Costa Rica must do’s

I have been a blogging slacker this last month. I was in Costa Rica (and only made one blog post) for nine days with Extension colleagues from other Universities in the North Central Region, where we focused on leadership and cultural immersion. After completing this opportunity, my Mom met me in Costa Rica where we spent a few more days before heading to Panama City! Now that I am back and getting settled back into a routine, I want to share some of my Costa Rica experiences, observations, and recommendations with you (I will do another post on Panama).

First, Costa Rica is awesome. If you have ever thought about going there, I would highly recommend it. While this was not my first international trip, it was my first trip to Central America. Naturally, I had done some research about the country, the people, and the sites to see. I try to not have many expectations when I go to a new place or country, and try to be a sponge and just take it all in. I will say that I was very pleasantly surprised with how friendly and hospitable the Ticos (Costa Rican people) are, they also tried to speak English when possible and tolerated my terrible Spanish when needed. After coming back and getting settled back into a routine, I am realizing how much I miss the laid-back, easy going atmosphere.

While we did not get to see the entire country (I will have to return someday to do the things I did not have a chance to do this time), I do want to share some of my favorite places (so far) with you.

1. Take a farm visit! I had a chance to visit both a dairy farm and a coffee plantation – and both were excellent. I visited Finca La Florita, a dairy farm in Santa Cruz, Turrialba, (yes, the infamous Turrialba cheese if you are a cheese connoisseur), with my colleagues. The hospitality was amazing, and we had an excellent time. The hosts were prepared to answer a battery of questions from us about their livestock, their family run cheese making business, their marketing and promotion plan, and more. And I had a chance to make cheese by hand! It was so relaxing, and I may have found a new hobby! (I will share more about this in another blog post). As part of another tour, my Mom and I visited Doka Coffee plantation. Our tour guide was great and went through the entire process of growing and harvesting the beans, to roasting them. Of course we got to sample the various coffees. (PS – Costa Rica is known for its coffee, and chocolate, so these people know their coffee). In addition to the dairy tour, some of my colleagues had opportunities to visit coffee, chocolate, sugar cane, and agritourism farms – and all of the farm visits came back with rave reviews, I really don’t think you can go wrong. It seems the Ticos have this agri/eco-tourism thing down and they do it well!

Turrialba cheese (unpasteurized) – two kinds: regular with salt and the other had peppers and celery in it. Both were excellent!
Learning more about coffee roasting at Doka Coffee Plantation.

2. Go to the volcanoes! My Mom and I had a chance to take two 1-day tours and we saw two of Costa Rica’s five active volcanoes: Irazu Volcano National Park and Poas Volcano National Park. We were VERY lucky on both days and had great visibility of the craters, we have been told by several that they were not so lucky, and never saw the craters. Of the two, we preferred Poas Volcano National Park, it was a very green and lush area (hard to believe since the last eruptions occurred in October 2012!). It was a short walk to the initial crater, which is very sulfuric, but offers a great view. Next a more intensive walk, at an altitude of 8,900 feet, took us to Botos Lake which occupies an extinct crater, it was eerily beautiful. Irazu Volcano National Park was very different from Poas. Irazu also has a look out point of the crater; there was no water pooled in the crater on our visit and the sulfur was much less intense. We were told that when there is water pooled in the crater it can go from pepto-pink to lime green in color. The area surrounding Irazu looked like it could be a setting for a sci-fi movie with a large desolate area, with a ton of ash and very little plant life. There was another look out point much higher up, but we didn’t have a chance to hike up there on our visit, I am sure the view would have been great. We were very glad to have seen two very different volcanoes. My Costa Rican bucketlist includes visiting the other three volcanoes.

Poas Volcano National Park.
Botos Lake at Poas Volcano National Park.
Irazu Volcano National Park.

3. Ziplining! If you are in Costa Rica you need to go ziplining. It is an amazing experience in a cloud forest. We went to Volcan Barva for our experience. I hear there are more intensive and exhilarating ziplines; but for newbies, this was a great start. There were 14 in our group that day, with four guides, so I always felt safe and in good hands. The guides were all very experienced, knowledgeable, and humorous. We had a chance to do eight different lines that day, each building on the others as the confidence was built. The experience culminated with the biggest and fastest zipline speeding past a waterfall! There were definitely more peels of laughter than screams of fright. One of the guides also acted as the photographer, it was fun to look back at the photos of the experience. I would definitely do this again!


4. Visit the churches and cathedrals. Even if you do not consider yourself to be a religious person, the history is amazing. Apparently, earthquakes are very hard on churches, and it won’t take long in Costa Rica to hear how churches have been destroyed and rebuilt after a devastating earthquake (or fire). Grecia is home to entirely metal church, which upon reading more of the history I have discovered it came from Belgium!  The Basilica of Los Angeles has a very interesting story in that a religious image was repeatedly seen on a rock, it was believed to be a miracle, and the church was built on that miraculous site. Today there are still many miracles performed there and an entire section has been dedicated to displaying those miracles through shrines and tokens of the miracle (can be in the healing of a body part, a home, the blessing of a child, etc. – the list is endless). We also got to see the oldest church in Orosi – Iglesia de San Jose de Orosi (built in 1743). Traditionally, churches faced east so they could face Jerusalem and the rising sun. This church faces west, we were told because they believed in the power of the setting sun.

Metal church in Grecia.
Basilica of Los Angeles.
Costa Rica’s oldest church in Orosi.

5. Go to a botanical garden. I am not a horticulturalist by any means, but I do appreciate the beauty of it. In Costa Rica we had a chance to visit two botanical gardens, one on CATIE and another called the Lankester Botanical Gardens. Both were amazing and offered many species of ferns, orchids, as well as many other plants, trees, and flowers I have already forgotten. We had a chance to see leaf-cutter ants working too, and heard that they are nocturnal, so if they are working during the day a rain is coming. At both places we had a bilingual guide, which was awesome because then we could learn more about the gardens and the fun facts or potential healing properties the plants possessed.

Jorge, our guide at CATIE, showing us the Cannonball Tree.
Just one of the thousands of the orchids at Lankester Botanical Gardens.
A Japanese themed area at the Lankester Botanical Gardens – very beautiful area!

6. National Parks. My colleagues and I had a chance to visit both Guayabo National Monument and Tapanti National Park. Guayabo National Park and Monument is on the slopes of Turrialba Volcano. It is considered to be Costa Rica’s most significant and only true archaeological site. Records of the ruins go back to the mid 1800s. Interestingly, the ruins remained hidden until 1968 when a local landowner out on a walk with her dogs discovered what she thought was a tomb. As archaeologists later discovered it was the site of a chief’s house within a community. It is estimated this community included 10,000 people and covers 49 acres (only 10 have been excavated due to lack of funding). The city was abandoned, due to either disease or war. We had a great guided tour with a very knowledgeable, passionate, and bilingual tour guide. Tapanti National Park offers great trails for all levels of ability and distance. We visited the day after a rain, so it was a little muddy on some of the hikes. If you have a chance, visit the main building where you can park (and use restrooms), as there is some great and detailed artwork of local wildlife and well as some taxidermy animals on display. At National Parks and other educational venues in Costa Rica, be prepared to see two different prices. The Ticos are charged a much lower entrance fee than non-locals. We were told that this was because they want to encourage locals to visit and learn about their country’s history. Regardless, all of the fees were reasonable and a great time was had at everything.

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Some of the archaeological sites at Guayabo National Park and Monument.
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A great artifact uncovered at Guayabo National Park and Monument.
Posing with a three-toed sloth at Tapanti National Park.

7. Try all of the local foods. I had heard a lot about the amount of rice and beans (gallo pinto) we would be eating. And to be honest I was a little nervous about the effect beans can have on people, and when you are traveling with 40 people, it could be interesting. But it was great! It was black beans (most of the time) and rice, flavored with cilantro, maybe peppers, and spices. It was actually very good, and was enjoyable for breakfast, lunch, and dinner! I was also told that arroz con pollo (rice and chicken) is a native dish, so I had it for dinner one evening. While it was more similar to chicken stir-fried rice, and much different than the arroz con pollo I grew up eating, it was not bad, just different. Be prepared for copious amounts of fresh fruit juice. It was great to be able to choose a nice glass of juice from all of the local fruits (pineapple, mango, cuss, guanabana, etc.) and it was very thirst quenching after being out and hiking around.  And finally, when in Costa Rica abandon your restrictions on dieting, as they have some amazing milk desserts. We had Dulce de Leche (in many forms), fruit over ice cream, delicious ice cream by itself (I recommend Pops as the place to get ice cream), rice pudding, flan, coffee flan, fried plantain, and many others – all of which were awesome.

Costa Rican breakfast: gallo pinto (rice and beans), eggs with ham, fried plantains and fresh fruit. Yum!
Costa Rican arroz con pollo (chicken and rice).
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Delicious rice pudding!

8. The local artisans! We had a chance to meet several vendors that made and sold jewelry. The jewelry was made of local “natural” elements – seeds, shells, nuts, woods, etc. The artisans are so creative in how they combine something so simple into something beautiful and unique. I had a chance to visit Sarchi (home to the World’s Largest Ox Cart). Sarchi is also known for their elaborate and detailed painting (which adorns the cart and many other items throughout the town). At one of the souvenir shops, local artisans were actually making trays, wheels, and other wooden items which were in turn being painted on the spot! It was amazing to be able to watch their talented work, and it was very motivating to buy a piece of this art to take home to display in your home.

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Ox-eye bean (also called Deer-eye beans or hamburger seeds) – adorns locally made jewelry. Note the prickly exterior of the pod!
The World’s Largest Ox Cart in Sarchi.
Local artisans painting Sarchi platters and other wooden goods.

As I mentioned, these were just a few of my favorite things about Costa Rica. The longer you are there the more you want to see and do. I already have a Costa Rica bucket list started for someday when I return. I was so amazed as the hospitality, generosity, and kindness of the Ticos. Pura Vida! I will make several more posts about my experiences in Costa Rica – stay tuned!

Not my photo – but it sums up Costa Rica nicely!

*Note: I am not promoting one brand/location/company over another, the examples provided here were from my personal experiences. Do research and see what will work best for you on your adventure.


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