San Gerardo: Escape from Monteverde

DSC_0790Experience has taught me never to expect a one-night trip to be relaxing. The logistics are too much, the down time too little.

Experience has also taught me to not always trust experience, as in the case of San Gerardo.

Though the journey demands a certain level of physical exertion, San Gerardo is the most tranquil and rejuvenating overnight excursion I’ve taken from Monteverde. Located in the Children’s Eternal Rainforest, the biological station is a short trek from Monteverde, but is a world away from it. The trailhead begins in the Santa Elena Reserve and winds its way downhill for four kilometers, drifting from cloud forest to premontane rainforest along the way.DSC_0806

When Molly (2.0) and I set out, the way was freshly slick and muddy, thanks to the perpetual fog and intermittent rain. An hour’s descent of squishing and sliding will deliver you to the station. Now, as a rule, I always leave something important behind. This trip, it was a second pair of socks, making my feet a prisoner of their sad sodden sock cages for the duration of the trip. But no matter! The end of our trek was met with mugs of coffee, tres leches cake, and empanadas de papa, which warmed our stomachs (if not our toes).

The station itself is rustic – minimal but comfortable, directing your focus on the world around instead of within. Most of the construction is warm and wooden, including the bunkbeds in the rooms and the porch overlooking Volcano Arenal.DSC_0913

Adding to the the station’s charm are the caretakers: Geovanny, Ivannia, and their son. They’ve lived in the station for eight years, with Geovanny shuttling his son up to school every day in motorcycle (if you set foot on these trails you will realize the kind of feat this is). Ivannia is a kind, genuine woman and genuinely the best kind of cook.

Eager to see the sun rise over Arenal, Molly and I slipped into bunkbeds early, and before we knew it were sleepwalking from bed to hammock to watch the day unfurl.

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Incredible vistas of Arenal aside, the main attraction of San Gerardo is its incredible biodiversity, the beautiful, unrestrained chaos that reigns in the forests. Trails loop away from and back to the station. The amount of detail is overwhelming, a barrage of the senses.

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To know before you go:DSC_0800

  • San Gerardo is part of the Children’s Eternal Rainforest, Costa Rica’s largest private reserve. Proceeds benefit conservation of one of the world’s most biodiverse forests.
  • The hike to San Gerardo (there & back) can be made in the same day. If you’d like to stay at the station, make your lodging reservations in advance through the Monteverde Conservation League.
  • Bring boots, a flashlight, binoculars if you’re a bird person, and layers (it gets chilly at night!).

 

Happy hiking,

Molly

Lend me some sugar

Recently, my tico neighbors lent me some Outkast-style hospitality and invited me to participate in a rural family tradition: processing sugar cane, or moliendo caña.

The day I attended, the activity, now more social than subsistent, drew about twenty family members and friends to (a) help, (b) watch, or (c) poke the oxen’s bums with sticks.

Not for the faint of heart, the process can begin as soon as the sun peeks over the horizon. Everything begins with the hauling of cane from the fields to the trapiche (cane mill). From there, driven by brute ox power, the cane is squeezed into juice and the long stalks tossed aside.

The juice is poured into a jacuzzi-sized vat, which is heated carefully by fire underneath (preferably monitored by a dedicated attendant or two).

As the water boils off, a thicker liquid is left behind. Some of this liquid gets diverted into large metal canisters and cooled in tubs of water. It will be warmed and used to make agua dulce (literally, “sweet water”).

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As more and more water evaporates, a fluid miel (syrup) is left behind. As the liquid reaches this stage, it’s time to execute an exit strategy and remove the syrup from the heat.

This is the moment the spectators have been waiting for. As the exit trough drops into place, spectators flock from the sidelines. They extend bowls, slabs of wood, and pans, eagerly awaiting a dollop of the orange-gold syrup. As soon as they receive it, they retreat to their benches, tree stumps, and four-wheelers, dump in clouds of powdered milk, and whip furiously with their utensil of choice. Some will add peanuts or mint for a jazzy touch. These independent projects will yield cajetas – rich, flaky brown sweets.

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Meanwhile, the trough is filled with steamy syrup from the vat and stirred with a wooden rod. As it starts to cool, the liquid becomes thicker and more viscous.

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The liquid is scooped from the trough and scraped into molds, where it will harden into tapa de dulce, a solid cake of sugar. This is the final product.

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Once upon a time, the tapas de dulce were packed onto horses and marched down to the coast in Puntarenas to be sold. Now, with the world at its mechanized height and sugar much more readily available, this isn’t a for-profit enterprise. Rather, it’s an opportunity to uphold an old tradition and compartir – to share – time with family and friends.

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Allariz {Warning: may contain pulpo}

The towns of Ourense are famous for their rich (and rather strangecarnaval traditions, so my friend Kaitlyn and I posted ourselves in the capital city to partake in nearby celebrations and to do some explorations of our own. Phase one of exploration was, at the suggestion of Kaitlyn, Allariz.

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Never heard of Allariz? That makes two of us. Allariz is a bitty town (in the neighborhood of 5,000 people) located about 15 km from the city of Ourense. Along the coast of Galicia, towns melt into one another seamlessly; in the interior, separation is more distinct.

Due to some…complications with our Couchsurfing host, we arrived in Allariz much later than initially planned. Peppered with Galicia’s typical indecisive drizzle, we stared blankly at our new surroundings and started walking.

I have long held a suspicion that my nose operates reflexively; that is, it receives sensory input and routes it directly to my legs without first passing through my brain. I don’t hate it. So where did our first directionless steps lead us? To food, of course! Before long Kaitlyn and I found ourselves wandering up a hill and into a clearing of tents filled with pulpo (octopus) and churrasco (barbecue) stands. And so we ate.

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This marked the first time I saw the entire prep process for pulpo a feira, the octopus dish Galicia is so famous for. Using long, metal rods, the cooks submerged and then removed whole octopi from large metal boilers, placing them on a wooden planks lying across the boilers.

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Then, taking scissors, they snipped the tentacles into discs and piled them on round wooden plates, sprinkling the final product with aceite de oliva (olive oil) and pimentón (paprika). You will rarely see pulpo a feira on any other kind of plate, because (1) of tradition and (2) the wood absorbs water, but not oil.

The final product:

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This random square of tents in random Allariz gave me the best octopus I had in Galicia, period. The teachers at my school often told me that the province of Ourense boasts the best pulpo, and I wholeheartedly agree. Accompanied with a crusty loaf of pan rústico and a bottle vino tinto, Kait and I felt as fluid as octopi by the time we were finished.

As the town sank into its daily siesta, we slipped down by the river for a post-feast coffee. We settled into Café Bar A Fábrica, posting ourselves by the floor-length windows so that the Río Arnoia gurgled just feet below our feet.

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We spent the rest of the afternoon walking – by the muddy banks of the river, through the cobblestone streets of the casco viejo (old zone), up a grassy knoll overlooking the town.

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Puente de Vilanova, a Roman bridge

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Iglesia de Santiago

Iglesia de Santiago

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Beautiful towns do indeed come in small packages.

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The name of the game.

If you know me personally, you might have noticed that I have totally failed to address here the fact that I returned from Spain for good…like ten months ago.

My bad.

When I returned to the States last June, I fully expected to work for three months, pop a u-ey, and return to Santiago to teach for another school year as an Auxiliar de Conversación. With that in mind, I landed a serving job within a week of my return and started restocking my piggy bank.

But there were other issues in play. My in-house counsel presented a persuasive list of reasons to stay in the States, beginning with finances and ending with life ambitions. While the jury was still out, this happened: IMG_2846.JPG With a feeble sputter, out went my alternator and down went the gavel. It was time to face the facts. Besides stitching up my car, I needed to take responsibility for some lingering college loans, do some undistracted soul-searching, and establish a direction for my life. So on September 23, the day my return flight left Atlanta for Santiago, I tracked down a bottle of albariño and held a pity party for one on my couch. Whatever the following months would hold, Spain would not be a part of them. If you think I was about to acknowledge that with actual words in actual writing, you are, as my coworkers are fond of saying, trippin’. Denial, after all, is the name of the game.

So let me condense the last ten, non-Spanish months of my life: Molly became a server and, while dueling hopelessness, aimlessness, and physical exhaustion, she cultivated a variety of skills. Now, for hours on end, Molly can run in dizzying circles with gourmet hamburgers; gracefully hurdle children springing into the aisles; effortlessly fend off the advances of wayward condiments and creepy old men; and tirelessly refill Diet Cokes that are sucked down with the urgency of sucking venom from a snake bite. The skills I’ve developed during the past months will probably never make it onto my resume, though I could (and probably will) write a book about my experience with my current restaurant, because it has been that ridiculous. That’s for another time, though. The point of this post is to alert you of the progress peeking over the horizon. Have I discovered my life’s calling? You jest! But I have established its short-term direction. With my fiscal obligations currently fulfilled, I am excited to announce my next country of exploration: COSTA RICA!

Come mid-April, I will be ditching my Chuck Taylors, mustard stains, and greasy kitchen floors for hiking boots, thickset mist, and the cover of a rainforest canopy. This chica will be interning with the University of Georgia’s Costa Rica Program. I’ve already had one life-changing experience with UGA’s Oxford program during my undergrad years, so to be helping provide a similar experience for other students (in a whole new country) is making me positively giddy. So as they say in Costa Rica: pura vida. The next chapter begins oh so soon.

Cheers!

Molly

Of surfers and seagulls: Laguna Beach.

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Last weekend, I slipped the confines of my job and stole away to California with the best traveling mates in the world: my parents. My dad was headed to Laguna Beach to attend a conference, so someone had to come along to woo potential clients with her beauty, provide endless childlike zeal, and eat the chocolate left on the pillows. Obviously I’m talking about my mom, but they let me tag along, too.

It was a renewing trip in so many ways. Five days away from work was the longest break I’d taken since starting. I swapped running in circles with hamburgers to running through circles of seagulls. I traded serving for being served. And I was surrounded by Laguna’s stunning Pacific-Coast beauty.

Laguna Beach seagulls

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Equally as inspiring as the scenery was the conference itself. The conference focused on developing policies to reshape America’s future (with regard to immigration, economy, preserving freedom, and so forth), and the conference attendees were deeply passionate about changing America for the better. Airborne viruses aside, there are few things more contagious than passion.

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On the last day of our stay, we checked out of our cliffside accommodations and saw the region’s most famous historical sight: Mission San Juan Capistrano, founded in 1776 by Father Serra. The mission borders the neighborhood of Los Rios, which claims to be the “oldest neighborhood in California,” and is absurdly precious.

Mission San Juan Capistrano

Mission San Juan Capistrano

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Los Rios General Store

Los Rios General Store

I returned from California refreshed, mentally and physically. Walking into work the next day, the general manager cocked his head, peered at me over the rims of his glasses, and said, “You’re never allowed to leave for the weekend again.”

Oh boy.

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See the Sea from the Cíes

Hopping on a boat in Vigo, Galicia will take you to one of Spain’s best-kept secrets.

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I had already decided Galicia was one of the most underrated provinces in Spain before I laid my eyes on Las Islas Cíes (the Cíes Islands).

These tropical-looking islands, with vivid, turquoise water and fine white sand, are scattered just off the coast of a mainland that treated this girl to 61 straight days of rain. Step on the island, and in one fell swoop, your eyes can take in craggy mountains, lush greenery, and pristine beaches – a landscape trifecta. Never have I seen a place that so seamlessly melts the three into one. As a matter of fact, the archipelago, made up of three individual islands, was listed as one of the “Top 10 beaches of the world” by British newspaper The Guardian.

Anyhow, the first weekend of June, several friends and I left drippy Santiago and headed to the Cíes for a final hurrah as the school year ended. After a ferry ride from the port of Vigo, we spent our daylight hours hiking to the island’s main lighthouse and lolling about on soft beaches, returning to our furnished tents only when food necessitated it. True to Galician form, the water was frigid and the night air cool.

As you can see, the Cíes were, quite easily, the best parting gift the country could have given.

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sharking

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Things to Remember:

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  • Check the weather. Obviously your trip will be better if it’s sunny, but regardless of the sun’s status, it gets cold at night. Pack accordingly.
  • Camping is an awesome way to spend your time on the island. Make sure you reserve ahead of time, though, and note that you can only camp on the island during Semana Santa (Holy Week, usually in March-April) and summer (June-September). That said, the amenities are excellent. You can decide to bring your own tent, or do what we did and rent one that contain beds with mattresses. The campsite even boasts showers, a cafe, and restaurant.
    • Prices
      • Bring your own tent: 10 euros/person
      • Rent a tent
        • Two-person tent: 39 euros low/48 euros high season
        • Four-person tent: 65 euros low/73 euros high season
  • Buy your ferry ticket ahead of time. Visitors to the island are capped at 2,200 each day. Ferries leave from Vigo and Cangas.
  • For more information, check out Vigo’s official tourism site.

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Gluten-free in Galicia

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Breakfast at Hotel Costa Vella, complete with gluten-free bread

Deciding to uproot myself and move to Spain came with its fair share of anxiety. A large part of that anxiety was due, of course, to the uncertainty of what I would be eating for the next year. And since Spain is a hefty player in the culinary world, I wanted to maximize  Surprisingly, though, being gluten-free in Spain was a breeze. Since I lived in Santiago de Compostela, this post specifically addresses going gluten-free in Galicia, though it is largely applicable to Spain as a whole.

At the supermercado

Living on a tight budget, this is where I got most of my grub. Overall, I found that Mercadona, Carrefour, and Familia had the best selection of gluten-free specialty foods – everything from magdalenas (small breakfast muffins) to pasta to cereal to flour. The frozen food section of the Carrefour in Santiago even carries gluten-free frozen empanadas and churros. When looking outside the specialty gluten-free section, scan labels for the words “sin gluten” (gluten-free). Spain does a pretty good job at labeling their products.

My most uncomfortable experience with grocery food was not actually caused by gluten. With many brands, eating a gluten-free loaf of sandwich bread (“pan de molde”) or baguette (“pan rústico”) is like eating a brick of vegetable shortening. Namely because the second ingredient is vegetable shortening. Check ingredients before you buy to avoid digestive displeasure.

Dining out

Behold, I give you the two keys to your eating success:

Soy celíaca.

No puedo comer gluten.

With these two phrases, Galicia became my oyster. The majority of restaurants understood the implications of these phrases (perhaps with some help from “no harina” – no flour). In my experience, Galician cuisine uses straightforward ingredients. What you see is, more than likely, what you get.

Galician cuisine is heavy on seafood. Seafood is often prepared simply, though there are some specialty seafood dishes that use sauces (ex. almejas a la marinera, or clams with marinera sauce) that you should avoid if you cannot ascertain the sauce ingredients. Caldo gallego, a traditional Galician soup, can also be troublesome (but worth investigating because it is scrumptious). Seafood a la plancha (grilled) or al vapor (steamed) is just as common and a safer bet. Food that is cocido has been boiled; potatoes are commonly cooked this way. Spanish tortilla, a simple, savory staple often served as a tapa, is traditionally composed of potato, oil, and egg – also a good go-to item.

The Asociación de Celíacos de Galicia has compiled a PDF of restaurants that have received training in how to safely prepare gluten-free meals for consumers. However, I never used this list even once and was easily accommodated everywhere I dined. Additionally, if you feel less than confident in your Spanish-speaking abilities, Celiac Travel offers a great free Spanish dining card.

On planes and trains

Once upon a time, on a long-haul train from Santiago de IMG_1745Compostela to Madrid, I wandered into the dining car and found that it sold gluten-free pastries. I was elated and ate my calorie bomb in blissful appreciation. In general, however, the dining car is friend to neither your wallet nor your stomach. Be prepared, be prepared. Pack nuts, fruit, and sandwiches to get you through your journey. The same goes for air travel. Once upon a time in the Málaga airport (in Andalucía, not Galicia, mind you) I found two happy oddities: a gluten-free brownie at Starbucks and a gluten-free vending machine (!). Again: exception, not the rule. Airports lean heavily on the sandwich side. Be prepared.

Hope your stomach is as happy as mine!

-MB

Málaga {time for Finnish lessons}

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I spent a lot more time in Málaga than I had initially planned, mostly because I realized on the train halfway to Cádiz that I’d left my trench coat and scarf in the hostel (next to a sign that said, in essence, “Items Left Behind Are Lost Forever”). I immediately stress-ate three plums and resolved to return.

In Málaga, I befriended a clan of Germans with a penchant for shisha; a Finn with a penchant for pre-dawn language lessons; and an American engineering student with a penchant for yoga. With them, and the aforementioned processions, I got to know Andalucía’s second biggest city.

Sights worth the seeing:

  1. Alcazaba – A gorgeous example of Moorish architecture, this fortress is located next to the Roman amphitheater, and is particularly striking near sunset.
  2. Castillo de Gibralfaro – It’s a climb, and there isn’t much left besides the ramparts, but the views of the city and port are breathtaking. 
  3. Catedral de Málaga. Cathedrals are not usually my thing, but for some reason, Málaga’s Cathedral struck me. Unlike the gray, gothic cathedrals I’ve been used to, this cathedral had color accents that set it apart: a mint-green organ with gold accents and an exterior facade with red marble, for example.
  4. Playa Malagueta. Dotted with straw umbrellas and infused with the scent of pescado frito (fried fish), Málaga’s main beach is a refreshing escape and within walking distance from city center.
  5. Pablo Picasso Museum. I’ll admit, this was not initially at the top of my list. I’m not Pablo Picasso’s biggest fan – his work is a little jarring for me. I ended up going to this museum when I realized I could get in for free with my Spanish student I.D. I’m so pleased I did. Picasso’s portfolio of work is way more extensive than I realized, stretching beyond the the cubism I knew him for. My respect for the man skyrocketed. Just as powerful as the artwork was the narration of the museum. I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes:

“A good painting – any painting! – ought to bristle with razor blades.” – André Malraux

Playa Malagueta

Playa Malagueta

Alcazaba de Málaga

Alcazaba de Málaga

Catedral de Málaga

Catedral de Málaga

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Climbing to Castillo Gibralfaro

Plaza de Toros

Plaza de Toros & Porto de Málaga

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Málaga {it’s procession time.}

How terrifying are they on a scale of one to crying

Having lived for six months in a Spain of torrential rain, I was thrilled to finally explore Andalucía, the place textbooks are made of. Andalucía became my Semana Santa destination for its sun, beaches, and the uniqueness of its Semana Santa celebrations. First stop? Málaga.

If you don’t already know, Semana Santa (“Holy Week”) is the week preceding Easter Sunday. Spain has a deep religious history, and Andalucía in particular celebrates Semana Santa with unbridled enthusiasm. Processions go on all hours of the day and night, and are composed of floats and float-bearers, marching bands, and nazarenos.

The processions were impossible miss, clogging every key street in the old town. Nazarenos, the dudes with the pointy caps, gave an eerie vibe to the proceedings. Apparently their faces are covered out of penitence (read more here), but let’s be real, they look like the KKK. That’s enough to set anyone on edge. There’s no connection between the nazerenos and the KKK, but it was disorienting to see wives and kids hugging nazerenos just as you would any other performer in a parade.

For the me, the novelty of the processions lasted all of two days. You’ve got to have a hearty tolerance of crowds and swaying to survive during Semana Santa. If you don’t, you will melt into a helpless puddle of rage. I was in good company, though. A lot of Andalucians flee their region during Semana Santa because it is such a hot mess. I was glad I went, though, because it is truly a remarkable sight.

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Bird’s-eye view of processions from my hostel (Patio 19).

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Incense.

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Different brotherhoods from the city carried intricate floats depicting scenes from Jesus’ ministry for hours on end.

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Four o’clock in the morning, from the hostel window. Four. O. Clock.