Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Costa Rica - Caribeans Chocolate Tour

On our last day in Puerto Viejo, I had to choose between spending more time at the ocean or experiencing a chocolate tour. It was a hard choice, but I am sure I made the right one. It was a pretty special experience to visit such a small scale operation, where I could see the process from the flower buds on the cacao trees to the chocolate bars just out of the mold and everything in between!

The tour started with a hike through a cacao forest that is being painstakingly restored after a fungus took its toll on the trees and their crop on this farm and many others across the country.

We learned that cacao tree leaves are "nature's plastic wrap". If you are caught in the rain near a cacao tree, you can grab a leaf and wrap up your valuables to keep them dry! You can scrunch it up and release it and it doesn't break.

This is what raw cacao looks like. I got to eat a bunch of them. The white jelly around the bean is really sweet and fruity.

After the cacao pods are split open, the beans are wrapped up in banana leaves and left in open air bins to ferment.

After the beans have fermented, they are spread out to dry in a greenhouse structure.

At this point in the tour, we took a break for a chocolate tasting at a magnificent overlook on the Caribeans property.

In addition to growing cacao on site and turning it into chocolate, Caribeans also buys beans from local farmers. The economic model they employ is one that values quality and pays a premium for it. Their mission statement involves paying living wages to local farmers who practice sustainable ecological farming practices and deliver high quality product. Amen to that!

One of the ways this company is creating a specialty product is by making single source chocolates. The recipes and process are all the same, yet the resulting chocolate varies greatly depending on whose beans they use. We tasted 4 chocolates that were linked to the farmer and the farm's location. Making chocolate from one farmer's crop allows the grower to taste what they grew. Creating this connection closes the circle (most farmers sell to co-ops and never taste the chocolate made with their beans) and increases pride in the quality of their crop.

After we tasted each chocolate as it was, we played around with flavors, mixing and matching herbs and spices with chocolate. It turns out that dark chocolate and raw garlic taste great together!

For the final leg of the tour, we saw the open-air factory where the beans are roasted, ground, sorted and then turned into chocolate bars. Since they are such a small scale operation, they've created some interesting, low cost ways of grinding and separating the cacao from the shells. It doesn't translate well to photo so you'll just have to trust me that these are some clever folks.

And, of course, we were encouraged to share the love by getting some bars and taking them home. I happily obliged!

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Costa Rica - Puerto Viejo

Puerto Viejo is a small beach town on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. To my eyes it seems to have a really interesting meld of cultures. From ganja smoking rastafarians, to late teens/early twenty year old American and European tourists, from multiple generations of Ticos to yoga-loving expats, this town was small but diverse.

Costa Rica doesn't really do street addresses, rather they describe the location of places, often in relation to other places. For example: 50 meters south of the yellow church.  Or, in the case of the places we stayed at, the address was: the rainforest behind town. Let me tell you how to get there: from the bustling main road full of bikes and cars, you take a right onto a quieter road.

You'll walk past this building made out of plastic crates filled with dirt (ingenious!).

When you see a sloth (SLOTH!) in the tree, follow the road to the left.

If you pass by this pup and her fowl friends, you know you are heading the right way.

Walk through the middle of the grazing cows. They should be on your left and right.

After that, straight ahead you'll see the casa rotunda, surrounded by the rainforest.

Our lodging while we were in Puerto Viejo added so much to the experience for us. We were able to take a private yoga class on the front balcony and they arranged for us to have massages there with locally made coconut oil. We were served a few delicious and nourishing meals made with local ingredients, some of them healing plants grown on the property.

And, when we had time to relax, we could have our pick of hammocks on 2 sides of the building with plenty of birds, insects and monkeys making a rainforest soundtrack for us. Speaking of soundtracks, we awoke each morning as the forest woke up. The howler monkeys made spooky, other worldly sounds while the birds sang beautiful songs (except for that one bird that just yelled). I am so glad we found this thoughtfully created space to call home for a few nights. If you are so lucky to find yourself in this town, you should totally see if Hidden Garden has space for you.

Thanks for the picture, Jessy!
I think we could have happily spent all of our time at the Hidden Garden, but we didn't want to miss out on what the town and beach had to offer. Since we were both recovering from intense burns on our hands and faces, we had to move from shady spot to shady spot with a quickness. Good thing I packed my gigantic straw hat!

In the heat and humidity of a Caribbean coastal town, it is important to stay hydrated. I might have drank this coconut and then immediately bought another. This was one of the reasons I went to Costa Rica. I can't get enough of the agua de pipa!

Jessy took this one, too!
This local pup is no dummy. He dug himself a cool hole in the shade and took a nap in the middle of the hottest part of the day.

I didn't spend nearly enough time by the ocean. We actually considered abandoning our 3rd destination and just staying here. We didn't do it, but it was a close call.
Credit to Jessy for this one, too.

Next up: one more Puerto Viejo post...I went on a chocolate tour at a small, local farm that is doing amazing things for the community.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Costa Rica - Whitewater Rafting on Rio Pacuare

Getting from point A to B in Costa Rica can sometimes be a little intimidating and likely involves lengthy journeys with multiple types of transportation, So, when we found out we could use a whitewater rafting excursion to get from San Jose to Puerto Viejo, Jessy was into it for the adventure and I was into it for the ease of logistics. In all honesty, I was a little worried it was going to be too long and too hard for me, a rafting newbie (we picked the section of the river that has class IV rapids). I was worried for no good reason because this ended up being one of the highlights of my trip. I LOVED this experience! I-told-you-so credit goes to Jessy.

The rafting company handles all of the logistics for you as well as takes photos for you along the river. Sweet deal! Photo credit for all of these pictures goes to the gentleman from Rio Tropicales who rushed ahead of us in a kayak so he could be there waiting for us from a good vantage point when we hit the rapids. I caught on pretty quickly to what he was doing and cheesed it up for this picture:

Only to be smacked in my smiling face with waves a millisecond later (see below). It was all in good fun!

The Pacuare River is stunning. We passed through and by gorges, wide open areas, waterfalls and so much more! One side of the river is protected reservation land so it is totally undeveloped.

Before we set out on the river, we were given a set of instructions that our guide could yell out to us and the appropriate actions to take. "Lean in" and "All in" meant two  different things but as you can see below, you might miss the "lean" part depending on where you were in the boat and just go with "all in" anytime you hear anything that ends with "in."

All in total, we spent about 3.5 hours paddling on this river with just one short swim break in a smooth section of the river. Despite applying sunscreen numerous times, we fair ladies ended up with some pretty serious sunburns in some pretty weird patchy spots. It was totally worth it because in pretty much every picture on the set we got, I am smiling a wide, happy smile and enjoying the physical challenge and a rush from experiencing mother nature's power.

One flaw in the plan to use this trip as our way to get the coast was that we overextended our sun tolerance right before we headed to the beach! It's ok, though, there was still plenty to do and see from the safety of the shade.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Costa Rica Trip - San Jose

Once upon a time, my sister Jessy and I went to Costa Rica!

Our flight left WAYYYYY too early, so by the time we got to San Jose, Jessy was ready to imbibe and then we were both ready to crash. Our digs in San Jose shared a space with a yoga studio so we fell asleep that first night to the sounds of a relaxing yoga class taught in Spanish. Not a bad welcome at all!

We took our host up on her offer to let us join into a yoga class and took a class taught entirely in Spanish. It was surprisingly easy to catch on even though we didn't know most of the words. The tones, our past experience with yoga and a follow-the-leader approach helped us keep right up with the group.

Our home base in San Jose was in the Barrio Amon neighborhood of the downtown area. We shared our space with a few friendly cats who also enjoyed the courtyard.

View from outside the front door

We enjoyed the plethora of fruits and vegetables available at the markets and made some delicious meals in our kitchen.

We spent 2 nights in San Jose, so we had time to see some sights, but mostly we enjoyed walking all around looking at TONS of murals that covered the neighborhood.

Picture taken by Jessy

Stay tuned for more Costa Rica pictures!
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