Coffee, Buoyant Birds &A Horse Named Butterfly.
From the moment we arrived it felt different to the rest of Central America. The people were professional, there was organisation and tourism was taken seriously. Costa Rica has 5 million people and gets 2 to 3 million visitors a year. It is the most expensive country in Central America but also the most developed with a conscious western influence. The country is in good nick, as the people have not had to suffer many years of civil war, like all their neighbours have. They have had good presidents who chose to dismantle the army and focus on education in the 50’s. This has led to Costa Rica having the best education levels in Central America and one of the best in Latin America. Many people speak English as a 2nd language and it was such a relief to finally experience a Central American country that adhered to and vehemently supported ecotourism. They understand the worth of their natural assets with only 40% of the country’s land populated. There’s less class division, less skinny street dogs, better cars, American fast food brands in cities and only 15% poverty. Their cuisine is nothing special. It is not spicy, just simple but tasty. Costa Rica is not a street-food eating country so local spots to eat are called ‘Sodas’. A typical meal includes black beans and rice, chicken, plantine (similar to a banana), lots of fruit, tortillas (impossible to damn well escape) and salad. The national dish ‘Gallo Pinto’ is a mixture of fried rice and beans and is often served with tortillas for breakfast. Central America is certainly not a waist-friendly continent.
We wound our way up to 1500m above sea level. This meant leaving 37 degrees in the morning to 12 degrees with an icy wind and soft rain by the afternoon. It was wonderful. We precariously travelled along 32km of sand road. Each time we hit a bump I held my breath waiting to be tossed over the cliff’s edge. By the end of the trip I was hardly flinching. All 4 tires on the road, at the same time, felt like an unnecessary luxury. My focus was on listening to my 8th audio book. Seth Godin spoke to me as I travelled through the green, forest-covered mountain pass. This far-reaching ecosystem harbours over 100 species of mammals, tens of thousands of insects, 2500 plant species, over 1200 of which are orchids. Costa Rica has 852 species of birds. 400 species of birds are found in Monteverde. 52 of which are hummingbirds (they are the smallest birds, they fly backwards and can eat twice their own body weight, daily).
National Geographic has called the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve “the jewel in the crown of cloud forest reserves” so it is no wonder it is one of the top Costa Rican tourist destinations. The tiny town of Monteverde was welcoming and the list of optional activities was endless. It is a place of coffee plantations, cloud forests, monkeys, adventure seekers, mist, interesting restaurants and fairly friendly people. We stayed at Historias Lodge and to get into town we enjoyed the long wander up and down the hill (ok I lie we took taxi’s but I am sure walking up the unnecessarily steep mountain would have been good for our ‘buns of steal’ mission my roomie Dani was always on).
The key activities are the 1.5km zip line and the Tarzan swing. The people on my tour that did it were on a high for the rest of the day and were so pumped they literally bought the t-shirts. Being the fun-loving, adventure seeker I am, ummm I rather went on a riveting guided tour through the Curi-Cancha Forest. Four hours of bird and animal tracking with an enthusiastic local guide named Melvine was good for the soul. I chose stalking feathered creatures over screaming my lungs out and plummeting to the ground. I did not feel guilty 1 or even 17 times for choosing the ‘mildly less’ adrenalin oriented optional activity. I made a list of 22 birds that were most striking but saw many more in the dense forest. I felt like my mothers child indeed and suddenly became concerned that I too may start wearing a pink veneer tracksuit and start playing golf.
Our tame adventure took us to see an armadillo, brightly coloured butterflies and Strangling Ficus Trees. It grows down a tree and what starts off as a hug, ends in a death throttle as the host tree is surrounded, strangled and basically turned to compost to feed its new host. It’s invasive and not so pleasant nature aside; it is a great looking tree.
A highlight and what in a few hours became my absolute life mission and sole purpose of existence, was to stalk, find and photograph a Resplendent Quetzal bird. To my groups rolling eyes and our guides exasperation I demanded we stalk one of these rare creatures as I didn’t want to have to come all the way back to Central America just to see one and my life would now no longer be complete until I did. We hiked deep within the forest, quietly listening to every bird call in search of the grand prize. Finally we saw a male perched on a top of a tall tree. It was magnificent and undoubtedly the most beautiful bird in the world. No wonder the ancient Mayan’s made such a fuss over them.
Lunch was in a 2-story living tree top restaurant. We had pizza and delicious coffee with a view. My afternoon was spent on a coffee plantation tour. Having spent some time researching coffee for work I was surprisingly keen to learn about this little white flower that turns into a green, then orange berry. We learnt about the lengthy and labour intensive process at Cafe San Luis’s Plantation. The plantation was a family business and Victor, the coffee grower, gave us a tour with a translator. He worked in coffee for 28 years before starting his own plantation, building much of his own harvesting and roasting equipment. It was an authentic, humbling afternoon as we explored his garden. We ate strange fruit directly from trees, saw his pet fish in the pond which they eat and learned about life on the farm.
Workers get paid 2-3 dollars to fill a 13kg basket with red berries during harvesting season, which is around December. 13kg’s of berries end in about 1.8kg when the beans are roasted. Costa Rica only grows Arabica coffee (better quality but more difficult to grow). Law enforces this government mandate. Reason being, the government decided that due to the small size of Costa Rica they couldn’t compete on quantity, so would compete on quality.
San Luis claimed that quality coffee shouldn’t keep you awake at night. I argued until he explained that seldom do we get pure, organic, sustainable coffee back home. We get greatly processed coffee, which has a vastly different taste. To be honest although strong it didn’t give me any of the jitters some of the other coffees on this trip had. Much detail of the tour was literally lost in translation but the hard work they did was obvious. We noted that the family did not look well off even though they own 2 hectares of plantation. The reason being that the money is made in coffee in the cup, not in the bean the hard working farmer sells. Another interesting fact was that light roast coffee contains more caffeine. It was wonderful to taste coffee from Monteverde as this regions’ coffee is considered to be some of the finest in Costa Rica and indeed the world.
I’ll ignore the lengthy and overly colourful details of my tour groups pole dancing, wine drinking, multiple snogging, jumping over a gate, drama filled evening. I’ll also skip how everyone was green and rather silent on the bus trip the next morning. A nauseatingly bumpy, sand road ride took us to a massive man-made lake where we caught a boat. This boat detour saved us 3 hours by not needing to drive around it. La Fortuna is tiny and touristy. Prices are exorbitant but the atmosphere is relaxed. The optional activities are endless and action packed. Options include white water rafting, abseiling, kayaking, hiking up the volcano, visiting the waterfall etc. My roomie and I selected to go on a morning horse ride. The tourist brochure assured us the horses were “looked after and happy”. Having met Mariposa (meaning butterfly) my horse, I am not certain how they determined she was ‘happy’ but she was certainly obedient.
We tracked briefly through the jungle, across 3 small rivers and then trailed along the edge of the jungle. We galloped up hills and across open plains. I braced myself to be flung off at any moment, as we were often not on a set path. We journeyed to a lookout point to admire the Arenal Volcano. It is considered to be one of the world’s most active volcanoes and we could see smoke wafting from its crown. It was a divine experience and well worth the stiff butt I endured thereafter. There is something magical about spending a random weekday, riding a horse, through a jungle, on route to a volcano, in Costa Rica, with a guide who spoke no English and wore cowboy boots.
La Fortuna had several hotels offering hot spring options and over the top American style buffets which were a hit amongst our tour group. The Lava Lounge was a lovely spot for lunch with great food and Mosquitos to keep you company. Lava Lounge was voted the best burger joint by our tour group and I certainly agreed.
This young, westernised capital of Costa Rica has 1.5 million people and more fast food franchises that South Africa does, even though we have over 30 times the population. It has the best billboards of any of the 23 cities I visited in Central America. I couldn’t wait to go shopping on the Pedestrian Street, which was lined with store names that I finally recognised. It is no wonder The MasterCard Global Destinations Cities Index in 2012 gave San Jose the 15th position amongst the words top 20 fastest growing destination cities by visitors cross-border spending. I loved the fact that it took San Jose until 2012 to decide to start installing street signs in their largest city. 22 000 street signs are in the process of being erected as they realised that $720 million a year worth of mail was being undelivered.
Arriving in San Jose was bitter sweet for me. As we drove past the airport my heart sank, as I knew I’d be headed home shortly. Leaving behind my roomie Dani and my angel of a tour guide Faby after 7 weeks was quite heart wrenching. Knowing I was headed home to over a thousand emails (made the fatal mistake of downloading them after 6 weeks) and usual work chaos made me consider catching a plane elsewhere in the world. However after 50 days away from South Africa there was so much to go home to. In 50 days I’d had friends who got married, engaged, broke up, fell pregnant or decided to emigrate. So I was excited to get back to my life I cherish so dearly back home.
One easily forgets and takes for granted the comforts of everyday life, when simply living an everyday life. One forgets to appreciate the novelty of being able to flush loo paper, eat cereal for breakfast, not live out a suitcase, have hot running water, own a bed and pillow and most importantly the people who enrich our lives with their friendship and love. Focusing on that made the 32-hour journey home with an 8 hour time difference fly by.
A good friend Tarryn pointed out “you always know you’ve had a good holiday when you’re ready to go home”. I had been ready to jump on a plane for at least 2 weeks so this was certainly true for me. I loved my travels and intrepid tour through 6 counties in Central America. I loved Mexico for it’s religious roots, ostentatious churches and tequila ice cream. It’s proud culture and obsessive need to sweep. It’s zocalo’s, Freddie the cricket snack and mezcal. I loved Guatemala for it’s rich heritage and traditional ways. For it’s great coffee and quaint spots to watch the crowds go by. Its humble people, the tarantula in Flores and its active volcanoes. I loved Belize for its reggae and Caribbean accents. Snorkeling with nurse sharks and sting rays while drinking rum punch. I loved its pace yet hated their forward people. Honduras was hot, friendly and allowed me to meet Fiona the dolphin. It had perfect beaches and hammock filled afternoons. Nicaragua gets my vote for the best country to skip. It’s only allure being that it is cheap and safe. Yet more time may have uncovered some gems. Costa Rica the expensive tourist haven is ideal for nature and adventure junkies.
So different from North or South America, each country in Central America is unique in its own way. Like a class of school children. All bound together by set boundaries, yet individualistic in culture.
Distance and quiet time certainly brings perspective. Time to read brings escapism and allows new thoughts to breed. Wi-Fi makes being away feel like your home is still in your pocket. Experiencing new people, cultures and cities broaden and evolve worldviews. New adventures open the soul’s mind and remind you who you are allowed to be. I have left my heart in so many places but remain consumed by my endless wanderlust. Off to plan my next trip…