Relaxed Adventure at the Doorstep: Puriscal

The best thing about living in Costa Rica: there is so much to do. The worst thing about living in Costa Rica: there is too much to do. No matter how many adventures we go on, there is always another one on the list. This is the definition of a blessing and a curse. Oftentimes, we make plans in order to have them change at the last second. This is exactly how we find some of the lesser-known gems.

My great friend and I had been discussing a hike, but we were both saving money and didn’t have a lot of free time. He told me about a place, close to the city, where we could easily take a short hike and get away from the main pulse of the big city (San Jose) for a short while. He told me that the bus was cheap, and the ride was relatively short (45 minutes – 1 hour). The city is called Puriscal. Shortly before the planned trip, we were informed by another colleague and her boyfriend about a beautiful waterfall hike that they were interested in seeing. So, we put our hike on hold and decided to join them.

Of course, plans changed. The waterfall we had planned to visit was experiencing too much rain and therefore the best parts of the park were closed to the public. We woke, with the anticipation of children at Christmas, and found out the unfortunate information. Disappointed yet still excited, my friend and I were texting the same words, at the same time: “So, do you want to go to Puriscal instead?” We laughed hard, finished readying ourselves, stopped for a quick breakfast, and promptly walked to the bus stop.

The timing of our trip couldn’t have been more perfect. Both he and I were experiencing one of those moments in life where you question everything. We each had our own personal struggles to cope with, suffering from some of the isolation that you inevitably feel when being away from so much of your former life, yet being surrounded by the wonders of your new life.

On the bus, we discussed all of the issues we were having. Although separate, they were very related. It is amazing how when you feel the most alone in life, there is always someone going through something similar. Usually, that person is right next to you. In the words of one of my favorite songs, “no time to look into our pain, or see the same despair in everyone else… Agony is truth, it’s our connection to the living…” (Eyedea & Abilities, Smile).

The views from the bus’s windows quickly resolved any depressive feelings we were having. That was one of the things we came for after all. We began to lighten our hearts, determined to find the release and clarity we sought. As we neared our destination, a random stranger overheard us discussing what we were going to see once we arrived. We had talked about an old, condemned church (Santiago Apostle) that was at the precipice of the humble city. This perfect stranger began to explain its history. He claimed that the church is now condemned because in the 1970s an earthquake split the foundation right down the middle. It was never repaired, and is now too dangerous to renovate, so the city condemned it. (Unfortunately, the author has been unable to find a factual historical record of this information). After this man’s description and information, we knew we must see it.

We arrived and immediately could see the church. It is impressive with beautiful colonial-style towers, shattered stained-glass windows, and crumbling facades. It was perfectly described by the man on the bus. However, being condemned we weren’t allowed a close look. This was probably for the best as my curiosity would have put us in danger.

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After making our way around the church, we briefly walked the city streets. We knew we wanted to go see the mountains that are everywhere. I asked my friend, being that he had visited prior, where he would like to start. He pointed off in one direction and said, “there were some good views that way, but I haven’t looked over there,” pointing in a different direction. We chose the unknown path, which in hindsight turned out to be an incredible decision. We figured, let’s both see something new.

We walked off in a random direction, passing multiple stores, a school, and many houses. Eventually, we saw a small road off the main concourse. As we progressed down this small street, we saw the mountains entering our view. There we were, amid a small neighborhood with some of the best views I had ever experienced in my life. We looked for a great spot to view, saw one, and decided against going there because it felt like trespassing. However, simply being on the street, we still had an incredible view.

He and I enjoyed a couple of beers while observing. The scenery was the reason we came. We stayed there for about 30 minutes before making our way through the winding back-roads of this beautiful community. We walked up and down some serious hills and emerged to the main road again. We had spent a short time here, relaxed, exercised a little, and started to head back to the downtown area.

Then, all of a sudden, we noticed a hill off to our left. I searched for signs that it was private property and found none. We walked up a small dirt path to the top of the hill. To our amazement, we found a 360° view of the surrounding mountains. We both froze. It was simply stunning.

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The words on this page do no justice to the view we received by pure happenstance. As we soaked in the true magnificent beauty, we realized that we could see all the way to the ocean from one of the angles of view. When we realized this, we took a seat and let it the natural wonder of this country wash away all of our concerns. We could have stayed there for hours. We did spend about an hour and a half in this location. It was magic. Just when you think you have seen some really impressive places, something unexpected finds you.

After we realized how hungry we became, we walked back to town, had a delicious lunch, and made our way back to the bus to return to our routine. However, this trip refreshed us in so many ways. The surprises that this country has, can really bring you back to your senses. It couldn’t have been better. As I said, it was magic.

– Peter Gioia

Tamal: Tico Christmas Tradition

Never have experienced the Holiday season in Costa Rica (or any other country) I didn’t know what to expect. There are no snow-covered rooftops, no fields of pine trees, no bells jingling all the way. However, there are tamales. I have not witnessed a tradition here that is more carefully observed than the Holiday season tamal. Unlike Mexico and the Unite States, the Costa Rican spelling is Spanish (literally from Spain) without the last letter ‘e.’ Nearly every family in Costa Rica will partake in this tradition. So many that the University of Costa Rica concluded in a study that “196 million pairs of tamales [are] eaten during December [which equals] three tamales per Tico per day.” (www.ticotimes.net) That is truly a mountain of tamales.

Dating back almost 500 years ago, the tamal tradition has been more Costa Rican than the phrase, “pura vida.” Recipes vary from home to home, but this is incredibly family oriented. “Grandmothers and mothers will teach granddaughters and daughters how to make tamales; making sure the tradition is kept alive.” (qcostarica.com) Although it may not have always been part of Christmas, it has been part of tradition since before the Spanish conquistadors arrived in Costa Rica. “The corn filling symbolized the sun god for indigenous people 500 years ago, but when Spanish conquistadors colonized the isthmus, the food became part of festivities celebrating the immaculate conception and Christmas.” (www.ticotimes.net)

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No historian can pinpoint the exact origin of tamales, but we do know that they have been around for millennia. “Tamales originated in Mesoamerica as early as 8000 to 5000 BC. As making tamales is a simple method of cooking corn, it may have been brought from Mexico to Central and South America.” (en.wikipedia.org) For our intents and purposes though, the tamal tradition in Costa Rica can be considered beginning with life itself. “The truth is, all Costa Ricans will remember having eaten them since they were small children.” (qcostarica.com) Therefore, they have been around as long as anyone can remember.

Although tamales are made year-round, the tradition is based around the Holiday season, especially the month of December. It doesn’t matter when you decide to eat them, you will see people enjoying tamales for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. However, “they are absolutely fundamental for coffee break time” (qcostarica.com) known very properly as tamaleada, “the tradition of taking a break from buying gifts to invite friends over to the house in the afternoon to share a tamal, a cup of coffee and some good conversation.” (www.ticotimes.net)

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Whether you are an outsider like me, a visiting tourist, or a local the tamal tradition in Costa Rica is all-encompassing. You will see the supermarkets fill entire isles with the ingredients to make them. Anyone here will tell you about their experiences making tamales with their families every year for as long as they can remember. It doesn’t matter if you are staying in the city, or on a remote beach front, if you happen to be in Costa Rica in December, you will experience the beauty and magic of the tamal. And on that note, I think I smell tamales coming from my Tico mom’s kitchen. Time to eat!

http://www.ticotimes.net/2014/12/24/tamales-a-christmas-present-for-everyday-of-december

https://news.co.cr/christmas-traditions-of-costa-rica/30313/

http://qcostarica.com/tamales-a-christmas-tradition-in-costa-rica/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tamale

La Marta: Natural Glory Restored

The sun warmed the tent. I opened my eyes to the beauty of the day. Birds sang the morning chorus to remind me not to stall, not to dawdle. There was so much to see. I began by making coffee. My companion and I ate a high energy breakfast, prepared our lunch, and packed the bag. Tying up my boots, my heart began to race wildly at the thought of what this hike was going to bring.

Once upon the first trail, we walked through the ruins of the former agricultural town, Hacienda La Marta, that used to operate a lively market for coffee, bananas, sugar, and milk in this park.  Barely 3 meters away from the ruins, down the main trail into the rain forest, the scene drastically changed. I already felt like I was in the middle of the ever-changing natural environment. My companion and I were not even 30 minutes into our tour, yet I already had an excitement that only natural glory can bring.

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The trails themselves were micro-climates that were different in so many ways. Trees canopied the entire path, shrouding the forest in a sense of wonder and mystery. The earth smelled fresh, wet, and alive. I could sense the life all around me. Like a small child, I touched everything, needing the new experience to be as full as possible. My companion laughed at my childish wonder. However, the mosses were all new and felt as such, the leaves looked as fake as they do in plastic offices, the flowers were practically glowing and perfume-strength fragrant. I was a child again.

After about an hour, the path took a steep climb to a precipice where we encountered our first mirador (look-out). The park had erected a sheltered tower upon this peak to give hikers the best possible view of the valley and distant mountains. It was magnificent. With no human construction in site, other than what I was standing upon, I looked out with awe. My companion, who had already been here, was just laughing at my look of pure love. We left this mirador to head to another which we thought would take us a while to reach. We paused briefly (I paused briefly, my companion only slowing once she noticed my lagging). I was in awe of a type of fungus I had never seen. I continued my child-like touching of everything new, which was everything.

By the time we reached the second mirador, the humidity had escalated to full. My shirt was as wet as if I had jumped into the river. My companion and I really felt what it meant to be in a tropical rain forest. We rested and I attempted to dry out my gear in the sun. Here, the railing keeping us from falling into the abyss, was the only thing that was placed by man. The sun beat down, but the breeze was cool. The distances seen were incredible. We felt like the only two humans for miles. We rested, ate a small snack of fruit and nuts, and reflected peacefully in each other’s company.

The next trail we took was an idyllic path through some of thickest forest I have ever seen. Without a watch, I would not have been able to guess the time. The sun was blocked entirely by the epic canopy that shaded and cooled the trail but also wrapped me in humidity like a thick blanket. The silence. My companion and I stopped just to hear the silence. It was eerie in a mystifying and beautiful way. It was here that I felt the most isolated from the world and destructiveness of man. I breathed in the serenity.

We continued winding through the beautiful trails, encountering all sorts of flora and fauna: white-faced monkeys, beetles the size of my fist, every type of moss imaginable, labios de mujeres (a flower that looks like puckered lips), trees the size of skyscrapers, lizards of all varieties, hundreds of colorful butterflies.

My companion and I were nearing the pozas (swimming holes). We saw a sign for a waterfall and quickly took the detour. We walked down some huge carved stairs, turned a corner around a rock face, and there it was right before my eyes. Before I even knew what I was doing, I had my shirt off, my bag thrown carelessly to the side, my hat and sunglasses resting upon it. I had to shimmy around a giant boulder but then I was standing next to the waterfall. It was not huge, but it was beautiful. The water cascading down the side of this mountain was breathtaking. I dunked my head into the pouring stream.

It was clear, clean, refreshing. I had to take a drink just to say that I have drank from a waterfall in Costa Rica. After I played in the waterfall for a minute, it was my companion’s turn. She was just as pleased about this as I was. We relaxed for a minute next to the waterfall on the boulder before heading off for the final leg of the hike.

Our last stretch of trail was littered with pozas. It seemed that every 200 meters there was another place to sit by the raging river, or if you were lucky there were some calmer places to take a dip. It was pure serenity. My companion and I chose a secluded poza to take our final rest before heading back to camp. Here we relaxed and took in the scenery of the majestic river. We talked lightly and briefly about all we had seen. It was the most amazing day in my recent memory. I will have to make another trip to this magnificent rainforest where it seemed that the magic of nature was at its most perfect state.

Las Ruinas de Ujarrás

The site of Las Ruinas de Ujarrás is surrounded by luscious green countryside, immaculate landscapes, winding rivers, and pristine mountains. Located deep in the Orosi valley, near the Cachí Reservoir, visitors experience a bond to the historical foundations of colonial Costa Rica as they approach the park containing the remains of the church (La Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de la Limpia Concepción). Once inside the monument grounds, you can literally touch history.

Built in the 1580’s, local legend states that a fisherman of the Huetar discovered a box containing a painting of the Virgin Mary and the church was built on this site. The Virgin Mary had thus been considered a protector of the village.

La Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de la Limpia Concepción, or what remains standing can be approached, touched, and adored. As you near the ruins, the history is palatable and the senses are alerted to the reverence that belongs to such structures throughout the world. From the stone pathway to the limestone altar, Las Ruinas de Ujarrás creates a sense of awe.  Visitors walk through the large and still nearly perfect archways to the inner chamber that was once where the congregation would pray together.

Outside of the church, you see the buttresses still supporting the outer walls of the edifice. Moss grows peacefully all along the masonry. It is a scene from a fairy tale with the mountains in the background. Nearby the church stands a beautifully sad tree that is probably as old as the church itself, weeping in the common area as families picnic, play, and admire this brilliant monument.

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There are many places to visit in Costa Rica, but not many with such a peaceful and elegant grace as Las Ruinas de Ujarrás. For lovers of history, religion, or just serenity, this site has enough beauty to slip away into a simpler time.

Sources:

http://www.lacasonadelcafetal.com/las_ruinas_de_ujarras

http://www.ticoclub.com/cartujar.htm

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ujarr%C3%A1s

Annexation of Nicoya to Costa Rica (Guanacaste Day)

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Although Costa Rica celebrates many national holidays, there are few as vibrant and culturally inclusive as the Annexation of Nicoya to Costa Rica (Guanacaste Day), which takes place on July 25th. Unlike most annexations throughout the world, the annexation of Nicoya, and thus the province of Guanacaste, was made possible by the request of the inhabitants, not some militant coup, uprising, or any such violence.

Prior to annexation in 1824, the province of Guanacaste (including the incredibly beautiful Nicoya Peninsula) was part of Nicaragua. At the time, Nicaragua was struggling with unrest and civil war which led the inhabitants of this region to request to be annexed to Costa Rica. The Central American Federation approved the request and the region became part of Costa Rica. Being that the inhabitants were the catalyst to annexation, the saying “de la patria por nuestra voluntad” (literal translation: of the country by our will) became an illustration of Costa Rican democratic values. *

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Here in San Jose, I couldn’t participate in a full-scale celebration. However, by the invitation of my students, I was able to gain access to a sample of the cultural festivities. Their colegio, or high school, held a small festival that celebrated by showcasing the cultural diversity of the entire nation.

I took the bus out to the colegio and was met with open arms. The students, as well as the administrative staff, led me to a seat in the front row to watch the final dance number. (I was there before other members of the public were allowed to visit, but missed some of the other presentations). I felt so welcome with my smile stretching from ear to ear. The dance number concluded and I began to mingle with the students and faculty. A band listlessly played classical Costa Rican music, booths were being manned by the student presenters, and the food was quickly prepared.

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Some of my students quickly found me and began to show me around. Each class represented a different province and gave historical presentations, offered typical food, played music, and adorned decorations. Before I knew what was really happening I had a plate of corn tortillas with natilla (similar to sour cream), corn on the cob, and arroz con leche (sweet cream with rice). I tried to pay, but my students refused to allow that. I felt so incredibly welcome. After I conversed with a few more students, I made the rounds to see each of the provinces represented, listened to the histories in Spanish, and ate or drank something from each booth. The experience was incredible. I will forever be grateful to my students for inviting me to such a wonderful cultural learning experience, and for showing me an amazing time.

Not only is this National Holiday a symbol of the democratic values of Costa Rica, but it is truly a time to celebrate all of the cultures that make Costa Rica the rich and diverse country that it is today. Without seeing something like this first hand, I would have never known the importance that Costa Rica places on its very core. The people will always come first and especially their individual values and traditions.

*http://www.costaricaguides.com/guanacastes-annexation-to-costa-rica/

*http://www.guachipelin.com/blog/nicoya-annexation-to-costa-rica-july-25-1824/

FIA Bridging Cultures Again

As buses careened through the streets, much of the city went about its Saturday as though there was nothing special. Perhaps there wasn’t. However, for the droves of people that made their way into central San Jose, the day was the height of excitement. The Festival Internacional de Las Artes was in its final stages. For 2 weeks (June 19 – July 9) FIA had captivated audiences with live music, stunning acrobatics, theatrical shorts, and so much more.

Crews of bulking men and machines were placed about the city in modes of work. The grounds were tended appropriately for the day to steal the imagination, sway the open-hearted, and dissolve the insistence upon reality. The cornucopia of culture quickly sated the hunger for collective belonging.

The walking avenues were packed. Street vendors plied their wares. You could find anything from socks, groceries, and fidget spinners to jewelry, DVDs, and pocket knives. The list is always endless. Whether looking for a quick bite or some live local accompaniment to your walk, the avenues are perfect for exploring the city life of San Jose.

Approaching the main festival staging areas, you could hear the music beating through the buildings, calling to the soul. The local pubs were filtering the thirsty in and out of the doors as breaks in the stage activity allowed time for refreshment. The courtesy offered to the traveler was incredible. Laughs were had over a few shots of chiliguaro and names exchanged. Offers were made to come sit with the perfect strangers. The demeanor here is truly “Pura Vida.”

The park and main stage at plaza de democracia were crowed with excited onlookers and music aficionados of all ages. Feet tapped, hips shook, heads bobbed. One man danced enthusiastically as the flute player on the stage hit the crescendo and the band followed suit with an invigorating folk masterpiece.

Leaving the stage area it was a short walk, about 3 minutes, to parque nacional. Here, for those not as thrilled by music, there was a pop-up mall of international and local vendors selling every type of art you could imagine. 2 more stages were also in place with live theatrical performances and physical comedy. The crowd mingled tirelessly, but as casual as though this sort of event happened every week. Lovers caressed, teenagers assembled, families played. The feeling was serene.

The FIA was and will continue to be one of the staples of the Costa Rican “summer.” There were too many activities to attend all or even most, but there is certainly something for everyone going on the entire time. To miss it, you would have had to avoid the area completely with your eyes closed, ears shut, and cynicism in full swing.