The impetus for transitioning from Asia to Latin America was my birthday. Sheila, one of my best friends since 7th grade, said she would meet me somewhere to celebrate for a week, which of course I was thrilled about. Since she was in California, I decided to leave Asia and pick somewhere a little closer to the US. After some research on flights and weather, the Caribbean side of Costa Rica became that “somewhere”. So I planned to leave Hong Kong, stop in LA, then spend two weeks in Nicaragua (I mean, why not?) before landing in Costa Rica mid-September. It didn’t take much arm-twisting for my sister Joanne to join as well.
I arrived in Alajuela by bus from Granada, Nicaragua around 4pm and Joanne followed at 11pm. We picked a hotel by the airport due to our various arrival times, with Sheila deplaning at 5:30am the next morning. A private shuttle took the three of us on a four-hour journey east to Puerto Viejo de Talamanca. It was raining, but that didn’t prevent our driver from pulling over to point out some sloths hanging out in trees along the roadside. The Pacific side of the country sees more tourists, especially along the “Gold Coast”, but since I usually like to head in the opposite direction of the tourism flock, the Caribbean seemed a better choice.
A posting on VRBO led to an AH-mazing house called “Magic Moon” right on the beach of Playa Negra (black beach): Three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a huge kitchen and an open-air living/dining area that overlooked the ocean. Every morning we would slide open the door that separated the interior from the outdoor living space and sigh at the perfection. The only design flaw in the house was skylights in the two upstairs bedrooms. When the sun rises at 5:30am you wonder what the architect was thinking. So by 6am each day we were listening to the waves crash while sipping coffee. No, that’s certainly not a complaint. Our agenda for the week? Eat, drink, read, repeat.
Magic Moon was about a mile from downtown Puerto Viejo- a pleasant walk on the volcanic black sand with water chasing our feet. Town offered a few supermarkets, restaurants and shops. Costa Rica is not cheap (prices are comparable to the US, maybe a tad higher) and we found cooking at the house was often preferable to eating out. While not a novelty for Sheila or Joanne, I was thrilled to have a fully-equipped kitchen and be able to wield a spatula. We did dine out a few times, however, where Caribbean food was the norm- seafood, jerk chicken and coconut rice. The food was good, but nothing extraordinary.
For my birthday dinner we went to Que Rico Papito on Cocles Beach. In an area with a flip-flop Caribbean vibe, this was one of the nicer restaurants. We each had some form of seafood and a festive drink with chunks of fruit. It was low-key, it was delicious, it was oh-so-Caribbean. It was birthday perfect (except for the grainy photo).
While zip lining and river rafting are popular activities in the area, we opted for two social enterprise tours: The Jaguar Rescue Center and Caribeans Cacao Farm. Oh, and plenty of lounging.
The Jaguar Rescue Center is a non-profit organization dedicated to the rescue and rehabilitation of local animals. Started in 2008 by Encar and Sandro, two animal-loving Europeans, the center was named after an orphaned baby jaguar that was taken under their care early on. The name is a tribute, and you probably won’t see jaguars. Animals vary according to what they’ve recently rescued, and creatures that can’t be released back into the wild have a permanent home at the center.
During our 90-minute tour, a Rescue Center guide led us around the property, introducing us to the residents. Some were parrots that owners decided were not conducive to family living while reptiles, monkeys and other tropical birds destined for the exotic pet trade were confiscated. We also saw two-toed and three-toed sloths that were injured and in need of care before being released. The highlight was stepping inside the monkey enclosure where Howler Monkeys, Spider Monkeys and White-faced Capuchin babies curled up in our laps, swung from our fingers and merrily jumped about. They really were like human toddlers with boundless energy and a fascination with their reflection in the toy mirrors. Most animals are in some sort of enclosure, but some roam and fly free. One such tucan took a liking to my hair and landed on my shoulder to “nibble” at my head. Quite the forward little devil.
Caribeans Coffee & Chocolate is run by an American expat couple whose love of freshly roasted, organic coffee drove them to source local beans and open a café. Not wanting the other indigenous bean (i.e. cacao) to feel left out, they expanded their business to include artisanal chocolate, creating the first bean-to-bar facility in Costa Rica. Located on a cacao farm, the beans are processed onsite and crafted into chocolate bars using a string of MacGyver-like devices. When you need to grind the beans into tiny pieces, why buy a fancy piece of equipment when you can use a meat grinder powered by an electric drill? That’s some down-home ingenuity. Their coffee and chocolate are both organic, and the owners provide more than a fair wage to local workers, thus supporting the community in which they now live.
Our tour with owner Paul started with a walk through the cacao farm where the tall trees provide a natural canopy from the sun. As he explained the history of the area, Paul cracked open a fresh piece of cacao so we could sample the fruit in its natural form. The white, slimy pith covering each bean was sweet, but the cacao itself was extremely bitter. Clearly there was work ahead. We then moved through the drying and fermentation process followed by the sorting, crushing, tempering and mixing of the cacao with sugar before being placed into molds and cooled. Our final stop on the tour was a beautiful outdoor tasting area overlooking the Caribbean Sea where Paul’s wife was awaiting us with various samples. We were even able to mix chocolate pieces with different condiments to achieve taste bud explosions. Rosemary and sea salt was one of my favorites along with cayenne and vanilla, although fresh garlic and thyme packed an interesting punch (not as bad as you might think!).
While we had a black sand beach literally steps away from the house, one day we ventured to Punta Uva in search of the white sand variety. There are many beaches along the coast of Puerto Viejo, but a few locals noted Punta Uva- one of the farthest south- as their favorite. After a 15-minute cab ride, we arrived and instantly understood why it was the locals’ choice. The curved shoreline that backed up to dense forest provided little nooks of shade and privacy, although there couldn’t have been more than 30 people sharing the stretch of beach. The sand was like cornstarch beneath our feet, soft and squeaky while the water was warm enough to bob for hours and cool enough to provide relief from the heat. September is usually relatively dry, but our week started with several storms so we were fortunate to have such a clear and sunny day for our beach excursion. There aren’t a whole lot of food options in Punta Uva so we walked about 10 minutes up the road, and back down to another beach for our al-fresco lunch. Sadly they were out of seafood (seriously??) so we chowed down on a few different chicken and beef dishes with veggies and plantains which were all superb and affordably priced.
Other than those three outings and a few walks into town, we hung out in the outdoor space of our couldn’t-be-more-perfect house or down on the beach right outside. We talked, we read, we ate freshly-made salsa and drank our fair share of homemade sangria and mojitos. Since I knew Costa Rica was expensive, I smuggled a large $10 bottle of Flor de Caña rum from Granada. By the end of the week, it was gone. Could I have asked for a better birthday? No way, Jose.