Let’s address the issue of scorpions at once: Yes, there are scorpions, along with many other critters large and small in Costa Rica; but dang that’s why I like the place so much. So much in fact, I’m moving there Spring 2019.
One of the finest tours I’ve ever taken (and lucky me, I’ve been on this one twice) was the Night Tour led by Drake Bay’s resident entomologist, Tracie Stice, and her partner, Gian, a naturalist. Together, they lead groups of tourists through pitch jungle dark, spotting out of nowhere concealed wildlife for their guests; not only insects but snakes, amphibians, and mammals such as sleeping sloths.
Tracy Showing a Trapdoor Spider’s Home
A Hobbit Home for Spiders
Tailless Whip Scorpion, Neither Spider Nor Scorpion
Tracie has a knack for enchanting her guests: her voice swoops and dives as she describes the work of the slingshot spider, which catches prey by–you guessed it–using a piece of her web as a slingshot. Trapdoor spiders are equally enrapturing: they burrow into the side of a clay wall and wait for small insects to creep by its little “door”. We also encountered several scorpions during the tour, and I was happily prepared to squash the pesky visitor that night in my bathroom, thinking airily, “Oh, another scorpion!” Then WHAP with my sandal. (Tracie advises, very matter-of-factly, to shake out all damp clothing with the assumption there might be a scorpion nestled in there).
This wondrous tour (see details for the Tour here) takes place on a jungle trail running along the coastal region of Drake Bay, near the village of Agujitas, on the Corcovado Peninsula in Costa Rica.
Night tour aside, Drake Bay is one of the most marvelous places I’ve ever visited. The rugged coasts, still more or less remote despite the growing presence of tourism, embrace majestic sunsets, abundant wildlife, and a surrounding jungle environment that is certain to please the eye and senses of anyone able to visit. Getting there is also part of the adventure–either fly in and then take a jeep that drives through a river to get to Agujitas, where you’ll then board a boat that will take you to your resort; or bus from San José to Palmar Norte, spend the night, take the bus to Sierpe and catch a boat ride mid-morning to Agujitas.
I had the privilege to stay a week in this jungle paradise upon invitation from my dear friend Mari, whose partner Werner manages a resort for tourists called Cabinas Vista Al Mar.
Stairway up to the Cabinas, surrounded by pineapple and other fruit tress
Werner Tasting his Pancakes
Werner built Cabinas Vista Al Mar in 1998 and has been hosting international travelers there ever since. (See here for more details on staying at Werner’s Cabinas). I helped with cleaning, cooking, and conversing with guests. My first morning had me up at 4:30am to help prepare French Toast for a guest over Werner’s outdoor woodstove–a storm passing through knocked out the power for the day so we used the outdoor stove to cook everything on. I also helped Mari prepare Costa Rica’s most common dish, gallo pinto, and arroz con leche.
Arroz con Leche, YUM!
Gallo Pinto with Fried Eggs
Both dishes are often accompanied with Costa Rican style coffee, brewed nice and thick through a chorreador, which is essentially a wooden stand with a sock that holds the grounds.
Tatiana and I on Rugged Gorgeous Beach
Tatiana Holding a Tiny Crab
Capuchin Monkey Attempting to Open a Coconut
Tatiana in a Refreshing River
Easily one of the best days of my life was spent hiking along the jungle trail from the cabinas to Punta Rio Claro National Wildlife Refuge, about a 2-3 hour hike. I went with Tatiana, a fellow lover of animals and wildlife and a guest at the cabinas. Along the way we spied numerous monkeys, pairs of scarlet macaws and toucans (both plentiful in this part of Costa Rica), lizards, basilisks, crabs, and grass-cutter ants.
Mari occasionally had errands to run in Agujitas, so I’d accompany her for the 45-minute hike. Once in town, we’d often get an icy Coke or a banana split–both items you crave in the heavy jungle heat. Crossing the aquamarine river to town, we paused to search out lazy sunbathing crocodiles, since they often lay about along the banks. Alas, both times we missed them.
Making Chocolate in Sierpe
Jim Showing off A Cacao Tree in his Backyard
Cocoa Fruit Pod
Roasted Cocoa Nibs
From Drake Bay I headed via boat to Sierpe to meet with Jim Cameron, a chocolate farmer originally from Minnesota. He is the founder of Cameron Coffee, a business he sold years ago, but the name of which I recognized from local grocery stores. Two years prior on a trip to Drake Bay, I’d met Jim, a connection Werner and Mari arranged, as they knew how much I loved chocolate–a 70% dark chocolate bar a day keeps the doctor away! This time I planned to ask Jim whether I could come stay in Sierpe and learn how to make chocolate with him. He said yes!
Giant Millipedes make Pleasant Friends
Gorgeous View of Palmar Norte Surroundings
After my visit with Jim, I took the bus to Palmar Norte, where Mari had arranged for me to spend the night in a friend’s apartment. Her friend Otto was ready there with a key to help me settle in for the day. After eating a hearty meal at Soda Acuario, Otto’s restaurant, and chatting with him and his coworker, I spent the afternoon hiking in the hills, enjoying the wildlife. Some wildlife highlights: befriending a giant millipede and chasing exquisite black and turquoise poisonous dart frogs.
Playing saxophone at El Sotano
Enjoying a postre with coffee and La Nacion
Early the next morning I boarded a bus for San José where Mari arranged for me to meet a younger musician relative of hers, Mariel. Mariel and her friend Estefania merrily introduced me to the musical nightlife of San José, including a chill and cozy blues club called El Sótano, suitably named as it is literally the basement in a larger arts venue. There I got to try out Blue Orpheus on my soprano sax with the friendly band. My hope is to get back into music while in San José alongside my writing and teaching activities.
I stayed close by in Hostel Pangea, a pleasant hostel with friendly staff (one staff member who worked late shifts liked saying to me, “Buenas noches, Wo-OOOOOOOOOOF” when I arrived in the wee hours with my friends).
This hostel was just a few blocks from the club, as well as close to a delightful coffee shop I became quickly attached to, Café Miel Garage. This cafe called me back every day to write because of their open, friendly atmosphere and delicious postres. (See here for directions). When I told one of the baristas–who spoke flawless English, by the way–why I kept coming back, she smiled and said, “Que linda!”
I do love these Strangler Figs! Costa Rica, 2018
Werner’s Beach in Drake Bay
Work Station in the Jungle
With all my heart I recommend everyone visit Costa Rica. Chocolate farms, jungles, secluded rugged beaches, captivating wildlife, a welcoming culture, and so much more awaits you in this peaceful, paradisaical country.
Mari, In Front of Her Painting
Jupe the Jungle Kitty
Otto and Sol, the Cuddliest Dogs on the Planet
Estefania, Me, Mariel
Muchas, muchas gracias to Mari, plus your wonderful pets Jupe, Sol and Otto for hosting me in Drake Bay and arranging for my travels elsewhere. Thanks to Jim for showing me your chocolate farm. And XOXO to Mariel and Estefania for slipping me so easily into your nightly schedule for my four final nights in San José.
Choose a busy street vendor for the freshest tacos
Tacos al Pastor
There is so much more to Mexico City than tacos, of course. But my first full day there I had the glorious opportunity to try tacos al pastor (see right, above, large quantity of meat rotating on a spit) with spicy salsas, minced onion and cilantro–the first taste of what I now recognize as one of the best cuisines in the world.
Oh how I was won! Try them right off the street at a busy locale. Taste the salsas first before dropping that generous scoop onto your tacos; as I found out, one of them is a very spicy salsa made from habanero chiles. The Spanish verb for the process one will go through after dripping a spoonful too much of salsa picante de chile habanero is enchilarse, or to burn. Which I very much did. I also enjoyed chilaquiles con pollo or con huevos (fried tortillas, refried beans, chicken or eggs, and salsas).
Chilaquiles con huevos (eggs)
Mexico City. It is perhaps a bit cliche (because in this day and age, one must be always and completely original) to travel when you need to heal yourself in some way or to get a new perspective or a grip on your life. But it is not cliche; rather, it is like medicine for an illness. Travel can truly help reset your mind (let’s ask a neuroscientist about this!) and re-point your toes down a path that is only yours. A caveat: I am talking about the kind of travel which brings you off the all-inclusive path, into a new culture. Resorts are relaxing, which is certainly healthy, but they may not extend your knowledge or challenge you. What I’m advocating is the kind of travel where you allow yourself to be open and willing to meet new people and see things without your usual framework–which is probably same framework that’s been jamming up your spiritual wheels for some time.
So I am taking the medicine gladly. I rode through many life transitions in 2017, including the end of a long term relationship, moving several times, a bitter job situation which prompted me to take stock of my career direction and ultimately decide on moving abroad. And then there was the national heaviness which has become a permanent cloud in my brain as many of us in the United States watched in shock when a popular TV and business icon took reins of the White House. Even while I pushed through it all with my best Minnesotan good cheer, it was,quite frankly, a tough year.
The desire to get away before starting a new job and to celebrate getting through the year occasioned a somewhat impulsive decision to go. I also needed and wanted to travel alone, which I hadn’t done in over ten years. I wanted to see if the person I’d been in my early 20s still thrived inside of me, and whether I’d have what it takes to do an around the world trip without a consistent travel partner. While hanging out with friends one evening, it struck me that a trip to Mexico City would be perfect for my budget and my mind. Many people had previously suggested I would enjoy visiting the capital city, so it had been on my to-visit list for a few years.
I purchased my airplane ticket; and within four days I organized for myself a two-week stay in a city known for its complex and layered history, delicious food, spirited nightlife, and nearly endless collection of museums. I bought extra data for my cell plan so I could freely use my phone to message and look up needed information such as hostels, taxis, etc.; alerted my bank of my trip; alerted my part-time employer; washed and packed clothes; cancelled upcoming appointments; and let myself get very excited.
Hostel Life. Upon recommendation from an acquaintance living in the city, Ryan Gray (check out his website here, by the way), I booked myself a bed at Hostel Mundo Joven Catedral in the downtown historic center of Mexico City. I was pleased with my stay there, though switching it up halfway to another hostel would have been nice. I almost switched to Roomie Hostel in La Condesa but did not like the vibe there. Other more experienced backpackers complained there was a lack of community space that fostered getting to know others; I however, found myself hanging out with people most every day.
Groups of us would walk to go out to eat or out to bars. Taking an Uber was easiest for neighborhoods like La Condesa, which were much too far away for walking to from the hostel. My favorite bar was hands-down the Wallace Whiskey Bar in La Condesa. The live music was also excellent.
Pata Negra in the historic center. Lined with books!
Rooftop bar at El Museo del Tequila y el Mezcal
Restaurant Azul in the historic center
I went to Mexico City to see artwork and visit museums, both of which there is plenty to see. My first full day, I woke up and went with a few new hostel companions, Isaac and Roger, to Castillo de Chapultepec. These two taught me how to use the metro, for which I was grateful. The metro can be overwhelming at first due to the sheer volume of folks riding it, but it costs only 5 pesos and is easy to learn. From our hostel, we took the blue line from Zócalo (which means center), one stop to Pino Suarez. There we got off and got on the pink line and took it to Chapultepec. Once you get off, you just ask a few people for the castillo and you’ll be on your way within a few minutes. Metro Map here.
I also took the metro to the Dolores Olmedo Museum, which hosts an important collection of Frida Kahlo’s artwork, as well as that of Diego Rivera. To get to the museum from the Zócalo station, you take the blue line all the way to Tasqueña, follow the signs for the Tren Ligero, buy a card from one of the ticket machines (English is available), load the card with a bit of money, and then take the Tren Ligero to the stop called La Noria. The museum is just around the corner down the busy street by the metro stop. Though I just gave my card away because it was my last day in CDMX, you can easily sell you card to anyone nearby–plenty of people were waiting in line to purchase a card and fill it with pesos.
Back in the historic center of the city, I saw Diego Rivera’s murals in the Palacio Nacional (make sure to bring an ID with– they will hold it while you are inside) and the Palacio de Bellas Artes. Before or after you see the mural, Man Controller of the Universe, I suggest watching this synoptic and helpful video from Khan Academy.
I was fortunate enough to attract the attention of a retired Mexican history teacher who wanted to know why I wanted a photo in front of Trotsky’s image. We chatted a while and he gave me the sweeping analysis of not only Rivera’s murals but some of the others in Palacio de Bellas Artes. Interestingly, Trotsky’s first assassination attempt (unsuccessful) in the city was carried out by another famous Mexican muralist, David Alfaro Siqueiros, whose work also covers the walls in the Palacio de Bellas Artes.
Of course, I also had to visit Frida Kahlo’s house. But one should know that the house does not contain a large collection of her work–hence why I suggest also visiting Dolores Olmedo Museum. It’s a beautiful house, with a vibrant indoor courtyard garden, and a well laid out exhibition of Kahlo’s wardrobe (which was highly intertwined with her art and life).
*Tip: Please please please buy your tickets online ahead of time, and get there with your coffee a half hour before doors open (there’s a lovely cafe called Tierra Garat on the corner of Londres, the same street as the museum, and Av. Mexico). Even with a ticket there’ll be a line to get in, and once inside, the place gets packed–arriving early will offer a more breath-able experience viewing the rooms and getting to know Frida Kahlo the person.
Outside and inside the Frida Kahlo house. Lush colors and gardens.
Flying cherubic heads did catch my attention, however–can someone tell me what they’re all about?
At the Museo Nacional de Antropología, enjoy the alienesque fountain that towers over the inner courtyard, and admire the vast array of artefacts from several different cultural groups of Mexico, including the Toltecas, Maya, Oaxaca, and Mexica. The latter ruled the Aztec Empire and populated Tenochtitlan, the capital city located under Mexico City. They created the Piedra del Sol (Sun Stone), a famous round stone that is also known incorrectly as the Mayan Calendar. I first learned of it when I was fifteen years old in my first and favorite Spanish class and felt properly awed to finally see it in person.
A weekend away in Cuernavaca. A city also called land of eternal spring, I enjoyed an especially lively time here while visiting friends who shuttled me to their favorite places. To get to Cuernavaca, I took the metro blue line to Tasqueña; walked across a street with lots of vendors to the bus terminal, bought a ticket with the bus company Pullman de Morelos, and enjoyed a comfortable one hour ride with beautiful views to the terminal in Cuernavaca where my friend Alicia met me.
Right away Alicia and her son Alonso took me to a nearby pueblo called Tepotzotlán, where we hiked up for a lovely vista and rest on the steps of a temple called Teposteco, which was built for the god of pulque (an ancient form of liquor from the maguey plant, from which tequila is made).
The food and drink Alicia and Alonso had me try over the weekend was my absolute favorite of my entire trip. This included the extraordinarily delicious glass of agua miel I had after our strenuous hike; a lunch of itacates, a triangular version of tortilla that is thicker and has some crunch to it, with mushrooms called huitlacoches, which grow on the maiz kernels; tlacoyo de chales, another version of tortilla with meat inside; salsa de jumiles (an insect sold door to door, kept alive in a jar in the kitchen); and micheladas–beer served with flavoring, usually salt, lime, chile and other spices.
Pancita – a stew with cow belly
Delicious fillings and toppings for freshmade tortillas
An absolutely mouthwatering lunch of quesadillas, pancita, and itacates with different fillings
My friend Alicia, showing off one version of the ubiquitous and refreshing michelada – beer with chile/salt/lime
Live jumiles, an insect
Smashing up live bugs for salsa in a stone molcajete
Tlacoyo de chales for breakfast
A yummy place for breakfast!
Farewell beer before I head back to the city
Back in the city, I was privileged to spend the day with Victor, a friend who is a professional Mariachi singer. He brought me to Garibaldi Plaza, a famous gathering spot for Mariachi groups, where we enjoyed tequila with sangrita casera, a tomato juice with spices. He ended up singing with friends while we sipped our tequilas at a famous musician hangout called Tenampa.
Tequila with limes and sangrita casera (tomato juice with spices)
This is called a guitarrón mexicano
A few famous Mariachi singers, Pedro Infante and Jorge Negrete, inside the Tenampa Restaurant
My friend Victor performing from his seat with a group of other musicians
Later that evening, I went back to Garibaldi Plaza for a delightful evening getting to know folks at my hostel. We went to the rooftop bar of the Museo del Tequila y Mezcal, had drinks and food, and then toured the museum. Chapulinas–roasted grasshoppers–made it onto the menu that night.
Chapulinas, very crunchy
Someone didn’t have permission to put this actor’s image and it all went to hell, apparently
Funky mural with calaveras
I’m definitely trying the snake mezcal
Snake mezcal, very expensive
We had to try them on…they had a stack just sitting there by the table
The Pyramids of Teotihuacán. If in town, you gotta see the pyramids built by the Teotihuacanes, whose city flourished and perished before the time of the Aztecs. A peaceful society which focused on an ancient form of sustainable living along with dedication to mathematical design and astronomy in their religion and architecture, you’ll be awed and tuckered out after exploring the ruins of their city. Folks from the hostel did tours or took a bus out to the site; I was lucky enough to have a friend bring me there. We hired a guide on site, who provided a 2-hour tour. I recommend this unless you already know the history of Teotihuacán and its people.
Logistics, Safety, Etc. I beefed up my data plan before leaving so that I could use my cell phone anytime to message friends and have quick and ready access to information, use Google Maps, and call an Uber. Using the metro during the day felt fine to me, but I did make sure–as I would in any city–to hold my purse in a locked embrace when things got crowded and busy. Unfortunately a friend did have a cell phone stolen from his pocket after boarding the metro. Keep your most important things–debit cards, passports, etc.–locked in your hostel room during your stay. As it is a city, I also made sure to stay close to friends when out at night.
Petty crime is one thing. What about kidnapping or other forms of violence? I, along with my friend Joanna, another solo female traveler, were both told we might get kidnapped if we visited Mexico City. Both of us concurred that we never once felt unsafe while on this trip. Of course, I made sure to keep myself out of unsafe situations–such as going alone at night, taking a random taxi off the street, going off with strangers. Additionally, it is my understanding that, despite the atrocities carried out by the drug cartel in other parts of Mexico, much of this is enacted within the cycle of the drug trade, and targeted toward those involved in the cycle, not at tourists. Even still, we should be aware of our surroundings and keep ourselves as safe as possible. An article from the New York Times gives more details regarding safety for travelers to Mexico in this article .
Furthermore, I highly recommend this article by a favorite author of mine, Francine Prose, who urges us all to visit Oaxaca–my next stop when in Mexico again.
Getting Sick. Do heed the advice of avoiding salads and fresh vegetables and fruits, unless it is at a very tourist-oriented restaurant where they have sanitized their fresh produce. I made it most of my trip without trouble until the second to last night, when I had a salad at a city cafe and felt Montezuma’s Revenge descending swift and powerful only two hours later. I spent the night in agony, as will happen, hugging the toilet for dear life. Luckily a new friend from Mexico who also happens to be a doctor sent me the magical prescription for relief, which I purchased right away the next morning. Though the medicine made me drowsy (one contains antihistamines), it immediately took care of the stomach pain and I could eat more or less normally hours after taking the first dosage without having any more problems. According to a pharmacist friend, these drugs treat pain, nausea and vomiting. Plus an extra dose of probiotics can never hurt.
Sickness aside, it was thoroughly delightful trip, with many new friends made. Until next time, Mexico City.
Many thanks to Sonia, Alicia and Alsonso, Victor, and Viridiana for taking me around your city. I had such a grand time.