Monday, November 21, 2005

“Pura Vida" in Costa Rica – Chapter 6: Leaving It All For “Pura Vida”

One of the most interesting people we met in Costa Rica was a waitress. In reality, she was much more, but we got to know her as a food server in one of Playa Tamarindo’s best restaurants.

Her name is Olivia. She is mid to late 30’s, slim, attractive, very professional in her work and obviously quite intelligent. The evening of our offshore fishing excursion, when we brought our freshly caught Tuna to Gecko’s at Iguana Surf for our dinner preparation, she was the one who waited on us.

(In checking through my trip photos we must not have taken one of Olivia; hopefully my cousin Jim will have one among their pictures. If so, I’ll add it to this blog post at a later date.)

Olivia grew up in upstate New York and, in contrast to everyone in her family, was always on the go. She loved new places and new experiences and in fact was turned on by the freshness of change. New venues became commonplace.

Late In her twenties, she ended up in the Big Apple as a successfully rising young business professional. Her days consisted of awaking early, spending long days at the office and then coming home late in the evening to a TV dinner before crashing and doing it all over again the next day.

We had asked her what had brought her to Costa Rica. She related the tale of grooving into her fast-paced career in New York City, but she pointed out that she found her life style to be less than enjoyable. One morning while getting ready for another day in the grind, she looked in the mirror and said out loud, “WHAT are you doing?”

Soon thereafter Olivia quit her job and decided to set out for parts unknown, much to the chagrin of her family. She pulled out a world map, closed her eyes and pointed. Her finger landed on Costa Rica. A month later she was living the good life in one of the most beautiful places on earth.

She found the Tico life style much to her liking. A hard worker, she soon was gainfully employed, saving money, and making friends. She loved the laid back life style and the incredible surfing environment of Playa Tamarindo. That must be why she was tanned so darkly.

Does she have any regrets? None, whatsoever, she says. And now her business training and entrepreneurship tendencies are beginning to flower in the tropics. With money she had saved, she and two partners had just opened a little breakfast café right on the beach. I believe it was called “Morning Grinds” (as in coffee and surfing?) or something closely catchy. The picture above was taken in their new venture at which we stopped for our last meal in Tamarindo before driving back to Liberia.

Olivia left it all for “pura vida” in Guanacaste Province. She's been there about three years now. And I’ve got a feeling it’ll be a long time, if ever, before she goes back to New York City.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Break Time

Believe it or not, we retired folks actually work once in a while. This is one of those (rare :-) times, and so I'm taking a break from blogging for a few days. I don't want to "overstress".

In truth, I wonder what in the world I did when I worked full time. How did I get anything done? So, until I finish my work assignments from a couple of old clients I'll likely refrain from posting. When I do post again, it'll be a good time to see if I'm all spent on Costa Rica. I think there might be a post or two left inside me, mostly having to do with people we met and with the (laid back) life style in "paradise" where they live the "pura vida".

I'm also soaking in Randy Maddox' "Responsible Grace" on the theology of John Wesley. I would love to have been a contemporary of Wesley and to have lived close enough to be able to have listened to his sermons (from which much of his theology expressed itself). Not sure I could handle traveling by horseback or horse-drawn vehicles, though. I like the airplane too much.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

“Pura Vida” in Costa Rica – Chapter 5: Gold Coast B&B Is An Epicurean Delight

Gourmet dining seems to be the rule rather than the exception on Guanacaste’s Gold Coast. Whether your choice is a nice bed and breakfast, a fine hotel or a favorite restaurant, you are rarely disappointed. Our experiences certainly bore that out.

The first place we visited was Sueno Del Mar, a nearby Playa Langosta Bed & Breakfast that would serve you their scrumptious breakfast even though you weren’t staying there, if you made advance reservations. On the recommendations of many we did. And we were not sorry. Sueno Del Mar, translated, means "Ocean Dream", so it is aptly named. (Pic above is Kay, Jim, myself and Kay Lynne arriving at the B&B.)

We were ushered in to an open but covered patio adjacent to the aromatic kitchen where tables were meticulously set for guests. From there you overlooked the placid swimming pool with a view of the crashing ocean waves just beyond and through the trees.

The owners and hosts, Paul Thabault and Nancy Money, Vermont transplants enjoying “pura vida”, greeted us warmly. We were exchanging pleasantries, mostly sharing our home towns and backgrounds, when a lovely Tico server brought us each an incredible plate of fresh-cut, local fruit – papaya, pineapple, banana and a tropical, mandarin-like citrus, accompanied by a natural, refreshing cocoanut-milk drink served in a cocoanut shell with a straw. What a welcome!

The main dish was “juevos con queso”, a delicious locally-seasoned scramble with ample cheeses melted in. They had several local Tabasco-like accent sauces (one or two home-made, I think) which we had not ever tasted before but which worked marvelously with the entrée. For the better part of an hour we reveled in Paul and Nancy’s version of “pura vida”.

With the beach a few steps away, we took a walk out onto the sand following our meal (middle pic was taken from beach side of eating area & bottom pic is Kay Lynne, Jim and Kay with Nancy). I later emailed both of my sons and told them if they ever wanted to take a second honeymoon, this would be the perfect place – total seclusion, indescribable beauty, incredible food and an ocean beach. What else could one want?

I had thought about continuing on in this post about the many other wonderful dining experiences we had in the Playa Langosta and Playa Tamarindo areas at places such as Gil’s Place at Iguana Surf, Carolina’s, Pachango’s (our favorite) and the new Dragonfly. But I think I’ll leave their stories for other posts.

Every one of these restaurants can rival, or even exceed, typical fine dining eateries in the U.S. – and for half the price in American dollars. That made it even more enjoyable.

Friday, November 11, 2005

“Pura Vida” in Costa Rica – Chapter 4: Playing Tarzan and Jane Under a Jungle Canopy

One of the first things people said to us after our arrival in Costa Rica was, “You’ve GOTTA go on a Canopy Tour!” Canopy tour? My mind suddenly envisioned checking out hundreds of large, canvas tents lined up for blocks on end. But that wasn’t it.

What they meant was a JUNGLE canopy tour. Costa Rica is a very ecology-conscious country. They have preserved a very large percentage of the environment in its natural state, and, included in that, are the many jungles. The “canopy” they refer to is the natural cover furnished by the jungle tree tops that are so close together they interlace.

The best “Canopy Tour” in the area, we were told, was about 18 bumpy miles away, in Cartajena. We signed up for a guided tour which included being picked up by van in front of our condo. With the roads the way they were, we thought we’d leave the driving to them, and it turned out to be a wise choice.

As we bounced our way to the tour, the very accommodating driver tried his best to explain a few things along the way, but he did not speak much English. Using my inadequate Spanish I was able to learn that the wetlands through which we passed were used primarily to grow rice and equally to provided excellent grazing for the thousands of dairy cows in the area. We crossed dozens of bridges allowing us passage over swollen rivers still exploring new territory as a result of the peripheral rains of the hurricanes.

Once at the Tour site, we sat for a few minutes and listened to instructions as to how the rigging works and how to keep ourselves hooked properly to static lines and pulley lines. Top pic is of Hector who gave the tutoring (to which we listened very carefully by the way).

To initiate our Canopy experience we walked some 50 yards to a tree with a huge girth and diameter of several feet and which seemed to rise into the clouds. I was reminded of the story of Jack and the Beanstock. A metal ladder had been fabricated around the tree in an upward spiral that also seemed to disappear into the treetops.

We started climbing… and climbing… and climbing. About 150 feet above the ground we came to a large platform which was attached to the treetrunk and supported by cables and struts. It was a bit unnerving to step out onto the platform with absolutely nothing but branches and air below.

The attendant snapped my harness and pulley to the one-inch cable which ran from our tree to another, almost the length of a football field away. The cable ran slightly downhill so that as we pushed off from the platform, gravity pulled us at an ever-increasing speed to the next tree and platform. It was a most exhilarating experience. Middle pic is of Kay Lynne and bottom pic is of yours truly playing Tarzan and Jane – at our age!

Well, those who told us this was a “must do” event were RIGHT. We rode the long spans of slowly bouncing cable for at least a dozen lengths, each providing a different thrill by its angle and placement. I must admit to being tired at the end, but it was well worth the effort. We managed to somehow miss the monkeys and exotic birds which squawked at us throughout.

A nice refreshing shower following the ride home provided a perfect springboard to another gourmet evening meal at one of Tamarindo’s fabulous restaurants. Just another reason why life in Costa Rica is called “Pura Vida”.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Holiday Break

In deference to the widely recognized holiday today, MAPUTO CITY DAY IN MOZAMBIQUE, I have decided to take a break from Blogging. A new post should appear tomorrow.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

“Pura Vida” in Costa Rica – Chapter 3: Searching for Billfish

A week ago today my cousin Jim and I headed out on the big water of the Guanacaste Gold Coast in search of the holy grail for fishermen – billfish. Locally catchable billfish include two strains of marlin and sailfish. If unsuccessful seeking billfish, they told us, you always have a chance at tuna, dorado, mahi mahi and even wahoo. That’s enough to make my mouth water.

We checked out several of many available charter captains by asking people we met. There were a number of larger vessels (over 35-feet long) one could charter for a day, but the tab exceeded $1,000 US. Surely, we wanted to fish, but with only two of us to share the entire charter cost, it gave us pause.

We opted, finally, for Captain Frank of Coyote Sport Fishing, a highly recommended skipper from nearby Playa Tamarindo, who owned a beautiful, whaler-type open 26-foot beauty with twin, four-stroke Johnson 115’s. With a safe hull and two engines for added protection, we felt this option to be the best for our long ride out to the deep blue water where billfish lurk. Besides, Captain Frank charged a more affordable $500 a day for the boat, bait, gear and guiding.

The water was quite calm as we headed out to sea. Captain Frank had sent his deck hand in a dingy to pick us up from shore near where we had parked our car. His boat was anchor-buoyed about 150 yards out from water’s edge. After we climbed aboard, he explained all the boat and safety issues, and we were off. We planed quickly as the powerful engines reached their cruising whine. Then we settled back and watched as the shoreline slowly receded.

About five miles offshore we crossed a large reef, and then suddenly the water color changed from a sky-bluish green to a rich, dark blue. Captain Frank said we were now in deep water and we could soon begin to drag some lines. Out of nowhere, a school of gorgeous, lithe porpoises, all about eight feet long, came alongside and performed their water acrobatics for us. In perfect unison they leapt from the water like agile torpedoes while keeping up with and exceeding the speed of our boat.

Captain Frank said the porpoises can often lead you to billfish, and that’s what we were looking for. Soon he baited three lines and dropped them in the water. Jim and I flipped a coin for first first hook-up, and the wait was on.

“Fish-on” yelled Frank, and Jim jumped into the fish chair. Frank hooked up the harness to hold the pole and strapped it on to Jim so he could fight the fish (top pic). Ten minutes later the fish was near the boat but we hadn’t seen it. It had stayed down – a good sign. With the line going straight down right next to the stern, Frank grabbed it to pull the fish the rest of the way by hand. Two hand pulls, and the fish was gone.

“I think it was a Mahi Mahi,” Frank said. “It would’ve made a great meal tonight”. Some consoloation. But, that’s how fishing goes. As Frank said, “they don’t call it ‘catching’, they call it fishing”. That's captain Frank holding up a sample bait in the middle pic.

Soon Frank’s GPS told him we were about 45 miles from shore, which was no longer in view. Then he screamed, “Sailfish!” “Sailfish!” It was hard for Jim & I to pick up but Frank pointed to a spot in the water where he saw a sailfish. The billed marvel was following the hoochy/sardine bait combo, and then he deftly nibbled the small baitfish off of the hook on one of the lines. As if to further taunt us, the fish then went to the second line and repeated the crafty maneuver.

“#%$!!%@” screamed Frank; “he got BOTH baits!” And that was the last we saw of billfish. Well, heck, at least we SAW one. Most don’t even experience that. But we kept on fishing. On Jim’s next turn he hooked and landed a nice yellowfin tuna. Ha! We’d have a nice fish dinner after all. The rest of the day was pure pleasure on the deep blue brine. We’d gotten a tuna (that's Jim with the trophy in the bottom pic).

All told, we probably caught a dozen fish. Most were skipjack, a type of tuna that fights like mad but is not good for eating. However, they are great sport. Truth is, Captain Frank is a great skipper. He put us where the fish were, and that’s all you can ask for. Other than both of us getting sunburned badly on our legs (I blistered in two spots) the day was virtually perfect. We went out in what might be the best fishing waters in the world, and we caught fish.

As a final “capper”, that night we took the fresh-from-the-water filets to one of Tamarindo’s better restaurants, Gecho’s, where chef John prepared the tuna three different ways – brazed in natural oils, pan seared in garlic and butter, and blackened with a spicy crumb coating. Our taste buds had never experienced anything like this. I loved all three versions.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

“Pura Vida” in Costa Rica – Chapter 2: The Appealing Intrigue of Guanacaste

We went to the Province of Guanacaste in Costa Rica not because we planned well but because that’s where the condo owned by Kay’s (wife of my cousin Jim) friend was located. And what a fortuitous occurrence that turned out to be. Pic above is a Playa Tamarindo sunset from aboard a sailing vessel on which we cruised.

If life in Costa Rica is “pura vida”, then it should follow that life in Guanacaste is “purisimo vida”. There is very little NOT to like in this province. The coastline (referred to as Costa Rica’s “Gold Coast”) consists of miles and miles of gorgeous, clean, sandy beaches, world class surfing, world class bill fishing, world class golf courses, preserved breeding grounds for the endangered leatherback turtle, fabulous restaurants, outstanding accommodations and eco-sensitive real estate developments – all co-existing and even amalgamating with local “Tico” (what Costa Ricans call themselves) life.

Can all this be real? If you’ve been there, you’d know it is. As stated previously, we came to the Gold Coast by accident, two days before Halloween, because it happened to be the place in which we rented a condo ahead of time from a friend of a relative. As it turns out, we couldn’t have picked a better spot if we had researched for months ahead of time.

The American bearing on the Gold Coast has brought ecologically sound (virtually required there) real estate developments that are attracting hordes of norte Americanos and Europeans con dinero to buy a home, vacation home or rental property in these desirable areas. At the same time, some 13% of all land in Costa Rica is either national parks or protected environment.

Combined with ever increasing foreign demand for recreation property near the beach, prices are skyrocketing and available land is rapidly disappearing on the Gold Coast. For the savvy real estate investor, this adds up to “opportunity”.

We met and talked with several Americans who had become fed up with pressure-packed living here in the U.S., sold everything, and transplanted themselves to Costa Rica. Why? They had heard of “pura vida”.

Primarily these were the B&B owners, restaurant owners and small business owners who had reinvented themselves in the land of the good life – minus the stresses and pressures of living they endured back in the U.S. One gal had been a successful business executive in New York City but one day just packed it up and headed for Costa Rica – alone. But that’s an upcoming blog story in itself.

To a person, we found everyone to whom we talked happy they had made the move. Not one second-guessed their decision, and all said they were far happier in Guanacaste than before. We were there only eight days, but I can assure you that “pura vida” grows on you – real fast.

Dress is always casual - usually a tee shirt or tank top, shorts and sandals. Dressing up means wearing a shirt or blouse with a collar, but the shorts and sandals remain. The temperature hardly ever goes below 70 degrees or above 90 degrees year around. I’m not sure there’s a coat in the entire Province.

If you’ve never been near the equator, it’s hard to conceive of a climate this temperate. It's probably like the Garden of Eden was. Once used to it, the change of seasons becomes an annoying inconvenience.

I have to admit to being one of those allured by “pura vida”. My interest in real estate investing has now zoned in on the myriad of opportunities on the Gold Coast, but that, too, is another blog post. For now, I’ll have to be satisfied with “normal vida”.

Monday, November 07, 2005

"Pura Vida" in Costa Rica – Chapter 1: Arriving in Guanacaste

The northwest coastal area of Costa Rica is best described as a paradise. In fact, living anywhere in Costa Rica is called “Pura Vida” by the native people. The phrase literally means “the pure life”, but it has implications that go far beyond “pure” and that include a richness of culture, a slow, easy pace of life, an incredible eco-centric environment, and a satisfaction (from living there) available nowhere else on earth.

They just might be correct.

After two flights totaling eight hours from the Seattle, Washington area where we live, we arrived in Liberia, the largest city in northern Costa Rica, in the Province of Guanacaste. Liberia is a large enough city to have traffic lights, four lanes on the main thoroughfares, and even left turn lanes at major intersections. Other than in Liberia, however, we did not see a traffic light, and we encountered few stop signs as we motored through the Province.

You are almost overwhelmed by the humidity and the heat as you step off the airplane. Most public buildings are open in this tropical climate, including the airport structures, so air conditioning is not even a thought. In spite of the overhead fans which are everywhere, I was soaking wet in minutes. Of course I can look at a flight of stairs and begin to perspire.

Immigration and customs officials were most gracious and welcoming, making very pleasant our initial contact with the people of Costa Rica. And that remained constant throughout our trip. After renting a car at twice the U.S. rate due to CR taxes, plus the fact that our Hertz #1 status was of no value there, we headed in a generally westward and slightly southward direction from the Liberia airport toward Playa Tamarindo on the Pacific coast where our rented condo awaited just steps from the beach. (In the top pic that's my wife Kay Lynne on the left, Jim's wife Kay in the middle, and Jim.)

Other than on the main roads between major cities (like Liberia and San Jose), driving in Costa Rica can be a harrowing experience, especially in Guanacaste where they had just experienced one of the wettest rainy seasons in their history. The paved road ended suddenly only a few miles out of the Liberia area. My cousin Jim Narva (from Sunnyvale, CA) was driving. My wife and I had met Jim and his wife Kay in Atlanta and had flown together from there to Liberia.

The monster pothole Jim hit as the paved road suddenly vanished jarred us all to the bone. Jim hit the brakes as we found ourselves on a dirt gravel road that was ominously displaying the effects of the recent downpours. Washboard-like bumps filled the areas in the road not occupied by enormous potholes as we made our way, from that point on, very slowly.

Fortunately we had rented a four-wheel drive SUV because we had heard the roads could get bad during the rainy season. It was the peripheral effects of the three recent major damaging hurricanes which hit New Orleans, Houston and Cancun that caused torrential rains here. We felt their effects as we jostled our way toward Tamarindo at an average speed of about 15 mph. It took us almost three hours to go less than 40 bouncy miles.

But things were not all bad. About two thirds of the way we stopped to eat at an open, plantation-like restaurant (second pic) where they grew a lot of the food they served on the acreage nearby. A local family owns the establishment, kind of out in the middle of nowhere, and it was the friendly family members of the second generation who were on duty. They cordially showed us the papaya trees and variety of crops that grew out in the back and all around.

I got a chance to try my “pocho” Spanish for the first time on these unlucky people, but we soon learned we could communicate quite well, thanks to the fact that they understood English far better than I could speak Spanish. We sampled various versions of delicious rice, chicken and beans combos (pollo con arroz y frijoles). It was either incredibly delicious food or we were extremely hungry. I’d bet on the former.

Forty five minutes later, following two wrong turns after darkness had set in, we arrived at our vacation condo in the Villas Cerca Del Mar complex (third pic) in Playa Langosta. There Jim and Kay’s son Andrew met us, accompanied by three of his friends. Andrew is a graduating senior at the University of Redlands in southern California and is taking some international studies courses at the University of Costa Rica in Heredia (a suburb of San Jose) as were the others but they were from different U.S. universities. (Fourth pic is from left, Dana, Andrew, John and Ashley)

Together with his friends, he had come up to the Playa Tamarindo area (a world-class surfing location) to ride the waves for the weekend and enjoy a short visit with his folks – a welcome break from their nearing finals. Our three-bedroom condo housed all of us comfortably and was called “Villa Jazmin”, owned by Cathy Gardner, a friend of Kay’s who teaches with her in California. It certainly lived up to all expectations.