Wednesday, July 29, 2015

My Favorites of Costa Rica

Costa Rica is a top tourist destination, and with good reason.  So, I feel like after living in Costa Rica for nearly a year, I should let others in on what some of my favorites of Costa Rica are.  Some of these responses you may expect, and others you may have never even heard of. And remember, these are just one girl's opinion. Keep asking around and compare to pick what to do and where to go when you get to CR!
  • Local Beer: Domingo 7
    • Domingo 7 is a craft beer and a little harder to find, but when you do DEFINITELY try it! It's one of few beers in Costa Rica bursting with flavor. It's a slightly hoppy golden ale, perfect for those hot beach days
    • When you have the basic options (Imperial, Imperial Light, Imperial Silver, or Pilsen), always go with Pilsen
    • Honorable Mentions: Bavaria Dark, Bavaria Gold
  • Typical Dish: Chifrijo
    • Chifrijo is a typical bar food that quickly became a favorite of mine in Costa Rica. It's made up of white rice, stewed red beans, chicharrones (crispy twice fried pork pieces), pico de gallo, avocado and served with tortilla chips. I always topped mine with a little hot sauce and pair it with an ice cold beer.
    • Honorable mentions: Ceviche, gallo pinto (typical breakfast), patacones (twice fried plantains)
  • San Jose Activity: Feria Verde
    • The Feria Verde is an organic market that gets set up every Saturday in the Aranjuez neighborhood of San Jose.  They're open early morning until 1pm and serve the best breakfast I've had in all of Costa Rica! You can also get yummy specialty goods while you're there like chocolates, nut butters, and fresh pasta!
    • Honorable mentions: Grabbing a beer at "Craic," Coffee or lunch date at Cafe Rojo
  • Beach: Punta Uva - Puerto Viejo
    • Everyone's got a different favorite beach in Costa Rica, and I knew it immediately when I found mine.  I love Punta Uva because it's small, a little hidden (not very crowded, unless it's a holiday), calm (no waves or riptides), has beautiful blue water and white sand and is lined with palm trees (which means lots of shady spots!). Also, if you're lucky you can spot monkeys and sloths right from the beach!
    • Honorable Mentions: Playa Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio (not just Playa Manuel Antonio, there's a BIG difference), Playa Hermosa (Jacó)
  • Must-do Activity: Zip-Lining in Monteverde
    • There's a bazillion places to go zip-lining (or as ticos call it, canopy) in Costa Rica, but the best place is by far Monteverde.  Monteverde is a cloud forest with dense trees and lots of tropical birds.  What better way to see it that flying through the tree canopy? I went through a company called Selvatura and loved it, but there's many other places to choose from. Also, while you're at Selvatura, check out the hanging bridges too!
    • Honorable Mentions: White Water Rafting in the Pacuare River, Surfing in Santa Teresa, Going to a fútbol game whether a national or local game
  • Beach Town: Samara
    • Yeah, yeah. I'm biased because I lived there for a month, but it's still my favorite.  It's  not (yet) overrun by mass tourism and maintains the true air of tico culture.  It's got a great beach, lots of great little restaurants, and friendly locals. What more could you want? Also a great place to visit if you want to try surfing for the first time!
    • Honorable Mentions: Puerto Viejo, Santa Teresa
  • Waterfalls: Nauyaka 
    • The Nauyaka waterfalls are just a short drive from Uvita, but unfortunately no local buses go there so you'll need to take a taxi or a personal car. Once you get to the path, it's still a four kilometer walk to get there, but it's totally worth it. These waterfalls are awesome because you can swim in them! The water is perfectly cool on a hot Costa Rican day.
    • Honorable Mentions: Montezuma, La Paz
  • Volanoes: Arenal
    • There are many volcanoes in Costa Rica. Some you can just see from a distance and others you can walk right up to the crater. I like Arenal because it's surrounded by natural hot springs where you can relax while you enjoy the view.  I recommend "Baldi Hot Springs." It's a little pricey, but totally worth it (and they've got water slides too)!
    • Honorable Mentions: Poas, Irazú
  • Secret Spot: Natural Pools of Carillo
    • Sorry to say, but the only way to get here is to find a local that knows where it is. So, if you're ever in the beach towns of Carillo or Samara, ask a taxi driver to take you to the "piscinas naturales de Carillo." When the tide is high in Carillo, waves crash over the top of these rocks and they trap the water and create a 3-4 foot deep pool of water. A few tropical fishes usually make it up there too. I'd recommend going around sunset
    • Honorable Mentions: None
Natural Pools of Carillo
Keep in mind, these are just my favorites. If you want to figure out what yours are, then you better get exploring!

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Colombia Adventures!

First of all, forgive me because I'm way behind on my blogging. I'm currently sitting in the San Jose airport thinking about the other two entries I wanted write before leaving Costa Rica, but life got in the way... and I guess that's a good thing. But first things first, I want to blog about my trip to Colombia before I forget the details!

In February I decided I wanted to take a big end of the year trip. I realized, I hadn't done any major trips this year (just weekends and long-weekends) and with grad school and a new job coming up who knows the next time I'll have the opportunity to take a big trip like this! So, I blocked off two weeks in June for the trip, narrowed my options down to either Guatemala or Colombia but ended up choosing Colombia after talking to two friends who wanted to join me. Ashley and Lauren are two friends from high school that both decided to come to Colombia with me, and I'm so happy they did because we had an amazing time.

View of Bogota from Monserrate
The trip started off in Bogota. We started there for a few reasons. First of all, it was the cheapest place to fly into and secondly, I had a friend living just a few hours away that I wanted to see. I flew in a day before my other two friends so I could see Michelle, a friend I met during my TEFL course in Samara back in September. She's now living and teaching in Colombia and loving it. The first night we just caught up over a long dinner while being serenaded by two local musicians. I indulged in an amazing soup famous in Bogota called ajiáco which is a chicken based soup with corn, avocado, capers, sweet cream and cilanto. It was amazing! The next day Michelle lead me across town to a swanky neighborhood called "Usaquén" where there was a Sunday market. We browsed the booths in the morning and I even ate my first arepa of the trip! It was buttery, filled with melty cheese and absolutely delicious! One of the things I quickly noticed in Colombia is that the prices are SIGNIFICANTLY cheaper than prices in Costa Rica, and that was fine by me. Then, Michelle led me to her favorite lunch spot, a thai restaurant called Wok. I knew it must be good because the line was out the door and down the street. We made the best of it by buying a couple of beers to enjoy while we waited. I had an amazing thai curry for lunch, and then we headed back to the neighborhood of La Candelaria where we were staying. Bogota is HUGE so it takes a while to get across town. Michelle and I spent a few more hours together but then she had to catch the bus back to her town as she had to work the next day. It was a short and sweet visit. A couple I had met back in Samara happened to be in Bogota that day too, so I meet up with them for a beer and to catch up on their adventures! Just an hour after parting with them, Lauren and Ashley arrived and our adventure began. It was 11pm by the time they were all checked in to the hostel, and they were understandably exhausted. So we just went and got a slice of pizza before heading to bed. 

Street Art in Bogota
The next day was action packed as it was Ashley and Lauren's only full day in Bogota. We started off with a Graffiti tour which was absolutely amazing. There's tons of awesome graffiti around Bogota because it's not illegal there. You still have to pay a fine if you get caught, but you'll never get arrested. The community even support the graffiti artists and often bring them food and drinks while they're working. Because of this mentality, the graffiti isn't rushed like in most places and some really amazing street art emerges. After our tour, we got a "menu del dia" which is a fixed lunch menu including soup, a main course and fresh juice... all for less than $3. Hard to beat that deal... and it was delicious too! The second half of the day we took the cable car to the top of Monserrate to get an amazing view of the city. Bogota is a city of 10 million people (for those of you who didn't know, that's bigger than NYC) and you can tell once you get to the top of the mountain. Buildings and houses go all the way to the horizon. Absolutely stunning. Later that night we caught a night bus to Salento, a small village in the middle of the Zona Cafetera (coffee country). It was a 7 hour night bus, plus one more bus in the morning. 

We arrived in Salento just as the sun was rising. Upon our arrival we were greeted by many jeep drivers ready to take us to our hostel. We knew that we needed to take a jeep as our hostel is a 20 minute walk outside of town, and we didn't know exactly where. We piled into the back of the jeep with two other travels and made the quick journey to our hostel. The hostel was pretty special as it was an eco-farm and completely away from town. It was surrounded by lush green mountains and breathtaking views. We settled into the couches and had breakfast at the hostel. Once we felt a bit rested, we headed into town to check it out. This time, we walked so we could enjoy the scenery more. We were even greeted by a big group of cows making their way down the road. After some browsing in some of the shops it was lunch time and we knew exactly where we were going, "Brunch." Everyone I met that had passed through Salento was RAVING about this restaurant, and specifically their peanut butter brownie with ice cream. So, we had to go and we enjoyed a delicious lunch and tried the brownie that lived up to the name. We split it and was gone in about... 60 seconds. YUM! Later on in the afternoon we made the one hour walk down the twisting dirt road to a little eco coffee farm that has tours. I've been on coffee tour before, but I found this one to be much more personal and interactive than any tour I've taken before! We got to pick our own coffee beans and then were walked through the entire coffee-making process. We all really enjoyed it, even Ashley who hates coffee. 

Lauren in the Valle de Cocora
Day 2 in Salento we headed off to the Valle de Cocora (Cocora Valley). Unfortunately Ashley couldn't join Lauren and I due to on-going problems with her knees. So, Lauren and I jumped in a Willy (that's the nickname for Jeeps) and made the 30-minute journey to the valley. It's hilarious seeing how many people they can fit in this little jeeps: three in the front, 8 in the seats and three people standing on the back. Safety is definitely not as much of a concern in Colombia. Once we arrived (safely) Lauren and I started on the 7 hour hiking loop around the valley. The path started in the countryside, then transitioned to rain forest weaving in and out of a babbling river (and ironically raining on us), then into cloud forest (where we stopped and had lunch with humming birds, chickens, and a very friendly family of coatis), mountain and finally we made it to the valley. Although all the scenery was stunning, the valley was definitely the crowned jewel. Valle de Cocora is home to wax palms, the tallest palm trees in the world. They fill in the valley by the hundreds, towering over everything else. They almost look like something straight out of a Dr. Seuss book.  We walked through the valley in awe of its beauty. After the 7 hours of hiking, we were exhausted and smelled awful (according to Ashley, and I believe her), so we went back to the hostel and took a quick shower. Then we packed up our bags, got dinner in town, caught a bus to Armenia and hopped on another night bus to Medellín, a 6.5-hour journey.

We arrived in Medellín painfully early in the morning. By the time we found the metro stop and took the train to the hostel, it was 5:30am. The grace of gods our beds were already ready for us even though check-in was hours away! Hallelujah! We crawled into our beds and slept the rest of the morning. When we finally woke up, we went to get a traditional Colombian breakfast called a “calentado” which consists of rice, stewed red beans, arepa, cheese, a fried egg and your choice of meat. It was a huge portion, but I was starving so I devoured it, it ended up keeping me full into very late in the day. Later that day we took a walking tour of the city. The tour lasted 4 hours and we learned all about the history of Medellin, which is a fascinating one. Just fifteen short years ago Medellín was the most dangerous city in the world, ruled by cocaine drug lords and gangs. Fast forward to now, Medellin was recently voted the most innovative city in the world. This is probably due to its beautiful metro/cable car system, the surge of art and music movements, and the creative energy that is tangible throughout the city. Not only that, but the paisas (people from the region were Medellin is located) are extremely proud of their city and happily came up to us tourists to brag about their city and how far its come! It’s amazing to witness this progressive renaissance that is occurring in Medellin right now.

The view from La Piedra de Peñol 
Day two in Medellin we took a day trip to Guatapé, a small town just two hours outside Medellín. We hopped on a minibus and made the journey there in the morning. Stop #1 was the Piedra de Peñol, a volcanic rock just a few kilometers outside Guatape that has 740 stairs carved into the side. At the top of the rock is a breath-taking view of Guatapé and the surrounding finger lakes. The climb proved to be easier than anticipated, and the view lived up to the hype. After the rock, we took tuk-tuk into Guatapé. We quickly noticed that Guatapé is an adorably colorful city full painted tiles lining the outside of every house. We were interested in the significance of the tiles, so I asked a friendly-looking nun in the street about them. She told us that one house starting doing the painted tiles and then it domino-effected through the whole city. Families choose a symbol to represent their house, whether that’s a flower, an animal or something else. After a bit of wandering, we sat down to a traditional lunch of a Bandeja Paisa. We knew it would be big, so we split it between the three of us. Splitting was a good idea because we hardly finished our individual portions. A Bandeja Paisa consists of rice, stewed red beans, chorizo, chicharron, ground beef, avocado and a fried egg. We enjoyed natural mango juice and limeade with our traditional feast. After lunch, we wandered a bit more, enjoyed a happy hour of beer and patacones (twice fried plantains) and then headed back to Medellín. Later that night, we decided to check out Poblado, the hip-young neighborhood of Medellín where most of the hostels are and the young people live. It definitely was a side of Medellín we hadn’t seen before. There were nice restaurants and bars everywhere boasting international cuisine and drink specials; I honestly felt like I could have been in a trendy neighborhood of any major city in the US. Ashley, Lauren and I immediately agreed we weren’t digging the vibe as Poblado doesn’t represent Colombian culture in any way, shape or form. However, it was fun to have a few beers in the plaza and mingle with other travelers for the night.

Traditional "Sancocho de Gallina" before and after
Day three was pretty chill. We allowed ourselves to sleep in and got a coffee and pan de mantequilla (like a croissant but better) from our favorite bakery. Then, we took the cable car up to Parque Arvi, a gigantic and beautiful eco park just over one of the mountains surrounding Medellín. There was a market at the top, so we did a little browsing there. Then we enjoyed a lunch of a traditional soup called Sancocho de Gallina, which is a chicken based soup with lots of root vegetables. Once again, we split it between the three of us and couldn’t finish it. Colombian portions are huge! Then, we took the cable car back down (got an amazing view of Medellin on the way) and watched the Costa Rica vs Colombia friendly soccer game while sipping on michiladas (beer served with a salty rim and lime juice). That night, we had a street food dinner of empanadas and amazing BBQ pork and ribs.

Beautiful Balconies of Cartagena 
The next day we hopped on a flight to Cartagena. We chose to fly because the prices for buses and flights were virtually the same and the bus is 12 hours while was just flight one. It was a no brainer. After our quick morning flight and taxi into town, we checked into our hostel and immediately were greeted by tons of friendly travelers in the common area. For the rest of our three days in Cartagena we hung out with our new traveler friends, took a trip to the beach, walked around the colorful cities full of beautiful balconies and ancient city walls, visited a castle and enjoyed a bit of night life which of course included street food and salsa dancing. The street food in Cartagena was incredible. Everything from the hamburgers and hotdogs to the patacon con todo (fried plantains topped with three kinds of meat, fried onions, crispy potatoes, bbq sauce, pinapple sauce, hot sauce, cheese, mushrooms and god knows what else) to the street areaps were simply delicious. I’m usually a healthy eater, so if I’m going to sacrifice my diet for something, it better be delicious and it was. All of it.  Cartagena was the perfect last stop to our little trip. We were able to relax on the touristy stuff and just got to sit back and enjoy Colombian culture.

I cannot sing high enough praises for this beautiful country. The people could not be more kind and friendly, the food is delicious (and cheap), the history is rich, the best of all the country is proud of their culture and it shows! They blast Colombian music, dance in the streets, and vibrant life is everything. The country is colorful from the street art to the green rolling mountains to the wide range of skin colors that make up the Colombian people. I’m so happy that we chose to visit Colombia, it was truly a once in a life time trip. We covered quite a bit of ground, but Colombia is still a huge country with many more places to visit. I’m sure it won’t be long until I’m back to see the rest. Hasta pronto Colombia!

Monday, May 25, 2015

Costa Rica Bucket List

The first half of my year in Costa Rica, I was mostly focused on my job, making friends, and practicing my Spanish. This was great because I created an amazing foundation for my life here in Costa Rica. However, when I went home for Christmas I got bombarded with questions, "Have you been to _________ (popular location in CR) yet?" "How is ____________ (popular place in CR)?" and it made me realize that although I had spent four months in Costa Rica I really hadn't seen much of the country. So, when I got back after winter break I decide to make a "Costa Rica Bucket List" so I could keep track of all the places I wanted to visit and all the things I wanted to do before I leave.

Well, time flew by and I was down to my last month and a half and still hadn't visited three of my top five places on my list... so it was time to do some work. With the exception of one weekend, I've spent the last six weekends traveling to some of the most well-known places in Costa Rica. Now, I feel like I can finally say that I really know the country.  As of this past weekend, I've finally checked off the top five places on my list, including what I consider to be Costa Rica's big three: La Fortuna, Monteverde and Manuel Antonio.
Baldi Hot Springs

I'd been dying to go to La Fortuna all year because I had heard nothing but good things about the small town located next to the famous Arenal Volcano. I finally happened upon the perfect opportunity to go to La Fortuna with my friends a few weekends back. My friend Angie has a finca in San Carlos, just a half hour drive from La Fortuna. A bunch of us went out to her finca for the weekend for the Expo San Carlos (imagine a small state fair with a horse parade). We went to the Expo on Saturday, which left us with a open Sunday afternoon. We decided to visit the Baldi Hot Springs in La Fortuna. The Arenal Volcano is famous for its natural hot springs due to the proximity of a very active volcano. We chose Baldi because although it's a little pricey, it's the nicest hot springs in the area and the biggest in the world. There were 25 pools of varying sizes and temperatures as well as four water slides. Nearly every pool had an amazing view of the Arenal Volcano just a few hundred meters away. The volcano is so tall that the top is usually hidden by ceiling of clouds, however we were lucky to see the clouds clear  for a few minutes in the afternoon just long enough to get a clear glimpse of the peak. It was absolutely stunning. Although there's a lot more to do in La Fortuna such as hiking, zip-lining, horseback riding, etc, we only had time to spend a relaxing afternoon at the hot springs, but I enjoyed every minute of it. I'd love to get back there someday and try the rest of the tours, but for now I'm satisfied with the little taste I got of La Fortuna.

Hanging Bridges of Monteverde
The first weekend of May Costa Rica celebrated its Labor Day. The holiday landed on a Friday this year, which meant I had a long weekend to take advantage of. I decided to solo trip to Monteverde to see the cloud forest that had everyone talking. Some even claim its the most famous cloud forest in the world, so I had to see it for myself. I made the five hour trek to the small city of Santa Elena, which is just a few kilometers away from Monteverde cloud forest. I know exactly what most of you are thinking.... what's a cloud forest? A cloud forest is a tropical forest that's characterized by lots of fog and 100% humidity. The mist and moisture causes growth of lots of moss and other tropical plants, in fact some of the plants get all their water from the moisture created by the clouds rather than rain or some other source. Only 1% of global woodlands are cloud forests. Anyway, I got to Santa Elena around noon. I knew that national parks usually close around four, so after I dropped my stuff off at the hostel I grabbed the next bus to Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. I spent nearly three hours hiking the trails, birdwatching (Monteverde is famous for its wide variety of hummingbirds), and gazing in awe at the lush, green beauty that surrounded me. I considered myself lucky because the forecast for the weekends was non-stop rain and thunderstorms, however I only got rained on the last twenty minutes of my hike. I'd call that a win. Day 2 I had some big decisions to make. Santa Elena is known for offering tons of high-thrill activities such as bungee jumping, cave repelling, zip-lining, and more. As much as I would've like to do them all, I didn't have the time or money for them. So I chose to do a zip-lining and hanging bridge package deal as they were both things I've never tried before. I lucked out big time again on Saturday as the morning greeted me with clear blue skies and lots of sun. I had a blast zip-lining, but as most people tell you the joy zip-lining isn't really about the activity itself, it's about the amazing views you get as you're doing it. Some of the lines went under that canopy and some of it over, making for some spectacular, breath-taking views of the forest. After a morning of zip-lining, I spent my afternoon hiking through the hanging bridges which are great places to animal watch and get  great views at the forest. All in all Monteverde was great! It's absolutely stunning and I'd highly recommended. Getting there and staying there is cheap, but it's the tours that'll get you. If you're ever headed to Monteverde I'd recommend setting your heart on one or two tours before you go because it can be overwhelming once you get there.

Finally, this past weekend I visited Manuel Antonio with a bunch of my friends. I've been begging them to go to MA with me all year, and we finally found a weekend that most of us could go. I wanted to go to so badly because my parents and sister visited there a few years back for a spring break trip and they adored it. I couldn't wait to get to this tropical paradise! We met up at our hotel in Manuel Antonio early on Saturday. After we got a bite to eat we went straight to the beach and spent the rest of the day there. Something that's confusing about Manuel Antonio is that there's a lot of beaches and two of them have very similar names. The nicest one is called Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio, but as you may have guessed it's inside the national park and requires a fee to enter ($16 if you're a foreigner like me). So on Saturday we stayed at the regular Playa Manuel Antonio which is still pretty nice, although a little rocky. The reality is, when you're with friends it doesn't really matter how nice the beach is. Good company is what makes a beach day great, and that I definitely had. That night we went searching for a restaurant with a TV so we could watch the Costa Rican League national championship game. Heredia (my team) played against Alajuela's La Liga which holds a lot of heated rivalry. The game went into extra time and eventually penalty kicks, which made for a very dramatic ending. Heredia won on the 6th PK which was very exciting to watch. It would have been nice to be in Heredia to celebrate (I heard the celebration in the street afterwards was crazy), but it was worth it to be on vacay with my closest Costa Rican friends. The next day we went to Manuel Antonio National Park. The only hiking we did was to two of the beaches, but we were able to see quite a few animals on the way including tropical birds, a few species of monkeys, colorful crabs and some raccoons (who were clearly used to human company). The beach was absolutely beautiful. Even though it was an overcast/rainy day, we were able to swim and enjoy the clear blue waters and tropical vegetation that encircled us. The sand on this beach was some of the finest and whitest sand I've ever seen. It was simply pristine. The beach even landed spot #17 on Trip Advisor's top 25 beaches in the world list, and I can see why (although my favorite beach is still Punta Uva in Puerto Viejo). After we logged some beach time we went back into town for a late lunch and headed back home. A beautiful sunset lit our path back to San Jose. My overall review of Manuel Antonio is that it's beautiful but over-priced and very touristy. I'd recommend it for someone who doesn't mind paying a little extra for food and lodging, and is looking for somewhere that's easy to get around without Spanish. However if you're looking for a beach town that's more authentic and quaint, I'd recommend somewhere else.
Playa Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio

As you can tell all La Fortuna, Monteverde and Manuel Antonio are all incredible places. They each highlight different areas of Costa Rican landscape and a range of activities. I enjoyed them all, but they are all admittedly touristy. Stay tuned for my next two posts about my favorite places in Costa Rica and what to know before you come here to get my unfiltered opinions about where to go and what to do in this beautiful country.

(Note: As I leave for Colombia at the end of this week, there may be a break in my Costa Rica blogging in order to blog my Colombia trip, enjoy!)

Monday, May 18, 2015

The Finca

Last year I wrote a blog entry about the "pueblo" culture that exists in Spain. I compared it to Minnesota cabin culture in the same sense that they're both used for friends/family gatherings and weekend get aways. Well, in Costa Rica they don't have Spanish "pueblos" or lake cabins, but they do have the cultural equivalent. Fincas.

This year I've been lucky enough to become friends with a lot of local ticos. We do everything from grabbing a few beers together to going on weekend adventures. I started to hear a lot of talk about "fincas" but wasn't really sure exactly what to think. I knew that finca roughly translated to estate or property, but that still leaves a lot to the imagination. It wasn't until I was invited to my first one that I started to get an idea of what "finca" really meant. Fast forward until the present and I've now been to five fincas and they've all been completely different.

Fincas are secondary houses or pieces of properties that ticos own in addition to their regular home. Many times it's something that has been passed down through a family for many generations. Other times it's a special investment that someone made towards a vacation house. Either way, all of these places are perfect for escaping from the city and getting some fresh air. For some people that means heading to the mountains, for others that means somewhere warmer. Locations of fincas in Costa Rica can really be anywhere. However, all of the fincas I've been to have been in pretty remote areas. In the same way that Spaniards and Minnesotans are trying to get away, disconnect and find some peace of mind, ticos also seem to prefer quiet areas for their escape.
Angie's Finca in San Carlos

Another thing that varies from finca to finca is how much land is involved. All are somewhat sizeable properties. The smallest finca I've been to had at least an acre of land, but many fincas have much more than that. We're talking about 100+ acres of land. This is because like I said earlier, some fincas just serve to be a vacation house and others are family farms. Some of the vacation-style homes, like the ones that belong to my friends Angie and Glory, are actually quite luxurious. Their fincas that have swimming pools, air conditioning and multiple bedrooms. They are a perfectly place to lay around in the sun, cool off with a quick dip and have an afternoon BBQ. My good friend Matt Kuerbis is working as a chef at a beautiful finca in the mountains south-central Costa Rica. This place called "Finca Mia" is a large piece of property with many luxury cabins for guests to stay in. Finca Mia is a gorgeous retreat center (mostly for yoga and spiritual health) owned by an American and Canadian couple.  I had the pleasure of staying there last weekend and it was one of the most beautiful pieces of property I've seen in my entire life, complete with their own orange groves, a babbling river, and tons of wildlife.

Javi's Finca in Vara Blanca
Not all fincas are so luxurious, however. My friend Javi's finca is extremely rustic. His family literally built the wooden cabin themselves and the electricity for the cabin is generated by a gas-powered engine. No need for air-conditioning at Javi's finca, it gets to be freezing over night. Usually we snuggle up with blankets and something to drink and spend the nights talking or listening to our friends play guitar. Javi's family has another finca that's a dairy farm with lots of cows and beautiful green land. Also on the farm they have a little shelter that's basically a covered dining area. It's perfect for rainy day barbecues.

Finca Mia in Perez Zeledon
The bottom line is that in the same way that cabins and pueblos can vary, fincas do too!  Finca is not a one-size-fits-all description; they come in many forms, places and sizes. Though not everyone in Costa Rica has a finca, everyone knows someone who does and it's a big part of tico culture. I'm so happy that I've been able to experience finca life for myself. It reminds me so much of my favorite part of Minnesotan culture, cabin life. It seems to me that in almost every corner or the world there exists a culture similar to what we have in Minnesota. Everyone wants a gathering place for friends and family; somewhere to escape from our stressful lives and share some laughs and good food with great company. They are truly special places with a strong sentimental value. So, wherever you are in the world

I hope that you're able to find your equivalent of a finca, pueblo, or cabin.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Five Major Misconceptions

Thanks to the glory of technology, I'm able to easily stay in touch with friends and family back at home while I'm away. People are always curious to ask me about my life in Costa Rica, and sometimes they are really surprised by my answers. So, this blog post will be dedicated to clearing up the biggest misconceptions about life in Costa Rica.

#1 - It's Always Hot
Depending on where you are in the country, there might be some truth to this. Coastal towns tend to have relatively warm weather all year around, rarely getting colder than 70 degrees. However, only 10% of Costa Rica's population lives on the coast. The other 90% lives in the mountains or the central valley (where I live). The the central valley's climate is much more mild, in fact the average temperature sits in the around 72F and lows are in the 60s. Only in the "summer" (February-April) will the temps get up in the 80s, still having cool nights. Once you get up in the mountains or volcanos, temps can be as low as 45F at night. People are always shocked to see pictures of me in Costa Rica in jeans in a leather jacket, but it's the reality! Bottom line, if you're coming to Costa Rica and plan on visiting more than just the coast, you might want to bring a jacket.

#2 - I Live in the Jungle
A lot of people are under the impression that I live in the jungle surrounded by monkeys and toucans, but that's not the case. Although there are many wild places like that in Costa Rica, the place I live is not one of them. I live in Heredia, one of the hub cities that makes up the greater San Jose metro area. The San Jose metro is a lot like american metro cities. San Jose itself is mostly a concrete jungle with a spattering of green in the few parks throughout the city. The hub cities surrounding San Jose (Heredia, Cartago, Moravia, Escazu, etc.) are smaller cities surrounded by suburban neighborhoods. The only nature around my house consists of perfectly planted trees and grass in the neighborhood parks. There are animals around, but just squirrels, common birds and insects. This may seem boringly ordinary, however the beauty of Costa Rica is that nature is never far away. With a car I can be in the mountains in 15 minutes and at the beach in one hour, completely surrounded by wildlife.

#3 - It's Cheap
Wrong. Totally wrong. Many people think that Costa Rican prices are as low as ones in Guatemala, Nicaragua and Panama, which isn't the case. If you want specifics, scroll back to my blog post "The Price of Living in Paradise" where I dedicated the entire post to comparing prices between Costa Rica and the US. Although a small handful of things (like fresh local fruit, bus tickets and phone plans) are cheaper here, the majority costs as much or more in Costa Rica than in the US. Unfortunately, the working wages don't compensate for the inflation. For example, minimum wage here is about $2.50. So the reality is that I've really had to be careful about my spending this year. Luckily with my naturally stingy nature, I was even able to save a little bit of money.

#4 - Everyone Has That "Latino" Look
Many people have a preconceived idea of what a tico (a Costa Rican person) looks like. Most people think that they all have carmel brown skin, black hair, and dark brown eyes. Although some of the population has this profile, many ticos have a very different one. Many Costa Ricans still have the characteristics of their Spanish ancestors. This means pale skin, brown or blue eyes and a range of hair color from brown to blonde to even red. Yes, you heard me correctly. Red-headed ticos exist. Did I just blow your mind? Additionally, on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica there is a large afro-caribbean population that settled there well over a century ago. Due to their influence and mixing, many ticos are black, or a black/white or black/latino mix. The reality is that Costa Rican looks are actually quite diverse. A Costa Rican may be black with dreadlocks, olive-toned with dark hair or pale with blonde hair and blue eyes. Don't believe me? Just take a look at these pictures of me and my Costa Rican friends. Is that what you expected them to look like?

#5 - It's a Third World Country
Central America has a world-wide reputation for being poor and undeveloped. While there are poor and undeveloped areas of Costa Rica, most of the country lives pretty comfortably. Costa Rica has a strong economy (although it's still recovering from the 2008 recession) and an unemployment rate of only 7.9%.  Just like the US

most people here own smart phones, cars, and the latest electronics. Their universities are known as the best in Central America and they have developed some of the best methods for renewable energy. Costa Rica may even be more developed and financial stable than some U.S. cities (cough cough Detroit).

To sum things up Costa Rica can be cold, is not all jungle, is expensive, has a diverse population, and is well-developed. Anything you're still unclear about? Please feel free to ask! Until then, pura vida.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Volcano, Rafting and the Caribbean Coast with the Family

I'm a little behind on my blog. Okay, I'm way behind. Sometime I'm just not in the blogging mood, but it's about time I write about my family coming down to visit during Semana Santa (Holy Week).

My family always comes to visit me during my little sister's (Juliana) spring break trip. This year, it just so happened to line up with holy week, which was perfect for me because I had most of the week off work anyway! Yay for good timing! Another bonus was that this year my sister Meggie was able to join too! So, on Friday, March 27th my mom, dad, and two sisters arrived in Costa Rica (sadly missing my brother Chris who is studying hard at medical school). They arrived very late at night, but a couple of my friends were really eager to meet Meggie so the four of us went out for a late night beer in Heredia and then we called it a night.

The hard thing about traveling with a big group is that everyone has a different idea of "vacation". For my dad and I it means covering as much ground as possible through constant activities, tours, and exploration. However, for my little sisters vacation means lying by the pool with a book and tropical drink in hand. My mom falls somewhere in the middle of those two groups. So, in order to keep everyone happy, my parents allowed me to plan the first three days of vacation and made me promise to leave the other five for beach bummin'.

After a good nights sleep, I brought my family to the Feria Verde (organic farmer's market) in San Jose for breakfast. As predicted, they loved it as much as I do. We order a few tasty treats like an amazing tomato, egg, and grilled cheese sandwich and a decadent french toast with berries as well as a few plates of caribbean style rice and beans with omelette and salad. Although I adore the Feria Verde, it's more of an artisanal/niche market so I decided to take my family back to Heredia to see a typical Saturday market. The Heredia market has lines of hundreds of tents of vendors selling fresh veggies, tropical fruits, eggs, meat, and more. I was planning to cook breakfast for my family the next day so we stocked up on some yummy produce for breakfast and tropical smoothies later on. As my sisters sipped on a fresh coconut, I introduced my family to a lot of unique produce from here in Costa Rica including roasted pejibaye (known as peach palm in English), caimito, maracuya (passion fruit), and mananzas de agua (water apples). I'm so lucky to have a family of such adventurous eaters! It sure makes traveling a lot easier. Later in the afternoon we went on a coffee tour at Cafe Britt, a small coffee plantation just a few kilometers from my house. That night we joined my roommate and her family at their house in the mountains of Santa Ana for a typical Venezuelan dinner of arepas and a wonderful view of the central valley.

Sunday we had a very early wake-up call. We were headed to Poas Volcano and everyone I've talked to recommended we get there as early as possible because it tends to get cloudy around 10am and you can no longer see the volcanic crater. So I had my family over for a typical breakfast of gallo pinto (rice and beans), scrambled eggs with onion, fried plantains and lots of fresh fruit. Then, we made the one hour drive to Poas Volcano. After completing the short hike to the crater, we were all elated to see a perfectly clear view of the smoking volcanic crater. We made sure to get lots of good pictures and then moved on to an hour long hike around the national park which took us past a volcanic lagoon and lots of lush vegetation and wildlife. After a typical lunch of casados (rice, beans, salad, plantains, picadillo and a protein) we drove over to La Paz Waterfall Gardens. Although the entrance was a bit pricey, it's totally worth it. Not only do the gardens have animals including jungle cats, butterfly gardens, monkeys and TONS of tropical birds, but they have beautifully built paths to three amazingly beautiful waterfalls (the paths even had railings! that's the first I've seen in Costa Rica!). We spent a rainy afternoon looking at the animals and visiting the waterfalls in the cloud forest of Vara Blanca. It was another long, exhausting day and we could hardly bring ourselves out for dinner, but I'm glad we did because I got to take my fam to my favorite restaurant in the central valley. It's a small Peruvian restaurant in the town of San Joaquin de las Flores and they serve up some seriously delicious seafood. Once again, we hit the hay early in anticipation of another early wake-up call for the following morning.

After packing up and checking out, my family came to pick me up at my house in Heredia. Then we drove to San Jose where we followed our tour company on a two hour drive to the Pacuare River where we were set to go white water rafting. I'd done this rafting tour before, and new how incredible it was. The four hour tour takes you through some of the most lush jungles and vegetation of Costa Rica. Most of the land that boarders the river still belongs to indigenous tribes, which leaves the nature practically untouched. My family really enjoyed the beauty of the ride as well as the adventure of the rapids. After the tour, we drove two more hours down to Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean coast. Our hotel was located just off the surfing beach of Playa Cocles, just a few minutes drive past Puerto Viejo center. By the time we arrived, we just had time to settle in and head out for dinner. I had heard a lot about the food in Puerto Viejo, and was ecstatic to finally experience it for myself! Let me say, it did not disappoint. Night one consisted of vegetable curries, tropical drinks, and fish covered all sorts of sauces from coconut to avocado sauce. It was all I could do not to lick my bowl of green thai coconut curry by the end of the meal.

At Punta Uva, our favorite beach
The rest of the week found a rhythm. My parents would wake-up very early to go on a nice beach walk, my sister and mom sometimes went to a morning yoga session down the street, then we'd all have breakfast together, go to the pool for the morning, go out to lunch, go to the beach for the second half of the day (different beaches every day), come back to the hotel, shower and get dressed for dinner, and go out to Puerto Viejo for a delicious meal. In our five days we visited three beaches: Playa Cocles, Punta Uva and Manzanillo. There were all different, but Punta Uva was by far our favorite. In fact, we agreed it might be the most beautiful beach any of us had ever seen. It's relatively small with lots of shade from palm trees, few waves and crystal clear blue water. We also found ourselves at different restaurants everyday with the exception of a double stop at the amazing taco place called Tasty Waves that was walking distance from our hotel. Every meal in Puerto Viejo was an absolute delight. The range of food offered there is like nothing I've seen in the rest of Costa Rica. Most of the restaurants offer "fusion" food whether is Caribbean-Thai, Carribean-Indian, Carribean-Japanese, etc. And of course, we found lots of places with typical Costa Rican food to have lunch at. My mom and I took our culinary journey a step further by going on a chocolate tour just around the corner from our hotel. We learned so much about the cacao tree and chocolate making process throughout our three hour tour, and of course we got to sample lots of delicious, organic chocolate. Puerto Viejo truly was a culinary experience.

Although we spent most of our days relaxing by the pool or on the beach, it was fun to drive into Puerto Viejo every night as the city was always buzzing. It's known for it's chill Caribbean vibe complete with open-air bars, mingling people and lots of reggae music.

The whole week was nearly perfect minus a couple hiccups. On Thursday half of San Jose showed up to Puerto Viejo and took over on their long-weekend of Semana Santa vacations. The beaches went from a quiet and relaxing to over-crowded and noisy filled with obnoxious Costa Ricans setting up camp (literally) and blasting music from their cars. Additionally, the regular five minute drive into town turned into a 20 minute snail-crawl due to the traffic. Luckily, our hotel was an oasis away from all of this, so we were able to hide away there. The other rotten thing that happened was my sister and dad got a stomach virus that was going around (I got it later, after the vacation) which took them out of a full day of activities.

However, other than that, the vacation couldn't have been more perfect! Even I, the girl who usually gets stir crazy laying on the beach for more than one day, really enjoyed the relaxation. It's such a special thing when I have the opportunity to share the place I love with the people I love most. Although this is my last year of living abroad for a while, I hope that my wanderlust will continue to inspire and encourage my loved ones to travel continuously throughout the rest of their lives.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Solo Trip to Panama

My time was up again, and it was time to take my second boarder run to renew my visa. I decided that since I already took a trip north to Nicaragua, it was time to head south to check out Panama. Most people think that there's basically nothing in Panama except for Panama city, but that is definitely not the case. After asking around a little bit the favored boarder run location is a place called Bocas del Toro for a few reasons: it has a beautiful caribbean climate, it's just across the boarder from Costa Rica, and it's a good time! Well, that's all the convincing I needed to go there. And once again, I decided to take this trip solo.
The balancing act of walking across the holey bridge
About a week and a half ago, I woke up verrrrry early on a Thursday morning to catch the 6am bus from San Jose to Sixaola (the boarder town). It was a steamy bus with no a/c but it wasn't too much of an issue since I ended up sleeping for the majority of the five and a half hour trip. Now, I was warned in advance that the Panama boarder crossing could be a bit tricky, so I did my research and prepared myself for the experience. First I had to pay an exit tax to leave Costa Rica, then they had me fill out a simple form about my personal info an my travel plans and they gave me the stamp I needed to leave Costa Rica. Then, I walked across a very rickety pedestrian bridge over a large swamp and river in order to enter Panama. The bridge is so poorly maintained that there are holes and gaps throughout the entire way, so you have to look down and do a balance beam kind-of act in order to get across safely. I crossed my fingers that this was not a foreshadow of how my time in Panama would be. The first thing I had to do when I reached the other side of the bridge was pay an entrance tax for Panama in order to get a sticker so I could eventually get my stamp. Then I had to walk over to boarder control and I anticipated the worst. This is the part where I was told I had to present a exit ticket from Panama in the next 90 days, a ticket back to my home country, and proof that I have $500 in my bank account. Well, maybe I got lucky but the friendly man at customs didn't ask for any of that. He simply smiled and asked me what I was doing in Panama and how long I expected to be there and BAM, just like that he stamped my passport and I was through. Hallelujah!
After I got the stamp I joined two young German tourists in a pirate taxi (non-official) for the hour-long journey to Almirante where I would catch a water taxi to Bocas del Toro. On the drive there, I took some time to admire the thick, lush vegetation that lined the skinny road. I felt like I was in the middle of the amazon. In addition to the jungle we passed a sea of banana trees (formally owned by Chiquita) and a few small villages. Finally, we arrived at the water taxi station. I don't know what I was expecting for this part of the journey, but I didn't expect it to be just a Panamanian dude with a big fishing boat with rows of bench-like seating for the passengers. The boat didn't look very reassuring, but at least they provided life jackets. Thirty minutes later, after a windy, bumpy boat ride, I found myself in Bocas del Toro, FINALLY! 
For those of you who don't know, Bocas del Toro is a group of islands off the Caribbean coast of Panama. Bocas del Toro town is located on one of the islands and is the center of life, but many of the surrounding islands are more remote and home to small hostels, resort and quieter beaches. I chose to stay at a hostel that had RAVE reviews on that was on one of the other islands. So, this required me to take one last water taxi from Bocas city to get to my hostel (and this time that water taxi really was just a fishing boat). 5 mintues later we arrived at the dock, and I looked up to see the hostel perched on top of a steep hill surrounded by tropical trees and bushes. I climbed the long set of stairs to reach the top and was greeted by a friendly Australian surfer dude who was working the front desk. He explained to me that the hostel had 14 acres of private land that contained hiking paths, animals, and 40 types of fruit trees. Additionally I was informed that the hostel is completely eco-friendly and runs off of solar power and uses rain water. Also, he told me that there was a coral reef just 50 meters off the dock that we were welcome to snorkel and that they had paddle boards, canoes, and kayaks for us to use, not to mention that they also had their own private pool. I knew I was in for a great weekend from the very start.
The beautiful view from my hostel
After I got settled, I went downstairs to grab a beer at the bar and struck up a conversation with some on the hostel staff. In addition to the Aussie surfer, I met a young newlywed couple from Texas (the husband was a chef and the wife the baker), a young couple with a woman from Scotland and guy from Italy who also was also a chef, a woman from France, a guy from Colorado, a guy from Sweden and one of the two owners who was a 30-something Canadian guy. As I drank my beer and watched them prepare dinner we all got to know each other a little bit, and as most travelers do, they all had really interesting life stories! Dinner was served family-style every night and it was absolutely delicious!
After dinner the staff taught me a fun dice game that they played often at the hostel and we played for a few hours. But, after that I decided to turn in after a very long day of travel.
The next morning I woke up to a little rain, so I grabbed my book and one of the hammocks and just relaxed most of the morning. Luckily, around noon the sun came out so I decided to head into the main island to check out the town. I quickly found out that Bocas is a very international place. It doesn't have the latino vibe like you get in other places in central america. Most of the shops and restaurants seemed to owned by foreigners and offered any cuisine BUT Panamanian food. Also, most people on the island speak English rather than Spanish. However, as I walked around the town a little more and got away from the main area, I started to see the neighborhoods where the locals lived in their little brightly colored beach houses. For those of you who have every been the coast in Georgia or the Carolinas, just imagine those southern beach houses but a little more run down and painted in a bright, tropical color. It turns out that the population of Bocas is 12,000, so the locals are practically outnumbered by the tourists. Anyway, my afternoon consisted of getting lunch at a little Mexican restaurant and enjoying a coconut brown porter from the local craft brewery in town. Later on I headed back to the hostel and once again enjoyed chatting with the hostel staff while they cooked us another scrumptious dinner.
The next day I woke up to another overcasty day, but there was no rain so I decided to take advantage of the dry weather. The hostel staff gave me a tip about an hour-long jungle hike I could take throughout the island to arrive at a secret snorkel spot on the other side of the island. I was feeling adventurous so I grabbed a pair of rubber boots that the hostel lent me, packed up the snorkel equipment and a few other things and started my adventure! Throughout the next hour I would find myself knee-deep in mud (thank God for the boots), face-to-face with a beautiful owl butterfly the size of my hand, and surrounded by tons of little red frogs hopping through the jungle. Finally, I reached the end of the trail and asked a local to point me towards the snorkel spot (I was warned it's really hard to find). The young guy offered to take me there himself and I'm glad he did because it truly was tiny and hard to find. Coincidentally I ran into two Swedish girls from the hostel at the same spot! I spent the next hour snorkeling and relaxing in the sun. I got to see tons of tropical fish, coral, lots and lots of little sardines. I've never seen water like that before. It was so clear that it looked turquoise! I felt like I was living in a postcard for a moment. Afterwards, I caught a water taxi back to the hostel with the Swedish girls and spent the rest of my afternoon at the hostel. I took a nap by the pool and then took the paddleboard out to the reef near the hostel dock and got to see even more fish and coral including starfish and lots of sea urchins. Later that night I enjoyed my last delicious dinner at the hostel and then went out in Bocas town with some of the hostel staff. On the water taxi into town, the most magical thing happened! First, we got to see the bioluminescent algae light up all around us like flickering fireflies swimming beneath us in the water, and then further in the journey a dolphin jumped out of the water right next to our boat! Between that and the fun night we had bar-hopping in town, it was the cherry-on-top of an amazing weekend in Bocas. 
The next morning I woke up before dawn to catch the two water taxis, one regular taxi and two buses I needed to get home to Heredia. I've really grown to like solo travel as it really pushes me to be friendly and meet new people, and I got to meet some really awesome people in my time in Bocas. I would just like to give a shout-out to all of the staff at Bambuda Lodge for being the friendliest, nicest hostel staff I've ever met and providing me with delicious food and great company. It was a short trip, but it was a good one. I'm sure that won't be my last time in Bocas del Toro.

Friday, March 6, 2015

The Costa Rican Diet

No one was more excited than my mother when they found out where I'd be completing my TEFL training program in Costa Rica. I was placed in a small beach town called Samara located on the Nicoyan Peninsula of Costa Rica's western coast. My mom, who is a holistic health coach and certified personal trainer, has had a fascination with the Costa Rican diet ever since reading the "Blue Zones" by Dan Buettner. This book travels to the "blue zones" which are geographic regions where high percentages of centenarians live remarkably long, full lives to study their lifestyle, diet and habits in order to discover how to live the longest, healthiest lives possible. The Nicoyan Peninsula was one of the five blue zones the book chose to highlight. In the end, many of the factors of the Nicoyans long life expectancy were attributed to their strong life purpose, family/social bonds, physical work and plenty of sunlight. However, the book also highlighted the simplistic diet of rice, beans, plantains, coffee and fresh fruit. After hearing about all of this, I (and my mom) was excited to get to know the Costa Rican diet myself, however the reality that I discovered here in Costa Rica is that in many ways the traditional diet is dying and the westernized diet is taking over.

A typical Costa Rican "casado"
In the month I spent in Samara, I spent time asking the locals about their diets and they seemed to be eating a lot of rices, beans, etc. Rice and black beans are a common dish to eat three times a day in Nicoya. A typical breakfast consists of gallo pinto (rice and black beans cooked together), eggs, corn tortilla, natilla (similar to sour cream) and sometimes fried sweet plantains. Lunch is usually a "casado" which means a large serving of white rice, stewed black beans, picadillo (cooked veggies and meat), a fried sweet plantain, some kind of meat/fish and a small simple salad. Dinner is either another casado (usually a smaller portion) or an "olla de carne" which is a brothy beef stew. All meals are usually accompanied with coffee or a "natural" which is a natural fruit juice smoothie. Although some foreigners will complain that this diet is one-noted and a bit repetitive, I was completely on board since the beginning! I eat my version of a "casado" every day for lunch (mine is usually rice, beans, tomato, avocado, an egg, plantains, cabbage salad and LOTS of fresh cilantro) and sometimes even have gallo pinto for breakfast. The only adjustment I've made it to cut out the naturales, which adds a lot of sugar into the diet. I usually just drink water.

After my month in the sleepy town of Samara, I came to the big, bustling, urban metro of the central valley and immediately noticed that a lot of people were eating differently than the Nicoyans. First of all, in Samara there were no major food chains and in Heredia there's everything you can think of. Applebees, McDonalds, Burger King, Subway, KFC (referred to as "Kentucky" here), Taco Bell, TGI Fridays and on and on. Not only do these restaurants exist, but they are THRIVING here. I remember growing up that it was common to celebrate a birthday or other event at McDonalds. Most of us Americans have grown out of that and McDonalds is usually ordered through the drive-thru late at night by drunk college students. Here in Costa Rica, McDonalds are very nice on the inside (some even have flatscreen TVs) and they are always FULL of families, friends and other people at every hour of the day. Rather than being a shameful place to eat (which it is in the US), many people find it as an acceptable place to eat out. Furthermore, the junk food has expanded beyond the main restaurants. Burgers, fries, hot dogs and especially fried chicken can be found at lots of small fast-food corner shops throughout Heredia. I'm not exaggerating when I say there's a fried chicken place on nearly every block of downtown Heredia.

Another thing I noticed in the central valley diet is that instead of drinking natural fruit drinks with every meal, they use fruit powder mixes.  Before I came to CR I only thought "Tang" came in one flavor; that almost-orange artificial citrusy flavor. However, in Costa Rica you can find nearly 20 different flavors of Tang in any local supermarket. Though some ticos in the central valley still make the effort to drink the "naturales," many use the sugary powder replacement. In fact, many of my tico friends say they don't like the taste of water, I'm sure it has to do with the fact that their palates are more accustomed to sweet beverages. I believe that these sugar-loaded drinks alone could be the reason that Costa Rica is in the top 5 countries in the world for sugar consumption. Yikes.

In general, the central valley's diet is just becoming westernized. Some ticos still choose to have rice and beans three times a day, but many would prefer a western diet. USA's fast food influence and the high sugar intake has impacted Costa Rica dramatically in the form of health. A recent study found that 67% of women and 55% of men in Costa Rica are considered overweight and child obesity is on the rise as well. I guess the values of the Blue Zone of Nicoya aren't shared by the majority of central valley.

As a health nut, it's sad to me to see how our (USA) impact has tarnished a beautiful country with a healthy diet in the most corporate, negative way. I hope that one day ticos too will grow out of their McDonald's phase and take advantage of the abundance of fresh, healthy food at their finger tips.

For more information about the blue zone of Nicoya, follow this link!

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Cost of Living in Paradise

Lately, I've been practicing comparative and superlative adjectives with one of my classes. You know.... "Russia is bigger than China" and "Super models are more beautiful than football players" etc.   We always arrive at a phrase that I'm not sure I know the answer to; is the United States more expensive than Costa Rica, or vice versa? I get asked this question constantly, whether its my friends from home asking me about my life here or curious Costa Ricans wondering about my life back in the US, and the reality is that I'm not sure there is a right answer.  There are many things about life here in Costa Rica that cost more than my life in the US, and vice versa. So, since I know a lot of you out there are wondering, I'll break it down for you to the best of my ability.

FOOD: If you're shopping at a grocery store in Costa Rica, be careful because it could quickly turn into a very expensive trip. However, if you're a savvy shopper you'll be just fine. The reality is if you buy the local products and brands, the prices are comparable or even a little cheaper than products in the US. However, imported goods are what's going to kill you. The Americans that come down here and try to eat their usual diet are the ones who pay for it. For example, peanut butter is $5 for a small jar, chocolate chips are $7/bag and American cereal brands go for $5-7/box. Produce is the same way. If you buy locally grown produce, it's extremely cheap. Things like bananas, limes, plantains, coconuts and papayas are extremely affordable. On the other hand, things like apples. berries, peaches and oranges are going to cost you. You'll find the cheapest produce at the weekend "ferías" (farmers markets) where you can get "un mano" (a large bunch) of bananas for about 75 cents or 15 limes for a dollar amongst other incredible deals. For anyone looking to save money in Costa Rica, take my advice: eat like the locals and shop like the locals. This means rice and beans everyday and shopping for your produce at the weekend ferías.

ELECTRONICS: No contest here. Costa Rica is definitely more expensive. And if you think about ordering from the US and having it delivered here to save money, guess again. You'll get slammed with import taxes and postal fees. This is why many Costa Ricans take annual trips to Florida to do their christmas shopping and save hundreds if not thousands of dollars on electronics. 

CLOTHES: Once again, Costa Rica is more expensive than the US. Think of the price your favorite item from Gap, Forever 21, Express or another American brand and add another 25-50%. That's the Costa Rican price. One of my students recently paid $80 for a pair of TOMs shoes and Converse cost upwards of $100. 

RENT: Finally, a category where Costa Rica is cheaper. I live in what's considered a nice neighborhood of a metropolitan area and I pay the equivalent of $240/month utilities included. Most of my friends in the US pay double, triple or even quadruple that for the same kind of living situation. 

CARS: Costa Rica is by far more expensive in this category. Take the price of any american car, and then add another 50%. That's the Costa Rican price. However, car rental here is about half the price as in the US so I'd definitely recommend taking advantage of that if you're on vacation here.

HOSTELS/HOTELS: Tourism is one of Costa Ricas major money makers, and they know it. However, the US has pretty steep prices when it comes to hotel stays too. Costa Rican prices are comparable to the US ones. Since we don't have many hostels in the US, I don't have much to compare to there. However, I have lots of experience with european hostel prices. The reality is that most hostels in Costa Rica are comparable to european prices, however there are a few locations where you can find rooms as cheap as $7/night.

EATING OUT: Going out to eat in Costa Rica is about the same as the US, about $10-20/meal (depending on how nice the place is). Furthermore, if you go to a US chain like Applebees, Chilis or Outback Steakhouse (I don't know why you would... but just in case) be prepared to pay more than you would in the US. However, there are a few exceptions to the rule that dining is more expensive here. Eating a local "sodas" which are diners that serve typical Costa Rican food will save you a LOT of money. You can get a big plate of rice, beans, salad and a protein with a drink for as little as $5... and it's really darn good too. 

ALCOHOL: I don't know why, but it's cheaper to buy a beer at a bar, but it's more expensive to buy a beer at a store in CR than the US. Haven't figured that one out yet. Similarly to food, you'll pay a lot for an imported beer or alcohol. Wine here is expensive, and it's not very good. However if you're looking for a cheap drink, guaro will be your saving grace. It's a local liquor made from sugar cane that sells for about $8/liter. It's like a cross between tequila and vodka and many times is served in shot form with a spicy tomato juice. I'm not a huge fan, but like I said, huge money saver.

PHONE PLANS: Costa Rica is the winner in this category. I pay for a pay-as-you-go plan here in Costa Rica. I recently just put on $8 and it lasted me a month... data and all. The same amount of data would cost me over $50 at least in the US... no thank you.

GAS: US wins again. US gas is currently about half the price of Costa Rican gas. 

MEDICINE: Found this out the hard way when I payed $20 for a bottle of milk of magnesia that probably would have cost $7 in the US this weekend. Seeesh. I definitely will be avoiding the hospitals and pharmacies at all costs while I'm here. 

In summary, where are you saving money in Costa Rica? Local produce/ food products, phone plans, rent and... that's about it. It's a huge misconception that Costa Rica is a cheap country to visit or live in. If you're looking for a more affordable vacation or place to live, you can travel just a few hours away to bordering Nicaragua or Panama. However, I am living in one of the greenest, happiest, most diverse, most beautiful countries in the world... so that's the trade off. It truly is the price of living in paradise. 

Friday, January 30, 2015

The Sounds of the Central Valley - Honks, whistles and cat calls

About 4 months ago I traded in the sounds of monkey howls for car horns, bird calls for cat calls and horses hooves for revving car engines. Yes, back in the beginning of October I made the decision to move away from the peace and tranquility of the beach in order to find better work opportunities in the central valley. In the four weeks I spent in the little beach town of Sámara, I had gotten used to the howls of monkeys and calls of roosters waking me up in the morning among other animal sounds. Sámara was small, quiet, spread out and full of natural beauty, but it didn't offer me the opportunities that I needed to succeed as an English teacher in Costa Rica.
So I made the move to the central valley, the most developed part of Costa Rica. Many people get confused when I throw around the term "the central valley," so allow me to explain. Smack dab in the middle of Costa Rica lies a circular group of mountains and volcanos. Within that circle, there is a large plateau or "valley" where most of Costa Rica has decided to develop. The capital, San José, functions as the central hub of the valley with many other smaller cities, towns and suburbs branching out from it. 3/4's of Costa Rica's population lives in the central valley, which is exactly why I came. I knew that San José would draw in the most driven, hard working, successful ticos in the country, and I had a hunch that many of them would want to learn English. I was right. I found a job in less than a week and my schedule filled up soon after.
But let's get back to the reason I'm writing this post. After four months of living in the central valley, I can tell you that it's a great place to live but it's rather noisy. I hear a plethora of noises on a daily basis here in Heredia, but the three that are the most prominent are honks, cat calls and whistles.

Never in my life have I heard so much honking before Costa Rica. At first I thought it was obnoxious (and sometimes I still do) but after talking to many ticos about it I realized it's just part of their culture. Honks here can mean many things, much more than your typical angry honk of impatience (although there's a lot of that too). Ticos honk for absolutely EVERYTHING. They honk to say hello, goodbye, go ahead, hurry up, I'm here, heyyyy there pretty lady, etc. Furthermore, they honk to celebrate sports victories (which here pretty much means just soccer) and other special occasions. Even though I could do with a little less honking, I'm coming to appreciate it more as part of tico culture day by day.

Cat Calls
This is not my first time with dealing with cat calls. My first experience with cat calls was in Chile, then again Mexico and finally on a small scale in Spain. I've gotten more used to them with each experience, but I still find them to be disgusting, degrading and down-right disrespectful. Maybe I have more trouble handling them since I grew up in a culture where they don't exist (at least not in Minnesota), but I don't know how any woman should feel when they're commented on like a piece of meat. Although I admittedly hear cat calls on a regular basis here in Costa Rica, I will say that most ticos are respectful and don't participate, including all of my tico guy friends. When I've talked to my local friends about them, they get angry too. They say that the only people that do "cat calls" are the unclassy, uneducated population of Costa Ricans or as they say here "polo." They also told me that the best way to deal with them is to just keep walking like you didn't hear anything, and that's what I always do.

This is one of my favorite sounds of Costa Rica, as long as it's not being used as a cat call. Whistles are a fascinating innate part of tico culture, and I'm learning more about them every day. I'm not just talking about your standard whistling a song at the bus stop or whistling at a sporting event. Ticos have created a second language with their whistles and I find it incredibly intriguing. Many people have a signature "whistle." Some of them are short and simple (thing Hunger Games) and some are more elaborate. Sometimes a whistle represents a specific person (like if you hear that whistle you know it's them at the door) but sometimes a whistle represents a specific friendship, family or group of people. Many ticos don't have doorbells, so when they arrive at your house they will whistle their little tune to signal their arrival. Since living here I've learned my roommate's family whistle and started to recognize a few others around the neighborhood. There are many little rules and protocol surround the whistles that I'm still learning, but the more I learn the more I'm interested.

It's true, the sounds of the central valley are far less enjoyable than the sounds I was used to in Sámara, but these sounds although abrasive, harsh and rough around the edges, are finding their way into my heart, just like the rest of tico culture.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Just Roll With It

January has been a crazy month so far. I've been continuing my class schedule as usual, plus I am making up all the classes I missed during the two week winter break. So, needless to say, I've been busy. With all of the craziness of making up new classes, etc, I haven't had much time to plan weekend trips this month. However, I was particularly looking forward to this past Friday as my friend Maria and I were planning on throwing a surprise birthday party for her best friend. I won't go into a lot of details, but I will say that it was a huge success!
While I was at the party, I was chatting with one of the mutual friends I made through Maria. We were talking about weekend plans and of course I told him I didn't have much going on but he told me he was headed to Bahía Ballena for a Craft Beer Festival. I had heard about the festival a while back, and wanted to go, but couldn't find anyone to go with me. So, obviously I told him all this and it just so happened that the group of friends he was going with had an extra spot in their car and their hotel room and he asked me if I wanted to go. Three years ago, before I started living abroad, I probably would have said no. Not knowing most of the people I was going with and having only minimal details about the weekend is pretty daunting. But, my courage and flexibility has grown a lot in the past few years, so I decided to just roll with it and said "YES!"
I headed to San Jose bright and early the next morning (well, actually it wasn't really bright when I woke up, it was still dark) to meet up with the others and head south. I was told to meet at 6:10am, and was panicking when I showed up ten minutes late. However... the others were running on "tico time" and showed up over an hour after me. Haha, typical. But hey, I was just rolling with it. 
So, the six of us squeezed in the car and took off.  I hadn't been to southern Costa Rica yet, so I didn't really know what to expect. I had heard about how lush and beautiful it was, and let me say I was NOT disappointed. The drive was stunning! Imagine country roads lined with lush tropical vegetation and rolling hills and mountains and an occasional glimpse of the Pacific coast. The four hour drive wasn't so bad with that view. 
Costa Ballena Craft Beer Festival
Finally we arrived at the beer festival. I found out on the drive down that the reason that they had all decided to go is that one of them sells handmade "balance boards" and was asked to promote them at the festival. So, we spent seven hours at the festival drinking delicious local craft beer, socializing with others and occasionally stepping on the balance board. By the end of the festival, I was able to drink beer while on the balance board. Not bad, huh? The festival was awesome. We Americans love our craft beer, and it's around every corner in the US, but not here in Costa Rica. It's an up and coming fad here  thanks to a certain group of expats.... the Americans of course! The event was run by Americans and most of the attendees were  American as well but there was a spattering of ticos mixed in as well. About 15 microbreweries were present at the festival with anywhere from 1-7 types of craft beers each. So... there was a lot of beer to try. My personal fave was a ginger mango basil beer. Although the ticos I was with were sort of new to craft beer, they enjoyed themselves as much as this beer-loving American did! After the festival we checked into our hotel and then got some dinner. After dinner we were wiped and called it a night. 
Bahía Ballena National Park
The next day we woke up bright and early (well, I woke up on time. It took the ticos more time to get out of bed haha... tico time). After breakfast we headed to the beach. Normally you don't have to pay to enter a beach area, but we did in this case as Bahía Ballena is a National Park. Traveling with ticos worked to my advantage as I was charged the "tico price" to enter the park instead of the inflated price for foreigners. All I had to do was do my best to blend in with the group! We only got to spend a couple of hours on the beach, but they were pretty spectacular. Those of you who know Spanish know that "ballena" means whale, so you're probably wondering why the national park is named that. Well, it has a double meaning. First, the two beaches of the national park come together and make a peninsula in the shape of a whale's tail. Additionally, if you come during the right time of year, you can take a boat trip just off the coast to see whale's making their biannual migration north and south in the Pacific. We only had time for the whale's tail, which we walked out to until we were surrounded by crystal clear water on three sides. The most beautiful view was from the tip of the whale's tail looking back at the pristine, practically untouched beach lined with tropical trees and green mountains. 
After a morning at the beach we moved on. We checked out of the hotel, stopped by the supermarket to buy lunch food and made a 20 minute drive north. We arrived at a hiking trail which I was told had some beautiful waterfalls at the end. However, we had to earn the waterfalls. We had to hike four kilometers to get there. The path was steep, muddy and a bit slippery, and all I had were my TOMS shoes (which actually worked out decently well) but after about an hour of hiking we finally arrived. We spent a few hours swimming in the cool pools of the waterfall, cliff jumping and just hanging out. Because of the remote location, there were only a handful of other people there. We enjoyed a peaceful afternoon in a little slice of heaven.

Eventually we hiked back to the car, and made the drive back to San Jose. What I learned this weekend is that "rolling with it" has it's pros and cons. For instance, the cons for me were making a 8K hike in TOMS shoes and arriving back at 11:30pm when I had still have 5 classes to plan the for the following day. However the pros of meeting awesome new people, experiencing new things and seeing a new incredible place COMPLETELY outweighed the cons. This may have been the best weekend in Costa Rica yet! My advice to you is that when an awesome opportunity like this arrises for you and someone asks if you want to join... JUST ROLL WITH IT.