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Topiary, Group Bullfighting, Organic Coffee and Ox Carts – Central Valley, Costa Rica

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.

Zarcero, Costa Rica - Church 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.

Zarcero, Costa Rica - topiary

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.”

Zarcero, Costa Rica - Dinosaur topiary

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.

Fiestas Patronales Palmares, Costa Rica - carnival rides

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.

Fiestas Palmares Bull Fighting

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.

Fiestas Palmares, Costa Rica - Bullfighting

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.

Fiestas Palmares Bull Fighting

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.

Fiestas Palmares, Costa Rica - Bull Riding

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.

Fiestas Palmares, Costa Rica - Trotadores

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.

Fiestas Palmares, Costa Rica - Tope Horse Dancing

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.

Finca Rosa Blanca, Costa Rica - Organic coffee drying

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.

Finca Rosa Blanca, Costa Rica - Organic coffee

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.

World's largest Oxcart - Sarchi, Costa Rica

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.

 Fabrica de Carretas Eloy Alfaro - Sarchi, Costa Rica Oxcarts

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.

The ox carts of Sarchi are so unique that UNESCO put them on its list of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. But if ox carts aren’t your thing, artisans in Sarchi also produce gorgeous wooden bowls, wooden furniture and leather goods.

 

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17 Reasons NOT to Blow Off the Capital – San José, Costa Rica

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.

La Sorbeteria de Lolo Mora - central Market, San Jose, Costa Rica

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.

Mariscos Posiden - San Jose, Costa Rica

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:

San Jose, Costa Rica street art grafitti

Great grafitti in San José, Costa Rica.

San Jose, Costa Rica street art grafitti

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).

National Museum of Costa Rica,  San Jose

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.

National Theater of Costa Rica,  San Jose Opera House

The National Theater of Costa Rica,opened in 1897, was modeled on the Paris Opera House.

National Theater of Costa Rica interior -  San Jose 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.

Costa Rica Art Museum - San Jose

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 - Festival Imperial 2012, Costa Rica

Bjork doing her thing on Day 2 of Festival Imperial 2012 in San José, Costa Rica.

Flaming Lips - Festival Imperial, 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.

Casa Amarilla, Foreign Ministry - San Jose, Costa Rica

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!

 

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Rear View Mirror: El Salvador Travel Tips & Observations After 66 Days in the Country

El Salvador definitely gets the award for Biggest Pleasant Surprise of any country we’ve traveled through so far on our Trans-Americas Journey, delivering great food, the warmest people since Mexico and one of the best boutique hotel finds in the region. Here are some El Salvador travel tips, facts and tid-bits which we picked up during our travels throughout El Salvador including volcanoes, beaches (for surfing or not), coffee plantations, hot springs, and more. Did we mention that El Salvador has a national park named El Imposible? Oh, and a growing craft beer scene (thanks Brew Revolution)?

This should keep you entertained while you pack. Seriously. You should go.

Cows on the beach El Salvador

 

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.

Police escort hike Santa Ana Volcano Itzalco, El Salvador

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.

Motmot national bird of El SalvadorThe 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 volcanoes lakes and boats

 

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.

El Salvador beach sunset

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Brand New Brews on the Beach – El Tunco, El Salvador

Of the string of beach towns and villages along El Salvador’s Pacific, El Tunco, a long-time surf mecca, is the most developed. Now, beach development comes in two forms. Bad beach development includes roving Hawaiian Tropic Girls and fly-overs by planes pulling advertising banners for Axe body spray. Good beach development includes hand crafted beer sipped with sand between your toes as you watch the surfers do their epic thing. El Tunco just got the good kind of beach development with brand new brews on the beach.

Welcome to El Tunco surf beach, El Salvador

El Tunco, on El Salvador’s Pacific coast, has been a surf mecca for years and now it’s got micro brews as well as waves.

 

El Tunco, El Salvador sunset

Sunset surfing in El Tunco, El Salvador.

 

Welcome to a brew revolution

Even before we tasted his beer we thought Andy Newbom was pretty cool. The former coffee importer and roaster (he owned Barefoot Coffee in California) moved to San Salvador with his wife and daughter after falling in love with El Salvador during coffee sourcing trips. But coffee isn’t the only thing Andy drinks. Oh no.

Andy Newbom - Brew Revolution, El Tunco, El Salvador - Brewing Beer

Craft beer maker Andy Newbom, leader of a Brew Revolution in El Salvador.

Andy likes beer too and while El Salvador’s Pilsner or Suprema are (barely) passable, he wanted a better brew so he decided to make it himself. A section of the family’s backyard was turned into a beer making area and when we dropped by the house/craft brewery Andy was working on an experimental batch of beer spiked with dried hibiscus flowers. His helpers were three local guys whom he was hoping to turn into home brewers as well.

Andy Newbom - Brew Revolution Beer Tasting, El Tunco, El Salvador - Barefoot Coffee

Craft beer maker Andy Newbom, leader of a Brew Revolution in El Salvador.

Andy calls it a Brew Revolution and since we first met him he’s taken his revolution to the people. In June of 2012 he opened a micro cerveceria on the beach in front of Hotel Mopelia in El Tunco. Here he offers six different beers at a time. Three of them are constant including Mercurio IPA, an El Slavador IPA with “all american citrus hops and salvadoran panela,”  Venus Wit, a Belgian tropical wheat beer with local passionfruit and pineapple and Nyx Black Ale, an American Black Pale Ale with a good amount of hops and coffee. Three seasonal beers rotate in and out.

Prices range from US$4 for a 333ml bottle or draft to US$5 for a 500ml bottle or draft. He’ll also be offering special barley wines for US$6 to US$7. Not bad for what certainly appears to be El Salvador’s first craft brew. But hopefully not its last!

If you’re interested in helping Brew Revolution get even bigger and better by the time you get your butt to El Salvador, consider supporting the brand new Brew Revolution Kickstarter Campaign.

Unfortunately, Brew Revolution wasn’t open when we were in El Tunco but we still managed to have a good time. Here are the nuts and bolts of budget travel in El Tunco.

EL Tunco Travel Tips

We weren’t originally headed to El Tunco at all. We had our hearts set on checking out the smaller fishing village of Playa Los Cóbanos but the hostal there, Kalindo, was full. Then we checked out the town of El Zonte and Playa Sunzal which both seemed best suited to surfers on a tight budget, plus none of the accommodations offered WiFi.

Surfer Crossing sign El Salvador

“Slow down surfers in the road.”

We must have looked at 90% of the guesthouses and hotels in El Tunco, many of which were priced beyond our budget. If we’d had a little more to spend (rooms start at US$40) we would have checked into the Hotel Eco del Mar with its chic style, large sleek rooms and little plunge pool. It’s not on the beach but it is appealing.

Instead, we spent our first night in El Tunco in Tortuga Surf Club where we got a decent airy room right on the beach with a shared bath and very, very clean pool for US$30. Still a splurge, but the sound of the pounding surf made up for it.

El Tunco beach, El Salvador

Surf report, El Tunco style.

 

Best budget bed in El Tunco

The next morning we discovered the best bargain bed in El Tunco at a place called Papaya Lodge. Now, there are two places in El Tunco with the word papaya in the name. You want the place directly across the street from La Guitara. Look for the enormous wooden gate.

This place is spotless, has a nice little pool and sitting areas with hammocks and offers rooms with A/C and large, stylish rooms with fans and private baths for US$25 plus perfectly acceptable smaller rooms with shared bath. We chose the latter for US$14 a night. Toss in WiFi, parking, a great staff and a shared kitchen and you can’t beat it.

El Tunco beach sunset, El Salvador

Another day ends in El Tunco, El Salvador.

 

Swimmers be advised

Like so many great surf beaches, the beach at El Tunco is not good for swimming because of strong rip currents. The beach is also rocky and covered in uninviting, hot, nearly black sand. Then again, you’ll be too busy enjoying a few craft brewed beers while watching the surfers do their thing to mind!

Surfing El Tunco beach, El Salvador

Surfing in El Tunco, El Salvador.

 

Surfing wipeout El Tunco beach, El Salvador

Sort of surfing in El Tunco, El Salvador.

 

El Tunco sunset surf, El Salvador

Going for one last wave before the sun disappears.

 

El Tunco sunset surf, El Salvador

Going for one last wave before the sun disappears.

 

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Beyond the Break – La Libertad, El Salvador

Our guidebook warned that “this isn’t an area you want to wander around past dark” and “the overall atmosphere is that of a grimy port town.” That all may have been true in the recent past, but today’s La Libertad offers a revitalized malecon (Spanish for seaside promenade), great cheap eats and even a new surfer-chic hotel.

We almost didn’t stop in La Libertad at all when we traveled from San Salvador to El Tunco. But an ISA World Masters Surf Championship had just been held there and we were curious to see what all the hang-ten hoopla was about.

Surfers are early adopters

In their almost maniacal search for the perfect wave surfers often pioneer awesome beach destinations. Surfers from all over the world have been coming to La Libertad since the 1970s to surf the famous right break at Punta Roca (Rock Point) at the far western end of Playa La Paz. We don’t surf but we take it on good authority that La Punta (as surfers call it) is one of the best right breaks in all of Central America. La Libertad is still on surfer’s bucket lists.

Surf Punta Roca La Libertad El Salvador

Evening beach soccer on the beach and surfers in the water in La Libertad, El Salvador.

Like many beaches that have great breaks, the beach near Punta Roca is not great for sunning or swimming. The sand is mostly strewn with melon-sized rocks and while surfers appreciate the powerful waves they’re too much for enjoyable (or safe) swimming.

But the “new” La Libertad offers something beyond the beach and beyond the break.

 

Investing in tourism

If you’ve got 15 seconds and an internet connection you can find legit travelers’ horror stories about robbery and even assault in La Libertad, mostly fueled by a local drug problem that’s still being battled. But in recent years the government has invested a lot to revitalize the city’s infrastructure, bring back business and take back the streets, waterfront and beaches.

Malecon Ice Cream La Libertad El Salvador

Sweet refreshment on the revitalized malecon in La Libertad, El Salvador.

 

A main focus of these efforts is the malecon stretching right to Playa La Paz from an enormous pier. This area is now a paved, painted and pleasant place to stroll and relax. There are benches and vistas and landscaping and open-air restaurants and ice cream shops and families and couples from San Salvador (just 30 minutes away) taking full advantage of it all.

Malecon  La Libertad El Salvador

Looking back at the shops, restaurants and bars on the malecon in El Salvador from the town’s lively pier.

 

A fish market for photographers

The long, partly enclosed pier in La Libertad is a massive fish market with vendors packed in shoulder to shoulder selling fresh and dried fruits of the sea, all of which are unloaded and cleaned on the far end of the pier every morning. At the very end of the pier are two massive cranes which transport the long, wooden fishing boats from the pier into the water and vice versa because the surf is too rough for the boast to enter and exit the water from the beach.

Fish pier La Libertad El Salvador

Incredibly fresh offerings on the pier in La Libertad, El Salvador which doubles as a bustling sea food market.

Lobster Langostin Fish pier La Libertad El Salvador

Fresh lobster for sale on the pier in La Libertad, El Salvador which doubles as a bustling seafood market.

Crab Fish pier La Libertad El Salvador

Crabs for sale on the pier in La Libertad, El Salvador which doubles as a bustling sea food market.

Lobster Fish pier La Libertad El Salvador

That’s one huge lobster for sale on the pier in La Libertad, El Salvador which doubles as a bustling sea food market.

Dried Fish pier La Libertad El Salvador

It’s not just fresh fish that’s for sale on the pier in La Libertad. Dried fish makes up a good portion of the goods on offer in this photogenic, open air market.

 

Returning boats register their catch with a local cooperative, then go about cleaning and selling it. We saw all kinds of fish large and small being prepped for market. Sadly, we also saw one fisherman with a haul of more than 10 baby hammerhead sharks.

Hammerhead sharks La Libertad El Salvador

We’re pretty sure it should be illegal to bring in these baby hammerhead sharks.

Boat winch La Libertad El Salvador

A boat being winched back onto the pier in La Liberad, El Salvador after a day of fishing.

Fish seller La Libertad El Salvador

He just caught ’em and now he’s selling them on the pier in La Libertad, El Salvador.

Fresh Fish La Libertad El Salvador

Haggling over the price of fish on the pier in La Libertad, El Salvador.

Fish cleaner La Libertad El Salvador

This guy made cleaning a fresh catch look easy.

Fishing Pier La Libertad El Salvador

Fishing boats on the pier in La Libertad.

Drying Fish  La Libertad El Salvador

High-tech fish drying methods in La Libertad, El Salvador.

 

We spent hours each morning photographing the action and trying to stay out of the way as hauls were unloaded, boats were lifted up and down and fish were gutted and sold all around us. It was truly one of the most active, pleasant and photogenic fish markets we’ve visited.

Fish La Libertad El Salvador

It doesn’t get much fresher than this.

Pier  La Libertad El Salvador

Cleaning a ray on the pier in La Libertad.

Smiling child La Libertad El Salvador

A smile at sunset in La Libertad, El Salvador.

 

From cheap eats to city style

Some of the day’s catch ends up in the hands of La Libertad’s talented ceviche makers. For US$3 we got about a pound (half kilo) of absolutely fresh, sweet and delicious ceviche which we scarfed down on a bench on the maelcon.

Ceviche Baldizon La Libertad El Salvador

All the fresh fixin’s for great ceviche on the pier in La Libertad, El Salvador.

If you want an actual restaurant, there are those too. Large, basic comedors with plastic chairs and blaring televisions are located to the left of the pier (away from Punta Roca). They’re nothing fancy but the fish is fresh (and displayed out front for your approval) and prices are low. Pick your place and enjoy ceviche or cooked dishes and ice-cold beer with the locals.

Ceviche La Libertad El Salvador

Lunch is served.

Ceviche Restaurants La Libertad El Salvador

Seafood restaurants rub shoulders in La Libertad.

Open-air restaurants with style, skilled waiters and higher prices are strung out to the right of the pier. This is where we found Danilo’s Bar and Restaurant which was recommended to us by Miguel Huezo of Suchitoto Tours. Owned by chef Danilo Ortega, the place is tiny and bright with eager staff and great smells coming out of a kitchen the size of a closet. Danilo’s is famous for his powerful but refreshing Muñeco Sour (US$3), a twist on the Pisco Sour made with local Muñeco liquor (think of it as Salvadoran white lightning).

Muneco Sour Libertad El Salvador

The signature cocktail at Danilo’s Bar and Restaurant on the oceanfront boardwalk in La Libertad.

Chef Ortega, who ran a successful bar in San Salvador for years, operates his beach eatery like a city joint, offering things his city clientele look for like hard to find Bucanero Cuban beer, fresh sashimi (US$6), classically prepared fish and signature dishes like shrimp in bacon with bbq sauce and baby back ribs (US$16 for 1.5 pounds).

Sleep here

It’s true that most of the accommodations in La Libertad are still geared toward surfers, ie, they’re cheap above all else. However, a company called Adventure Sports Tours (AST) had opened a surprisingly stylish new option right on the malecon. La Terraza AST Surf Hotel  was designed, rather than slapped together, which you can see before you even walk through the door thanks to landscaping and a waterfall wall at the entrance. Inside, La Terraza features chic earth tones, big bathrooms, A/C, an open-air rooftop restaurant and bar (with surprisingly good food), hammocks and, of course, plenty of room to store your board.

 La Terraza AST Surf Hotel LA Libertad El Salvador

The surprisingly stylish La Terraza AST Surf Hotel in La Libertad, El Salvador.

Opened in 2011, La Terraza is clearly meant for surfers willing to spend a bit more for substantially more comfort and style and for non-surfers who appreciate the hotel’s million dollar view of Punta Roca. The hotel is built so close to the beach that the crashing waves literally reverberate through the building. And since La Libertad has also invested in enormous, powerful flood lights which illuminate Punta Roca at night the break is dramatically visible 24 hours a day.

Local tourism authorities told us the city has plans to add lifeguards, night surfing, extend the malecon even further, renovate and upgrade the comedors and attract more cultural events to the small amphitheater on the malecon.

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Cruising into a Town Worth Your Time – Metapán, El Salvador

It’s the little things that can make a trip. Like cruise control. Since leaving the bitumen bliss of US and Canadian highways behind back in 2008 we’ve been rumbling, bumping and pot-hole surfing our way south over roads that often put the GM test track to shame (and we’ve driven the GM test track so we know what we’re talking about). However, throughout  El Salvador we’ve been pleasantly surprised by the comparatively good condition of most of the roads we’ve traveled down but we were still stunned by the heavenly smoothness of the new Northern Highway to Metapán, a nearly US$300 million project which was funded in part by the Millennium Challenge Corporation. This stretch of road is so good that Salvadorans recently held a skateboarding competition on it. We used our cruise control for the first time in years on this highway as we rolled smoothly into Metapán. It was nice to know it still works.

Metapán is the birthplace of Isidro Menéndez, a key figure in El Salvador’s independence movement and sometimes credited with drafting the country’s first constitution. This helps explain why El Salvador’s Constitution Square is in Metapán, not San Salvador.

Flags of Central America, Constitution Square - Metapan, El Salvador

The flags of five Central American countries fly in Constitution Square in Metapán, El Salvador.

Gun barrel fence in front of Metapan, El Salvador Municipalidad

Yes, the outside of Metapán’s city hall looks a bit like a casino. The fence around that big cat is made from defunct gun barrels by the way.

 

Chemistry is cool

These days Metapán is known more for its lucrative deposits of limestone than homegrown revolutionaries, which explains why the town’s nickname is “the white city.” Some full-size factories have set up shop in Metapán where they process limestone rocks into quicklime (mostly for use in concrete) on a grand scale. However, there are still about 30 lime kilns around Metapán which cook rocks down to this fine, white powder the old-fashioned way. And when we say “old-fashioned” we mean practically prehistoric.

Lime kiln - Metapan, El Salvador

Firing up one of about 30 traditional lime kilns around Metapán in El Salvador where limestone rocks are cooked down to quicklime powder the (very) old-fashioned way.

Los Caleros - Metapan, El Salvador

A calero, or traditional lime kiln worker, in Metapán, El Salvador.

Called las caleras, these kilns are constructed by workers called caleros who meticulously stack quarried limestone into an igloo shape. The stones must fit tightly and the finished igloos are gorgeous–like something sculptor Andy Goldsworthy might make and every bit as temporary. Next, a massive amount of wood is stacked inside the igloo and then it’s lit on fire. Over the next 12 days the fire reaches epic temperatures and cooks the rocks until they quite literally change form–going from dark to pure white.

cooking limestone making quicklime for cement - Metapan, El Salvador

A fired and steaming traditional lime kiln smokes in the sunset near Metapán, El Salvador.

Lime kiln fire - Metapan, El Salvador

Wood fires are stoked to incredible temperatures as limestone rocks are turned into limestone powder in traditional kilns which are still used in Metapán, El Salvador.

Take a look inside the fiery, ancient world of a traditional lime kiln in our video from Metapán, below.

 

It takes three days to cool the rocks to a temperature at which they can be handled. At
that point water is poured on them causing a chemical reaction marked by bubbling,
cracking and fizzing until the rock turns into white lime powder (called quicklime) right before your very
eyes.

Watch this amazing process in our video of the transformation from limestone rock to quicklime powder, below. If you don’t think chemistry is cool after you watch this then there’s no hope for you.

 

Time to cool off with some river rafting

An adventure of a different kind takes place on the nearby Guajoyo River where Raul Sanabria has created an aquatic park called Apuzunga where you can cool off in naturally fed swimming pools (US$3 per adult), zip line (US$10 per person), camp and go rafting with some of the best equipment and most professional river guides we’ve seen in Central America (US$40 per person and each raft always has three guides).

whitewater river rafting Apuzunga - Metapan, El Salvador

Heading out for a white water adventure on the Guajoyo River in Metapán, El Salvador.

whitewater river rafting Guajoyo River - Metapan, El Salvador

A raging section of the Guajoyo River in Metapán, El Salvador.

whitewater river rafting Guajoyo River Apuzunga  - Metapan, El Salvador

Rafting guides paddling out on the Guajoyo River in Metapán, El Salvador.

Raul also has a tilapia farm which supplies the freshest of fish to his open air restaurant and bar overlooking the river. Our post-rafting lunch was huge and delicious. Followed by cold beer and a nap in a hammock, it’s a perfect day.

 

The prince of pupusas

Forty years ago a teenaged Amadeo Gonzalez fled Metapán to escape the vicious civil war in El Salvador leaving behind a coveted spot on the national soccer team—a team that went all the way to the World Cup the following year during which the so-called “Soccer War” with Honduras began (though people in both countries are quick to point out that this short but passionate altercation was caused by much more than a soccer match).

By that time Amadeo was in San Francisco working at the Levi’s factory (back when the iconic American jeans were still made in the USA). An invitation to play soccer with a local team in SF turned into a paying gig which allowed Amadeo to quit the factory job he hated and eventually open a restaurant.

Twenty five years ago Amadeo opened Balompie Café in the Mission district long before gentrification made this neighborhood safe and stylish (balompie is a combination of the Spanish words for “ball” and “foot” which used to be used instead of “futbol”). It’s still there and about to be re-located around the corner to chic new digs designed by Amadeo.

A second Balompie restaurant followed, this time in Amadeo’s hometown of Metapán. Then Amadeo opened a second Balompie in San Francisco, solidifying his standing as the source for Salvadoran favorites to a growing Latin population in the city who craved dishes like yucca and chicharron and the most iconic Salvadorean dish of all: the pupusa. This gooey, rich, steaming disc of grilled massa (rice or corn) is traditionally filled with beans, cheese and chicharron, though Amadeo has expanded the offerings to include ingredients like basil and mozzarella.

 Amadeo Gonzalez Balompie - Metapan, El Salvador

Amadeo Gonzalez: Metapán native, soccer lover, owner of Balompie Cafe and the Prince of Pupusas.

The pupusas at Balompie have been voted Best Pupusa by SF Weekly and 7X7 magazine (which put a luscious picture of a plateful of Amadeo’s pupusas on their food issue cover).
Balompie has also been named one of the top 100 Budget Bites by the San Francisco
Chronicle.

We haven’t been to Amadeo’s SF restaurants but we have eaten at Balompie in Metapán with Amadeo and his wife Evelyn and their gregarious son Ama and we can tell you that it’s impossible to beat the open air balcony with views of Constitution Park and the San
Pedro church which some say is the most beautiful colonial church in El Salvador. The food was delicious and Amadeo’s very personal wall of soccer memorabilia and the fact that the back of his restaurant opens up right into the soccer stadium make Balompie a very smart upscale sports bar too.

 

TIP

Odds are your guide book will recommend that you stay at either Hotel San Jose, Hotel Cristina or (God forbid) the trucker-filled Hotel California while in Metapán. That’s because they don’t know about Hostal de Metapán. Opened in June of 2011, owners Rafael and Estrella have created a spotless, centrally located newcomer with eight rooms including private double rooms with A/C, WiFi, parking, bathroom, free coffee and daily breakfast for US$20. Contact Rafael directly at rafael.imortaga@hotmail (dot) com or call + 503 2402 2382.

We liked Metapán so much that we’re doing two posts about it. Check out our adventures
with an amateur paleontologist, a closed national park and fried cow udders in our next post from Around Metapán.

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