A Taster's Journey is a newsletter on food, wine and travel. After 15 years of studying, tasting, teaching, and selling wine, I created this newsletter to not only share my passion about wine, but of food and travel as well. Each month I hope to share wines that I am drinking, food that is in season, restaurants that I have enjoyed, and places I have traveled. Enjoy!"

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Costa Rica

April 29th, 2005

Kids in a Wheelbarrow

Kids in a Wheelbarrow

Costa Rica is a Central American gem that abounds in natural beauty, and has some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met. The country is tiny, about the size of West Virginia. It’s an isthmus only 175 miles wide, sandwiched between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. It may be small, but it is packed with natural treasures. About 25% of Costa Rica is protected wildlife preserves and National Parks, and it encompasses many different ecosystems. It is a dream vacation for botanists, bird watchers, and anyone that appreciates nature and wildlife.

Earlier this month I spent a week in the northwestern corner of Costa Rica on the Papagayo Peninsula. This strip of land juts out into the Pacific Ocean, and is made up of thousands of acres of undeveloped forests, dozens of secluded beaches, and a smattering of tiny beach towns and new hotels. This area of Costa Rica is dominated by dry forests which see very little rainfall between November and April, thus palm trees, cactus and some tropical flowers provide the color. Once the rains begin in April, new life is brought to this lush paradise.

White Faced Monkey

White Faced Monkey

Although many of the trees are dormant this time of year, the forest is still very much alive. Humming birds dart amongst the tropical flowers, iguanas stroll the beach, and monkeys fill the trees. One morning I took a nature walk with Carlos, a guide from the hotel. It was fascinating as he pointed out the empty turtle nests (they lay their eggs in September), the poisonous bark on a tree that the iguanas eat, and the various bird species. We saw a couple groupings of white faced monkeys, which are easy to spot since their white faces are like a white beacon in a forest of dark brown trees. They are active and playful, swinging amongst the branches and vines. We also heard the deep, raspy sounds of the howler monkey, which are harder to locate because they are completely brown, and blend well into the surroundings. Carlos said it’s best to see the howler just after dawn.

So the next morning I had a quick cup of coffee at 6 am, then grabbed my camera and headed back to the area I was yesterday with Carlos. Upon entering the forest I could hear a symphony of birds. Since the trees had few leaves, it was easy to see out to the blue waters of the Pacific, it was so calm and serene. The forest was almost eerie this time of morning because everything appeared so still. The first hundred yards up the path I only saw a few birds flitting about. Then in the distance I noticed a branch moving. As I got closer I could see a howler monkey reaching out grabbing berries. Then I noticed a second howler on another branch. I ended up counting seven howlers in all, three of them babies. They were all enjoying

Howler Monkey

Howler Monkey

their breakfast. It was humorous watching the monkeys, because as you were close, you realized that they were making a racket. The leaves and branches rustle as the monkeys move from limb to limb. Then as they grab for each berry, a continuous stream of berries and twigs fall into the pile of dead leaves that blanket the forest floor. How quickly things change, earlier you could only hear the melodious birds, now it was snap, crackle and pop.

The dry forest of the Papagayo Peninsula is just one of the many ecosystems on Costa Rica. It’s fascinating to see how quickly the environment changes as you drive toward the rain forest further inland. During the drive you can see how important agriculture and farming is to this country. There are miles and miles of farms, growing melons, mangos, sugar cane, pineapple, and coffee. Cattle is also

Suspension Bridge

Suspension Bridge

a huge export crop, in fact we were advised that McDonalds buy most of their beef from Costa Rica – a fact I would not necessarily be promoting. Driving through the dry forest, the grazing fields were brown and the cattle were quite scrawny. But as you approach the rain forest, the landscape gradually becomes more lush, and the cattle are bigger and healthier. It is truly amazing that the dry forest can be 95 degrees with no clouds and a blazing sun, but 50 miles inland the temperature is 20 degrees cooler with heavy clouds and and a constant mist. The rain forest is filled with huge trees soaring 50-80 feet into the air. Vines and moss are abundant while cactus are non-existent. It feels like there is a roof on the forest, and the leaves on these massive trees form a canopy of green. Suspension bridges are a common sight in the rain forests, they were built to allow visitors to observe life at the higher elevations which vary considerably from ground level. Birds can add bright color to this green and brown canvas of the forest, parrots and toucans being popular sightings, but visit early in the day before they hide from the tourists.

The shoreline adds great contrast to all the forests. The east coast is made up of surfing beaches, tiny fishing villages, large rain forests, and a Caribbean culture distinctly different from the rest of the country. The west coast is a jagged, rocky coastline on the Pacific Ocean. The beaches can vary considerably from secluded tranquil coves to wide expanses of beach with large waves.

Papagayo Coastline

Papagayo Coastline

Taking a small boat along the Papagayo coastline we were able to see many great spots for snorkeling and scuba diving. Coral is plentiful, and it’s a haven for hundreds of fish, many with bright colors and bold stripes. Scuba diving can be much more serious with many large fish like manta rays, and schools of hammerhead sharks. During our boat ride we visited the small town of Coco to have lunch. As you approach the little village you pass dozens of colorful fishing boats tied up to their buoys. It is easy to see that fishing is going to be the main occupation of Coco. This town is tiny, only one street, making it difficult to get lost. Walking up the street my initial impression is that we entered a dust bowl, but what do you expect when it is 95 degrees and it hasn’t rained for months. The Papagayo Restaurant was a fun culinary oasis, a fish shack painted blue and white with nautical paraphernalia decorating its walls. Starting with a round of margaritas helped us forget about the heat, and let us focus on fresh fish. The owner was reciting the fish specials for the day, and you could tell by the size of the crowd that the food must be good. I started with a cervice, which is a raw fish marinated in lime and herbs, it was so refreshing and delicious. We also ate sauteed red snapper and grilled lobster which were fabulous. This restaurant was a total home run. The rest of Coco was filled with dozens of colorful stores selling local products. Although the people were delightful, and colorful displays of bathing suits and cover-ups were fun, there were not any items that you really needed to buy.

The food in Costa Rica was pretty good, enough to satisfy this culinary psycho. Fresh fruit was abundant; mangos, melons, papayas, and pineapples were all delicious. The fish was also outstanding, and it couldn’t have been fresher. One day at my hotel a fishing boat pulled up, and the chef displayed the fisherman’s catch on a bed of ice. There were mahi mahi and three types of red snapper. The chef pointed out the blue and gold dots on the mahi mahi indicating that the fish had been caught within the last 3 hours. I selected a small red snapper that they cooked for me that day at lunch. It was grilled whole and seasoned with olive oil and herbs – simple but extraordinary.

Costa Rica is an unspoiled natural environment with a lot to experience. But the roads in Costa Rica are horrible, therefore it is very time consuming to visit the different regions. I would recommend a minimum of 10 days, staying in hotels close to the forests or beaches you want to visit. Monteverde is a good place for visiting the rain forest, and watching birds and butterflies. Arsenal is known for one of Costa Rica’s largest active volcanos that provides spectacular light shows nightly. It’s also popular for thermal baths and waterfalls. Papagayo is beautiful for snorkeling and scuba diving. Tamarindo is one of the most popular surfing towns, and is known for an active nightlife. I stayed in the new Four Seasons Hotel in Papagayo that received rave reviews. It was nice, but highly overrated and not worth the money. I would recommend visiting Costa Rica in November through February. March and April are too hot, and May through October can have considerable rain.

Living in New York, watching a squirrel climb a tree is as close as we get to watching wildlife. So I was

Iguana on the Beach

Iguana on the Beach

thrilled to see an iguana walk by the pool, a three toed sloth laying in a tree, and a family of monkeys having breakfast. I enjoyed visiting a country that has maintained most of its natural environments. It was exhilarating to ride along the shoreline on a boat and see mostly rocky cliffs and forests as opposed to condo developments. But the condos are coming, and unfortunately Costa Rica will change dramatically over the next ten years. If you love nature, then Costa Rica will be a real treat. I hope that you are able to visit soon.

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