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March 3, 2011 / puravida2011

Heading home

This is our last full day in Cocles. Tomorrow morning we take the shuttle back to San Jose, where we’ll visit the Gold and Jade Museums, spend the night in a downtown hotel, and head to the airport tomorrow in the late morning. The sun is shining today and Chico and I had a nice walk on the beach and a good bike ride into Puerto this morning. We did a bit of hand-washing and are aghast at the mildew that is thriving on the clothes that have been sitting in the closet for the past few weeks. This wet air is not a good mix with cotton clothing.

Which brings us to the list of things we’re looking forward to at home (to avoid too much melancholy in leaving the beautiful beach, vibrant vegetation and warm weather!). At the top of our list (aside from the people and pets we’re looking forward to seeing, of course) is our almost brand new front loading washer and dryer. Hand-washing is kind of fun and rewarding, but the results are not great. Our washer at home has a sanitizing feature and I fear all of our clothes will need a major sanitizing when we get home.

Second on the list is our kitchen pots, pans, and gadgets. This house actually has a nicer blender than what we have at home, but everything else is barely adequate. Our big cast iron skillet, the new All Clad wok, our garlic press, these are among the things we’ve missed.

I am looking forward to drying my hair. My hair has quite literally almost never been dry for the past two months. Between the pool, the beach, the showers, the humidity, and the lack of dryers there is always some moisture there. It’s surprising to me that my head hasn’t mildewed. Chico does not have this problem. His hair is dry as soon as he towels off.

I’m looking forward to sharing my home with fewer wild creatures than we have been living with down here. With open walls we get lots of critters in our digs. We came back from the beach just now to find a 5 foot bright green vine snake climbing up the stairs to the bedroom. And though I tolerate the bats zipping around just after sundown while we’re watching our evening television, I really only barely tolerate them. I have to kind of hide my face in Chico’s shoulder sometimes. Every night for three nights in a row this week Chico had a seriously large insect show up on his pillow as we were settling down for bed. Not just kind of big but palm-sized. Gets the adrenaline going just as you’re trying to settle down. And there are small insects everywhere that we just have had to learn to live with: tiny sugar ants on the counters, fruit flies zipping around the kitchen even though we take out all of our compostables as soon as we produce them, large kind of stupid mosquitoes that I don’t think actually bite people, small mosquitoes that do get you when you’re not looking. I’m surprised at how we’ve taken these things in stride, considering how I freak out at home over a single spider on the bedroom ceiling.

Chico is looking forward to having sports channels on t.v. that show something other than soccer. March Madness and spring training are in the offing when we get home!

And here’s the list of things we’ll miss most.
We have really enjoyed not driving for two months (though Chico has been ogling the hybrid and plug-in electric cars on line from time to time). On both coasts we’ve been able to walk, bike or take buses to get everywhere. This has been great.
We love having fresh, local produce that is flavorful and delicious even in January and February.
It has been really wonderful to put away our watches and just live each day on our own schedule: waking with the howler monkeys, eating when we’re hungry, sleeping when we’re tired. I really feel like my internal clock has been recalibrated.
We love the sounds of the birds, bugs and critters that are a constant soundtrack here, day and night. We have little geckos that live in the house and make a funny chirping sound that I like. They eat bugs so are welcome house guests.
Of course it has been great to be mostly barefoot, to wear mostly bathing suits, to read mostly fluff (RT has read mostly fluff, anyway; Chico has read a lot of serious stuff, too).
I have loved walking on the beach. I was able to walk all the way down beyond Manzanillo one day, which was almost 15 miles round trip. The scenery is stunning and I had no idea I was going such a long distance. My feet were a bit tired by the end though…

Okay, I think that’s it. We have lots more pictures we’ll bore some of you with at home in the weeks ahead. It has been a wonderful, restorative eight weeks for both of us! We look forward to telling you more about it in person.
Pura vida, all!

February 28, 2011 / puravida2011

Costa Rica: Pacific v. Caribbean

It has been a few days since our last post. I don’t have any good excuse, except that it has been raining for the last 48 hours, so I don’t have much to share with you. Chico and I have been downloading the Harry Potter movies and watching them marathon-style here in our casita. We just finished HP7, the last of the movies released, and hope that the final, final movie comes out soon. I even popped corn in a pot yesterday (thinking of you, Liette), and it was good except for the excessive salt. Due to the humidity here salt gets very wet and clumpy. It is hard to sprinkle a bit over freshly popped corn, so we get totally unsalted pieces followed by basically chunks of salt (fluoridated, for some reason). Had to drink a lot of shandy (beer with lemonade) to wash it down.

Today I got out for a walk, hoping to avoid rain showers, since the sun seemed to be making a comeback, but no, the rain returned while I walked. But I was on the beach, in my swimsuit, so a little water did me no harm. It was exciting to see the ocean all churned up, brown and roiling. We’ve had inches and inches of rain (at least it seems that way) so all of the rivers and rivulets are dumping huge amounts of rain water into the sea. The surf was pounding and it was close to high tide, so the walk was quite exhilarating.

Some of you have wondered how our stay on the Pacific side compared with our weeks over here on the Caribbean coast. We’ve actually given lots of thought to this question, trying to decide which side we have enjoyed more. In the end we are very glad we split our time between the two sides and feel extremely fortunate to have had the luxury of a long stay on each.

Given the current weather it seems the most striking difference between the two coasts, at least in January and February, is rainfall. The Pacific coat, especially the northern part where we were, experiences a pretty significant dry season, and we saw virtually no rain for the full 28 days we were in Montezuma, aside from a very light sprinkle one afternoon, which wasn’t even enough to make me leave pool side or close the novel I was reading. Here in Cocles, although officially dry season, we have had at least a couple of serious downpours each week, and two spells of rain lasting more than a full day. Most of the rain has come at night, usually at about 6 p.m., and lasts several hours, but clears by morning. But when it rains it really pours. Buckets and buckets of water that sound thunderous on our metal roof. But no actual thunder or lightening since we’ve been here.

All this rain means that this side is significantly more jungly than the Nicoya peninsula. In Montezuma’s dry season some of the trees actually lose their foliage, though much of the forest is evergreen. Here we are surrounded by outrageously verdant vegetation, with huge towering trees supported by root systems like buttresses, and everything covered with multiple species of vines, bromeliads, mosses. And with the rain comes a lot more humidity here. Nothing really dries completely (including my hair and skin). In Montezuma I often felt clammy due to heat and sweat, but the humidity was actually quite low.

I expected this side to be hotter than the Pacific side, but it has actually been quite a bit cooler. Our daytime temperatures have been in the low 80s here and were consistently about 90 in Montezuma. On the beach during the day it feels hot here, though there is a more consistent off-shore breeze than on the other side, it seems to me. In the evenings in our house with the ceiling fans running it can feel almost chilly. Not enough to wear long sleeves, but far cooler than we ever were in Montezuma.

The look of the beaches is quite different on each side. On the Pacific we had hills dropping straight down to the water, with mostly relatively short beaches punctuated by rocky outcroppings. Over here you can walk on the beach for miles (I actually did a 15 mile round-trip walk a few days ago), though there are coves that divide the beach into sections here, too. There is a lot more reef over here, so some sections of beach are not really swimmable, with reef extending into the sandy area. But most of the coast is white sand down south of Puerto Viejo.

Things are generally flat here on the Caribbean coast, with only gentle hills rising from the coast. In Montezuma the cliffs came right down to the water, and the hills were very, very steep, making for some adventure-climbing getting to and from our place. I kind of miss the hill-climbing, but Chico does not.

We have found the locals on each side very friendly and patient with our halting Spanish. On the Caribbean side there is a large population of people of Jamaican descent, so you hear a kind of English patois in town.
Okay, I have more to say, but it is getting dark here and we are heading out to dinner. I’ll post again soon.

February 23, 2011 / puravida2011


What delicious chocolate they make here at a small organic cocoa farm, called Chocorart, a short bike-ride from our place! Yesterday morning Chico and I had a tour of the farm, and saw the chocolate-making process, then got to sample some of the amazingly good chocolate in a few forms at the end of the tour. Here’s what we learned:
Cocoa trees live only in consistently warm and humid locations, and like to grow in partial shade. A single tree will produce between 60 and 90 fruits each year, and the fruits look kind of like winter squash, coming in a few different colors (yellow, orange, and red). Each fruit has a hard outer coating which once cracked with a machete or vigorous thumping reveals 20-50 almond-sized seeds, the actual cocoa beans, surrounded by sweet and slimy white pulp. The pulp is used to make a refreshing local drink, and we were told was fermented to make beer in ancient Brazil (an idea I’ll email to the Dogfish Head brewery guys: beer and chocolate—what could be better?!). [Update: looks like they already did it. Will have to get some of that! Dogfish Theobroma ]
The trees produce fruits all year, but there is a big harvest between September and December. The fruits are hand-picked, then cracked and the cocoa beans put in large wooden bins to ferment. This is a crucial and smelly part of the chocolate-making process, which lasts no more than seven days. At that point the fermented beans are put in a single layer on the drying trays in the sun. Drying takes between a week and a month depending on the weather.
Once the beans are dry they taste good! We tasted some shelled beans at the end of the drying process, and the flavor was mild and nutty.
Next the beans are roasted in an open pan over a fire for an hour or so, and spread on a cloth on the floor, where the protective outer husks are removed by rolling a heavy stone over the top of the roasted beans. The resulting mix of beans and husks is sorted by slowly pouring the mixture in front of an electric fan, which blows the lighter waste away, leaving the essential nibs.
Finally the nibs are ground in a small, hand-cranked machine that looks like a peanut-butter grinder in a health food store. And out comes oily cocoa butter paste, which can be turned into all kinds of delights. At Chocorart they produce chocolate in three forms: the shelled roasted beans, small blocks of hard pure ground cocoa, and cigars of flavored, sweetened dark chocolate. At the end of the tour we got to taste hot cocoa, which was like the chocolate equivalent of espresso; hot fudge over banana slices; and pieces of vanilla-flavored dark chocolate bar. The combination of theobromines (“food of the gods” chemicals related to caffeine and found in high concentration in dark chocolate), the super-rich flavor, and the lovely day had us truly euphoric as we left what was a highlight of our trip so far.

February 21, 2011 / puravida2011

El Refugio

(Kelsey, you’ll like this one.)
This morning Chico and I visited a wildlife rehabilitation center that’s been in operation for about four years, just a short walk from our casita. Chico was able to get really close to a few toucans at last, and we were even able to let one chew on our fingers (gently!). A dream come true.
The center takes in orphaned and injured wildlife, primarily howler monkeys, two- and three-toed sloths, caimans, birds, and snakes, rehabilitates or raises them to maturity, then re-introduces them to the wild when possible. It seems to be well-run, with healthy-looking animals and lots of trained volunteers making sure even those animals we are allowed to touch are treated appropriately by the public.
Chico’s little friend found the tallest tree in the group and wouldn’t leave his perch for about 10 minutes (even giving Chico’s neck a little clean-up with his tiny squirrel tongue!).
And here is a really cute 3-month old howler monkey:
I got to spend a bit of time in the enclosure with the monkey babies, and just before it was time to move on one came to curl up in my arms. She had to be pried away–too cute.
The sloths are not quite so cuddly. This three-toed sloth was willing to take a leaf from my hand. They are such strange-looking animals!
Okay, our connection is very slow tonight, so that will be all for now. We have more photos that we’ll share later.
We’ll be heading to a local chocolate farm tomorrow to see how cocoa is made. Yummy!

February 19, 2011 / puravida2011

Wild horses on the beach

Ever since arriving here we have seen this little herd of horses from time to time, often browsing at the side of the road as we’re biking past. The first time we saw them I thought they had escaped from the field they were near, since the fence was clearly down in one spot. But since then they have shown up everywhere and it has finally dawned on me that they are the wild horses our guide book tells us we’ll be lucky to see. When we arrived on Playa Cocles this morning three of them were also spending the morning walking the beach. They took a break from walking to roll in the sand near us, which was cool to see. They don’t seem especially leery of people and actually walked right up to another group on the beach, checking out their backpacks for treats.
Today has been very warm and dry, with a totally clear blue sky, feeling more like a day on the Pacific side than what we’ve experienced here up to this point. If we were smart we’d be doing all of our laundry and hanging it to dry today, since our prior laundering efforts have taken several days with extra rinse cycles on the line. But it’s too nice a day to spend doing chores…
I walked the full length of the beach at Cocles today, and finally finished the long novel I’ve been reading since arriving here almost two weeks ago. It’s called Revenir de loin, by a Quebecoise writer, about a 50-something woman who wakes from a coma with amnesia and slowly pieces the puzzle of her prior life together again. Interesting reading and it’s been nice to flex my French muscles a bit.
Today’s photos are of butterflies, one cool bird, and a gecko.

February 16, 2011 / puravida2011

Great day in Manzanillo

Today Chico and I took our rental bikes (two rickety, rusty, one-speed cruisers with baskets on the front) and headed down the road in the direction of Panama to Manzanillo, which is about 5 miles but took us almost 45 minutes each way, given bike and road conditions. The ride itself is quite lovely, not right along the beach, but passing through nice jungle with little shops and hotels on both sides.
As we neared Manzanillo I spotted a sloth in a tree, not moving at all, so really not terribly interesting to watch for long, but we stopped and looked for a short time. And there were some challenging hills on the road just before we arrived at Manzanillo, which required some good effort on these little bikes on which we cannot fully extend our legs. We arrived in a lather.
Manzanillo is picturesque, with a long, pretty beach, a living reef, and a good Jamaican vibe: the trees are painted in green, yellow, and black stripes and Bob Marley croons from the main eatery in town. We rented snorkeling masks and flippers, and headed for the water.
Snorkeling in somewhat choppy waters was quite different from my prior experiences in Jamaica and Mexico. It took me about 15 minutes to get my breathing under control. Every time a biggish wave would lift me up I would reflexively take a great gasp of air, in spite of telling myself to relax and breathe slowly. In calmer waters after the first few moments overcoming the natural strangeness of breathing underwater I have found snorkeling deeply relaxing, just floating and watching the whole world that’s living just under the surface. Today it took a long time for me to really relax. And the water is not super clear at this time of year, because there is more surf than during the calmer months in the fall. All the same we did see some pretty coral and plenty of colorful tropical fish. The reef is so near the surface that it’s possible to see plenty even when the water is not crystal clear. But it was a bit nerve-wracking to have the reef just underneath us with the swells in the water. A couple of times I found myself really too close to touching coral, which is not good for the reef or for human skin either. Skin heals faster than the reef. We paddled around for about 40-45 minutes, then returned the gear and set up shop on the shore. There was a gorgeous cool breeze and we both had a good time reading and soaking up some warm sun.
After a couple of hours of beaching we headed to Maxi’s for lunch, which was scrumptious. There was a soccer game happening between Barcelona and Arsenal, which Chico tells me is like Celtics v. Lakers. A group of Spanish tourists and ex-pats was gathering around the television for the match.
On the trip home we had the amazing experience of watching a sloth cross the road. It was just beginning its journey as we rode up, so we got to commune with it for around five minutes of arduous crossing. What a strange animal! It has little short back legs, great long arms, super-long toenails on all feet, and a smiling expression. Resembled a wizened old man. As he was going down the far bank he tipped over side-ways and it was funny to see him try to right himself. Of course we did not have our camera with us. One day we’ll go out on purpose to get some good pictures. In the meantime here’s a sloth from the web:

And now we’ll watch “Tangled” and call it a day. Hasta la vista!

February 14, 2011 / puravida2011

Rainy Valentine’s Day?

Happy Saint Valentine, everyone! We have officially caught up on the rain deficit built up in Montezuma, where we had no precipitation, aside from one very light drizzle lasting 15 minutes, for our full four-week stay. It began raining hard here night before last, and continued to rain with only brief respites until today at about 11:00. Yesterday we stayed in almost all day, watching BBC entertainment and streamed movies, with only one short outing to bike to Puerto Viejo for groceries and a stop at the ice-cream shop. It was kind of nice to have a day indoors, believe it or not. Gave our skin a break from the sun, as well.
We watched 127 Hours, a movie based on the true story of the guy who got his arm stuck while rock climbing in the desert southwest. For those of you who have not seen it, it’s a great movie and I won’t say what happens, but what would you do if you were stuck in a remote location, with your right hand between a boulder and a cliff face? Now that I’ve seen the movie I know what to do and I wouldn’t wait until the 126th hour to do it…
In other exciting news I felt my first earthquake this morning. More a rumble than a quake, really. Costa Rica is on a very active fault line, apparently. We were sitting indoors reading at about 9:00 a.m. when the house started rocking back and forth. The door to the bathroom was swinging and the water in our Culligan jug was glugging to and fro. It lasted all of about 4 seconds, but was pretty cool. I thought in passing of getting in the doorway for protection, but it was over before I really had registered what I was experiencing. On Chico’s advice I went to the U.S. Geological Survey’s website and reported the tremor. It hasn’t shown up on their world map, so maybe wasn’t confirmed (or big enough to be notable) but I won’t forget the feeling of having the earth rock beneath me.

If the rain holds off Chico and I will be going out for dinner at a restaurant down the road to celebrate Valentine’s Day. This will be our third time eating out since being in Cocles, and we’ve enjoyed the places we’ve tried so far. Our second night here we tried the Pecora Nera, which is an excellent Italian restaurant just a short walk from our place. The owner is from Livorno, Italy, and his restaurant is ranked among the best in Costa Rica. We had a truly scrumptious meal (ravioli filled with lamb and pumpkin for Chico and I had deliciously rare mackerel with mixed vegetable topping. We shared a yummy albondigas and mozzarella appetizer. After dinner we waited and waited for our check. This is a theme. I don’t know if they feel they are rushing you if they give you the check when the meal is over, or if they just forget about you once their work of delivering food is done, but we always have to be pretty forceful in catching the server’s eye to get the bill. And this is after 15-20 minutes of just sitting once the meal is done. We’re not trying to eat and run. By the time we had finally managed to pay (literally about 45 minutes after our plates were cleared) at Pecora Nera the skies had opened and we had to dash home in a downpour. But still the meal was excellent.
Then we had dinner a few nights later at a small place nearby, where pizzas and meats are cooked over an open grill by a tall, barefoot Argentinian. The food was good and the wait for the check not quite as long here. I also tried my first caipirinha cocktail here, and am hooked. Here’s the recipe:
1 lime
2 T sugar
2 oz. Cachasa (cane liquor) (may substitute vodka or rum)
mint (optional)
fresh ginger (optional)
Slice lime into small segments and put in bottom of highball glass with sugar. Use wooden spoon or other implement to crush the limes, releasing their juice. This action is called muddling. If adding mint and grated fresh ginger muddle those right in there, too. Fill the glass with ice-cubes, then put in the cachasa and stir well. Very delicious and very potent. You can experiment with different fruits and flavors. A little club soda makes it bubbly and fun.

And now I will get back to my caipirinha cocktail and the company of my valentine. Hasta la proxima!

February 12, 2011 / puravida2011

February 12, 2011 / puravida2011

We love Cocles!

So we’ve been here on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, barely north of Panama, for almost a week now and are establishing a rhythm to the days. We wake up early with the howler monkeys and toucans, then I have coffee, Chico has Komplete cereal with banana, and we either get ready for the beach or have a little bit of exercise, depending on the day. In either case we are at the beach by 9:00 or so, and the local beaches are gorgeous. We’ve tried Playa Cocles, Playa Chiquita, and today spend a few hours at Playa Punta Uva, which I think is the best. Punta Uva is in a little cove, so the water is calm. It would be absolutely perfect if there were not ladrones in montes, “thieves in the bushes.” Signs are posted. And the beach is water, then sand, then thief-laden bushes. So we take turns in the lovely water, with the non-bathing person guarding our backpack (in which there are not many valuables, but the backpack itself is essential for our packing to come back to MN).
I did encounter a young American women whose backpack had just been snatched from her beach blanket. She was wandering forlornly down the beach, looking for a ladrone with her black sac. No luck. They disappear into the bushes. Ah well.
Our casita is nice and surprisingly cool. Based on our readings we expected to be very hot and moist here. It is certainly moist (in fact I don’t think my hair has been really dry since January 5th), but the house is under tall trees and with the ceiling fans running we actually need to sleep under a blanket to stay warm. It is very comfortable, built in local style, with lattice walls, so nature comes and goes as it pleases. Bats swoop through at nightfall, and I am being quite brave about them. Our bedroom upstairs has screens inside the lattice, so no bats there.
Speaking of cool and moist, hot water for showers is unpredictable. We start the hot tap, then get about 45 seconds of warm water before the stream turns quite chilly, then have to wait for the next bursts of warmth, which come at intervals with no pattern we’ve been able to discern. Chico considers the cool showers refreshing. I get kind of chilly. But shaving my legs with goosebumps gives me a nice smooth result.
We have cocoa trees growing in the yard and Chico thinks it would be fun to ferment the beans and make some chocolate. Based on the wikipedia entry this sounds like a lot of work. We can tour a local cocoa plantation to get more information on the process and decide from there.
On our first day here (without our camera, sadly) we saw a sloth in a tree next to the main road down the coast. It was eating leaves and seemed quite relaxed and mellow. We watched him for a while, then looked across the road, where a collection of toucans were settled in a tree. These things only happen when the camera is away. But we have collected lots of good photos of the nature here and share some now.

Cool frog in our yard.

This is a really big tree in our yard.

Ground-dwelling bird walking through our yard.

Playa Cocles, the beach nearest our casita.

Chico caught a toucan!

February 10, 2011 / puravida2011

Arenal to Cocles

Another day of adventure driving for us. Who needs ziplines when you can get your adrenalina on the national roads for free? Our roads today were not mountainous, but we had a very aggressive driver taking us the first three hours of our trip, passing everything else on the road, sometimes with very little room to spare. The highlight was when we arrived at a line of stopped vehicles extending several miles into the distance. Our driver pulled out into the oncoming traffic lane and continued driving quickly past the stopped trucks and cars, zipping into the break-down lane (off-road, really) when oncoming traffic would show up. He wasn’t the only one doing this. At some point it became clear there was no possible passage on the road ahead so Jonathan called his colleague in another van, who met us on the other side of a river without a bridge, vehicular or pedestrian. So we got out of one van with our luggage and skipped across the river on large river rocks, clambering out on the other side to resume our drive in a different van.
We made it to Cocles without further excitement. Next post will have details about our cabina here and the local towns and beaches…