Hue – A Foodie’s Paradise

Hue – A Foodie’s Paradise

Hue was on my list as we planned out our trip to Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) was on B, and Hanoi we knew we had to do. I wanted to do Hue for the Old Imperial Capital, or the Citadel as they call it… but what I quickly came to learn about Hue was more than old building ruins, I have learned the Hue should be more known for the food.

Sure Bourdain (RIP) had visited before, and I had seen the last episode he did while visiting the region, but it didn’t hit me until our first meal. In the pouring, soon to be monsoon-like, rain that stayed with us the entire time, we made our way to grab some lunch after our hour flight from Hanoi. We stumbled upon the restaurant and bar area of Hue city centre and plopped down at a place called Xuân Trang where I order Banh Khoai (without the pork of course!) and an order of chicken with rice. B got Nem Lui (ground pork patties grilled on lemongrass skewers). Place number one set the bar high.

Our first food in Hue was amazing, my jet-lag, not so much. Four days into the trip and I still had trouble sleeping the entire night, needing naps during the day… but my Hue nap took us into well into the night and we ended up missing dinner. At 11:30 pm we took to the street only to find that Hue is not a town of late night eats. After wandering around for a good 30 minutes in the rain, I turned on my data and found a food stall that serves burgers and fries… not very traditional but I was starving. We weren’t the only ones, and found a group of three Malaysian travellers who were also in search of food. We all went to the burger stand together and took it back to our respective hotels… even Hue’s roadside burgers and fries are outstanding!

Breakfast the next morning was included in our hotel. The buffet had a wide assortment of fresh fruit, breads and pastries, meats (which B made a comment on), rice, crepes and more. What really stood out was the pho. I’ve come to learn over my short time in Vietnam is that pho is eaten really any time of the day… and it differs depending on the city (not really a surprise here). B was so obsessed with it that he convinced me to get a bowl. And he was right to obsess over it, it was THAT good. (Naturally I asked for mine without the beef in it – I’m so complicated)

Aside from the Banh Khoai which I so desperately wanted to try, I wanted Banh Beo. These tiny coin shaped rice circles come with shrimp and fried onions and I had had them at a Vietnamese restaurant back in Canada. Knowing that they’re a uniquely Hue dish, I knew I had to check it off my list. We ordered a dish of them at a restaurant called Madam Thu, which serves up traditional Vietnamese food and has vegetarian options! As our mains, B ordered chicken and rice while I ordered a vegetarian Banh Khoai (honestly, could not get enough on that stuff!). Our Banh Beo came with the traditional fish sauce but what really made the dish was the chilli sauce that they provided. The spicy was a nice compliment and I should have ordered more.

I could go on and on about the food in Hue, but all good things must come to an end. Aside from the endless rain, and the crippling jet lag that I still haven’t kicked after 6 days, we’ve made our way to our next destination (Hoi An). But I know that Hue will always have a special place in my food-loving heart.

Advertisements

My top 5s of Toronto

My top 5s of Toronto

 

This past weekend, a friend of mine flew in from Calgary. He had been to Toronto a handful of times and was only in town for a day. After arranging a time to meet up, the old familiar question came up, “So, what do you wanna do?”

This all too familiar question is one that I ask myself on a weekly basis, usually over Saturday morning coffee with B – What do we want to do? It’s summer in Canada’s most populated city and yet, we still need to ask ourselves that question… usually to the same answer, “I dunno.”

As I reflect on this question, I’ve devised a list of my top three things to do in the following 5 categories:

  • Shopping
  • Adventure
  • Food and Drinks
  • Nightlife
  • Free

Hopefully, by the end, I’ll have answered my question so I can make the most of the rest of this summer – and you can too!

Shopping

I’m definitely not a mega shopper by any means, but I do enjoy a splurge every once in a while. Which is why I really love Yorkville. This pedestrian-friendly shopping district has all of the big names Carrie Bradshaw would crave. Prada, Gucci, and Louis Vuitton to name a few (I’m sure you’ve heard of them), but also shops that are a little more within my price range – There’s even a Winners!!

If big names aren’t your style and you’re looking for something a little more eclectic, Kensington Market has you covered. Located just north of Chinatown, Kensington Market is a pedestrian district filled with vintage inspired shops, cute cafes, and instagram-worthy corners. It’s not for the faint of heart, but an area that everyone needs to visit at least once.

If it’s food you love to shop for, hands-down my favourite foodie find is St. Lawrence Market. Within walking distance from Union Station, you’ll want to bring your appetite to St. Lawrence Market. The indoor market is open year-round and holds a multitude of butchers, cheesemongers, vegetable vendors, bakeries, and even a mustard vendor! Head downstairs if you need a break from shopping and indulge in any culture of foods – but really, what you’ll want is the eggplant parmesan sandwich from Uno Mustachio and you may want to split it with a friend!

Adventure

In my opinion, you can’t truly adventure in Toronto without visiting the Toronto Islands. The islands are just a short ferry ride away and are the perfect mini adventure to escape from the hustle and bustle of the city. Since you can’t drive to the islands, boating or biking are often transportation methods of choice. You can rent either from either side of the ferry and even though hoards of people make their way across every summer weekend, there’s plenty of water-front locations that you can call your own. If you’re feeling extra adventurous, there’s always Hanlan’s Point (the ever so popular clothing-optional beach).

Toronto Island

If you’re someone who likes to splurge for adventure, there’s always the CN Tower edgewalk. Now I’ll be honest, this isn’t exactly how I would prefer to spend a lovely Sunday afternoon, but for those who are super adventurous and aren’t afraid of heights – this one’s for you.

For those who cringe at the thought of extreme heights and hanging out nude outdoors, there’s always Toronto’s multitude of Escape Rooms. These puzzles have themes that appeal to almost everyone from a Harry Potter themed adventure to escaping rooms in a real life castle at Casa Loma!

Food and Drink

If I’m going to be completely honest with myself, 90% of my entertainment in this city centres around food, and drinking. It’s a vice that I don’t know if I want to kick considering the territory I still have yet to cover.

For evenings that are special, I like to spend the night at a little place in the Distillery called Cluny. This French-inspired bistro never fails to impress me. From the wine selection to the ever-changing, seasonal menu, this resto is our go-to when we want to splurge.

I’ve always said that my last meal on Earth would be Mexican and Toronto definitely punches above its weight in delivering authentic cuisine that is muy bien. With so many great places, it’s hard to short list them but if I must, here are my top 3:

  • Playa Cabana on Dupont
  • El Caballito Taquila y Tacos on King St W
  • Barrio Cerveceria on Queen E

If it wasn’t Mexican, or French, it would have to be Japanese. When we moved to Toronto almost two years ago, I have to admit that good sushi was hard to find… but Izakayas are second to none (ok… maybe Japan). Our go-to Japanese snack bar is a little off the traditional tourist path, but well worth it: Sake Bar Kushi on Eglinton.

Nightlife

My nights of bar hopping and cover have long since past – so if you’re looking to me to tell you the hot dance spots in TO, I’m sorry to disappoint. Instead, I’d rather gather with a group of friends over drinks and fun. Here are my top three ways to spend an evening on the town.

I’m competitive… so when I can spend an evening kicking my friends’ asses at a game of ping pong over beer, I’m all of it. SPIN, located on King W, is my absolute favourite place to crush an evening.

Toronto attracts talent – so it’s no shocker that on most weekends, you can catch some type of show. With 5 Mirvish theatres in the downtown core, and multiple music venues big and small, a night out to catch a show is within easy reach.

If a more laid back, tame evening is what you’re looking for, gathering with friends over some board games is always a good time. Snakes and Lattes (not just coffee, they have beer and wine too!) allows you to play unlimited games with your crew without needed to pack your closet with an assortment of games you’ll only play once or twice.

Free

Living in Toronto isn’t cheap, so sometimes all a girl needs is a night that doesn’t put a dent into my bank account. The city is insanely walkable – even though it’s a very vast city. I’d recommend exploring one neighbourhood at a time and expand from there. Harbourfront, Queen West, Leslieville, and the Distillery District are all good places to start!

Coming from the east coast, I have always been spoiled by beauty and beaches… grudgingly, I have to say that Toronto has somewhat the same. While the beaches in Toronto are 10x more populated, and not on the ocean, they’re free and a great way to spend a summer day.

One thing that Toronto also does well is festivals – and many of them have free components. Just this past weekend, there were at least 3 festivals happening on the same weekend, all with free entry (but bring cash for some cheap eats).

La Habana Ooo La La

La Habana Ooo La La

My Mojito in La Bodeguita My Daiquiri in El Floridita.” – Ernest Hemingway.

Hemingway may have been onto something in the 1950s, but so many things have changed since his departure. Both bars are now caricatures of their former selves. Think about it, back in Ernie H’s day, these were local bars, with people going there to meet people, hang out, and perhaps even have a meaningful conversation with a local. Nowadays? Not so much.

El Floridita is a throwback to some serious first-season-of-Mad Men style, but with fruity drinks that ol’ Don Draper would sneer at, I convinced B. to join me there for a drink. The signature Daiquiri is 6 Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC). Around the bar (packed three deep in standing room), tourists from around the world snap selfies and play with their smartphones. Many are somewhat rushed because they need to get back to their cruise ship. As for La Bodeguita? We literally couldn’t get in, because the tourists were overflowing into the street.

IMG_3884

Walk five minutes south from there, and things change. Away from most of the main tourist sites and historic squares, there’s a strip of bars with a healthy mix of locals and foreigners. Our favourite place has a little sign over the door that says “Aqui jamas estuvo Hemingway” – “Hemingway was never here”. Inside, another sign has a crossed-out wifi sign and says “Hablen entre ustedes”  – “No wifi, talk among yourselves”. In other words, our kind of place. Daiquiris are 3.50CUC, and the Mojitos are 3.00CUC, and are much better in quality and value than the ‘historic’ bars of Havana. Hemingway was a pretty cool dude – I’d imagine he would gravitate to this sort of a bar if he were alive today, rather than going to the themepark versions of his old haunts.

IMG_3827.jpg

Havana may not be Cuba’s music capitol but it sure holds it’s own. Around every corner, music is blasting from homes and restaurants. Tips are customary if you find yourself at a restaurant or bar with live music.

IMG_3822

Being in Havana is a distracting blend of the old, the new, and the now. The old is all around you by way of old 1950s cars smelling of gasoline and putting down main city streets. The new is the signs that American and Cuban relations are improving (albeit in fits and starts) and you see this by all of the Americans visiting the city. The now is how the Cubans live. Despite being a bustling city of over two million people, there is a strong sense of community in Havana. Everywhere you go, everyone seems to know each other. Neighbours actually talk with each other, people play dominoes in the park. Don’t get me wrong, smartphone zombies exist too, but I somehow think there’s a healthier balance of screentime and genuine interaction here than in many of the cities I’ve visited. Things have certainly changed since Hemingway’s time, but just like the vintage cars, the best elements of Cuban culture are still running strong.

IMG_3808

How to travel the Galapagos without breaking the bank

How to travel the Galapagos without breaking the bank

When my mother-in-law told us she wanted us to accompany her on a trip for her 60th birthday, we all began planning on where to go and what to do. Top of our list was Vietnam and Cambodia but after some extensive research by my MIL, she wasn’t comfortable with making that trip. When crunch time came, B said “if you could go anywhere, regardless of cost, where would it be?” – Her response… “The Galapagos”.

To get to the Galapagos alone can be costly. There are no flights to the islands outside of Ecuador so you must first make your way to Quito or Guayaquil. From there, most people tour the islands via an organized cruise. Average cost of these run you at least $2,100 per person for the most budget-conscious package. Since B and I are neither cruise people nor did we want to drop that kind of dough on a 6 day trip, we proposed another alternative – stay in local hotels and limit our adventure to two key islands. We’d use the taxi boats to get from point A to point B, and eat at local restaurants.

IMG_0623

After a brief two day stop over in Quito, we boarded our plane to Baltra. The flight takes just over 2 hours, and as you approach the Galapagos Islands, you’re played an instructional video on what to do and not do while visiting the islands. This includes appropriate distances between you and the animals, disposing of garbage, and how to minimize your footprint while exploring. When you land in Baltra, there’s a fee to enter ($100 USD) and from there, a bus takes you to the ferry which transports everyone from the airport island to the main island of Santa Cruz.

The main town of Puerto Ayora is an hour away from the airport and buses run based on flights in and out. If you miss the bus, like we did, you can expect a LONG wait before another one arrives. If you’re lucky, you’ll already have arranged transport, which we didn’t, otherwise you can arrange to have someone come in from town. After waiting in the hot, unsheltered sun, we opted to call in a ride.

IMG_0671

Puerto Ayora is a very walkable town, situated along the water and packed with restaurants, cafes, gift shops, and tour operators. Within walking distance of the town is the Charles Darwin Research Station, where people from all over the world come to study and promote environmental education. We spent a few hours exploring the centre and could have spent more time if our day had permitted but with the heat and it being lunch, it was time to head back into town. Another popular destination just outside of town is Tortuga Bay. It’s quite a trek between the town and the beach so bring plenty of water, but in the end, it’s worth it. The beach is vast and beautiful. On one side, there’s plenty of waves, but as you walk along, you come to a secluded little piece of paradise. Here the water is more calm and is not only popular with the locals, but with iguanas too.

IMG_0805After a few days relaxing in PA, we set sail to our next destination: Puerto Villamil on Isla Isabella. Home to the Galapagos Penguin, Blue Footed Boobies, and Sally-Lightfoot crabs just to name a few, Isla Isabella is an animal lovers paradise. Much more undeveloped compared to neighbouring Santa Cruz, but with still plenty to do. Here we spent much of our time snorkeling with sea lions, relaxing by the beach, and exploring the little town of PV.

IMG_0859.jpg

Outside of PV is the Wall of Tears. After WW2, Ecuadorian prisoners were shipped to Isabella and the island served as a sort of prison. In the beating heat, these exiles were instructed to do useless tasks, one of which was to build this wall… a wall which served no purpose other than to torture those who built it. It’s only a 5 km hike or bike, but there are a lot of things to distract you along the way. If you take a bike, be prepared for a hilly ride and bring lots of water. If you choose to stop along the way, there are bike racks. The best part of PV is the unspoiledness of the surroundings. Sure, there are people, and there is clearly life there, but it’s much quieter and underdeveloped than the main island – which means you really do see more animals out in the wild.

IMG_0884.jpg

To get between islands, you have a few choices. There are the ferries, which are small boats that carry more power than you’d expect. They’re rough… and I do mean rough. As a girl who grew up on the water, and in boats, I even had a hard time sitting in my seat as we bounced around for the duration of our transport. If you’re not a fan of boats, or have a hard time keeping down your cookies, there are small planes that travel between the islands. Since B is more of a flyer than I am (I hate flying), he and his mom took the plane back to Santa Cruz while I stuck to the boat. Either way, you’re in for an adventure.

IMG_0989.jpg

In the end, our trip to the Galapagos didn’t break the bank. Our hotels ran us about $130 per night (we stayed for 6 nights), our meals ran us anywhere between $7 – $15, beer on the islands was about $3, transportation (all in) cost under $200. In the end, it was much more economical, adventurous, and well worth the effort to see penguins in the wild.

IMG_0946.jpg

Trulli living in Alberobello, Italy

Trulli living in Alberobello, Italy

It all started with a 1997 episode of Lonely Planet (or GlobeTrotter depending of who you ask) where Justine Shapiro made her way through Southern Italy, ending up in a small town known as Alberobello. The unique huts made of stone with cone-shaped roofs that scatter the town’s skyline left an impression on me and I knew that as we embarked on our Italian adventure for my 30th birthday, we just had to stay in one of these trulli amazing houses. (Note the puns here? ;))

Trulli houses Alberobello

After our Amalfi Coast scootering adventure, we made our way back to Naples (avoid if you can!) to pick up our rental car. After dealing with Naples and having an ambulance bump our bumper in a gridlocked round about, we were on our way to Alberobello. The drive takes you just over 3 1/2 hrs which is a much more efficient way to get there vs train or bus which takes you between 5 and 6 hrs depending on when you can get your tickets for. The drive is an easy highway drive and takes you right through the middle of the country, passing by Bari as you drive through the Puglia region. Without a GPS, we did get turned around a few times but managed to get back on track with a little luck and my iPhone’s compass.

When we arrived in Alberobello, we located our hotel’s main office to check in. Tipico Resort is made up of apartments in traditional Trulli, like ours, and others in apartments. After checking in, one of the staff members jumped into our car to take us to our Trulli. When we arrived, he helped show us the best place to park in Alberobello’s narrow streets, and getting us settled in, showing us our Trullo, the mini “balcony” and informing us about when our complementary breakfast would be served. From the moment we arrived in the town, I had a good feeling – much better than my initial feeling landing in Rome (see the Amalfi Coast post for details).

By this point, it was Perroni time so B and I head out in search for a beer and a snack. As we make our way into the centre of the town, we stumbled upon a gate with a sign that said “bar”. It looked innocent enough and we had had a long drive so we decided to take our chances. As we turned the corner, we saw a few tables with the most beautiful view of the town and an older gentleman resting by the door. As we head toward the entrance of the “bar”, he got up and lead us in… into what appeared to be his basement. Unfortunately, he didn’t have Peroni on hand but gave us other options, or so I assume. He only spoke Italian… and we only spoke English. In the end, we ordered a beer each and went outside where we brought out our beers, glasses, and a yummy crispy snack.

Peroni

Alberobello’s Trulli core is easily walkable and heavily populated with restaurants, gift shops, and “look-offs for photos”. As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it draws in lots of visitors each year, which is really starting to have an impact on the stairs and streets with which these little houses are accessible by. Since the streets are made of stone, the ample foot traffic that walk them are causing the traction to become treacherous. Tread carefully for risk ending up on your ass.

20160705_091208

The little shops that line these streets are packed with nick nacks and lots of food items that are known to the Puglia and Apulia regions. From wine to olive oil, orecchiette pasta (ear-shaped) to taralli crackers (the yummy snack the old man at the “bar” served), Alberobello really does pull it’s weight in being an epicurean destination. The breakfast at our hotel was extensive and delicious, with a mix of breads, fruits, and yogurt. One of the breakfast elements that really stood out to me was focaccia barese – it was like eating pizza for breakfast! Focaccia is made across Italy, but has regional differences. Focaccia Barese is the regional version that comes from Puglia and I made it one of my staples during my stay, in addition to my afternoon beer at the old man’s “bar”. (On our second stop to the “bar”, the old man noticed my countless bug bites and offered a solution… a garlic clove and ointment. He instructed me to rub the bites with the garlic clove first, then apply the ointment… the itching went away and it didn’t bother me the remainder of the trip – who knew?!?)

Focaccia Barese

20 years after Justine Shapiro visited Alberobello and peeking my interested in Southern Italy, I found too myself surrounded by beauty, amazing food, and some of Italy’s most kind and generous people. While not every aspect of my larger Italian adventure went as I had expected, Alberobello left a completely different impression on me. The uniquely shaped houses, the wine, and more may have just been impressionable enough to make me want to return for more.

Trullo Alberobello

Middle of the Earth in Quito, Ecuador

Middle of the Earth in Quito, Ecuador

All I knew about Quito before visiting was that it’s home to the equator, it has a very high altitude, and there are a lot of pick pockets. Despite my best efforts to learn more, there was very little information about the city outside of these three subjects. Oh, and potatoes.

Not only was this my first trip to South America, but it was also my first time traveling with my Mother-in-Law, who wanted to take us on a trip for her 60th birthday. After narrowing down a few destinations, it all came down to one place – the Galapagos. For years, she had wanted to go and see the Blue Footed Boobies but never wanted to spend the outrageous costs to go… that’s where we came in. As thrifty travelers, we devised a plan that consisted of a visit to Quito, followed by a flight that would take us to Isla Baltra. We would stay at a local hotel in Puerto Ayora for a few days before taking a local ferry to Isla Isabella. After a few days exploring the island, we’d backtrack, making our way back to the mainland and spending a few nights in Mindo. To start the adventure of a lifetime, we would first visit Quito, and of course, the Middle of the Earth.

It was late in the day when we arrived in Quito, and my Mother-in-Law had already arranged for an airport pick-up. After a quick Hola to our ride, we’re led through the masses of people, almost losing the driver multiple times before exiting the terminal. We all pile into the driver’s tiny SUV, with one of his helper boys (perhaps his son) in the trunk, we make our way through the streets of Quito. The city’s narrow streets sometimes make it difficult for two cars to pass each other safely, and the steep inclines must do a number on the clutches of the vehicles… but somehow, the drivers breeze through it all like it’s second nature.

Quito hotel view

Our hotel is situated in the Old Town, right next to the Plaza de San Francisco. It’s a small inn with a lush courtyard in the centre. Our host greets us with news that our separate rooms are not ready for the night, and ask if it’s okay that we share a room – one night is no big deal so we oblige. After settling in, we head towards La Ronda to grab a bite to eat. Something I learned very quickly in Ecuador is that everything starts with soup. No matter how hot it is in the Galapagos or how chilly it is in the Andes, meals start with soup. La Ronda is a pedestrian only area filled with restaurants, bars, and tour operators. Since there are a lot of tourists that pass by on a daily basis, there’s a heavy police presence. It’s best to leave your purse at home, like I did, and carry only cash in a secure pocket because there’s also a lot of petty crime in the area.

The Ciudad Mitad del Mundo (the middle of the Earth) is just 26 km from the centre of Quito. While there’s a huge monument here, and a lot of people pay a visit to see this landmark, it is not the true equator as the calculation is slightly off. The local bus is easy to catch to take you there, but if you have a few people (like we did), it makes more sense to hire a driver for the day (which we did). We arranged with our hotel to have someone take us to the equator the next day and it happened to be the sister of our airport driver. When she arrived the next morning, she had brought her two sons along (one of which was one of boys who met us at the airport!), but only the youngest accompanied us on our adventure.

Pululahua Geobotanical Reserve

Cecila and Exile were great tour guides. Cecila’s English was minimal, but she tried her best and was very helpful. Exile was entertaining. At four years old, he became my shadow most of the day and taught me a game which I like to call “Donde esta la bufanda” – “Where is the scarf”. For a good fifteen minutes, he would hide his scarf in the trunk where he was sitting and encourage me to find it. After playing for about twenty minutes, I then only found out that bufanda meant scarf… languages are not my strong suit.

They spent the day taking us to four different landmarks. The first was a pit stop to the Pululahua Geobotanical Reserve – Ecuador’s first national park overlooking the Pululahua crater that surrounds the Pululahua volcano. It’s conveniently located near the Museo Templo del Sol Pintor Cristobal Ortega Maila, Museum of the Sun Painter, which was our second stop of the day. After spending some time wandering around the property, Cecila was able to set us up on an English tour. It was a slow day at the museum but the guide walked us through the temple, highlighting its history and the art of the painter, Ortega Maila. The centre of the temple is situated on the equator so the tour guide led us in the test of balancing the egg on a nail – I failed at this task… here anyway. In addition to this, we were taken through an incense ceremony before indulging in some Coca Tea – which quickly eased B’s altitude sickness.

Museo Templo del Sol Pintor Cristobal Ortega Maila

Next visit was Mitad del Mundo, located just around the corner from Ciudad Mitad del Mundo. The tour we jumped onto here was engaging and educational, consisting of several tests to demonstrate the powers of the equator including the egg balancing trick (this time, I succeeded in balancing the egg!), and the water swirling test (clockwise vs counter clockwise in each respective hemisphere). With far fewer people than the neighbouring landmark, you have the option to stamp your passport with a special equator stamp as you exit, which I did.

Egg on nail at the equator

While we had spent the day seeing most of the sights in this area, we had one last stop to make: Ciutada Mitad del Mundo. After spending the day witnessing much of the same, the excitement of visiting had faded and I was ready to go back. If it had been up to me, I would have skipped this last stop as it’s overpriced, touristy, and littered with junky gift shops for a monument that was built on faulty GPS coordinates.

Ciutada Mitad del Mundo

It was a long day – even Exile thought so. We spent the drive back to the hotel reading the Spanish-English dictionary that we had brought along, pointing at images and Exile teaching me how to pronounce the word in Spanish. By the time we arrived back in the Old Town, I was tired, hungry, and had my fill of equator-related stunts, but it was worth it to actually succeed in balancing that egg on a nail.

Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica

Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica

It took me so many years of unbareable Canadian winters to finally do what so many Canadians do – escape the winter… well, at least for a week. I wanted a place where the only worry I would have is not putting on enough sun screen. This dream came true when I took my first trip to Costa Rica.

I know many people who go “down-south” consistently every year. They book their all-inclusive vacations at the most opportune time and they get great deals. They get off the plane, get taxied to their resort, and set up at the beach with unlimited drinks at their fingertips. For me, it’s just not how I want to experience a different country. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve done it (see my post on my experience in Mayan Mexico), but I crave a different type of holiday. Instead, I want off the beaten path, somewhere that is slightly unknown, but still known enough… that’s what brought me to Costa Rica.

IMG_0336

Instead of heading for the tourist-laden land of Jaco, B and I rent a Suzuki Jimny and made our way to the opposite coast, the Caribbean. I don’t want to say traveling this way was a breeze. The rental car agency took three hours to get us a vehicle (some people had been waiting longer) and when we finally got on the road, well, let’s just say driving on Costa Rican roads are not for the faint of heart (or for those afraid of heights). Having said that, I wouldn’t have traveled any other way – except maybe by motorcycle. After one wrong turn that took us back to Limon twice, we finally arrived at our destination: Puerto Viejo de Talamanca.

Surfing. Chocolate. Reggae. PV has it all. A little more off the beaten path than other spots across the country, you get a much different experience here than you would any where else in the country. With a thick influence of reggae culture, it’s a laid back, surfing crowd that is drawn to this area. PV is home to Salsa Brava, Costa Rica’s heaviest wave and I’m told that surfers flock from all areas of the world to surf it. While I’m not a surfer by any means, if you’re interested in riding your first wave in Costa Rica, there are many beach side stalls along Playa Cocles that are walkable from the town itself – or by popular transport in PV, bicycle.

If you do plan to walk to Playa Cocles from PV – take the forest path starting at the end of town near Hot Rocks. It’s not best to trek this with flip flops, as there are a number of snake species in the area that you likely don’t want to step on, but you’re almost guaranteed to see some type of wildlife, whether it be some howler monkeys or a toucan or two. Once you’ve pretty much made it to the beach, take a break for a beer and/or snack at Tasty Waves – there’s an opening in the bushes to get back to the road.

The beach is not the only thing to do in the area. Our #1 highlight of the entire trip was divided between two attractions in the area. The first (not in order of favourtism because both experiences were #1 in our books) was the Jaguar Animal Rescue Center just outside of town, and Caribeans Chocolate tour.

IMG_0418The Jaguar Animal Rescue Center is in one word – amazing. Run by volunteers, this center rescues native animals in the region and re-integrates them back into their natural habitat. Some animals are badly injured and cannot be re-integrated but those that do are released in to a safe area at first and then back into the wild. The work of the volunteers changes daily whether it be hanging out with the monkeys, or sitting with a sleeping jaguar, to feeding and cleaning the animals… all of their jobs are so significant and everyone genuinely looks happy to be a part of it. I’ve already told B many times, that the next time we visit, I’m doing this. The staff are extremely knowledgeable and show you every corner of the rescue. At the end of the tour, you’re free to walk around on your own but keep in mind, it’s only open in the mornings. We went as soon as they opened as other visitors had suggested that time to be best.

IMG_0432An equally amazing experience in PV was going on the Caribeans Chocolate Tour. I’ve done significant research as part of my MBA on fair trade coffee and it was my goal to go on a coffee tour while in the country (sadly, that didn’t happen but this chocolate tour was beyond my expectations). We learned not only about how cocoa is produced, but the history of chocolate making around the world, how to taste chocolate for all of its complexities, and the business of cocoa in the region. I know what you’re thinking – please, tasting chocolate? But it’s true! I did not appreciate the different elements that live within a small piece of dark chocolate until I took this tour. Not only that, but the owner of the farm (originally from Florida) explained fair trade to the group and how he works hard to ensure all those he purchases additional cocoa from are compensated well above market price (even higher than the fair trade market price). In order to create different chocolate flavours, he purchases cocoa from various indigenous tribes around the area. Since working with them, they are now more interested and involved in the chocolate made from their cocoa than ever before. Near the end of the tour, the owner takes you up to the tasting plateau which offers stunning views of the valley and serves you a range of chocolate including a traditional Mayan chocolate drink – all laid out and prepared by his wife. I haven’t been on any other chocolate tours, but I don’t know how any other could possibly compare.

IMG_0326The whole PV experience would not be complete without mentioning our accommodations. After the long trek from San Jose, we finally arrived at our destination: Cashew Hill Jungle Cottages. Just at the back-end of town atop a hill, is situated the most amazing set of cottages I have ever stayed in. When we arrived at the bottom of the hill, I was nervous that we wouldn’t get up it but we did and were welcomed by Andrew, the owner. He’s young, hip, knowledgeable, and so welcoming that I felt as if I had known him for years. His two dogs, Stella and Harley, are there to welcome you as well – fyi: in Costa Rica, there are dogs everywhere – in PV, larger dogs for security. Our cottage overlooked Salsa Brava and despite a few ants (which is to be expected in a rugged jungle setting), there was literally no care in the world. Hungry? No problem – grab a starfruit from your balcony. Have some bugs? There’s a gecko for that! Tired? Chill out in your own hammock for hours on end. Everything you care and worry about back home simply melts away and here is a place where you can truly chill out and relax.

Puerto Viejo wasn’t our only stop on our trip but it was certainly the most memorable. It’s now been too long since we’ve been there and I’m itching to go back.