I was extremely fortunate with my December exam schedule; I had reasonably spaced exams and the last one was to be written online, meaning I could be pretty much anywhere in the world for it so long as I had a reliable internet connection. I took a bit of a gamble on being able to find somewhere that had wireless, a power outlet, and would be willing to put up with me sitting there for about four hours, and went ahead and booked my flight to Costa Rica to arrive at the same time as Paul, a day before my last exam. Lucky me, there was a hotel just around the corner from our rented cottage that not only fit the bill, but also made a fabulous tipico breakfast. Paul and I walked over there and ate breakfast together, and then Paul left me to write my final while he drove around town doing errands like purchasing beach towels and renting surf boards. He met back up with me during the last 10 minutes of my exam and brought me a cold beer. I'm fairly certain that there isn't an exam writing experience much more awesome than sipping on a frosty cervaza in an open air restaurant near Dominical, Costa Rica.
I'm sure it will come as no surprise when I say that one of my favourite parts of travelling is the food, and this being my third spin around Costa Rica, I had my sights set on some tipico, and also on some not so tipico! Exam done with and nearly three weeks of holiday still ahead of us, we packed up our rental car and headed north to one of our favourite spots from our previous trip. Playa Grande lies just slightly north of the tourist trap of Tamarindo, but is a protected turtle nesting sight, which has prevented a lot of development. The surf is good, the locals are friendly, and there is the best little taco shack I've ever been to on the beach. They make two kinds of tacos; beef and veggie, which are made to order in an electric skillet so teeny they can only turn out three at a time. Still, they come out fast, and the flour tortillas are hot and crispy, stuffed with avocado, onion, jalapeno, and a cheese sauce.
Last year we discovered La Roca restaurant by accident on our drive between Playa Grande and Samara. We were descending from the mountains down towards the beach, and had been stopping on the side of windy mountain roads and leaping precariously into the roads to try and get pictures of the beautiful mountain valleys. Shortly after giving up and continuing on our drive, we spotted La Roca. It doesn't look like much from the side of the road, but once you're inside and seated at the edge of their open air restaurant, you know why you're there.
Not only do they have one of the best view around, and frosty cervazas (can you tell this is going to be a theme?), but a contender for one of the best casados we had on our trip. Casados are tipico cuisine. Rice and beans show up at every meal, much to the joy of this bean loving vegetarian. Breakfast (pictured at the top) is usually gallo pinto (mixed rice and beans) with some eggs, maybe toast, sour cream, and/or cheese. Lunch and dinner is a casado, which is a plate of rice, beans, cabbage salad with some tomato salsa on top, plantains, sometimes cheese, and some meat or fish. I asked for a casado without any meat, and the charming server, who was maybe 14 at absolute tops, asked if I wanted eggs instead. It was the only time anyone offered up anything to replace the meat with, which isn't something I really worried about since rice and beans form a complete protein, but was a nice touch nonetheless.
Like most restaurants in Costa Rica, La Roca is a family business. My favourite part was the younger brother, I don't know, maybe 10 years old, who kept coming by and wiping our table, chatting to us, and pointing things out. I don't speak much more Spanish than "uno mas, par favor", and he spoke no English, but that didn't stop us from carrying on a pleasant conversation. He pointed out a spot just off of the balcony where they had papayas nailed to a wooden board to attract, quite literally, the birds and the bees. And then he pointed to a wooden box resting on the rail just beside our table. It took me a while to figure it out, but when he started cupping teeny bees in his hands and showing me how they crawled into a small tube at the opening of the box, I realized they were making honey. The second picture of the honey box is, I think, my absolute favourite of any picture I took on this trip. Sunsets be damned! After we settled the tab for our meal, the older boy was asking us something we didn't understand and and indicating the cost would be 5000 colones (about $10). Only later did I realize that he was probably asking us if we'd like to buy some of the honey they were making. I wish we had.
I love Samara for the beautiful beach and the total lack of anything to do other than lie around reading books, or sitting in a rocking chair at a beach front bar sipping tropical blender drinks. You haven't lived until you've had a pina colada made from fresh pineapple and fresh young coconut meat. Samara was also where we had our first, and best, copo of the trip. I never got a picture of copos that really showcased how good they are, mostly because they melt really fast in the scorching heat and because I was normally too busy enjoying one to bother with taking out my camera. Copos are the best beach treat ever, and street food at its finest. Vendors walk up and down the beach wheeling a canopy covered cart, which opens to reveal a huge brick of ice, and various accoutrements. They use a gadget to shave the ice that can be best described as a sort of hand held planer with a small receptacle attached to catch the shavings. The shavings are packed into a cup, doused with some red syrup, then a couple of scoops of powdered milk, if you're lucky a spoon full of fruit cocktail, then more shaved ice, more syrup, and, the best part, a drizzle of sweetened condensed milk over the top. You get a spoon and a straw, and then you go to town. I'm not sure if you're supposed to stir the whole thing into a slushy creamy fruity treat, but I tend to eat it layer by layer, savoring the differences as I get down to the bottom, where inevitably the powdered milk and syrup and melted ice have mixed into a wonderful slushy drink. We tried to get at least one copo per day, fancying ourselves copo experts with discriminating pallets, comparing tasting notes and vendor technique from one copo cart to another. I think Paul would agree that the first was the best, as it not only contained the elusive tinned fruit (the only one on this trip that did), but also a cookie straw. After seeing a copo vendor on the side of the road, we literally pulled a u-turn on the highway during the drive back to San Jose on our last day, just so we could get one last copo. They are that good. If only we could figure out how to get a copo cart down the stairs to Wreck Beach, we could make millions. Millions, I tell you.
I think the cows in Costa Rica are the most beautiful creachers in the entire universe. They have the most hauntingly beautiful faces, framed by the longest, softest ears I have ever seen. Seeing them, I understand how people from India revere cows as deities. I get it. This magnificent beast was standing by the side of the road during one of our drives, I think maybe from Samara to Santa Teresa. I made Paul stop the car so I could get out and photograph it, but I didn't get too many pictures because I didn't want to spook it, and I was standing in the middle of a bend in the road, and Tico drivers are crazy. When I got back in the car Paul asked me if I was happy, and I told him yes I was. But what I really meant was yes, but I want to take pictures of ALL of the cows. I want to be WITH the cows. I LOVE the cows.
This is what $4 will buy you from a roadside fruit stand in Dominical. Yum. Papaya, mango, insanely sweet teeny bananas, watermelon, pineapple, and a bunch of limons (green on the outside, and a sour but mellow orange fruit on the inside). The coconut we had bought on the side of the road as a drink, and we later smashed it open and scraped the meat out.
If you have all that, you can make a Boxing Day breakfast that looks like this:
And you can eat it here:
After our week long spin around the Nicoya Peninsula, we settled back into our rented cottage near Dominical for the duration of our stay. It was nice to have a kitchen and be able to do some our own cooking. We tended to make breakfast and lunches, and eat dinners out. One day we were hanging out at the local dive and surf shop chatting with Michael and Alicia (who hooked us up with our rental cottage, surf boards, and pretty much anything else we were looking for) when Michael waved at the driver of a large unmarked truck driving by, and the truck stopped on the dusty road in front of the shop. Michael grabbed some cash and leaped into the back of the truck, and I followed him in there. The truck was loaded with crates of fresh fruits and veggies, so I grabbed a bag and filled it with whatever I thought we would make use of in our little kitchen with a two burner stove and nothing else. The veggie truck guy peered into my bag, lifted it up and down, weighing it in his hand, and then told me it would be 2000 colones ($4). Deal.
Add some corn tortillas, eggs, hot sauce, and the ubiquitous Linzano salsa, and you've got all the fixings for a post-surf breakfast picnic on the beach. And you can add some cold cervazas, because it's after 1oam and you're on vacation. Go ahead, fix yourself a breakfast taco. You know you wanna.
We did a day trip to the Manuel Antonio National Park one day, which was a crazy busy tourist trap outside the park, but had lovely and reasonably quiet beaches inside the park. We stopped at the beach and felt fairly confident leaving our backpack and cooler, which had the fixings for sandwiches inside, on the beach while we played in the warm water. It was the only time we left any of our belongings unattended on a beach during our trip, and, as luck would have it, the only time we had anything stolen. Monkeys. Stole. Our. Cheese. And then sat in the trees looking down at us, munching on our cheese, as we shook our fists at them and lamented the much more bland sandwiches we would now be eating. Lesson learned.
Little markets pepper the sides of the highways, and we always found great things there. Plantain chips, bought from markets like these, became a daily habit. We are now in full withdrawl.
And then, three weeks had passed in the blink of an eye, and it was the last supper. We drove to Alajuela and stayed there on our last night, since we had an early flight the next morning. The lady at our hotel's reception recommended a nice Italian restaurant nearby, but as we are wont to do, we went exploring for one last night of local cuisine. After enjoying some beers in a cramped but lively dive of a bar, we spotted this place above the shops, and sat out on the balcony over looking the busy street below for our last tipico Tico meal. We both had casados, mine veggie and Paul's with fish, and although it's tough to make a call without comparing all three side by side, this last casado was definitely a contender for the best. It was way too dark to take a picture of it, so I leave you with this, the last picture that Paul took of me on our trip. Good times, and good food were had by all.
All text and photos © The Muffin Myth 2011