Volunteering in Drake Bay, Costa Rica

As we prepared to say goodbye to Beth and Travis, Jordan and I also prepared to make our first solo trip of our backpacking adventure. We were about to volunteer with the Corcovado Foundation for about 10 days. We left Cabo by taxi and caught a school bus turned public bus to La Palma. From there, we caught a collectivo (basically a mini bus or big taxi) to El Progresso, a town in Drakes Bay, Costa Rica. We noticed people on the bus buying clear plastic bags of what looked like cream which they were drinking during the ride. We hesitated buying one thinking that sucking down a bag of cream would not make us feel good on such a hot day. We later discovered that the bags contain a delicious Tico style ice cream and we were kicking ourselves for not buying it at every chance. While sweltering on the black leather seats of the last car, we enjoyed the view of the lush landscapes and wondered what our next adventure would be like.

We finally arrived at a small structure, typical of many in Costa Rica, concrete/wood walls with a tin roof. The director of the turtle program met us out front. Rob is a friendly British expat who started off as a volunteer in the program several years back and now lives in Costa Rica full time directing the conservation project. In addition to Rob, the ‘turtle camp’ housed the other research assistants and some volunteers, though most of the volunteers live with home-stay families in the neighborhood. The camp was where everyone hung out in the evenings or during down time. For the first 5 nights we stayed in the ‘VIP suite’ which was a private shed consisting of 4 wooden walls and a bunk bed. While in our VIP shed, we could hear the rustling of chickens and a rooster as they scavenged for grubs and bugs to eat. We now know that it is a myth that roosters will crow at the sunrise. Interesting fact, roosters actually crow all the time, particularly at 3AM and curiously, their crows can resemble the sound of Eeyore crying like an old lady. Other than the dorm area, the turtle camp was pretty much an open air structure with a bunch of hammocks available.

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In addition to the smattering of scarlet macaws, toucans, monkeys and the assemblage of poultry, the camp was also the hangout spot of many of the local dogs. The dogs were not strays, but no one fences in their pups so they would all congregate on the concrete floor of the camp. Many of them were cute, all of them could have used a bath and probably some frontline plus. There was one particularly mangy mutt named Kaiser. Kaiser was so ugly and pathetic looking that you couldn’t help but loving him instantly. His musk warned you of his presence long before his actual arrival. He was born with a serious underbite which meant that his lower fangs were always sticking up, like an extreme bulldog grin. As a puppy, he suffered from a machete accident and thus now walks with a mangled frankenstein limp. All he wanted was a little love and a few stolen bites from the compost bin. Despite his injured leg he was able to run around with the other dogs and even followed us all the way to the beach one day!

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The staff and the other volunteers we met were wonderful people. Two people we met had actually been living in Boston! Others were from Spain, Germany, Canada, France and other parts of the US. We had worried that arriving for the last 10 days of the project might make it hard to get involved and connect with everyone, but that was not the case at all. We arrived right before the annual turtle festival, sort of a grand finale of the program. With such a large undertaking to prepare for, there was plenty of work to do. Jordan and I helped build a bathroom, hung signs and at one point even harvested coconuts for the water when the coolers were empty. One big project involved jerry rigging 6 hoses together so that fresh water could trickle out at the beach. A family who lived closest agreed to provide the water from their spigot. The hose line snaked through the forest and even over a drawstring bridge. Not to mention that everything used for the festival had to be hauled over said drawstring bridge which dangled a bit too shakily over the crocodile infested river below. It was fun walking over that bridge at night while holding a box so that you only had one hand to hold onto the ropes, yeah that was the best! We learned that almost anything is possible at the beach when you have a machete and some bamboo. Need a table? Want to build a stage on an isolated beach? need a tool to knock coconuts off a coconut tree? with a machete, bamboo and a ‘pura vida,’ no problem. There were a million and one jobs to do, but everything came together for a wonderful festival. The festival enabled local people to sell food and other goods to tourists and community members, it allowed the kids from the education program to present their skits on sustainability, and the timing worked out that the eggs in the last protected nest hatched and could be released to the sea in front of all the festival goers. It was amazing enjoying the two day festival and watching the sunset on the beach each night. We felt lucky to be part of something special in such a beautiful and remote place.

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During the afternoon of the first day of the festival we went over to the hatchery with one of the research assistants to perform a nest exhumation. Throughout the turtle breeding season, the staff and volunteers walk the beaches at night to find new turtle nests. Then the team moves the nest into the protected hatchery. People in the Drakes Bay Area have traditionally eaten turtle eggs for generations and we’ve heard that they are quite delicious! Lately, the efficiency at which the community can find and harvest the turtle eggs has outpaced the rate that the turtles are nesting, hence the need for conservation efforts to help the turtle population in the area bounce back. The protected hatchery is simply a fenced in section of beach which the volunteers and locals take turns guarding from poachers. When the eggs of a nest hatch, the team will bring them out of the protected area to the top of the beach, release them and watch them waddle into the sea. After the turtles are released they perform an exhumation to determine if there were any eggs that didn’t hatch and if so, why. During our first and only exhumation we actually discovered one more little turtle that was still alive, just buried a little too deep to get out. We hung out with that little turtle for a while until the sun started to go down and then escorted him on his trek into the ocean. I felt a little like Rafiki from The Lion King, introducing the little turtle to the world as the sun set in the distance. Pretty magical stuff! We tried not to think too much about the fact that baby turtles have a 1 in 1,000 chance of making it to adulthood… Here is a short film of the story of one little guy, the 1 in 1,000, at the beginning.
http://vimeo.com/83191272
The beauty of Bahia Drake, the great people we met and the turtles we helped into the sea made our time at the turtle camp truly unforgettable. We hope to go back one day!

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Has anyone ever been to El Progresso or one of the other towns in Drake’s Bay? What did you do there and how was your experience? Also, anyone else keep chickens and roosters at home? How do you sleep through the night? Share your secrets!

****Thank you to Meryl Ayres, videographer, for creating the breathtaking film shown in this post!****

Cacao in Costa Rica

Victor catches us a fish in morning, I share with him the Ceviche I made from it for lunch, and later in the day he comes by with an amazing homemade ball of cocao. He told us his father had made it from his own trees in a nearby town.

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Indigenous tribes used the cacao beans as a form of currency in Pre-Colombian times, and it continued to be a form of currency through the 1930’s. The Spanish sweetened it by adding sugar cane or honey. Fast forward to 1979 when a fungus wiped out 95% of the crops. These days, you can find the bean making a resurgence in the form of small batch farms and Cacao tours throughout the country. Health wise, it has more antioxidants than red wine, blueberries and green tea. The taste is quite bitter, so if you get your hands on some of the good raw stuff, here’s one suggestion of what to do with it.

Spiced Latin Hot Chocolate
C Milk
T Grated Raw Cacao
T Brown Sugar
t Agave Nectar
Scant of Cayenne to taste
Garnish with Strawberry
Grate cacao into a sauce pot. Turn the heat on med-low and add a small amount of water so that you can whisk it together and make a slurry. Once smooth, begin adding milk and all other ingredients. Keep it moving so that the milk doesn’t scald, If you’re really feeling froggy, throw some bailey’s in it!

What would you do with a ball of raw cacao from Costa Rica??!

Cabo Matapalo: A Hidden Paradise

***UPDATE: Casa Tres Peces is no longer available for rent as of October 2014 as indicated by the new owner***

It was hard to imagine how anything could compare to the epic grandeur of the Bali house. Luckily for Jordan and I our adventure was going to continue with his sister Beth and her husband Travis. Beth had planned an amazing stay for us at Casa Tres Peces in Cabo Matapalo, which is in the Osa Penninsula of Costa Rica.

Unfortunately, our house wasn’t going to be ready for us for another night so we spent a night in Puerto Jimenez. We stayed ay the Jimenez Cabinas which were right on the water with pretty nice accommodations for backpacker standards. We had a surprisingly great dinner at a pizza place called PizzaMail.it! Strange name but good quality food! PJ was really nothing to rave about. The highlight for me was when we found an incredible fruit and veggie stand. We bought all our produce for Matapalo for a very low price, and we were able to taste some interesting new fruits such as fresh lychees and granadillos (a strange pod filled with a nasty looking but sweet tasting sack of seeds). Veggies in hand we were ready for our jungle house!

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We took a taxi from PJ to Matapalo on a road that went from bad to worse. Although the roads make it difficult to get around deeper in the Osa, the inaccessibility helps to preserve the natural beauty. The house itself was beautiful, built mainly with large tree trunks for the frame. It was an open air two story building with no real rooms, just a few partitions around the bathrooms. We instituted a warning system in which we all told the group, “i’m peeing” or the more vague yet suggestive, “I’m using the bathroom” to ensure no one rounded a corner at an inopportune time. The ocean was right out the front door behind a lush, green rocky coast. The ocean breeze and dense tree cover kept the place extremely cool during the day. We indulged in some serious hammock swinging time, reading, and watching the animals come and go. We saw howler monkeys, spider monkeys, capuchins, and tons of scarlet macaws! At night, the place did get a bit buggy, with enormous grasshoppers, flying termites and god knows what else, but we did have quality bug nets around our beds. With so many bugs at night, and the wildlife being so loud right before sunrise, we found ourselves waking up very early and going to bed early too. It was great to take advantage of the full day of sun and also see the sunrise and sunset everyday! If you were thinking that you might be getting sick of looking at pictures of sunsets and sunrises, feel free to scroll down now!

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Although our house was right on the water, the rocky coast meant that we had to walk a few minutes down the road to enter the beach on a big sandy stretch. The beaches were gorgeous and almost completely empty! We saw a couple people on the beach over the few days but it felt like our own private beach. Jordan explored more of the rocky terrain along the ocean because he went fishing with one of the caretakers, Victor, almost everyday. Although he didn’t catch anything, Jordan enjoyed practicing his Spanish with Victor and seeing some incredible views from the rocks. One morning, Jordan decided to skip the pre-sunrise fishing session with Victor and we woke up to find him walking back from the water holding a huge red snapper on his line. He insisted that we take the fish, so Jordan made a beautiful ceviche out of it for us all to share. It was a great way to start the day.

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Victor’s wife, Gabriella, had recently moved to Costa Rica from Austria. She was working towards becoming a nature guide and we were extremely lucky when she offered to take us on a hike to a nearby waterfall one morning. We would have absolutely gotten lost without her guidance and she was also able to find a few tiny frogs we would have missed along the way. The hike turned out to be longer than we thought but was well worth the beauty at the end. We are now able to cross “swim in and around a waterfall” off our bucket lists. The water was incredibly clear, and felt amazing after our hike.

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The hammocks, waterfalls and beaches were great, but the best park was spending time with Beth and Travis. We cooked, we laughed, we heard each other using the bathroom and truly bonded. Cabo Matapalo truly did not disappoint!

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Pura Vida Costa Rica

We’ve been in Costa Rica for two weeks and it feels like months with all the different experiences we’ve had! Costa Rica is lush and green, with mountains and ocean framing every view. The locals are called Ticos and the expression on everyone’s lips is “Pura vida.” More than an expression with endless meanings and uses, it also describes a lifestyle, which on the surface seems to be slow paced, friendly and resourceful. We arrived in San Jose to kick off our two week pre-backpacking vacation with Jordan’s family. We were able to stay for two nights at a beautiful hotel and adjust to the heat and humidity in luxurious conditions. The hotel was really a resort, but we did pry ourselves away for one afternoon to explore downtown San Jose and the central mercado. The central mercado was an enclosed square block filled with vendors storefronts and stalls that wound around narrow alleys. Spices, fried food and pungent leather footwear wafted through the enclosed market as we explored the wares. It was fun to see Christmas decorations going up but also strange since christmas in the heat and humidity is anathema to the New England experience. image

Central Mercado, San Jose

Central Mercado, San Jose

central mercado, San Jose

central mercado, San Jose

central mercado, San Jose

central mercado, San Jose

central mercado, San Jose

central mercado, San Jose

central mercado, San Jose

central mercado, San Jose

central mercado, San Jose

central mercado, San Jose

central mercado, San Jose

central mercado, San Jose

San Jose

San Jose

San Jose

San Jose

San Jose

San Jose

San Jose

San Jose

San Jose

San Jose

San Jose

San Jose

San Jose

San Jose

San Jose

San Jose

San Jose

San Jose

San Jose

San Jose

San Jose

San Jose

From San Jose, we drove to Manuel Antonio to spend 8 days at an incredible house on the beach. We were on full alert for wildlife, particularly for Toucans as this was the creature Jordan’s two nieces wanted to see the most. Sipping on roadside coconut water, we made our way southwest. We stopped in Quepos to buy food for the week and discovered how expensive food and other groceries are here, at least in the formal supermarkets.

‘Casa de Bali,’ is a home that was constructed in Bali and then moved here to Costa Rica. It is made of Balinese wood that had been cured for 50 years and designed to be enjoyed with the open air as opposed to AC. The house was perched on a hill in the middle of the jungle trees which sloped down towards the ocean, which you could see clearly from the infinity pool out back. I’m talking about some MTV cribs quality digs here. Each couple had their own quarters, replete with marble surfaces and copper bathtubs. Jordan and I knew that we had better enjoy this as the quality and luxuriousness of our housing after the family vacation ended would be miles away from this. The first day at Casa Bali we all went for a guided tour of Manuel Antonio National Park. The park is beautiful and we saw a sloth, capuchin and howler monkeys as well as several interested plants and colorful iguanas. We were all elated by these wildlife sightings. Little did we know, however, that everyday right through our backyard we would see a three toed sloth, toucans, iguanas, white face capuchin monkeys and squirrel monkeys. Both types of monkey travel in groups and one morning both groups arrived together. There were upwards of 20-25 monkeys on our back deck, some of which actually stole bananas from the kitchen, if only those monkeys knew what a cliche they were! how sad. Additionally, we all learned what sound a sloth makes (insert link). Bet you wouldn’t have guessed that, huh? The Pacific Ocean right out our door was warm and inviting. Shocking Jordan and myself, i not only went swimming, but i boogie boarded almost everyday. My lifelong fear of the ocean seemed to be slipping away faster than the tide. Not even the occasional sting of sea lice (think mosquito of the sea) deterred me. It was wonderful to spend time with Jordan’s family. From the beach to the pool and back, we really lived it up.

Despite everyone’s reluctance to leave our home paradise, we did venture out on two excursions. First, we spent one day zip-lining through the forest. Not knowing quite what to expect, we strapped on our harnesses, donned some seasoned smelling helmets and hiked up a mountain. On the way back down, we zipped 10 lines, rappelled twice and did one Tarzan swing. The birds eye view of the forest and the adrenaline rush were fantastic. The guides were all very experienced and liked to play jokes on us by pretending to fall out of the tree platforms. They definitely kept the mood jovial, right at the edge of terrifying. We also spent a day off shore on a boat fishing for mahi mahi and sail fish. By ‘we’ I mean Jordan and his family caught two sail fish and a beautiful mahi mahi which we ate for dinner that night. Meanwhile I was lying down beneath the captains chair, hurling into a bucket. 30 minutes into the trip i realized that I had made a huge mistake and prayed that the next 6 1/2 hours didn’t drag on too slowly… I have to say however, that my spew fest was worth it because at one point we came across a herd (pack? school?) of 2,000 dolphins!!!! I pulled myself up long enough to witness their playful spins and flips, and even saw a few babies swimming alongside their mamas. Jordan reeled in a 110 pound sailfish as well. Beautiful creatures! Apparently you always throw back a sail fish as opposed to bringing it home for dinner.

Our days were so full of fun and sun that by the time we witnessed the beautiful sunset and ate dinner we were all ready for bed! Not to mention that the animals wake up at about 5:30 am, and it is pretty impossible to sleep through a howler monkey screaming outside your window.

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photo by Debbie Padnuk

photo by Debbie Padnuk

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