Exploring Guanacaste: Liberia

Let’s be honest, not many people go to Costa Rica to hang out in Liberia, but it actually has an interesting history. It was once part of Nicaragua, has been nicknamed the “White City” for its historic whitewashed colonial homes and is capital of the province of Guanacaste, land of sabaneros (cowboys), beaches and volcanos. However, as it contains the country’s second international airport, it’s mostly known as a jumping off point to discover the other parts of the province, especially the beautiful beaches of the Nicoya peninsula (Playa Tamarindo, Playa del Coco, Playa Hermosa, etc.) less than an hour away.

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Granizado vendor in the main plaza of Liberia

But, let me tell you, it’s actually a pretty cool ‘real’ Tico town with few tourists and a bit of a Wild West flavor. We spent a couple nights in the area in order to visit Nicaragua and renew our visas, but also to explore Liberia and nearby Rincón de la Vieja National Park, an active volcano (stay tuned for next post)!

There’s not a ton to do there, but it’s definitely worth a stop as there are some historic colonial homes from the 1800s along Calle Real, a lovely main plaza and a modern church (which wasn’t my cup of tea, architecturally speaking, but hey, to each their own).

My highlight was visiting la Ermita de la Agonía, Liberia’s oldest church built in the mid-19th century. It’s a beautiful colonial church constructed of adobe and wooden beams, and there was a wedding going on when we stopped by so we were able to take a peak inside.

Of course, we have to find a playground in every city to let off some steam and right next to la Agonía is a nice park with playground that we enjoyed multiple times. 🙂 This one even had ariel acrobats practicing on their silk fabric which they had hung from the huge trees as well as jugglers. It was like a two for one deal…circus show + playground. Score!

Liberia also offers the Museo de Guanacaste, set in an imposing fortress like structure which was used as a jail currently undergoing a renovation, as well as the Museo del Sabanero (Cowboy Museum) which was unfortunately closed when we wanted to check it out.

As far as food goes, there is a sushi restaurant there. Yes SUSHI! It’s called Sushi To Go and we had to try out as we haven’t had sushi since we arrived. I know…the things we’ve sacrificed! Ha! Palmer and I tried to temper our enthusiasm and keep expectations in check (we even hauled out the iPad and iPhone for the kids…we weren’t going to let anything stop us from enjoying this meal), but we were pleasantly surprised how awesome it was. Good service and delicious sushi! So, if you’re ever in Liberia and need a sushi fix, check out Sushi To Go!

I’m sure Liberia will soon be on the tourist map as it has all the makings of a great destination – rich cultural history, pleasant main plaza and modern church along with the historic La Agonía and a couple of unique museums…oh, and don’t forget sushi! What more could one want?

 

 

Colorful Cacao to Delectable Chocolate

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What better way to follow up a coffee tour blog than to post about CHOCOLATE (another of my staple indulgences)! Palmer and I went to a cool place called Choco Tour the other day located in La Garita, Costa Rica (about 20 minutes from both Atenas and the San José airport) which offers an informative hour and a half tour about the cacao plant and fruit, how the cacao is processed to produce chocolate and the history of chocolate dating from Pre-Columbian times.

We were the only ones for the 11am tour so we enjoyed a private tour with our guide Óscar who was very informative and passionate about everything chocolate related. He showed us some of the cacao plants, explained where they grow (i.e. rainy, tropical areas such as the Arenal and Limon regions of Costa Rica), and we then tasted the sweet white pulp surrounding the seeds of a mature cacao fruit. It was delicious!

He then explained how they dry the seeds which takes about 3 weeks before they are able to remove the skin and grind the cacao into a powder which is then used to make chocolate. We learned all about how chocolate evolved in Europe from a tasty beverage to bars of chocolate after being brought to the continent from the New World in the 16th century.

We then poured our own 75% cacao mix into molds and were able to choose our own ‘extras’ of almonds, sea salt and/or chile flakes, which we later enjoyed at the end of the tour. YUM!

In the final part of the tour, Óscar explained the ancient history of cacao, what it meant to the Mayans and Aztecs, and how they used it. The word ‘chocolate‘ is said to come from the Mayan word ‘xocolatl’ which means ‘bitter water.’ At that time, they did not have sugar to sweeten it so it was very bitter.

The Aztecs saw the cacao seed as a gift from Quetzalcoatl, the god of wisdom. It was served as a drink, cold, and mixed with spices such as anise, vanilla, paprika, and pepper that only the rulers, shamans, warriors and honored guests were able to enjoy. In fact, cacao became so valuable in Aztec society, more than gold or silver, that the beans were used as a form of currency.

Of course Choco Tour sells some of their own chocolate bars and specialty items so we had to buy a few Costa Rican chocolate treats to take home. The sugar-coated toasted cacao seeds are especially unique and delicious!

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If you’re ever near San José or the airport and looking to fill a couple hours, check them out!

Our Border Run to Nicaragua

We’ve been here for 3 months already (wow!), which means we needed to renew our 90 day visas and do a border run. Many longer-term expats in Costa Rica do a day trip to Nicaragua or Panama to take care of the visa, but we wanted make a weekend of it so we headed to the northwestern part of Costa Rica (Guanacaste), famous for its beautiful beaches, and visited Nicaragua at the border crossing of Peñas Blancas to get our visas renewed.

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Arriving back into Costa Rica after renewing our visas in Nicaragua.

The 4 hour drive from Atenas to Playas del Coco was an adventure in and of itself with beautiful views, mostly two lane roads and a variety of different landscapes – mountains, tropical forests, the Pacific Coast and finally the dry, flat Guanacaste region known for its sabaneros (cowboys) and cattle.

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Playas del Coco

We based ourselves at an AirBnB condo in Playas del Coco for 3 nights and enjoyed spending time at the beach, swimming in the pool of our little complex and exploring the area. Playas del Coco is a cute town once you get to know it with basically one dusty main street lined with restaurants, shops and a couple of grocery stores that ends at the beach. It seems that stand-alone houses are few and far between here. Rather, lots of condo complexes surround the town and there are many more tourists here than we typically see. The beach wasn’t our favorite in the area as the water was cloudy and the sand was rocky, but the sunsets were beautiful, the boardwalk was lively with food vendors, tourists and weekending Tico families, and we found some amazing sea urchins at low tide.

 

We also visited Playa Hermosa just north of Playas del Coco to watch the sunset and enjoy dinner at Aqua Sport, located in the sand right in front of the beach.  The made-to-order ceviche and whole pargo rojo (red snapper) were amazing. The sand was much nicer here and there were lots of people enjoying the long wide beach.

 

Last but not least, we drove the 10 minutes to Playa Ocotal located just south of Playas del Coco and spent our last morning there. An almost deserted black sand beach, this was unexpectedly our favorite of the three! It was a smaller beach with calm clear blue water, amazing tide pools with tons of life and lots of beautiful seashells. Snorkeling off the beach is also popular here. You do need to be aware of riptides as the signs note as it gets deep quickly and currents can change, but we stayed in the shallows. Apparently, Father Rooster’s is the place to grab lunch as they are right on the beach and well-known for their fantastic pub fare, but we unfortunately had to hit the road.

 

Thankfully our border run to Nicaragua overall went very smoothly. We planned for spending the better part of the day to make the 1.5 hour drive to the border, do the crossing and then drive back to our AirBnB, and despite an extra half hour getting there due to construction and an extra hour on the way home due to an accident ahead of us, it all went according to plan. We had amazing views of three volcanoes (Miravalles, Rincón de la Vieja and Orosi) just east of the route which also made the trip pretty special.

The crossing at Peñas Blancas is a busy one so there was about a 4km line of trucks waiting to cross into Nicaragua. They have to go through a different process so we were able to pass them and parked right in front of the Costa Rican border crossing. There were a lot of people wanting to ‘help’ us for a tip but we said no thanks as it’s a pretty straight forward (thanks to My Tan Feet for that). After paying our $7 per person exit tax, we waited in the short line to have our passports stamped out of Costa Rica. Next step is to walk or hire a pedicab over to the Nicaraguan border in order to enter Nicaragua. Of course, we opted for the quick and fun pedicab ride.

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Pedicab ride
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Nicaraguan border crossing office

The Nicaraguan border agent confirmed with us that we were just staying for the day, we paid the $12 per person entrance fee and he then stamped our passports. Then we were officially in Nicaragua which was a bit livelier than the Costa Rican side with a bunch of little stands and shops selling latest in wares as well as a number of small sodas (typical, family run restaurants) with meats grilling right out front. We chose one and enjoyed a delicious lunch (rice, beans, grilled chicken, cheese, tortilla and salad) complete with a Victoria, the national cerveza of Nicaragua, to celebrate our arrival.

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After our celebratory lunch, we turned around and headed back out of Nicaragua paying our exit fees and then pedicabbed it back to the Costa Rican office where we waited in yet another line to get stamped back into the country. All in all, it was a long day with two little ones, but it was an adventure and we were happy it all went smoothly.

We’re now trying to decide where our next border run will be in early February – Nicaragua again but maybe at Los Chiles instead of Peñas Blancas, Panama, or we may take a flight to Guatemala (to visit Antigua) or Mexico City and make another weekend trip out of the event.  Any suggestions?

Highlights of the Central Valley

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The Central Valley of Costa Rica is located in the center of the country (surprise surprise) and is well known for its coffee production, gorgeous vistas, narrow windy roads, quaint towns and authentic villages. I think of it as the cultural center of the country, and I love that we are living in this region with that being one of the main reasons.

Here are a few towns that we’ve enjoyed exploring in the Central Valley:

Sarchí

Radiating color, Sarchí is a lovely small town nestled in the hills about an hour from San José and not far off the route to the Arenal Volcano so it’s a great place to stop on your way there or even on the way back. It’s most known for its high quality locally made furniture, carretas (elaborately painted oxcarts which were used to haul coffee beans) and artesanía (handicrafts) which make for lovely souvenirs or home decor. The main plaza contains a stately mint green colonial church as well as the world’s largest (supposedly) oxcart. Palmer and I just recently made a trip there to purchase some wall art for our home and it was a success! The Eloy Alfaro Factory just a short walk from the parque central is a must-visit. Yes, it’s a tourist trap and on the pricey side, but it has a huge selection of quality products AND it’s a historic oxcart factory which is really fascinating. The employees are happy to give you a little tour of how the machines run using hydro-power and you can even see the local artists at work painting in the back. Sarchí is a great stop for a couple hour visit!

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Okay, there is nothing ‘handmade’ about this poster, but isn’t this a cool find in Sarchí for some local flair for our walls? Oscar loved pointing out the starfruit which he’d never seen before after we found a tree and brought a couple home the other day.

Grecia

Grecia (or ‘Greece’ in English, and yes, we live in Atenas, ‘Athens’ in English) is another small town located just about 15 minutes from Sarchí so they make for a nice little combo visit. Famed for it’s red metal church (Catedral de la Mercedes) that was made in Belgium and then sent to Costa Rica, it’s a beautiful symbol of the town. It’s also billed as “The Cleanest Town in Latin America” so it’s got that going for it. And last but not least, Grecia is where you come to buy a used car in the Central Valley. Palmer can attest to that and we spent many hours visiting the numerous tiny used car dealerships (most have between 10 and 50 cars) on the road heading south out of town to find the best ‘deal’. After many test drives of cars 10-15 years old, and carrying thousands in cash in my backpack for 2 days, we finally made a decision and got it done after 20 minutes in the lawyer’s office (yes, a lawyer is required to purchase a vehicle in Costa Rica)!

Special shout-out to Café del Patio, an amazing restaurant just a block and a half off the parque central! This small and fairly new restaurant offers some seriously exquisite sandwiches and main dishes at very reasonable prices. Palmer and I both ordered the veggie sandwich made with their freshly baked bread which came with french fries and a delicious small salad topped with fresh bean sprouts and just the right amount of homemade citrus vinaigrette dressing. Of course, I always order the fresco natural de maracuyá (passion fruit juice) to go along with any meal here if they offer it. It’s seriously my favorite (nonalcoholic) beverage. Everything was FIRST RATE in quality, presentation and taste! At first we were a little confused wondering why the waiters seemed so somber and unfriendly, but we soon realized they take their food and service very serious. The chef (wearing a Cordon Bleu Paris shirt!) even came out of the open-air kitchen to ask how our meal was. We’ll definitely be back here!  (Okay, I just reread this section and wow, can you tell I’ve been doing some side hustling as a travel blog writer? Think I might need to tone it down a bit. Ha!)

Zarcero

This little town is definitely more off the beaten path and the journey along the narrow road (north of Naranjo) with breathtaking valley views at every turn is half the fun. There are lots of little roadside stands selling honey and queso palmito (locally made fresh cheese) along the route and the area is well known for its organic farming. As for the town itself, it’s lovely blueish purplish Iglesia de San Rafael, overlooks the famed Parque Francisco Alvarado, a garden-like park with the bushes trimmed into huge animals and interesting designs. It’s fun to try to figure them all out, and the kids had a blast playing hide and seek.

Barva

Another charming town surrounded by mountains, we took a drive here one Sunday and enjoyed the playgrounds on the parque central which sits in front of the imposing Iglesias San Bartolomé and strolling with the locals. Café Britt (the most famous coffee producer in Costa Rica) and Finca Rosa Blanca offer coffee plantation tours which we haven’t yet done, but it’s on the list. We did visit the Museo de Cultura Popular which is just outside of the downtown. It’s a really neat little museum housed in an old farmhouse and its surrounding gardens that is operated by the Universidad Nacional. There are little exhibits dotting the property that highlight different aspects of Costa Rican culture…from kids games to local festivals to coffee production to what a typical 19th century farmhouse looked like. It’s free on Sundays and also has an onsite restaurant that looked very nice.

This is just a taste of what we’ve discovered so far in the Central Valley and there is still more on the list – Orosí Valley and Turrialba to name a few.

It’s also a great base from which to explore the rest of the country which is a good thing as we have lots of fun trips to other areas coming up in the next two months (Guanacaste border run, Puerto Viejo and Cahuita on the Southern Caribbean coast and Tortuguero to see wildlife). Stay tuned my friends!