to beat the heat and crowds.
When I mentioned this to Mom before we left on the trip, I asked her if she wanted to go. Her affirmative response was immediate. Steve decided to tag along, too.
It was another humid morning – as one would expect from the tropics – but once we were down at the sea wall, the breezes really helped to mitigate the oppressiveness.
It was a wonderful market. There were vendors who sold shoes and underwear, some who sold souvenirs, but most sold fresh produce.
For the more wide-angle shots, I didn’t really find it necessary to ask the vendors if I could take photos. I’m sure they either didn’t notice or they’re used to it. However, if I was going to buy from and photograph a stand specifically, I would ask the vendor, “¿Peudo tomar su photo?” – May I take your photo? They were all very nice about it and said “sí”. It’s just a courtesy thing.
Steve went looking for breakfast for he & I while Mom & I were shopping. He came across a gentlemen selling tamales. Tamales for breakfast? Yes, please.
Those tamales were damn delicious. And, I couldn’t finish the second one. I tried to get Mom to try some, but she said she’d already eaten and wasn’t hungry.
We left shortly after this. It was time to get moving and the tweakers nearby were starting to concern us a little.
Steve decided to stay in town and look around while Mom and I took our purchases back to the house. On the way, I ducked into a carnecería and bought a half kilo of chicharron. They were still warm from the fryer.
I spent most of the afternoon finishing my & Steve’s laundry, reading, packing, and just generally being quiet. I was then distracted by a line of Army Ants moving up one of the walls towards a window carrying a piece of chicharron. I regret now not getting a picture.
Then, Mom called me outside and showed me this.
I was lucky I got the photo I did. He flew off almost as soon as I snapped the shutter.
About 4pm, I got started on dinner. We bought potatoes, chayote, tomatoes, avocados, Mandarin limes, pineapple, mangoes, onions, Otaheiti Apples, tuna, and prawns. Along with all of these things, I decided to clean out the fridge as much as possible since we were leaving the next morning and had to either throw away anything left or simply leave it behind.
Everyone seemed to enjoy dinner. I was happy because there were almost no leftovers and I didn’t have to do dishes.
Then, came dessert. Heath had gone to a bakery in Quepos earlier in the day and picked up a lovely chocolate cake (it had the texture of a Tres Leches) for Older Nephew.
Not long after I, and most everyone else went to bed, I received this photo via text from Steve:
It turned out he and the boys were sitting around talking and Older Nephew noticed this on the couch. Steve tried to dispatch it, but he only succeeded in making it scurry back under the couch. Steve speculated that it had a nest either under or in the cushion; or, since we had the doors and windows open almost all the time, it could’ve crawled in who knows when.
They took all the cushions off the couch (except for the seat) and placed signs in English and Spanish basically saying “Don’t sit here. Scorpion in the cushion.” If that thing was living in the cushions, we were all really lucky it didn’t come out and sting anyone. Scorpion stings aren’t really too harmful to anyone who’s healthy, but they feel like a red-hot needle poking into you.
Day 7 – Sunday, 7/12
Not too much to tell about Sunday. It was travel back home day for us.
I went over to Haneen & Mark’s balcony outside their room and took a few final photos.
Estilio arrived just before 9 to pick us up to take us to the airport. Our flight was at 2pm, and with the drive and check-in, we needed all the time we could reasonably get.
Because Mom & Dad have some sort of priority status on American, they were able to check themselves and Danyah’s crew (Dad had booked all their tickets) in the first class ticketing line. The rest of us had to schlub through the economy class line.
Just as we were about to be at the head of the line, however, a customer service rep took us out of the line and checked us in at one of the kiosks. Problem solved.
That’s all. Just two more flights, complete chaos at immigration in Miami, and a flight delay, we all finally made it back home.
I’ll definitely go back. Costa Rica was so much more fun and beautiful than I imagined. Those coupled with the great food and lovely people, plus hanging with my family for a week, made it a wonderful and memorable trip.