Journey Home: San Miguel de Allende

After our long stay in Oaxaca, we made our way to San Miguel de Allende on Sunday, September 4th. It was another big drive, but we left early and had plenty of time to make the trip. That was the part we got right.

This is a good time to remind anyone traveling the toll roads through Mexico that you want to carry plenty of cash.

About six hours into our eight hour drive, we stopped for gas and got a couple cups of coffee. We paid cash for the coffee. This would turn out to be an unfortunate error.

A little further down the road, we arrived at a toll both where they asked for 315 pesos (about $16.50). We were short on pesos and they didn’t accept credit cards or dollars, so we had to back out of the toll booth through the oncoming traffic, pull off to the side of the road, and climb up to the office area to get this sorted out.

After lots of waiting and a bit of confusion due to my imperfect understanding of Spanish, I learned that the solution was for me to hop in the employee shuttle that would take me to a bank in Jilotepec where I could withdraw cash, then take the shuttle back to the toll plaza. Emily and I were not thrilled about being separated with no means of contacting each other (we have one SIM card and it’s usually in my phone), but given that we had no other option, I took the shuttle. About 90 minutes after we arrived, we were on our way with *plenty* of cash on hand.

Even with our delay, we arrived in San Miguel de Allende well before dark and got moved in to our lovely apartment. The next day was Labor Day (thanks, unions), so Emily and I had the chance to do a little city exploration. We started off by walking the dogs to wear them out, then went back out for a trolley tour of the city. That helped us get our bearings, to a certain extent, and we spotted some places we’d end up visiting later in the week.

 

On our last day in the city, we went to the artisans’ market. It’s subsidized by the city, so the vendors are able to keep their prices low. It’s a huge market, about four blocks  lined on either side with stalls full of lots of great crafts. We picked up a sweet mirror with a metal and talavera tile frame (photo soon!).

We stopped in at a free concert by a string quartet at Bellas Artes, an art space in the courtyard behind the Templo de la Purísima Conceptión. Formerly a convent, the building was later named for Ignacio Ramírez (aka El Nigromante), a famous writer, lawyer, and atheist and repurposed as an art and cultural center. It was a great place to hear a concert and you can watch a clip below.

San Miguel de Allende is a pretty magical city and we had a great stay. Next stop, Guanajuato!

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Journey Home: Two Weeks in Oaxaca

That’s right — two weeks in Oaxaca! It was awesome.

We drove from San Cristóbal to Oaxaca on Sunday, August 21st. As we drove toward Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the capital of Chiapas, we passed through toll booths that were abandoned by the government and taken over by groups of people. It wasn’t clear where our money was going, but we paid and continued along our way. We passed through the capital just in time — a couple days later we saw on the news that protesters were blocking the roads.

We stayed at a centrally located apartment with a nice patio area for the dogs to run around. It was a great spot that allowed easy access to restaurants, the Zócalo, and various markets in the city.

Emily remembered the Zócalo being a wide open area from her previous trip to Oaxaca eight years ago. This was not the case this time, due to the ongoing protests by one of the teachers’ unions in reaction to President Peña Nieto’s education reforms. Protesters had set up camps in the Zócalo and along many of the surrounding streets. Apparently the camps have been cleared for the upcoming Mexican independence celebrations. You can read a bit about the background of the situation in this article.

The food scene in Oaxaca is ridiculous. There is delicious food everywhere, from carts on the street to fancy-time restaurants. Impressive for its number of ingredients, mole is one of the local foods we learned to make during our cooking class at Casa Crespo. The chef teaching the class, Oscar Carrizosa, did a great job of explaining what was going on and giving each one of the six people in our class the opportunity to participate in the process. Luckily for us, we should be able to find most, if not all, of the ingredients back home in Austin.

During our second week, I took a Spanish class at Oaxaca Spanish Magic. In spite of their advertising group classes, I ended up with a one-on-one course at a very reasonable price. My teacher, Lili, was fantastic. She taught me a lot, helped me identify the holes in my Spanish knowledge (hello, subjunctive), and gave me a great list of topics to study and work on with a future teacher at the end of the week of classes.

On our last day in Oaxaca, we took a tour of the Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzmán. The building was originally a church and monastery for the Dominicans who worked tirelessly to convert the native peoples to their brand of Christianity. You can read more about the construction on Wikipedia, but the main points are that it was an active church and monastery until the mid-1800s, after which it was occupied by the military and used as a base. The military made a mess of things, destroying lots of the original art before moving out in the early 20th century. The church and monastery were restored starting in 1993, and the monastery now serves as a museum.

 

We spent last week in San Miguel de Allende — more on that soon — and are currently spending our last week on the road (!) in Guanajuato. It’s hard to believe how close we are to home.

Journey Home: San Cristóbal de las Casas

One of the places we knew we wanted to revisit on our drive back north to the U.S. was the Chiapas, Mexico city of San Cristóbal de las Casas.

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Still closer to San Jose, Costa Rica than we are to Austin, Texas. Mexico is big. But we’ve already crossed 4 out of 5 borders, which is the hard part.

It’s a lovely, walkable, Spanish colonial town with a friendly vibe, fresh mountain air and plenty of nooks and crannies to explore. (Click on a photo to see slideshow/full captions.)

You should totally visit, but it is worth checking with your accommodations about whether there are any festivals going on in the neighborhood during your stay. This place likes to party. Which is cool, and we’re generally fairly intrepid travelers who can pop a Tylenol PM, put in our earplugs and fugheddaboutit.

… but our AirBnB was in the middle of Barrio de los Mexicanos, which hosts a festival for the Virgin of the Assumption in August each year, during which revelers set off bottle rockets, ring church bells and play music all night long. Bad timing on our part. The dogs were scared of the fireworks, and for the first couple nights none of us got much sleep. The second morning, a marching band woke us up at 4:30 a.m.

Despite the bombs and the minor sleep deprivation, we did manage to get out and explore the city a bit. I was working during the days, but at night we’d walk along the cobblestone peatones (pedestrian streets) and stop in at one of lots of wonderful restaurants. In which, evidently, Andy takes more photos of me than I do of him. Forgive the food montage.

Andy visited the Museo del los Altos de Chiapas one day, and I did manage to get to a yoga class at Casa Luz. (Yoga in Spanish is a great way to review body-part vocab!) On Saturday the sun came out and we and the dogs hoofed it up to the church at Cerro de Guadelupe, where we got a great view of the city. Afterward we stumbled upon a parade (part of the ongoing festival), with floats, horses, and dancers wearing dresses over innertubes along with terrifying masks. It was an incredible sight.

The next day, we set out early for the 10-hour drive to Oaxaca, where we are now. More on that in the next installment!

Journey Home: Antigua and Huehuetenango

We drove into Antigua from Copan after crossing the border on Sunday, August 7. The descent into this beautiful city encircled by mountains and volcanoes is impressively steep and serves to transport you to its cobblestone colonial paradise. We stayed at a cute and quiet guesthouse in the southwest part of Antigua about a 15-minute walk from the central park.

Unfortunately, our arrival in Antigua coincided with my getting a cold. That put a bit of a damper on city exploring, but we still managed to go out every night and I did a ton of walking to run various errands, including navigating the labyrinthine market. It wasn’t a super eventful week, but we came away with a few souvenirs and memories of some awesome food experiences.

In anticipation of our drive to Mexico, we drove to Huehuetenango, Guatemala on Saturday, August 13. That put us within two hours of the border. We didn’t have a hotel reservation when we rolled into town, but I had found a couple options online. The first one we arrived at, which I had tried to call the day before, was obviously completely booked. There were tons of cars parked behind the hotel, and when I walked in to try to find the reception desk, I came upon a wedding reception instead! We bailed on that one and drove to our next option.

The Hotel Premier, which sounds fancier than it is, had rooms available. However, the receptionist informed us that there was a disco that night from about 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. Emily and I discussed it, then opted to book a room anyway. The price was right, and we had earplugs and sleep aids. We actually managed to get some decent rest that night and got up early to make our way to the border.

 

The border crossing into Mexico was relatively uneventful. Nicaragua let us out, and Mexico let us in after a bit of back and forth with the dogs — we missed the agricultural/animal checkpoint and had to backtrack. As soon as we could, we stopped to get tacos (yay, Mexico!). We ended up pulling into San Cristóbal de Las Casas at about 4 p.m. local time.

We’ll be posting updates on our week in San Cristóbal and our subsequent trip to Oaxaca shortly!

Journey Home: Nicaragua and Honduras

On Sunday, July 31st we started our drive back home to Austin. We’re driving mostly on the weekends, since Emily needs to work, so we’ll be taking about six weeks to get home. Our planned arrival date in Austin is September 18.

Day one of the journey started out great. The drive to the border was fairly long, but easy. Exiting Costa Rica was no problem — we ran ahead of the huge group of Tica Bus passengers, presented the appropriate papers for ourselves and the car, and got through the border without incident. It was a rather unceremonious farewell to Costa Rica.

Our entry into Nicaragua was a little trickier. It turns out that the people who are there to help with processing paperwork at the border are authorized, but authorized doesn’t mean free. We did get through the whole process of temporarily importing the car, passing through immigration, and getting a certification from the vet for Penny and Theda to enter the country pretty quickly, but we also got taken for a bit of a ride. That won’t happen again.

We also had a bit of trouble exiting the border area when an agent noticed that we didn’t have a front license plate. That plate was stolen a couple weeks ago, but we played sorta dumb (I’m good at that) and after some conversations with a few officials, we got border boss-level permission to enter Nicaragua with only one license plate. Phew!

Even with all of that messing around, the border crossing took less than two hours, which we count as a major success. We rolled into Granada at about 3:30 p.m. and got settled in our cozy & comfortable room at the Hotel Casa San Francisco. I was familiar with this place because I stayed at a casita owned by the owners of the hotel when I visited Granada earlier this year. The hotel is just a few blocks from Calle La Calzada, which has a few pedestrian-only blocks lined with many restaurants and street performers. We enjoyed the walkability of the city, which led to our car being parked on the street the whole time we were there. Each night, we payed a guard a couple bucks to watch the car, which is common practice in these cities where petty theft is apparently common.

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A park I found in Granada about a kilometer from our hotel. It was an important find, since these walled Spanish colonial cities lack abundant green space for the dogs to relieve themselves. 

On Tuesday, August 2nd, we relocated to León, which put us within two hours of the Honduras border. We found a room on AirBnB at Hostal El Nancite, which is a guesthouse run by John, a talkative expat from NYC and his Nica wife. Emily and I enjoyed being near the center of action – close to the León Cathedral, a great bakery/restaurant called Pan y Paz, and other restaurants and attractions. One of our most enjoyable meals was procured from the ladies grilling various meats and other savory delights behind the cathedral at the edge of the market. Paired with some Costa Rican beer, it was a fairly perfect dinner.

After a few days in León we packed up and proceeded to barrel through Honduras in just two days. We crossed the border on Friday, August 5 after talking to lots of officials, waiting for the customs officials to get back from lunch, and jumping through all the hoops. (Honduras wants so many copies of documents! Where do they all go?) We spent one night in Tegucigalpa at a Hyatt in the equivalent of The Domain in Austin — a fancy-time mall-like area with hip restaurants (and Chili’s) and condos. We had a great night there, including a tasty meal at the nearby wine bar and a cocktail at the hotel’s rooftop bar.

 

We rolled out of Tegucigalpa on Saturday morning. After getting lost in the city a couple times (GPS was having trouble), we made our way to Copán Ruinas. This was one of the two nights on the trip that we didn’t have lodging booked in advance. We stopped by the place we stayed on the way down last year, but they were full. After some hunting around, we found a room at Carrillos Hotel, a small, modestly-priced place on the edge of town. It was also conveniently located around the corner from a restaurant specializing in pupusas, a food we’ve recently come to love.

We woke up bright and early on Sunday, loaded up the car, and rolled over to the ruins to make up for missing them on our trip down to Costa Rica last year (“Don’t miss the ruins,” say all the guidebooks). I’m pretty fascinated by ruins and imagine people living out their lives there — at it’s peak, Copán and the surrounding area was home to about 20,000 Mayans. Emily was more into the adjoining scarlet macaw sanctuary, which was really cool. We’d seen these birds flying in pairs from far away, but up close they’re spectacularly beautiful and loud. We have no intention of becoming birders, but if there is such a thing as a “gateway bird,” the scarlet macaw would seem to fit the profile.

After checking the ruins off of our list, we hopped in the car, crossed the border into Guatemala, and arrived in Antigua. We’ve been here for five awesome nights and will hit the road tomorrow to make our way closer to Mexico before making our penultimate border crossing on Sunday.

Antigua anecdotes coming soon!

 

Goodbye, Costa Rica

I’m writing this post from our room at the Hotel Casa San Francisco in Granada, Nicaragua. We arrived here on Sunday and are about to depart for León. Before I update y’all on the trip here, I wanted to write a bit about what the heck it was we were doing in Atenas, especially over the last month or so.

From previous posts, you know about our various adventures traveling around Costa Rica and the surrounding area. When not traveling, we still kept ourselves pretty busy. Emily was mostly working, which was made somewhat challenging by the preschool next door to us. Their play area was right across our driveway, and it sounded like this pretty much every day of the week:

I spent a lot of time at Su Espacio, which is a language school and cultural center run by a Tico-Italian couple, David and Corinna. I took two Spanish classes a week almost every week from David, who is a fantastic instructor. I highly recommend taking classes from him in-person or via Skype. 

For a few months, I taught an after-school English class to a group of kids ages 7-10 and some one-on-one English classes, and Emily tutored a nine-year-old named Natasha in various subjects for a while. We were both relieved from our teaching/tutoring duties by full-time volunteers for our last two months in Atenas.

I also got the chance to teach some music, which is a bit more in my wheelhouse. David and Corinna’s son, Nicola (Nico), who is well on his way to being fluently trilingual in Spanish, Italian, and English, really wanted to take violin lessons. We tried finding a quarter-size violin in Costa Rica, but it turns out that they’re tough to get. Undeterred, we ended up ordering a violin online and I brought it back from the U.S. after my tour with Silas Lowe in March. After a few months of lessons, Nico is doing great at playing such hits as, “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” “Old Macdonald Had a Farm,” and “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” He also loves playing scales, which is fairly incredible.

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Nico loves the violin!

Last month, I taught a music appreciation workshop with David to a group of about eight kids (attendance varied from week to week). We introduced various instruments to the kids, talked about types of music, and did some art projects related to music over the course of four classes. It was a super fun experience that culminated in creating found-object percussion instruments and singing “Yellow Submarine.”

 

 

A couple weeks before we left, I participated in a beer brewing workshop at Su Espacio taught by a fellow gringo, Doug, which was super cool. It was fun learning the whole process and picking up some of the brewing vocabulary in Spanish as well as English. The group was mostly Americans and Canadians who live in the area and we had a great time brewing and tasting some of the local craft brews.

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Brewing beer!

 

Emily’s coworker Leah has the honor of being our last visitor in Atenas. Penny did her best to make Leah feel welcome.

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Penny insists on snuggling all of our guests.

I also played my first and last show in Atenas at Etnia, a cool restaurant with the nicest owner ever, Camilo. My friend Norman, a Tico Celtic guitarist, and I worked up a couple sets worth of Celtic tunes and pulled it together in time for the gig. We had a great turnout and it was a fun way to begin our last week in Atenas.

We had an awesome time living in and exploring Costa Rica. It will be good to get back home to the U.S., but we’ll miss the mellow pace of life that we enjoyed for the past year. Of course, more than anything, we’ll miss the friends we made while living there. Here are many of them!

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Us, David & Corinna

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Us with Jonathan, his son Matias, and Cana. Cana is from New York and is a teacher in Atenas. Jonathan, her Tico boyfriend, is a crafting wizard who has a shop at Catuca in town.

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Jorge and his cousin Cecilia, my Spanish/English exchange buddies.

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Xiomara, who cleaned our house for the year. She loves our dogs and they love her!

Goodbye, Costa Rica! We love you forever.

Península de Osa

One of the best parts of living in Costa Rica for a year has been having the ability to see a lot of the country. That and fresh mangos. The last place on our list was the Osa Peninsula, and we checked that off over the 4th of July weekend.

We stayed in a cabin that we found on AirBnB just outside of Rincón on the shore of the Golfo Dulce. This was an amazing spot to chill out and Penny and Theda had a great time splashing around in the water.

Our first full day on the peninsula was pretty mellow. After driving into Puerto Jiménez to explore, arrange some tours, and grab some lunch, we found ourselves back at the cabin by mid-afternoon. Rather than twiddle our thumbs until dinner, Emily had the great idea to drive to Drake Bay. We still had plenty of daylight left, so we all hopped in the car and hit the road. Luckily for us, it hadn’t rained much, so the several water crossings in our path weren’t *too* scary. We didn’t film the trip, but to see the basic idea of what we did you can check out this video.

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We made it to Drake Bay!

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Bayorama

Our first tour the next day was at Rancho Raices de Osa, a cacao farm in Cañaza about 15 minutes north of Puerto Jiménez. The farm is run by German (pronounced Herman) and the tour was facilitated by his English-speaking daughter, Vanessa. Emily and I were the only ones on the tour and it was a wonderful experience. The leisurely tour had us wandering along a path and learning about the many other plants growing on the farm. Some of these are to exhibit various types of native plants, including poisonous ones and others with medicinal qualities. The tour ended up at a really spectacular rancho in the middle of the property where we ate some delicious food prepared by German’s wife, tasted chocolate, and learned the process of making chocolate. We also tried white pineapple for the first time – they’re super sweet, take a long time to grow, and don’t travel well, so you probably won’t find them in your local supermarket.

Later that day, we headed into Puerto Jiménez for a sunset kayak tour. We hopped in a double kayak and our guide, Enoch, took us on a trip up and down part of the Rio Plantanares, then out onto the ocean to kayak back into the gulf to see the sunset and wrap up the tour.


On our way home, we stopped at a bridge over the Rio Tarcoles that has signs that read, “Crocodiles in their natural habitat.” We’d crossed this bridge many times, but never before got out to look. I’m glad we did, since it was totally awesome.

First we spotted a smaller crocodile:

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A small crocodile by its lonesome

Then another, much larger one:

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Crocodile number two.

Then we crossed the bridge and saw this:

 

It’s hard to believe it’s been nearly a year since we moved down here. This was likely our last trip exploring Costa Rica. We will miss many things about living here, but we’re looking forward to the adventures ahead on our six-week journey home!

Bocas Del Toro, Panama

A couple weeks ago, to celebrate Andy’s birthday, we took an eight-day trip to Bocas Del Toro, Panama. (We’re so close — easier to take a 45-minute flight now than a whole day of travel at some point in the future, if ever.)

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The province of Bocas Del Toro consists of the mainland and nine main islands. We stayed on the largest, in the capital of Bocas Town. Many of the clapboard buildings on stilts in Bocas Town were built by the United Fruit Company (Chiquita Banana) in the early 20th century.

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The dock at Raw, one of our favorite restaurants in Bocas. The smaller Isla Carenero is just across the water.

 

Our B&B, called Stay, was right at the end of the runway, literally a one-minute walk to the tiny airport. The Dutch hosts, Marcha and Chris, are lovely people. One night they brought out wine and snacks and Andy brought out his fiddle, and we were all having such a nice evening that we forgot to go to dinner.

On our first full day, we took an all-day boat trip. We saw dolphins and sloths, went snorkeling, and spent a couple hours lounging, swimming and hiking on the remote protected island of Zapatilla. Not gonna lie; it was pretty magical.

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The beach at Cayo Zapatilla. Some of the loveliest water to swim in I’ve ever encountered.

During the week, I worked from the B&B, and Andy went to Spanish language school at Habla Ya. He learned a lot, and on his last day there he and his classmates took a field trip to the old people’s home. Andy played his fiddle for the residents, and some of the ladies got up and danced. I’m sad to have missed it.

Working from Bocas was challenging at times — at one point, the internet went down for hours due to a damaged undersea cable. I missed an important call, and there was nothing I could do to alert my team what was going on. No one else on the island batted an eye, but internet trouble stresses me out. I feel so fortunate to be working remotely in these incredible places, so the least I can do is be as effective an employee abroad as I am at home, to prove I can make this work. And when that falls through, ugh, I feel like I’m letting everyone down. Fortunately, interruptions are less frequent in Costa Rica. And we have Google Fiber to look forward to when we get home to Austin! *cue choir of angels singing*

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Happy hour at Buena Vista

One night as we were enjoying dinner and drinks on the water at Buena Vista, one of our favorite restaurants in Bocas, a tropical storm picked up. The restaurant is open-air and Andy was getting a little wet sitting next to the edge, so we moved to a more inside table. And then the storm really picked up.

Andy barely had time to finish his burger before the roof started leaking. Napkins were flying; the bar staff scrambled to cover food stores and stow flower arrangements. We crowded in the somewhat more dry entrance area with the other patrons and some tourists who had ducked in to get out of the storm. We were stuck. There were no taxis to be found, so we just chatted up the other prisoners and accepted the free drinks our server brought us because she felt bad.

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waiting for the rain to stop, watching the rising flood

Finally the rain abated and we were tired of waiting for a cab, so we decided to walk the 10 or so blocks back to our B&B. That’s when we learned the town had flooded pretty badly. We had no choice but to wade through it; in some places, the water was up to our knees. Shopkeepers were trying in vain to keep the water from entering their shops; residents were saying it was the worst they’d ever seen. Poor Marcha and Chris had been bailing water out of their shower and off their porch for an hour, they’d gone into our room and put our things up on the bed just in case.

The next day, everyone carried on as usual. In Costa Rica, they say pura vida. In Panama, it’s tranquilo. Does everywhere have some version of hakuna matata? What’s North America’s, then? It’s all good?

After school and class in the evenings, we explored town and sometimes the surrounding islands. Water taxis are $1-5 one way for the closer islands; we enjoyed boating to The Blue Coconut on Isla Solarte and to Isla Carenero for a beach hike and a drink at Bibi’s.

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View from the deck at Bibi’s on the Beach, Isla Carenero. Recommended, in case you can’t tell.

 

One night we got lucky and stumbled on surprisingly badass latin music at another good restaurant, El Ultimo Refugio. The friendly bandleader dug how into it we were, and started giving shoutouts to Texas in every song. At one point some guy come in with his family and grabbed the cowbell. Oh no, we thought. But seriously? This guy was an incredibly musical cowbell player. So rhythmic and dynamic. His cowbell was on point.

Toward the end of our stay we walked to the Bocas Brewery, just north of town. We chatted with Wally, the friendly American owner, and had a couple drinks with some fried pickles (I guess we’re missing Texas!) on the scenic back patio.

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Andy in his element at Bocas Brewery

On our last full day, we took a water taxi to Isla Bastimientos and camped out all day under a thatch umbrella at Palmar on Red Frog Beach, only breaking for the occasional dip on the ocean or trip to the bar. It was dope.

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Andy in his new Panama hat at Red Frog Beach, Isla Bastimientos. (Did you know Panama hats are actually from Ecuador? We did not.)

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Red Frog Beach

Now that we’ve crossed Panama off our list, El Salvador is the only country in Central America we haven’t visited.

We’re getting close to heading home — only five more weeks in Costa Rica. Andy is on tour in California at the moment, and I’ll be in Boston for work for a bit next month. This time will fly by. Over Fourth of July weekend we plan to visit the Osa Peninsula, the last item on our Costa Rica bucket list. Then we begin our long journey home.

San Gerardo de Dota

We finally found a place in Costa Rica where it’s cold!

Emily and I were drawn to the mountain river valley town of San Gerardo de Dota by reports of its tranquility, fresh air, and beautiful scenery. It totally delivered.

Based on a recommendation from our friend and Spanish teacher, David, we left earlier than we’d originally planned so we wouldn’t be driving in in the fog/rain/mist. We managed to miss the worst of it, and descended out of the clouds on the Inter-American Highway into the Rio Savegre valley. The drive into the valley is steep and twisty on a road that’s a mix between bumpy dirt and bumpy pavement. Along the way, we stopped in at the restaurant at Dantica Lodge for some delicious pasta and great views of the valley (of which we took zero photos).

We continued down to Cabinas El Quetzal, our home for the weekend, and checked in to our super cute riverside cabin. After getting settled, Emily went to the lobby to borrow a couple wine glasses and we spent most of the rest of the afternoon on the back porch reading and relaxing. Dinner was expertly-prepared trout (a local specialty) along with vegetables and split-pea soup, after which we retired to our cabin and watched Frozen, initially in Spanish (“Libre soy, libre soy, no puedo ocultarlo más…”) until I figured out how to switch the audio to English.

Having planned to take the quetzal tour on Saturday morning, we went to bed early and woke up super early so we could meet our guide along the road at 5:30 a.m. The tour wasn’t described very well. Unlike my experience in Monteverde hiking through the cloud forest and spotting a quetzal, this tour involved standing on the road while the guide whistled a quetzal call and the quetzal responded. After 30 or so minutes of boredom and wondering why we were awake, we hopped in our car and moved down the road with the guide to another, off-road location. Jackpot! We saw four quetzals – two male and two female. We were there with a couple other groups with guides and were probably the youngest by twenty years. Is there a Christopher Guest movie about birders yet?

Exhausted after our unusually early morning, we had a pretty mellow Saturday and decided we’d push our planned horseback ride to the next day. Sunday came and after breakfast we hopped on horses at a very reasonable 8:30 a.m. with our guide. This was money well-spent. We rode along the river, crossing back and forth a few times, and ended up at a hiking trail to a waterfall. We hiked just under 1 km in to a small waterfall and cave and turned back to ride our horses back to the cabin. Emily and I had decided on hiking as well, and rather than go up to the unexplored national park on the way home, we opted for returning to the same waterfall hike trail and going all the way.

It was about 2 km along a managed, but still slightly treacherous trail to the much larger waterfall. About 3/4 of the way there in, it started raining. It was light at first, then as we got closer to the waterfall it turned into a proper downpour, just like you’d imagine in a tropical cloud forest. We got a look at the waterfall, snapped a quick photo, then hiked back out. Completely soaked, we returned to the cabin and changed, grabbed lunch at a nearby restaurant, then headed home.

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Soaked through!

Our lunch is worth mentioning. It was delicious, but more awesome was that even though they couldn’t accept credit cards there and we didn’t have enough cash, they let us order food and then directed us to the Trogon Lodge (affiliated with the restaurant) to run our credit card to pay. It was like a trust fall with money, and we passed the test.

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Fun facts:*

  • Quetzals don’t like the sun/heat, which is why you have to get up so damn early to spot them.
  • Quetzals eat wild avocados. The colorful weirdos grab them off the tree while in flight, sit on a branch digesting the soft fruit, then spit out the pit, which is about an inch in diameter.
  • There’s a reason why nearly everyone hikes in the morning in the cloud forest. Rain. Every day.

*The factuality of the above statements is not guaranteed.

 

 

Tortuguero

Friday morning we set our alarm for 3:30 a.m., and took the 40-minute cab ride from Atenas to SJO airport.

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A selfie as bleary as we feel

We were headed to Tortuguero, a remote and sparsely populated town and national park on Costa Rica’s Caribbean Coast. Technically it’s nesting season for leatherback turtles, but (spoiler alert) they’re endangered and we didn’t see any.

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We flew with local airline Nature Air in a 19-seat twin otter — Andy’s first experience in a small plane. (He did great.) The otter’s giant picture windows and low flying altitude (no pressurized cabin!), coupled with Costa Rica’s not-too-shabby views made the flight a highlight of the whole trip.

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Boarding! Watch your head …

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The flight from SJO to Tortuguero includes a stopover in Limon, seen here from the air.

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The 15-minute hop from Limon to Tortuguero

 

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Tortuguero from the air

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The Tortuguero “airport.”

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Our taxi driver meeting us at the air strip

We took a water taxi to Casa Marbella, a B&B in town. There are fancier lodges to stay elsewhere along the river, but a water taxi is the only way to get around, so we decided to stay in the town itself. Casa Marbella has a pleasant deck overlooking the river where guests eat breakfast and read or snooze or drink beers in adirondack chairs. Most tourists are from mainland Europe — not a lot of North Americans.

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Tortuguero from the river

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The town of Tortuguero is full of public art. Most of it is not anywhere near as terrifying as this, the creepiest trash receptacle of all time.

We relaxed most of the first day — had a fantastic Caribbean-style lunch in the garden at Miss Junie’s, Tortuguero’s best-known restaurant, and dinner later that evening at Wild Ginger, which we’d also recommend. The friendly owner was getting ready to close up shop for a couple weeks during low season, so we were glad we got there in time. He encouraged us to pay by credit card, as Wild Ginger is one of the few places in town that accepts them. No one wants to pay the fees, but on the other hand, change is hard to come by in Tortuguero. There are no banks or cash machines there, and tourists bring in large bills, so locals are always scrambling for smaller bills and coins. What’s more, the closest bank is an entire day’s trip up and back down the river. It used to take less time, but the water levels are low, and boats are slow-going. (I’m always amazed and saddened by the real-world implications of climate change.)

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Sunset from the deck of Casa Marbella

The next morning we took a guided boat tour of the national park. The boat had a quiet electric motor, so as not to disturb wildlife. Our guide, Roberto, pointed out all kinds of animals that our untrained eyes would never have spotted: monkeys, a sloth, a small turtle, a cayman (like a small crocodile), iguanas, toucans, and lots of other birds.

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Cayman hiding in the grass

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A female jacana chasing away adolescents so she can mate. Jacanas are polyandrist: the female mates with several males, and the males incubate the eggs and care for the young. Do your thing, girl. 

The $15 entrance fee to the park was good for the whole day, so Andy and I went for a hike later that afternoon — a guard almost didn’t let us in because the park closes at 4 p.m., but we must have looked sad because he quickly relented, showed us where the trail started, and told us to be out before sunset. Pura vida. At one point on the trail I stopped to pee, looked up, and saw a spider monkey decimating a piece of fruit not 15 yards away. Communing with nature!

This morning we water-taxied back to the “airport.” The pilot checked us in and the co-pilot loaded our bags. No one asked to see an ID … guess it’s not really a problem around here.

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What, no Starbucks? This is an outrage.

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Nature Air’s twin otter on the Tortuguero airstrip

Low season turned out to be a great time to visit, since many places were still open but prices were low and the town wasn’t overcrowded. I don’t know if we’ll get the chance to go again, but if we did return we’d go during green turtle nesting season so we’d be sure to see the area’s namesake. Even though we didn’t see any big nesting turtles this time, we’re still so glad we went.