Monthly Archives: March 2015

Driving la carreteras locas

Crazy roads. That’s what they’ve built in Costa Rica, so that’s what we drive on. Narrow paved roads with no shoulders and lots of hairpin turns. Narrow gravel roads with potholes and washboard ruts and more curves than a coiled fer de lance.

Narrow and winding is how they build roads in Costa Rica.

Narrow and winding is how they build roads in Costa Rica.

I asked the owner of Villa Encantada why they haven’t paved the road to Monteverde cloud forest, one of the country’s top tourist attractions. “The government has more pressing concerns,” he told me. As we bounced along the dirt road for over an hour, driving playground-zone speed, my teeth loosening from my gums and the persistent squeak from our rental Toyota growing ever louder, I had to wonder if the country’s dentists and car mechanics were somehow in on the non-paving plan. It took us two hours to drive 70 kilometres.

Many smaller roads aren't paved and travel is sloooow.

Many smaller roads aren’t paved and travel is sloooow and dusty.

After dark, with no street lights to illuminate the way, the roads become ever more perilous, as we’ve found out on two occasions while racing the sunset home. And somehow, both Avery and Bennett are able to fall asleep in spite of (or perhaps because of) the drunken swaying of the car — it becomes rather like a giant bouncy chair, the kind that used to vibrate them to sleep as babies.

Costa Ricas answer to Canada's roadside mountain sheep: coatimundis, which are racoon-like scavengers.

Costa Rica’s answer to Canada’s roadside mountain sheep: coatimundis, which are racoon-like scavengers.

 

On those occasions when the drive is going smoothly, bands of roving coatimundis wander across the pavement midday to keep me on my toes (read: my foot hovering over the brake pad). Yes, we’re surviving las carreteras locas, and they’ve prepared us for the ocean, where we face las olas locas = crazy waves.

Volcano adventures in Costa Rica

Everywhere you go near Lake Arenal in Costa Rica, the perfect cone of the Arenal Volcano is not far from sight. We first spotted it on the southwest shore of Lake Arenal, then again two days later while driving to Tabacon Hot Springs. Its beauty and the stories surrounding it (an eruption in 1968 destroyed two villages, and its spewing lava lit up the night sky for years before it fell silent in 2010) certainly lured us in, so we visited Arenal Volcano National Park to get up close and hike in a lava field.

On the fertile lava field that leads up to the Arenal Volcano.

On the fertile lava field that leads up to the Arenal Volcano.

The basic park has three hikes and we chose the 1.6 km trek to the lava field. It was neat to watch plumes of smoke and ash streaming down the flanks of the volcano, but we all agreed the highlight was spotting two bright yellow eyelash pit vipers asleep in trees on the return hike to the car.

Even though the volcano hasn't erupted in five years, it still emits smoke and ash daily.

Even though the volcano hasn’t erupted in five years, it still emits smoke and ash daily.

The following day Desafio Adventure Company saddled us up with Lobo’s Tours for a brisk horseback ride to popular local attraction La Fortuna Waterfall. Unlike trail rides in Canada where you plod along slowly, almost falling asleep as your horse follows the tail of the horse in front of you, this was a horseback derby where each mount vied for the lead. The result was constant trotting and reining of horses so they didn’t gallop into the forest on either side of the wide trail as they sought leadership. It also made taking pictures of Arenal Volcano problematic.

The only time it wasn't a race was when the horses stood still at the beginning of the trail ride.

The only time it wasn’t a race was when the horses stood still at the beginning of the trail ride. Blake’s horse is Marlborough; Avery rides Millionario.

By the time we reached the waterfall Arenal was out of sight, shrouded in clouds. A winding (and in parts crumbling) jungle staircase of 475 steps brought us down to the main attraction, La Fortuna Waterfall, which was in full force dropping 75 meters into a large pool at the base of the dormant Chato Volcano. It was fun but impossible trying to swim out to the waterfall as the water surge kept pushing us back.

La Fortuna Waterfall  falls 75 metres and is gorgeous.

La Fortuna Waterfall falls 75 metres and is a top attraction.

After a crazy trot back to the ranch (and a final glimpse of the volcano), we were faced with one more white-knuckle adventure: driving back to Nuevo Arenal in the dark.

 

Drink of the Week: Rumbin

Here’s a tropical cocktail named for my friend Robin, who we’re travelling with in Costa Rica. I was tasked one evening with making her a fruity drink that didn’t have gin in it. So, I added some Dos Pinos Mixto de Frutas to a shot of Fleur de Cana rum, squeezed in some lime and ended up with this splendid cocktail, which Avery aptly called the Rumbin.

It's a fruity rum drink with a squeeze of lime. Best enjoyed by a waterfall in Costa Rica.

This fruity rum drink is best enjoyed by a waterfall in Costa Rica.

Rumbin

  • 1-1/2 oz rum
  • 3 oz mixed fruit juice (Dos Pinos is a combination of pineapple, papaya, mango, banana and orange juice)
  • Squeeze lime
  • Garnish: Tropical flower

Method: Build in a tall glass over ice and garnish with a tropical flower.

Ziplining at Selvatura Park

Zooming high above the cloud forest canopy I see only the tops of the trees below; a sea of green foliage that cachets hundreds of species of birds and thousands of butterflies. It’s not the best way to see Costa Rica’s abundant wildlife, but it’s certainly the most exhilarating way to experience the jungle.

At Selvatura Park 13 zips speed guests over 3.5 km of rainforest canopy.

At Selvatura Park 13 zips speed guests over 3.5 km of rainforest canopy. Here, Avery gets doubled by another rider.

We’re at Selvatura Park, a rainforest park that borders Monteverde, the country’s most famous cloud forest. For two hours we get to be like the howler monkeys that wake us up every morning, zipping from tree to tree while covering 3.5 kilometres in the air across a series of 13 zips. No sooner do I alight at one platform than a guide clips me onto the next cable and sends me screaming out over the green abyss.

Avery and I stop for a selfie on a zipline platform.

Avery and I stop for a selfie on a zipline platform.

It’s my third time ziplining (I have tried it previously on Maui and in Vernon, B.C.) and this is by far the best. As far as the eye can see there is only 50 shades of green and the wonder at what lurks beneath the canopy.

Fifty shades of green.

Fifty shades of green.

Avery holds a blue morpho butterfly inside the butterfly garden.

Avery holds a blue morpho butterfly inside the butterfly garden.

After, we join a tour of the butterfly garden, watch violet sabrewing hummingbirds whiz through the hummingbird garden, and explore the hanging bridges canopy walk, a three-kilometre hike around the park where we spot shrill bellbirds calling from the treetops. Avery even manages to catch another frog (her total for the trip so far: five).

The hanging bridges hike lets us spot birds that surround us in the forest canopy.

The hanging bridges hike lets us spot birds that surround us in the forest canopy.

At day’s end we brave the crazy Costa Rican roads on the long drive back to Nuevo Arenal. We never do spot a resplendent quetzal, the “it” bird of Monteverde, but after hours spent flying like one above the rainforest, it’s fair to say we’re ok with that.

Taking the waters at Tabacon

You wouldn’t think you’d need to visit a hot springs in Costa Rica (it being a tropical country and all) but after visiting Tabacon Grand Spa Thermal Resort and its numerous secluded pools and their accompanying waterfalls and lush foliage, you’ll vote in favour of “taking the waters” and boiling in their therapeutic, mineral-rich pools. Especially when the hot springs bubble up from a volcano that was active as recently as 2010.

Bennett and Blake peer over a waterfall at Tabacon Grand Spa Thermal Resort.

Bennett and Blake peer over a waterfall at Tabacon Grand Spa Thermal Resort.

I have never seen such an extensive and beautifully landscaped thermal resort. I am used to the “one concrete hot pool” variety so common in Canada. At Tabacon, they have gone to extremes to make the pools as natural as possible, building them around a stream that flows from the Arenal Volcano, near La Fortuna. The result is a series of cascading pools and waterfalls crowded with plants that help create natural grottos and hidden swimming holes.

Grammie and Avery enjoy our private hot pool at Tabacon. Photo by Lisa Kadane.

Grammie and Avery enjoy a secluded hot pool at Tabacon.

Avery loved scrambling up the warm waterfall “staircase” and searching for iguanas and basilisks, while Bennett was happy leaning over waterfalls to watch the warm water fall into the pool below.

Critters love Tabacon too. Avery was reptile hunter and found this basilisk (they can run atop water for short distances. How cool is that?). Photo by Lisa Kadane.

Critters love Tabacon, too. Avery was reptile hunter and found this basilisk (they can run atop water for short distances. How cool is that?). Photo by Blake Ford.

In the afternoon we found our Shangri-La — two pools sequestered at the end of a winding pathway. One was hot and the other cool, perfect for alternating between the two.

If there's water, you can pretty much get in anywhere at Tabacon, including this waterfall stream. Photo by Lisa Kadane.

If there’s water, you can pretty much get in anywhere at Tabacon.

Oh, and did I mention the spa? Sadly, with two kids in tow there simply wasn’t an opportunity to sneak away for a Volcanic Mud Wrap treatment. Next time!

Pura Vida in Costa Rica

After years of talking about taking a family holiday to Costa Rica we are finally here! And it is beautiful. We’re based near the small town of Nuevo Arenal, on the shore of Lake Arenal about one hour from the Arenal Volcano and adventure centre La Fortuna.

Family hike at Villa Encantada near Nuevo Arenal.

Family hike at Villa Encantada near Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica. Posing in front of a 400-year-old tree.

No resort for us — we’ve rented gorgeous Villa Encantada that sits on 40 forested acres and comes with hiking trails, a waterfall, a pond for fishing and kayaking, and a pool and water slide. If we run out of things to do there’s a bird feeder that attracts ridiculously colourful birds (identifying them in the Birds of Costa Rica book is hopeless, as there are so many different kinds), plus a slew of nearby adventure activities. We’ll be here another three days, then it’s off to a beach house at Playa Grande for the final week.

Avery enjoyed a soak in the waterfall at Villa Encantada. Photo by Lisa Kadane.

Avery enjoyed a soak in the waterfall at Villa Encantada.

Kayaking around the pond at Villa Encantada. Photo by Lisa Kadane.

Kayaking around the pond at Villa Encantada.

Everyone who comes to Costa Rica raves about it and now I get it. Fresh air, fresh fruit, unspoiled cloud forests and picture-perfect volcanoes. It really lives up to its unofficial national slogan: “Pura Vida!” (Pure Life). I’m excited to share some of our adventures over the next couple weeks, and write about experiencing the country with kids for an upcoming issue of WestJet Magazine. Until then, Pura Vida!

A turquoise bird and a green bird dig in to the papaya rinds. Photo by Lisa Kadane.

Tropical birds dig in to the papaya rinds.

Hiking Indiana Jones style at Villa Encantada. Photo by Lisa Kadane.

Hiking Indiana Jones-style at Villa Encantada.

Drink of the Week: Chartreuse Swizzle

It seems ages ago that Blake and I visited San Francisco for a working (for me) holiday (for him) where we joined active tours by day and enjoyed delicious cocktails by night. Because I’m dreaming of another trip, and also because my Three Days in San Francisco story is coming right up in the April issue of WestJet Magazine, I decided to revisit the City by the Bay’s delicious drinks for this week’s post. (Ask any bartender what’s the top cocktail city in North America and it will likely be a toss up between New York and San Francisco.)

Forget the Golden Gate Bridge, let's talk about San Francisco's cocktails. Photo by Blake Ford.

Forget the Golden Gate Bridge, let’s talk about San Francisco’s cocktails. Photo by Blake Ford.

 

We started our initiation into the city’s cocktail culture on Avital Tours’ Union Square Cocktail Tour, which takes thirsty travellers to some great bars in the city centre. Guide Zev Keppleman kept us entertained while we learned about San Fran’s signature cocktail, the Pisco Punch, at Cantina, and sipped our way through a Sazerac at Tradition and a Chartreuse Swizzle at Clock Bar.

The Chartreuse Swizzle is a great introduction to Green Chartreuse, a liqueur made from a staggering 130 herbs and plants.

The Chartreuse Swizzle is a great introduction to Green Chartreuse, a liqueur made from 130 herbs and plants. Photo by Lisa Kadane.

On its own Green Chartreuse has a strong, assertive flavour that’s at first sip sweet, but then becomes spicy and pungent as it expands across the palate. It makes interesting cocktails, and I really liked it in the Chartreuse Swizzle. The Velvet Falernum added an exotic sweetness, the lime a hit of tart and the pineapple juice rounded it out nicely. Blake could’ve just sipped it straight.

Our trip carried on with more cocktail bars, including the famous Trick Dog (in itself deserving of a post…), but the Chartreuse Swizzle stayed with me as a great introduction to San Francisco’s cocktail scene.

Chartreuse Swizzle, Clock Bar at The Westin, San Francisco

  • 1.25 oz Green Chartreuse
  • 0.5 oz Velvet Falernum
  • 1 oz pineapple juice
  • 0.5 oz lime juice

Method: Shake, strain into a rocks glass filled with shaved ice, garnish with nutmeg and mint.

— Created by Marco Dionysos