Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica

Punta Uva Beach

Our time in Puerto Viejo can be summed up like this: beach, rescue animals, and chocolate. In addition to beach time and snorkeling, we visited the Jaguar Rescue Center and spent most of another day exploring how chocolate is made Caribbean style. Puerto Viejo is in southern Costa Rica on the Caribbean just north of the Panama border. The Caribbean side of Costa Rica is somewhat different culturally than the rest of the country. It is definitely more colorful! It has a pretty big Rastafarian and hippie influence. It is a great place to spend a week. The beaches are clean and the water is clear. The food is good and there is a lot to do.

We had the pleasure of visiting the Jaguar Rescue Center. The center is a rescue and rehabilitation place for local animals. It is owned and operated by an Italian couple who have a passion for helping animals and educating people about them. The center started with mostly reptiles. Now it is full of monkeys, sloths, frogs and birds. We learned that it takes two years to rehabilitate a monkey and return it to the wild because the orphaned monkeys need to be accepted into a troop in order to survive and thrive. The sloths, on the other hand, fly solo so they are released as soon as they are physically able to go. The animals are brought here by local residents when they are injured. Many monkey and sloth injuries are from dogs, cars, and power lines. While we had already seen plenty of monkeys and sloths in the wild in Costa Rica on our previous trip, this visit was really special because we learned so much about how proximity to people can hurt these animals and the dedicated efforts by compassionate people to help them.

Our volunteer guide with one of the residents

Monkey parts...many monkeys taking a late morning nap together

A two toed sloth

Some of the many orphaned baby sloths

A few days after our visit to the wildlife center, we decided to explore the world of cacao. Our chocolate tour was the result of a collaborative effort between two NGOs (called Global Creek at Mango Walk) and Caribeans a local small batch coffee roaster and chocolateer. The two NGOs are non-profit operations that study the local jungle with a particular focus on issues related to the cacao trees. They are very interested in sustainability, ecological issues, and social responsibility. Volunteers pick the cocao pods and dry the beans. Caribeans, run by husband and wife Minnesota transplants, makes chocolate from only pure cacao and organic sugar...no other ingredients! I am not sure I have ever eaten chocolate with only two ingredients.

Cacao pods on a tree

Cacao beans drying out after fermentation

The original "chocolate" drink...a drink with subtle chocolate flavor and cayenne

My father-in-law Bob and Steve trying out our spicy drinks

My mother-in-law Bev enjoying the tasting part of the tour with the kids

The inside of a cacao bean. The beans are slimy and sweet before they are fermented and dried. The gooey stuff around the bean tastes like sweet tarts.

The humble kitchen area of Caribeans chocolate making operation

Overall, we walked away a great deal more informed about cocoa and the complexity of making chocolate. The tour was a fantastic, educational, and tasty experience. We heartily recommend this to anyone visiting the area!

Guanacaste, Costa Rica

Lily and Semira in Tamarindo

The Prager family just returned from a two week vacation in Costa Rica. This is our second time there in the last year. We also went last December for two weeks. Obviously, we really loved it... Otherwise, why go back? This time, my wonderful in-laws joined us and we ventured out to different parts of the country. With the exception of a couple of transition days, we spent our time on the coasts - the first week in the Guanacaste area (north Pacific) and the second week on the Caribbean.

We were amazingly fortunate with respect to the weather. This is the "green season" in Costa Rica which means rain (and, potentially, a LOT of rain). Luckily, we experienced most of the rain in the afternoons and evenings. We didn't have many long stretches and no one entire day was completely rained out. The rain is actually really nice because it cools things down and is a nice break from the sun. I gave up sun worshiping long ago and actually enjoy days when the sun disappears for a while.

Since we saw so much, it's useful to write about our travels in parts again. Overall, we really enjoyed the new places we visited. The highlights were definitely swimming everyday and wildlife viewing. We are not really lay on the beach all day types so the diversity of activities in Costa Rica makes it a really fun place to go.

Our first stop was Playa Hermosa, a quiet little beach on the north Pacific. Here we had the chance to swim and snorkel. We met some guy with a boat on the beach who took us out one day. Surprisingly the kids decided to try it. I was not surprised that Semira was up for the adventure. But Lily is a bit more tentative about these type of things. So Steve and I had the pleasure of swimming around with kids clinging onto our backs looking for fish. It was a bit tiring, but fun to see the kids get excited about seeing creatures under the sea.

Steve and Semira in snorkel attire

The snorkeling spot was in a little cove off an island a couple of kilometers from the beach. The water was very clear, and we saw octopus, starfish, a variety of different tropical fish and schools of little fish. One really cool think is the sound. The underwater currents make a very cool clicking sound as you are diving around. Overall, it was a super time.

My father-in-law Bob

After snorkeling, the boat captain took us to another beach that also served as something of a wildlife preserve. There, the beach was soft, clean sand and just off the beach were a few monkeys relaxing in a forest of big mango trees. It was hilarious to look at the ground, it was literally covered in mango pits - needless to say, the monkeys have a good food supply.

A howler monkey...when a troop gets going, they make the coolest sounds that you can hear a mile away

The boat excursion was fun, but it was also fun just to relax and hang out. It did rain a bit, so some relaxation was "mandatory" (so to speak). SO, just what does one do on a rainy afternoon? Well, for one, just sit and listen. Tropical rains are so intense...often with no lightening or thunder, just pounding rains. It is really cool. Of course the kids really didn't mind. All they needed was an umbrella and they were off on an adventure.

After Playa Hermosa, we headed to the southern Caribbean. Driving in Costa Rica is slow going so the thought of a ten hour day in the car was not appealing to anyone. Instead, we stopped halfway in La Fortuna for the night. We stayed in La Fortuna for four days in December so I was mostly interested in relaxing in the hot springs. The rain made it a perfect day for such a thing.

La Fortuna is a really fantastic place to visit. It is at the foot of the beautiful Arenal volcano and hosts an amazing diversity of forests, plant species, and wildlife. Not to mention, there are virtually unlimited recreational opportunities ranging from zip lines to hiking to rafting. That and, of course, some serious fun riding the slides in the hot springs!