Cows, Clouds, and Canopies

My alarm went off at 5:45am. To spare you the details, I had only been asleep for three hours and I wasn’t feeling at my best…due to my activities the night before.

I lurched out of bed and threw the last few things I needed into my backpack, forgetting several things in the process. The bus left at 6:30. An Uber ride later, my two friends and I were standing in a long line in the terminal, breathing sighs of relief that we had just barely made it. That relief was quickly squashed when Izzy boarded the bus first. The driver took one look at her ticket and wagged his finger at her. “That bus has already left,” he told us.

I can laugh about it now, because it’s been four days, but at the time we were completely crestfallen. The lack of sleep and dehydration did not help.

Our second attempt went much better, and I didn’t forget anything this time! At 2:30 that afternoon we were finally on our way to Monteverde, Costa Rica. You may have heard of it – the Cloud Forest Reserve is likely the country’s most popular and most advertised ecotourism destination. It’s higher in elevation and therefore colder than San José, and while walking through the Monteverde Biological Preserve you feel enveloped in clouds – hence the name. The area is home to dense rainforest, beautiful rolling hills, and farmland. I had booked an Airbnb a few days prior. It was located a bit outside of Santa Elena proper (the small town near the reserve) and unlike in more urban areas here, Ubers were not available. Thanks to our bus fiasco that morning, we were arriving much later than anticipated and I was worried about finding transportation from the bus station.

We ended up calling a few phone numbers for taxis that we found online, and finally struck gold. Little did we know that the man who answered the phone, Jorge, would become our best friend for the weekend (though we were initially nervous getting in his car late at night). It was drizzling as he took us up a steep, pothole-riddled road and eventually turned off into a dark gravel driveway. This was the entrance to Finca El Paraíso (or Paradise Farm). A woman who we would later know as Yolanda waved him down towards a cabin at the bottom. Jorge paused when the path turned to grass and became even steeper, but then barreled down and stopped with a jerk at the front door. Orlando, our Airbnb host, met us there.

“If I had seen you coming down, I would have told you to stop at the top,” he told Jorge. After we all introduced ourselves and brought our luggage in, we realized that that it was going to be a huge task getting that van back up the muddy hill. We ended up all piling into the back row as he revved it – apparently it just needed more weight and more traction in the back. That’s a strategy I might need in the future.

After calling him several different times to drive us to and from the town and the farm where we stayed, my friend Taylor saved Jorge’s WhatsApp number and he became essentially our on-call Uber. He still took care of us even after the hill incident, and even after Taylor left her phone in the backseat and made him drive all the way back. Shout out to you, Jorge.

The Airbnb was on a sustainable farm, hosted by a family that consisted of an elderly grandmother, her daughter and her husband, and their two children, Orlando and Carolina, who were both in their early 20s. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner were all available to purchase for $6 a meal, and they were prepared by Orlando’s mother, Yolanda. She poured her heart into that food. It was delicious. Every meal also came with great conversation with the family. The son and daughter spoke English, but we practiced our Spanish as much as possible.

We also paid to take their farm tour and cheesemaking class. I milked one of their cows, Matilda (who is three months pregnant!!) and got to bottle feed a calf. If you know me, you know that I am just a bit in love with cows – so this was a dream come true. Orlando walked us over to their pasture area and told us all about how they had once used pesticides that negatively affected his father’s health, and how Orlando had pioneered the switch to organic farming. He learned everything via YouTube and Netflix. Now, he said, the animals and the family were healthier and they were able to repopulate their land with native trees and vegetation.

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Roberto, their farm cat, looking out at the view.

Hanging out on the farm was the highlight of the weekend, but my second-favorite adventure began Saturday morning. While Izzy and some of our other friends who were staying at a hostel went bungee jumping (!!), the two other girls and I decided to go slightly safer and zipline instead. There are several ziplining canopy tours in the Monteverde area, but we chose the “original” one – which also happened to be the cheapest. Four guides took a group of us into the rainforest canopy, and we zoomed along cables VERY high over the forest floor. The view was incredible, and I felt secure even though at times I was literally dangling from one caribiner.

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I’ll skip over the rest of our stay, but it all went better than planned or expected. While some of my other weekends have left me feeling disappointed that I wasn’t able to fit in more activities, I felt fulfilled by every moment in Monteverde. After ziplining, we had lunch and then hiked in the cloud forest. Sunday, we did the farm tour, then shopped a bit in Santa Elena and that night went on a night tour to see wildlife. Early Monday morning we left the Airbnb early this time and hopped on the bus back to San José.

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Sunset our last night at Finca El Paraíso
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Arroz y Frijoles: Daily Eats in San José

As someone who actively looks forward to each meal of the day, obviously I was excited to try all the food I could while in Costa Rica. The first day I arrived, my host mom was delighted that I had no dietary restrictions and was eager to taste anything. Later she would learn about my aversion to regular milk as I went on a hunt for oat milk instead, but besides that I genuinely do like everything.

The Costa Rican diet revolves around rice and beans. “Casado” is the traditional plate of food served for lunch or dinner, and consists of rice, black beans, fried plantains, a meat of choice, and often some lettuce and tomato as a small salad. Pretty much every restaurant here serves casado in some form or another, though there is a lot of variation from place to place which is what makes it so good every time – you’re never really eating the same exact thing. For example, last night our host mom made us casado with steak, potatoes, rice, beans, and plantains. The meat is always seasoned and cooked perfectly, and the fried plantains are the best part. Cecelia, our host mom, makes them in a little mini deep fryer. Last night she brought out a giant plate piled high with plantains. “I made extra because you girls like them so much!” she told us. You’d think something sweet and almost dessert-y wouldn’t go well with a bite of potato and steak, but it really does.

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Last night’s dinner – steak, potatoes, rice, plantains.
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Casado lunch from a restaurant in Cartago this past weekend.

Another component of lunches and dinners is a cold drink. It’s normal to be offered an agua fresca made from some type of fruit. Most restaurants have several flavors available every day – strawberry, passionfruit, pineapple, or a sour-sweet fruit called cas. From my understanding it’s really just fruit and water blended together – but how could you go wrong with that? Our host mom usually serves agua de cas or agua de piña. We also often drink this iced tea that is popular everywhere here – basically just sweet tea.

In the mornings, for breakfast, the rice and beans from last night’s casado are fried together with sliced yellow onion to make gallo pinto, probably Costa Rica’s most well-known and recognizable dish. It just looks like beans and rice stirred together, so when I first got here I was a little unimpressed. However, it’s so freaking good. The onions give the rice a ton of flavor and everything’s a little crispier than it was the night before. Usually my host mom serves it straight up, but I’ve had it at a few restaurants with toppings like fried eggs, pico de gallo, avocado, and bacon. If take any dish back to the States when I return to make for myself, it’ll be gallo pinto.

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Gallo pinto (bottom right) along with fruit, pancakes, and coffee at a hotel breakfast.

If we don’t have gallo pinto in the morning, it’s likely we’ll have cubes of fruit and perhaps a sandwich or a couple pancakes. Today, Cecelia make sandwiches with toasted bread, ham, tomato, and refried beans.

My only complaint about the Costa Rican diet is that costarricenses don’t seem to tolerate spicy food. I practically dump Valentina or Tabasco on everything at home, but I’ve only encountered hot sauce as an option at a few restaurants, and we ended up buying our own. Even the hot sauce they do have is not quite spicy enough for me – but the flavor is delicious.

I could go on and on about food here. I haven’t even mentioned the alcoholic beverages. (Let’s just say the margaritas are hit or miss but I’ve learned to love a spicy shot of chiliguaro.) That’ll be for another post.