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.