Most things in Costa Rica were very strictly shut down (including all schools) and are slowly and carefully being reopened. We had a three day weekend for the May 1st holiday. We decided to go to a remote ecolodge about a four hour drive away. We went with our friend Jan, who is living as a bachelor, since his wife decided to return to the States when it looked like air travel was shutting down. Both her parents are still living and she needed to help care for them at the start of the pandemic. Since the borders are closed, she can’t get back in. When we rented the car, we needed to pay attention to the ending number of the license plate. One of the ways Costa Rica is restricting the number of people out is by the last digit of your plate number. If you have an odd ending number you can drive on Saturday, and even on Sunday. We needed an even one since we would be driving on Friday and Sunday.
We drove straight to the parking for the lodge, since we were really only supposed to be driving if we needed to go to the pharmacy or grocery store. But I had to make a stop for coffee, which I rationalized was almost like a grocery item! We always stop at the big grocery store in Nicoya on the way home to Nosara, so this was just a long, protracted grocery shopping trip!
We drove on the Pan American Highway almost to the Nicaraguan border. Just before the border we turned off and drove another 25 kilometers through agricultural areas. There were mile after mile of orange groves. We got to a tiny village, and pulled into a very rudimentary ranch house. This was where we would leave our car while we were at the lodge. We texted the lodge owner of our arrival, and he drove down in an old four wheel drive rig to pick us up.
The owner and his wife were from Belgium. They really have an amazing story. They came to Costa Rica when they were in their early twenties, looking for land to practice sustainable agriculture. They looked all over Costa Rica, and settled on this spot in the Guanacaste Mountains, close to the continental divide. Adrian, the owner, drove us up the steep, rutted road to their property. When they first bought the property, there was no road and they had to walk up and down or go on horseback. The aspect is really unusual. They are facing north, only three kilometers from the Nicaraguan border. They look straight out to Lake Nicaragua, and you can see Isla Ometepe with it’s two big volcanoes. We spent a Thanksgiving on Ometepe about 10 years ago. It’s very windy there. Adrian said it’s a combination of both being near the continental divide and being at the end of Lake Nicaragua, which is a gigantic lake. He drove us to the rancho where the meals were served, and we unloaded there. Because it is so remote, they serve all three meals at the lodge. He helped us carry our suitcases down the steps to the “bungalow” where we would be staying. They had built it themselves, with native hardwoods from the property. It was just fine, but very rustic. The ecolodge is off the grid, so they have solar powered lights, and they have propane heated hot water. They had composting toilets, using sawdust. The windows had no glass or screens but there was a good mosquito net over the bed. During the dry season, there are very few bugs. Lots of bats at night though. Luckily, we didn’t see any inside. There was a lovely veranda, with chairs to enjoy while looking over the lake.
After we got settled, we took a walk further down the road. The nearby properties were ranches with the typically Brahman cows found all over Costa Rica. As is the case throughout much of the world, cattle grazing ruins the forest and contributes to the practice of “slash and burn” clearing. Adrian told us that slash and burn is illegal in Costa Rica, but this area is so remote it still happens. The air was very hazy from the end of dry season dust, and smoke from slash and burn fires. Adrian explained that the people in this area were not farmers. They had been ranchers from down on the coast on the site of Santa Rosa National Park, which is a huge National Park that protects lots of coastline and a roadless peninsula. When the National Park was established, the people on the land were moved up to these mountains. They are still ranching although the mountains are not too well suited for ranching. We enjoyed walking along a windswept ridge and looking out across the lake. Although hazy, this walk on our first evening was the best view of the lake that we would get. We also got to watch a teenage boy on a horse single handedly moving a herd of cows from one grazing area to another. Lots of interesting things to see, and nice to have a walk after a long car trip. We saw toucans in the trees, which is always amazing. They aren’t in Nosara at sea level, they only live higher up.
The food at the Tierra Madre was amazing! They get it all from their garden, and the chicken is from their neighbors. We had the best quiche I’ve ever had! They make their own cheese with milk from their neighbors. Unless you pay a ton of money at a store that caters to expats, you can’t get any “hard’ cheeses in Costa Rica (like parmesan, etc). They only make “soft” or “fresh’ cheeses in Costa Rica. I think that is why the quiche was so good, the cheese they make is super flavored. We had vegetable tempura for a starter, and a wonderful flan for dessert. We never expected such amazing food at a super rustic place, so far away from anywhere! Adrian’s cousin, who is married to a Tica woman, is the chef. Jan asked him if he was a chef in Belgium, and he laughed and said no he learned from French cookbooks and You Tube! I know it’s possible to learn anything from the internet, but I think if I tried to cook like that my results wouldn’t be so successful! On Saturday night we had a starter of tomato sorbet with oregano ice! It was so hipster (if that is still the correct term). The main was a baked chicken dish and the dessert was an amazing chocolate mousse!!
At Friday dinner, we also met the other young people who we had seen around when we arrived. There were about six young Europeans who were basically stranded because of the pandemic. They had four “Work Away” young people, plus a couple who were traveling through Central America on their way to Peru who had been guests at Tierra Madre when everything closed so fast. While United has been running some flights to the US, flights to Europe have been in short supply. What flights there have been have been very few, and very expensive. So these young people have decided to hunker down and work on the farm until things open up. It was interesting that one of the qualifications that Adrian has for choosing Work Away volunteers is that they have to have been Scouts! He figures that will weed out the ones that can’t deal with the rustic conditions and bugs. Speaking of bugs, Adrian showed us two that we had never seen before. One was a bioluminescent beetle that had two spots that lit up like headlights. The other was a “bullet’ ant. We have read about them, but never seen one (thank goodness). They are called “bullet” ants because it is said that their sting feels like being shot. Adrian has been stung twice and said the pain is just indescribable and lasts for hours. They are about an inch long, and are black. They look like any other ant. In Costa Rica, I try to give all ants a wide berth. You never know which will bite or sting!
Saturday morning, after a lovely breakfast with fresh fruit and farm fresh eggs, we went on a long hike with Adrian. It was like a master’s level class in permaculture, sustainable agriculture, flora and fauna of Costa Rica. Adrian’s knowledge of these subjects is vast, he is all self-taught as his degree was in engineering. In addition to having so much knowledge, he was able to share it with us in a clear, super interesting way. It was just such a treat to spend the day with him. He shared with us the methods that would allow us to feed the world with bounty, and not destroy the forests. If only people could put aside their greed, and listen to teachers like Adrian, we could save our planet and be super healthy. Our generation has really, really destroyed things due to greed and selfishness. Hope must now lie with those following us, I hope they will do a better job.
Some of their land had been cleared (slash and burn) for cattle pasture, and it was only forested in the steep areas not suited to cattle. (Bill and I have not eaten beef in years, first for health reasons, but now for earth reasons too. Talking with Adrian has only served to cement this. Cattle, and all that goes with raising them, is really damaging to our Earth.) They let the trees regenerate, and it was amazing how they were filling in. If the land is left alone, it can heal itself. Now they are at the stage where they can selectively clear trees, based on careful studies of sun requirements and plant fruit trees. He showed us the avocado trees that had been planted in the soil that the forest had been allowed to regenerate, versus the avocados that had been planted in the soil that had been compacted and ruined by the cattle. The avocados in the regenerated soil were much larger and healthier, and needed far less water in the dry season than the avocados in the non-regenerated soil.
We followed a steep trail down through the forest to the lower part of the property. Along the way we got to see the last of the four Costa Rican monkeys that we hadn’t seen yet, the spider monkey. It was much larger than I expected, a bit bigger than the howlers but much more slightly built. One thing I noticed was that their arms and legs are quite long compared to their body length. Their long limbs, and long tail, allow them to do amazingly acrobatic jumps. We watched them jump up to 30 feet down and across to neighboring trees, grab a branch and launch themselves into another huge leap. We also saw howlers, which are the most numerous and widespread of monkeys in Costa Rica.
We stopped for lunch under an enormous mango tree at Adrian’s cousins house, who is the chef for Tierra Madre. Adrian told us about the trials of schooling for his two kids, and his cousin’s two kids. When they first moved onto the property, there was no road. So one of the mom’s had to walk the kids to the village school, a 1.5 hour walk to get to school-and these were early elementary kids! The mom would then wait for school to finish, and then walk the kids back. School was only three hours a day, and they were not impressed. Sometimes the teacher would show videos, and often when the kids had a worksheet the teacher would fill in the answers. The kids were learning very little despite the trial of getting them there. We have been told that although Costa Rica has universal education, the quality is variable. The schools in the Central Valley near San Jose are OK (although they are half day also), but in the rural villages the schools can be of very poor quality. I was pretty stunned that they had been able to get early elementary kids to walk down and up a mountain everyday to go to school. I guess they had never known anything different. But in the end, they decided they could not live with the low quality of the schooling offered in the village and Adrian’s wife homeschools the four kids.
After a lunch of a lovely pasta salad, and mangos from the tree (it’s mango season), we walked back up the mountain to the lodge. It was a wonderful hike with great exercise and fascinating learning. We read and napped until dinner. It continued to be hazy, which was a bit of a disappointment because we never got good views of the lake and volcanoes, or the night sky. But as we always say, it leaves us something to come back for! This trip was a great adventure, and was stimulating for our minds and muscles. It wasn’t the tropical paradise experience that we have often had in Costa Rica, but fascinating. And we admit it, we had just spent the last five weeks quarantining in our house-which is pretty much a tropical paradise!