As scenic drives go, the road to the Orosi Valley in Costa Rica is hard to beat. You travel through mountains and past coffee plantations. You see actual pine trees. Then you reach the Orosi Mirador with epic views down the lush valley including the town of Orosi and the wiggly Reventazon Riverand Tapatini National Park beyond.
The mirador (or viewpoint) is a great place for picnics or just an excuse to stretch your legs. There are lawns and covered picnic tables complete with sinks and grills. The main draw however, that view, was not to be. The day we stopped at the mirador light drizzle and clouds obscured the valley below.
The Reventazon River, Tapatini National Park and the town of Orosi as seen from the Orosi Mirador in Costa Rica.
A proud ag town
The town of Orosi can’t be more than a dozen square blocks, but almost all of it is clean and tidy in that kind of way that so many proud agricultural towns are. In Orosi stay at Hotel Reventazon where US$30 got us a very basic multi-bed room with a bathroom, parking and WiFi. Honestly, the nearby Montaña Linda was a better option but they didn’t have WiFi and, you know, this travel blog doesn’t create itself.
An unexpected pleasant surprise in Orosi was Cafe Panaderia Suiza. Run by a Swiss woman named Francisca, this petite cafe sold great bread and great coffee made with beans from the area (much more about that in a minute).
Francisca also sold Hexagua which is a strong, clear sugarcane hooch. There was a witch on the label. We weren’t brave enough to try it.
Orosi’s historic church
Costa Rica isn’t exactly bursting with sites of cultural or religious significance but sleepy Orosi is home to one of them. The town’s church, Iglesia de San José de Orosi, is one of the few Colonial structures that has never been destroyed by earthquakes. Built in 1743, it is now the oldest religious structure that’s still in use in Costa Rica and a National Monument as well.
A small religious art museum next to the historic church is home to a small but compelling collection, much of it from Guatemala. When we were in Orosi a big, modern church was being built next door since the historic church was too small to accommodate the whole congregation.
Built in 1743, the Iglesia de San José de Orosi in Orosi, Costa Rica is the oldest church in the country that’s still in use.
That’s a lot of coffee
The highlight of our time in the Orosi Valley was meeting Ricardo Falla, owner of Chucaras Hotsprings Estates which produces some of that great local coffee we teased you with earlier.
Ricardo Falla, owner of Chucaras Hotsprings Estates coffee plantations and beneficio in Orosi, Costa Rica.
Ricardo owns nine coffee plantations including 4 million coffee trees, all at an elevation of 3,450 feet (1,050 meters) or higher which means most of his beans qualify as higher quality high-altitude coffee.
High-altitude coffee ripening in the lush Orosi Valley in Costa Rica.
The operation, which the Falla family started back in 1900, now employs 500 people and runs on what Ricardo calls “sustainable” (not organic) principles.
For example, his coffee bean processing facility (called a beneficio in Spanish) reduces energy use because it’s built on a hillside to harness the power of gravity.
The Chucaras Hotsprings Estate coffee beneficio uses less energy during the processing of the coffee beans because it’s built on a hill and uses the power of gravity to keep the beans moving through the various stages.
Traditional coffee bean processing uses an outrageous amount of water but Ricardo has implemented water saving measures at his beneficio as well.
Ripe coffee beans, called cherries, being delivered to the Chucaras Hotsprings Estate beneficio in Costa Rica’s Orosi Valley.
Ripe coffee beans, called cherries, being delivered to the Chucaras Hotsprings Estate beneficio in Costa Rica’s Orosi Valley.
Ripe coffee beans, called cherries, begin their journey to your coffee mug at the Chucaras Hotsprings Estate beneficio in Costa Rica’s Orosi Valley.
De-pulped coffee beans continue the process of going from plantation to percolator at the Chucaras Hotsprings Estate beneficio in Costa Rica’s Orosi Valley.
Storage of dried processed coffee beans at the Chucaras Hotsprings Estate beneficio in Costa Rica’s Orosi Valley.
Burlap sacks like this one are filled with finished coffee beans at the Chucaras Hotsprings Estate beneficio in Costa Rica’s Orosi Valley.
Sleep with George Clooney
Ricardo wowed us even more when he invited us for lunch at his latest project. Last year Ricardo turned a 100-year-old wooden house into a five-room rental. It’s very Martha Stewart but with views of volcanoes through the windows.
This 100 year old home on the Chucaras Hotsprings Estates property is now a fully renovated and super stylish vacation home that sleeps 10, has views of volcanoes and a hot springs fed pool. No wonder George Clooney stayed here.
George Clooney has slept here and you can too–maybe even in the same bed. The nightly rate for the whole house, which sleeps up to 10 people, is US$800 including breakfast which, of course, is served with great coffee (firstname.lastname@example.org, +506 8817 5703).
A welcoming porch at the 100 year old renovated vacation home at Chucaras Hotsprings Estates in Costa Rica.
House guests also get one more awesome amenity: a hot spring fed pool with valley and volcano views as you soak.
Looking down the Orosi Valley in Costa Rica toward the Cartago Valley and the active Irazu Volcano in the distance behind the clouds.
Welcome to Part 2 in our Best Of the Trans-Americas Journey 2012 series of posts. Part 2 is all about the Best Food & Beverages from the past year on the road from a gourmet surprise on a volcanic island in Nicaragua to the best chifrijo in Costa Rica. Part 1 covers the Best Adventures & Activities of 2012 and Part 3 covers the Best Hotels of the year.
Yes, end of year round-ups can be lame. On the other hand, they can also be a valuable chance for us to look back on the year that was and remember just how damn lucky we are. Done right, an end of year round-up can also be a quick and easy way for you to get the best tips, tricks and truths that made our Trans-Americas Journey travels so special in 2012. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll hit the road yourself in 2013 (or 2014, no pressure).
We’ve also eaten nearly all of our meals in restaurants of one description or another from street food stalls to bustling markets to multi-star restaurants. In no particular order, here are our picks for…
The best food & beverages of 2012
Best iced coffee: The talented baristas at theCafé Las Flores coffee shops around Managua, Nicaragua turn the organic coffee grown and roasted by Café Las Flores into rich, satisfying coffee drinks of all descriptions including hard-to-find properly made iced coffee (US$2). No hot coffee watered down with ice cubes here!
Best pizza in Nicaragua: The kitchen at Al Cielo Hotel & Restaurant is run by Xavier, a young French chef-slash-surfer who ditched the bustle of Paris in favor of the views and vibe at the ridge top place he helped create minutes from super surf in the town ofAposentillo on the northern coast of Nicaragua. Before he left Paris, a mentor gave him his pizza dough recipe as a going away present. Xavier has perfected it to suit the water and the oven in his new kitchen and, among other tasty dishes, he now offers authentic gourmet pizzas for 180 cordobas (US$7.50).
Best cinnamon roll: They bake a lot of things at La Casa de Don Colacho in Jinotega, Nicaragua but stay focused on the cinnamon rolls which have the sticky sweetness to rich pastry ratio dialed in.
Best casual gourmet surprise:Café Campestre in the village of Balgue on Ometepe Island in the middle of Lake Nicaragua is owned by chef Ben Slow. He turns local, organic ingredients (much grown on his own nearby permaculture farm) into delights including homemade tagliatelle (seen drying, below), chicken curry, real chilli, humus (made with locally sourced jackfruit seeds instead of imported chickpeas—you’ll never know the difference) and much more all for less than many of the run-of-the-mill eateries on the island. His lovely and well-trained local staff and rustic/chic décor are also welcome surprises. Find out more about traveling to Ometepe Island in this feature we did for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
Best ice cream: It’s best to think of the frozen treat that’s been sold at La Sorbetera de Lolo Mora in San José’s 130 year old Central Market for more than 100 years as frozen egg nog with all the nutmeg, cinnamon, clove and rich, custardy goodness that entails. It’s even the same color as egg nog. Locals like it even more with cubes of red Jell-O in it. We liked it so much (sans Jell-O) that we made it one of our 17 Reasons Not to Blow Off the Capital.
Best chifrijo in Costa Rica: Pull into a road side stand just a few miles after you exit the new pay highway from San Jose onto the Costanera highway on Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast near Playa Jaco and get ready for the best example of Costa Rica’s national dish that we had during our 5+ months in the country. The chifrijo here (shown below), made with white rice and whole red beans topped with chopped tender pork then crumbled with chopped chicharon (fried pork skin) then doused with pico de gallo and a squeeze of lime juice, is sublime.
Best restaurant name: Claro Que Seafood Grill, the formal restaurant for the iconic Si Como No hotel near Manuel Antonio National Park in Costa Rica, wins this one hands down with its clever play on the common Spanish phrase claro que si (which means “clearly” or “of course”).
Best French fries:9 Degrees Restaurant & Lounge in Bocas Town on Isla Colon in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago of northern Panama serves up thick cut, freshly made fries dusted in chunky salt and served on a chic waterfront outdoor deck.
Best chocolate:Sibu Chocolate near San Jose, Costa Rica is heaven for chocolate lovers and lovers of the environment. Innovative owners Julio Fernandez Amon and George Soriano not only produce top drawer organic hand-made chocolates they do it with local ingredients from small-scale farmers, they offset their carbon emissions and their elegant packaging is made from recycled materials. Find out more about Costa Rica’s organic chocolate pioneer in this piece we did for TheLatinKitchen.com.
We loved every minute of our tour of the certified organic coffee plantation at Finca Rosa Blanca Coffee Plantation & Inn in Costa Rica, but the best part came when the tour was over. That’s when we cornered our guide, Leonardo Vergnani, and picked his brain about how to buy coffee to ensure that you’re getting the best quality. After more than 25 years in the coffee business, Leo had a thing or two to say. We also tapped into Andy Newbom. He has recently shifted his focus to craft beer, opening Brew Revolution on El Tunco Beach in El Salvador. But before that he owned Barefoot Coffee in California and spent years traveling in Central America sourcing the best beans. Based on their expert knowledge, here are the top 10 tips for buying quality coffee.
Leo, the awesome coffee tour guide at the Finca Rosa Blanca organic coffee plantation in Costa Rica.
1. Read the label
“Nowadays, choosing a good coffee is not an easy task,” Leo admits. But there are a lot of clues right there on the label that will help you sift through what’s on the shelves. Look for:
• 100% Arabica coffee and nothing else.
• High altitude or mountain grown, ideally above 3,000 feet (900 meters). These are coffees known as HB (Hard Bean) or SHB ( Strictly Hard Bean) and they’re most likely to remain whole during the roasting process to ensure a homogeneous and even roast. By their nature they hold better quality and quantity of natural sugars and have greater density for better roasting results. It all boils down to better flavor, color and aroma.
• Originating from a country known for quality coffee, but it has to be specific. “If the bag only says something like ‘Central American’ or ‘Colombian’ and nothing about the farm or region, put it down and walk away,” says Andy. “That’s like saying a wine is from ‘Europe’.”
• An expiration date.”If the bag does not have a ‘roasted on’ date within the past two weeks, don’t buy it,” says Andy.
The red coffee beans (called cherries) are nearly ripe.
2. Packaging matters
It doesn’t have to look pretty, but the composition of the bag your coffee comes in is important. Leo recommends laminated packaging made up of an oxo-biodegradable plastic inner layer and a paper outer layer. This type of packaging is nicer to the environment and better than a simple paper bag when it comes to ensuring freshness. The other main types of packaging–plastic and aluminum–are impossible to recycle. Avoid vacuum packed coffee altogether. The process of vacuum packing actually removes some of the essence of the beans.
3. Buy whole beans
Ground coffee provides a greater surface area that could be impacted by the three enemies of freshness (see tip #8). Also, it takes a higher density, higher quality bean to remain whole during the roasting process. Lower quality coffee beans grown in lower elevations often break and split during roasting.
Coffee from Finca El Carmen in El Salvador ready for export.
4. All that glitters isn’t good
Coffee beans naturally release essential oils and natural sugars during roasting. As they flow toward the surface of the bean they create a shiny coating (the shinier the beans, the darker the roast). That sheen can be a sign of quality and freshness because old, stale coffee would look dull. However, sometimes coffee beans are over roasted (not a good thing) to make them shine. Over roasted coffee will shine but it will also taste burned, bitter and sour. A medium roasted high quality coffee will probably not shine much but the essential oils and natural sugar content are there in the core of the bean which is where it counts in the cup.
4. Don’t stock up
For freshness’ sake, Leo recommends buying enough coffee to last a week. “If we buy less coffee more often in proper packaging (see tip #2) from a reputable source we will always enjoy a better cup of coffee,” he says.
This is the entire small-batch roasting operation at Finca Rosa Blanca organic coffee.
5. Look for freshness valves
Those little plastic air valves in some coffee bags are important. They preserve the quality of coffee because they allow excess gases built up during the roasting process to exit the package. Once the internal pressure of the package is equal to external pressure some gas remains in the package where it helps keep the coffee fresh. That’s why they’re called “freshness valves.”
6. Don’t trust your sniffer
One drawback of the freshness valve is the temptation to judge a coffee by the way it smells when you squeeze the bag and gasses come out of the valve. “Judging a coffee from its smell is only part of the experience,” says Leo. “It’s the combination of fragrance and flavor that determine quality. You can cover the smell of a pig by spraying perfume on it, but that’s certainly a waste of perfume.”
7. Expensive isn’t always better
However, Andy believes that any coffee under US$8 a pound will not be good quality.
Coffee beans must be turned frequently to ensure even drying.
8. Foil coffee’s three worst freshness enemies
“Humidity, exposure to air and sunlight are the worst enemies of coffee,” says Leo. Foil them by storing your coffee in its original packaging (you followed the advice in tip #5, right?) and seal it as tightly as possible. Once the package has been opened try to use the coffee as soon as possible (not a problem with Karen around). Never store your coffee in a clear glass container since that lets sunlight in.
Storing coffee in the freezer is a good idea if it takes you more than a week to get through your coffee because lower temperatures slow down the molecular activity of coffee and the quality is better preserved. Coffee will not freeze into a block because it holds no moisture. Warning: some people believe that the viscosity of the essential oils in coffee are affected by low temperatures and they say that when coffee beans from the freezer are ground the oils are more likely to adhere or stick to the blades or burrs of your grinder and not stay in the coffee.
9. Learn to spot the tricks
A common trick to make low-grade coffee look high-grade is to add sugar to the beans during roasting to produce a glossy, dark color. To see if your coffee was roasted with sugar put a teaspoon of ground beans into a glass of cold water. If the water quickly turns golden brown, your coffee was roasted with sugar.
The coffee on the right was roasted with sugar to fake good color and aroma. The coffee on the left was not.
10. Invest in the right tools
Andy recommends using a French press. “It’s nearly fool-proof, makes killer coffee and lets all the flavor shine through,” he says (we actually travel with an insulated, non-glass French press and we love it). Andy also recommends spending “at least $125” on a good grinder.
“Making coffee is actually simply extracting the soluble compounds from the beans evenly,” Andy says. To do that, you need to slice the coffee beans, not grind them into powder. That job is best left to something called a “burr grinder” which uses two or more plates to slowly slice (not chop or grind) the beans into finer and finer pieces that are as even as possible.
Still skeptical that a $125 (and up) burr grinder is really that much better than your $14.95 traditional grinder? Andy suggests you visit a reputable coffee bar and buy a top shelf coffee. Ask the staff to grind half the bag in their expensive burr grinder then grind the other half in your chopper cheapo grinder at home the same day. Now make separate batches of coffee from the two different grinds using the same brewing methods and amounts. He promises you will taste the difference.
Coffee drying on what are called patios. These happen to have a volcano view which, we’re sure, makes the coffee taste better.
To learn more about how coffee is grown and processed, check out our visits to other coffee fincas and beneficios in Mexico and El Salvador.
It’s not your fault if you’ve never heard of Costa Rica’s Central Valley. This huge and diverse area, which includes the capital, San Jose, is way down on the totem pole of tourism in Costa Rica where beaches, volcanoes and jungles hog up all the space at the top. Luckily, we leave no valley untrampled, especially when it promises topiary, the craziest group bullfighting we’ve ever seen, coffee and giant, festive ox carts.
Handy with the hedge clippers in Zarcero
There are really only two reasons to make a stop in the town of Zarcero. Cheese–some fine examples are made in this area at about 5,600 feet (1,700 meters) in the foothills above the Central Valley–and topiary. Yes, topiary.
Forty years of trimming has turned the park in front of the chruch in Zarcero, Costa Rica into an ode to topiary.
For more than 40 years Zarcero’s Francisco Alvarado Park in front of the church in the center of town has been bursting with greenery that’s been pruned and plucked into dinosaurs, elegant arches leading to the church, even a traditional Costa Rican ox cart (more on that below). We heard tell of a shrub that looks like a monkey riding a motorcycle, but we never saw it. Shame.
Shrub monkeys (we think) deftly trimmed into the greenery in Zarcero, Costa Rica.
Creator and master of the hedge clippers Evangelista Blanco Brenes says it takes him about a month to tidy everything up. Then it’s time to start again. Maybe that’s why this unusual garden is also home to inspirational sayings including “Persevere and you will succeed.”
Dinosaur shrubbery in one of the wackiest parks in Costa Rica.
Bullfighting as a team sport in Palmares
The annual Festival Patronales in Palmares, less than 30 miles (50 kilometers) from San Jose, is one of the biggest celebrations in the Costa Rica. Basically, it’s a big county fair that goes on for two weeks every January. There are rides (mainly for kids), food stalls (mainly mediocre), live music and bars. On weekends the festival is packed and lines are long. We visited on a weekday, however, and never had to wait for anything–not even the bullfights.
County-fair-like fun at the annual festival in Palmares, Costa Rica–one of the biggest in the country.
Before you speed dial PETA let us explain that Spanish-style bullfighting in which a bull is stabbed and usually killed at the end has been banned in Costa Rica for years. In its place Costa Ricans indulge in something that’s a bit like playing pin the tail on the donkey, only with a live (and sometimes less than enthusiastic) bull instead of a paper donkey.
Bullfighting, Costa Rican style.
First, a smallish bull is released into the ring where people–mostly men, but some women get in on the action too–are waiting. Many of them are drunk. Some of them have costumes on. During the Palmares festival a man dressed as Robin (Batman’s sidekick) was a regular feature of the bullfights which are often televised.
It’s all fun and games until your drunk uncle gets gored.
These people proceed to mock and taunt the bull in a mostly futile effort to get its dander up. The bull may make a few half-hearted charges or even some full-hearted charges. Injuries are not unknown and some people have died but more often than not Costa Rican bullfighting is about laughing at your friends and neighbors as they gather up the courage to pull a bemused bull’s tail then run away at top speed.
This is what happens when you let anyone and everyone into the ring with a bull.
Periodically, the plebs are cleared from the ring and an actual cowboy rides a bull. It’s pretty much US rodeo style though the bulls tend to be a bit smaller and so do the cowboys.
Bullfighting events in Costa Rica start off with some fairly routine bull riding.
At the end of this spectacle the bull is roped by cowboys on horseback and gently lead out of the ring, probably no worse for wear at least physically.
Think you’ve got what it takes to get into the ring for some Costa Rican bullfighting? Best watch our video first.
Once the bullfighting–really more like bullannoying–was over it was time to bring on the dancing horses. Costa Ricans love fancy-footed horses and riders at the Palmares festival competed for top honors by performing a complex routine around the ring which included prancing in place on a wooden platform.
Fancy stepping trotodores during the annual festival in Palmares, Costa Rica.
The horses were gorgeous, the riders were skilled but it was very hard to understand what the point of these trotadores was. It just looked like pretty tricks to us and because we didn’t understand the judging criteria it got boring more quickly than we’d anticipated.
The footwork of these highly trained horses was beautiful but we failed to see the point.
During the Palmares festival we stayed at Casa Marta hotel. More like a modern home crafted from rich wood than a hotel, Casa Mata was created by its owner William Rodriguez, a surfer and self-taught architect. The hotel, named after William’s mother Martha, has a parking area, WiFi, a small pool, delicious breakfast and it’s located right next to the festival grounds which meant we didn’t have to deal with traffic or parking.
Costa Rican coffee tour in Santa Barbara
The first time we visited Costa Rica, more than 10 years ago, we fell in love with a local coffee called Cafe Britt.The packaging was simple, the coffee was delicious (we remember just two types to choose from) and the price tag was low. We continued ordering it and having it shipped to us after we returned home to New York City.
Now Brit is the biggest coffee company in Costa Rica with a mind-boggling array of different roasts and bean types to choose from. The labels got fancy. The prices got higher. The product line expanded to include coffee mugs and dried fruit and tee shirts (much of it controversially made in China, not in Costa Rica). The romance was over.
But Brit did help bring Costa Rican coffee to the world and helped pave the way for many smaller coffee growers and roasters. One of them is Finca Rosa Blanca near the town of Santa Barbara in the foothills above San Jose.
Organic coffee drying in the sun on specially constructed super efficient beds at Finca Rosa Blanca Coffee Plantation in Costa Rica.
We’ve done many coffee growing and coffee processing tours during the course of our Trans-Americas Journey but the tour at this tiny, organic plantation was eye-opening.
First of all, there’s your guide Leonardo Vergnani. Leo’s spent more than 25 years in the coffee business (including stints with Brit) and is an acclaimed barista. His two and a half hour tour of Finca Rosa Blanca’s 42 acre (16 hectare) certified organic coffee plantation was enough to make us never contemplate starting an organic coffee farm.
It took the owners seven years to plant shade trees, re-plant coffee plants following the natural contours of the land and get rid of all traces of previously-used chemicals in order to achieve organic certification from the Rainforest Alliance (which actually allows some use of chemicals) and the much-more-strict German agency BCS Oko-Garantie.
Now all of the 8,000 to 10,000 pounds of coffee produced by Finca Rosa Blanca each year are chemical-free. It’s all dried in the sun (not in a wood-burning dryer). They reduced water usage during the processing of coffee beans from 300 gallons per process to 40 gallons. Everything is composted.
The small roasting facility at Finca Rosa Blanca organic coffee farm high in the hills above Costa Rica’s Central Valley.
If you can’t wait until you get to Costa Rica to taste the results of all that hard work for yourself you can now order Finca Rosa Blanca coffee online. Leo also shared some insider tips about how to buy quality coffee–from checking for sneaky sugar to which packaging is best–and we’ll be sharing those tips with you soon.
Ox cart art in Sarchi
Speaking of coffee…Back in the 19th century, harvested coffee beans in Costa Rica were transported out of the hills on wooden carts which were pulled by oxen. These ox carts (carretas in Spanish) are still made in the town of Sarchi where they’ve become much more artistic and artisenal, becoming one of the few uniquely Costa Rican handicrafts.
Just in case you’re not sure you’re in the right place, a massive ox cart has been put on display in Sarchi’s main plaza. The 45 foot (14 meter) long two ton cart was built in 2006 in a bid to get Sarchi into The Guinness Book of to Records as home to the world’s largest ox cart. The monster is five times the normal size of an ox cart and we imagined babe, Paul Bunyan’s big blue ox, pulling it. Turns out, it has to be pulled by a tractor.
The world’s largest ox cart in Sarchi, Costa Rica is so big it has to be pulled by a tractor.
The most famous local ox cart dynasty is the Alfaro family, now lead by Eloy Alfaro (aka “Don Lolo”). They’ve been making ox carts since 1923 and theirs is the only workshop in Costa Rica that still uses machinery powered by a waterwheel. Much of the equipment is nearly 100 years old.
The first thing you see when you arrive at Fabrica de Carretas Eloy Alfaro is a tacky souvenir store selling ox carts in all sizes, including one cleverly turned into a drinks cart, along with a full battery of tourist junk. Hurry through the store and emerge out the back and you’ll find yourself in the workshop.
Ox carts crafted and painted by hand in Sarchi are one of the only truly Costa Rican handicrafts.
A few painters were at work when we stopped by but the equipment was silent and unmanned. However, a friendly worker happily moved a wooden flange, sending water to the factory’s waterwheel which soon had the ancient machines humming right along. It was almost as beautiful as the carts they make.
Check out the still-working water wheel that powers the Fabrica de Carretas Eloy Alfaro in our video, below.
We also stopped by Fabrica de Carretas Chaverri, best known as painters of ox carts since 1903. Again, we were greeted by an interminable souvenir shop and no one was in the painting workshop, perhaps because we visited on a weekend when some workshops close early.
San José, Costa Rica gets a bad rap. Sure, some of the capital city’s once-grand architecture has seen better days and the streets can get jammed up and there are still some seedy spots. But while most travelers land at San José’s airport and high tail it to the country’s beaches, jungles and volcanoes, we spent more than a month (off and on) in San José during the course of our five months in Costa Rica. The city grew on us and we ultimately found 17 reasons (from boutique hotels to roller derby girls to iconic ice cream) not to blow off the country’s largest city.
1. Egg nog ice cream – Okay, it wasn’t meant to taste like egg nog, but the frozen treat that’s been sold at La Sorbetera de Lolo Mora in San José’s 130 year old Central Market for more than 100 years nails it with nutmeg, cinnamon, clove and rich, custardy goodness. It’s even the same color as egg nog. Locals like it even more with (shrug) cubes of reg Jell-O in it.
Delicious, custardy ice cream has been made and sold at this Central Market stand in San José, Costa Rica for more than 100 years.
2. Mouthwatering soup – In the Central Market annex, across the street from the main market building, wander around until you find a tiny eatery called Mariscos Poseidon. Sit down. Order the seafood soup (about US$2). You’re welcome.
We’ve got post fish soup smiles at Mariscos Poseidon in the Central Market annex in San José, Costa Rica. Photo courtesy of our friend Dos
3. Best bargain bed and breakfast – At US$30 for a clean and comfortable double room with a pristine shared bath, WiFi, cable TV, free parking and the largest, most varied and most deliciously fresh free breakfast buffet in Central America you simply can’t beat Hotel Aranjuez, about a 10 minute walk from the city center. It’s not the cheapest place to stay in San José but we believe it’s the best value for money. Reservations are a must.
4. Cool design on display – The Contemporary Art & Design Museum (Museo de Arte y Diseño Contemporáneo in Spanish) is located in a former distillery so it’s got the requisite hip warehouse vibe. Mixed media installations rotate regularly and the whole place feels a bit like a loft gallery in Brooklyn (US$3, free to all on Mondays).
5. Bikers on a mission – Roberto and Ayal started ChepeCletas (a combination of chepe, slang for downtown San José, and cleta which is Spanish for bike cleat) as a campaign to have fewer cars and more bikes in the city center. It quickly morphed into a crusade to reinvent and revitalize San José for locals and for travelers. ChepeCletas now offers tours of the city (day and night) on bikes or on foot. Tours are lead by locals with insights and personal history in the city. These “guides” share fascinating little-known facts and anecdotes that bring San José to life.
6. Great graffiti – Street artists in San José have taken graffiti to a new level and many walls around town are enlivened by a variety of styles. Like these:
Great grafitti in San José, Costa Rica.
Great grafitti in San José, Costa Rica.
7. Italian hotel style – San José has hostels up the ying yang. It has international chain hotels. It even has interesting locally-owned B&Bs and business class hotels, including the Hotel Presidente. What’s been missing is a central, reasonably priced boutique hotel. That is until Mansion del Parque Bolivar Hotel opened in early 2012. Italian owned (and it shows), this former mansion is now a five room retreat featuring free European style breakfast on the patio. Check out our full review.
8. Roller derby girls – They go by the name Panties Dinamita (dynamite panties) and they entered the roller derby ring in early 2011 with all the usual trappings including tattoos, dyed hair and playfully bad attitudes. You’re welcome to watch practice sessions as well as scheduled battles against the two other roller derby teams in Costa Rica.
9. Site of the military’s last stand – Costa Rica hasn’t had a military since it was disbanded by President José María Hipólito Figueres Ferrer in 1948. The site where that historic proclamation was made, ironically a former military fort, is now the National Museum of Costa Rica (Museo Nacional de Costa Rica in Spanish). It’s a great place to get a taste of everything from ancient art, to pre-Columbian gold (unless you’re a gold freak skip the Costa Rica Gold Museum which is just plain overwhelming and costs US$11 to get in to) to mysterious huge round stones to amazingly ornate matates (grinding stones) like we’ve never seen before. It’s all displayed in a peaceful setting which includes a huge butterfly enclosure (US$8).
The National Museum of Costa Rica in San José.
10. Culture on the cheap – The National Theater of Costa Rica (Teatro Nacional de Costa Rica in Spanish), in downtown San José, was modeled on the Paris Opera House and it’s an eye popper with sculptures, paintings and furnishings that seem straight out of, well, Paris. And that was the idea. Opened in 1897, the theater was built in grand style with money generated by a controversial tax on coffee. Initially, it was meant exclusively for Costa Rica’s elite. These days an excellent, one hour, info-filled guided tour is available (US$7 per person) and on most Tuesdays the theater hosts “Theater at Noon”–short performances by world-class performers for less than US$5. The theater lobby is also home to the best coffee shop in town and the best gift shop in town, full of quality Costa Rican made products including organic coffee from Finca Rosa Blanca and organic Sibu chocolate.
The National Theater of Costa Rica,opened in 1897, was modeled on the Paris Opera House.
Inside the opulent National Theater of Costa Rica in San José.
11. Sunday strolling – Every Sunday San Jose’s main drag, Paseo Colon which connects downtown with the city’s largest park (see below), is closed to traffic and turned into a pedestrian street which attracts families and couples. It’s a great idea and a relaxing way to mingle with city residents.
12. Free art in the park – The city’s first airport is now the huge and popular La Sabana Metropolitan Park (Parque Metropolitano La Sabana in Spanish). The former terminal is now the Costa Rica Art Museum (Museo de Arte Costarricense in Spanish). Rotating exhibits of modern art from local artists now fill the rooms instead of passengers and admission is always free.
The Costa Rica Art Museum in San José puts on rotating exhibits showcasing Costa Rican artists’ work and admission is always free.
13. Happening eats – La Esquina Buenos Aires restaurant serves up fantastic beef (and pasta and fish), the most affordable glass of wine in the city ($5 for a massive pour of the restaurant’s house red or house white) and has knowledgeable and accommodating waiters. No wonder La Esquina is buzzing with locals and visitors mingling at the festive bar and lingering over tables most nights.
14. Chic shopping – eÑe boutique, right around the corner from Mansion del Parque Bolivar Hotel, is one of the chicest shops in San José (look for the very cool red neon Ñ in the window at 7th Avenue and 13th Street). Everything they sell is locally designed and made including cool tees, handmade leather bags, retro dresses, playful jewelry, stylish journals and notebooks and more.
15. Live music – Anyone who knows us knows that live music is one of the things we miss most from our former lives as New Yorkers. It’s been a struggle finding concerts, live music and music festivals since moving south of Mexico but in San José we were pleasantly surprised by the booming live music scene. We had a great time at the two day Festival Imperial featuring Bjork, Cypress Hill, Gogol Bordello, Moby, LMFAO, TV on the Radio and more and the city’s new National Stadium has already hosted concerts by Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pearl Jam, Elton John, Shakira, Paul McCartney and Lady Gaga just to name a few. Coldplay is coming in 2013.
Bjork doing her thing on Day 2 of Festival Imperial 2012 in San José, Costa Rica.
The Flaming Lips during Day 1 of Festival Imperial 2012 in San José, Costa Rica.
16. Presidential tree – In 1963 US President John F. Kennedy planted a ceiba tree on the manicured grounds of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (also called Casa Amarilla). Sadly, it had to be cut down but you can still see the spot where it used to stand.
US President John F. Kennedy planted a ceiba tree in that corner of the grounds in front of the Foreign Ministry in San José, Costa Rica. Sadly, it had to be cut down.
17. The weather — At nearly 4,000 feet (1,200 meters) above sea level temps are more moderate in San José than in most other steamy places in the country. It was nice to break out the jeans.
In the burbs
San José sprawls a bit like Los Angeles does with self-contained mini-city suburbs all around the downtown area. If you’ve got your own wheels and want to experience the chic, modern suburbs of Escazu and Santa Ana we highly recommend Casa de Las Tias where flawless hosts Xavier and PIlar will get you settled into one of their seven homey rooms. Breakfast in their gorgeous garden (included) is NOT to be missed. Or splash out at minimalist Casa Cristal, a romantic hideaway with expansive views down the valley to central San José.
Either way, eat at Da Marco Italian Restaurant in Santa Ana. When we asked the Italian owner of Mansion Parque del Bolivar Hotel where the best Italian food in Costa Rica was this is where he sent us and it did not disappoint. The chef, from Verona, turns out freshly baked focaccia and home made pasta (the seafood tagliatelle rocked when drizzled with house spiked chili oil), nine different types of risotto, fish dishes, meat dishes and more along with a wide-ranging wine list.
Coming in early 2013: 8ctavo Rooftop Restaurant & Lounge is being opened by our friends Mike and Jon on top of the new Sonesta Hotel & Casino in Escazu. We are so sorry we won’t be in town for that!
This should keep you entertained while you pack. Seriously. You should go.
Unlike every other country we’ve visited (so far) on our Trans-Americas Journey, there are no entry fees, not even any vehicle importation fees, when entering El Salvador. Yep, totally free.
You do have to be careful about the tricky CA-4 visa regulations to which El Salvador adheres. We got tripped up by the rules and were denied entry into El Salvador the first time we tried to cross the border.
A division of the Salvadoran police force, creepily called Politur (short for Policia de Turismo), provides free escort services to tourists. It reminds us of the ProAtur (formerly Asistur) program that the tourism department of Guatemala offers. After being warned more than once not to visit the Los Tercios waterfall near Suchitoto on our own, we got a lift with the local officers. One of them hiked down to the falls with us and then they drove us back to town. For free. With smiles on their faces. Yes, it would be better to be able to ensure that all locations are completely free of thieves, but if you know you can’t accomplish that this is a great way to keep destinations open to tourists. A free Politur escort is also mandatory when you hike up the Santa Ana Volcano.
Karen enjoying her free Politur police escort up to the top of Santa Ana Volcano.
Christy Turlington is part Salvadoran. Yes, that Christy Turlington…
We were very surprised by the number of really good hotels in El Salvador, lead by Casa ILB in San Salvador.
Since 2001 the official currency of El Salvador is the US dollar. It is slightly weird making purchases in Spanish but paying in US money. The Salvadoran colón is allegedly still in circulation but we never saw it.
El Salvador is the only country we know of in which the people eat their national flower, the izote which blooms out of a yucca plant.
The national bird of El Salvador is the long-tailed mot mot also called a torogoz. They don’t eat it.
Wi Fi is spotty in most of the country. Sigh.
The 2011 winner of the World Barista Championship, Alejandro Mendez, is from El Salvador. Last we heard he was plying his craft at Viva Espresso in San Salvador.
El Salvador is the first place we ate loroco, a flower that’s harvested before it blooms. The green buds taste like asparagus and are delicious along with fresh cheese in pupusas, the scrumptious national dish of El Salvador.
In El Salvador a quesadilla is a dense white cake with grated dry cheese mixed into the batter (delicious)—NOT tortillas folded over with melted cheese inside.
October is usually the coolest month with the clearest skies thanks to the something everyone calls “October winds.” Though October brought Tropical Storm 12E when we were in El Salvador, dumping up to five feet (1,500mm) of rain over nine days, just one foot (300mm) shy of the country’s average annual rainfall. The President of El Salvador called it the worst storm in the country’s history (even worse than Hurricane Mitch) but you’ve probably never heard of it. Because the storm was never classified as a hurricane it never made it on international TV or on aid organization radar.
Salvadorans really, really like Worcheshire sauce which is called Salsa Inglesa and is found on nearly every table.
Salvadorans also love cream soda. Who knew they still made that stuff?
Most ATMs don’t charge a withdrawal fee and they dispense reasonably sized bills ($10s and $20s mostly).
El Salvador is, generally speaking, about 30% more expensive than Guatemala but far cheaper than Costa Rica.
El Salvador is the smallest country in Central America, roughly the size of Massachusetts. This, coupled with the fact that it has one of the best road networks in the region, makes it very easy to explore the whole place.
Lonely Planet no longer publishes a guide book for El Salvador. El Sal info is now just crammed into their Central America on a Shoestring guide. Pity.
Eating at beloved regional chicken chain Pollo Campero in El Salvador is about 50% more expensive than it is in Guatemala and they do NOT refill your soda. You have been warned.
For a cheap thrill, take the bus in San Salvador. The drivers are insane and the fare is only $0.25.
El Salvador is home to the only falconer licensed to take tourists along on his hikes with hunting birds of prey. His name is Roy Beers and he runs Cadejo Adventures. Eric’s stop-action photos of us enjoying an afternoon of falconry with Roy and his harris hawk are really cool.