Skip Monteverde…and visit San Luis instead

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If you’re venturing to Costa Rica, chances are your guidebook pointed you with flapping hands and flashing lights to the cool, verdant paradise known as Monteverde. I love me some Monteverde, but dipping off the beaten path into San Luis adds a whole new and beautiful dimension to a visit to the area. Having lived in this petite place for over two years, San Luis is so special to me that I’ve completely lost the ability to view it impartially. It’s colored by transformative experiences and beautiful relationships I’ve had here – but perhaps that’s not a bad thing. Who would want to visit a place that leaves you feeling indifferent?

My blatant partiality aside, they number few the people who have visited San Luis and not left impressed by its natural beauty, united community, and cultural warmth. Here’s why you should skip Monteverde proper and head to San Luis instead:

  • Authenticity. Though beautiful and hospitable, Monteverde has, under the boom of tourism, evolved into a bit of a more commercial destination. San Luis, separated from Monteverde by a 25-minute descent into the valley, combines Monteverde’s rugged, mountainous beauty with the tranquility, warmth, and humility of a town of 400 people, untouched by the fervor of commercialism.
  • Community. Spend time talking to anyone in San Luis, and you’ll find out that this community is extraordinarily well-organized. The San Luis Development Association helps coordinate everything from maintenance of the soccer field, cemetery, clinic, and roads, to a rural tourism organization that promotes local businesses.
  • Tranquility. San Luis is a town of 400 people. Everyone knows each other, so there’s not much traffic or noise to worry about, aside from a few stray motorcycles.
  • Accessibility. I’m not referring to the roads by any stretch of the imagination – buckle up, because San Luis has the same rocky roads that Monteverde is famous for. You’ll want a car here for sure. What I mean is that you can stay in San Luis and devote a day to head up the mountain and experience the highlights of Monteverde. Zipline, see the Monteverde Reserve – check ’em off your list. Then return to San Luis at the end of the day for a quiet, relaxing evening.

Do:

For the outdoor enthusiast, bird watcher, & nature lover:

This family-owned and operated farm boasts beautiful trails that wind through the property, taking you along the river, by pastures, and through thick forest. No stretch trail is the same as another; each twist and turn confronts you with a new lush view, each teeming with life. During the dry season (roughly January – April, inquire for availability), the family builds a swimming hole into the refreshingly cold Rio San Luis – the perfect way to end your hike on a hot day. A campground is also available.

Tip: This is the perfect destination for avid bird watchers. The property is nestled against the back of the Monteverde Reserve and Continental Divide, visitors have the unique opportunity to see both birds typically found on the Pacific Slope of Costa Rica, and birds not typically seen in Monteverde that have drifted over from the Caribbean side. As an added bonus, the Ornate hawk-eagle has been found nesting on the property for several years running.

A fairly recent initiative, the Sendero Pacifico is a network of freely accessible hiking trails that aims to connect the Monteverde Reserve at the the top of the Bellbird Biological Corridor, to the Gulf of Nicoya at the bottom of the corridor. Currently, hikers can choose to complete a day hike in San Luis, or partake in an overnight trek to Guacimal. Whatever length of trail you choose, the views over the valley are stunning. Hikes should be completed with a guide.

The true value of staying at the UGA campus (see “Stay” section below) is the educational activities facilitated by a team of resident naturalists, and included in the nightly lodging rate. Bird-watching, cow-milking, a guided natural history hike, medicinal garden tour, and sustainable farm tour all keep you busy outside, while informational talks and workshops about birds, mammals, insects, plants, and reforestation mean that you’ll come away from your stay a pseudo-expert on the tropical cloud forest.

For the coffee drinker & purveyor of local goods:

  • El Cafetal Coffee Tour/Café San Luis. Victor Ramirez has worked in the coffee industry for over two decades, in every aspect from processing to tasting to now growing and roasting his own coffee. A tour through this family-owned farm paints a remarkably detailed picture of how coffee is grown, harvested, roasted, and tasted, and the challenges the crop and farmer face together. Victor’s passion and expertise shine through on this tour, which is perfect for coffee enthusiasts. Coffee available for purchase at the end of the tour.
  • Finca La Bella Coffee & Sustainable Farm Tour*. This tour starts at the homes of one of two small-scale family farmers in Finca La Bella. Visitors learn about both coffee and sugar cane cultivation, and lend their own hands to juicing sugar cane. After visiting the farmer, you continue down the road to Finca Bella Tica, where visitors learn about the roasting process and have the opportunity to buy locally-grown coffee.
    *This combination tour is arranged through UGA Costa Rica for its guests, though you can visit Finca Bella Tica independently.
  • Monteverde Natural Cosmetics. This is another truly family-run operation. The Vargas-Torres family produces a line of 100% natural soaps, lotions, and other beauty products, infused with elements found practically in their backyard (like the cascaras of coffee beans or orange peels). The business is run out of a small workshop to the side of the family house, but their products are sold all over Monteverde and Costa Rica at large, and have even found a steady market in China. The family offers tours of their production upon request, which I’d highly recommend if you get the chance. However, the family maintains a busy schedule, so tours are subject to availability. Guests of UGA Costa Rica can contact Reception to check availability.

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Dine:

  • Rancho de Lelo. Located in Lower San Luis, Rancho de Lelo features tilapia ponds and a small farm from which they harvest their food. In additional to their famous fried tilapia, fished straight from the property’s ponds, friendly owners Lelo & Elvira offer chicken, smoked pork, and vegetarian dishes. Farm tour also available upon request.
  • Zelmi’s Pizza. Located on the grounds of Finca Ecológica San Luis, Zelmi’s Pizza is the perfect place to end your hike or swim on the farm. Aside from a variety of pizza offerings, as well as frescos squeezed from fruit grown on the property, a unique charm of the place is Zelmi’s beautiful paintings, which line the walls of the pizzeria.
  • Dinner or cooking class with a local family.* Organized for guests of Ecolodge San Luis/UGA Costa Rica Campus, eating dinner or going to a cooking class with a local family allows you to step into an authentic Costa Rican home and share in the food traditions of its inhabitants.
    *This tour is arranged through UGA Costa Rica for its guests

Stay:

  • University of Georgia-Costa Rica Campus (also known as Ecolodge San Luis). The University of Georgia’s satellite campus in San Luis welcomes visitors who are looking to have an enriching travel experience – travelers who want to connect to and learn from their environment, not just breeze through it. The campus also houses students and researchers, so you never know who you’ll sit next to on the porch or meet at mealtimes.  One of the biggest advantages of staying here is the engaging activities that are included in the nightly rate (see “Do” section above), as well as three Costa-Rican style meals a day. Campus staff can help set up your itinerary and make some local reservations.
    • Tip: Don’t expect luxury accommodations; rooms are simple but clean. The cabinas are the most private rooms, with small, tranquil balconies with forest views. This will be your favorite spot to sit in the morning, watching troops of monkeys or coatis pass by.
  • Rent a house with AirBnb:
    • The Leitón’s House – Lovely two-bedroom cabin located in Upper San Luis, well-positioned for those who would like to take advantage of the rural tranquility of San Luis, but with Monteverde a short drive away.
    • Casa El Cafetal – As the name implies, this house is set on the grounds of a local coffee farm, owned and operated by the Ramirez family. Located in “middle” San Luis.

San Luis

Into the Peñas Blancas Valley

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I’m usually morally opposed to taking pictures of my feet. My dad railed against this when I was growing up. “Another foot picture?” he’d exclaim to my younger sister, leafing through the photos on the family camera. Feet simply do not carry the same sentimental value as a face, or the same scope of a landscape.

On this occasion, though, I made an exception. My pruny, ghastly feet seemed all too representative of the journey I’d undertaken with this motley crew. Three Ticos, a flying Dutchman, and a miscellaneous gringa walk into the untamed Costa Rican frontier. It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke.

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I pictured the settlers of the Peñas Blancas Valley as the mountainous tropical version of Little House on the Prarie. The way settlers started moving into the valley – in search of their own homesteads and economic opportunity – reminded me of the U.S.’s westward migration and manifest destiny. Mining, though not for gold, even plays a role in the development of the valley. But you can forget taking conestoga wagons on these trails. Everything from sacks of flour to canisters of gas were brought into the valley by foot or hoof.

Development and migration into the Peñas Blancas Valley increased in the mid-20th century, as deforestation in Costa Rica reached its peak in the 1970-80s. In 1977, though, the government halted development on the land as part of an effort to protect the watershed of the newly dammed Lake Arenal – but they were slow to buy land from those in this zone who’d already settled it. This left the landowners in a quandary: unable to legally develop their land, but unable to sell it for the same reason.

Over a decade later, thanks to grassroots fundraising efforts abroad, the Monteverde Conservation League began to buy many of the landowners out, effectively halting much of the deforestation that threatened the biological diversity of the region. The result is the large swath of protected land called the Children’s Eternal Rainforest, which is Costa Rica’s largest private reserve at roughly 23,000 hectares. Together with neighboring reserves in the Monteverde-Arenal region, the amount of contiguous protected land comes to 60,000 hectares.


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I couldn’t really tell you the purpose of this trip, because to this day I don’t know it. But it was no casual foray into the wilderness for any Bob on the street. Access to the protected lands of Peñas Blancas Valley in the Children’s Eternal Rainforest is a privilege open to few – principally park rangers and chaperoned students or researchers. Whatever the reason for our trip, I’m not in the habit of asking too many questions when it comes to an opportunity to explore a new place – especially a place as mythical as Peñas Blancas.

The journey began in the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, where Lucas, the Dutchman & I met up with Juan & Alvaro, two rangers with the Centro Científico Tropical (the organization that manages the Monteverde Reserve). They came loaded with provisions and a sturdy horse to carry them. Their shoe of choice? The unforgiving, utilitarian rubber boot – perfect for fording rivers, but also perfect on for rubbing your feet into tatters. As we crossed through the Monteverde Reserve and descended into the portal of Peñas Blancas, the flying Dutchman was grounded before the journey even started. But start the journey did.

 

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Refugio El Aleman, about 1.5 – 2 hours’ descent from the Monteverde Reserve into the Penas Blancas Valley. Though it’s nothing fancy to look at, the cabin’s dry wooden floors and sparsely equipped kitchen feel like a goldmine when you’re in need of a respite.

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Café chorreado is a magical remedy for soggy feet.

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Going up

DSC_0828Growing up, I liked to climb trees. That little extra boost from the ground gave me the ability to spy on my siblings and (supposedly) impress the boys. To me, a few feet above the ground seemed a feat.DSC_0873

Now, meet my co-worker Ernest. Ernest really likes to climb trees. Ernest likes to climb trees so much that he is certified professional tree climber.

(Let me know if you knew that was a thing…because I did not.)

But Ernest doesn’t climb trees to spy on his siblings or impress boys; he uses this skill to perform scientific research in places you could never even brush on tip-toe. In fact, he’s conducting one of the most extensive camera trapping projects in Central America, fastening cameras high in the cloud forest canopy to capture data on tree-dwelling mammals.

But for a day, Ernest decided to teach some more commonly-seen ground-dwelling mammals how to climb. And so five co-workers and I set out to defy gravity, if just for an afternoon, at the nearby Finca Ecologica San Luis.

Ernest showed us the ropes (literally), and it wasn’t long before we were dangling in the air, suspended between the canopy above and pasture below.

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Stay tuned for whether or not Jose remembered how to tie the knot…

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View from halfway to the half-way point

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A new world awaits halfway up the tree

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Color me impressed, because it’s been five days since my climb and my legs still don’t properly bend. Check out Ernest’s awesome work on his blog, and cross your fingers that I’ll be able to walk soon.

Abrazos,

Molly

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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Of horses and hoops

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The second day of the benefit fiestas was lent to more futbol (a given), a subasta (live animal auction), and carreras de cinta.

A carrera de cinta is an activity in which participants mount horses of varying degrees of staggering beauty, accelerate into a sprint, and try to put a small stick through an engagement ring-sized hole. This is up there with bingo for the size of crowd it attracts, though this seems a little more justified.

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In a sea of men, the Hermanita (my adoptive little sister) was one of two women, and the youngest competitor by at least a decade (or two). We’ll diverge into Women’s Studies: Rural Town in Costa Rica Edition at some point, but suffice it to say, I was proud to see her holding her own.

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(really not feeling the whole pawned-off-to-the-highest-bidder thing)

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(because everyone loves a good anachronism)

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As to these prizes? I can’t promise there wasn’t more Tupperware involved, but there were definitely some bottles of vodka to dilute it.

Of bailes and bingo, beers and bartending

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Last weekend, San Luis banded together for a weekend-long fiesta to benefit a community member who had suffered from an accident. From this event, I learned the beauty of a tight-knit community.

I also learned the scientific formula for a proper Costa Rican fundraiser. It is:

(cerveza + fútbol + cerveza + bingo + cerveza + baile + cerveza) x rum² = IMMEASURABLE SUCCESS

On Friday, the Accountant asked if I would like to bartend for the weekend’s festivities. I’ve always had a closet desire to bartend; always been wary of the judgement that would come from my parents; and always feared that I lack the grit to command respect from rabble-rousers. But it seemed like a smashing way to spend the day, so I conceded.

To which the Accountant said: “You’re the second female bartender in San Luis history.”

Most excelente.

So with this girl ensuring a steady stream of cervezas, let’s move on to element #2. The afternoon’s soccer match, set to a smattering of rain, pitted two family clans, the Matas and the Lobos, against one another. (Side note: you know you’ve achieved reproductive success when your surname can single-handedly populate a soccer team.) (Second side note: Lobo = wolf, Mata = seedling. Anyone find the match-up disproportionate? Don’t, because the Seedlings won.)

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With the fin of futbol, all eyes turned to the auditorium for a riveting game of…bingo.

Yes, bingo.

The fervor with which people flock to a game of bingo is astonishing. Of all the festivities that day and the next, the crowd peeked at bingo hour. You might think, with all the hullabloo surrounding it, that the bingos churn out cars and sofas and flat-screened TVs, or maybe even, like, a super moist chocolate cake.

No. More often than not, it is Tupperware.

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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