BS.AS a Alaska

One of the interesting parts of our trip is finding out how the world reacts to President Donald Trump. We get to see the situation on the ground and hear from normal people, far from the rhetoric of politics. Since this isn’t a point of view you normally hear, these experiences provide insight into how things in the world have changed since the election. These posts won’t have as many pictures, they won’t be as touristy, and they may be uncomfortable.

Back when we were in Cahuita, one of the most notable features of our hostel was the Volkswagen minivan parked out front. It had the same homemade feel as the hostel, hand-painted in bright colors and filled to the brim with belongings. It popped against the green of the tropics, a vibrant, living animal come to rest under the shade of the hostel palms. That’s a great transport van for a hostel, I thought.

As the days drifted by, though, it became clear that the van didn’t belong to the hostel. A trio of young twentysomethings from the hostel tended the van like an ill beast. They cleaned it and checked things under the hood. From time to time I heard them start the engine, although I never saw the van go anywhere. And at night after dinner, we saw them retreat to the van for sleep.

Then a few days after we checked in, one of the twentysomethings approached us and asked if we wanted to buy some banana bread. She was cheerful and friendly, crowned with dreadlocks and accented with a slightly lispy form of Spanish that we struggled to understand. We asked why she was selling the bread. “To pay for gas,” she replied. “Do you need help getting somewhere? Maybe we know someone who can give you a ride,” we said. “No, it’s ok,” she shook her head politely, “We’re driving to Alahka.” “Sorry, where?” I listened harder to understand. She repeated herself, “Alahka. Alahska.”

Alaska.

It turns out that these twentysomethings were driving from Buenos Aires to Alaska. Six months ago, they had purchased a Volkswagen minibus, kitted it out with a sleeping area and pop out kitchenette, and started the drive. They parked and slept where they could, trading labor at hostels for the use kitchens and restrooms. They did odd jobs and sold what they could to get gas money. Currently, that consisted of banana bread made in our hostel’s kitchen and stickers they made to promote the trip. When we met them, they were estimating it would take a year and a half to drive up and another year and a half to drive back—a trip of three full years.

According to Google Maps, Alaska is 6,575 miles (10,582 kilometers) from Cahuita, Costa Rica. This distance encompasses six countries, countless stretches of empty road, and at least seven border checkpoints. I wasn’t terribly worried for them driving through dangerous parts Honduras or Mexico, though—they could clearly take care of themselves. The place I was most worried for them was the Mexican-U.S. border, or specifically, how in hell they were going to get across that border. I tried asking the woman selling banana bread about whether they had U.S. visas: she said they didn’t.

Getting a U.S. visa, even a tourist visa (B1/B2), isn’t a trivial task. Because Argentina isn’t on the visa exemption list, the three of them definitely need visas. At the time I wasn’t entirely sure how much work it took, but doing some research revealed that the application takes around $140 USD, an interview at the embassy in Argentina, and several weeks. That doesn’t guarantee you a visa, either: the U.S. government can choose to reject you if they consider you either a security risk or they think you’ll break the law or overstay your visa. Unsurprisingly, the U.S. government makes it very hard to enter the United States.

In previous years, I think they would have had a good shot at a visa, though apparently it’s always been difficult.  But every new visa restriction put in place by the Trump administration makes it seem less likely. It’s true that these restrictions are mostly on visa programs for refugees and long term migrants. But I don’t think it will be long before the administration starts cracking down on tourist visas under the pretense of protecting us.

Which always raises the question for me, “Protecting us from what?” The main response I’ve heard to this is terrorists and terrorism, but that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. In the last 15 years, only 2 out of every 10 convicted terrorists is an immigrant; the remaining 8 were citizens born in the United States. And looking at all crime, immigrants that are not U.S. citizens (both legal and illegal) are less likely to commit crimes than native U.S. citizens. If we took at 1,000 people currently imprisoned for crimes, only 60 of them would be immigrants. Of these 60 imprisoned immigrants, 40 would be convicted of immigration-related offenses (like entering the country illegally). Only 1 of these 60 people would be imprisoned for violent crime; that’s 1 in 1,000 people imprisoned overall. If we want to prevent terrorism and violence in the U.S., shouldn’t we be using our limited resources to address 80% of terrorists and the 94% percent of crime committed by U.S. citizens? Are the crimes and victims of crimes committed by U.S. citizens somehow less important, less deserving of respect and resources? And while the argument is often about what we do or don’t gain by keeping immigrants out, what about the things we lose by excluding them? What about their creativity, their ideas, and the wealth they create?

I have no idea what will happen to those Argentinean artists bound for Alaska. Maybe they’ll make it. Or maybe they’ll run out of money or a vehicle breakdown will end their journey. I just hope that it doesn’t end because of overly-strict immigration laws at the U.S. border.

P.S.: I’m incredibly curious to know what applying for a U.S. visa is like. If you have a story of applying for a U.S. visa (either success or failure), comment or send me a message.

Making chocolate from scratch in a hostel – Part 1

Some people have a passion for specific types of projects, like woodwork, or surfing, or cooking. Me? I apparently love challenging projects (see: getting a PhD, travelling around the world).

This manifests as evaluating projects thusly: is it really hard to do well? Is there a moderate or high chance of failure? Do I currently lack the skills and knowledge to do this project, and will I have to learn a ton to do it? Is it usually done with specialty equipment that we will have to McGuyver substitutes for? If the answers to the previous questions were yes, then HELL YEAH I’m in.

So, as I was stuffing my face with cacao fruit and lamenting the fact that the little beans within would go to waste, I hit upon the following realization: I could make chocolate.

Did I know how to make chocolate from cacao pods? Nope. But that didn’t stop me from scouring the jungle and Old Reef Farm for cacao pods to figure it out.

Note: A HUGE special thanks to Davide and Hakuna Matata Hostel for their patience with this insane project.

Cacao anatomy:

The first thing to cover is what part of the cacao pod actually makes chocolate. Let’s go from the outside to the innermost bit. First, you have your cacao pod, which grows from the stems on the cacao tree:

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The pod is hard and inedible, but cracking it open reveals the seeds, surrounded by a fleshy, delicious fruit:

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With finger for emphasis of fruit deliciousness

Inside each unit of fruit is a cacao seed, which is composed of a husk on the outside and the cacao bean or nib on the inside. This little nib is the source of all things chocolate. But biting into it raw just gets you a range of bitter and highly astringent flavors – definitely not yet chocolate.

Cacao Types:

We had to figure out type of cacao pods we had, since this determines some of the processing steps and the flavor of the final product. There are three traditionally-recognized “varieties” of cacao common in South America: Criollo, Forastero, and Trinitario. Modern genomics have actually revealed 10 clusters, but your standard chocolate-making information on the internet hasn’t quite caught up with this information yet so we’ll stick with the three.  The Criollo bean variety is prized for having complex fruity and spicy flavors, but Criollo trees are susceptible to a wide range of pests and diseases, making it fairly rare. The Forastero bean has a more traditional chocolate flavor, but because of the reduced complexity of flavors compared to Criollo, it’s considered inferior. However, Forastero trees are resistant to many types of pests and diseases, making them the most common type of cacao. Trinitario is a hybrid of the Criollo and Forastero varieties, resulting in trees with greater resistance to pests and beans with a more complex flavor.

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Our cacao pods

There are several traits that distinguish these three varieties, but since we only had the cacao pods, we had to stick with the pod and cacao bean traits. Our cacao pods were somewhat bumpy, and the beans inside were moderate to dark purple and black. Criollo pods are extremely bumpy and have white or light pink cacao beans, so they were immediately ruled out. Forastero pods are smoother and have dark beans; combined with their abundance, it’s likely we had Forastero pods. The one exception is the orange pod on the far right, which had moderately purple beans and rougher skin, suggesting it may be a Trinitario. Luckily, it seems like Forastero and Trinitario can be processed together (Criollo is more finicky).

From Bean to Chocolate:

Internet research yielded five major steps in making cocoa powder: fermenting, drying, roasting, shelling, and grinding. In total, “proper” cacao processing should take at least a week. While we had more time in Cahuita than we expected thanks to Hurricane Otto and Costa Rica declaring a state of emergency, we still had only 5 days. So, we had to fudge a few steps, no pun intended. I’ll break each step down below and explain how it’s normally done, then how we did it.

Step 1: Fermenting

I didn’t even know chocolate making had a fermentation step before this project, and it threw a definite wrench into our plans. Once removed from the pod, the fruit-covered cacao seeds are traditionally fermented in buckets or boxes for at least 3 days and up to 2 weeks. This process is an actual fermentation process, where the fruit around the cacao seed is consumed by a complex microbial community of yeasts and bacteria that produce lactic acid, alcohols, and aromatics. The result of this fermentation is two-fold: it kills the cacao germ with heat and prevents it from germinating (which produces astringent flavors), and it initiates the flavor development process in the bean. This presented two problems for us: we didn’t have that much time for fermentation, and we’d already eaten the cacao fruit off half of our seeds. Oops. I couldn’t find much information on whether these things would affect the fermentation process, but dangit, I’m a biologist. I know the three things needed for fermentation: sugars, low oxygen levels, and warm temperatures. Half of the cacao seeds still had fruit, so I figured this should be enough to drive the fermentation process. As for the low oxygen levels, the most airtight thing we could find was a plastic doggie bag (a la making prison wine I read about once), so we dumped our cacao seeds into that:

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Double-bagged, for protection

As for the warm temperatures, your standard bread-and-beer yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae favors temperatures of roughly 30° C, or slightly below body temperature (thanks to my yeast labmate Eddie for this info). So after tying our double-bagged cacao mass shut, we slept with it under our sleeping bags for two nights and left it wrapped in the sleeping bag during the day. Since these temperature conditions would speed microbial growth, I figured we could cut fermentation down to around 36 hours. And considering that the bag started to bulging with liquor-scented carbon dioxide that we had to open and release every few hours, I think I was right.

Step 2: Drying
The second cacao-making step I didn’t know existed, in this step cacao beans are dried either in the sun or with low external heat to make them both easy to ship and to further develop flavor. I considered skipping this step entirely, but since the roasting step could go horrendously without it, I decided against it. Since we only had 1-2 lbs of beans, we opted for sun-drying on plates borrowed from Hakuna Matata’s kitchen:

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Our drying cacao seeds

By some kind stroke of fate, the days following the hurricane were hot and sunny, so we spent 2 days at the hostel drying our cacao beans, which consisted of placing them out in the sun, turning them once every few hours with a fork, and then moving them when the sun shifted. The little fermented beans definitely attracted some bugs, as well as some curious looks from hostel staff and guests. Finally, on the evening of the second day, our beans were dry enough for roasting.

Step 3: Roasting

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It’s like stir fry, except it smells like chocolate

From here, cacao processing gets fairly fast (can be done in a few hours) and the internet can provide lots of instruction, as most people start chocolate-making from scratch with fermented, dried beans. Like coffee, cacao beans are roasted to mellow acidic flavors and develop complex aromas through the Maillard Reaction. The practical goal of cacao roasting is to roast enough so that these flavors develop, but not so long that the cacao burns. There are some fantastic online resources on roasting cacao beans in an oven, but we didn’t have an oven at the hostel. So we opted for this guy’s awesome pan roasting method.

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Eternal stirring to prevent cacao burning

The primary goal was to start hot and then lower the temperatures for a roast of at least 30 minutes, pulling the beans off when they smelled chocolatey but before they were “done” since they would continue cooking. Also, since we had Forastero and Trinidado beans, we could opt for a longer roast time. So, we heated our pan and tossed the beans in, stirring constantly. Once the beans had heated (about 5 minutes), we lowered the heat. We then kept stirring and tried a bean every 5 minutes to see if they were done, which is marked by a loss of astringent flavors and conversion of bean color from purple to chocolate brown. Finally, 45 minutes later, we pulled the beans off and poured them into a metal bowl. Since they tasted done, I wanted to cool them quickly, so I went over to the hostel’s pool and used it as a water cooler to rapidly cool the beans.

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The final result of roasting the cacao beans

Step 4: Shelling
This was probably the easiest step in the process, as it involved cracking the seeds, dropping the bean into one pile, and then dropping the husk into another pile. We did this manually, and kept the husks to make a fairly tasty tea. Here’s what the beans looked like:

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And here are the husks: IMG_2037

Step 5: Grinding
Grinding is the final challenge in making cocoa, which is arguably fairly easy to overcome with a spice or coffee grinder. But we were in Cauhita, which doesn’t have an electrical appliance store (or really, most stores), so we opted for a manual grind. We found and washed a nice elongated rock, and ground the beans in a metal bowl as finely as we could.

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Real handmade chocolate

Arguably, our cocoa powder wasn’t super-fine, but upon tasting it actually tasted like chocolate. Not like the nasty raw cocoa beans, and not sort of like chocolate, but ACTUALLY chocolate. We had transformed raw cacao beans into actual cocoa powder. We’re wizards.

We actually haven’t finished making our chocolate yet. We poured the cocoa powder into a bag and have been dragging it along with us, hoping to find a cheap coffee grinder here in Colombia. I’ll post an update when we do.

A Jungle Adventure

Our six hours in the jungle began at 10 in the morning on the side of the road on the north end of town. We met up with Cameron, his dog Rousy running around us as he led us up the damp road at the foot of the mountain. The road passed by small houses with large gardens, herds of cattle, and sweeping views of what was once dense old growth forest now cleared for grazing and development by the local honcho.

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Cows graze on the hillside

At two thousand dollars or more per tree, the temptation for profit looms large and leaves visible scars in the landscape and ecosystem. The hectares of cleared forest allows wind, flooding, and erosion through to areas that had never before had problems. Higher up the mountain, the road narrowed and steepened past the clearings and into untouched jungle. Rousy trotted along easily, turning around to see why we slow humans had stopped : usually water or breath. At a point where the trail split into three, along the left path, Cameron’s finca – plot of land – began and Rousy led the way.

The allure of this trip was for us the chance to explore almost untouched rain forest : to hike and see what animals we could. Cameron had hopes of finding and clearing a route to the waterfall on his property – the end goal of all this being starting an eco tour and hostel business for the more nature-loving crowd.

From the outside a rain forest seems imposing and dense, every visible nook and cranny filled with green or brown. From the inside, the density is lessened. The natural order of large trees, winding vines, and broad-leafed plants does not allow for the infinitely dense foliage seen from outside. There are paths to walk on, clearings to rest in, and, as with any good forest, and infinite number of directions to get lost in. As in many other forests, every path looks almost exactly the same as any other, and past a few meters the leaves and branches blend together with only the shape of the land as a guide.

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Cameron and I look down the trail

The start of our trail was roughly cut and fairly slippery, riding the edge between downward slopes on either side. Handholds and careful footing were the rule, with special caution for trees baring needle-like spines waiting for a careless hand. Our first animal encounter also fell into the caution label : a lone bullet ant on a branch across the path.

At about an inch and a half long, this ant is generally not aggressive, but when provoked can deliver a sting that’s rated as one of the most painful in the world.IMG_1716
Eventually withering into nothingness the trail led us to a small clearing pointing to three or four possible paths, with no clear trail in sight.
We chose to go left down the slope we were currently on top of. This direction was steeper and muddier than the trail before it, but space between the trees marked a walkable line.

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One of the strange flowers we saw

As we reached the bottom, it became clear that the patch of forest ahead of us, behind us, to the right and to the left, all looked identical. Fearing getting lost, we taped markers on trees to little effect. In the clearing at the bottom of the slope we found a small river leading to the right of our original trail. A group vote on direction ensued and we chose to turn right, following the slope along the river.

Some minutes of scrambling and climbing later the vegetation became too dense and the slope too steep to pass forcing us to turn around. Deciding to walk in the stream, we began with my

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Foliage covers a view of the river

unceremonious slip down a meter of mud, landing shin deep in water. The others were more graceful in arriving.From now on our trek was up a clear river, deep enough at times to swim in though usually no more than ankle deep. Its curving route led us up and around the righthand slope, presenting fallen trees, rock faces, and wide pools as obstacles. While we were never in any immenent danger, at every turn the river gave us just enough challenge to keep the trip interesting and exciting. At all times there were birds audible but invisible -except when flying- overhead, and the bellowing calls of monkey troupes was a constant background effect. In the river we found a palm-sized river spider, to Natalie’s delight.

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A river spider, 6 inches long

Of interest on our trek up the river were : several clusters of frog eggs encased in crystal clear jelly overhanging the river,IMG_1759
a small group of strawberry poison dart frog (Bastimentos color variety),IMG_1746and a simply massive tree fallen above the path. IMG_1772
A few small waterfall climbs, a scramble up a rock wall, and a scurry along a fallen tree ramp took us to the end of river, in this case in the form of dense, almost topiary-like vegetation that reduced the flow of water to a trickle and barred any attempts at passing.

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Natalie and I near the end of the stream

Perhaps Cameron’s machette, stowed until now, could have gotten us through the tangle. At this point we were four hours in and not eager to get caught in the ever-looming rain. A quick backtrack and a zig-zagging climb up the mountain slope to the right of the river put us on what we thought would be the path out of the jungle. The path here was the steepest we had yet taken on, and only with the help of firmly rooted trees did we make it up. With no further trouble we popped out in the middle of our origina trail, now relatively easy and well cut.

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A small jumping spider

For the end of our trip, in lieu of a waterfall, Cameron took us further up the mountain into neighboring land. Here we encountered clear views of Cahuito, the ocean, and the remainder of the vast jungle. IMG_1800Nearby we spotted a cacao tree with one ripe pod holding a dozen or so cacao beans. Each bean is roughly triangular and is covered in a thin layer of pulp. It is this pulp that you eat, and it tastes like pink starburst, but infinitely better. Sucking on our cacao fruit, we headed up the mountain even further to an abandoned navy sighting tower for the U.S.S Argon. Natalie quickly climbed the built-in ladder on the side, Cameron joined shortly after. Rousy and I stayed firmly on the ground.

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Natalie climbs the tower

Along the way back we saw several keel-billed toucans in the trees and in flight, and heard the song of the oropendola, a sort of up-pitched whoop and trill. As Rousy ran ahead of us, raptor birds of an undetermined type flew overhead, remnants of the yearly raptor migration numbering in the millions. Quickly descending the mountain we found ourselves back in town, adventured out and ready for lunch. The waterfall remained out of sight this time around, but the jungle trek was well worth it. The sights and sounds of this piece of rain forest were an unique and engrossing experience, and we look forward to Cameron finding the trail and starting his business – tree-houses surrounded by miles of rain forest waiting to be explored.

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A small beetle looks back at us

Old Reef Farm, or TRY ALL the tropical fruits!

A few kilometers from Cahuita is a farm where over a hundred different fruits grow, nurtured by the warmth of the tropical environment and the caring hands of the family that owns the land. Old Reef Farm has been around for a long time, but a few years ago Ramón came to the premises with the interest of collecting as many different fruits as possible. He now runs tours of the farm, where you can try fruits both familiar and foreign and pick as much as you can carry for 10,000 colones (~$18 USD). What you’ll find at the farm will vary by season, but here’s a sampling of what we had when we visited in November:

Achacha, yellow mangosteen – A tangy, golf-ball sized fruit common in South America that tastes like a cross between a tangerine and a pineapple. The rind itself is bitter, but when pulled off reveals a sweet white pulp that surrounds a large seed. Discarded rinds can be pureed with water and sugar to make a refreshing summer drink.

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The achacha fruit

Ackee – The national fruit of Jamaica and a mainstay in the Caribbean, Ackee is a relative of the lychee. The edible portion of the fruit is the cream-colored bit attached to the black seeds in the pods, which tastes somewhat like a walnut. The immature, closed fruit is highly toxic due to presence of hypoglycin, which is converted in the body to metabolites that inhibit amino acid biosynthesis; fruit must be left to ripen on the tree until it opens, when hypoglycin levels have dropped and it is safe to eat.

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Ripe and unripe ackee fruit on a tree. The shiny black things are the seeds in the open pods

Ylang-ylang – This is actually a flower and not a fruit, but it’s too cool to not mention. The ylang-ylang flower is the source of scent prized by many perfumers and is the floral scent of Chanel No. 5. The smell of the flower is intense, but the trees grow only in tropical climates so if you want your own plant get that greenhouse ready.

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The ylang-ylang flower

Biriba – A spiky green tropical fruit that in maturity is roughly the size of a grapefruit, it reportedly tastes like lemon merengue pie. This specimen was unripe so we were unable to verify this, so we’ll have to look elsewhere to find some. Because the flesh of the ripe fruit bruises and blackens easily and has a shelf life of only a week, this fruit is hard to get outside of the tropics.

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Unripe biriba fruit

Teak, Lipstick Tree – This is a tree more commonly prized for its high-quality wood, but Ramón showed us that the young leaves released a brilliant red dye when rubbed. This dye has long been used to make light red and brown dyes in cotton and as makeup, leading to its common name the “lipstick tree”.

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My hand stained with teak. It, uh, went away eventually.

Pitanga – This tropical fruit looks like a wrinkled cherry, and tastes pretty similar! This pair of fruits has a little friend (a salticid).

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Pitanga fruits with a tiny jumping spider

Canistel, eggfruit – This bizarre little fruit is both delicious and confusing. It tastes incredibly sweet, almost like the filling of an egg tart, with dry and crumbly texture of egg yolk (hence the name). Each fruit comes with tons of edible “pulp” around a single shiny brown seed. It decays quickly upon maturity, meaning it’s shelf life is short and it’s hard to get outside the tropics.

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The eggfruit has both the look and texture of eggfruit, and the taste of egg custard.

Cacao – The undisputed king of all tropical fruits that we tried, cacao is the source of the wonderful substance known as chocolate. The beans that come out of the pod taste NOTHING like chocolate, as cacao goes through a fermenting and roasting process similar to coffee (more on that in another post) to make it not taste awful and astringent.

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The cacao pod. This one is likely a forastero strain.

Housed inside this little pod is another treasure, though: the cacao fruit. It exists in a thin layer surrounding each cacao bean, and tastes like a cross between citrus, mango, and pineapple – the ultimate refreshment after a long hike in the tropics. Like an avocado, the cacao fruit discolors soon after the pod is opened, meaning that the fruit can’t travel far and is usually discarded. However, in some places farmers ferment a liquor out of cacao fruit called Solbeso, so if you want to try the flavor and can’t find cacao pods try looking for that.

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An opened cacao pod, exposing the beans surrounded by fruit.

That’s all for now! See you later.

– Natalie

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The aptly named green-and-black poison dart frog, Dendrobates auratus. Unlike the fruit, don’t put this one in your face.

Cahuita, Costa Rica’s laid-back chill-out Caribbean beach town

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Air plants grow on telephone wires in Cahuita

We never intended to go to Cahuita, but traveling is filled with happy coincidences and hastily-changed plans. After leaving Montezuma, our original plan was to head to Puerto Viejo on the east coast for a few days, then move on to Bocas Del Toro in Panama. But two things changed our plans: a hurricane named Otto and a guy named Cameron. We heard about the hurricane, at that point a tropical storm, while we were returning from Montezuma on the ferry. For a while we considered staying in San Jose but decided we’d check with the locals first, since they were more likely to know how dangerous the situation was. After arriving at the San José bus stop, we went to see how many people were waiting for the Puerto Viejo bus. There were loads of people, none of whom were concerned about the hurricane. Relieved, we bought our tickets and got on the bus with the locals, a group of hostel-hoppers, and one guy who didn’t seem like either—Cameron.

Cameron moved to Cahuita from the U.S. a few years ago and has become sort of a focal point in the community. He loves Cahuita and told us about how amazing it is, with great jungle hikes, beautiful beaches, and a national park. By the end of a six hour bus journey we were convinced that we should get off the bus with him instead of travelling on to Puerto Viejo. So we hopped off early and spent more than a week in this lovely seaside town.  This wasn’t intentional—we were planning to move on after a few days. But then tropical storm Otto became hurricane Otto, flooded parts of Panama and Costa Rica, and then moved northward and landward to hit Nicaragua. We figured we should stay put until things settled down.

For the family and friends, here’s the usual photo gallery. We are safe and sound (beacuse now we’re in Colombia and I’m two weeks behind on posts–see? Everything is normal).

For those of you travelling to Cahuita, or to Costa Rica’s east coast in general: don’t be deterred or freaked out if Costa Ricans warn you away from the east coast. It’s perceived as more dangerous than the rest of Costa Rica while actually being about the safe as the rest of the country. From talking with people, this perception seems to stem from racial-socioeconomic prejudices. But as usual, crimes of opportunity are the most prevalent, so don’t leave valuables exposed or unattended and use your common sense.

Cahuita Layout
Cahuita is a quiet, relaxed seaside town with a slow pace and wonderful people. It’s not the party-hearty destination that Puerto Viejo is, so if you’re looking for someplace away from the drink-till-dawn folks Cahuita is probably your place. The whole town is 5 streets that run towards the beach intersected by 3 streets running perpendicular, with roughly 20 restaurants and more than a dozen accommodation options. There are two main hubs of activity: the street leading into the national park and the Cahuita Bus Terminal. The street leading into the national park is where you can find most of the restaurants in the town, as well as tour guides and souvenir sellers. Cahuita Bus Terminal is where you’ll find buses to take you to other places, a bank and ATM, a post office, the cheapest grocery store in town, and the best fruit store in town.

Stay

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Hakuna Matata Hostel

We stayed at Hakuna Matata Hostel, located right next to the Cahuita Bus Terminal (but is surprisingly quiet). The owner is this old Italian guy, but he seems to have ceded the day-to-day of running the hostel to two younger Italian guys, Davide and Luciano. They were super chill and great to talk to. We got a private room for $30, which included use of a kitchen (which we used a LOT), a swimming pool (perfect for a midday dip), and all the hammocks we could want. There’s a ton of wildlife that hangs around the hostel, including birds and this little friend I found one morning in my boot:

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Look, buddy, if you’re going to stay, could you at least cough up a few hundred colones for the room?

Getting Around
We walked everywhere, although I think you can rent bikes at one place in town. There aren’t a lot of places you can’t get on foot. There’s also a lone guy who acts as a taxi—you’ll usually find him outside of the Bus Terminal, saying “taxi? Taxi?”

Do
Despite its size, there are tons of things to do in Cahuita! We couldn’t have been hurricane-stranded in a better place. Here are the highlights of what we did:

Old Reef Farm – This farm has over a hundred varieties of fruits growing on its grounds. Ramon, one of the co-owners, will show you around and let you have all the fruit you can carry for 10,000 colones.

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Tangerines at Old Reef Fruit Farm

Playa Negra – This local beach is a great place to jump in the waves and build castles in the black sand. It’s also where we passed most of the day of the hurricane, leading to some beautiful stormy shots.

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Hurricane weather at Playa Negra

Cahuita National Park – A huge national park that runs along the coast from Cahuita to Puerto Viejo, where you can see toucans, sloths, snakes, monkeys, and other wildlife. The hike is pretty intense, especially during high tide where it requires you to wade through a 3 ft deep river. Bring flip flops, as the paths are full of leafcutter ants that will bite you.

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Leafcutter ants struggle against the wind to reach their nest in Cahuita National Park

Jungle hikes – There are a few hikes that you can do around Cahuita that aren’t in the National Park, including one that goes to a waterfall. Contact Cameron or Ramón about these, as they’re hard to find on your own.

Send postcards – This is one of the few places we found a post office, so we seized the chance to send back our postcards. A fun fact we learned from Cameron: there are no addresses in Costa Rica! There aren’t even street names in most towns! Madness! Chaos! San Jose just got street names recently, which is why all of the streets are named by numbers (Calle 11, Avenida 7, etc.).

Eat
Our favorite soda (Costa Rican for diner/restaurant) in town was Soda Kawe, two intersections down from the national park entrance. The ladies running the soda are lovely, they have the best prices in town (2500-3500 colones per meal), and the food is excellent. The best thing to get the pollo casado – the pollo is a chicken perfectly marinated in Caribbean spices, and casado is the word for a standard lunch/dinner meal, which comes with rice, beans, and potatoes. Ask for it with “frycake” to get a tasty fried bread which you can use to soak up the tasty chicken juices:

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Comida tipica

If you happen to be there in town on a Sunday, you’re also in for a special treat. This is the only day of the week in which DelRita Patty has patties, which are a Jamaican specialty of flaky spiced dough wrapped around braised ground beef filling. They also have dessert patties, filled with baked banana or pineapple filling.

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The plantain patty

To find them, look for this sign: IMG_2052

…and this storefront:
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Lastly, if you’re travelling on the cheap like us, you’ll be eating most of your meals in the hostel kitchen. The cheapest grocery store is at the Cahuita Bus Terminal, where you can get bags of dried beans and dried rice for 600-900 colones each. Then pop over to the fruit store across the hall to grab some plantains and onions, and you’ve got almost everything you need to make comida típica (you can find our recipe for comida típica here).

In summary, Cahuita is a great place to spend a week relaxing in the sun, jumping in the ocean, and catching glimpses of animals in the jungle. If you go, say hi to Cameron for us!

Taking the bus between San José and Montezuma in Costa Rica

When we were looking to get from Juan Santamaria International Airport (SJO) to Luz en Cielo in Montezuma, we found a few guides for getting there but none with pictures, so I’m writing up our experience below. The most important thing to note is that if you’re going directly from SJO to the Nicoya Peninsula, including Montezuma, you do not need to go into the city itself to catch the bus! There’s a bus stop for the Nicoya Peninsula buses in Alajuela, 3 km from the airport, where the bus stops after it departs San José (between 6:15 and 6:40, and between 14:15 and 14:40). The bus stop is located here:

Prep

It’s a long journey, especially if you’re planning on staying the night like we did in SJO. For the overnight stay, I’d recommend some earplugs and warm clothes/blankets. For the whole journey, I’d recommend packing snacks. There are a couple of chances to buy food on the journey, but they aren’t always cheap or the best.

Staying in SJO

If you’re coming in late, you can totally spend the night in SJO and go to the bus stop in the morning! Since we got in at 23:00 and there were no hostels nearby, we thought it was silly to head into the city just to sleep and we spent the night in SJO arrivals. It wasn’t bad as there were outlets and out of the way places to sleep, but there were ridiculously loud announcements every 15 minutes and temperature was frigid, so we were incredibly grateful to have ear plugs and our sleeping bags. We took advantage of our camping gear, including air mattresses and inflatable pillows, and had a pretty good rest.

The bus to Montezuma

In the morning, our two goals were to find the bus stop and then find the bus to Montezuma. At 5:00 am, we decamped from the floor of Arrivals at SJO and went in search of the bus stop. We had two options: walking along the highway to the stop or catching a cab. Although I have walked out of airports in the past, we decided it might be a bit harder with our packs and opted for the cab, which took about 15 minutes and cost 2400 colones (roughly $4.50). The bus stop is located right after an overpass and has some benches and eaves to keep the rain off:

 

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Waiting at the bus stop

 

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The view from the bus stop

 

 

To find the correct bus, we relied on looking at the placards at the front (for Montezuma/Nicoya) and asking the people around us, who were more than happy to help. We waited there as 6:00, 6:20, and then 6:40 passed, along with a slew of buses. We were beginning to worry we had somehow missed it, when around 6:45 a bus with a Montezuma sign pulled up. We paid the 7,000 colones/person (~$13) and got on. When you get your bus ticket, check your change (we got shorted several times in Costa Rica and had to ask for correct change), and keep your bus receipt! You’ll need it for the rest of the journey. Here’s a picture of the bus you’re looking for:

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An aerial view of your bus

The trip to Montezuma

The trip itself is divided into 4 legs: the bus ride to Punta Arenas, the ferry ride across the Gulf of Nicoya, the bus ride Cobano, and a final bus ride from Cobano to Montezuma. The first leg of the journey took us through city and jungle and takes about 2.5 hours. At Punta Arenas, we disembarked and got ferry tickets from the bus driver. Take anything on the bus with you, but don’t be alarmed if they don’t let you get your luggage from below, as this will stay on the bus all the way until Cobano. Punta Arenas is a good place to grab snacks before getting on the ferry (there’s usually about 10-15 minutes), but don’t pay to use the bathrooms because the bathrooms on the ferry are free. After taking a short look around, we walked over to the ferry and got on. The ferry ride took about an hour and was a great chance to walk around for a bit before getting back on the bus. There are free restrooms and a cafeteria, although the prices and quality of food are comparable to a ferry ride in the U.S. We spent most of our time outside, enjoying the scenery:

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Island in the Gulf of Nicoya

Once off the ferry in Tambor, we waited for the bus to disembark and looked around the food stalls. This is another 10-15 minute chance to buy snacks, though keep an eye out for your bus as you don’t want to miss it. Show them your receipt to get back on the bus, and then it’s another 2 hour ride to the town of Cobano, where you’ll disembark and collect your luggage, then catch a smaller bus to Montezuma.

Once you’ve got your belongings, cross the street to the bus stop and ask the next bus whether it’s going to Montezuma (it probably is). Again, show them your bus ticket receipt, and they should let you on for free. This last ride should take 20-30 minutes, and drops you off at the Montezuma bus stop, just west of the town’s center.

Getting Back

To take the bus from Montezuma back to San José (SJO or the city center), take these steps in reverse. You can catch the bus back at either 6:20 or 14:20 at Montezuma bus stop, where you shouldn’t have to pay the fare if you explain you’re returning to San José. Once in Cobano, buy a ticket at the building across the street – it’s where you were dropped off by the big bus on the way in. Then you’ll bus-ferry-bus your way back to San José.

Montezuma – five days in paradise

Before our adventures began, we attended the wedding of some awesome friends. And, as luck would have it, the cousin of the groom (Abbie) happens to run a Hostel/Bed & Breakfast in Montezuma, Costa Rica. Abbie came down to Costa Rica years ago and fell in love with the place, and built the hostel Luz en Cielo from nothing into a business she now runs full time. When I shared our plans for a year of travel, Abbie generously offered to give us a place at Luz en Cielo at a discounted rate. Travel can make for weary work, especially when you’ve been camping in a tiny tent together on the beach. So as we bade farewell to the Yucatan and flew on to San José, we were looking forward to a little more privacy and quiet. Montezuma was perfect to both, and below I’ll share the information on hikes we did, where we stayed, and a recipe for our version of “comida tipica” that we ate for lunch and dinner.

For a visual tour of our stay, here’s the photo album.

The Town of Montezuma

Located on the west coast of Costa Rica on the Nicoya Peninsula, Montezuma is a hip little beach town halfway between Cobano and Cabuya. It consists of the main road and one cross-street that leads to a smaller local road along the beach. To give you an idea of how small it is, it has two markets that sell food and around six restaurants. Yep, it’s tiny. But that’s exactly what makes it perfect: it’s so small that it’s hardly registered by the jungle, as monkeys greet you in the morning, birds flock in the trees, and butterflies flutter from flower to flower.

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Mushrooms growing on wood

Hikes

We managed to do three hikes while we were there: Montezuma Falls, Rio Lajas, and a beach hike. Montezuma falls is the closest and shortest, leading to massive waterfalls and swimming holes. To get there, we walked past the bus stop (along the road toward Cabuya), then turned right after the first bridge. The first waterfall is the most impressive, and you’ll often see Blue Morphos butterflies flying around near the base.

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The Montezuma Falls

There are two more waterfalls above this, but a private tour company owns the trail and charges 1,000 colonies/person ($2 USD) for use. We hiked up and weren’t that impressed with the subsequent waterfalls, although there is a waterfall that you can jump off up there.

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Fishing spiders, which can be found near water

The second hike we did was Rio Lajas, which starts about 7 km from Montezuma on the road to Cobano and leads to Rio Lajas falls. We did this hike in somewhat crazy conditions—because it was the end of the rainy season, the water was cloudy and in many places we couldn’t tell how deep the water was or where to put our feet. The river is the trail, so most of the time you’re walking in this:

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Stoytcho crossing Rio Lajas

We just knew that we should hike for about 2 hours, then take the right fork of the river. After two hours and 20 minutes of hiking, we came to a small tributary that could be a fork. We took it and found some falls.

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Some kind of waterfall at Rio Lajas

They were lovely and secluded, although looking at pictures of Rio Lajas falls now, we don’t think these are the Rio Lajas Falls. We’ll have to come back another time, hopefully in the dry season when the water is clear and the hike is much easier. There’s a bus to the falls that leaves Montezuma at 8:30 am, and a return bus that will pick you up at the bridge over Rio Lajas at 3:30 pm, costing 700 colones each way.

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The beach hike from Montezuma

The last hike we did was the beach hike to El Chorro falls, although we didn’t make it all the way to the end. This trail runs along the beach, through part of a national park. While these aren’t the azure blue beaches of the Caribbean, they have their own charm and are great for beachcombing, although don’t collect in the national park. We walked for about 2 hours on this, enjoying the beach and picking up seashells (that we threw back into the ocean later):

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Cowrys, cones, limpets, olivines, turbans, seaglass…the beachcombing hear is awesome!

 

Staying

We stayed in Luz en Cielo’s vacation rental, which was a huge break from shared rooms and our tent. We had a bedroom, bathroom, living room, kitchen, and outdoor patio all to ourselves. Abbie, being the ever gracious host, includes breakfast with your accommodation – This isn’t your standard toast with butter and some fruit, but a full hot meal with fruit, toast, rice & beans, and scrambled eggs. And throughout the day, monkeys, coatis, and various beautiful insects of the tropics would come wandering by:

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A white-faced capuchin

 

Eating + our recipe for comida tipica

Since eating out cost $7-10 USD per person, we couldn’t afford to do much of it. Instead, we cooked most of our meals in the vacation rental. Here’s our version of comida tipica, which is pretty much every meal you’ll eat in Central America:

  • Ingredients:
    • Package of dry beans (can use canned)
    • Package of dry white rice
    • 1 plantain
    • 2-3 eggs
    • 2 onions
    • 5 cloves garlic
    • Salt
    • Cooking oil
  • Meal prep:
    • Prep beans: Rinse dry beans (about 400 g) and leave to soak for 6-8 hours in a pot with at least 2” of water on top. At end of soak, mince 3 cloves garlic and 1 onion and add to pot. Add ½ tsp salt as well. Turn on heat to high, and bring to boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 2-4 hours until beans are slightly chewy. If beans get low on water (any are exposed) before they’re done, just add some more water. When done, add additional salt to taste. If you have canned beans, skip the soaking step and just dump whole can contents (beans+liquid) into pot with diced onions and minced garlic. Simmer for 15-20 minutes. This kept in our fridge all week.
    • Prep rice: steam rice using your recipe of choice.
    • Making plantains: Heat 2-4 cm of oil in a deep pot over medium heat. Slice open the plantain and remove the skin, then slice the plantain into medallions at most 1.5 cm thick. They don’t have to be even, but the more evenly sized they are, the more evenly they will fry. Add one small end to the pot. When the small end begins to fry vigorously, add the remaining plantain medallions. Fry for 5 minutes on each side, or until as brown as you like. Remove from oil onto a serving plate.
    • Making the fried rice: (note, this is the reverse of my dad’s standard recipe, which results in fluffier egg and toastier/chewier rice). Heat oil in a pan over medium heat, and add garlic, onions, and rice to fry for 4-5 minutes with stirring every minute or so. When onions look translucent, push rice mix to the side and add more oil, then crack 2-3 eggs into the pan and scramble them. Mix rice and eggs, then remove from heat and serve.
    • Refrying beans: Done in the same pan we made rice in. Dump ½ to 1 cup of prepared beans into skillet and add ¼ cup water. Bring water to a boil, and while the water cooks off mash the beans with the back of a wooden spoon until it forms a paste. Remove from heat and serve.

– Natalie

A thing called Trits

Here in Costa Rica they have this thing called Trits, which is an ice cream sandwich cookie-type thing that’s awesome and amazing, and not just because you desperate for some cool relief in the tropical heat. It comes in a little tub that looks like this:

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The delicious tub of Trits

You pop it open, and you can either use a spoon to eat it directly out to the tub, or you can flip it upside down and the entire cookie sandwich plops down into your hand.

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There’s usually another half-sandwich there, I just couldn’t wait. 

You take a bite, and the sugary goodness hits you. There’s the cheap vanilla ice cream, a layer of chocolate syrup, and a perfectly chewy cookie on either side that’s salted to offset the sweetness of the ice cream filling. For me the cookie is the best part, but all together in one bite is where everything really shines.

Though they’re a bit expensive (900+ colones or $1.80+ USD), Stoytcho and I have had nearly half a dozen since we discovered them 4 days ago, and I’m already looking for ways to replicate them when I get back to the States since of course there’s only one guy in the U.S. that has a permit to import them and he’s in New Jersey.

Want to try one? Here’s a recipe for them, although I have three suggestions for improvement:

  1. Use ingredient substitutions to make the cookie softer, for example by subbing white sugar for brown sugar. Serious Eats has some suggestions here. You could also sub in margarine for butter, since this is what Trits officially uses.
  2. Add salt to the cookie. I’ve never encountered a cookie recipe without salt (unless it used salted peanut butter). Even if crushed graham cracker is the base, consider adding 1/8 to 1/4 tsp salt.
  3. Don’t forget the layer of chocolate syrup! The standard Hershey’s will work here, and for a Trits it goes only on the inside of one cookie, although you’re making your own so do what you want. Go crazy and put it on both! Or you could sub it out for some homemade/store-bought dulce de leche or cajeta (provided it’s something that doesn’t get too hard/chewy with freezing).

Enjoy!

– Natalie

A bus ride through Costa Rica

Buses. The main mode of long distance travel in much of South America: affordable, moderately comfortable, and mostly on time.  After a half night of rest at the modern-looking and modern-costing SJO airport, our journey begins at a bus stop willed into existence on a spare patch of muddy asphalt by the side of the freeway. Chickens roam the tiny hill across the road as several dogs wander around our stop and vehicles rush by, honking as they go. Soon enough we find ourselves on a seven hour trip, staring out of the panoramic windows of a bus at the scenery of Costa Rica: roadway, sinuous and rubble-strewn. The path our bus takes is known fully to the driver and only generally to us. Most of the way – even close to the city – is narrow. Our bus takes a moderate approach, here yielding, there forcing a smaller car to stop. Despite the often dense traffic we are never fully at a stop, only occasionally slowing. As we travel, the background of the roadway changes from the grey of concrete to the green of vegetation. On our eastern side of the Gulf of Nicoya, the great body of water that marks the separation between mainland and peninsula, the jungle concedes to civilization. It is a colored background to the goings on here, but never asserts itself close to people.

The ferry across offers sweeping views of the as-yet faraway coast. From a distance it is a thin, low swatch of green, decorated with an even thinner skirt of beach and cliff. Closer: islands stand out, mountains peak through the blue-grey distance, and the coastline’s majesty is revealed. Cliffs tower over water and the unadorned green comes into focus – trees and large-leafed plants hug the coast and climb as high into the mountains as they can.  At landing, the majesty is somewhat diminished. The sweeping coastline is now at an arm’s distance, the forest lost for the trees.

Verdant, seemingly limitless, the green of forests and mountains is everywhere. In between the jungle lie roadways, here even more narrow than before. The spectacle of plants unfolds before us, slowly : trees too numerous to count, leafy vegetation, brilliant red flowers. The bus has permanently slowed to stay on the road. As the hours pass, the initial awe of this place, as seen from the bus window, wears thin. Our eyes glaze as yet more green is revealed. We sit and bask in the unending stretch of life only sometimes broken by a field or farm or town. Here, civilization is surrounded on all sides by jungle, neither encroaching on the other.

A final bus transfer and another hour of winding road through the mountainous peninsula, we arrive in Montezuma. On foot the awe of this place is recaptured and enlarged. The jungle has a voice : chirping, hissing, clicking, roaring – and a smell : wet, wet leaves, wet dirt, sweat. In this five-street town, and in the towns around it, the jungle does not hide but instead covers all but the most fastidiously maintained roads and buildings.  Our room –  one hill and and one vegetation-enveloped stair climb from town – offers a view of green and brown and sometimes blue. The trees and broad-leafed plants grow large. A troupe of monkeys perches on the tallest tree in our circle of forest, howling louder than the passing buses. The jungle does not threaten us, but would swallow the house and road and town whole if given the chance.

-Stoytcho