Posts Tagged ‘Costa Rica’

Another month, another first Monday, another “Nature” theme!  The challenge for this theme isn’t finding a photo, it’s deciding which photo/s to use.  Since I spend quite a bit of time outside, I have more photos of nature than of anything else.  This has been a year blessed with lots of travels.  After my annual trip to visit my parents in Arizona, my older daughter and I spent a wonderful week in Costa Rica, a delayed Christmas present from over a year before.  Besides having a great time, we saw some fabulous sunsets.  Here’s an example of one.  Grab a tropical drink, sit back, and enjoy.

When the sun has set, no candle can replace it.
~George R.R. Martin

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A large drop of sun lingered on the horizon and then dripped over and was gone, and the sky was brilliant over the spot where it had gone, and a torn cloud, like a bloody rag, hung over the spot of its going. And dusk crept over the sky from the eastern horizon, and darkness crept over the land from the east.
~John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

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One of the big draws of Costa Rica is the rain forest and our bit of it was found not only around our hotel, but in Manual Antonio National Park, Costa Rica’s smallest national park. Small it may be, but it’s home to an enormous variety of wildlife (of the animal variety) as well as beauty. In 2011, Forbes named it one of the 12 most beautiful national parks in the world.

Once you’ve paid your $10, you can wander the park trails yourself and relax on the beautiful beaches. But unless you have superhuman eyesight, if you want to see the wildlife, take a tour! The guides can spot things you’d never even know were there. Without Berny, we would only have seen monkeys and some lizards. With him and his telescope, we saw…well, you’ll see.

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Right inside the park entrance was this lovely guy, waiting to welcome us. Taking photos through the telescope assured getting up close to whatever we saw.

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To say something or someone is vanilla is anything but a compliment, implying bland and tasteless.  However, as we learned during our tour of Villa Vanilla Spice Plantation near Manuel Antonio and Quepos, Costa Rica, real vanilla is anything but bland!

Have you ever eaten a baby?  If you’ve used real vanilla, you have.  An orchid that has to be pollinated by hand, with the flower only open once during one morning, the vanilla plant grows around other plants/trees.  Like a human baby, the seed pod, the fruit of the plant, takes nine months to develop, although unlike a baby, the vanilla pods then have to be cured for several months. (Human children are often not cured for years.)  Amanda Fortini has an interesting article for Slate that will tell you more about the (fallacious) connection between vanilla and bland.

Villa Vanilla began as a monoculture farm until a series of disasters brought vanilla production in Costa Rica to a screeching halt.  When owner/manager Henry Karczynsk began again, the farm became a model of biodiversity, what I would call large-scale companion planting.  Besides vanilla, the farm raises cinnamon, allspice, several kinds of pepper, tumeric and more, all planted together in a beautiful area.

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The vanilla most of us use is either imitation vanilla or vanilla flavoring. The artificial flavors of the former come mostly from wood byproducts and often contain chemicals. Vanilla flavoring is generally a combination of imitation vanilla and pure vanilla extract. These two make up most of the vanilla on the market, one of the reasons I brought back the largest bottle of vanilla I could from Villa Vanilla. Kept away from light and at a constant temperature, my vanilla will continue to age beautifully.

Villa Vanilla also raises cacao. Cacao pods contain approximately 30-50 seeds that are sweet, somewhat soft and that look very much like the things you should avoid in a sci-fi movie. However, you can eat them and we did. I’m proud to say I was the first one to try…right after the tour guide put one in her mouth! Once harvested, the long process continues until the end product emerges as nibs or cocoa powder. Although not for sale, the dark chocolate we were able to try was fabulous, the best I’ve ever had and nothing like even the best candy bar.

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Villa Vanilla raises Ceylon cinnamon, not the common cassia. Cinnamon is produced by growing the tree for two years, then coppicing it, cutting it back to the stump. (The next year, about a dozen shoots grow from the stump.) The outer bark, which can be used for tea, has to be cut off by hand. The inner bark, about 0.5 mm (0.020 in), is removed for what we know as cinnamon, in either sticks or ground. The rest of the wood is burned.

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Spices drying…

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The farm…

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View from the farm…

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A delicious cheesecake sample made with Villa Vanilla products…

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Although a tour of a vanilla plantation sounds a bit…well…vanilla, it was anything but bland.  The farm is a model of the beauty of biodiversity and the spices that come from it have vibrant color and flavor.  The tour turned out to be one of our favorites.  I can’t wait to begin using the spices I bought, although I regret that I couldn’t buy any of the chocolate.  Perhaps one day…

Although green is the predominate color where we are near Manuel Antonio by the Pacific Ocean, there are vivid counterpoints of color everywhere. Here are a few that particularly caught my eye. Just don’t ask me what they are. All I know is that they’re beautiful.

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This vacation is unusual in more than just being in a new country. It’s also the one of the very few times we’ve done a tour of any kind, other than our own. Yesterday, we did two.

Since we love to ride, the horseback riding tour grabbed our attention immediately. The man at the desk, when told we were good riders, recommended a new tour, Cowboy Tours, run by a friend. He asked, “You like to gallop?” When we said yes, he booked the tour.
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On Sunday, our long-delayed and awaited mother-daughter trip actually began. Pipped at the post on our first attempt several years ago, we flew from this…

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over this…

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to this…

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I opened my eyes this morning not to the sight of San Jose, Costa Rica, but the rain-drenched green of Illinois.   You were possibly expecting to see more pictures like the one above  or hear about our trip to Costa Rica, Day 1?  I was looking forward to taking some pictures and telling that story.  Here’s what really happened. (more…)