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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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.

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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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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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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 [email protected] (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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