Category - Costa Rica

The Jaguar Rescue Center

22 Jul

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Pistachio the pelican greets you as you enter the grounds. He roams the gardens here, and like the boss he is, will warn you when you’re too close. There are glass cages everywhere, eyelash pit vipers in greens, corals and yellows hide in each one, wrapped in pairs, never sure of where one begins and the other ends.

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The tour starts with Nala the baby puma. She, like all other animals here at the center, was brought here for help. She was kept captive as a pet after her mum was killed by poachers. Like almost all the animals here, they plan to release her. Many animals that start here go to the centres privately owned and protected forest, La Ceiba, once they are ready. It’s slow release and animals, such as the monkeys, come and go as they like. Our guide shows us another of the cat family, native to Costa Rica. They have tried twice to release him, and twice he’s found his way back to the center, taking out their neighbours chickens on the way. Now they wait for another option as they begin talks with a national park far away.

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The sloths, both two and three toed, hang out in a low hanging tree, each with a similar tale. Mother was electrocuted and died, baby survived and brought here. Adult sloths can regulate their body temperature and are usually around the 32degree mark, but the babies have no control and without a mothers warmth they can die from hyperthermia. They hang out here in the trees with some sweet flightless parrots who are growing back their wings. Around the corner hangs their male deer, who charges people at random, and our guide stands with a stick at the ready to ward him off.

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There is a baby ant eater walking around. He may never be released. He has a neurological disorder and was found walking in tight circles. He’s slowly getting better but sometimes resumes his circles and stresses himself out. The monkeys are adorable. They need lots of love and the volunteers at the center spend hours just being their touch. There are two older monkeys – one is missing a leg and the other is blind. They are just too fragile for release. There’s a spider monkey, many howlers and a white faced capuchin. They leap and climb and play, and of course, hassle the older monkeys. There is a variety of birds; Hawks, owls and parrots, each with their own sad tale. A crocodile, famous for being beaten and dragged down the main street in Puerto Viejo, now lives here. A caiman found in a hotel bathroom lives just next door. The center is doing incredible things for injured wildlife around the area and we felt so lucky to have had the chance to see them. I’ll leave you now with Samantha – a few month old sloth who stole our hearts.

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Puerto Viejo

16 Jul

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I had read so many good things about this place. One blogger, whose site I visit on occasion, visits multiple times a year. After Santa Teresa, my expectations were high. We arrived, after another long day of buses, nearing night fall. It’s said that in Costa Rica you don’t take unmarked taxis, and as we hopped off the bus, there were no marked ones in site, yet there were men asking where we’d like to go. Central America is notorious for all things happening at a much slower pace than you’re used to, but not arrival. No, when you first arrive at a new place, bag in hand lookin all tourist like, things happen fast. It’s hard to differentiate who wants a buck, who wants to work for a buck and who is just trying to be helpful. It usually works in that order in terms of probable encounters. So of course I’m checking to make sure we didn’t forget anything on the bus, Josh is looking around to find our next safe passage and some guy has our bags, dragging them of in another direction saying “taxi this way”. The chaos of it all is infuriating.

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So we find ourselves in an unmarked taxi and I’m praying he’s not taking us down some dirty road to rob us blind. Turns out no, he’s legit, and we find ourselves at Alex’s place. He welcomes us, in his thick Caribbean accent, with a fresh coconut a soft bed and a fan. Really, that’s all we need. So we breath in the dense, wet air, turn our fan on and let the panic pass.We head to the beach – the sand is black. What did I expect with the name Playa Negra. While it’s fascinating, this is not what I expected at all, and so far I’m unimpressed. Where’s the blue water and white sand that is Caribbean? Where is the tranquility that blogger promised? I just feel sweaty. We walk to town on the beach. Turns out, trolls live under and near the bridge, at least that’s what the Canadian at our accommodation calls them. People in shantys, loitering and looking shady on the street corners, with beach fires and flapping black plastic everywhere. By the time we have drawn out our money, bought our food and water and got back to our digs, I was feeling positively livid. The sweat (humidity sits around the high 90 percentile here), the vibe, everything being damp, no escape. Yikes. It’s so easy to get worked up here, and even a few weeks in, I find that I still do. We had no other choice, and Josh, ever my rock, tells me it will be better in the morning. I resolve to give it one more chance the next day, and I’m so glad I did.

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Puerto Viejo, and the multiple towns the follow the coast line south, are breathtaking. Turns out, the troll bridge is actually the worst spot in the area and a blip in comparison the size. A walk into town shows the beach quickly turns to white sand, the ocean subsequently turns blue. Street vendors sell handmade crafts and tasty empañadas, restaurants and souvenir shops fill in the spaces. Salsa Brava, a huge wave that pops up out of nowhere thanks to a reef, soon becomes our favourite spot to hang (the bar) and watch (the wave). A walk further south reveals a road filled with hibiscus aromas, dense jungle with muddy paths, leaf cutter ants on a mission, large and aloof blue butterflies that are just out of reach, scuttling crabs of various colours and finally, an isolated wild beach. We rent bikes and enjoy freedom for two days. On a cool and overcast day we ride 8 kilometres to Punta Uva. It’s even more isolated. There’s one family here. The roads are damp with sea mist, the air smells like a flowery jungle and the cicadas are singing at the top of their lungs.

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We buy banana bread from a street vendor and enjoy the sticky sweet stuff and watch the sun go down. The trolls aren’t so bad. The lights go out one night and it starts a moonlit discussion. We talk to our host Alex about Costa Rica, politics and the indigenous people. He spoils us with coffee the next morning and we talk more about his life and the beautiful place he’s built. It’s a privilege to see and hear how others live around the world.

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We visit the Jaguar Rescue Center (watch for the next post) and head all the way to the furthest town, only to cross a dirty river to find a national park and some pristine beaches. Puerto Viejo has taught me that first impressions aren’t everything, but if you go looking, you can find magic.

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SANTA TERESA

7 Jul

It was a bus, a ferry (note the unimpressed sea sick pic of me) and two more buses, including a small, hand painted sign that marked the bus pick up, before we arrived in Santa Teresa, and as with most Central American locations, you question whether the sticky sweaty hell is worth it. All you can do is take deep breath, accept the here and now, and (lie) tell yourself you won’t always feel that gross. Turns out it was worth it. We were unceremoniously dumped just a few meters short of our accommodation which turned out to be heaven on earth, thanks to air conditioning.

 

The property was secure, the apartment was self contained and the garden was full of exotic flowers and wildlife – we saw bugs, butterflies, iguanas, hummingbirds, a raccoon and even a howler (monkey). It didn’t take us long to settle in and soon we were doing what everyone comes to Santa Teresa to do – taking it easy. The beach in Santa Teresa is a surfers dream. Josh rented a surf board and I sat on the beach staring blankly as the waves rolled in and out. We spent our days just being, letting go and enjoying a different pace of life. For anyone that knows my inability to do nothing, it was a challenge. No plans, just beach, sleep, eat, repeat.

 Expats from all over come here to make a new life. The town is full of “locals” who don’t look local at all. One of Josh’s many fun facts informed me that holiday goers from America would visit Santa Teresa and never leave because they arrived responsible for one and quickly became responsible for more. The town is unpretentious. There are no high end shops, no fancy five star restaurants, and one small, non-descript resort. People use legs, bikes and motor bikes to get around on the one half paved road that runs the length of the beach over two towns – most vehicles have some form of attachment on the side for a board and if not, they tear down the road, board longways and in front under both arms.

 

Just about everyone surfs, and with a coast line stretching for kilometres in either direction, and nothing but sand under tumultuous waters, you can understand why. It seems everyone is welcome here, gringo or local. We lounged in the garden, strolled to the beach, took trips to the grocery store and enjoyed our shady spot on the beach. We took this precious place for granted as Jaco paled in comparison. To be honest, we shan’t even mentioned our measley two days there.

How to make Kirsty happy

30 Jun


It’s pretty easy actually… give her coffee and chocolate. We’re leaving Monteverde with a new understanding of and deep appreciation for our coffee addiction. It seems that the process involved to obtain the ingredients for a cup of coffee is no easy feat. We arrived to rolling hills full of trees and plants that is Don Juans coffee farm, in the afternoon following our visit to the forest. It was drier and warmer here, and well maintained. We were greeted by a worker who proceeded to show us around. We started with the green arabica bean, still growing on the tree, and were then taken to a green house, where he explained the type of plants they grow, which to my excitement included cacao trees, the harvest season and coffee bean colouring, as well as how coffee was first discovered.

    It originated in Ethiopia, when a goat farmer noticed how overly active his goats were after eating from the arabica plants. He tried many different things until finally he roasted some beans on the fire and made his discovery. This story may or may not be true, but it sounds legit and has frolicking goats in it, so I’m rollin with it!  Costa Rica now exports only 7% of the worlds coffee, but I know I’ve definitely had some in other countries before.

             He showed us banana trees planted between coffee trees and explained that coffee needs plenty of shade. Harvest time is around Christmas, so all the beans were green and the fields calm. We were taken the the de-pulping machine and shown how the beans are left to ferment (very important for flavour infusion), are then left to dry for weeks on end, husked and separated by size, and only after weeks of preparation, are they roasted. The roasting process usually takes no more than 20-30 minutes, and the beans pop like popcorn once they are nearly done. He gave us samples of light, medium and dark roast to smell, and explained the subtle under tones in each, which were easy to pick up.

     

We were then taken to a room where he opened a cacao pod. Inside the seeds were covered in fruit like jelly, and upon a taste test, were very reminiscent of lychees with a slight chocolate flavour. He explained that in order to get good chocolate beans, the fruit has to ferment on the seed for at least a week. As with the coffee beans, the seeds are dried and husked and ground into cacao nibs. Right there and then he put the nibs into a grinder with a hand crank and we ground the nibs into a paste. He explained that usually at this stage, much like how cheese is made, the paste is separated into coco butter and coco powder. He took the paste, added vanilla, sugar, chilli, pepper and salt and shared it with us in little containers. It was the most dense and delicious chocolate stuff we’ve ever had. We then shared some chocolate covered coffee beans, the left overs of which we promptly stuffed into our pockets.

 

We then had a little fun juicing sugar crane and were then escorted back to the dining hall to sample as much of their three blends of their coffee as we wished, while we sat on a balcony and watched over the plantation. I’m not one for drip coffee, but this stuff was tasty. I was sad we had no room in our bags for a few bags of coffee and a handful of the chocolate beans, but we left with a new understanding and appreciation for the good old cup of jo.

Monteverde

23 Jun

It was yet again another early morning for us as we prepared for the bus ride to the mountainous region of Costa Rica, Monteverde. We decided, being the budget travellers that we are, to catch the Tico (the word for Costa Ricans) bus and expected the worst. When we purchased our tickets the day before, the station and its area was a little dodgy, but on the morning, and after our full immersion back into the Central American way of life, everything seemed above board. Especially when our cushy bus arrived, complete with reclining seats and air conditioning.

    

We had heard the bus ride could be beautiful and scenic, passing through jungle and volcanoes and also a little hairy, in part because of the drivers, but also because of the dirt roads that snake themselves up and around the area. Because of this, we thought it best to take travel sickness tablets; safely purchased Gravol from a Canadian pharmacy. We essentially had drugged ourselves, and with Josh’s broken seat which reclined upon pressure, and my ability to sleep anywhere, anyway, anytime, we were long gone before we had left the city. Josh fought it (well he tried) and I gave in to it, with the occasional brave attempt to see where we were, only ending in a child like droop of the eyelids, and no idea that by falling asleep with the bus window slightly cracked, I had a neat strip of dirt running vertically down my face. Yep, we’re smart travellers. I was clutching my bag each time I came to, as was Josh, but it seems we need not have worried. The bus driver fussed over his vehicle, and while he did pick up random people in random places, he also apprehended those random people when they didn’t follow his rules.

       

We arrived safely after a 5 hour ride, and were escorted by the cousin of our hostels host to Cabinas El Pueblo, where we were greeted by Freddy, the most patient and welcoming non English speaking man I’ve ever met. He insisted we must practise our Spanish and, with many hand gestures, proceeded to show us around, give us coffee, get us settled in our room and tell us the rules, all in clear and slow Spanish. While the rules are many, the place was impeccably clean, cosy and comfortable. The wifi was perfect, the coffee was from their family plantation (and tasted great) and we were blown away with by the hospitality and our ability to understand almost everything he said.

     

After being given a forest of pamphlets, we were overwhelmed with the hundreds of tours and activities to do in Monteverde. Zip lining is a big thing in this part of the country, but is just not our thing. We wanted to see animals, forest and maybe a coffee plantation. It’s tough to know if you’re heading into something cheesy with tours and such, but we were very happy with our choices. We decided on a night tour as most of the animals in this area are nocturnal, and we were not disappointed. Sadly, none of our photos turned out, and our guide, whilst knowledgable, was a bit of a jerk. There were 3 guides, each took a group and went different ways, but had radios to call out if they saw something special. This was great, but also meant we spent plenty of time dashing around the jungle, with the distinct feeling of being watched. We saw beautiful birds, venomous snakes, a sloth, a tarantula, an olingo and two tree dwelling porcupines. This was what we came to see, and left feeling very happy with the tour.

It was early to bed, early to rise for us, and we hopped straight on the Tico bus for the Monteverde cloud forest; the main attraction. We didn’t really have expectations and knew that we probably wouldn’t see much but dense forest, and aside from the occasional bird, that’s exactly what we got. The forest was alive with sound and movement, clouds hovered and in bare parts, howled. We walked for over two hours, through mud, across a suspension bridge so impressive my grandfather would have been proud, and out onto the continental divide. Thanks to my well researched tour guide (Josh), I received many interesting facts about the area which we shall now share.

         

FUN FACTS with Josh (disclaimer: these facts may or may not be accurate)

The continental divide is a big mountain range that separates the east and west coast weather systems around the world. In certain regions, the cold air from the pacific and the warm air from the Caribbean meet and cause crazy weather.

Quakers settled the area because they were Americans who had no intention of joining the army, as it was against their religion. They ran away to the mountainous regions of Costa Rica, and set up farms. They realized, after years of farming the area, that they should protect a section of it, and set up the Monteverde Cloud Forest.

Nearby, there is the Children’s Forest, set up by a local school who also decided to save some of the forest. They held a fundraiser and bought a chunk of land to conserve.

                        After our hike through the wet and wind, we decided to wait out the time until the next bus in a small hummingbird garden at the entrance to the park. They dashed past our heads, kerfuffled and squeaked, all working for self but on the same mission; sugar water. We saw at least 5 species, all ranging in size and sassiness and were completely absorbed in their little world for half an hour.

Stay tuned for the coffee and chocolate tour next…

San Jose – hitting the ground running

19 Jun

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We arrived at 11:30 on the morning of June 16th to a surprisingly cool San Jose. The cooler weather was a nice surprise – you honestly never know how the humidity will affect you, but if Josh has a hat and I have braids, we can get by in the looks department. At least it detracts from the sweat elsewhere. We were confronted with crowds holding signs and yelling in Spanish the second we emerged and we literally pushed our way through. One man tried to help, but we are never sure if helping is the true intention. They usually loose interest pretty quickly if you don’t want what they offer. The further we got from the crowd the dodgier the options looked. We were heading for a bus, which one we didn’t know. Chaos is Central America. All the buses seem to say the same thing. We translate how to say down town and finally got on a bus. The sky is ominous most of the time, and it threatens to monsoon but only sprinkles on the odd occasion. Give me a few days here and I might be eating my words.

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We only had one full day in San Jose which we spent at the Museos Banco Central de Costa Rica, and more specifically the Pre-Colombian Gold Museum. Being obsessed with all things sparkly, this stop made the most sense and for me, was the most rewarding. It covered the history of metals in Colombia, Panama and Costa Rica, explained lost wax casting (something that’s at the top of my to learn list) and displayed some stunning and intricate works.
There are so many things I had forgotten about Central America. The loud noises, trash and pollution, hair raising drivers, general dirtiness and the looks gringos like us get when we happen to step foot down the “wrong street”. Oh yeh, let’s not forget the evangelical hypocritical hippies, barking dogs, toilet paper in bins not bowls, and the endless accosting and hollering because you look like you may have money and may want to buy whatever is on sale. It’s no wonder people choose the all inclusive.

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I think I make it sound worse than it is. Cities have never been our thing and as such we’re excited to get moving to the mountains tomorrow. Maybe there the Costa Rican saying “pura vida” (pure life) may mean more to us. Our time here ended well with a sunset stroll through a sweet neighbourhood, a pretty brave attempt at ordering a meal almost completely in Spanish, eating said meal, and being completely satisfied with its tastiness and strolling back watching the lightening rolling over the hills that surround San Jose. Let’s see what adventure tomorrow brings.