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The Heart and Soul of Handicrafts – Pueblos Blancos & Masaya, Nicaragua

The Pueblos Blancos (white towns) are reached by traveling about an hour from Managua, the capital of Nicaragua. The towns got their collective name either because of the stark white churches that anchor their central squares or the fact that their streets used to be paved with a white limestone concoction or the fact that the buildings used to be painted white to ward off bad spirits. It depends on who you ask. One thing is not in dispute: the Pueblos Blancos are the heart and soul of handicrafts in Nicaragua. We also found the best street food in the country (Andrew Zimmern endorsed) here and managed to miss one of the oddest festivals in the world (hint: it involves bull penises).

Lake Masaya, Nicaragua from Al Cielo hotel

Hacienda Puerta del Cielo Eco Spa is in the jungle outside Masatepe and offers one of the best views of Lake Masaya and Masaya Volcano.

The best handicrafts in Nicaragua

The road leaves Managua behind and is soon lined with family run furniture stalls acting as both shop and workshop. Rocking chairs are a favorite item and a staple of life in Nicaragua. The town of Masatepe fancies itself the rocking chair capital of the country, but the furniture on offer runs the gamut from some truly well-crafted dining sets to amazingly kitchy children’s beds.

If it’s decorative pottery or dishes you’re after, head to San Juan de Oriente. And for houseplants, head to the seemingly endless greenhouses in Catarina. You could furnish your whole house (tacky or tasteful) and do your landscaping too without ever leaving this area. Many people do.

The oddest festival in Nicaragua

Every town in every country in Latin America has an annual festival to honor their particular patron saint. It’s a good excuse to muddle up piety and partying and residents look forward to and plan for their patron saint days all year-long.

Things are done a little differently in the Pueblos Blancos of Diria and Dirioma where, every year, their patron saints are honored with a “dicking” festival during which presumably drunk adults (read: mostly young men) wander the streets whacking each other with dried out, elongated bull penises. This phallic fun is not done anywhere else in the country for fairly obvious reasons.

Sadly (sort of) we missed this festival but the best local English language news source, the Nicaragua Dispatch, published a good story on the penis festival spectacle. Yes, there are pictures.

Masaya Volcano from lake Masaya near the pueblos blancos

Masaya Volcano looms over the Pueblos Blancos region of Nicaragua and became dangerously active in 2012.

The best street food in Nicaragua

Furniture and bull penises take a back seat to serious eats in the nearby town of Masaya. Though not technically a part of the Pueblos Blancos it’s close enough and worth a stop especially around 5 pm when a desolate triangle of concrete near the Don Bosco school in a barrio called Monimbo is transformed into El Tiangue (the market), your source for the best street food in Nicaragua.

Fritanga - Masaya, Nicaragua

Welcome to El Tiangue in the town of Masaya, a nightly festival of the best street food in Nicaragua.

Tables heave under loads of artisanal cheese, grilling meat of all descriptions, frying plantains, mountains of rice, stacks of sticky homemade sweets and a whole bunch of stuff we struggled to identify. There’s a reason Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern visited this open-air street food wonderland while filming the show’s “Nicaragua” episode.

Nicaragua is full of fritangas–basic street stands selling grilled meat, chopped cabbage and rice and you’ll eat at plenty of them while you’re in Nica. But Masaya’s El Tiangue takes the fritanga (and more) to a whole new delicious level. We had some of the best grilled chicken we’ve had in our entire lives here, piled high on a plate with rice, crunchy cabbage salad and crispy, salty plantains for shockingly cheap prices. If you’re lucky you might even snag one of the few tables and chairs or just perch on a ledge and dig in with the locals.

Artisan Market  Masaya, Nicaragua

The open-air stone market building in Masaya is a pleasant place to wander and search for quality among the souvenirs on offer.

Masaya is also home to the sprawling Mercado Viejo (old market). The open-air stone market building is a breezy place for an enjoyable stroll and there are some quality finds here but most of the “handicrafts” are ho-hum. Bear in mind that Masaya is especially known for its hand-woven hammocks.

Hammock factory - Masaya, Nicaragua

The town of Masaya is famous for handmade hammocks, not sign makers.

There’s also a malecon (promenade) in town with views of Masaya Lake at the foot of the massive (and recently very, very active) Masaya Volcano.They say the lake, formed in one of the volcano’s dormant craters, is more than 200 feet (70 meters) deep in the middle.

Masaya’s central square is a fine place for a cold Toña, the official beer of Nicaragua, and some quality people watching in the evening after you’ve stuffed yourself silly at El Tiangue.

Masaya, Nicaragua church

Locals gather at the central church in Masaya as the sun goes down.

Masaya-plaza

A roving band accompanies a small procession to the main church in Masaya.

Zeus-Gym

Maybe there were so many gyms in Masaya, all with hyperbolic graphic signs like this one, because everyone eats too much at El Tiangue.

 

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Surf & Chic – Tamarindo, Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica

Tamarindo, on the Nicoya Peninsula, started out as Costa Rica’s down and dirty surfer travel secret but the ensuing years have brought a remarkable amount of chic to to this surf town as well. The result is a kind of seaside schizophrenia to suit all travel budgets playing out on one of the most gorgeous, sweeping, inviting beaches in Costa Rica.

Tamarindo Beach, Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica

Any way you look at it Tamarindo Beach, on the Nicoya Peninsula, is one of the most beautiful beaches in Costa Rica.

The surf side of Tamarindo

Joe Walsh, owner of Witch’s Rock Surf Camp, still pretty much looks like the 20-year-old Cali surfer that he was when he arrived in Tamarindo in a school bus in 2000. It’s fair to call Joe an early adopter, but Tamarindo wasn’t exactly undiscovered when he arrived. Some of the footage for the 1966 surf classic “The Endless Summer” was shot in Tamarindo.

Joe Walsh Witch's Rock Surf Camp & Volcano Brewing Company

Joe Walsh arrived in Tamarindo 20 years ago in a converted school bus. Now he runs Witch’s Rock Surf Camp and recently started Volcano Brewing Company as well.

Even Witch’s Rock has chiced up over the years. Today, it’s a pretty swank (in a sandy kind of way) 18 room guest house with numerous boats, boards and instructor plus a lively restaurant and bar.

Speaking of the bar…Did we mention the craft brewed beer? In 2011 Joe opened Volcano Brewing Company on the shores of Lake Arenal. The microbrewery makes pale ale and a nut brown ale (both delicious) and he sells every drop between the brewpub and restaurant on Lake Arenal and his bar in Tamarindo (US$3 for 12 ounces/30 ml).

Volcano Brewing Company Witch's Rock Pale Ale Tamarindo Costa Rica

Volcano Brewing Company craft-brewed beer for sale at Witch’s Rock Surf Camp in Tamarindo, Costa Rica.

Learn more about Volcano Brewing Company and other Central American microbrews in this piece we did for TheLatinKitchen.com.

The chic side of Tamarindo

LIke in many Costa Rican beach towns, condos and timeshares jockey for space among surfer flop houses, international chain hotels and tour bus traveler crash pads in Tamarindo. To reach the real chic you have to go travel to nearby Langosta Beach. There you will find Cala Luna Hotel.

Pool Cala Luna Hotel, Nicoya Peninsula, Tamarindo, Costa Rica

The pool at the chic Cala Luna Hotel near Tamarindo, Costa Rica.

Back in the loving hands of the Pilurzu family which originally built the hotel, a recent renovation has instilled real understated elegance to its 21 rooms and 20 villas (some with private pools). Aesthetics aside, Cala Luna also features a huge new open-air yoga pavilion where free morning classes are offered to guests and an on-site organic garden which gives their new food and beverage manager plenty to work with.

Cala Luna Hotel, Langosta Beach Tamarindo, Costa Rica

Inside the Cala Luna Hotel, one of the chicest offerings near Tamarindo, Costa Rica.

Tamarindo town is also dotted with dining options with stylish (and spendy) cafes and rubbing shoulders with cheap falafel stands (don’t miss a tiny spot called Falafel Bar).

We couldn’t leave Tamarindo without meeting (and eating with) Chef Shlomy, a local culinary institution who now heads up Seasons by Shlomy restaurant. Israeli born Shlomy Koren opened Seasons in 2007 and he now turns out what he calls a “mélange of styles” of cuisine. We call it Med Rica.

Ninety percent of his ingredients are sourced locally and Shlomy, a Cordon Bleau trained chef, turns them into inventive dishes like sautéed octopus on tahini with chick peas,shrimp (14 of them!) and spinach over house-milled polenta that’s sweet and rich and nothing like the Cream-of-Wheat-esque packaged stuff, home made ice cream and sorbet and even homemade bread.

Seasons by Shlomy - Tamarindo, Costa Rica.

This is what’s for dinner at Seasons by Shlomy restaurant in Tamarindo, Costa Rica: shrimp and spinach over sweet, rich house-milled polenta.

“Consistency is the name of the game,” says Chef Shlomy who cooks every entree himself (large appetizers from US$9, entrees from US$18, no credit cards). His US$28 prixe fixe including an entree, main and dessert chosen from any item on the menu is a bargain.

Chef Shlomy Koren - Seasons by Shlomy, Tamarindo

Chef Shlomy at his restaurant in Tamarindo, Costa Rica.

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Hot Coffee and Hot Springs – Orosi Valley, Costa Rica

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 River and 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.

Orosi Mirador Costa Rica

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.

Historic Iglesia de San Jose de Orosi

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 Chucaras coffee

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.

Coffee growing Chucaras Estates Costa Rica

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.

Chucaras Sprngs coffee beneficio Orosi, Costa Rica

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.

Coffee cherries being delivered

Ripe coffee beans, called cherries, being delivered to the Chucaras Hotsprings Estate beneficio in Costa Rica’s Orosi Valley.

Coffee cherries delivered to Chucaras coffee

Ripe coffee beans, called cherries, being delivered to the Chucaras Hotsprings Estate beneficio in Costa Rica’s Orosi Valley.

Coffee Chucaras Hotsprings Estates Costa Rica

Ripe coffee beans, called cherries, begin their journey to your coffee mug at the Chucaras Hotsprings Estate beneficio in Costa Rica’s Orosi Valley.

Coffee depulping Costa Rica

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.

Dried coffee Chucaras Orosi Costa Rica

Storage of dried processed coffee beans at the Chucaras Hotsprings Estate beneficio in Costa Rica’s Orosi Valley.

Chucaras Sprngs coffee bag

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.

Chucaras hotel pool Orosi Costa Rica

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 ([email protected], +506 8817 5703).

Chucaras hotel Orosi Costa Rica

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.

Cartago Valley and Irazu Volcano Orosi Costa Rica

Looking down the Orosi Valley in Costa Rica toward the Cartago Valley and the active Irazu Volcano in the distance behind the clouds.

Get our top 10 tips for buying quality coffee.

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Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2012 – Best Food & Beverages

This post is part 3 of 4 in the series Best of 2012

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).

First, a few relevant stats:

In 2012 the Trans-Americas Journey…

…thoroughly explored Nicaragua, Costa Rica and northern Panama

…drove 8,349 miles

…spent $2,608 on fuel

…made seven overland border crossings

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 the Café 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 of Aposentillo 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).

Pizza Al Cielo Restaurant in Aposentillo, Nicaragua

 

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.

Cafe Campestre - Balgue, Ometepe Island, Nicaragua

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.

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

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.

Chifrijo Costa Rica

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.

Making chocolate - Sibu Chocolate, Costa Rica

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How to Buy Coffee: Top 10 Tips

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.

Coffee tour Leo - Finca Rosa Blamca, Costa Rica

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.

Coffee growing

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 sacks - Finca El Carmen, Ataco, El Salvador

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.

Coffee roaster - Finca Rosa Blanca, Costa Rica

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 drying patio

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.

Testing coffee - 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 patios

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.

 

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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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