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Friday, December 30, 2011

Exploring Costa Rica: Pura Vida! Part VII

Read it from the beginning:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6

This right here was a funny little group of palms in the backyard of our vacation rental. Notice that one of the trunks is missing a head?

It cracked me up. Headless Palm.

We spent the rest of our Costa Rican vacation living by the philosophy and enjoying the sensational tropical weather. It was raining and cold in Los Angeles while we soaked in this pool under the hot sun. Notice it's a mere hop-skip from the ocean just beyond it.


And avoided what we thought was an angry pig. It was just the docile mascot at Lola's Bar & Restaurant.


That's a fully grown man in the picture next to Lolita, as she's affectionately called. So you can imagine how large she is. And how very unangry she is. She was clearly bored by us.

As lovely as Lola's was (who doesn't love a bar on the beach?) it was clearly a tourist trap. Where outside of Los Angeles clubs do you have to pony up $12 for a drink? Lola's. L'sigh. Thankfully most of the other watering holes we found ourselves in were much more modestly priced. Beers were two bucks and came with a free snack or boquita. At one point I found myself eating tripe, which I usually detest, but for some reason was completely tolerable with Costa Rican beer.

But all good things come to an end. Eventually we had to come back to the States, back to work, back to $12 drinks everywhere. Though not before having one last $2 Imperial and Costa Rican nachos at the only non-fast food restaurant in the San Jose International Airport. At Malinche, you can have authentic Costa Rican food, but I was curious when I spotted nachos on the menu.


They tasted exactly like their American counterparts. Not surprising, I guess. The guacamole squeezed out of a tube was interesting. But the meat was really yummy. And that was my last Costa Rican meal.

A mere 2 hours later I was back on native soil. So far away from our private beach. Memories...


That was my winter vacation. Full of much drink, good food, great times, wonderful people, and a really huge pig. At least I came home with an awesome tan.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Exploring Costa Rica: Pura Vida! Part VI

Recap: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.

The next leg of our adventure led us to what would become the absolute highlight of the entire trip: a homemade meal at the home of the Murillo family.

Carlos Murillo is an old friend of ours who had made the trip back to his homeland to act as our welcoming committee and unofficial tour guide. The Costa Rican people are without a doubt the sweetest, most gracious people I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. Carlos could be their king, he is the most affable, amiable, and friendliest person I've ever known. His family, even more so.

And what was waiting for us after the short ride down the hill from Volcano Brewing Company to his parents' house cannot be overstated: this was the best food we had the entire trip. THE. BEST. FOOD. Period.

Nothing beats a homemade meal, but it is even better still when it's made with love. And there was nothing but love and laughter in the Murillo home.

Love, laughter, and did I mention the delicious food? The aroma wafting from the kitchen was intoxicating the moment we stepped foot on the porch. It had nothing to do with the Shandies we'd just sucked down, either (though probably impacted the quality of these pictures...). We were HUNGRY.

His mom Flor made us piomono, a concoction of plantains, black beans, sugar, bread crumbs, and cheese unlike anything I've ever had (and she's promised me the recipe, which is forthcoming!). Plantains are one of my favorite fruits, which we eat too infrequently here at home (mostly because Puerto Ricans fry them and it's not exactly healthy). But in the span of two days, I'd already had them with every meal. It was like food heaven.

Señora Murillo was kind enough to wrap up the few extras that were leftover so I could enjoy them every day till I came back home.  I may have eaten a dozen or two...


There were also papas rellenas, potatoes stuffed with ground meat and egg. Think baked potato, but with a meaty filling. These aren't the Cuban-style papas rellenas I've been eating all my life, which are rolled in bread crumbs and fried. (Those are also very delicious, as my bill at Porto's Bakery every time I go in will attest to.) Instead these are baked.

You can't eat just one.


And then for dessert, Carlos' sister Joleny made flan a la Tilaran, a layered dish of condensed milk, cookies, pineapple and grapes (recipe also forthcoming!). Served frozen, it was the perfect end to a truly magnificent meal.

I can't wait to make this for my family.


Simple words cannot fully illustrate how grateful we were to the Murillos for hosting us in their home and serving us such an extraordinary lunch. We were welcomed and indulged just like family. And we joked just like family.

Throughout the wonderful feast, Carlos' papi Alvaro entertained us with stories of his days in California, working the port in San Diego. Pipa Gringo, as he's known to the citizens of Tilaran, is a bit of wise cracker. So later, when he told me that the word relajada (which in the Spanish that my parents speak means relaxed) meant I was saying I was a "loose woman," I didn't believe him. He's a jokester!

But Costa Rican slang being a little different than Mexican or Puerto Rican slang, I really had no idea I was calling myself a tramp! Thankfully, I was quickly corrected and learned not to repeat that again among any other Costa Ricans.

Talk about culture shock!

We were having so much fun, we almost forgot there was still a 2 1/2 hour ride to our final destination in Piñilla. So it was with heavy hearts that we left the Murillo clan and drove out to the beach. Where we spent the remainder of our time in-country zip-lining, exploring the local watering holes, or just lounging by the 45-foot pool next to our semi-private beach.

Oh, and trying not to get trampled by a huge pig...

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Exploring Costa Rica: Pura Vida! Part V

Recap: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4.

After leaving the very lovely Lomos del Volcan and the volcano hidden by rain clouds, we piled back in the Fortuner and drove around a really big lake for a very long time. Lake Arenal is huge, but the only way to get to Tilaran was to drive three-quarters of the way around it.

Much to our surprise, as we were hydroplaning our way around the lake, we came upon this sign. And remember, we were on vacation! It demanded we stop to check it out.

What we thought we found was an abandoned hotel. Instead it's a former hotel with its own brewery, undergoing renovations by the same guys who own Witch's Rock Surf Camp in Tamarindo. It had also just opened two days earlier. They say life is about timing. Vacation adventures are just what life is all about. Do the math.

Once inside we were greeted by some very lovely ladies who were tending bar, but encouraged us to explore the grounds. Downstairs we found this beer still.

And then we tasted the beer.

Or, more like their beer concoction.

This is a Shandy: a Witch's Rock pale ale mixed with ginger ale and lemonade. The menu warns you: Watch yourself! It's easy to put these away quickly.

I managed to remember to take a picture before I was too far into this one. Now you know why I stick to scotch and other non-girlie drinks: I've learned sweet drinks are deadly. There is a reason the Shandy comes with a warning. It is delicious, but it's so very easy to forget that it's also an adult beverage.

And it also came with stickers! Because they had just opened, there weren't yet any t-shirts like we wanted. But we did come home with this nifty wench.

No, she's not just any sexy pirate. She's a Costa Rican pirate, dammit! And she'll serve you Shandies all night long if you're not careful.

Where's the food? What food, we were drinking Shandies!

But only two. We had to be careful after all. There was a home-cooked meal waiting for us in Tilaran. And we didn't want to ruin our appetites by drunkenly driving into the lake.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Exploring Costa Rica: Pura Vida! Part IV

Recap: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

Day 2 in Costa Rica we woke up to a very rainy day. We began to believe that the stories about a volcano were mere rumors, made up by drunken tourists. The tree frogs we could believe, since we could hear them. But the volcano?

It must exist since it tweeted back at me when I posted this picture via Instagr.am. That's proof, people. And this picture? Clearly steam rising from the volcano, covering it in a spooky mist.

Breakfast was delightful. Eggs, bacon, fresh fruit, sausage, toast, more plantains. And gallo pinto! We hadn't seen it on the menu where we ate our first meat-heavy meal, and it wasn't on the restaurant menu the night before. I'd asked our bartender and he assured me it would be available at breakfast. Seems I didn't really do my research before going. Gallo pinto is morning dish.

Oh.

But then there it was, it all its painted glory, next to my fried egg. It tasted exactly like mine. Seems like I nailed it on my first try. Yay me.


And this is where we first had our taste of Salsa Lizano, which is the brown sauce above, on the egg. It's the Costa Rican equivalent of American ketchup, not in flavor but in ubiquity. This salsa is sweet (sugar is the second ingredient) and tangy, kind of similar to Worcestershire sauce. My father and I are currently trying to figure out the breakdown of spices. I'm convinced there's a good deal of cumin in it.

You can put this on anything, and are so encouraged. It was a tad too sweet for my egg, but I ended up putting it on just about everything else I ate the rest of the trip.

And bringing  home an unopened bottle of it too, of course. What's a vacation without souvenirs?

Exploring Costa Rica: Pura Vida! Part III

(Part 1 and Part 2, if you're playing catch up!)

Post-afternoon nap I woke up as we were entering the grounds of Lomas del Volcan, a very cute resort on the north side of the infamous volcano (and the location of this mural). Side note, if you find yourself traveling to Costa Rica, STAY HERE. It was $100 for a private bungalow and breakfast. The staff is remarkably sweet (as are all Costa Ricans) and the place is absolutely darling. There's also a volcano hiding behind it, for bonus points.

We unpacked and headed to the restaurant/bar. Because what else are you supposed to do when you import a bunch of duty-free American liquor in your luggage? American liquor just doesn't have the same appeal as a bar full of Costa Rican delights! Vacation philosophy.

Here is where we learned of a drink called guaro, commonly referred to by its brand name Cacique. It's made from sugar cane and is absolutely lethal. Served up like a double shot of tequila, replete with lime, it is not for the faint of heart or mere casual imbiber. Clear, smelling like it will kill you, it's reminiscent of grain alcohol. We decided not to indulge in guaro beyond the first sip, lest we burst into flames.

So we drank beer. And then I got sleepy again. My traveling companions were growing weary of my lethargy and insisted I wake up. So I switched to rum and coke, or as our bartender jokingly referred to it, a Costa Rica Libre. And wow, I suddenly had energy.

(For you Pepsi drinkers: I honestly cannot tell the difference, but you won't find Pepsi in Costa Rica. And it doesn't taste like Mexican Coke either, unfortunately. They import the same high fructose corn syrup variety Cokes that we get here.)

But wait, this is a food blog, yes? Dinner was a delicious ceviche with fried plantains:



And dessert was more plantains, but the sweet variety made from over-ripe fruit:



These were lightly charred but soft, unlike the ones served like chips for the ceviche. These were baked, which was something new for me (us Puerto Ricans like to fry them up good). And served with a strawberry sauce, a light cream, and butter. Quite the pretty presentation.

As an illustration of the graciousness of the Costa Rican people, our bartender and waitresses never once asked if we wanted to close out the tab, or made any mention of closing up. We were the only patrons in the bar till the wee hours (maybe? It's hard to remember between the time difference and all the Costa Rica Libres...) and yet they continued to indulge us until it we finally decided it was time to call it a night.

Somehow I woke up without a headache. Or a volcano...

Exploring Costa Rica: Pura Vida! Part II

The continuing saga of our trek through Costa Rica. If you want to catch up, part 1 is here.

Ah, Costa Rica. Sunday afternoon. Rainy, humid, hot, perfect.

We piled into a Toyota Fortuner (kind of like a 4Runner, but its Thai cousin) and headed up to the Arenal Volcano. We passed through little towns like this with a mini mart and a sleeping dog.


There are lots of Brahma cows across the countryside, which have large humps on their backs and also taste delicious. I know this because the first place we stopped to eat had much steak on its menu, so we ate much steak.

Lomo de res with fries (to appease the many American ex-pats?)


Lomo de res with potatoes and chips (typical food?)


And steamed veggies. My trainer would be so proud of me.

This is also where I was introduced to "la cerveza de Costa Rica" and what I would find myself drinking for the remainder of the trip:


That's a Pilsen in the background. My 3 traveling companions preferred it over the slightly more robust Imperial. I'm fine being the odd girl out. Imperial is delicious. (I learned later it's also referred to as águila because of the eagle on the label...kind of like Cazadores is referred to as "reindeer" in dive bars, because of said animal on its label. You learn something new every day.)

For more beer info, this gentleman from Texas gives a very thorough review of your Costa Rican options. Lest you be disappointed, of course we also drank bourbon. You can take the girl out of the country...

And then I fell asleep again and completely missed the ride through La Fortuna. Later on we finally discovered that Costa Rican beer makes me really, really sleepy. Who knew?

I can't tell you where we were when we had this meal, only that it was somewhere southeast of Arenal Volcano National Park. However, this sounds like a mighty good recipe for lomo de res (beef loin). It doesn't specify Brahma beef, but I would strongly recommend it (if you can find it).

Later on that day, we came upon a volcano! We think...

Monday, December 5, 2011

Exploring Costa Rica: Pura Vida! Part I

I love air travel. Yes, it's a huge pain having to go through security, and risking a TSA strip search, and not being able to open your duty-free alcohol right away. Oh, and the screaming babies! But I still love it. Planes fascinate me.

Day 1 of the trip to Costa Rica actually started in a fascinating metal bird, somewhere in the midnight airspace between Los Angeles and Miami. The trip from Miami to Costa Rica is only about 2 hours long, but the transcontinental flight between the left and right American coasts is best done on a red eye. It's so very long, and good for sleeping the night away.

This part of the trip is notable because it perfectly illustrated the philosophy that would define our entire time away: we were on vacation, enjoy it and drink up. The two men with us are huge bourbon fans, which meant we were instant friends. If you've been around the Girl + Fire playground for any length of time, you can educate a guess what whiskey + vacation means.

Waking up in Miami meant breakfast in Miami. And because of the holy vacation philosophy, what we were looking for at 6 am was not just any eatery, but one with a full bar. Miami International Airport knows how to deliver. At that time of the morning, the only restaurant/bar open was the one right next to our gate.

Airport breakfast:


This was brunch on a Sunday morning. Even though my body wanted to believe it was only 3 am, the sun was coming up quickly over the Atlantic. And, I was on vacation. The philosophy cannot be fought against.

There may have also been an egg croissant with bacon, then Cuban coffee to wash it all down with. But I don't remember, since I immediately fell asleep again after eating. And then I woke up in Costa Rica. That was a cool trick.

I love air travel.