Welcome to the Jungle

Our van from Baños picked us up from our hostel around 7 pm and took several hours to get to our destination in the jungle, Puyo Pongo. Technically, according to our hostel host, Puyo Pongo is secondary rainforest (compared to primary forest which is defined as untouched, and unaffected by humans), but it was pretty darn jungly as far as we were concerned. We arrived pretty late but were happy to find electricity and WiFi in our bunkhouse for the weekend. We enjoyed a typical dinner served by the staff including juice and some delicious homemade soup.

In the morning a couple from Belgium arrived to joint our tour group for the weekend. After breakfast we hopped into the back of a pickup truck to make a trip down the road and visit a local indigenous community. It was a really neat experience where we first shared some authentic chicha (a corned based alcoholic beverage) and watched some of the community members participate in a typical dance. Next we all tried our luck with the 10 ft blow gun, aiming darts at a wooden target. Of the four of us, Elizabeth was best, and fortunately none of us missed.

Emily shooting the blow gun

Next we all had our faces painted by some of the members of the tribe, each of us with different patterns. They used a local seed pod filled with small red seeds for the face painting. A small twig was stuck down into the pod to smash the seeds, producing a bright red ink (that, as it turns out, does indeed stain clothing).

With our faces painted the community members then brought out some of their pets, including a red macaw, boa constrictor, and several types of monkeys. We each had a chance to hold several of the animals and (as seen above) the small monkey loved to ride on your shoulder.

We completed our visit to the community with a quick walk around the area and then headed to the river to catch a canoe ride home. The canoe was carved from a single tree trunk and was every bit of 30 feet long. Our driver for the day served as our captain and navigated what was a pretty choppy river (due to recent rain). After we were safely back on the river bank, we all helped load the canoe back onto the pickup truck, and then rode in the back of the truck (some of us still in the canoe) back to our home for the weekend.

Canoe / truck ride home

After a break for lunch we headed back out into the jungle with our guide. Donning big rubber boots (see photo of me above) we trudged through the forest on our way to a lookout point. The lookout point was part of a small developed tourist stop of sorts which included a small area to sit and eat, a few caves carved out of the hillside, and a structure at the top of the hill with a dozen or so hammocks to enjoy the view. As for the caves, we quickly navigated our way through them but spent at least enough time for a bat to fly up my shorts. Not cool. At the top of the path the lookout point was awesome. We enjoyed a few cold beers and relaxed in the afternoon sun.

Our view overlooking the jungle

After a while we finished our beers and headed back down the hillside to continue our day. Our guide led us back into the forest to an area known to see caiman (family to the crocodile). Our guide was familiar with the area and even jumped into a pond and waded waist-deep in search of the large turtle that lived in there, but to no avail.

To finish our day we went fishing for huanchichi (spelling may not be correct) which were piranha-like fish with super sharp teeth, with fishing line tied to the end of a stick and raw chicken. I’m not sure if any of us really mastered the technique. By the time it was dark out, our group secured 3 fish (2 caught by our guide and 1 by one of the Belgians) which we brought home and ate for dinner. The fish were shaped more like a trout and tasted quite good, which was a nice conclusion to our day.

The next morning we again hopped into the back of the pickup truck and ventured into the jungle for a hike to two different waterfalls. Along the way our guide showed us different types of plants and how the local people used them. He told us about and then subjected us to some strange indigenous plant medicine, including some rather painful pricks from a small flower followed by the application of a paste to ease the stinging of said pricks. We all agreed at the end that maybe we should have passed on that part, but no harm came to us and we survived. On a better note, our guide also fashioned some new glasses for Elizabeth which complimented her headband quite nicely.

Elizabeth modeling her jungle headband and glasses

Our first stop on the hike was a really cool hidden waterfall, tucked away in the jungle and almost impossible to find without a guide. It was only about 15-20 feet tall and included a small pool suitable for swimming. Despite the freezing temperatures, we figured we had hiked here for the waterfall specifically, so we all jumped in and enjoyed the frigid waters for a bit.

From there we headed to the second and final waterfall of our hike. This one was much larger and even colder somehow, but we jumped in there for a bit as well. Unfortunately the Belgian girl who was with us on the trip fell and hit her tailbone pretty good, so we took it easy on the way back.

Once we made it back to our bunkhouse we had whole fish (red snapper) for lunch which was great. It was cooked in a banana leaf which gave it a steamed quality (as opposed to fried, which most fish had been for us up to that point) which was a nice change of flavor and texture.

Following lunch we walked a short ways down the road to a local cacao shop where you can try organic chocolate and also make your own. We all sampled fresh cacao beans, which have a fruit pulp around them that must be chewed off. From there, the de-fruited beans are dried in the sun for a week before they are roasted, peeled, ground up, and eventually made into chocolate. After learning about the process we were able to walk through each step and make our own 100% cacao chocolate.

Mike grinding up the roasted and peeled beans.

The chocolate produced is literally 100% dark chocolate, with no sugar or anything else added. The beans smell incredible as they are roasting, and the chocolate smells great as it’s being ground, but the taste is quite bitter, like 100% baking chocolate. The ground up paste is eventually spread out on a banana leaf and placed in the freezer to chill. During the chilling period we enjoyed some pan de yuca and some local tea, and even tried some of their local jungle whiskey (which must have had a dozen different types of herbs and botanicals in it) which was great. After finishing up our snack the host returned to the freezer to get our giant chocolate bar and we headed back home for our last night in the jungle.

The next morning after breakfast we packed up our stuff and jumped back in the van to leave the jungle and head to our next new city, Latacunga!

  • Mike

Donde esta el Baños?

Following our trip to Riobamba we grabbed another early bus and headed to Baños de Agua Santa (Baños for short), an awesome town surrounded by mountains, volcanoes, and waterfalls, with lots to do as far as adventure sports go. All four of us were absolutely wiped from mountain biking so we checked into our hostel and planned to just relax for the day. Our hostel was located in the center of town with a great rooftop (including a bar) and even had a resident hostel bulldog named Google.

We stopped for lunch and coffee at a local place called Honey’s (we would stop here a few times during our stay in Baños) and spent the rest of the afternoon hanging out on the hostel rooftop and enjoying the views. Still feeling exhausted from mountain biking, we decided to head across town to the thermal pools that the city is named after to try and help with our soreness. The pools were in a small public pool type of setting but fed with natural water warmed from the volcano. We donned our mandatory swimming caps that we bought from a shop on the way and plopped into one of the warmer pools to relax as the sun set. We also practiced our synchronized swimming.

synchronized swimming in the hot baths

Day two started with a trip to Mercado Central, where dozens of local shop owners were vying for our patronage. We selected a small stall and had plates of a local dish called llapingachos, which include fried potato pancakes of sorts, salad, rice, eggs, and fried sausage. From here we started towards the edge of town where we planned to do a short hike across the river for some good views of the city.

Unfortunately for us, our short walk turned into a long hike. We started on the correct path and crossed the river, walking along the base of the mountains for a while. Somewhere around halfway, though, we missed or made a wrong turn and ended up climbing up the side of a mountain to a viewpoint marked on Google maps, when we should have been descending back towards town. It’s still unclear if we ever actually made it to the viewpoint. Luckily the long detour did take us across the path of two cute baby cows, so it wasn’t a total bust. At the tail end of the hike we reached and crossed a cool suspension bridge spanning the canyon that brought us back into Baños.

Chris on the bridge at the end of the hike

Now thoroughly wiped out, again, we went back to the market for another local lunch and added some fresh juice for good measure. We went back to the hostel to shower and the afternoon was spent relaxing on our awesome rooftop with Google. Per the advice of our hostel manager we got pizza from a local shop which was run by a man who lived in Italy for 15 years; the pizza lived up to our expectations.

In the morning we had bolons for breakfast from the market (fried balls of mashed green plantains and chunks of pork), which were awesome, before getting picked up for the day’s activity: canyoning. Canyoning, at least in Baños, is repelling down active waterfalls complete with harness, helmet, and wet suit. We took a small van about a half an hour outside of the city to reach a string of waterfalls and reached our destination just as the rain really started to come down. If we had to have a rain day though, we all agreed it might as well be on the day we’re navigating waterfalls.

The four of us preparing to get started

Though this sort of thrill seeking activity is not what I (Mike) usually go for, it was great. Our first waterfall was of a good difficulty level for us to get our bearings. We slid and stepped backwards down the waterfall as the rushing water did everything it could to throw us off balance. The next few increased in difficulty but we all managed to get the hang of it and navigate our way down the waterfall before jumping backwards into the pool at the bottom of each tier. Emily and I both took some solid knocks over the course of the day, with Emily a large hip bruise as a badge of honor for the next week or so.

Before wrapping up our excursion our guide took us to the edge of an entirely different category of waterfall, this time pushing 70-75 ft above the pool below. Not knowing what to expect, Chris (our lead off hitter for all of our activities) got rigged up by the guide before stepping over the edge and, at the direction of the guide, removing his hands completely from the rope. Soon after, Chris was free falling for a good 20 feet before the guide caught him and lowered him down the rest of the way. Quite the rush, especially when you don’t know what’s coming.

Chris with the tough guy pose (our guide loved that pose) before his drop

With our canyoning adventure complete for the day we stopped back at the restaurant on the ground floor of our hostel for lunch. Every day the restaurant was full of local diners so we figured it must be good and were not disappointed. We all had the typical lunch special that day which came with soup (including popcorn to put into the soup, a local twist that we plan to continue at home), juice, and a plate of meat with mushrooms and rice. It was delicious.

In the afternoon the weather began to clear so we decided to take a cab up to the top of the mountain just at the edge of town to try the “swing at the edge of the world”. Casa de Arbol (the tree house) is a small theme park sort of place with a small zip line and a few different swings that extend off the edge of the cliff/mountain. It genuinely felt like you were going to fly off the side of the mountain. While we enjoyed the swings and other attractions here, they were child’s play compared to our next stop: the largest swing in Ecuador.

After a short cab ride we arrived at the largest swing in Ecuador, El Vuelo Del Condor (the flight of the condor). There are two swings but the heavy hitter is 60 meters long and sends you off the edge of the steep mountainside, more than 100 meters above the ground below. After a complimentary shot for the nerves (described by the guide as moonshine tequila) you ascended a few flights of stairs and were then strapped into a chair of sorts. Seconds later, while the guy who strapped you in is distracting you, the small platform in which you are standing is dropped out from beneath you and away you go.

Needless to say this was one of the coolest things we’ve done, and the best way to wrap up a day full of adrenaline. Feeling amped up from the swings and mystery shot, we took a cab back into town where we realized that Baños was going into full Covid lockdown for the weekend. After discussing our options with people in our hostel, we decided to head to the Amazon (jungle) the next day rather than stay in Baños and booked a weekend tour through our hostel event planner (more on that in the next post!). The remainder of the night was spent enjoying a few drinks on the rooftop until, due to loud noise and lights on after curfew, the police came and shut us down. No real harm but a bit tense as we all scrambled to our rooms as the police were looking around, whoops!

In the morning, our final day in Baños, we visited our favorite coffee shop (Honey’s) before stopping at the market to grab some empanadas recommended by the hostel bartender. From there we made our way to a local shop to rent bikes for the day with plans to bike Ruta de las Cascadas (road of the waterfalls). Fortunately the trip is mostly downhill, and most people catch a truck back up the hill into town. We started on our way stopping at different waterfalls and view points along the way. About an hour into our journey it started to rain, and it did not stop all day.

In an attempt to wait out the storm we stopped at a restaurant for a few beers, however it just seemed to rain even harder. We kept trudging through and made it to Cascada El Pailon del Diablo, a huge and powerful waterfall that normally attracted large crowds. On this downpour of a day, though, we were the only visitors. The path down into the valley was relatively easy until you approached the falls themselves, when you then had to crawl through some tunnels carved out of the mountain to get up to the viewing platform. Everything was slippery and we were completely soaked by this point, but the waterfalls themselves were intense because of all the rain and it was worth the trip.

Soaked and pretty tired, we climbed back up to where our bikes were parked and found a pickup truck to take us and our bikes back into town. Once back in town we dropped off our bikes and then went back to the hostel to dry off as best we could before our ride to the jungle arrived. At this point we started carrying around a garbage bag full of wet clothes, that wouldn’t be dry for days. Our van rolled up around 6 pm and we hopped in to begin our journey to the jungle!

  • Mike

Ra-Ra-Ra-Ra-Riobamba!

We highly recommend playing this clip while reading this post, seeing as we could not stop singing this song for several weeks following our trip to Riobamba (with a simple lyrical tweak, of course).

We got up early in Alausi and arrived at the bus stop just barely in time to catch the 9 am to our next town, Riobamba. A few hours (more very windy roads) later we arrived and immediately headed for a coffee shop to hang out for a while before our AirBnB check in time.

Once settled we dropped our bags and ventured into town, and found yet another market to try yet another town’s take on roasted pork. Unsurprisingly it was fantastic, though we all did decide that our favorite was from our first stop on Pork Road in Cuenca. Its hard to describe how tasty the pork has been in Ecuador but from the crispy, fried chicharrones style bits to the chunks of roast pork, it’s been the best I’ve ever had. Before heading home for the evening we found a great taco place for dinner (we would return a second time later during our stay) and an even better gelato place for dessert (we stopped here on all three nights of our stay).

In the morning we found a local tour company and signed up for a trip to mountain bike down the side of a volcano, Chimborazo, the next day. Chimborazo is the highest mountain in Ecuador, and according to Wikipedia is the farthest point on the Earth’s surface from the Earth’s center since it’s is located along the planet’s equatorial bulge. It doesn’t top Mount Everest as the highest mountain on earth though, because elevation is measured from sea level. While we wouldn’t trekking all the way to the summit, the expedition we signed up for would bring us to base camp.

We spent some time listening to the guide’s pitch and decided we couldn’t pass up this experience. He fitted us for helmets, bikes, knee pads, and elbow pads, and advised us on which types of snacks to bring for our trip. As if hiking up and biking down a volcano wasn’t challenging enough, doing it at high altitude brings it to another level. After finishing up with the guide, we promptly headed to the store to acquire said snacks, including salty plantain chips and a block of unrefined brown cane sugar called panela, and then settled in to hydrate and prep for tomorrow.

The next morning our guide for the day picked us up early and we rode in the back of a truck up to our starting point. Chimborazo is part of the Andes mountains and though the photos are incredible they just don’t do it justice. Our first leg of the journey was a short hike from the parking area to Refugio Whymper, which was at an elevation of 5000 meters, the highest any of us had been. Though the hike was less than a mile long, it was straight up hill and the elevation really affected us. We took plenty of panela and chocolate breaks and it took us a full hour to get to the refuge. Visibility was pretty bad all day, so we only got fleeting glimpses of the peak through the clouds, but we were happy to have made it regardless.

Emily at the refuge

After taking a second to catch our breath, we hiked back down to the parking area to gear up for our mountain biking adventure. While we had all ridden a mountain bike previously none of us had actually mountain biked, which became evident early into our journey.

Geared up for the first leg of our bike journey

Overall the course was around 25 miles long with about 90% of it downhill and two “short” uphill sections about halfway through. Though this sounded good in conversation while sitting in the guide’s office, all the downhill wasn’t quite as smooth as we had anticipated. The first section of trail was made up of giant rocks and what felt like fine, volcanic gravel. It was slippery, and steep enough that if you weren’t riding the breaks the entire time you were going too fast.

After our early growing pains we began to steady and get a feel for the bikes and the trail. Early in the journey we saw lots of vicuñas, an animal similar in appearance to a llama or alpaca but a but more like a common deer. We were able to snap a photo of a group in one area but they were typically pretty skittish.

Pack of vicuñas

And now, a guest section from one of our fellow travelers, Chris!

Hi everyone this is Chris from the paragraph mentioned above and for those who don’t know me I am a l deceptively athletic baldy (much like Michael). The thing they don’t tell you about mountain biking down the highest mountain/volcano in Ecuador is that you should pretty much be on the back brake 100% of the time or things can go poorly.

As we started down the most difficult section/our first section of the mountain I started to have trouble controlling my speed. Everyone was at the bottom of the section watching me come flying down the path approaching a decent 4 or 5 foot drop. I knew things were going awry when I hit the brake and attempted to turn down the path but my bike headed straight at the rocks and the drop.

At this point my peak athletic performance kicked in and I knew to survive this drop with minimal injury I would have to channel the condor from Condor Point in Alausí (See “Say ‘Sí’to Alausí” for that big beautiful bird). As I flew through the air, I front flipped like I was in the X-games and perfectly landed right on my elbow pads with my bike on top of me. The looks of horror on my loved ones faces were soon turned to joy and laughter as I popped right up without a scratch on me. That was the first of several wipeouts on that day.

As a group we had a total of 5.5 tumbles on the mountain. I may or may not have accounted for 5 of those falls but I still sit here typing this to tell the tale. One of Mike’s favorite quotes is from an old Dwayne Wade NBA TV commercial and it’s, “fall 6 times get up 7”. I lived by that motto that day and I’m happy to say we conquered Chimborazo. Much like Bill Murray in space jam I will be retiring from mountain biking as a champion being undefeated and untied. Thank you all for your time reading this. Good night!

To try to follow that passage would just be foolish on my part, so I’ll pass it off to Emily to summarize the rest of our journey down the mountain. Unfortunately we don’t have a ton of photos since we were mostly focused on surviving.

After Chris recovered from his first few tumbles, and I (Emily) recovered from briefly feeling like I was going to pass out from the altitude, we got back on our bikes ready to tackle the rest of the road down. After a few more hours we all felt steadier on our bikes and more confident in our abilities. The first big uphill however, was like a slap in the face. It was slow going, and after catching our breath we elected to ride in the back of the truck up the second hill while eating the sandwiches we packed for lunch.

Towards the end of the trip we eventually made it onto paved roads, which felt like a luxury compared to where we started. The only thing slowing us down at this point was the occasional dog who chased after us (our guide warned us about this in the office the previous day, and his advice was to either out-pedal the dog, or hop off the bike and use it as a shield). Fortunately all the dogs that chased us were all bark and no bite, and we successfully made it to the end with no major injuries. Success!

Emily and Elizabeth finishing up the taxing downhill section
  • Mike

PS: Let us know if you enjoyed hearing from our guest blogger, Chris.

Say “Si!” to Alausi!

After leaving Cuenca we hopped onto a local bus for a four hour trip through the Andes mountains. Though the bus was pretty crowded and the roads were very, very windy, it was still a nice scenic drive. We gained elevation quickly and ended up literally driving through the clouds which made it hard to see anything but cool nonetheless. We arrived a few hours later at our hostel (one of only a few options we could find in town) which ended up being an amazing place that felt more like a hotel with awesome woodwork and no other guests. It was here where Elizabeth proclaimed “Say “Si!” to Alausi!”, unknowingly at the time providing this very blog’s name. Thanks Elizabeth!

The famous train, unfortunately not in operation

The next day we had planned on taking a ride on the famous Devil’s Nose train route, THE attraction in town, only to learn that it was not running since the beginning of the pandemic. This was definitely a bummer but our hostel host told us we could do a hike following the train tracks in the valley so we elected to do that and it did not disappoint. The hike was called “The Devil’s Nose” (same as this section of train) and took us through a huge chunk of the valley. Unlike the train tracks however, the hiking trail was higher up in the mountains with an incredible view of the valley. Our host told us it was typically clear in the mornings here and the clouds rolled in around 1 in the afternoon. He was correct.

The hike ended at a small building at the edge of the ridge, where we met a local man and paid a small fee to contribute toward the maintenance of the trail. After some deliberation about whether the extra steps and elevation change was worth it, we took a few flights of stairs down to a lookout point on the side of the mountain. It was well worth our effort.

View from the end of the hike

At this point we were already wiped having hiked much further than any of us had anticipated. We had some water and a took few minutes to rest before turning around and making the return trek to town. Starving after a 5-plus hour hike, we stopped at the local market to enjoy a delicious pork plate for lunch/dinner; Ecuadorians really know how to cook a pig. After our main course we found a local bakery where we tried fresh pan de yuca for the first time, which was delicious.

In the evening, after we spent the afternoon drinking coffee and playing cards, we headed to the grocery store to grab a few beers before heading home. It was here where we first ran into early store closures due to Covid curfews, arriving at 6:10 pm only to realize alcohol sales were stopped at 6 pm. Feeling a bit defeated and quite hungry, we pivoted and headed for a street meat cart in the center of town.

We found a few carts next to each other, one with sweet empanadas and the other with skewers of grilled meat and veggies, and got some of each for dinner. Just a few steps later, however, I dropped the largest piece of meat from my skewer onto the rain soaked street. Devastation. As a silver lining, though, a very hungry looking doggo came by and after a few seconds of tentative lingering snatched up the meat for his dinner. He was a good boy and deserved that piece of meat more than I did. Before heading home to sleep we decided to try our beer purchasing luck at a corner store and emerged with not only the beer but also some ice cream for the second course of dinner. So it all worked out.

Chris and Mike bringing out their inner Condor for the hike back down

We spent our last evening in town watching movies and woke up early the next morning to catch a bus to our next stop, Riobamba.

  • Mike

Cuenca

Our next destination after the beach was Cuenca, the third-largest city in Ecuador and one of the prettiest places we’ve been so far. On Monday we woke up early anticipating a relatively long but straightforward journey taking two different buses back to Guayaquil and then catching another bus to Cuenca. That was until a woman working at our hostel told us buses weren’t running in town that day. No problem, we thought, so we caught a $5 cab to the next town and luckily came across a bus heading to Guayaquil. At the bus station in Guayaquil however, things went downhill. Apparently we had gotten lucky and found out that there were actually no buses running from Guayaquil because of a strike related to diesel fuel prices. We talked to a few different ticket offices, all of which confirmed that there were no buses.

Unsure of what to do, we wandered around and talked to a few taxi drivers, but sitting squished in a cab for 3+ hours with our bags in our laps didn’t sound great. Not to mention it would cost significantly more than a bus ride. Next we looked into renting a car for the day, but again couldn’t find any place with available cars that wasn’t way too expensive. After messaging anyone we knew in Guayaquil and wandering around for the afternoon trying to come up with a way to get to Cuenca, we eventually gave into a guy at a van rental company who would drive us there that night. It was about 5 times more expensive than we were thinking the bus would be, but we needed a ride.

Happy to finally be on the road and not standing in a bus station with nowhere to go, things got even better about an hour into our drive when we made it up into the mountains. Our long day of travel timed up perfectly with sunset over the clouds and our driver happily pulled over several times for us to take pictures.

The next day we set out to explore the city. Our first stop was a walk across town and then up about 700 steps to a lookout point, Mirador de Turi, which offered a great view of the city. This turned into a little more of a hike than we expected, so we rewarded ourselves with a beer at the top.

Overlooking Cuenca from Mirador de Turi

The walk back down the other side of the hill turned out to be equally as long. It felt like we had been walking forever when we finally got to our next stop for the day: Avenida de Bosco, also known in English as Pork Road. We stopped at the first restaurant we came across with a full pig out front and were not disappointed. After we sat down we were greeted by the restaurant owner with a giant spoon full of fresh fried pork rinds and that really sealed the deal. We split a typical plate which came with several different parts of the pig, either fried or roasted, over corn and fresh veggies. The fried skin was super crunchy and salty, and the pork was as tender as was possibly manageable. We finished the first plate and followed that up with another plate of pork since the first one was so good.

After eating our fill we grabbed a cab back to the main square in the historic part of town, Calderón Square, for a free walking tour we signed up for. Our guides for the afternoon first took us to the Catedral de la Immaculada Concepcion, where we climbed the steps up through one of the main towers to the roof. We visited Plaza de las Flores (the flower market), learned about the few remaining cloistered nuns living in the monastery across next to the market, and drank a cup of Agua de Pitimas, a drink made and sold by the nuns that’s supposed to be a cure-all. It tasted kind of like flowers. We’ll report back if it cured all our ailments (Nararator: it did not cure all of their ailments).

Our last stop on the walking tour was another market, full of different vendors selling fresh fruits and vegetables, fresh herbs and flowers, fresh juice, and an entire section of ladies selling pork. Anytime you came near that end of the market they would each try their hardest to get you to come eat their pork. The real stars of this market though were the ladies doing spiritual cleansing. Elizabeth and I each participated. An adorable woman dressed in traditional clothes used a raw egg, a bunch of fresh flowers, and various scented oils to cleanse us. The boys opted out.

One of our favorite things to do while traveling is try all the local foods and drinks we can try. There was no shortage of that in Cuenca. After our spiritual cleansing we drank a glass of canelazo and then enjoyed ice cream topped with mild shredded cheese which was surprisingly good.

The next day after breakfast we ventured to Museo Municipal de Arte Moderno (Cuenca’s modern art museum) which our tour guides from the previous day had recommended. None of us are big into visiting museums when we travel, let alone modern art museums, but this place had an exhibit on color that ended with us getting to paint on the wall in a gallery and it turned out to be pretty cool.

We spent the rest of our afternoon eating and drinking our way across the city which included another plate of pork from the market, fresh coconut juice, a beer at the highest Belgian brewery, and happy hour on a rooftop at sunset overlooking the cathedral.

On our last morning we visited another market for a cheap breakfast where we had something that tasted like a buttery, delicious, cornbread arepa and fresh fruit juice. With full bellies and an awesome trip to Cuenca, we packed up our bags and took a taxi to the bus station for our next stop.

  • Emily

La Costa de Ecuador

We didn’t plan on leaving Colombia so soon, but as has become the norm this year, our plans changed last minute again. With negative Covid tests in hand we flew to Guayaquil, the largest city in Ecuador, and spent a few days exploring the city and figuring out our rough plan for the next month.

Guayaquil

Our flight landed in Guayaquil pretty late so we didn’t see much on the Uber ride to our Airbnb for the next three days. The next morning we set out to explore. We looked up a few good places for breakfast and coffee (which turned out to be chains, but they were still tasty), after which we headed for one of the two large hills overlooking the city for an urban hike. We read there was a great viewpoint and plaza with lots of shops and restaurants in the neighborhood on the way down. It was hot, which we definitely weren’t used to after the last couple weeks up in the mountains in Colombia.

Overlooking Guayaquil

We ended up at a huge statue on top of the hill, which wasn’t exactly what we expected but it did offer a tremendous view of the city. We thought we might be able to walk across to the other side of the hill to get to the main plaza, but after heading that direction we realized something didn’t seem right. The return trip down brought us back through a rather sketchy part of town, so we decided it was best to leave that part of town ASAP and try again another day to find the actual hilltop we were looking for. We headed to the next stop on our itinerary for the day, Malecon 2000, a boardwalk that runs through the city overlooking the river. The boardwalk is home to the largest Ferris wheel in South America, which we were all pretty excited about until we realized it was closed.

For dinner on our first day we decided to try a local specialty, crab (seafood is big here). Not unlike eating bottomless blue crab in Maryland, they are boiled and served with a bib, a mallet, and lots of napkins. It’s a lot of work to get to the meat, but worth it and delicious.

Crab and Pilsener (our go-to cheap beer in Ecuador, brewed in Guayaquil, which is actually a lager, not a pilsner)

The next morning we found a great little corner restaurant that offered cheese empanadas, bolons (balls of mashed green plantain stuffed with cheese and meet, and fried, mmmmm), and fresh juice. Feeling more prepared this time, we set out for Santa Ana Hill, this time finding the right path. After 456 numbered steps we ended up at the top, with a really cool old church and lighthouse, and of course more great views.

After rewarding ourselves with a few beers atop the hill overlooking the river, we headed back down to the next adventure for the day: taking the gondola across the river. For locals the gondola is a means of public transportation but that didn’t stop us from making it our tourist entertainment for the day and enjoying the great views of the city. We hopped on and planned to take it to the end and back, but realized as we got to the end we would be forced to get off and buy a second set of tickets to make our return trip. We even elicited a live PA announcement telling passengers that they must get off at the end of the line. Whoops haha.

Arguably our favorite part of Guayaquil though was the famous Parque Seminario, better known as “Iguana Park” located in the middle of the city, which we visited several times during our trip. As the name suggests, the park is home to dozens, maybe hundreds of wild iguanas. They are quite comfortable around people and barely move enough for you to walk past them. Some people feed them. Really cool to see these modern dinosaurs up close.

Montañita

After a few days in the city we headed via bus to our second stop in Ecuador, this time a small beach town called Montañita. After checking into our hostel we spent most of our first day walking around town and on the beach. That night while looking for a place for dinner we found a street with a handful of small Ecuadorian restaurants, each with a charcoal grill out on the sidewalk, helmed by a man using a hair dryer to stoke the fire. They all smelled amazing. We picked one and needless to say the experience and the meal were both great (and cheap).

The next morning we signed up for something most of us had never done before, surfing lessons. Of the four of us, Elizabeth was the only one with experience (with one surf lesson) so we really didn’t have any idea what we were getting ourselves into. Our guides, Antonio and Christian, brought us to a completely private beach with small waves which was perfect for our level of experience (basically none). In total we spent about two hours standing, wobbling, and falling, but eventually we all got the hang of it. It’s wild how much energy swimming out, falling, and swimming out again takes out of you.

After a looooonnnggg two hours we went home to recover and relax. For lunch we found a hole-in-the-wall restaurant to check off another typical Ecuadorian food that was on our list to try, encebollado, which is an onion and fish soup. It usually comes with fresh limes and chifles, (fried plantain chips) and it’s delicious (as long as you like fish and onions). We spent the rest of the afternoon recovering from surfing and drinking fresh mojitos. We also found a Cuban cigar shop and grabbed a few to enjoy on the rooftop at our hostel that evening.

The next morning in our search for another local place for breakfast we ended up stumbling upon the best baked goods that we’d discovered during our trip. The place was called Medias Dulces and was run by a local guy who definitely knew what he was doing. We tried the several types of croissants, coconut pastries, cheese pastries, and several other varieties; all were incredible.

Following our incredible breakfast discovery we decided, despite being completely exhausted and sore, to surf for a second day in a row. Our guides from yesterday offered to let us rent their surfboards and drive us to the beach. We ended up at a different beach from the day before with more people and what felt like much bigger waves. We surfed for a good while and met Antonio’s girlfriend and super cute one-year-old daughter before heading back to shower and relax for the night. We rewarded ourselves for a second day of surfing back at our favorite mojito spot, ate some amazing shawarma for dinner, and hung out at the hostel to enjoy the sunset.

Salinas

The next morning, after a quick stop to stock up on pastries at Medias Dulces, we hopped on another bus to head to a new beach town, Salinas. While Montañita was a small beach town where you could walk from one end to the other in five minutes, Salinas was more like a city with high rise buildings that happens to be on the beach. Our hostel was right across the street from the beach.

The beach across the street from our hostel

After settling into our hostel early in the afternoon, we learned that the beach closed at 3 PM so we threw down our things and headed across the street. The beach was super crowded, easily the most packed place we had seen on our trip, but we found a clear space and spent some time relaxing until the beach patrol came around and made us (and everyone else) leave.

We spent the rest of the day doing what we do best: eating, drinking, and playing cards. We tried a few different spots for ceviche, another must-have on the coast of Ecuador. As delicious as our seafood dinner was, the highlight was really dessert. Emily and Elizabeth found what would become their favorite ice cream from a convenience store, mint chocolate Bombons. Little did we know we’d spend the next 3 weeks stopping at every convenience store we walked by looking for these.

Emily cradling her Bombons like a newborn

After a long weekend on the beach, on Monday morning we packed up to head to our next city. What we anticipated being a long day of bus travel to get there ended up being an even longer day of taxi, bus, foot, and van travel, but more on that in our next post.

  • Mike

Colombia, and friends!

(What a surprise, it’s been ages since our last post! Sorry, again.) As the month of March came to an end so did our time in Costa Rica. For a while now we had been planning to travel for a few months with our friends Chris and Elizabeth and just trying to nail down the when and where, and it turned out that the best (cheapest) country for the four of us to meet was Colombia. Before leaving the country, we spent one last night in San Jose which is where our flight departed from. We took some time to relax, return our beloved Chica Blanca, and obtain the necessary negative Covid tests to travel. With negative test results in hand, we waived goodbye to Central America and headed south to Colombia.

Chris and Elizabeth’s flight had them arriving to Bogota late on April 1st but we arrived a few days before them. While both Emily and I had been to Colombia before, we had never been to the city of Bogota, so we were excited to check out a new location.

As is the case with each new city we really enjoy trying as much of the local cuisine as possible. Our first meal in Bogota was a delicious tamale and hot chocolate with cheese from La Puerta Falsa, a tiny hole in the wall place and one of the oldest restaurants in the city. Emily had read that some locals put the cheese into the hot chocolate, so we tried it and surprisingly enjoyed it. (This won’t be the first time we pair cheese with a surprising food; more on that in our next country.)

Tamale (con pollo) and hot chocolate with cheese

After breakfast we did a bit of research to find a place to hang out for the day. Bogota had lots of small local coffee shops that not only offered espresso drinks (more typical than what we know as “coffee” in the US) so we found one and posted up for some cards and coffee. This is arguably the best coffee I’ve ever had.

Amazing coffee and cappuccino

After enjoying our coffee and a nice quiet afternoon we headed to dinner at another local spot. This time, however, we opted for a more American style dinner and stopped at one of the many burger places we had walked by that day, called Voodoo. There seemed to be a lot of burger places in Bogota, but this one looked great and the guys who worked there were super excited to have us for dinner. It is not an exaggeration to say that they prepared some of the best burgers we’ve ever had, so much so that we returned a second and third time with Chris and Elizabeth once they joined us. Shout out to Pacha for being a great host!

We spent the next few days exploring our neighborhood, La Candelaria, which was a super cool old town with lots of street art and murals and great old cobblestone streets. For lunch we tried another local food, changua, which is a soup typically served at breakfast with a milk base, poached eggs, bread, and cilantro. It sounded a bit funny to us but was delicious. That day Chris and Elizabeth came to meet us we ordered take out for dinner and stayed up until they arrived from the airport around midnight, yay friends!

The weekend they arrived happened to be Holy Week/Easter, which is a big holiday in Colombia. Our first day we ventured through town down a huge road that was closed off to traffic and was lined on each side with vendors selling all kinds of used items, crafts, and foods. This road happened to be a main thoroughfare through the city would turn out to be Chris’ favorite, so we made sure to walk on it at least once a day.

We decided it was worth another trip to La Puerta Falsa so Chris and Elizabeth could try the cheese and hot chocolate for themselves. They took our advice and combined the two and agreed that it was a good albeit strange combination. For the rest of the day we hopped to a few different places for beer and cards, dodging the rain as best we could. After a long first day traveling together we headed back to our Airbnb and found the game “Guess Who” (in Spanish) and ended up playing all night. Highly recommend this as a way to practice Spanish. Later that night I ended up ordering a pizza for the group at a great price, only to have a small personal pizza arrive 45 minutes later. It was tiny. Good, but tiny. Classic mistake.

First drinks with our friends Chris and Elizabeth!

The next day we signed up for a free bike tour around the city. Before our tour we made an attempt to climb the famed steps up to Monseratte, on a mountain overlooking the city, however the steps were closed and only the funicular was running, which we opted to pass on (foreshadowing – we tried climbing the steps a few more times but they were always closed). After grabbing some coffee and snacks, we headed to the meeting point for the start of our tour.

Our guide met us and took us to his shop to select our bikes, and then we were off on our tour. We started by navigating our way through an extremely packed 7th street with tons of people out and about due to the Holy Week festivities. From there we continued through the city, this time mostly on bike paths, before making a stop in Parque National. Here our guide treated us to samples of four local drinks including our favorite which was made of guayabana.

Pre-bike tour

Our tour continued through the city including a long stretch of graffiti and street art which was really cool. There were surprisingly a lot of nice, well protected bike lanes through the city. The next area we biked through was Santa Fe, a somewhat sketchy area known as Bogotá’s red light district, so we made good time during this portion of the tour. Following Santa Fe our guide led us up the steepest hill in Candelaria which kicked all of our butts, but was fortunately the last hurrah for our tour. It was great to see new parts of the city, learn part of it’s history, and hear the tidbits of information our guide had to offer at each stop we made.

Post-bike tour

After an exhausting day on the bikes we took it a bit slower the following day and went in search of more good coffee and food. We stopped back at our favorite cafe for some coffee and then found a small restaurant to try another local cuisine on our list, ajiaco. Ajiaco is a chicken soup typically eaten at lunch including corn, potatoes, guacamole, and avocado. It was, of course, delicious.

Our next stop was a day trip to Zipaquira, known for their famous underground salt mine cathedral. After a quick bus ride and breakfast of some delicious street arepas, empanadas, and coffee, we headed to the cathedral to start or tour. I was a really cool experience, as the people in this part of the country had not only mined salt from the earth here but also carved out numerous caverns with the stations of the cross and even an entire cathedral underground.

One station of the cross showing a cross in relief

After completing our tour of the massive underground cave system, we took a tram back out to the surface and found a cafe for some afternoon beers. On the way home (via bus) we accidentally missed our stop so we were forced to get off at the next one, which luckily was a bit closer to our AirBnB. Unluckily, however, we were physically unable to leave the station without purchasing a city bus card and hopping on a city bus. After walking up and down the platform a few times, we eventually figured this out, grabbed a ticket, and took the bus as close to our apartment as possible. A strange situation but an adventure nonetheless.

The next day we packed up our stuff and grabbed a bus to Villa de Leyva, which has turned out to be one of our favorite towns thus far. It was small, quaint town with cobblestone streets and really cool old buildings and plenty of good food options. We spent our first day eating at a few local places and playing cards, and ended up eating a great dinner at a restaurant with an outdoor garden/patio and live music.

Day two in Villa de Leyva was spent hiking up the mountain overlooking town. The hike was straight up hill and ended at Mirador El Santo Sagrada Corazon de Jesus, a small Jesus status perched atop the hill. We spent a bit of time at the top to catch our breath and took off just in time to be rained on for the entire journey down the mountain. As a reward we stopped for some more hot chocolate with cheese and even found a local craft brewery, Cervezeria Hisca for some tasty beer.

Overlooking Villa de Leyva

One of the best perks of long term travel is flexibility. We typically “plan” the next few days to a week at a time (and by “plan”, we mean have a place to sleep and figure out the rest on the fly). Fortunately, that comes in handy when plans change last minute, which has happened a lot this year. That evening we spent some time researching our next move only to discover that cities in the northern part of Colombia (especially Medellin, one of our planned stops) were going into more strict Covid shut downs due to rising cases. After some time messaging people we know in Colombia and discussing our options, we decided leaving Colombia was our best option. We cancelled our next hostel and got a bus back to Bogota the following morning. To make a long story short, we spent the next few days watching a lot of movies and playing a lot of games (including Monopoly in Spanish) in our Airbnb apartment in Bogota. We also found the next cheapest flight out of the country to a place with much lower Covid numbers and plenty of opportunities for adventure… Ecuador! With negative Covid tests in hand we set off for the airport much earlier than planned, but excited for a new country.

  • Mike

Hacienda Sur

After an incredible week living like we were truly on vacation, we dropped our friends off at the airport and set off for the next (and final) stop on our trip around Costa Rica. About a month ago we started looking into volunteer opportunities as a way to save money and, after some research, we came across WWOOF. WWOOF is an organization that connects organic farmers and growers to volunteers from around the world. In exchange for several hours of work a day, the host farm will typically provide food and housing for volunteers. We found a farm that looked interesting, filled out an application, and were accepted.

We set off from San Jose to spend two weeks volunteering at an artisan beef farm on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica, Hacienda Sur. Neither of us know anything about cattle or agriculture, but the description online for volunteers seemed interesting and we figured why not. We arrived on Sunday afternoon, got settled in the farmhouse we’d be staying in and met some of the other volunteers. We learned there was no WiFi, no hot water, and pretty sketchy phone service. Fortunately it was so hot that a cold shower felt amazing. As annoying as not having WiFi was, we got used to it. We had no idea what to expect as far as work, just that we had to be ready at 6:00 am the next morning.

Our home for the next two weeks.

Our typical day started with a 5:30 am alarm, a quick cup of coffee, and meeting everyone out on the porch at 6:00 am. The regular staff running the farm didn’t speak any English, so we did our best to understand and usually picked up enough key words to half understand what we were supposed to do. Fortunately a few of the other volunteers spoke more Spanish than we did and filled in the gaps for us. We’d work from 6:00 to around 8:00 am and then have a half hour break for breakfast. After breakfast we’d work until 12:00 pm and then have the rest of the day to ourselves.

One of the biggest perks of the living situation was having a fully stocked kitchen with plenty of food, a real stove, and a full size fridge. After 6 months of living in an SUV, a van, or jumping between Airbnbs every week, having a full fridge to make what we wanted was nice. Even better, we had a freezer full of ground beef and a few steaks from the farm, which was all excellent. After finishing work at 12 we’d usually make lunch and then relax around the house for the afternoon, or drive down the road to a cafe to use the WiFi. At night we’d take took turns cooking dinner with the other volunteers.

The farm was beautiful with huge tropical trees, green pastures, and plenty of wildlife. You could hear birds all day and crickets all night. We heard scarlet macaws liked to hang out in the huge trees, and even sloths (less so during the dry season, which we are in, unfortunately). Every group of cattle also had their own pack of white birds (cattle egrets according to the internet) that hung around with them to eat insects. A river and large swamp ran through the center of the farmland.

Swamp on the farm full of fish, birds, and tiny crocodiles

For the first few days, everyone on the farm was scrambling to prepare for a big meeting, where representatives from the UN would be coming to the farm and potentially partnering with Hacienda Sur on a project. Everyone took this as an opportunity to clean up the place and make it look nice. So for the first few days our jobs included raking leaves and hundreds of fallen mangos from around the farmhouse, painting window and door trim, and cleaning. After the UN visit, which seemed to go well, things went back to a more normal routine.

Our favorite job was getting to help Mario, one of the full time staff on the farm, check on the cattle each morning. This involved riding horses around the entire property, counting the cattle in each group (harder than it sounds), and sometimes moving them from one pasture to another. Mike got to ride a horse for the first time, and we loved spending time with Mario and asking him questions about the farm. He knew so much about the trees, plants, and animals and everyday would find us a new snack, like sugar cane or guaba (guaba looks kind of like edamame, grows on trees, is sweet like a fruit but is technically a legume). He spoke zero English but was patient with us and when we didn’t understand him he would just smile and laugh at us.

Other mornings we helped mix, bag, and distribute food for the cattle. During the dry season, in addition to grass, the cattle get a mix of rice flower, coquito, minerals, and silage. The cattle are used to the sound of a tractor (which usually means food), and relatively calm around horses, but people on foot make them nervous. They are curious and will stop what they’re doing and stare at you. They are huge, but fortunately don’t know their own strength.

We spent several mornings walking electric fence lines throughout the farm to remove anything growing into the fence and make minor repairs. One morning we set off with Mario armed with our machetes, and after understanding about 70% of his instructions, set off on our own. While walking along a fence line that separated the farm from an adjacent banana plantation, Mike jumped. We were staring at a fat, 6 ft long golden brown snake with dark markings. We stared at it, trying to memorize the markings since we weren’t sure what it was exactly. If that wasn’t terrifying enough, eventually the snake slowly slithered into a hole near the base of a tree and disappeared. We were even more careful about walking the fence lines after that. When we met back up with Mario, we tried to explain what we saw in broken Spanish, and he just gave us his signature smile. After heading back to the house for lunch, we flipped through a Costa Rica wildlife book to figure out what kind of snake it was…

One of our favorite parts of living on the farm was the seemingly never ending supply of fresh coconuts (pipas), limes, and other tropical fruits. There was a row of palm trees along the side of the house with tons of fruit and a long metal pole with a blade on the end to get them down. Mike mastered opening them with a machete without losing any of the water inside. We drank fresh “agua de pipa” almost daily. We also found lime trees throughout the farm and would collected them on our walk back for lunch to make fresh limonada.

Mike harvesting pipa

On the weekend, halfway through our two week stay, we took a day trip to the towns of Uvita and Dominical, about an hour drive south along the coast. We spent Saturday afternoon at a cafe drinking coffee and catching up on things that require WiFi. It started raining and we decided to wait it out for a few more hours. After the rain stopped we drove to Dominical, a small town full of surfers. We stopped in a few shops, walked along the beach, and then to a brewery for a beer and sunset. There were tons of cars parked among the palm trees just behind the beach with people hanging out for the weekend, which reminded us of tailgating for a football game or concert.

Sunset in Dominical

Throughout the next week we helped with various tasks around the farm and learned a bit more about cattle. Some days were tough (hours of shoveling dirt for a drainage ditch) but fortunately everything was done on “tico time”. That meant not rushing and taking plenty of breaks. With the sun and relentless heat, this felt necessary. Some tasks were more enjoyable, like getting to feed the horses.

One day the second week, a little black dog started hanging out around the farm. She seemed scared and nervous at first, and would lower her head to the ground when you approached her, but slowly started to warm up to us. After feeding her some dinner, she was hooked. She spent the rest of the week hanging around the back porch and would instantly light up any time a human came around. She truly just liked being near people.

On our last day of work, we joined Mario on the horses in the morning. We were lucky enough to see two pairs of scarlet macaws (they stay with their partner for life). Later that morning we saw 6 more, hanging out in a giant tree in one of the pastures. Mike was pumped. To top of our day of wildlife sightings, while back at the house after lunch we saw a troop of squirrel monkeys swinging from tree to tree.

We spent our last night on the farm drinking Imperial and Cacique (cheap liquor made from sugar cane), hanging out with the other volunteers, and teaching them our favorite drinking games. The two weeks went by fast, and we had actually gotten used to waking up at 5:30, taking cold showers, and being basically off-the-grid. On Saturday morning we packed up our stuff, said goodbye to our new friends, and set off for San Jose.

We spent two days in San Jose at an Airbnb relaxing, catching up on laundry, and getting Covid-19 tests. After 2.5 months, our time in Costa Rica is coming to an end. We never anticipated spending this much time in one country on our year off, but being here this long has given us a glimpse into so many places and neighborhoods that we never would have been able to experience on a quick one or two week trip. That being said, we can’t wait to move on to a new place. Onto the next country!

  • Emily

We Have Visitors!

We’re back again after a brief absence but for a good reason: we had visitors! After more than two full months out of the country and away from home by ourselves, in mid-March we were finally fortunate enough to see some familiar faces; our friends Kendall and Brantlee came for a week. These two love to travel as much as we do and did not hesitate to set up a trip to come see us during our time in Costa Rica. In the lead up to their arrival we (well, Emily) mapped out a plan that mixed what they had put on their to-do list with our knowledge of Costa Rica from our trip up to that point.

After all four of us received negative Covid tests they flew to San Jose. We picked them up from the airport on Friday afternoon at which point we hopped into our little rental car and immediately headed for our first stop of the trip. Several hours and many windy, country roads later we arrived in La Fortuna, home of the Arenal Volcano. We had spent some time in La Fortuna previously so we planned to stop at some new locations and parks this time around. Our first stop after coffee and breakfast the next day was the Arenal 1968 Trail (named after a famous eruption of the volcano after being dormant for 400 years) for a simple 3 mile hike. The route offered many great views of the volcano and we even saw a toucan along the way.

Arenal Volcano

That afternoon we stopped at a cafe and began what became a near-daily tradition of playing pitch. Pitch was introduced to me through Emily’s family a few years back, who play the game during their yearly family reunion and holidays. Emily and I had introduced the game to Kendall and Brantlee last year but we really got into a rhythm on this trip. All tolled, the girls bested the guys by 1 game for the entirety of the trip. Good show ladies.

Following lunch we grabbed some drinks from the store and headed to the free hot springs just at the edge of town, a really cool little spot where you can sit in the river with a drink in hand and feel the warmth in the water from the volcano. We sat and drank and just hung out until it was dark, and then stopped at home to clean up before dinner. To wrap up our first full day in Costa Rica we stopped for dinner at a really cool place that was roasting full chickens and ribs in a big masonry oven visible from the street (great advertising, worked on us). Turns out that this was a great decision, as this food may have been the best we had all week. We stopped at a local bar for some drinks (including our first chili guaro shots in Costa Rica) and to enjoy some live music before heading home. The chili guaro tastes a bit like a mini bloody mary, with a little more kick.

In the morning we left La Fortuna and started the drive around Arenal Lake towards Monteverde, taking yet again quite a few windy roads. Emily found a convenient stop early in the drive at the La Fortuna Waterfall, where we climbed down 500 steps to the pool at the base of the waterfall. The water was super cold, but not cold enough to keep us from jumping in to complete the trip. Like all of the other waterfalls we had stopped at in Costa Rica, it was beautiful, and well worth the 1000+ total steps required to experience it.

We continued the drive around the lake and stopped again at Lake Arenal Brewing for lunch and some beer, where we also experienced some blaring club music courtesy of the DJ on the back patio… Not what we expected for a Sunday afternoon with hardly anyone there, but hey, at least the DJ was enjoying it. It was nice to have some “craft” beer since we’d been sticking to Costa Rica’s favorite cheap beer, Imperial, for most of our trip. There was also an incredible view of the lake from the brewery. After finishing our surprisingly good burgers we got back on the road and a few hours later arrived in Monteverde. Our AirBnB was perched up on a small hill at the edge of town, a small hill that nearly bested our car which, with the pedal to the floor, juuuuust barely made it. But we made it. Having spent a long time in the car on some extremely steep and windy roads, we decided to take it easy that night and relax. We grabbed some wine from the grocery store and ordered a pizza for dinner.

In the morning we left early to get to the cloud forest (Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve) in hopes of seeing some animals, specifically the elusive Quetzal. Though we didn’t see any of the large, green birds we did stop for a good 5-10 minutes at the start of the hike to stare up into the canopy as one of the birds continually produced it’s recognizable call, almost mocking us. Alas, no luck. We did, however, see a troop of Capuchin (or white-faced) monkeys later on in the hike. They have definitely been the most common type of monkey we’ve seen throughout Costa Rica. After a long stretch of trail with many clouds, trees, and leaf-cutter ants, we finished the hike and stopped at the nearby Hummingbird Cafe before leaving. In addition to the numerous hummingbirds, we also saw a Coati up close as it scavenged for food in the nearby forest floor.

Hiking through the cloud forest

We stopped for lunch at a cafe down the street and ironically, saw more tropical birds sitting on the back patio than we did throughout our entire cloud forest hike. The small metal platforms where the cafe staff would place small bits of fruit to attract animals certainly helped. The squirrels enjoyed themselves, with one in particular eating more than a full banana, but the food also attracted dozens of species of birds. Though the other three may not have been quite as interested, I (Mike) thought it was awesome.

Continuing our busy day after the awesome bird watching lunch, we returned home to wait for our ride to the Extremo Canopy Park to partake in some zip lining. To be honest, sky diving or bungee jumping or even zip lining are not the normal thrills I seek, but I figured I couldn’t come to a place like Monteverde and skip this experience. So we geared up with harnesses, pulleys, and helmets, and headed up into the canopy. The zip line park that we chose included over 4km of line distance with heights of over 100m from the forest floor.

In most cases you were set up in a seated position like the photos above. Your backhand is used as a break (with a glove) to slow you down a bit before the end of each line, though most lines had a break system as well. About mid-way through the zip line course there was also a huge “tarzan swing”, where you are dropped from a platform on a swing that shoots you out into the canopy high above the forest floor. I chose to opt out of this swing, which is a thrill I don’t need to seek, which allowed me to get a video of the other three swinging. The staff liked to mess with everyone a bit, distracting them before pulling the line and allowing you to free fall. Here’s Emily dropping as she answer the guide’s fake question of “what’s your name?”.

On the final two lines however, one of which was 1 km long across a valley with a height of over 100 m, you laid face-first with your feet behind you in a ”Superman” position. This was quite a strange feeling as you were truly at the mercy of the harness and the line, without even the ability to use your hand as a break. Looking down over the valley below with nothing else in site was surreal.

The end of the 1 km long “Superman” line

Needless to say this was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and perhaps the high point of our entire trip to Costa Rica.

Brantlee heading head first down the final line

That night we again took it easy after a full day of activities. We found a small roasted chicken stand with a few seats around an outdoor bar in town for dinner. The woman serving us laughed at us for thinking the hot sauce was too spicy (she thought it was maybe a 4 out of 10, but it was plenty hot for us). After dinner we stopped at the local sports bar for more pitch and a few beers. We all agreed that this particular bar, empty as its was during our trip (surely due to Covid) was likely an awesome place during peak tourism and with no pandemic.

The following day we stopped at Emily and my favorite coffee shop in Monteverde, Orchid Coffee. Breakfast was awesome as were all the drinks, including fresh smoothies and several coffee concoctions mixed with ice cream (a favorite of the boys). Following breakfast we said goodbye to Monteverde and head to the coast to Manuel Antonio. On the way we made a quick stop at the “crocodile bridge”, named of course for the numerous dinosaur like crocodiles that reside in the shallow part of the river just beneath the highway. We parked and saw a dozen or so crocodiles, which in turn caused Kendall to throw his credit card into the water in his excitement, while reaching to get is phone out of his pocket. In hind sight it was pretty funny to see the card fluttering helplessly, almost in slow motion, into the croc-infested water. We decided these waters were likely home to all sorts of cards, sunglasses, and other valuable items. They belong to the crocs now.

A few hours later we arrived in Manuel Antonio at our AirBnB which was located pretty centrally in town (and, most importantly, directly across from the small bodega with plenty of snacks, beer, and ice cream). Shortly after our arrival as dusk began to fall, we were treated to a troop of monkey swinging and climbing their way through the property. They seemed to show up out of nowhere, maybe a dozen or so, ran across the roofs and balconies of the buildings, and jumped into the palm trees looking for food. They had clearly been here before, and clearly knew what they were doing. It felt almost as if they had a plan and could have given us some trouble if they felt like it. Super cool to see them up close, but a bit unnerving to say the least.

We grabbed dinner at a restaurant just across the street and enjoyed one of several fantastic sunset views we would experience in Manuel Antonio. Our night cap was a few bottles of Imperial Silver, our favorite of the local brews (very similar to Corona) and more pitch.

Sunset over the Pacific Ocean

In the morning after breakfast we decided to head to the beach. We decided to walk thinking it wouldn’t be too bad despite the entirely downhill trip, and it turns out we may have underestimated the journey (foreshadowing). We set up on the beach and just hung our for a while. Kendall and Brantlee walked down the shoreline and came back with some delicious fresh drinks. We even saw a local Tico scale a palm tree, leaning at about a 45 degree angle, and harvest about 30 coconuts. He essentially straddled the tree like a horse and scooted his way to the top. Safely back on the ground he used a machete to clear the husk front the coco, and gave us a few to enjoy. And, to cap off our beach day, Kendall spotted a sloth napping in a tree on our way back home. Worth it.

The trip (hike, really) back up the hill was exhausting and confirmed that we should have driven. After some refreshing outdoor showers at home we recovered. That evening we walked down the street to El Avion, a super cool bar which included parts from several old aircrafts, including the majority of a C-123 Fairchild cargo plane, that has an interesting history if you’re into that. The plane had been mostly gutted and fit out with a bar inside, and even had the cockpit open for photos.

While enjoying happy hour we were treating to another monkey troop sighting, or really, a complete takeover. The monkeys apparently come quite frequently at dusk, knowing that food and snacks (e.g., sugar packets on tables) may be ripe for the taking. Everyone except the restaurant staff seemed to enjoy watching the monkeys hop from canopy to canopy, curiously poking their little heads down to look for snacks. Just like at our Airbnb, they clearly knew what they were doing and were pretty bold.

Enjoying sunset with the monkeys

The next day we drove 15 minutes down the coast to Manuel Antonio National Park. Nearing the park we were flagged down by what looked like some parking attendants and parked in the “official parking lot”. After parking and leaving our car we realized this was clearly not the “official parking lot” and that there were quite a few “official parking lots” monitored by locals trying to flag down tourists. Turns out we were parked about 1 km from the park entrance. Our day improved once we got inside the park, as we saw a napping sloth up in a tree and yet another troop of white-faced monkeys. This group was even less intimated by humans and was clearly used to curious tourists as they jumped from tree to tree and even ran on the path itself. We even saw one catch a live bird and eat it, head first, in a nearby tree (I got the entire thing on camera but Emily vetoed the photographic evidence; message me separately if you want to see!). Though not the first monkeys we’d seen, I think it’s safe to say this is where Kendall truly realized his dream of seeing monkeys up close.

That evening we continued our nightly routine of drinking Imperial Silver and playing pitch. It was on this night where Emily and Brantlee really laid the hammer to us, thus swinging the trip’s record in their favor. It was also at this point that the women working at the bodega probably started to recognize us, especially since every bottle of beer included a deposit that we could get back by returning the empty.

We headed back to San Jose the next morning so that Kendall and Brantlee could get Covid tests in advance of their return flight to the US. Once completed, we checked into our last Airbnb of the week, just south of downtown San Jose, and headed to a small local cafe for lunch and some fresh fruit smoothies. We ended up talking to the 3 brothers who owned and operated the place, who suggested we stop at a local bar on the other side of the block. Upon arrival we entered the empty bar and sat down, the only ones there, but what a great recommendation it turned out to be.

The bar was called La Pista Classics, which translates to “Classic Tracks”. Music videos played alongside the music coming through the speakers, and large plastic heads of famous musicians lined the bar top (including all of the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and Gene Simmons of KISS). As the night continued and more locals showed up, the music slowly shifted to be less classic rock and more Latino. We of course had plenty of Imperial (no silver unfortunately) and also had our share of Chili Mango shots (similar to Chili Guaro), many of which came to a cheer of “negativo!” to celebrate Kendall and Brantlee’s negative Covid test results.

As the night continued, we were served a round of shots that had not ordered, and just then we were approached by a local from a few tables over. He explained that he was a resident of the neighborhood who had recently found this particular bar after his normal go-to closed as a result of the pandemic. He went on to express what was true joy simply over our presence in the bar; that we were here as tourists in his country, his neighborhood, to experience his culture. It was a really cool conversation to be a part of. We hung around for a bit longer and returned his favor by paying for his meal, and headed back to our AirBnB for the night.

On the final day of Kendall and Brantlee’s trip we had scheduled a coffee tour at Cafe Britt. The tour took place at their production facility and explained how the coffee was grown, cultivated, processed, and roasted, and included plenty of delicious samples. At the end of the tour, Kendall represented the USA (with a Costa Rican tourist opposite him) in a lesson on how to properly brew, smell, and taste good coffee. It was a great tour and a great conclusion to their visit. On our last night together we treated ourselves to Argentinian style steak, wine and, of course, more pitch.

And with that, the 10 day visit was over. It went so quickly but man was it great to be around other people and reconnect with some of our closest friends. Major, major thanks to Kendall and Brantlee for coming to another country to hang out with us. It was an awesome time and something we’ll remember forever when we look back on this year of travel.

The Pacific Coast

We took off from La Fortuna for the west coast in the morning which would take a few hours’s driving along very windy roads. Other than a quick stop at a local soda for lunch, and another small restaurant for a milk shake, we arrived later that day in Playa Del Coco. Our home here was a studio condo in small private condo building, complete with air conditioning AND a pool!

Playa Del Coco is one of many small beach towns along the Pacific Coast, located closer to the north side of the country in Guanacaste Province. It was a bit more touristy than the Caribbean Coast (in terms of shops, hotels, restaurants, etc), but the beaches were just as beautiful. Our first beach stop here was at Playa Ocotal which was rather small and sort of nestled in a small bay. We spent the evening there to catch the sunset, grabbed a quick dinner from a food stand in town, and then hopped in the pool for a bit before heading to bed.

sunset on Playa Ocotal

Happy birthday Emily! My beautiful wife Emily turned 29 (+2) the next day, which started with a tasty breakfast of scrambled eggs, fresh pineapple, and fresh mango. For the rest of the day we drove to the far end of town, parked, and walked another beach, this time Playa Del Coco. One thing we’ve grown accustomed to seeing at the beach, especially on the Pacific coast, is pelicans (and other birds, too) diving for food in the mornings. It’s really fascinating to watch them glide low above the ocean’s surface before turning to dive beak-first into the water on the hunt for fish.

The bay at Playa Del Coco was dotted with dozens of boats, anchored up in the bay. As we walked the length of the beach was passed numerous small restaurants and beach bars, as well as walking beach vendors offering fresh cold coconut water, hats, sunglasses, and hand carved wooden bird-shaped whistles. We stopped for some coffee and acai bowls and also for some fresh pina coladas (probably our second favorite fresh drinks thus far, behind only a Coco-Loco, which is a frothy fresh coconut drink), playing cards at each stop as well.

While walking through town that day, we also saw our first iguanas during our Costa Rica trip. On a sunny day you can find them almost anywhere that receives direct sun, but especially atop fences or the low roofs of property entrances. Without even making an effort to seek them out we saw half a dozen, ranging from 6 inches to 3 feet. Super neat to look at but also super fast and a bit territorial (not so much here, but we noticed it more at our next iguana-filled stop; more on that later).

Before heading back to the beach that evening we grabbed a bottle of wine with plans to enjoy it on the beach during sunset. We wandered along the beach a bit before finding an old ship wrecked boat that was engulfed in sand along the shore line, covered in graffiti, but situated perfectly as a back rest for a sunset view. So we sat back, uncorked our wine, and polished off a bottle to celebrate Emily as we watched the sun disappear behind the horizon. Happy birthday Emily!

Over the next few days we continued to relax and explore the beach town. No blender available here to make fresh smoothies, but we had AC, so a decent trade. We also continued to stop at different coffee coffee shops, play a lot of cards, and plan the remainder of our Costa Rican trip (through the end of March). We spent our final evening in Playa Del Coco walking along the beach, eating some tasty Asian Street food, and Face-timing our friends Chris and Elizabeth to start planning for them to join us in April (can’t wait!)

Our next stop was back inland to a city called Liberia, the largest city in Guanacaste. On our way we stopped at a coffee shop for our usual cup of coffee and cards, but ended up getting quite the bang for our buck. The host in the gift shop offered free samples (so we could make sure we like the coffee before buying a full cup, how nice?!) and explained a good deal about their coffee operation. He walked us through the roasting methods and bean types, and even took us back behind the shop to walk through their coffee plants and mango trees. We finished this impromptu tour of sorts by enjoying a full pot of their delicious coffee and, of course, playing some cards.

THIS is where we really got to see some iguanas. The property and coffee plants were separated by a waist-high stacked stone wall, which was littered with iguanas. Our host mentioned that the iguanas live here in the wall and act as ‘body guards’ for pests that might disturb the coffee plants. Just walking around the small area behind the shop we saw what had to be a few dozen different lizards, some up to 4 or 5 feet.

This is also where we discovered how aggressive they can be; they will bob their head’s up and down to show dominance and territory, and can move wayyyy faster than you’d expect (and way faster than you can). Fortunately they cooperated and remained still for an awesome photo shoot.

From the coffee stop we made our way to Catarata Llanos Del Cortes, where we payed a few dollars to hike down to and swim at another amazing waterfall. It was a triple waterfall of sorts and had a great pool for swimming, too. The “park” closed around 4 and since we had arrived late we were able to have the area all to ourselves for a while before returning to the car.

The next day we had picked out a hike in Rincon de la Vieja National Park, a short drive north of Liberia. Our trip took a little longer than expected, though, when we blew past our turn and didn’t notice for 15 minutes, which added about 40 extra minutes to our trip. Classic. Once we finally arrived and began the hike, things improved dramatically. Our walk started through the forest, where we stopped when we noticed a family of monkey’s in a particularly large tree. It was neat to watch them just play and be themselves rather than come down and interact with humans, which we had seen elsewhere.

Once through the forest portion of the hike the next long stretch felt like we were walking through a desert with few trees, and extreme heat. We trudged through this portion until we finally heard the sound of moving water, and shortly thereafter we arrived at the waterfall. It was a beautiful spot to stop for lunch and to dip our feet in the water. After hanging out for enough time to cool down and catch our breath, we headed back and pushed through the hot return journey (with some more monkeys on the way).

Instead of heading home for the evening, we made another stop at a local swimming hole, which included another small waterfall. This area was different than the other stops, though, as the waterfall had carved it’s way through a massive section of rock which had created a really cool formation of pools and smaller falls. We climbed down into the center of the formation where the water was quite strong, with a current that could easily sweep you away if you weren’t paying attention. Another really cool little spot that we’ve discovered in CR!

The next morning we headed back to the coast, this time to another beach town called Tamarindo. We learned about Tamarindo from our friend Ricardo all the way back in January, who suggested we go there for the sunsets (which he said were the best, so we had to see for ourselves). After a quick detour for some bagel breakfast sandwiches (we were craving a taste from home; they were expensive but worth it), we arrived in Tamarindo and parked in town to explore a bit. We spent some time walking on the beach which included plenty of on-foot vendors offering their souvenirs and several beach bars with great views.

That evening we arrived at our hostel and we had actually signed up for our first shared room of the trip. Upon check in we were told that we would be in a group room with 4 other girls, which honestly made us a bit uneasy. We left our things and grabbed dinner at a local soda, and ended up playing cards and having a few beers with the hostel manager back in the common area of the hostel. As we were enjoying the local beers and listening to the story of how his 6 month tip has turned into a 9 year stay the manager actually upgraded us to a private room, with AC! Pretty great deal if you ask me.

The following day we spent some more time exploring the small town and enjoying some local food and coffee. From there we went down to the beach again and walked a while before finding an area with some shade to spend the day. As the sun began to drop in the sky, we found our way to a small cluster of rocks at the water’s edge and set up to enjoy the sunset. After what felt like a thousand photos Emily and I can both safety say that Tamarindo did indeed provide the best sunset we’ve ever witnessed. Absolutely incredible.

sunset in Tamarindo

Our next stop on the coast was a bit further south in Los Pargos, where we had booked a room in a local’s house through AirBnB. Before heading out of town for the night we spent a bit more time in Tamarindo and enjoyed a beer at the local Volcano Brewing location overlooking the water. The beer was good and the brewery was actually part of the surf camp next door run by a world famous surfer featured in the movie Endless Summer (you’d probably recognize the movie poster). Really cool story and we actually saw him walking through the tables and talking to some locals.

That evening was we made our way to our AirBnB we actually got another nice surprise, another room upgrade! Our host explained that his cousin was coming into town at the last moment and offered us our own private space (which meant his cousin would be taking the room in his house) which we of course accepted. It was a really cool, small place tucked back off the main road with a bed loft and surrounded by some really lush plants that he had grown on his property to give the house an oasis type feel. He told us that the small house was only about a year old and he’d build it himself after doing HVAC work for a living and trying his hand at some home construction. All in all it was well done and was a really comfortable space for a few days.

On our last day in Los Pargos we took a small road trip south along the coast to check out a few of the nearby towns. Samara was the first stop, where we walked along the beach including a stop at a coffee shop and a fresh pipa (coconut) on the beach (which was amazing). Next we stopped in Nasara where we again parked and walked along the beach, although this area was much quieter with fewer shops and bars. Rather than the town being right on the beach, restaurants were tucked up into the hill surrounding by jungle. The final beach on this tour day was at Juanillo, which provided yet another fantastic sunset. The beach extends out from the coast with a small hill and some huge rock formations. We climbed out onto the rocks and found a small quiet spot to sit down and enjoy the sunset.

After a day driving on dirt roads in our little sedan, we were heading back to our Airbnb when we came across a small potential problem: a “bridge” over a river was completely flooded and water was rushing across the road. We’d come across a few of these before, but fortunately each time the water has been relatively shallow, or we’ve seen another sedan cross the bridge and therefor felt confident we could also make it. This time we saw a truck drive across and realized the water was much deeper. We got out of the car to take a closer look. Another SUV pulled up and the driver motioned for us to follow him, as he took a wide loop towards the right side of the river crossing to get across. There wasn’t another route home that didn’t add several hours, so we went for it, and fortunately made it.

Coco frio

Many thanks to Ricardo, who turned us on to some really great spots along the Pacific Coast. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the sunset in Tamarindo, just something about that place that will always stick with us. And with that, our Pacific Coast tour came to an end. We headed back to San Jose to pick up our friends Kendall and Brantlee, who will be spending the next 10 days with us!

  • Mike