La Fortuna

After departing our hostel in Monteverde we decided to give our failed hike another shot, this time going the long way via paved roads on our way to La Fortuna. A few hours later (thanks to a much more manageable route) we arrived at Cerro Pelado where we parked on a family’s property, paid a few thousand colones, and began our hike. Equipped with some old-fashioned walking sticks provided by the host we started up the path.

I am not exaggerating when I say that this was the windiest conditions Emily and I have ever faced in any part of the world. On several occasions the wind blew our hats off of our heads, including one such gust that took my hat literally off the side of the trail and about 50 feet down the side of the mountain. I was able to stab it with the walking stick and retrieve it but I stuffed it in my bag and went hatless (with lots of sunscreen) for the rest of the hike. Emily had to use a carabiner to keep her hat secured to her hair tie (which fortunately saved her hat a few times). As we reached the highest peak of the hike the wind only intensified, but the view was incredible.

When we made it to what looked like the end of the hike we noticed another narrow trail trodden by some seemingly more adventurous hikers who’d come before us. The additional stretch of trail lead out to the end of the furthest mountaintop which included a tall slender stretch of what looked like particularly jagged rock. After trying and thinking better of taking on a super sketchy rock scramble section in crazy wind (probably 1.5 feet wide and 20 feet long, with a drop of several hundred feet immediately to either side), we stopped to eat lunch and turned around. Emily spent most of the return trip alternating hands on her head to keep her hat from flying off.

The remainder of our drive to La Fortuna took us around Lake Arenal, a huge lake in the shadow of the Arenal Volcano (the largest in Costa Rica at 33 square miles), before arriving at our AirBnB. Our accommodation for the week was a large 3 bedroom house in a quiet neighborhood a few blocks from downtown, complete with a fantastic view of the volcano from our street.

Arenal Volcano concealed by clouds in the distance

We spent the next day relaxing after the tough hike and taking some time to explore the small town. La Fortuna had less of a touristy feel than some of our previous stops, and felt more like a small community that was still bustling despite the decrease in tourism due to the pandemic. It had plenty of small shops (including a coffee shop that we stopped at several times throughout the week), sodas, and a great park in the middle of town where we saw some wild hummingbirds flying within the flowering trees. It was an added bonus that the volcano was within view no matter where in town you were (though the top was usually covered with clouds, like the photo above). We wrapped up our day by stopping at the grocery store to get a week’s worth of eggs and fresh fruit for breakfast and smoothies (smoothies were possible due to the blender that our AirBnB host provided upon request, so clutch!)

After sleeping in on a second consecutive day and perfecting our smoothie recipe we packed up for the day and took off towards Tenorio Volcano National Park. When we arrived at the location shown on Google Maps, we realized we weren’t actually there (something we’re getting used to). We turned around, drove back down the same road for a while until we found a cell tower, and consulted the internet for new directions. Second times the charm! The park was beautiful with lush jungle, tons of birds and animals, and a long stretch of trail along the Rio Celeste, which was the main attraction. Sporting a beautiful teal color due to minerals in the water (here’s a more scientific explanation), the river even bubbled at a few spots with hot springs from the heat in the earth below. There were also a few sections where you could see two rivers (one with clear water and the other with blue) meeting where the water would eventually mix.

Where the two rivers meet.

The last portion of the hike had us cross a few cool hanging metal bridges and brought us down a few hundred steps to the pool beneath the waterfall which was just as blue as the river that fed it. We stopped for a while to eat our lunch (our staple has become crunchy peanut butter and Nutella sandwiches; two for me and one for Emily) before making the return hike. For some reason we decided to “trail run” back up the steps, thinking that the increased pace might help with he odd sizes and heights of the steps (which it did, a bit, maybe?) but this ultimately wiped us out and required a quick rest at the top before finishing the hike.

Later that week we got to experience some of the less enjoyable parts of long term travel. While spending a lazy day at our favorite coffee shop with strong WiFI in town (Arabigos Coffee House) I realized that there were numerous fraudulent Amazon charges on the main credit card that we’d been using for our trip. It didn’t stand out at first since before leaving the US we used Amazon quite a bit. After an afternoon of phone calls with Amazon and Chase, getting disconnected, navigating the complications of WiFi calling from a foreign country and not being able to get text messages, and almost having to give up because my name on our Amazon account is listed as “Mike” and not “Michael”, we got it sorted out and new replacement cards have been sent to our PO Box in DC (to be honest it wasn’t that bad, but it was as stressful and frustrating as expected). Fortunately we have other cards to use until we can get a hold of our replacements. Having spent hours investigating and sorting out the fraud situation, we took it easy and made dinner at home that night before watching TV in our family room bed. Since our house for the week had 3 bedrooms and we only needed one, we figured pulling a spare mattress into the living room was appropriate.

Later that week we picked out a hike around Arenal Volcano to Mirador el Silencio, a nature preserve between the lake and volcano. The trail was empty as we started in the late morning and it took us up through the rain forest towards an overlook. In addition to the numerous birds there were also lots of lizards and a copious amount of leaf cutter ants. At almost every turn we noticed a significant trail of the ants, each with a piece of leaf, hurrying across the path to continue on their mission of collecting leaves.

We’ve seen a number of birds on our trip, and usually end up on Google trying to figure out what they are. We’re slowly getting better at identifying them based on what sound they make. And as usual, this hike included all sorts of amazing trees. It’s hard to really grasp just how massive these trees are even in photos and it was incredible to see the size and span of them in person.

The second part of the hike brought us across some lava rock fields but also opened up the view of Arenal Volcano. We really lucked out with the weather, as the top of the volcano was clear of clouds for the first time during our trip. It was fascinating to just sit and watch how the clouds at the top of the volcano change so rapidly as they pass by.

One of the most popular things to do in La Fortuna is soak in one of the many volcanic hot springs near the base of the volcano. There are a number of high end hotels and resorts, but we read about a spot with free access to the same river that feeds the hotel hot springs. We parked on the side of the road and walked about 50 feet before climbing down to the riverbank at an old bridge. Climbing under the bridge and through the river, we went another 50 feet or so and found a quiet pool to hang out in. It was fascinating how the water temperature would change with just a small shift in our position within the river. Our pool was warm but not quite to hot tub level, but the adjacent pool was a good 10-15 degrees cooler. A perfect spot to soak in for the afternoon. From there we continued back towards town and stopped at the soda run by our AirBnB host, which offered typical Costa Rican food and was very tasty.

For breakfast the next day we tried our hand at cracking open a coconut. A tico will typically use two or three swift swings of a machete to expertly open a coconut (without spoiling any of the liquid inside, I might add), however we did not have access to said machete. Instead I scored a ring around the top of the coconut using the raw edge of our concrete porch, and then used the sharpest knife in our kitchen to carefully pop the top open. Not the ideal or perhaps the safest method, but it got the job done.

Making a breakfast smoothie with watermelon, pineapple, passion fruit, mango, coconut, and papaya.

We then spent the day exploring the town a bit more and actually stumbled across the gem of La Fortuna; a small food shop offering 500 colones (+/- $1) portions of typical food including mixed rice, chicken in sauce, and empanadas. The food was not only cheap but super tasty and of course we went back the following day on our way out of town. With full bellies we made our way to another free swimming hole. Not a hot spring this time but just a calm portion of the river with plenty of space to hang out, swim, and people watch. We hung out with a few beers and watched as some locals used the rope swing to jump (from pretty high up, 15-20 feet maybe?) into the pool at the base of the small waterfall.

Our final day in La Fortuna also happened to be Valentine’s Day so we set out to find a new coffee shop to hang at for the day. Our first location was a bust, as there was simply nothing even close to the location shown on Google Maps. Luckily Emily had researched some backup options we we backtracked a half mile or so and found a woodworking art gallery. The art was incredible, ranging from small bowls to a full size carving of a man’s torso, and numerous pieces carved into women in traditional clothing. It was incredible to be able to see all of this work up close, and we even got to chat with the shop owner (and artisan of some of the pieces on display) to learn about his process and the different types of wood used.

From the art gallery we wound up at a new coffee shop just outside of town which turned out to be really tasty. To celebrate valentines day we found a local chocolate shop and grabbed a few different treats to enjoy in the park with a great view of the volcano. Our dinner consisted of an appetizer of ramen noodles and a main course of mint chocolate chip ice cream, followed by us enjoying a movie from the family room bed. It was a great week and gave us a chance to really slow down, explore the town, and see everything that it had to offer.

Pit stop on the drive around Lake Arenal

Next morning we set off for the Pacific Coast for some sun (and sun burn, whoops).

  • Mike

The Cloud Forest

After a few days in San Ramon, we continued heading north up into the mountains to Monteverde. The drive alone was worth the trip with fantastic views beyond almost every turn as we gradually gained elevation on our way to our final destination. Our destination in this case was a hostel located just outside “town” on one of the many narrow gravel roads that stem off of the main highway. Our stay included our own room and bathroom, a home cooked typical Costa Rican breakfast every morning (gallo pinto, eggs, fruit, plantains, and coffee), use of the kitchen to cook meals, several open-air porches, and a few hostel perros (doggos) running around.

Our first stop in Monteverde was actually at a nearby Soda on the first evening, where the same woman greeted us, took our order, cooked the food, and rang us up. No surprise that is was delicious. The next day was spent exploring the town, where Emily found what can only be assumed as the best portrait in Monteverde and of course stopped for a photo. The hills in this town are no joke whether you’re driving or walking, but they make for some incredible views. As has become tradition, we also found a great little coffee shop to sit and play cards.

On the second day we drove a few minutes outside of town to the Heladeria y Fabrica de Quesos Monteverde (Monteverde Ice Cream and Cheese Factory). While the factory portion was unfortunately closed, we still made the best of things and got some ice cream. From there, we walked to a few shops in the area and to another coffee shop. We sampled several of their coffees, all of which had different washing and roasting processes which resulted in a variety of different flavors. That night we sat down on the back porch early in the evening to watch the sunset over the Pacific Ocean and Nicoya Peninsula, which did not disappoint.

Sunset over the ocean and Nicoya Peninsula in the distance.

During the week we ventured up another dirt road to the Reserva Bosque Nuboso Santa Elena for a hike through the cloud forest. As the name suggests, the cloud forest is essentially under a low cover of clouds 24/7, and therefor wet, all the time. While writing this blog post we learned that a rain forest is a tropical forest with an annual rainfall of 100 inches of more with trees forming a canopy. A cloud forest is a type of rain forest but the altitude is usually much higher. Our hike through the reserve took a few hours and brought us through the lush terrain where we saw countless different types of plants and a few different species of birds. It’s hard to describe just how wet everything in the forest was, but it was evident that since we were basically inside a cloud, and it’s technically the dry season, things never dried out.

Our first major issue with the small rental car happened the following day when we were en route to a hike a few hours away. We drove about 30 minutes on a paved road when the GPS directed us onto a side dirt road. We have grown accustomed to dirt, gravel, and even rocky roads, so we weren’t terribly surprised by the road we found ourselves on. That said, we quickly realized it was more than our little sedan was capable of handling. It was covered with loose gravel and rocks as large as 5 or 6 inches, and included steep inclines and declines ever 100 meters or so. We made it about half way when the road finally became impassable for us. As we tried to slowly climb another steep hill, Chica Blanca (what we named our car) just couldn’t do it. After a few failed attempts, we finally turned around to head home, feeling defeated.

As we slowly retraced our path to get back to the paved road (and to cell phone service), we eventually came to a steep incline that also included a pretty tight hairpin turn. An SUV was coming down the hill at the same time, forcing us to slow down and turn off to the side so we could both pass each other. And then we were stuck. After a few anxious moments, Emily got in the drivers seat and I was able to push the car enough to get some momentum. Emily was able to drive the car up the hill to the next flat spot while I ran up the hill from behind. Not a fun experience, but now we had a clear understanding of the limits of our car. From there, we headed home and spent the rest of the evening relaxing and unwinding after a stressful attempt to pass this demon road. (Spoiler: we did eventually make it to that hike, after going the long way on our way to La Fortuna. More on that in another blog post).

We had a much better time the following day when we drove to a small family home 15 minutes outside of Monteverde for a cooking class where we would make sweet bread and empanadas. The mother of the family did not speak any English, but her 20 year old daughter was able to communicate with us well. In this type of situation, we usually explain that we know only a small amount of Spanish and try to speak in Spanish as much as possible. But it’s helpful to have someone there who knows a bit of English to fill in the gaps.

The class walked us through the process of properly making the sweet bread dough, which to no surprise included no measurements but was portioned solely on feel and consistency. We made the dough and set it aside for a bit to rise. In the mean time, we made the empanada dough and stuffed it with pre-made (homemade still) refried beans. We learned how to roll out and fold the dough, and set them on the fryer to cook as we finished the sweet bread. We formed the bread into various shapes to cook including rolls, twists, and even braids (some turned out better than others). Our host put them in the oven and after enjoying the freshly made empanadas we ate our bread with our host and her daughter, complete with some freshly brewed local coffee.

That afternoon we headed to a cafe on the other side of town, just outside of the Monteverde Cloud Forest. Emily found this place in her research and could not have made a better choice as this particular cafe was also home to a garden full of hummingbirds and feeders. From the second we stepped into the small property we noticed dozens of hummingbirds flying in all directions. We sat on a small bench just in front of one of the feeders and took literally hundreds of photos.

It was a really cool experience since these birds were clearly used to humans and did not hesitate to buzz past your ear on the way to the feeders. On numerous occasions we found ourselves dodging the birds (or at least we thought, when in reality there was no way that any move we made would have been quick enough to change what the birds were doing) and could even hear their wings as they hovered at the feeder or sped off after feeding. We took a ton of videos too but the video below does a good job of showing the birds up close, and you can really see how still they keep their head despite how quickly they are moving. Also caught a glimpse of a non-hummingbird sneaking in for a taste.

slow-mo video of hummingbirds at the feeder

That evening was our last night in Monteverde, and also the Super Bowl, so we grabbed a six pack of the local beer (Imperial) and streamed the game on the iPad in the front yard of our hostel. Definitely not a typical Super Bowl watching experience, and a rather one sided game, but it was still good to watch anyway. We packed up our things and the next morning we took off for our next location, La Fortuna.

  • Mike

Central Valley

From Puerto Viejo we took the same bus back to San Jose (this time only 5 hours, though!) and stopped to pick up our rental car. Wanting to see as much of the country as possible over the next two months, we figured having a car would provide greater flexibility, and also less long, hot, mask-wearing bus rides. And so we hopped in our little Chica Blanca, a white Toyota Yaris, and headed towards the mountainous region in the north central part of the country. Driving was a bit stressful at first, but once we got out of San Jose and the number of motorcycles and dirt bikes swerving through traffic died down, it wasn’t too bad.

Our rental car, affectionately named Chica Blanca

We booked an Airbnb for a few nights in San Ramon, a couple hours outside of downtown San Jose. This stop was mostly to break up the long drive to Monteverde, but also to explore a small town called Sarchi. In hindsight, this was a fantastic decision. Sarchi is known as the artisan epicenter of Costa Rica where you can find a wide variety of hand made art and functional woodworking crafts ranging from kitchen tools to ox carts.

The largest ox cart in the world, located in a park in the center of Sarchi

The gem of our trip here, however, was visiting Fabrics De Carreras Eloy Alfaro, an old woodworking factory know for producing all sorts of wooden items ranging from souvenirs to ox carts. As we entered the property the old workshop is the first area to explore, housing dozens of early 20th century woodworking machines.

Both Emily and I immediately began to nerd out, looking at all of the equipment and imagining how this used to all run on the water wheel located just at the back of the factory. Water was running near the wheel, but a bypass was in use and the wheel sat dormant. As we walked the aisles of the equipment, we were greeted by one of the artisans who asked if we wanted to see the water wheel in action. We of course accepted.

Water wheel in action, including a demonstration of the band saw

The shop is actually still in use it turns out, as we discovered some artisans on the second level of the shop taking their break. They were in the process of finishing some ornamental cart wheels which are made up of numerous triangular shaped pieces of woods of varying species. It must have been obvious just how amazed both Emily and I were at their skill and craftsmanship, as the eldest of the three approached us and handed us a smaller version of a decorative wheel, adding “to remember Costa Rica, to remember Sarchi”. He pointed to the numerous different colors and named each species of wood (Purple Heart and Cedar among them). It’s fantastic.

Leaving with this fantastic gift from the woodworking portion of the shop, we went back downstairs and over to the other side of the courtyard where we met another artisan, this time painting various larger items. We spent some time discussing our trip with him and also learning about his history. He told us he’d been painting here for 15 years. The passion with which these people operate really is inspiring, and their work is incredible.

After a quick run through the souvenir shop (which was nice but doesn’t hold a candle to the real thing just outside in the courtyard) we headed home for our last night before leaving the next day to continue to Monteverde. Our last stop in the Central Valley included the first real test for our little sedan en route to a secluded waterfall and swimming hole.

A short drive later brought us to our destination which happened to be on someone’s private property. We paid the entry fee to the family’s young son (quite the early age entrepreneur there) who provided us with directions on how to get to the waterfall and proceeded to start down a sketchy gravel path (do 2-3” rocks qualify as “gravel”?). A km or so later of very slow downhill travel and we were there. As we got to the bottom of the dozen or so flights of stairs we saw a few other groups of people lounging and enjoying the sun at the mouth of the waterfall.

Our only mistake here was not bringing snacks and beer. We spent a few hours relaxing in the shallow pool and got just a little sunburned before making our way back up the steps to the car. From here, we hopped in Chica Blanca, made it successfully back up the gravel road, and continued our drive up into the mountains to Monteverde for our next stop.

  • Mike

Puerto Viejo

We woke up early last Friday to depart San Jose and got to the bus station around 5:45 am for our early trip to the Atlantic (Caribbean) Coast. Seven and a half hours later (thanks in large part to a long stretch of construction on the main 1-lane road through the mountains) we arrived in Puerto Viejo, a small town near the southern end of the east coast.

Puerto Viejo coastline just off the end of our street

We didn’t technically make it all the way to the bus station. Upon arrival in town we were let off the bus at a random corner because the large coach bus was unable to make the turn as a result of a parked car too close to the corner. After the bus driver honked a few times, and a few people in a nearby corner store tried to move the SUV, everyone on board calmly got up and off the bus, like it was no big deal. Looking back this seems like a good example of how laid back this place is. Also, the fact that shirts and shoes are optional pretty much anywhere, people walking and biking share the road with cars, and everyone is super friendly whether you’re a local or not. But back to the bus. Getting off early worked out for us, as it kept us a few blocks closer to our home for the next 10 days. We booked a stay at the Cabinas Jacaranda, several blocks up from the main downtown area (except for the night where they were replacing the water main until 9PM). Sidenote: “Cabinas” seem to be relatively common here and are sort of a cross between a hotel and a hostel, where you have a private room with a bathroom but share a kitchen and other common spaces that are usually outdoors.

We spent the next few days exploring and walking around town. Per usual, a big part of this was trying the local cuisine. Just like in San Jose, the base of a typical dish is either gallo pinto (rice and beans mixed) or arroz y frijoles (white rice and beans, separate) with your choice of protein and usually a side salad and some form of plantains. Our primary (and favorite) choice of protein here is pollo caribeño, chicken in a caribbean sauce. Like any recipe the ingredients and flavor can vary from place to place; in this case, the sauce ranges from slightly sweet to spicy, but they are all fantastic. Unlike in San Jose, the rice here is usually cooked with coconut milk, which is excellent when mixed with the sauce. Over the next week, we had gallo pinto con pollo caribeño no less than four consecutive days at four different sodas and we enjoyed it each time.

Gallo pinto con pollo caribeño y platanos (Emily’s plate has “patacones”, which are fried green plantains)

Fresh tropical fruit is also readily available here (obviously), either at the supermercado or from street vendors throughout town, so we took this opportunity to get some fresh pineapple, mango, avocado, and a few others to keep in our room for breakfast. It goes without saying that it was all delicious, especially our favorite, mango. In addition to the great food we discovered in Puerto Viejo we also spent a lot of time walking the long expanse of coastline in either direction of town. There are pretty much endless beaches in both directions. In between more open spaces, the rainforest extends right up to the water, but there are trails that get you from one beach to the next. On several occasions we spent the majority of our time walking and didn’t even bother stopping to set up our towels.

Our first trip outside of town brought us to Parque National Cahuita, next to the town of Cahuita about a half hour drive north of Puerto Viejo, where we hoped to see as many different types of animals as possible. It did not disappoint. Though we passed on getting a tour guide (just outside the entrance there were plenty hawking their services), we had an incredible experience. The lush park is home to all sorts of animals including monkeys, sloths, lizards, raccoons, and birds. Perhaps less exciting but just as beautiful are the massive and numerous trees, some of which easily extend more than 100 feet above the forest floor.

We followed the main trail along the coast line basically staring up into the trees the entire time. Early in our hike we came across a group of monkeys enjoying lunch in the trees above, where they would work on the small golf ball sized fruits until they dropped them accidentally. Next we saw a nest (nest? sounds right) of raccoons playing amongst themselves atop a small tree. And all throughout we saw dozens of little lizards running for cover on the forest floor or the low laying greens.

The sloths, however, eluded us throughout the early part of our hike until we came across another pair of tourists with a guide. The guide was nice enough to offer up all of his tips for spotting the sleepy critters, and pointed us directly to a few far-off sloths. The first few we saw were pretty far away, mostly sleeping, and looked like little fluff balls high up in the trees, but we used his advice to find more later on in the hike. I saw one climbing just next to the path and he conveniently moved directly above the path for a private photo shoot.

After finding our first sloth on our own (we named him Buddy), it opened the floodgates for sloth sightings. The next day while sitting at a coffee shop for the morning around the corner form our cabina, we stumbled across a mother sloth with her baby resting atop her napping on the coffee shop fence. Just sitting there, minding their own business. Turns out this mother/child tandem frequents the coffee shop and neighboring properties (no more than a quarter acre in size). How cool!?

She, by the way, is a two-fingered sloth. Fun fact: The name for these animals incorrectly refer to sloths as two or three “toed” when in reality all sloths have three toes and it is actually their “fingers” that differentiate the species. The two-fingered sloth (above) has two fingers and a tan colored coat with a lighter caramel colored head, while the three-fingered sloth has three fingers and is gray (see Buddy). We learned this from our Jaguar Rescue Center tour guide (more on that next), who told us his group is actively working to formally change the name to reference fingers instead of toes. May seem lame for some, but super cool for us. Also cool; the Spanish word for sloth is “perezoso” which is currently our favorite Spanish word.

Our second trip outside of town was also animal centric, when we rented some beach cruiser bikes for the day and made the trip a few miles south to the Jaguar Rescue Center. The story of the rescue center is fascinating. Two Italian biologists were both in Puerto Viejo and met each other in town in 2001. Turns out they actually both worked at the Barcelona Zoo at the same time and had never met each other. Small world. Fast forward to 2005 when some locals came across an injured animal and brought it to the local “animal experts”. The animal in question was a wild cat, although incorrectly referred to as a Jaguar by the locals, and the name for the Jaguar Rescue Center was born.

Their goal is to release each and every animal they receive back into the wild (another fun fact, there are no zoos in Costa Rica). Our tour guide explained that nowadays they rarely have a wild cat in the center, which is good, as all six wild cat species to Costa Rica are endangered. Furthermore, besides their resident cat Diavolino (“Little Devil”), a margay who is too used to humans to release into the wild, the center has successfully released 12 cats back into the wild. More common visitors include sloths, monkeys, and birds. During our tour we saw all kinds of animals including the aforementioned margay, sloths, monkeys, macaws, a local species of wild pig, a white tailed deer, and even a boobie.

Our guide explained that many of the sloths and monkeys that arrive are babies who survived an accident with a power line that leaves them without a parent. Others are recovering from people who’ve illegally kept them as pets, as is the case monkey in the center photo (he was kept for 26 years inside someone’s home on a four-foot length of rope). The macaws shown at the right are a combination of these two cases, with the great green macaw coming in due to an injured wing resulting from a fall from his nest and the scarlet macaw being rescued from someone’s home. Other animals are rescued from the black market or being smuggled across the border.

Congrats on making it to the end of this long post. Emily and I love food, animals, and nature, so this place has been an incredible stop for us. Next up we’re heading inland to the mountains and spending a week in Monteverde. But first, a few more animals pictures if you’re not sick of them yet.

Bienvenido a Costa Rica!

We made it. Finally. For the first time since we began planning this year of travel over 4 years ago we have actually made it to a foreign country. And, as fate would have it, the country where we find ourselves is actually the same country that we initially booked flights to when we began planning in early 2020, pre-pandemic; Costa Rica!

After spending some time with both of our families’ over the holidays and getting some work done on Wilda in early January, we finally pulled the trigger on a pair of one-way tickets out of the country (with plans to stay in Costa Rica through March). We unintentionally selected my birthday as our departure date and took off from BWI early on January 13th for San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica.

Moments before touch down in San Jose

Our flight arrived in the early afternoon which gave us time to make our way to our AirBnB and get some much needed rest. Our plan, or what little of this leg of our trip had actually been “planned” as of our arrival, was to spend a week in San Jose to get our feet under us and go from there. Our AirBnB was located just on the outskirts of downtown San Jose in San Pedro, but was still close enough for us to walk downtown if needed. A small apartment in a small two story complex, it had everything we needed; a family room, small kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, and a nice back patio that was completely enclosed but also allowed for some fresh air.

The view from the corner in front of our AirBnB

For the next few days we spent time exploring the neighborhood a bit. Our best find during this time was Soda Yogui’s (a “soda” in Latin America is a “small restaurant”, whereas “la gaseosa” is what we USA folks call a “soda”). Yogui’s offered “la comida tipical” including “casados” (combo platters including white rice, beans, a salad, and a protein of your choosing), “gallo pinto” (literally translates to “spotted rooster” but is typically a mixture of white rice and beans, and comes from a tradition where yesterday’s leftovers are prepared the next morning for “desayuno” or breakfast), and empanadas.

Emily and I eating our first meal of “gallo pinto”

Besides eating, which we love, we also signed up for a walking tour to see and learn about some specific parts of the city. Our guide walked us around San Jose and showed us buildings and locations of importance including the train station (that would bring people from the coasts), the national liquor factory (where they made rum and guaro, a clear tasteless liquor made of sugar cane), and several small neighborhoods that have recently been rejuvenated into shops and restaurants. Additionally, of note, we learned that Costa Rica (and several other Latin American countries) fought off an upstart Tennessean by the name of William Walker who had come to Central America with hopes of building a canal and establishing English-speaking colonies in his control (this was pre-Panama Canal). Needless to say his efforts failed and the Honduran government put an end to his expeditions, and his life. Our guide told us Costa Rica was very proud of this victory. Another interesting fact: as of not long after that battle, and still today, Costa Rica has no active military. Our guide told us that the government put the former military budget towards education and healthcare.

After spending the first week getting to know the city and getting a feel for the country in general, we decided to sign up for some in-person Spanish classes during our second week. The lessons were taught by a Costa Rican and focused on basics that would prove useful for a new Spanish speaker in Latin America, including common questions, food, locations, directions, and descriptions of people. I find that I am much more proficient at reading (and, to some extent, listening to) Spanish even after only four days, while the ability to recall something from memory while trying to speak to someone in person is much more difficult. While challenging, the classes were very much worth our time and as of this writing, we are officially graduates of the CRLA (Costa Rican Language Academy).

Officially CRLA gradutes!

At our school, and at every other place we’ve walked into, (restaurant, grocery store, building lobby, mall, etc.), everyone wears a mask and is required to either use hand sanitizer or wash their hands at a small mobile sink and get a quick temperature check upon entering. We’ve also seen hardly any people walking around without masks. Fortunately most restaurants are open air anyways, but overall there seem to be more Covid-related restrictions here (and more people following them) than any place we traveled to in the US over the past 3 months. Unsurprising, Covid-rates are significantly lower here.

And so tonight is our last in San Jose. We’ve got a pair of bus tickets to Puerto Viejo on the southern end of the East (Caribbean) Coast of the country where we will spend the next 10 days. A nice local man named Ricardo with whom we struck up a conversation en el supermercado (in the super market) could not speak highly enough about the Caribbean coast and even offered to provide us advice and suggestions for the duration of our stay in the country. He even said we should expect to see sloths. Just around. For free! Sounds amazing to me.

  • Mike

East Bound and Up

Continuing with our recap and wind-down of 2020, by mid-December we made it back to the east coast. After a few long travel days we spent an afternoon catching up on errands (showering at Planet Fitness, groceries, etc.) in Brunswick on the southern end of the Georgia coast.

We found a free parking spot in a residential neighborhood of St. Simons at a public beach access that was literally right next to the ocean. When we parked we were the only ones there and could just barely hear waves in the distance. In the morning we hoped to go for a walk on the beach but the tide was so high there was nowhere to walk… disappointing but still one of the prettiest spots we’ve parked at. On the way out the next morning we passed another camper van parked a few spaces down from us. We’re still working on the van equivalent of a “Jeep wave”.

We spent the next day exploring Jekyll Island, just off the coast from where we spent the night. The island is only about 7 miles long and has a lot of bike paths, so we gave Wilda a rest and rented bikes for the day. The ocean side of the island is lined with beach houses and condos, and there was a nice boardwalk with a few restaurants, but overall it was pretty empty (December, and Covid).

Mike on a bike

After peddling up the coast for a few miles we stopped at Driftwood Beach, aptly named for the driftwood and fallen trees scattered along the coastline. From small limbs to full trees embedded in the sand on the shoreline, it was unlike any beach we had been to yet. We parked our bikes and walked down the beach for a while. It was also the first place we visited after finding out we lost Mike’s grandfather Hairig (pronounced “hi-dig”), so we spent a lot of time thinking about him, and this beach will always remind us of him.

Driftwood Beach

We continued biking to the north end of the island, through a marsh, and then back down the bay side. We passed a lot of birds (Mike is an avid bird watcher), and a lot of Emily’s new favorite trees: southern live oaks covered in Spanish moss. They covered the entire path on the back side of the island and Emily’s phone is now full of tree pictures. We stopped to eat our PB&J lunch on a park bench overlooking the water and biked through a neighborhood of huge southern mansions with wrap-around porches and elaborate landscaping. Once we got back to the van, we rewarded ourselves after a 12-ish mile bike ride with ice cream.

Before heading back to the main land we drove to the southern tip of the island to St. Andrews picnic area to walk around the beach. This is supposedly the best place to watch the sunset, and even though we didn’t stay until it got dark, we agree. Overall, even though the average age of the few people we saw was probably 65, we loved Jekyll Island, which would be a great place for a laid back vacation.


From Jekyll Island we continued north to Savannah, a place we had both been for quick weekend trips, but wanted to spend more time in. On our first night we stopped for a drink at Two Tides Brewing, which was located in a converted single family home. The ‘family room’ was fit out with a bar and all of the other rooms were converted into themed seating areas. There were several porches and we enjoyed a beer on a hidden back porch, accessible only via a roll-up full-height window (since we were clearly newbies we had to ask the bartender how to get out there). While enjoying porch beers, we saw a cool looking outdoor beer garden across the street and headed that way next. It ended up being a full block and had an open-tab system where you swiped your card at the entrance and could order drinks or food from any of the vendors without having to settle up at each location. Convenient for both Covid-times, and everyday life. After another tasty beer we drove to the trusty neighborhood Walmart to spend the night.

The following morning we continued to take advantage of outdoor dining before heading north. We enjoyed coffee and breakfast sandwiches on the back patio of Foxy Loxy Cafe and then drove across town to explored Bonaventure Cemetery. The cemetery was filled with thousands of graves with all sorts of unique headstones, and more (of Emily’s favorite) Spanish moss covered live oak trees.

Bonaventure Cemetery

That afternoon we walked around Forsyth Park, ordered Greek takeout for lunch, and ate in one of the many parks downtown full of, you guessed it, Emily’s favorite trees. After lunch we explored more of downtown Savannah and spent the evening at Service Brewing Co., sitting on the patio with free WiFi to watch the Penn State game. After several drinks and a Penn State win we finished off a great day with ice cream for dinner from Leopold’s Ice Cream, and went back to our trusty Walmart for the night. Both of us woke up with stomach aches (could be something to do with all the beer and ice cream for dinner) which wasn’t great, but after a Planet Fitness shower and breakfast takeout in another cute downtown park, we got over it.

Savannah was as great as we remembered it, but unfortunately we had to keep heading north to stick with our home-by-Christmas timeline, so we hopped on an old familiar highway, I-95. The next few days of travel were relatively uneventful as we made our way up through South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia. The highlight of this leg of our trip was making a small but significant $20 upgrade to Wilda: a toaster oven! We weren’t 100% confident our power supply could handle it, but it worked like a charm with no issues and we were thrilled to enjoy hot biscuits with dinner.

Eastern Shore

On our way up through Virginia we crossed the Chesapeake Bay Bridge / Tunnel and headed towards Chincoteague and Assateague Island. We spent another day exploring and rented bikes, and even though it was sunny it was notably colder and windier than our Georgia bike ride. Our main goal was to see some wild horses, and we did see a couple in the distance, but part of the island was closed so we weren’t able to get much closer. We stopped at the beach in the morning, and then biked north to another beach access point where there were literally no other people as far as we could see. We enjoyed a PB&J lunch on our private beach with no one else in site. We both agreed this place is on our list to come back to in the summer, especially since it’s an easy weekend trip from DC. Naturally, after a long day of cold, windy, bike riding, we rewarded ourselves with ice cream from the Island Creamery.

Assateague Island Beach

Back on the main land we drove up through Maryland towards DC and stopped for dinner in Annapolis. Despite the chilly weather, we decided that we had to get fresh oysters and clams for our last dinner out of 2020. We sat outside a restaurant downtown in our winter coats and hats since fresh raw seafood doesn’t really make great takeout. It was worth the stop and downtown Annapolis had great Christmas lights as a bonus.

Our last dinner out in 2020.

We spent our last night in Wilda for the year in a Lowe’s parking lot in Bowie, Maryland (sounds lame, but when you live in a van, home is anywhere). We spent the next day running errands in DC, checking our mail, and getting a few last minute Christmas gifts. With a negative Covid test in hand we were able to spend the holidays with our families, and start planning for what’s next for 2021. Stay tuned as @BeamsOnTheRoad hops on a flight for the first time in over a year…

  • Emily and Mike

Down on The Bayou

First off – Apologies to all our loyal followers that we are so delinquent on this blog post. We’re still alive, doing great, and will attempt to catch up over the next few days. We’re writing this from my parents house where we’ve spent the last few days relaxing, watching football, and catching up on sleep before the next phase of our adventure (more on that soon). But now, to recap the last month or so…

After leaving Kentucky and Tennessee with a fully stocked liquor cabinet in our tiny home/van, we drove south. We spent a night at another Harvest Hosts spot, a brewery in Cullman, Alabama, which seemed like another awesome brewery that would be a great place to hang out on a Saturday in non-Covid times. We spent the next full day driving through Alabama and Mississippi with a few stops along the way to break up the drive. We grabbed coffee in Tuscaloosa and emptied our gray water tank at a rest stop somewhere outside of Jackson (and for free!). We finally crossed the border into Louisiana after dark and spent the night at a Walmart in the town of Hammond. Nothing makes you forget you’re in a Walmart parking lot like cooking a cozy dinner of mac & cheese and watching Christmas movies.

Atchafalaya Basin Bridge

The next day we drove west to our first stop in Cajun country, Breaux Bridge, also known as the crawfish capital of the world. Our first stop was an air boat swamp tour of the Atchafalaya Basin, which we later learned is the largest wetland and river swamp in the US. Fortunately since it was a weekday in mid-December, we got a private tour. Unfortunately since it was mid-December, most of the alligators were in hibernation (actually they are technically in something called brumation), but we did see a lot of birds and a lot of cyprus trees.

View from the air boat.

Our boat captain and the staff at the swamp tour company were friendly and recommended a place nearby for lunch. It looked like an unassuming building on the side of the road with a deli counter and cafeteria space in the back. We ordered crawfish etouffee, chicken and sausage gumbo, and a bag of cracklins (fried pork rinds) to go, and it was probably one of the best meals of our entire trip.


Full and happy we drove to the next town over in southern Louisiana, Lafayette. Apparently grabbing to-go frozen drinks is a thing here so we stopped for frozen daiquiris (served in a styrofoam cup with a lid, and a straw on the side for when you get home) and parked at Girard Park. We hung out in the park for the afternoon with no real agenda, finally enjoying 70+ degree weather. Before dinner we stopped at Planet Fitness for a shower and decided to stick with the seafood theme, since we were in the heart of Creole and Cajun country. We grabbed dinner to go from a place appropriately named Crawfish Town USA, which under normal circumstances probably would have been good, but coming off one of the best lunches we ever had, it was just ok. Editor’s (Mike) note: we were able to get fresh crawfish here when it turns out crawfish season was over, so that was a win.

That night we parked at a Harvest Hosts spot called Vermillionville Historic Village. We spent the night in the quiet parking lot and took a self-guided tour the next morning after grabbing breakfast at an amazing French bakery. Vermillionville was like a little village with 10+ historically preserved houses and buildings that you could walk through. Thanks to Covid and it being a weekday in December, once again we were the only people there. The two staff members we came across shared a lot about the difference between Creole and Cajun culture, slavery, and how the French language influenced the area. Neither of us are big on history or museums, but we both thought it was interesting and 100% worth a visit if you’re ever in Lafayette.

We spent the rest of the day wandering around the downtown area of Lafayette, eating lunch outside and getting ice cream from an 80 year old ice cream shop called Borden’s. That night we drove to a brewery just outside of Lafayette called Bayou Teche Brewing which checked all the boxes for the perfect place to hang out for the afternoon/night: outdoor seating with plenty of space between tables, good beer, good pizza, free wifi, and a free place to park for the night in their parking lot. Also, several friendly brewery cats to hang out with.

Lake Fausse Pointe State Park 

After another day of eating and exploring in Lafayette, we started heading east towards our next stop in southern Louisiana. In our quest to try all the local food we could find, we stopped to get “boudin and cracklins” for lunch before leaving Lafayette. Boudin is a rice, meat, and seasoning mixture that is stuffed into a sausage casing, and you can order it a few different ways, most wrapped in some kind of fried dough. Cracklins, which we had before, are fried pork rinds. They were both good, but the grease literally soaked through the paper bag before we got back to the van if you know what I mean. Worth trying, but I wouldn’t make it a staple in my diet.

In summary, Lafayette was lovely. A week ago I had never heard of this town, but I would highly recommend spending time here if you’re ever in southern Louisiana.

Sunset over the bayou.

New Orleans

We spent a few days wandering around the French Quarter of New Orleans window shopping, taste testing beignets (freshly fried dough squares covered in powdered sugar), and enjoying outdoor dining in December. Cafe Beignet on Royal Street was our favorite, although Cafe du Monde was solid and good for people watching. We walked down an empty and slightly depressing Bourbon Street, drank coffee in Jackson Square, and ate muffuletta sandwiches for lunch from Central Grocery and Deli. Despite not being biggest of olive fans (I don’t enjoy them, Mike can take or leave them) the sandwiches were awesome. Highly recommend.

Outside of the French Quarter, we spent an afternoon playing cards on the patio at Miel Brewery (great sour beer), found another beer garden to watch football on Sunday, and checked into an Airbnb for the night to do laundry. Our Airbnb was a nice, separate in-law suite in the backyard behind the main house in a residential neighborhood. As a sign that we’ve truly adapted to living in a van, after finishing our laundry and taking a hot shower, we tested out the Airbnb bed (a pull-out couch) but decided to sleep in our own bed in the van parked on the street in front of the house. Classic van life move.

The Gulf Coast

After a few days in New Orleans, it was mid-December and we knew we needed to start heading back to the northeast since our plan was to make it home for Christmas. We started the drive across Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, hugging the coastline for most of the drive. We passed through cute coastal towns, drove by countless beach houses with ocean views and huge front porches, and lots of empty beaches. Since this blog post is getting long, here’s some highlights and favorites:

  • Free and easy access to Covid-19 tests at a parking garage popup in Louisiana (a sign of the times that this makes the list). We tested negative, woo!
  • Seafood dinner takeout in Gulfport, Mississippi. When we got there we weren’t quite hungry yet, so we laid down in bed and watched Netflix for a while before ordering from the parking lot. Waiting around really isn’t bad when your vehicle is also your home.
  • Donuts in Ocean Springs, Mississippi from Tato-Nut Donut Shop (their recipe includes mashed potatoes).
  • Barbecue from The Shed BBQ & Blues Joint, which was quite literally a shed has been expanded no less then 15 times.
  • Exploring the USS Alabama in Mobile.
  • Finally seeing an alligator in real life at Gulf State Park in Alabama.
USS Alabama
We met a cute lil friend from afar on one of our hikes.
Sunset over the bayou.

Next up, back to the familiar east coast.

Sippin’ Whiskey

Before leaving Nashville we decided to stop at Corsair, a local distillery (thanks for the recommendation Mark). We were able to safely enjoy a tasting of a variety of their products including vodka, gin, and whiskey. We left with a souvenir of their Triple Smoke Whiskey, with plans to bring several new spirits home to enjoy with our family over the winter holidays.

After finishing our first stop in Nashville (will elaborate later) we headed north to Louisville to stop at as many bourbon distilleries as possible. I (Mike) had mapped out several locations of interest including Evan Williams, Heaven Hill, Jim Beam, Michter’s, and a few places that are newer on the trail. Unfortunately due to the pandemic most places were completely closed, and those that were open were permitted only to allow guests into their gift shops. No tours, no tastings. Not my best display of planning, but oh well.

Evan Williams gift shop.

Most of downtown Louisville was empty. After stopping in a few locations and seeing some cool history (including a few folks with a familiar name), we turned to food to save our stop in Louisville. Emily did some research and discovered that the famous local cuisine was a “hot brown”, an open faced sandwich type of dish with roasted turkey, bacon, and Mornay (lots of cheese) sauce over roasted tomatoes and Texas toast. The ultimate comfort food. We picked up one from the Brown Hotel where it originated, and luckily followed advice from our internet research and only ordered one to split. Here’s the recipe if you want to try and make one at home.

Hot Brown. Perhaps not the most photogenic of dishes, but fantastic nonetheless.

Our second measure of rescuing this doomed detour to northern Kentucky was, of course, dessert. We found a nice little ice cream spot and enjoyed some high quality traditional ice cream. All in all, despite my planning failures, it was a good day. After Louisville, we had also planned a few stops further south in Kentucky near Bardstown, also known as the bourbon capital of the world (which we confirmed were open for tastings). We drove south and parked at a small distillery just outside of Louisville (again, not open) to sleep for the night.

On Saturday we were determined to have more success. Our first stop was at Lux Row Distillers, which was awesome. While it is a distillery with much history, the current location is new as of 2015. Home to several brands, we were taken on a private tour through the distillery and barrel houses. Both Emily and I were nerding out at the massive barrel house structures, which are essentially huge barns until loaded with barrels. Our tour guide told us that the structure is actually dependent on the barrels and that their added load brings the structure together. We also learned that a local contractor basically patented their method of constructing the barrel houses, and we realized after driving around that day that all of the barrel houses around Bardstown looked the same. Good for them.

Following the tour we had the tasting room to ourselves and were able to taste four of their products (even though the day before they had mentioned tastings were temporarily suspended) which was a nice surprise. We again left with a bottle to try with the family, and headed to a nearby distillery at the suggestion of the staff at Lux Row.

The next distillery, Bardstown Bourbon, is a new operation and has only been around for 3 years. We learned that bourbon is typically aged for a minimum of 4 years, and they only recently pulled their 3 year product out of storage. While waiting for their bourbon to fully mature, they blended in some curated matured whiskeys from other distilleries (and also served proprietary blends of some of that curated whiskey, without their product involved). I tried a few of the blends (Emily opted out as she was that day’s driver) and really enjoyed what they were offering. I would definitely like to stop in again in a few years once they’ve got their own mature bourbon to try.

From there, we headed to enjoy a small tour and tasting of my favorite spirit, Maker’s Mark. As expected the property was absolutely massive, almost like an estate. They too had a limited tour/tasting availability, but we ended up on a small tour that showed us a few of the buildings on the property. To this day, every drop of Maker’s Mark product comes from a small still house on their huge property. We then sat down to try some of their staple products (Maker’s, 46, cask strength) but were also able to try some custom blends curated by the staff. These blends are made using a variety of species of staves (wooden slates placed long-ways within the aging barrel to provide flavor) selected by the staff and were really tasty.

Maker’s ended up being our final Kentucky whiskey stop as we could not find anything else open to the public, so from there we paused our drinking and turned to some natural history with a visit to Mammoth Cave National Park. Mammoth Cave, the longest known cave system in the world at 412 miles, is in central Kentucky and if you weren’t pointed to the entrance by the pavement and guardrails, you might miss it.

Entrance to Mammoth Cave.

The cave tour was a wild experience. Despite having only 2 tour options (normally in non-Covid times there are many more, including some more advanced, tight-squeeze type routes) the experience was fantastic. At between 140-190 feet below ground with ‘ceiling’ heights of up to 50 feet at any given time, it was absolutely massive. The system is only dimly lit (to allow your eyes to adjust) but provides plenty of light to see the various formations as you continue deeper. In terms of history, Mammoth Cave played a huge role in the war of 1812, specifically due to the production of calcium nitrate (in the soil) into black gunpowder.

We learned about how the cave was discovered, who owned it throughout history, and its significance to the countries’ history. Although I’m certainly not a history buff, this was a worthwhile experience.

From the cave we headed back south into Tennessee again to hit the Tennessee Whiskey Trail. Learning from the whole Louisville failure, this time we called ahead and found a few distilleries that were offering tours, tastings, or both. We stayed close to our first Tennessee distillery location for the night and woke up early to start our trip across the state.

Our first stop in Tennessee (the second time around) was Old Glory Distilling. At 9:30 am or so, we were the only ones there. Go figure. Tours did not start until noon, but we sat down for a private tasting despite the early hour. Old Glory is a young distillery, again younger than the 4 year threshold, so they’ve chosen to produce some small batch whiskey in the interim. Small batch whiskey using smaller barrels equates to a shorter maturation period (smaller barrels have more surface area relative to the volume of the barrel, allowing more product to age against the wooden barrel more quickly). They also offered a few other spirits including vodka, moonshine, and gin, and we left there with our first gin bottle.

Stop number two for the day was H. Clark Distilling, a super tiny, single barn location, complete with an operational law office in the front of the building. Their story starts with Mr. Clark who, in 2010, lobbied and successfully helped to change Tennessee Law to allow distilleries to operate in places other than Moore County (where Jack Daniels resides). As late as 2009, Tennessee had only 3 distilleries, whereas there are dozens in operation today.

As noted above, H. Clark is tiny. They’ve got a single building in which all distilling takes place and 80 barrels can be stored in the attic. The photos above show the still that produces all of their product and also our whiskey cat friend who could not get enough of Emily. With the benefit of hindsight, I can say that H. Clark’s single barrel bourbon was my favorite of everything that we tried, including the Kentucky products. This was a super cool stop.

From H. Clark we continued to work our way south and stopped at Big Tenn Distillers, now also known as Big Machine Distilling (Big Machine is a major country record label who bought the distillery a few years back). Our favorite part of each stop on the whiskey trail was seeing and hearing about each location’s story and how they got started. Big Machine was no different. As they took us into their distilling warehouse to show us the operation, we got to talk to one of the distillers and see an incredible custom designed vodka still (apparently based on Nichola Tesla’s work).

Big Machine Vodka still.

The copper rings are on the exterior only and are meant to control the temperature throughout the distilling process. The liquid within the still travels up and down the still for what equates to 25 times distilled, and is then passed through a platinum filter for good measure. This results in a super smooth, colorless, tasteless vodka. We tried a few other products, which were all tasty (including some awesome blueberry moonshine liquor), and left with yet another bottle of bourbon.

Our final stop for the day (and the whiskey trail) was actually in northern Alabama at Black Patch Distilling Company. A small distillery started by a military family from Texas, they are new on the scene but making some great stuff. Yet another distillery where the product was not at the 4 year mark, they too were producing other products in the meantime, this time blue agave spirits (tequila, but not produced in Tequila, Mexico).

Tequila, by definition, must be 100% agave and at least 51% blue agave. Black Patch uses 100% blue agave for the entire process (whereas, apparently, many major Tequila producers will us 51% blue agave so it can be called ‘Tequila’, but then fill the remaining 49% with whatever type of agave is cheap and available). Another nugget that we learned is that colored Tequila comes from aging in barrels. Reposado is aged for between 60 and 364 days (less than one year). Anejo is aged for at least one year, but less than three years. To that end, some of the major colored tequila producers, including Jose, are neither Reposado or Anejo. What does that mean? Food coloring, and other nonsense, is used to color the liquor. So always check that your Tequila is Reposado or Anejo before buying! Their Reposado was great, but their Gold (Anejo), which was just recently made available, was even better. Almost a split between whiskey and tequila. The master distiller said he likes to call it ‘sipping Tequila’ and I would certainly agree.

Having developed quite a liquor cabinet for our little home on wheels, we turned our attention south and west with plans to hit the gulf coast. More food and fun next in Cajun and Creole country…

  • Mike
We broke up the whiskey trail with a stop at Berneim Arboretum in Kentucky, and saw these massive “forest giant” sculptures made from recycled wood. Pretty impressive.

Asheville to Nashville

When we set off in Wilda this time around, we didn’t have a concrete plan about where we wanted to go. We originally wanted to head back to the west coast, but with only five weeks until Christmas we realized that may not be realistic in order to make it home for the holidays. Well, it would definitely be possible, but we didn’t want to kill ourselves driving non-stop. We did have one place in mind that we wanted to go regardless – Asheville. We’d both been there and loved it, and it gave us a target until we figured out what came next.

We got to Asheville on Saturday morning and spent most of the afternoon on the patio of The Funkatorium, a spin-off of Wicked Weed and Mike’s favorite brewery. They specialize in sour beers which we both like and we worked our way through most of the flight menu by the time Penn State finally won a game in 2020. Happy to avoid a winless football season, we bought a few beers to go and walked down the street to another brewery, Green Man, for more beer on the patio. We were both happy to have gotten back to warm enough weather where outdoor eating and drinking was an option. To cap off a pretty great day we walked across town to get ice cream for dinner at a place called French Broad Chocolates and spent the night in a trusty Cracker Barrel parking lot watching Christmas movies, which has basically become our nightly tradition.

Delicious beer in Asheville.

We spent the next few days in Asheville enjoying biscuits from Biscuit Head (the first of many biscuits… more to come), shopping, watching sports, and catching up on showers at Planet Fitness. So far we’ve had great experiences at all the Planet Fitness locations we’ve stopped at with clean showers and plenty of social distance. While having our own shower in the van would be nice, it’s really not worth the space it would take up or the amount of fresh and gray water it would require. Plus, I’ve been known (Emily) to enjoy a very long, very hot shower. Sunday night we picked up snacks at Trader Joe’s and went back to the trusty Cracker Barrel parking lot for the night.

On Monday we unfortunately had some administrative stuff to take care off – health insurance. We both agree that we will never again take for-granted employee-covered health insurance. Buying your own health insurance is painful and expensive. After many phone calls and Googling, we’re 95% sure we have it sorted out. Shout out to anyone in HR who deals with this on a regular basis, you’re an angel.

We spent the afternoon walking around downtown Asheville, did some more Christmas shopping, and took advantage of another shower at Planet Fitness on our way out of town. Another chore we needed to take care of ASAP was finding a place to empty our gray water tank. Fortunately we don’t have a black water tank to take care of (toilet stuff), and just have a 10 gallon gray water tank (sink stuff). We stopped at a Camping World and signed up for a pretty cheap year-long membership that gets us free fresh water and dumping at any location in the country. Emptying the tank went smoothly, and we were both pumped that our plumbing set up was working great.

We continued south as it got dark towards a free parking spot we found just outside of Great Smokey Mountain National Park at a casino. As we got closer and started heading up into the mountains the temperature dropped and it started snowing. The further up into the mountains we went, the worse the weather got, and the more we started to question if we were going to make it. We hadn’t testing Wilda out in the snow, and driving up an unfamiliar, windy back road through the mountains in the snow at night didn’t seem like a good place to find out how she did. We aborted the mission and turned around to head back down the mountains to the closest town and Walmart. In a weird coincidence and reminder of how small the world is, we ended up at the same Walmart we had randomly parked at when driving Wilda back home from New Mexico a few months prior in the small town of Waynesville, North Carolina.

Somewhere on the North Carolina & Tennessee border.

By the next day the snow had stopped and we took a new route around the mountains to try and get to Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Everything except the road was covered in snow (so much for escaping winter). We had to turn around a few times at closed roads, which we later found out were closed due to snow/ice. When we finally made it to Gatlinburg it was freezing but sunny. Neither of us had been here before but we heard it was a cute little mountain town. After spending the day there, I’d say it’s somewhere between a cute little mountain town and a boardwalk at the Jersey shore with all kinds of kitschy arcade games and touristy shops. We took a ski lift up the mountain which had an amazing view of the now snow-capped Smokey Mountains, and walked across the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in North America (Gatlinburg, who knew). We thought about going for a hike in the park, but with sub-20 temperatures and the road closures we ran into earlier, we decided to pass. That night we started heading west and parked at a winery somewhere in rural Tennessee with pretty good wine and a really friendly great dane.

On Wednesday we made it to Nashville. Over the past few months of traveling this is one of the bigger cities we made it to, and like most of the other big cities you could feel the effects of Covid. Downtown, especially the bar and restaurant scene, was pretty empty. Fortunately we had good weather and spent a lot of time walking around outside. We checked out Vanderbilt’s campus, walked around the full size replica of The Parthenon in Centennial Park, and most importantly ate a lot of delicious comfort food. We ate Prince’s Hot Chicken and sampled as many biscuits as we could from restaurants around the city. We found free parking at Nissan stadium and walked across the pedestrian bridge to downtown which had a great view of the city skyline.

The (Tennessee version of the) Parthenon.

After two days of stuffing our faces with chicken and biscuits, we decided it was time to move on to the next phase of our food and beverage tour of the US, whiskey and bourbon…

Blue Ridge Parkway

With the van repacked we immediately headed south to try and find warmer weather (spoiler – we haven’t found it yet). We made a quick stop in Scranton to get an oil change at the Dodge dealership’s Heavy Duty Truck Center (that’s us now) which was surprisingly cheaper than a typical oil change in DC. We grabbed sandwiches from Hank’s Hoagies, a tiny sub shop with a life-sized cardboard cut out of Joe Biden inside that we both mistook for an actual person. Sandwiches in hand we ate our first official meal in the van, which we quickly realized is another perk of having your car also be your home. Even though we’re technically doing takeout, we can eat at our dining room table and BYOB mere steps away. That’s a win.

One thing that hasn’t changed with driving a van is that we usually figure out where we’re sleeping sometime in the late afternoon. What has changed this time around is that unfortunately it gets dark earlier than it did in September. We found a free campground on the Virginia/West Virginia border and made it most of the way there before it got dark. As we drove up the dirt road to get there we realized we would have to be a little more selective about backwoods camping with a van compared to the RAV, but Wilda did fine.

Our first official night camping in Wilda.

The next day we drove to Waynesboro, Virginia with plans to drive down the Blue Ridge Parkway, which technically starts one town over in Afton, Virginia. We made a stop at one of our favorite wineries, Veritas, before starting the drive. They had a very Covid-friendly setup (could be a new category on Google reviews) with individual roped-off areas each with their own outdoor fire pit and picnic table. The parkway itself had some amazing views with plenty of places to pull off and take pictures, possibly even better in winter. The parkway follows the ridge line for the most part and is an easy drive, until you need to get off the parkway, which in our experience involved a very narrow windy road to get down off the mountains.

That night we spent our first night parked at a brewery near Lynchburg, Virginia as part of Harvest Host, a membership we joined that allows you to park for free at hundreds of breweries, wineries, farms, etc. across the country. This seemed like the perfect combination for us since we love checking out new wineries/breweries, and getting a free place to park for the night is just a bonus. In all honesty the beer at this place was average at best, and we were pretty close to train tracks with trains running by every few hours, but… free!

View of sunset from the parkway.

The next morning we walked around downtown Lynchburg in search of coffee, did some Christmas shopping, and picked up groceries. We took a detour off the parkway to spend Thanksgiving with friends Kendall and Brantlee in Greensboro, North Carolina, which was a completely last minute plan that worked out great. We had no real plans for Thanksgiving and our friends had an empty house, so we spent the next two nights eating and drinking, sleeping in a real bed, and enjoying having a hot shower at our disposal.

From Greensboro we headed back towards the parkway and spent a day in Blowing Rock, North Carolina, a really cute little mountain town that we never would have found on our own. We spent the afternoon sitting outside at a brewery and walking around town doing some Christmas shopping. We finished out the night in what looks to be our new nightly tradition: eating leftovers, listening to Christmas music, drinking wine, and watching Christmas movies in the van. We had found free parking near a public park earlier in the day and after thoroughly checking for any “no parking overnight” or “no camping” signs, decided to wing it and spend the night there. No one bothered us. Another perk of living in an unmarked white van.

Breakfast of leftover sausage and grits on the parkway.

Up next, Asheville.

  • Emily