Skip Monteverde…and visit San Luis instead

San Luis with rainbow

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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On the Run [Race Day Edition]: El Medio Maratón Gran Bahía Vig-Bay

Porto de Panxón

Porto de Panxón (Port of Panxón)

Running is one of the best ways to see a new place, if for no other reason than for the sheer amount of ground you can cover. With organized races, though, you gain a new advantage: you, the runner, rule the roads cars once did.

Last month, I did some ruling of my own in the Vig-Bay Half-Marathon. This was my fourth half-marathon overall and my second one abroad. The first one, the Royal Parks Half-Marathon in London, England, left some big shoes to fill. It looped through Hyde Park, the banks of the Thames, and Trafalgar Square, to name a few of the sights. The Vig-Bay, located in Galicia and smaller in scale, was a different animal.

The race route connected Vigo to nearby Bayona, hugging the coast and including views of the gorgeous Islas Cíes. Though the weather was a half-hearted drizzle, it’s hard to complain when you’re running right next to the ocean. I was thoroughly distracted the entire time, gaping around every bend. There was even a Celtic band, complete with bagpipes, churning out just the screeching/heart-pumping tunes you need in a half-marathon.

As I have picked up on, though, running has not really taken off among the chicas here in Spain. The proportion of girls running was drastically lower than in any other race I’ve done – roughly ten percent of all participants (!). Let’s be real, though…that just made me feel like a badass. Especially when I made my personal best time (cue fist pump).

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Noncommittally drizzly weather, true to Galician form

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Runners soothed their muscles at the beach at the finish line (Baiona/Bayona)

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Flan, the recovery food of champions (Restaurante O Peirao, Panxón)

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A post-race visit to Vigo

Lace up those sneaks, folks!
MB

More and more Charleston

As you know, Charleston left me in a bit of a food frenzy. But there are many other reasons I fell in love with this town, like the warmth of its people and the colorful facades of its houses. Kids at Waterfront Park

Patriot's Point Charleston houses

Patriot's Point, CharlestonCooper River Bridge, Charleston   French toast at Barbadoes Room

Rainbow Row, Charleston And I will leave you with a classic:Planking on the pineapple fountain, Charleston   P.S. Condé Nast rated Charleston the friendliest city in America. Which is probably why no one tackled me when I planked on the pineapple fountain.

P.P.S. Check out Charleston photographer Olivia Rae James’ blog for more gorgeous shots.

Do the Charleston

During the first weekend of spring break back in March, eight of my friends and I drove up to South Carolina to explore Charleston. Nine girls in a one bedroom, one bathroom unit was quite the experience. But free accommodations in Charleston? On my college budget, I’d’ve take any inch of carpet I could get.

The inch of carpet I did get was in a condo right on the beach and a 20-minute drive from Charleston. The movie Dear John used the pier just outside our condo for filming. That’s right, plop a dollop of cool on top.

Speaking of dollops, let’s talk food. Let’s be real, eating is half the reason anyone travels. Charleston, however, is a food mecca. I would readily admit to eating my way through the city.

My favorite meal of the trip was at Five Loaves Cafe, a sandwich-soup restaurant with mason jars as glasses, baskets as lamp sconces, and food quotes pencilled on the table. And to top it off? Gluten-free bread for their scrumptious sandwiches. The menu was so gluten-free friendly that my stomach did a jig of joy.

Eli’s Table in downtown Charleston ran a close second, first for its bottomless mimosas and second for indulging my inner history nerd. Their dishes are named after famous historical figures – my salad was the Martha Washington.

One delicacy that missed my camera (but not my mouth) was the famous Charleston shrimp and grits. You can find them at just about any restaurant in Charleston, but you must give them a shot when you’re in town – you will not regret it.

But enough about food. Just take a stroll through Charleston and you’ll see why it’s a must-visit city of the South.

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Though we were only in Charleston for a weekend, I daresay it was a successful (and gluttonous) one!

Cheers,

MB

A Stop Byward Market

DSC_0767One of the most useful lessons I learned from backpacking through Europe is that the best feast for the eyes, ears, mouth, and wallet is to be found in the marketplace. With that in mind, we headed to Ottawa’s Byward Market.

Since we arrived in Byward in the late afternoon, time was extremely limited. We ate at an open-air pub just off the square and, as we ate, were spoiled by the classical guitar stylings of Tom Ward on the street below. Though I had never heard Tom, as a semi-finalist in Australia’s Got Talent, he actually has a bit of fame to his name. I daresay he is one of the most talented musicians (and the most talent street musician) I have ever seen. The fact that his guitar was riddled with holes made his music all the more riveting.

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Back on the street, we lost ourselves in Mr. Ward’s music for another twenty minutes before snapping to attention and exploring more of the market. The streets surrounding Byward have every type of store imaginable, including some excellent independent clothing and jewelry boutiques that my sisters and I dragged our parents to.

But when all was said and done, the clan just couldn’t stay away from food. We drifted back to the center of Byward Market as the produce vendors were starting to close up shop. Needless to say, we helped out by taking some berries off their hands.

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A few steps away from that divine berry supply was Aux Delices Bakery, which caught our eye with three small words: “Gluten Free Cookies.” As a long-time gluten-free eater, I was ecstatic about being able to eat cookies and brownies from a legitimate bakery. Aux Delices Bakery bakes gluten-free goods first thing in the morning to minimize the possibility of contamination. It’s the little things, folks.

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We were tipped off by our new amigo Karl (our favorite waiter at Chateau Laurier) that we could not leave Ottawa without trying their doughy specialty: the beavertail. Beavertails, essentially doughnuts in slab form, come in many varieties, including chocolate-banana, maple, and cinammon-sugar. Sibling Two flew cinnamon-sugar style. We passed back through Byward Market on our way out of Ottawa to try one.

With that, our car left Ottawa eighty pounds heavier.

Happy nomming!

-MB

It’s yoga, hoser.

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Planning our visit to Ottawa’s Parliament Hill, there were two tasks on our list: (1) watch the changing of the guard, and (2) see how the inside of the Centre Block (above) stacked up against our own Capitol building.

Not on the list? Crashing Parliament Hill’s yoga hour. A little before noon, yoga enthusiasts meandered onto the lawn and rolled out their mats. A trickle of yoga-ites turned into a full-fledged river and before long it was Downward Dog, Ottawa style.

Definitely wish I had brought my yoga mat, but I think we got the best view as spectators, don’t you?

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On the grounds of Chateau Laurier

I never expected to be able to say that I’ve slept in a chateau, but that changed soon after visiting Ottawa, Canada’s capital city. The chateau in question, Chateau Laurier, opened in 1912 and was built to house railway travelers passing through Ottawa at Union Station across the street. The following were taken within a stone’s throw of the chateau.

Dinner on the terrace
Sidewalk art

Chateau Laurier & Rideau Canal

Ottawa River

Cheers!
-MB

Shower cap required

Niagara Falls 2

Niagara Falls

Side of Horseshoe Falls.

Straddling Canada and the U.S., Niagara Falls is about an hour and a half from Toronto. In order to beat the hoards of tourists, we rolled in at ten, but the hoards would not be beat. Elbows were thrown and tourists pushed over rails. Kidding (probably).

Hoards aside, Niagara Falls is hypnotizing. There is no way to truly describe it. (Perhaps that is a personal shortcoming. After all, my best color comparison would be to Crest Kids’ Sparkle Gel toothpaste.) It booms and churns and roars and sails. But mostly, it takes your breath away and keeps it there.

As if you needed another reason to go, the Visitors’ Center had a vending machine of milk (bequeathed the “Dairy Goodness Centre”), which is significant because it’s weird and I love dairy. Really though, Niagara Falls deserves all the hype it gets.

Horseshoe Falls.

Horseshoe Falls.

When you go:

Arrive early. We arrived at 10:00 A.M. and there were already a good amount of people. By the time we ate lunch and left, it was 3:00 P.M. and overflowing.
Be prepared to be soaked. The mist from the falls is not a joke, so don’t wear anything that can’t get wet.
To book a tour or not? The most popular tour is Maid of the Mist. We didn’t do at tour because really, how much better can you see the falls from below than from above? Reviews are good though, so don’t let me hold you back. Otherwise, you really only need a couple of hours to walk the area and hit all the scenic vistas.

Happy Barreling!

-MB

Mirvish Village

Whirling Mirvishes

A morning full of Tom Board left our afternoon free to explore the quirkier side of Toronto. In desperate need of sustenance, we circled out from Casa Loma and found ourselves on Bloor Street. It was overflowing with Asian cuisine, much to the dismay of my dad. As we searched, we saw one of the zaniest stores I’ve seen on the corner of Bloor and Bathurst: Honest Ed’s. Besides 23,000 lightbulbs, the facade sported ridiculous sayings, like “Honest Ed’s repulsive, but his bargains are appealing!”

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Honest Ed’s, a famous discount on Bloor Street. It was built in 1948 and takes up an entire street block.

We decided Ed was creepy and his bargains unappealing. With a turn on Bathurst Street, we found ourselves in Mirvish Village (Ed Mirvish being founder of Honest Ed’s). Happening upon a restaurant with Dad-friendly-cuisine, I walked in and asked “Do y’all have menus?” The waiter’s eyes popped out of his head as he exclaimed “It’s contagious!”, confusing me because I had no idea to what he was referring. But then he leapt into praise of the hallowed “y’all.” Ah-ha. Never before has “y’all” been met with such enthusiasm abroad. Evan was eager to please and even made us a pitcher of fresh-squeezed lemonade, the seeds lolling at the bottom as proof of his efforts.

We bid adieu to Evan and headed to Kensington Market, since Sibling Two and I got it into our heads that we were trendy and so were markets. Kensington Market was hip bordering on seedy, but had its moments. Which all involved food.

That wraps up Toronto…for now at least. It is such a vibrant city. I’ll be back someday!

Enjoy your MLK weekend!

MB