Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble

Earlier this week, I caught myself disparaging the Pacific Ocean and its beaches, saying in the same breath how much I preferred the waters and sands of the Caribbean. I had to slap myself silly to get my head back into reality. There’ll be a time I’ll be damn glad to be on a beach, any beach, regardless of its parent. But this week, I’m being choosy. I am singularly unimpressed with the beaches on the Pacific side of Costa Rica. And with the water. Give me the Caribbean side any day.

So, in search of some diversion, we took ourselves off to the Rincón de la Vieja, an active andesitic complex volcano in north-western Costa Rica.  And yes, I had to look up andesitic – a dark, fine-grained, brown or grayish volcanic rock that is intermediate in composition between rhyolite and basalt. Enough! I don’t need the detail. Enough to know it’s a park with a volcano, one of many in the country.

Part of the Pacific Ring Fire Circle, Costa Rica has over 200 identifiable volcanic formations dating back over 65 million years. Today, however, only 100 or so show any signs of volcanic activity, while just five are classified as active volcanoes.

Our attempt to visit Poas came to nowt as the volcano was closed to the public because of recent activity. Our attempt to visit Irazú came to nowt as visibility was nil. Our attempt to visit Arenal was foiled because of bad information – we got there too late. Park closing times and last admission times are different. Beware. So, rather than try again, we decided to play it safe and at least try to see the bits and bobs that go with volcanoes in the   Rincón de la Vieja National Volcano Park (Parque Nacional Volcán Rincón de la Vieja). It’s the largest volcano in the region of Guanacaste, standing more than 6000 ft tall and 9 miles wide. Dating back 600 000 years, it has at least 9 volcanic craters (of which we saw none – but we’d come to expect that).

Laguna fumarolica
Volcanito
Boiling mud pots
Mini-geyser

We hiked the flat 2.5-mile loop through the Las Pailas (the cauldrons) sector and contented ourselves with bubbling mud pools, mini-geysers, and fumaroles. [I had to look that one up, too: an opening in or near a volcano, through which hot sulfurous gases emerge.]

It stank to high heaven in places and was hotter than I imagine Hades to be, and still it was glorious. I can’t begin to describe the noise in this tropical dry forest – the cacophony of sounds from birds, insects, animals. It’s amazing.

The noble butterflies kept us company. Leaping lizards kept us amused. And leaf-cutter ants kept us enthralled. I’m not a great fan of hiking on a balmy day let alone in 30+ degrees with humidity. Even still, I enjoyed it. The trail is easy; doable in runners. It was sweltering in parts, so I shamelessly brought out my umbrella and mentally apologised to all those Asian women I have smirked at in the past.

There are seven hikes in all, each varying in length, intensity, and reward. This one was grand for me. I know full well that if I go downhill, I will need to come back uphill – I prefer to stay on the flat.

Fascinating as the volcanic bits were, it was the trees and their roots that I’d go back for. I can’t ever remember seeing such complicated knots on something living. Mother Nature truly is a remarkable woman.

Las Pailas sector is open daily (except Mondays) from 7am to 3pm. The Santa Maria sector is open 8am to 4pm. Admission is $15 for non-nationals. Don’t forget to sign out when you leave.

 

The legend

Rincón de la Vieja means “Corner of the Old Woman”. An indigenous legend tells about Princess Curubandá, daughter of the Curubandé tribe chieftain, who fell in love with Prince Mixcoac, the son of an enemy tribe chief. Curubandá’s father ended her forbidden lover’s life by throwing him into the live volcano crater. Devastated, Curubandá became a recluse living the rest of her life high on the volcano’s slope. She learned natural medicines from the volcano and developed healing powers. People seeking medicinal cures were told to go to “the corner of the old woman” by the volcano. And thus, the Rincón de la Vieja Volcano received its name.

Moved by art

I bought a piece of art today because it made me cry. Titled Grasses in the Night,  it’s a monotype by Costa Rican artist Lorena Villalobos. In it I see human frailty (the delicate grasses) and our inability to see the danger around us (the darkness). News of the Manchester terrorist attack has hit me hard. Never before, in my lifetime, has the value of human life been so low. When a young man can take the life of an 8-year-old child and believe he is on the side of righteousness, then we are all reduced to blades of grass in the night, grass that can be trampled on by unseen feet, when least expected.

Grasses in the Night – Lorena Villalobos

I came across this piece in the Hidden Garden Art Gallery, the largest of its kind in Costa Rica. Located about 3 miles from the Liberia International Airport on the road to the coast (between Payless Car Rental and the German Bakery), the gallery consists of 15 rooms (about 3500 square feet of wall space) with more than 400 pieces from over 60 national and international artists on display. Most are original pieces but there are some giclée prints, too. While some of the featured artists now live abroad, everything on show was created in country.

As I moved from room to room, I racked up quite a sizeable spend in my head. It was such a pleasant change from the sameness that pervades the tourist offer in Costa Rica and indeed many other countries, what I like to call the MTs (empties) – made for tourists. It’s an amazing space. Some of the rooms have wide open windows looking out on to the gardens. And despite the heat, there’s an airiness that lends itself to a leisurely browse.

Hernan Pérez
Sophie Aymon
Rebeca Alvarado Soto
David Villalobos

I was particularly taken with this wooden carving – Paso al Futuro (Step to the future) and wished I had an unlimited budget and a private plane to fly it, and everything else I’d picked out, home.

I got chatting with the owners, Chicagoans Greg and Charlene Golojuch. The pair had always planned to retire to Costa Rica but when redundancy forced their hand about six years ahead of schedule back in 2008, they took the plunge armed with little more than high-school Spanish and the determination to make good the change. Greg set up shop in a room at what is now their gallery. He was approached by Argentinian-born artist Carlos Hiller with a view to representing him. Hiller’s underwater work is on permanent exhibition in the gallery and the artist himself occasionally paints in public, using his art to create social change.

Hiller then introduced another artist to the Golojuchs, and, as luck would have it, another couple of rooms in the building became available. And then a few more. The recession had hit and businesses were downsizing or folding, freeing up space. Call it luck or happenstance, the Golojuchs recognised the gift of opportunity and took it. Introductions and approaches were made to other artists and now the variety of what’s on show speaks for itself.

I was impressed to see original work by Otto Apuy, the artist responsible for the mosaic church in Cañas. Exhibited both nationally and internationally in museums, Hidden Garden is the first gallery to carry his work permanently. Word has it that Apuy started painting when he was two years old. He’d put a chicken’s foot into a pot of paint and then make imprints on the wall. Some 60 years later, his body of work that embraces multimedia and has been exhibited nationally and internationally has earned him the moniker Renaissance Man.

Susan Adams is another artist I recognised from my time Stateside. Back in 1995, Adams received an unexpected invitation to a private showing of the Monet exhibit at the Chicago Art Institute. She was so inspired that she quit her job and moved to Costa Rica where she’s spent the last 20+ years painting. If more people did rather than simply think about doing, how much happier the world would be.

Perhaps what sets the Hidden Garden apart from other galleries I’ve visited around the world is its lack of pretentiousness. The Golojuchs speak fondly of the artists they show and talk animatedly about their work and the stories behind their creations. There’s no falsity, no self-promotion, no BS. Instead, there’s an aura of sincerity, an air of respect, and a genuine appreciation for the art in their care and the artists who have created it.

The gallery is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10am till 4pm. If you’re in the vicinity, it’s worth stopping by. And if you’re not, it’s worth a detour.

Featured image: Cocina Duty / oil on canvas by Russell Chauncey.

Coming down the mountains…

I have no meas on money. It’s there to facilitate day-to-day living. I don’t aspire to great riches or a six-figure bank account (they’re easy enough to come by in Hungary, given the high denominations of the bank notes). But I loathe waste and while I might spend hundreds of thousands (of forints) on a rug, I balk at spending 700 on a coffee. But the older I get, the wiser I get. I’m finally beginning to realise the value of money.

View from the balcony

The room we’d booked in the Ceiba Tree Lodge was at the top of a flight of stone steps through a lovely jungle garden. But our cases were heavy and it was raining and we were only there one night. They had a lovely room in a separate house down by the car park with a private balcony and just as nice a view of Lake Arenal – for an extra $25. It didn’t take much thought. What good is money if you can’t use it to make life just a tad easier. I’m learning, lads, I’m learning.

I’ve never come to the breakfast table to find a hibiscus on my plate (SJ take note). I’ve never eaten fresh rose bananas, fresh pineapple, fresh mango, and fresh guava (don’t like) – all from the garden – accompanied by fresh eggs from chickens I could hear squawking in the distance. It was a glorious start to a day that would be a wash-out.

We settled up and headed out – destination Coco Beach via Liberia. The lake views were stunning but the day was overcast and the photos don’t do the 85 sq km expanse of water any justice. Although the largest lake in Costa Rica, it looks like a puddle on the map when compared to Lake Nicaragua next door. Still, the houses with the landscaped gardens and high gates that overlook the lake are quite something. It’s another world up there, far removed from the bananas and the pineapples. Another world entirely.

We stopped at the Lucky Bug gallery where I nearly bought a bathroom sink. I was a firm yes if it had weighed in under 5 kg. But it was more than 6. I know I’ll live to regret not tossing some of the coffee but hey… decision made. We travelled through the valleys, once again marvelling at the lush, green land and the idyllic setting. Judging by the plethora of accommodation and cafés bearing Austrian, German, and Swiss names, the area is now home to more than just a few Europeans. Perhaps that’s whom the realtors are targeting. The whole place seems like it’s up for sale.

Finding ourselves on Route 1 (by mistake – neither of us can figure out the damn GPS), we double-backed to Canás to see the Iglesia de Cañas . Artist Otto Apuy is responsible for covering the outside of the church in mosaic tiles. The nearly 30 m tall central tower is covered in more than a million pieces of ceramic tile. Quite something. But unfortunately closed. Even on Sunday.

We very nearly gave in to a primal urge to stop by the rodeo but good sense prevailed. I still don’t have a handle on crime in Costa Rica and the rental SUV has an open boot. I was loath to put temptation in anyone’s way, so we gave it a miss. Call me paranoid but I’d not seen a cop in San José or in Puerto Viejo, and since embarking on our drive back West, we’d run into armed duos on nearly every corner of the smallest of towns.

It being Sunday, we stopped in Liberia to check out the Iglesia La Ermita de la Agonia – a nineteenth-century whitewashed stone church that is the only remaining colonial church to be found in the region. The book said it would open from 2.30 to 3.30 so we had lunch while we waited. And we waited. And we waited in the company of lizards and iguanas. Amazing what runs across your path in the towns and cities of Costa Rica. But the doors remained shut. I’ve checked since then and apparently it’s been opening every day but Sunday from 8 to 4 since 2013.  The Frommer guy must have cheated on that section, as the 2017 book has it at the one hour per day. mmmm…. guide books… do the people who write them really go to all those places?

Liberia is home to the main international airport on the West Coast. And believe me, that’s about it’s only claim to fame. I was unimpressed.

We headed towards the coast, the rain clouds following in our wake. Not quite sure what to expect, what I didn’t plan on seeing was a resort town, complete with bar after bar advertising happy hours that run from 11 am to 7 pm. Thankfully, our hotel is off the main drag so quiet enough (man, have I gotten old). Not so great though is that the rainy season (May to December) has well and truly kicked in. The forecast for the week is rain, rain, and more rain. We’ve simply traded jungle rain for city rain. It remains to be seen what we can find to do to amuse ourselves. 

 

 

 

Fresh and green are the pastures…

I learned a valuable lesson a few years ago from my good friend GM. Cut your losses. If you’ve paid to see a movie that turns out to be complete shite, leave. Write off the money and save your time.

We woke to dark clouds and thunder. It had been a stormy night, knocking out the electricity and playing symphonies on the tin roof of the cabin. We had one more night to spend in Puerto Viejo, all paid for. But why waste a day when we had a mammoth cross-country journey facing us on Sunday. So we packed and left, hitting the road about 7.30am for what Google promised to be a 5 hr 25 min journey over to Lake Arenal. A quick check online and we’d booked a room at the fabulous Ceiba Tree Lodge. All sorted.

We retraced our steps, back on Route 36 to Route 32, hanging a left at Limón. We had to make a pit stop at the cemetery as I’d been intrigued by the tombstones on the way in but hadn’t wanted to stop. I’m now even more intrigued by the whole section reserved for the Chinese dead.

The container parks that lined the road testify to the roaring dockland trade that issues from the city. But it was all a tad depressed looking. As we passed through Banana land, even the direst looking shack had a satellite dish on the room. Outward appearances don’t matter in Costa Rica. It’s what’s inside that counts – and they have their priorities.

We hung a right on Route 4 and headed north into Pineapple country. And things started to pick up. The lawns were manicured. The fields cleared. The houses bigger and brighter. As we passed through valley after valley, a line from the 23rd Psalm came to mind.

Fresh and green are the pastures where he gives me repose.

It is magnificent country. Agriculture abounds. The wealth is in the land. Forget the toucans and the sloths. My new favourite animal is the Brahman cow. They’re the most common type of cattle in Costa Rica as they have sweat glands and can better adapt to the climate than, say, your average Friesian. They’re plain gorgeous. If I could put a couple in my bag to take home, I would. The souvenir lot are missing a trick – there’s a notable absence of soft cuddly Brahman at the souvenir joints.

We were making good time driving through villages like La Virgen (am still amused at how stuff simply doesn’t translate – particularly the signs) and La Union (I was waiting for La Bachelor on the far side but no…) so we headed over to the Arenal National Park only to find that we were too late to get in. It opens from 8 to 4 but as it takes about 2 hours to hike in to and out from the volcano, last admission is around 2pm – but I suspect this is decided by the look of you.  Not that it’s explained anywhere. This was our third time to strike out with a volcano. We  had to content ourselves with a view from afar.

We headed back to La Fortuna, to the fabulous El Nuevo Rancho de Perla restaurant for a steak dinner (I’ve been living on steak since I got here) and a round of the local artisan shops. We passed spa after spa after spa. But who in their right mind would visit a hot springs in 30-degree weather? Although the guide book says that the area around Lake Arenal is the least developed in Costa Rica, it’s by far the poshest and more tourist-oriented place I’ve seen so far. And the guide book is current. The mind boggles.

 

 

2017 Grateful 31

Catch anyone looking treeward in this part of the world and you can almost be certain that they’ve spotted a sloth. And it’s exciting. The fact that they’re metres above you, high in the trees is neither here nor there. That’s what zoom lenses are made for.

They’re quite something. They live in trees and only come down once a week to do their business – and always in the same place (bringing their intelligence into question). They have four stomachs and sleep more than 10 hours a day. All have three toes but some only have two fingers. And the retain their grip even when dead. mmmm… how can you tell a sleeping sloth from a dead one then?

We visited the Jaguar Rescue Center in Puerto Viejo one morning between beach sittings. The name is a tad misleading as jaguars were thin on the ground – but there’s a story.

In 2007 a baby jaguar was given to Encar [a Barcelona native] and Sandro. Her mother had been murdered because local farmers suspected she had killed two goats. The baby jaguar was dehydrated and very sick. Encar and Sandro did everything they could to save it but in the end the endangered baby jaguar died. Encar and Sandro decided to name their animal rescue center in honor of her and the Jaguar Rescue Center was born.

Their goal is to rehabilitate animals and reintroduce them back into their native habitats This isn’t always possible and some of their rescues are now permanent residents. Crocodiles who associate humans with food or ocelots who’ve become too fond of chicken. In operation for nine years, the Centre has quickly become the go-to place when tourists find injured animals on the roads or the police find them in drug raids. Power lines play havoc with the monkeys. Machetes are the weapon of choice against the cats. And the poor sloths don’t do well on the ground. [The intrepid LB spotted one limping on the side of the road. She stopped, bundled him up and brought him back to a tree. He seemed well able to grip so was perhaps only stunned.]

The rehabilitation process is simple at times – take the cats for a walk in the jungle and each day they go farther and farther ahead till the day they don’t come back. Toucans and sloths are easy to rehabilitate as they’re solitary creatures, but parrots need to find a mate before they’ll go back and monkeys need to find a family to hang with. Orphaned monkeys quickly identify with their human carer so to assimilate them back into a group, a volunteer needs to stay with them in their enclosure all day. When they’re first born, they’re fed like a baby with regular 3-hourly feeds during the night.

There’s an interesting volunteer programme that attracts willing help from all over the world. The guides know what they’re talking about and gave plenty of useful information that I never thought I’d need. Like, shiny frogs are poisonous. And when it comes to snakes:

Red on black, you’re alright Jack; red on yellow, kill the fellow.

Not that they’re advocating mass serpenticide – their advice regarding snakes (143 kinds in the country) is to simply stay away.

The 90-minute tour costs $20. The proceeds from the tour go back into the Centre as do all proceeds from sales at the gift shop. This place really lives its ethos. Tours are daily at 9.30 and 11.30. Worth stopping by if you’re in the neighbourhood. Worth checking out if you fancy volunteering for a few weeks.

It’s been a mad week of late nights and early mornings. Costa Rica seems to have its self together when it comes to the environment, looking after animals, and living clean. It’s slogan – Pura Vida – the Tico equivalent of the Swahali hakuna matata. Translated, it means pure life and it’s the law of the land in CR. Bitch that I may about the humidity and the heat, and the mozzies and the ants, I’m grateful that I’m getting to see part of Central America and to experience a way of life that is so laid back it’s still in the middle of last week. It’s no wonder so many foreigners forget to go home. I can certainly see the attraction. Except for the humidity, the heat, the mozzies…

The end of the road

Google maps said it would take 4 hours 25 minutes to travel from San José to Puerto Viejo. They were just a tiny bit out – it actually took 7 hours 46 minutes. But hey. The jackknifed truck wasn’t holding up traffic. Neither were the two trucks and three cars we saw in ditches. But for some unknown reason, about 10km on the SJ side of Guapiles, it took us an hour to travel 2.5 km. Thankfully the food vendors were on the ball. Word had spread of the tailback and they were out with the plantain and pineapple chips, so we didn’t starve. It was teeming rain; the thunder and lightning added to the sound effects. But traffic was moving against us, which ruled out an accident or a mudslide or just about anything else we could think of. We never did see what caused the delay but in the drive to Limon, we rarely, if ever, had the chance to break the speed limit.

Driving into Limón, through the massive banana plantations and the mountains of shipping containers, there’s little doubt as to what Costa Rica’s main export is. But given that the country’s main port offloads and onloads from here, with Route 32 between the product and the end-user, I’d not be a trucker in Costa Rica for all the chocolate-covered coffee beans the country could produce. Driving that road on a regular basis would play havoc with my sanity.

We hung a right onto Route 36 just before Limón, heading to the coast, down past Puerto Viejo. We were heading for Punta Chiquita, one of several beaches that dot the coast on the Caribbean side of the country. Puerto Viejo was hopping as we drove through. Lots of tan-limbed twenty-somethings on vacation. Plenty of bars and cafés and restaurants and shops selling just about anything anyone might need for a beach holiday.

As we left the lights behind us and drove up the coast, the vibe muted somewhat and the laid-back Costa Rica emerged. This side of the country is predominately English-speaking, many of the locals originating from islanders who came years back to work the plantations. We’re staying in a cabin in the rain-forest – one of six that make up the Mar y Luz hotel. It’s never silent. The orchestra of sounds plays 24/7 with birds, howler monkeys, cicadas, and lots more in concert. It’s hot and humid. Nothing dries. The ants and the mosquitoes are delighting in fresh blood. But it’s all rather amazing. The plants, the shrubs, the trek through the jungle to get to the beach… all quite something. There was the mother of all storms last night – the tin roof and open walls really accentuated the whole effect. From the safety of my mosquito net, I got to see and hear it all.

On the drive to the end of the road at Punta Manzanillo, the southern-most tip of the Costa Rican coastline (next door is Panama), it was easy to see how development is slowly creeping in. By all accounts, the Caribbean side isn’t nearly as developed as the Pacific side, tourism-wise, so it will interesting to compare. There is a lot of land for sale – plenty of sites, one in particular that I’d rather like. Just 2.5 acres with beachfront. Am not sure I’d cope with the humidity though – did I mention that nothing dries? I’m up at 5.30 every morning to catch some cool. The heat starts to roll in about 7 and by 8 I’m dying. The rains come promptly at 5. One day I’ll live by the sea, but, unlike the multitude of foreigners who call this part of the country home, I doubt it’ll be this side of Costa Rica, no matter how much I enjoy looking for sloths. [A young Italian aeronautical engineer runs the local pizza shack; a Spanish lady runs the wildlife refuge; half the wait staff are North American.]

A dead Irishman

I just found a dead Irishman from Limerick, I said, quite pleased with myself. Well, he said, there are a few of us alive here, too. Conall French and his mum Aisling (from Bray, Co. Wicklow) own an art gallery in Costa Rica. Gallería Namu runs along Fair Trade principles rather than by consignment. Artists are paid up front for their work, which is then sold on to discerning tourists and collectors. Their mask collection is quite something. And if you’re simply interested in knowing more about the artwork of the various indigenous tribes, then this is the place to visit.

I’d stopped in on my way back from a visit to the Foreigners’ Cemetery where those unfit for burial in the nearby Catholic cemetery (i.e., foreigners) are housed. Located at the corner of Avenida 10 and Calle 20 , Cementario de Extranjeros is now home to the remains of people from Germany, Norway, Wales, Ireland, England, Scotland, the USA, Peru, Panama …. and many more. It’s quite fascinating. The closest I could find to Hungary was Salzburg. But it was hotter than Hades and the ants were feeding on me so I was quickly losing the will to search.

Up a block on the other side of the street is the Cementerio General de San José. There are over 5200 vaults on the hectare of land including the graves of 22 former presidents.  The statuary is quite spectacular – among the best of any I’ve seen. So much so that it’s knocked Zagreb off its No. 1 Cemetery pedestal – in my rankings at least.

I had thought I was visiting Cementerio de Obreros de la ciudad de San José, but it was actually the cemetery next door – the workers’ cemetery, far more utilitarian in its statuary. The box-shape crypts are quite different to anything else I’ve seen in the various cemeteries I’ve visited. And I’ve been to a few.

Socked in and ghosted

Every year, millions of people make the 22 km walk, known as the romería, from the capital of San José to the basilica in Cartago. They do this in honour of La Negrita. This tiny black stone statue of the Virgin of the Angels, depicts Costa Rica’s patron saint. For many who make the pilgrimage, it’s a story of coming home.  Instead of walking the 22 km, I did the approach to the altar on my knees, following in the wake of others before me.

According to Catholic Church documents and popular lore, the icon of La Negrita, a 20-centimeter dark colored stone statue of mother and child representing the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus, appeared to a woman of African descent – a parda/a or free black person – in 1635.  The woman decided to go to the local Catholic priest, and the icon was placed in the church, but it kept reappearing to the woman in its original place. After the icon appeared to the woman three times in this way, the priest commissioned a church to be built for the icon on the spot where she was found. The Catholic Bishop later, in about 1637, established La Confradia, a lay organization of free Blacks charged with maintaining and venerating the icon.

For over 200 years, the Catholic Church felt that the devotion to this icon was something “only blacks were interested in.” There were highly ritualized African-based celebrations around the veneration of La Negrita.  During their fight for Independence from Spain, the Church and colonial politicians took La Negrita out of the hands of the Blacks who had maintained and worshipped her and re-named her La Virgin de Los Angeles; the symbol of the hard-working Costa Ricans or Ticos in the face of colonial Spain. Independence was won in 1821 and slavery ended in 1824.

In 1950, the shrine was looted and the security guard killed. This made the news in the New York Times. Since then, things have been calm. The new church, opened in 1924, replaces the old one, which was destroyed three times in earthquakes.

According to a popular legend, there were two brothers who lived in colonial Cartago city. One of them was a single, nice and loved person, and the other a priest. A rivalry arose between them as both fell in love with the same woman, who chose and married the lazy brother. The priest was infuriated, and did everything he could to destroy his brother. Then, in 1577 during the New Year’s mass, he saw his brother in the church and killed him with a knife. In penance for his mortal sin he built a church for the city, but one year afterwards an earthquake destroyed it. Each time it was rebuilt, another new earthquake destroyed it, until 1910 when it was canceled and thought to be a cursed site. It is also said that in foggy nights, it is possible to see the priest, headless, inside the ruins, wandering for eternity as his penance for desecrating a holy site.

Buses come from San José every 3-5 minutes, so the town is well-served. Public transport around the city works well. The traffic is a bit of a nightmare, but the buses are there. Cartago is a stop off point for the Irazú volcano (expect to pay about $40 for a taxi to take you up and back plus $15 admission fee). We took the chance but when we got to the edge of the park, the attendant told us it was socked in. We’d see nothing. Our second attempt to see a volcano up close and personal has failed.

But we did get a tour of the countryside and lots of information from our driver, Davíd. The mountains were suspended in mist as the farmers worked the fields with horses and ploughs, barely able to see a foot in front. The soil is rich and dark and the crops are plenty. The people seem happy, something borne out by their ranking in the Happy Planet Index. In 2016, it was voted happiest country in the world. And Cartago seemed more laid back than San José – the watchfulness was missing – that sense of people waiting for something bad to happen had gone.

Perhaps to compensate us for our disappointment in not seeing the volcano, Davíd took us to see the old hospital, a mecca of faded colours and former glory. El Sanatorio Durán is said to be one of the most haunted places in Costa Rica.

Built in 1915 by Dr. Carlos Duran, the Sanatorium’s location was deemed to be ideal for those suffering from consumption. It operated as a hospital for tuberculosis patients for many years, as well as an asylum for the mentally ill. After 1963, the Sanatorium ceased to be operational, since tuberculosis was no longer an issue and the mentally ill could be treated in bigger, more humane hospitals. For awhile, the place operated as an orphanage, and then later it was turned into both a maximum and a minimum-security prison. The Duran Sanatorium shut down permanently in 1973 when it retained serious structural damage from an eruption of the nearby Irazú volcano.

It’s said to have three ghosts: a nun, an old woman, and a child. As we took refuge from the teeming rain and thunder, wandering through the old rooms, we heard a child laughing but never found her. The ghost thing did pop briefly to mind but it wasn’t until we were telling Steve, our friendly receptionist at Hotel Don Carlos, we’d been to see it that he told us it was haunted. I’m glad I didn’t know that when I was there. Am way to susceptible to flights of fancy.

Coffee for special occasions

Forget your French roast, or your Italian espresso, or your Breakfast blend. Forget your Arabica or your Robusta. When it comes to classifying coffee, Costa Ricans have made it easy – everyday, weekend, and special occasions. And if everyday is a special occasion, you’re in luck.

Coffee accounts for just 2.9% of Costa Rican exports. Back in the day, it was as high as 90%. [Trivia question: Top export from CR? Medical instruments. Followed by bananas and tropical fruit. It even exports tulips to Holland.]

We bought some coffee at the market on Sunday and were assured, as was to be expected, that it was the best in Costa Rica. This was before we knew as much as we know now.

Part of our day trip to La Paz to see the falls and the toucans, was breakfast at and a tour of the Doka Coffee Plantation in Alajuela. Marco, our guide, gave us a quick rundown of the history of coffee in the country. It arrived around 1820 and initially, the government sought to compete regarding production with Colombia (75 times the size of Costa Rica) and Brazil (100 times the size of Colombia). This was obviously a non-runner so instead of quantity, they now concentrate on quality – and exclusively Arabica.

The Vargas family have been growing coffee since 1931 – three generations – hence their brand name: Café Tres Generaciones. Of their annual production, 60% of their green beans go to Starbucks to be roasted and blended and whatevered. The rest, they roast themselves. Starbucks has its own plantation in the vicinity  – Hacienda Alsacia – where it is experimenting with bean varieties in an effort to stop the coffee Apocalypse.

The origins of coffee are well known – the Ethiopian goatherder whose goats got a little jumpy after eating a red cherry from a plant. The same goatherder then burned the plant, inadvertently roasting the bean, and ending up smelling the coffee. The rest is history.

Coffee plants are grown from seed on the Doka estate and take four years before they produce berries.
Each coffee plant will produce for 25 years or so. At Doka, they keep their plants for just 16 to ensure good quality beans.
The harvest season runs from November to February when 500 workers come to the farm to pick the red cherries only from the plants. They get $2 for each 10kg basket they turn in – the good ones can pick 20 baskets or so a day. And from each 10kg picked, only about 2kg will end up being used.
The berries then go through a second selection process in water, where the good ones, the ones with beans, sink to the bottom and the empty ones float. The sinkers are further graded into A, B, and C – with A&B sold on as green beans or roasted on the farm.
The beans need to be dried out for 9-11 days after their 36 hours of fermentation. Costa Rica gets a lot of rain so if it doesn’t stay away, they can be dried inside in just 2 days.
Beans are stored in 50kg bags for up to 2 years. They’re dried again for a couple of days before being roasted. The difference in texture of the grades was like sackcloth (C) and 1000-thread silk sheets (A).
Some of the cherries only have one bean, not two. These are the peaberries. They’re handpicked and make up about 5% of the total production.
When it comes to roasting, white beans (parchment), green beans, and peaberries go into the oven and roasted for 15 minutes for light, 17 for medium, and 20 for dark.

I’ve been mistakenly thinking that dark roasts (Italian espresso comes to mind) are best to wake me up while light roasts are better later in the evening so as not to keep me awake. But caffeine is liquid and the more time the bean spends in the oven, the less caffeine it holds. So I’ve been getting it ass backwards. There’s nowt wrong with my dark Italian roast in the evening and it’s the light ones I need for the morning.

And something else I learned. Coffea is a genus of flowering plants whose seeds are called coffee beans. Okay. I knew that. But it’s a member of the family Rubiaceae,  which also includes citrus trees. So the flowers, when the plants are in bloom, will smell like jasmine or orange or lemon. Something new to add to my list of things to do before I die – smell the coffee blossoms. [Note to self: Try planting a coffee bean and see what happens.]

Tours come in various packages and while there are no prices on the Doka site, other sites list package prices from €50. The breakfast was great and being able to sample all eight coffees from light to dark was an experience. Mind you, the condensed milk killed the flavour but I couldn’t bring myself to have it black. All their blends are classed as weekend coffee. Am all set now for the slow wake-up when I get back.

On our way to La Paz, we stopped off to buy some Montey Copey specialty coffee from the much-touted Dota Tarrazú region of Costa Rica. It is one of the top-three world coffee-producing regions, up there with Kona (Hawaii) and Blue Mountain (Jamaica). [A piece of trivia: In 2012, Tarrazú Geisha coffee became the most expensive coffee sold by Starbucks in 48 of its US stores.] But like other successful regions, it has its issues with people cashing in on the quality:

A lot of the Tarrazú coffee being sold around the world is either a knock off or ‘hopeful-by-proximity’.

Hopefully, I got the real thing. Roll on those special occasions.

Of birds and butterflies

I can see it now. The hummingbird at a bird convention denying all claims that it dies each autumn and comes back to life each spring. Or that it travels across oceans and seas by hitching a ride on the back of a goose. This little bird certainly attracts its fair share of myths and legends. To be so close that I could feel the air move as it hovered – that was special.  I didn’t know that all 341 species of hummingbird live in the Western Hemisphere. Or that they can eat twice their body weight – every day. And there’s more:

At La Paz yesterday, I checked out the birds, the butterflies, the frogs, the orchids, and the cats but left the snakes alone. We’d already see some butterflies at the national museum but they’re so lovely to look at, I happily went again. The Blue morpho is particularly attractive. It looks brown until it opens its wings and then you get a glimpse of the stunning blue.

I had my heart set on seeing a toucan up close and personal and was not disappointed. They’re quite the bird and a stellar example of how nature has given us an ability to cope with the heat. Most noticeable for their bill, the largest of any bird in the world when compared to their size, this bill is actually a heat regulator. When the toucan gets hot, arteries in its bill expands and release heat. How great would it be if every time I opened my mouth in the summer and stuck out my tongue, I could cool down!