Friday, March 22, 2013

Trip to Nicaragua

The bus stole off into the darkness on Wednesday morning, pulling out of the SFS driveway at 3 am on a mission. We would be at the Nicaraguan border near sunrise. When we got to the border, we turned in our customs forms and got our passports stamped. We got our first real taste of Nicaragua after we walked to the other side. There were people selling food, purses, shoes, and trinkets. Some were very old but desperation was on all of their faces. We exchanged money and tried to avoid eye contact with the Nicaraguans trying to sell us their wares. I learned that we would get used to having to say no to children and elderly vendors alike, accosting us on the street, in the park, and at restaurants. The poverty of this new country was very blatant and we could already see clear differences between Nicaragua and Costa Rica.

IMG_4321The ferry to Ometepe


After crossing the border and driving to Puerto San Jorge, we boarded a  ferry to Ometepe Island. I stayed at the bow of the boat, enjoying riding the waves for most of the ride. It was exhilarating, especially when we could see our destination, an island in the middle of freshwater Lake Nicaragua. There are two volcanoes on the island, Maderas and Concepción. They both loomed over the island with clouds all around the top, making them look like they were wearing wooly toboggans. I was impressed  by the massive mountains and could not stop smiling as we approached the island.

Ometepe Island was far better than I expected. It was beautiful and very Nicaraguan; although tourism is on the rise, the culture felt so intact. We were able to talk with locals, get accustomed to not drinking the tap water, and bump along on the unpaved, rocky roads. We ate Nicaraguan food and found it to be a more flavorful change from Costa Rican food, but weren’t surprised that gallo pinto was still a staple. Some highlights of the island were: visiting Finca Magdalena to see 1700 year old petroglyphs and the beautiful old coffee cooperative; swimming in the lake at sunset; swimming at Ojo de Agua, a swimming hole in the forest; and a visiting a beautiful waterfall.


Two of my favorite petroglyphs


Finca Magdalena



Ojo de Agua


La Catarata (the waterfall)

Over the next few days, we went back to the mainland of Nicaragua and were based out of Granada at La Posada del Sol. We visited Masaya and Managua as day trips. Managua was especially interesting; it is the capital city that was destroyed by a 1972 earthquake. It was eerily quiet and seemed deserted. There is no city center and it is one of the most forested capital cities. We went to an artisan's market in Masaya and finished buying most of our souvenirs. Both were unique experiences, but I really fell in love with Granada. It was a city that charmed us all with its colonial architecture, cheap prices, and outdoor cafes. However, there was a certain lack of authenticity from the comfortable attributes of the city and the fact that we only saw non-Nicaraguans on La Calzada (except those trying to sell us grass flowers and bracelets). But, the decaying colonial buildings, brightly colored houses situated side by side like horse stalls with family names beside each door, and the local market where I felt the most uncomfortable but alive and authentic all captured my heart. I also loved hiking Volcan Mombacho, the excellent food (especially baba ganoush and goat cheese), seeing the sunset from a bell tower, and visiting El Museo Nacional.


The view I woke up to every morning from my kitchen window


Volcan Masaya


El Museo


Volcan Mombacho



Sunset in Granada


Food Highlights:


Watermelon juice


A typical Nicaguan meal of beans, plantain chips, potatoes (these were very good- with onions and garlic), avocado salad, and delicious chicken


Shrimp chop suey- a nice change from Central American food


Homemade ginger ale at a John Lennon-inspired restaurant


Happy hour sangria


Some of the best gelato I have ever eaten, a mixture of dark chocolate and a sweet almond flavor (turrón)


The largest chocolate bar I have ever seen; my friend and I got this bar at the duty free shop at the border. It is very hard to find dark chocolate here so we jumped on this opportunity.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Chocolate Tour

Right now I have the post-vacation blues. It seems like this especially always happened when I was a kid, the day we came back from the beach seemed like a joyless, rainy, gloomy 4 hours. We were leaving my favorite place in the world and headed back to Lexington, to unpacking, to dreaded swim team practice, and long hot days.Right now, I am really struggling to not feel the same way. Yes, it  is true that I am in Costa Rica and that I am getting ready to go to Nicaragua Wednesday and that I have an all around extremely blessed life with friends and family that I love. But, still after this personal pep talk, I just keep comparing the now with the past 48 hours.

This weekend was everything I could have dreamt of. A month ago, a chocolate tour was just an idea that I was slightly overzealous about but was lucky enough to have friends that seemed almost as excited about the idea. I had seen an article on USA Today about chocolate tours in Costa Rica. I was thrilled that USA Today had already done the dirty work and found out reputable places. So, on my first real weekend off from my study abroad program, the chocolate tour became my top priority. Me and my three friends decided we would stay at the eco-lodge at the Tirimbina Reserve and go on the chocolate tour. It would be a splurge but after a week here we realized that good dark chocolate wasn’t easy to come by in Costa Rica, so we were looking forward to the tour like addicts needing their fix. Needless to say, we came back with dark chocolate burning a hole in our suitcases with elaborate plans for how to make it last the rest of the trip.

Theobroma cacao- the species used for making chocolate; theobroma translates to mean food (broma) of the gods (theo) as derived from the Mayan use of chocolate.

Below are some pictures of the experience (I apologize for the poor quality, it was very overcast and shady so not ideal lighting):


Tirimbina Reserve, the lodge is behind the sign. We had a comfortable (hot water in the shower and a nice quilt on the bed), affordable 4-person room with screen doors.


A cocoa tree in an old plantation that is sustainable and uses sustainable practices like inter-cropping (there are plantains and bananas planted there). This cacao tree is bent over because of age; it can live to be 50 years old.


A cacao pod


An open cacao pod with the seeds exposed; the seeds had a fruity, slightly tart flesh that we sucked off and then spit out the seeds.


A map with the location and general timeline of cacao production and chocolate making


Different stages of cacao production; this box is covered with banana leaves and the bacteria are allowed to grow.


The cacao, fermented and roasted, is ground with brown sugar and cinnamon in a volcanic rock mortar with a river rock.


This was a delicious mixture, it was so different from anything I had ever had. We went back for another handful! One of my favorite things of the tour; this would be dangerous for me to have around.


The whole process of making both chocolate bars and cocoa powder


Liquid chocolate in the stage right before it is poured in molds; I had 5 spoonfuls of this warm, magical chocolate.


The final product, pieces of chocolate in earthy shapes like this leaf.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Los Sabores de Costa Rica

Chocolate and caramel (chocolate y caramelo) gelato. Rich and creamy; the chocolate is intense and deep brown, tasting of Fudgesicles of summers past while the caramel has a slight saltiness but a richness that is hard to forget. Best when eaten together, but delicious separate as well. The three miniature scoops in my pequeño disappeared too quickly, leaving behind only a mixture of different shades of brown liquid lining the plastic cup and a small silver spoon.

I have admittedly tried at least half of the flavors of gelato at Gelly’s, in the 29 days that I have been here (no judgment please). And, I hope to try all of them except dreadful, dreadful coconut (and maybe not coffee either). I justify it because trying flavors at Gelly’s means that I am having a gelato date with friends or Skyping with those I love back home. So, maybe it isn’t such a bad thing to try all the flavors.

Also, I want my experience at Gelly’s to be like my experience here in Costa Rica. I want to try out all the flavors of this beautiful country, getting a taste of the culture, natural beauty, people, beaches, and language. This is especially true as I am planning my spring break. I want to experience everything possible. A chocolate tour and stay at an eco-lodge is coming up soon. Let me know if you have any ideas! Below is a quick recap, in pictures, of what I have been up to.

Carara National Park- El Sur:


A crocodile in the Rio Tarcoles


A tree frog, I love this picture for some reason!


At Playa Azul, a trash-covered beach that still has a beautiful view of the ocean and mountains 


The trashy part of the beach, sadly this is what it looks like on a good day


Milking a cow


Extracting juice from sugar cane


Left, the drink from the raw sugar cane juices that we extracted. Right, the final product, after being boiled down for seven hours, was blocks of brown sugar-like sweetener.


At a waterfall (catarata) on my birthday

Volcan Poas:


The outline of the lagoon, it was very cloudy

DSC_0098 DSC_0095

The crater, very cloudy!

Whitewater Rafting (2/24/13):