Now We Have Time to Travel: Costa Rican Eco Adventure – With Mary and Butch Bryant Part II

Now We Have Time to Travel: Costa Rican Eco Adventure – With Mary and Butch Bryant Part II

GET Guests Mary and Butch Bryant share their recent trip to Costa Rica in this two part blog series: Now We Have Time to Travel: Costa Rican Eco Adventure.

DAY 5 Wednesday 4 April 2018

Today we walked across the suspension bridge to leave Sueño Azul resort.  It was such a nice place, I hated to leave, but then again, I felt that way about all the places we’ve been.

Joan heading across the bridge
Joan heading across the bridge

We headed south to Sarapiqui Heredia, Costa Rica to the Hacienda Pozo Azul.  We were welcomed by Don Alberto Quintana, the owner.  Don Quintana gave us a presentation on some interesting Costa Rican history and also on Pozo Azul.

Back in the 1960’s only about 25% of Costa Rica was forested.  The government realized the bad path the country was on and started paying people not to cut down trees for farming.  They would find out how much the person applying to clear land expected to make off that land and they would pay them that amount to keep the forest intact and encouraged steps to restore the trees.  Now >55% of the country is forested and additional conservation efforts are ongoing.  25% of the country is protected as a national park or reserve.  Butch had commented to Joan and me that it was too bad they didn’t look at Costa Rica as an example to save the Amazon.  That was the perfect segue to Don Quintana’s comment that they are indeed doing just that!  Hopefully, they will be as successful there as Costa Rica has been in saving the rainforest.

He also told us that in 1948, the military was abolished and in 1949 a constitutional article was adopted that banned the military.  The money was redirected to education, security, health care and culture.  They have about 8,000 active members of the Police Guard forces and that accounts for about 0.4% of the GDP.  It is a peaceful country and there has not been a civil war since 1948, unlike other neighboring countries in Central America.

As for education, Costa Rica is a highly educated society as they have made it such a priority.  The structure of the school system is:

  • 6 years of elementary school
  • 6 years of high school
  • 4 years of university

Grade school is free and mandatory.  Grades 1 – 3 go from 7 – 11:30 and grades 4 – 6 from 12:30 – 4.  Most children continue on to high school.  Education currently makes up ~7.8% of the GDP.  It is supposed to be 8% but even providing 7.8% is quite difficult for the government.  Victor used the example of a small town where only 3 or 4 young kids live.  They have the right to education, so a school has to be built.  There might be only 1 or 2 teachers working at the school and they will have multiple jobs:  teacher, principal, cook etc.  We saw lots of schools in our travels and the kids all wear uniforms (navy bottoms and white tops) and every school had a football (soccer) field attached.

Don Quintana received a chemical engineering degree in Texas and returned to Costa Rica to work for Coca Cola, eventually retiring from the company as the Director in Central America.  He bought a farm where he developed a model dairy that converted manure to electricity to power fans that used water to cool the barns – the beginning of their “eco-farming”.  I didn’t get all the details down on paper, but it sounded something like a swamp cooler here.  They eventually were exporting milk and also produced black pepper, cheese, soybeans and corn.  They could produce soybeans and corn crops 3 or 4 times/year as they enjoy “eternal spring”.

As his children got older and involved in the business, his daughter suggested setting up tours of the eco-farm which were successful.  They ultimately sold the original farm and dairy to concentrate on tourism, which is a thriving industry in Costa Rica.  They now offer a wide variety of eco-adventure opportunities like zip-lining through the tree canopy, horse rides, rappelling, rafting, floating, hiking and mountain biking.  They also operate an organic farm. Don Quintana’s son, Alberto Jr., who is now the director of their company, guided us through a portion of the farm.  The main crops they export are: pineapples, black pepper and for the first time this year, vanilla.

Some of their crops on display
Some of their crops on display
And some more. I like the yellow ones on the right -- they look like alien spaceships!
And some more. I like the yellow ones on the right — they look like alien spaceships!

I guess I never knew or thought about where black pepper came from or how it grew.  Now I know!

Black pepper growing on the vine
Black pepper growing on the vine

Then we heard about the labor intensive process of producing vanilla, the second most expensive spice in the world after saffron.  It comes from an orchid, which grows on a vine. There is no natural pollinator for vanilla, so they do it manually with a toothpick, at least at this farm!  The flowers are only open for about 4 hours and it is during those hours that pollination must occur.  To complicate matters, there are numerous flowers on a stem but only 5 can be pollinated, so you have to keep track of which ones have been pollinated.  The gentleman who does the pollination showed us his tools — a pair of reading glasses and a toothpick!

Here is an open vanilla flower
Here is an open vanilla flower
Here is the vanilla pollen on the tip of a toothpick
Here is the vanilla pollen on the tip of a toothpick

When the beans are ready to pick, they lay them in the sun and turn them every few hours for 28 suns.  At that point they are ready to sell or can be saved forever.  I can now understand why vanilla is so darned expensive!

One of the other interesting things Alberto showed us was the flower from a carnivorous plant that they are trying to get established as natural protection for their plants. It DID NOT smell good 😝even though it is quite pretty.  He cut the stomach thing (for the lack of the right word) open on one of the flowers and there were a bunch of bugs in various stages of being digested.

Not sure of the species, could be a pitcher plant or a titan
Not sure of the species, could be a pitcher plant or a titan
The circled thing in this profile view is where the bugs get trapped and digested
The circled thing in this profile view is where the bugs get trapped and digested

So after seeing many other interesting plants, we had lunch in the eco-friendly hacienda the family built as a retirement project, which is now a lodge where guests can stay.  The hacienda was beautiful and the meal, made from organic ingredients they grew, was excellent.  Especially yummy was the Star Fruit cheesecake for dessert!  During lunch we had the pleasure of meeting Doña Ana Quintana.  All of the Quintanas were warm and gracious — which can be said of all the Costa Ricans we have met so far.

Living room area of the hacienda
Living room area of the hacienda
Covered patio and surrounding grounds of hacienda
Covered patio and surrounding grounds of hacienda

This is a place I would love to go back to and spend some time.  They have the nice lodge where you can stay, but they also have some awesome elevated tents.

From Pozo Azul, we headed to La Fortuna de San Carlos. Along the way we passed orchards of oranges.  These oranges are yellow on the outside rather than orange and have a strong flavor.  Orange juice from this area is exported to Florida.  Per Victor, your Florida OJ likely contains some Costa Rican fruit juice!  Who knew??

After the wonderful lunch we had, when Victor said we would be stopping for ice cream along the way, I wasn’t sure I had room.  However, when we arrived at Restaurante Las Iguanas in Muelle, I was off the bus and ready to try the specialty of the house — Dragon Fruit ice cream.  Butch and I had the Dragon Fruit which was purple and sort of tart, but quite good.  Joan opted for something safer with some chocolate involved and said hers was good, as well.  But the real highlights of the stop were the iguanas that hung out around this restaurant.  They were amazing!

Iguanas hanging out at the restaurant
Iguanas hanging out at the restaurant

There was a tunnel under the busy road in front of the restaurant so they could cross without getting crunched.  It was very cool to see them up close.

Back on the road again after a very exciting critter encounter, we began to catch glimpses of the Arenal Volcano.  Victor said that quite often the top of the volcano is shrouded in clouds but today we have a great view of the entire volcano.  Granted, this picture was taken through the window of the moving bus, but I guess it’s pretty rare to see the top, so it was a good catch, power lines and all.

Arenal Volcano
Arenal Volcano

On July 29, 1968, the Arenal Volcano erupted and destroyed 3 nearby villages.  Prior to that, no one even realized it was an active volcano as it had been quiet for 460 years.  One little town survived and was renamed La Fortuna.  But after the eruption, before tourism became important, people in the area sold off their property very cheaply.  The water had become hot and their cows couldn’t drink it.  What has emerged since then, however, is a very popular natural hot springs.  It doesn’t have a strong sulfur smell but the water has a slightly yellow hue. Tourists are attracted to the thermal springs.  The volcano has been quiet for the last 6 years, but is still active.  It isn’t unusual to see steam coming out of the top, especially when it rains.  The rocks around the top are very hot and so they give off steam when the rain hits them.

We stopped in the middle of La Fortuna and had a group picture taken in a beautiful park and then proceeded to our hotel for the night, the Arenal Paraíso Resort & Spa.  By the time we arrived, the volcano top was shrouded in clouds and remained that way as long as we were there.  We had each had a cabin with a front porch. Ours faced the volcano.

Butch on our porch looking at the Arenal Volcano
Butch on our porch looking at the Arenal Volcano
Me with volcano in the background, now the top is in the clouds
Me with volcano in the background, now the top is in the clouds

We decided to eat dinner and then head to the thermal pools for a soak.  This map shows the various pools that were on the property.  Though they varied in size, each would hold at least 10 people.  The temperature of the water decreased as you headed downhill.  When we headed out, it was dark and we weren’t sure where we were at.  We ended up at the top pool, the hottest.  Not knowing that, Butch and I thought maybe we should go up a little higher to a warmer one, while Joan decided to go down one pool to a little bit cooler one.  When Butch and I were searching for the next one up, we discovered that we were already at the top.  We ended up joining Joan for a soak in the 2nd to hottest pool.  The water was so soothing.

I did a really bonehead thing before we left for the pools.  There was a little safe in our room, so I decided we should lock up our wallets and passports since we didn’t want to carry that stuff to the pools or leave it unsecured in the cabin.  I just assumed that this little safe operated like all the other little hotel safes we have used in the US, so I put the items in, shut the door, put in a 4 digit code and hit the LOCK button.  Just to be on the safe side, I entered the code to verify it would open.  Guess what  — it didn’t!!  Then I read the directions that were sitting right next to the safe.  There was a little red reset button hidden on the back of the safe door that clears the prior code.  You were supposed to press that BEFORE you shut the door and entered your new code.  Although I was concerned, I really wanted to get into that hot water, so I figured I would call Reception when we returned or in the morning to get into the safe.  Butch, however, couldn’t stand the thought of dealing with it in the morning, so while Joan and I finished our soak, he went back to the cabin, called the front desk and someone arrived very quickly with a master key.  Apparently, this happens quite frequently and there was no hassle getting them to open the thing up.  God bless Butch, he is my hero!

Once back to the cabins, we were all ready for lights out after a long, fun filled day.

DAY 6 Thursday 5 April 2018

This morning was a free morning but there were several optional excursions available.  They included a hike to the volcano, river rafting or the one Joan, Butch and I signed up for.  It was a tour through Arenal Natura Ecological Park with a great guide named Roy.  We toured a butterfly garden, a crocodile lagoon, snake garden, frog garden, orchid garden, also saw turtles and two caimans, Sophie and Marvin.  Before we even entered the park, Roy pointed out a sloth in the tree out front.  It was a large male two toed dude, but he wasn’t moving around much and it was hard to get a good look at him.  Also in the front of the park, there was an abandoned hummingbird nest with two eggs.  Roy guessed there was too much traffic in that area and people drove the mom away.  Kind of sad.

Hummingbird nest and eggs
Hummingbird nest and eggs

The park was beautiful inside.  We especially enjoyed the butterfly garden, where Butch acquired a hitchhiker that stayed with him almost the entire time we were in that area.

This guy stayed with Butch for most of our time in the Butterfly Garden
This guy stayed with Butch for most of our time in the Butterfly Garden

Another highlight in this area was getting good looks at the beautiful Blue Morpho. Previously, I posted pictures of them with their wings up but in here we were able to get pictures of them with their wings down.

Blue Morpho posing for us
Blue Morpho posing for us

The Blue Morpho on the outside looks like this:

Blue Morpho
Blue Morpho

There was another butterfly that looked very similar called the owl butterfly.  You can tell the difference by looking for the snake face on the owl butterfly’s wing.

snake face on butterfly wing
Look at the area highlighted in blue –see the snake face?

We also saw crocodiles at the park, which was something we hadn’t seen in the wild.   Not sure I’d ever want to run into one of these dudes in the wild anyway!

He's only pretending to be asleep!
He’s only pretending to be asleep!

The snake and frog gardens were quite interesting.  Everything was so tiny and often very poisonous.  There were times that Roy couldn’t even find the critter in an aquarium even though he knew what he was looking for.  They are small and can hide very well.  I guess I thought all poisonous snakes were big like our rattlesnakes, but there were multiple vipers that were so tiny I don’t know how’d you see one before it bit you.  Also a lot of the tree frogs were poisonous as well.  Here’s a cute little tree frog.  Love the colors:

Taken through the glass -- not great but you can see its pretty colors. Very tiny little dude.
Taken through the glass — not great but you can see its pretty colors. Very tiny little dude.

The foliage in the whole park was beautiful, but this flower was stunning.

Brugmansia suaveolens flowers; related to Datura
Brugmansia suaveolens flowers; related to Datura

The flowers above were identified by my sister-in-law, Monte, as Datura or Brugmansia suaveolens, a relative of Datura.  We have Datura in Arizona, but the flowers are white.  The plant contains tropane alkaloids, many of which have medical value but are now artificially made.  When I investigated the plant, I found that the Placidula euryanassa butterfly uses this plant as one of the main foods for its larval.  Studies have shown that the tropane alkaloids can be stored by the larva, passed on through to the pupal stage, and then to the adult.  For the adult, they act as defensive mechanism because the alkaloids make them less palatable to predators.  Datura is generally considered to be a poisonous plant, with the seeds and leaves being the most dangerous.  Ingestion can result in a variety of reactions and even death.  The hallucinogenic effects have been well documented and sound pretty terrifying.  Must be why it’s called loco weed in Arizona.

I think these are two of the Placidula euryanassa butterflies from our tour today.

Placidula euryanassa butterfly I
Placidula euryanassa butterfly I
Placidula euryanassa butterfly II
Placidula euryanassa butterfly II

After everyone got back to the hotel, which took longer than anticipated for those who had gone rafting, we boarded the bus and left for a trip to the Monteverde Cloud Forest, leaving later than Victor had planned.  We are now traveling on the Pacific side of Costa Rica.  Lunch was on our own and the place we stopped in San Ramon, which is in the Alajuela Province, had a buffet which was good, even though none of us really knew what we were ordering and the folks serving us didn’t speak English.  Next door was a great shop which drew many of us in.  Consequently, we were again later leaving San Ramon than Victor had planned.

We had been warned by both Julio and Victor that today was going to be an intense day of traveling.  What that meant was we were going to be on very windy mountain roads and if you tended to get carsick, you were advised to take something for the ride.  Victor said we would be on several roads that they gave nicknames to such as the “Oh My God Road” or the “What Am I Doing Here Road”.  Another clue we were in for the ride of our lives is that Victor said that he wouldn’t be talking on the microphone so people could sleep if they wanted to.  What that really means is he is riding up front with Julio acting as co-pilot, watching for obstacles, other vehicles coming toward us and that we didn’t fall off the edge on the passengers’ side of the bus!  The roads remind me a bit of Harding Way near Butte, the Going-to-the Sun Highway in Glacier National Park or the hedge rows in England  — or a combination of all 3!  There were lots of hairpin turns, switchbacks and one lane narrow roads and bridges.  Additionally, there was a lot of road construction and in one place we had to wait for 45 minutes for the road to reopen after a scheduled construction closure.  All of this would have been “exciting”in a car, but in the big coach we were in, it was hair raising.  We stopped for a potty break or something and I commented to Victor on the road and how challenging it was for Julio.  Victor said it can be worse if it rains and gets foggy.  Well, guess what?  We got back on the bus and started traveling again when it started to rain!!

We drove through Esparza in the Puntarenas Province, which is the city where Victor lives.  That’s about where the rain started.  The rain, which will be welcomed by the locals, was unexpected as the dry season is from mid-December until the end of April.  The rainiest months of the year in western Costa Rica are the months of September, October and some of November when it can rain for 3 or 4 days non-stop.  Coincidentally, those are the low tourism months.  The average rainfall/year on the west is 80 inches while over near Tortuguero on the Caribbean side, they get 160 inches per year.  This side of the country gets really dry looking and there are wildfires in the dry months.  Some of the road construction we encountered was due to Tropical Storm Nate that passed through the area last October bringing lots of rain and washed out roads in this area.

Eventually, we survived and arrived at our lodging for the next two nights at the truly amazing El Establo Mountain Hotel in Monteverde, Costa Rica.  This hotel is built on different levels up the side of a steep mountain.  There are 9 levels and our group’s rooms were on the 5th level.  The bus wasn’t able to navigate the steep, narrow road to get to level 5, so our big luggage was taken up to our rooms by the hotel staff.  Additionally, unless you want to walk up or down to the restaurant, registration etc. there are hotel shuttle vans that will take you where ever you want to go on the grounds.

Because of the location of this hotel on the side of the mountain, the views are amazing.  It was cloudy during our stay, but we were told that if you get a day without clouds you can even see the Pacific in the distance.

Our rooms are on level 5, these are blocks of rooms above ours
Our rooms are on level 5, these are blocks of rooms above ours
View out our window
View out our window

So with all the delays during the day, we arrived at the hotel about an hour late.  Ordinarily this wouldn’t matter, but today we had a guest speaker waiting for us.  Everyone just dumped their stuff in the rooms and headed down to a conference room next to the restaurant to hear an amazing story.

94 year old Marvin Rockwell told us the story of how he came to Costa Rica from Fairhope, Alabama in 1951.  As a Quaker, a religious sect that has strong beliefs in nonviolence and equality, he and three others refused to register for the compulsory peacetime draft that President Truman instituted to meet the Soviet Threat — (remember, this was the Cold War period).  The 4 guys were arrested, tried and sentenced to prison for 18 months.  After serving about 1/3 of the sentence, he was released and the Quakers in Fairhope were already exploring an alternative to living in the US, where their tax dollars were funding militarism.  Mr. Rockwell and 43 others, which included members of 11 families and his parents, embarked on the journey to Costa Rica (remember Costa Rica had dissolved their military in 1948).  The Rockwells drove to Costa Rica and it was a 3 month trip.

The group settled in an agricultural region in the mountains, which eventually became Monteverde.  Upon their arrival they improved the roads, introduced hydroelectricity and built a bilingual school.  They established the area’s first corporation — a cheese factory and created the first forest reserve in the area.

The Quakers intermarried with the locals and Mr. Rockwell and his wife had 3 children and adopted 2 others.  His wife was also present and told us their love story.

Marvin Rockwell is the oldest surviving migrant from Fairhope.  He has seen many changes through the years.  One example is that cheese factory they started, which once produced 350 pounds of cheese per week, now produces 8,000 pounds per day and was purchased by a Mexican corporation a few years back.  One of the biggest changes they have witnessed is the influx of visitors, which has caused a shift from an agricultural based economy to a tourism based economy.

It was very interesting lecture and provided insight into how Monteverde came to be and more information on the history of Costa Rica in general.

It was another busy day, so after dinner, we headed to our rooms for a good night sleep.

DAY 7 Friday 6 April 2018

Today we explored the Monteverde Cloud Forest from the bottom and the top — well sort of — but read on and you’ll see what I mean.  After breakfast, we went to the Reserva Biologica Bosque Nuboso for an amazing walk through the rainforest.  This reserve atop the Continental Divide, which is more than 26,000 acres, is one of the most biologically diverse areas in the world.  They claim over 3,000 known species of plants including over 750 tree species and over 500 known orchid species.  There are 100 species of mammals, 400 bird species and 120 reptile and amphibian species.  6 ecological zones are represented in the area.  The foliage was thick and lush in this forest with many thick hanging vines we were tempted to swing on, moss covering many trees, plants thriving on fallen logs and tangles of stems and vines climbing up trees while ferns circled the bottom.  Here are just a few pictures I took but they certainly don’t begin to show what an amazing place it is.

Monteverde Cloud Forest
Monteverde Cloud Forest

I think the red plants are bromeliads. Many critters drink the water that gets trapped in the petals of these plants.

Monteverde Cloud Forest
Monteverde Cloud Forest
Monteverde Cloud Forest
Monteverde Cloud Forest

In the Reserva Biologica Bosque Nuboso, we saw a coatimundi, a red kneed tarantula, a sloth and many birds, including hummingbirds.  In fact, at the bottom of the trails of the reserve, there is the El Colibri Cafeteria, which is a coffee shop that has hummingbird feeders on the patio. Colibri is hummingbird in Spanish, by the way.   We got to see many different varieties of hummers, some looked like the ones we have in Arizona but others were very different than any I’ve seen before.  Here are a few of the better pictures — not great but gives you some idea of their beauty.

Too bad this pic isn't better because this guy was beautiful.
Too bad this pic isn’t better because this guy was beautiful.

This hummingbird is a brilliant blue violet in the sunlight with a white tail and is much bigger than ours.

blue hummingbird

blue hummingbird
He is a brilliant blue violet in the sunlight with a white tail and is much bigger than ours.

So that was the bottom of the cloud forest and next we headed to the top or more accurately, over the top of the forest on the Sky Walk.  This is a series of 6 suspensions bridges at canopy level, that allowed us a bird’s eye view of the places we had just walked.

On the right there is length and height info on each of the 6 bridges we crossed
On the right there is length and height info on each of the 6 bridges we crossed
Joan and I met this dapper dude at the Sky Walk
Joan and I met this dapper dude at the Sky Walk
He was very cute, but not a great conversationalist!
He was very cute, but not a great conversationalist!

One of the first things Victor showed us along the trail was this ginormous leaf that is referred to as the poor man’s umbrella.  I don’t know the name of the plant, but the leaves are very thick and rough, almost like sandpaper, and it’s certainly big enough to use as an umbrella in a pinch.

Victor standing under the poor man's umbrella leaf
Victor standing under the poor man’s umbrella leaf

As we got to each of the suspension bridges, there was a sign with the name of the bridge, which came from a plant that might be seen along the way, statistics about the bridge and info on the plant.  As with the suspension bridges we crossed earlier in the week, only 10 people were allowed on the bridge at one time.  Below are a couple of the signs.

Had to include this one for our friend Maria -- one of the longer bridges we crossed
Had to include this one for our friend Maria — one of the longer bridges we crossed
Saw these plants on the walk and they are referred to as rattlesnake plants. Look at the flowers below and you will see how they got that name.
Saw these plants on the walk and they are referred to as rattlesnake plants. Look at the flowers below and you will see how they got that name.
Saw these plants on the walk and they are referred to as rattlesnake plants. Look at the flowers below and you will see how they got that name.
Saw these plants on the walk and they are referred to as rattlesnake plants.
Inga or ice cream beans, fruit of the Pacay tree
Inga or ice cream beans, fruit of the Pacay tree

When we were at the palm plantation, we sampled guaba or pacay, which is also know as the ice cream bean or Inga.  It is actually a legume, but the pulp is sweet, so it’s used more for snacking and desserts.  The pods are about a foot long and not very thick.  When you crack one open, there is this white cottony pulp, sort of divided into segments and each segment contains a black seed.  You take one of the segments, eat the pulp and spit out the seed.  The seeds are often used in the jewelry you see around Costa Rica.  We also had guaba juice in several locations during the week.

Butch on one of the bridges
Butch on one of the bridges
Joan crossing one of the suspension bridges
Joan crossing one of the suspension bridges

Even up at canopy level, the foliage was wild and crazy!

Foliage at canopy level as seen from one of the bridges
Foliage at canopy level as seen from one of the bridges

So after a bottom and top view of the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, we headed back to the hotel for a break before afternoon activities, which were optional.  Butch, Joan and I walked to a Mexican restaurant Victor had recommended.  We had a great lunch and the staff was very friendly, just like all Costa Ricans we’ve met.

Don Luis restaurant - Great spot for lunch in Monteverde
Don Luis restaurant – Great spot for lunch in Monteverde
Passed this art gallery after lunch but didn't have time to stop -- darn!
Passed this art gallery after lunch but didn’t have time to stop — darn!

As I mentioned the afternoon activities were optional.  Zip lining was one of the options and we were tempted but chose a tour of the El Trapiche Coffee Plantation, which is a family owned and operated plantation.  The tour started with how cacoa beans are processed to produce chocolate.  We felt like we were “experts” on the subject after being at Sibu earlier in the week (I know, right?), so this part was a repeat.  We did see an interesting way that cacao beans used to be ground on this plantation that would be great exercise, as well!

Yes, that is a bicycle powered grinder!
Yes, that is a bicycle powered grinder!

After the chocolate portion of the tour, we moved on to see how sugar cane is processed.  They don’t produce it for exportation, but they do sell their sugar locally.  They have big vats where it is heated until it turns sort of caramel color — probably there’s a particular temperature that it reaches, but I’m not sure what that is.  Then it gets poured into wooden molds to solidify.  The blocks that are formed are sold in local stores and this sugar is used for everything that needs sugar.  You just shave off as much as you need for cooking etc.

Here is a block of brown sugar next to the molds used to form it
Here is a block of brown sugar next to the molds used to form it

We also made our own candy from hot sugar cane syrup that we stirred with a wooden spoon to aerate.  Then it was allowed to cool and was ready for eating.  Obviously it was very sweet, but we really liked it.  We took the leftovers back to the hotel for Victor and he loved it.  Glad I’m not having my Hgb A1C tested anytime soon!

Joan is stirring the candy and it's almost ready!
Joan is stirring the candy and it’s almost ready!

Another use for sugar cane is production of the Costa Rican national liquor, guaro. It is a clear liquid with a rum like taste that is distilled from sugar cane juices.  Before it was legal to manufacture and sell it, it was Costa Rica’s moonshine and was being made in homemade distilleries. The government got involved for two reasons — first to be able to tax it and secondly for safety concerns over the bootlegged versions.  The National Liquor Factory currently produces the only legal brand, Cacique Guaro.  El Trapiche distills their own guaro (moonshine) just for tastings during tours.  Nazareth, our guide at El Trapiche, provided samples of their guaro and of Cacique Guaro for those that wanted to try them.

Here is our guide, Nazareth, discussing the history of moonshine production of guaro while holding a bottle of the legal stuff, Cacique
Here is our guide, Nazareth, discussing the history of moonshine production of guaro while holding a bottle of the legal stuff, Cacique
This is the still that is used at El Trapiche for making guaro
This is the still that is used at El Trapiche for making guaro

After chocolate and sugar, we moved on to the main attraction, coffee, which is a product El Trapiche produces and sell lots of.  Coffee plants have fruit with a seed inside very much like a cherry with a pit inside.  The seed is referred to as the coffee bean, just because it resembles a bean.  When the coffee cherry turns red it is ripe and and ready for hand picking.  Then Nazareth took us through the rest of the process from peeling to drying then separating and finally roasting.  They have some amazing machinery that sorts and separates the beans based on various characteristics like density, weight, size etc.  When we were in San Ramon and went shopping after lunch, they were selling different brands of Costa Rican coffee.  I noticed that some bags were labeled “Peaberry” at the top and I had no idea what that meant.  I learned today that normally a coffee cherry will contain two seeds but 10-15% of the cherries will have only 1 seed and supposedly the coffee made from those seeds has more flavor and is therefore more expensive.  The sorter that Nazareth showed us separated out the peaberries into their own bucket.

Here is one of the coffee sorting machines
Here is one of the coffee sorting machines
And the buckets of separated beans that are ready for roasting
And the buckets of separated beans that are ready for roasting

Roasting was another discussion and the finer points escape me now.  However, I saw this poster on the wall which tells you something about what are acceptable roasts.

It looks like roasts that are too light or too dark aren't acceptable
It looks like roasts that are too light or too dark aren’t acceptable

So once we had completed the coffee tour, we were invited into the family home for some snacks and drinks — obviously coffee was on the menu and was very good.  They also have a shop where there were more coffee samples available and various products from the plantation were available for purchase.  It was a really great tour and I learned a ton.  Coffee is a really big production and I can understand why good coffee is really expensive.

One other thing I really liked about the El Trapiche plantation were the murals that were painted on the various buildings on the site.  Below is one of them on the coffee building — beautiful and so colorful.

coffee plantation mural
coffee plantation mural

Tonight was a very nice Farewell Dinner at our hotel.  Rather than the main dining room on level 1 of the hotel, it was held in the Laggus Restaurant on level 5, which is the same level as our rooms.  The meal was excellent.  We pre-ordered either chicken, fish or beef and these were accompanied by wine, beer or sodas.  Victor gave us all an 8 x 10 of the group photo taken earlier in the week in La Fortuna.  He talked a bit about what a great week it had been and what a compatible group of people were on the tour.  It was really true — everyone was congenial and easy to get along with.  I was especially impressed with the 6 kids that were on the trip.  I’m not exactly sure of their ages, but I think they ranged from 11 to 15.  They were really fun to be around and they all got along with each other and hung out together.

On the first night at the Welcome Reception in San Jose, Victor said that by the end of the week we would be thinking of each other as family.  Other than Butch and Joan who really are my family, I wasn’t sure how that would happen in a week’s time, but it did and I found it hard to say goodbye and have this wonderful experience come to an end.  Consequently, it was hard to leave the restaurant after dinner and many people lingered and chatted long after the meal was finished.  We finally broke away and went to bed as tomorrow is another bus ride to San Jose.

DAY 8 Saturday 7 April 2018

So as the old saying goes, all good things must come to an end and sadly our Eco-Adventure in Costa Rica is coming to an end today, but the memories will live on forever!

Butch and I were up pretty early and had some time before we needed to be knocking on Joan’s door for breakfast, so we decided to hike up to level 9 — the top level of the hotel.  It was a pretty steep climb with spectacular views all along the way.  On top is the hotel’s zip line starting point.  I climbed up on one of platforms and looked out over Monteverde and the valley below.  I felt like I could see forever but still couldn’t see the Pacific Ocean because of the clouds.  I guess that’s why they call it the cloud forest!

View from the top
View from the top
Selfie of Butch and me
Selfie of Butch and me

Then we headed back down the hill and we were practically forced to run because the road was so steep.  Certainly a lot quicker going down than it was going up.  On the way down we saw a critter similar to one Butch had seen the day before when he was exploring.  He thought it was a tapir, but he found out from Victor that tapirs are much bigger animals and this was more like a large rat.  Victor said it was most likely an Agouti, which are rodents and are like a big guinea pig with longer legs and a short tail.  I read one article about them that said they are “scatter hoarders” that bury fruits, nuts, seeds etc. throughout the forest but half the time they forget where they buried them (I can relate!!).  The things that they forget about can germinate and grow into new plants which disperses new plant species throughout the forest.  That’s pretty cool — they are helping with the ongoing reforestation effort in Costa Rica.  I took a picture of him, but it was really bad, so I won’t share.

We also saw a coatimundi aka coati around the registration area later this morning.  These critters are members of the raccoon family.  We have them in Arizona, but I’ve never seen one in the wild.  Here’s the best (but not great) picture I got of him.

Cute Coati
Cute Coati

So once we got back to level 5 and hooked up with Joan, we brought our big luggage out to go into the bus and then headed down to level 1 for breakfast.  After breakfast, our 1 big group was splitting up into 3.  There were 4 people leaving for the US from the airport in Liberia, so there was a van to deliver them there.  There was another group of about 12 that had chosen the optional 2 nights Guanacaste Beach Stay on the Pacific Ocean.  There was a small coach to take them to their destination.  The rest of us were heading to San Jose to catch flights home either today or tomorrow.  We were riding in the big coach with Julio driving and Victor on board.

Victor and Julio had planned on taking a different route to San Jose that didn’t include the by now infamous “Oh My God Road”.  However, when they were checking road information this morning, they found out that one of the roads they planned to travel was going to be closed off and on throughout the day for construction.  Since people had planes to catch, they decided they couldn’t take a chance on people not getting to the airport in time for their flights, so we ended up going on the OMG Road and only had to wait about 30 minutes for it to reopen.  It wasn’t raining today, so the road didn’t seem as scary as when we were on it several days ago — or maybe we were just immune to the thrill!

Along the way, we passed by the Port of Caldera, which is one of the two most important ports in Costa Rica.  The other is the Port of Limón on the Caribbean side, which is the largest port in the country.  We also passed by Victor’s town of Esparza, where he’ll be heading later in the day.

Since we weren’t flying out until tomorrow, we had reservations at the Hampton Inn so when we got to the San Jose airport, we got our luggage and found the hotel shuttle area and waited for their shuttle.  Once at the hotel, it felt almost like being in Butte or Missoula at the Hampton — same decor etc.  The original plan was to do a little sight seeing around San Jose this afternoon, but about the time we arrived at the hotel, the skies opened up.  We ended up just walking next door using umbrellas supplied by the Hampton (Thank You!) and had a late lunch/early dinner (linner, as Butch likes to call it) at a casino/bar/restaurant.  We sat in the bar area to eat and there were a bunch of TVs each tuned to a different sport.  On several there were soccer matches (of course), American football on one, auto racing on one and much to Butch’s delight, round 3 of the Master’s golf tournament on another.

Watching the Masters in Costa Rica!
Watching the Masters in Costa Rica!
Waiting for some grub!
Waiting for some grub!
Not something you see at the Hampton in Butte!
Not something you see at the Hampton in Butte!

It turns out we were all exhausted after such an enjoyable week of new adventures and exciting activities, so after we had dessert and coffee at Denny’s (of all places 😁), which was right next door to the casino,  we headed back to the hotel and were in bed early.

 

Postscript:  Our trip back to the US on Sunday, April 8th, was long but uneventful.  We left the Hampton a little before 8 as our flight was at 10:30.  We left San Jose on time and arrived in Miami a little early.  We had to retrieve our checked bags in Miami and go through immigration and customs and then recheck the bags.  This process actually went very quickly as much of it is now automated.  From Miami, we went to Dallas and then Tucson.  We were at the house by midnight.  The dogs and bird were in good shape and happy to see us and we were happy to see them, as well.

Follow more of Mary’s travels on her blog: Now We Have Time to Travel

LET’S GO TO COSTA RICA! >

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