Sunday, July 31, 2011

Playa Tivives, A Hidden Costa Rica Gem

This weekend my boyfriend and I checked out Playa Tivives in Costa Rica, a beach that is much more popular with locals and experienced surfers than with regular tourists.  Playa Tivives is located on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica in the Puntarenas province.  As you are travelling on Highway 27 (also known as the Coastal Highway) you will see an exit sign that reads "Jesus Maria / Tivives".  Jesus Maria is the river I talked about in an earlier blog.  Playa Tivives is the beach that meets up with this river at the point where it flows into the ocean.

After taking the highway exit, you will travel on an unpaved road for about 10 minutes to get to Playa Tivives.  Along the way you'll pass a few homes and forested areas until you come to the very tiny "center" of the town of Tivives.  When the road dead ends, you have to take a left onto a sandy road parallelling the beach.  This sandy road is lined by some 50 or so beach homes - some of which are quite lovely.  Along the road, in between the homes, you'll see public paths leading to the beach. Park by one of these paths and make your short walk to the beach.

Playa Tivives is a beautiful 2.5km gray sand beach that is bordered by headlands jutting into the ocean on both ends of it. The Costa Rican government does not allow homes to be built immediately along Costa Rica's beaches, so how this beach became an exception, I'm not really quite sure.  I did a quick check of real estate prices on the beach and empty lots are selling for about $70k U.S.D. and lots with homes go for about $200k-250k U.S.D.  We only saw about two "for sale" signs along the entire street, however.

I really enjoyed my visit to Playa Tivives, but I have to give a couple important warnings about it.  Since the Jesus Maria river feeds into it (bordering along the left-hand headland), there are crocodiles close-by.  These crocodiles will most likely stay by the fresh water of the river's mouth, but there have been stories of some crocs straying into the salty waters of the ocean.  This is why you'll see the very prominent "DO NOT SWIM...CROCODILES" pictorial signs when you first get to the town of Tivives.  So I would recommend getting into the ocean as far away from the river's mouth as possible.  We did not have any issues with spotting crocs thankfully!

Additionally, the waves in this beach are extremely rough and large, which is why it's so popular with surfers.  I only went in about waist deep and decided not to try to swim out any further.  Others were going out much further and seemed to be o.k.  I do not recommend taking chances with riptides unless you are a strong swimmer and know how to get out of them.  I've seen too many local news reports of visitors to Costa Rica's beaches being drowned by these strong currents.

Ok, now back to the good stuff.  I really liked Playa Tivives, and am putting it on my list of favorite Costa Rica beaches visited to date.  The 10 minute drive on the unpaved road is a bit of a pain, but once you get past that, the sandy street with all the nice homes lining it is very pleasant.  We saw a security guard for the town walking up and down the street, which is reassuring. Also, Playa Tivives offers amazing quiet and solitude because not many people venture out to it.  The headlands jutting into the ocean at either end of it are gorgeous, and there is also beautiful mountain scenery ahead as you stare out towards the ocean.

We made the short walk along the beach towards the Jesus Maria river area and saw many people fishing off of the river's banks.  So I imagine you could combine fishing into your beach trip if you were so inclined.  I'm not a big fan of gray sand, but Playa Tivives really intrigued me.  There was one group of about 15 individuals that were camping on the beach and about 3 other families.  Other than that, we had the entire beach to ourselves.  It is possible that it picks up a bit during Costa Rican vacation periods, when more of the homeowners may actually be in the area.

If you are in Puntarenas and are looking for a remote Costa Rican beach with amazing scenery and tranquility, Playa Tivives is a good choice.  If you would prefer to swim in more peaceful waters, then the nearby Playa Dona Ana is probably a better option.  The scenery is not as beautiful as Playa Tivives, and you have to pay a small fee to get in, but the currents are not as strong and it's right off of the Coastal Highway which makes for much easier in-and-out access.

Unpaved Road Leading to Playa Tivives

Crocodile Warning Sign as You Approach Playa Tivives

One of the more "modern" homes lining Playa Tivives

One of the public paths leading to Playa Tivives

Cris walking along the beach

Me in our small beach hut

Jesus Maria River where it meets Playa Tivives (you can see people fishing on its banks)

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Romeria Costa Rica - My Experience Partaking in the Pilgrimage

I had seen announcements on the local news about the upcoming Romeria in Costa Rica to be held on August 2nd.    The Romeria is a Catholic religious pilgrimage involving millions of people walking from their homes, or other far away places, to the Basilica of Los Angeles in the city of Cartago to pay homage to Costa Rica's patron saint, La Negrita.  My boyfriend and I received an invitation to participate in the Costa Rica Romeria this year from our friend, Melisa.  Although we are not Catholic, we thought it would be interesting, and perhaps even inspiring, to take part in the pilgrimage.

Melisa lives in the actual city of Cartago and so the plan was we would take the bus to a point about 18 kilometers away from the Basilica to start the walk.  It is the custom in Costa Rica that the people who live in Cartago (a city just east of San Jose), perform their Romeria in the weeks before August 2nd.  The purpose is to free up some room in the Church for the mass held on August 2nd for the throngs of people who will be walking on the official day of the pilgrimage.  As you can imagine, most people will be left standing outside the Church anyhow.

The Basilica de Los Angeles was constructed in 1639.   It is a beautiful Byzantine style church where, according to Costa Rica’s religious belief, an image of the Virgin Mary miraculously appeared to a young Indian girl on a large rock in 1635.  The Basilica was built around this rock, which you can see inside the Basilica's display area. The full story of the Virgin appearance can be read on a plaque on the wall by the rock.

Although I did not get the full experience of walking with 2 million people this past weekend, I think I did get to experience the full effect of the Romeria, thanks to Melisa and her family and friends who joined us.  They were very meditative during their walk, often uttering prayers, rosaries, and thanking the Virgin out loud for all the things they felt they had received from her in the past year.

Our 18 km walk took just over 3.5 hours to complete.  About one hour into it we were still on flat terrain.  During the second hour we were on an incline that seemed to never end.  This was about the time I started regretting my decision to participate in Costa Rica's Romeria.  Thankfully, the final hour was all downhill, a much needed break.

There was lots of loud traffic on the highway and at times we were in road conditions that were quite dangerous (such as attempting to safely cross a narrow and busy one-lane bridge).  There was one bus in particular that sped past us, coming onto the median we were walking on.  Also, the walk itself was physically taxing, and last year alone, the Red Cross attended to over 6,000 romeros (as the walkers are called), for things like muscle aches, dizziness, and trauma. The next day I couldn't even lift my legs to get out of bed or get into our car.  Amazingly, some will actually crawl their way from San Jose to Cartago this upcoming week, and others will carry large wooden crosses on their backs the entire way!

Everyone is welcome to participate in the Romeria in Costa Rica. It is a very good way to get to know the culture and people of Costa Rica.  Cartago is a pretty nice city to visit and the climate is cool and refreshing.  The display area beneath the Basilica de Los Angeles is also worth a stop to see the replica of the Virgin statue and the rock she was found on.  The original Virgin statue is now held at the Vatican. A replica statue, sanctified by the Pope, is kept at the Cartago Basilica.   You can see my friend kneeling before it in the picture below.  Below the church you can also receive some free holy water that flows from a river that sits below the church and has been blessed by the Basilica's priest.  We all stood in line to splash a little of it on ourselves, capture what we could in receptacles, and take a quick drink after our long walk.

My boyfriend and our friends starting our 3.5 hour walk to the Basilica

Some medians were not that shielded from the oncoming traffic!

The narrow one lane bridge with a car just skirting past us

Finally arriving at the Basilica de los Angeles in Cartago

Drinking from the blessed Holy Water in the Church

Inside the Basilica right before the start of the day's Mass

Our friend Melisa kneeling before the replica of the Virgin statue on the actual rock it appeared on in 1635

Friday, July 22, 2011

Costa Ricans Love the Nicaraguan Vigorón

My Costa Rican boyfriend has kept trying to get me to eat the platter known as a vigorón which is sold by street vendors in Costa Rica.  The interesting thing is that the vigorón recipe is from Nicaragua.  Having spoken about the negative attitude many Costa Ricans have towards Nicaraguans, it surprises me that the vigorón is such a popular dish here in Costa Rica.  Back to the topic, however. 
I tasted my first vigorón a couple weeks ago at the Virgin of the Sea Festival in Puntarenas.  Up to that point, I had been hesitant to try the dish because what I saw in the street vendors' carts were the huge pieces of fried cracklings that were as big as chicken thighs.  I didn't understand how it could be eaten gracefully, and so I shied away from trying the vigorón.  But my boyfriend insisted, and I finally gave in.  I was very happy to realize that the pork cracklings in the dish are actually cut up into bite size pieces before being served, for ease of eating.

Needless to say, the vigorón dish was pretty tasty, although it did feel pretty sinful eating so much pork fat.   Still, the vigorón makes for a good once-in-a-blue-moon treat.  My boyfriend complained that the one we tried that day was not the best he has ever had.  He recommends the ones you can buy from Nicaraguan vendors lined up along Caldera beach instead.  In the meantime, I decided to find a vigorón recipe online to see if I can make it myself next time I'm in the mood.  The best vigorón recipe would come from an authentic Nicaraguan cook in my opinion, so here is one I found translated into English: 

Vigorón Recipe (For 6 people) - Ingredients:

- Pork cracklings (You can buy pork cracklings at most butchers or supermarkets.  Cracklings are a cut of pork that has the pork skin, pork fat and pork meat all attached. You can collect and freeze the pieces of fat and skin from your roasts and other cuts to use for this dish)
- 2 cloves garlic minced
- Juice of 1 lime
- Pork lard or peanut oil (for frying)
- ½ kilo cabbage shredded
- 250 grams tomato diced
- 1 Kilo Yucca (cassava)
- Banana leaves (optional)
- Chili peppers diced (optional garnish)
- Salt
- Vinegar

For the Pork Cracklings:   Marinate the raw pork cracklings in a garlic and lime mixture for about an hour, continually turning.  In a deep fryer, get the oil or lard very hot, and then place the fat pieces in the hot oil and deep fry until light and golden brown. Do not overcook since pork fat can get hard. Once they are brown, remove from the pot and place on paper towels to drain.  For a healthier alternative to frying you can try to bake your cracklings per this recipe.

For the yucca:  Peel and wash the yucca.  Cut it into large pieces and boil until soft (about 35 - 45 minutes).  Remove from water and let cool.   Remove any hard stringy pieces and cut into smaller bite size pieces.

For the salad topping:  Shred the cabbage and dice the tomato.  Mix the two and season with the salt and vinegar to taste.

To put your vigorón recipe all together:  Place the cooked yucca on a platter (or on a banana leaf to be more traditional). Top with the fried pork cracklings, and then cover with the salad mix.  You can also add some diced chili peppers on top for more flavor.

Street vendor we bought our vigoron from

A close-up view of my vigoron platter

Exploring Puntarenas Central Town Area

I've been down to the Puntarenas beach area quite often, but I have never stopped to explore the actual Puntarenas City town center.  Having read about a lovely old Catholic church that sits in the town's central plaza, I asked my boyfriend if we could make a stop there before heading to the Puntarenas beach area.

Puntarenas City is the capital of the similarly named Puntarenas Province.  For years the city was a major sea port, but now it is just a docking area for a few cruise ships sailing the Pacific Ocean, and locals who come out to enjoy the beach area.  Puntarenas City is also a good stopover point if you are heading to one of the prettier beaches on the Nicoya Peninsula - such as Montezuma and Mal Pais.  The reason for this is that there's a ferry out of Puntarenas that puts you on the Peninsula much easier and faster than trying to drive to the Peninsula over land.

As we approached Puntarenas City's central plaza in our car, I was quite impressed with the large Catholic church dominating it (pictures below).  Interestingly, the stone church which was built in 1902 has some windows that resemble portholes, reflecting the city's maritime tradition. It's also one of the few churches in the country with a front entry facing east (most face west).

On the same plaza with the church you'll find the city's cultural center, La Casa de la Cultura (pic below). This building was once the Puntarena's jailhouse, but now it serves as the center for local cultural exhibitions and live performances. There is also a Museo Histórico Marino (Historical Marine Museum), a small museum recounting Puntarena's seafaring history, with exhibits in both English and Spanish.

We explored the entire plaza in about 15 minutes, including the time we sat on the benches in the shady church courtyard.  The streets surrounding the town's plaza are really not that interesting to explore, so I would recommend combining a visit to Puntarena's town plaza with a visit to the Puntarenas beach area, where you can swim, stroll along the promenade, or just get some good eats.

Me in front of the Catholic Church

Side view of church where you can see the porthole windows at the top

Benches and statues in the Puntarenas town plaza square

Casa de la Cultura building in the square

View of a typical Puntarenas street adjacent to the square

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Harley Davidson Biker Culture in Costa Rica

When I first moved to Costa Rica, my boyfriend was considering buying a Harley Davidson and riding with a small local Costa Rican Harley riders club known as the "Tiburones" ("Sharks" in English).  The leader of this group, Ying Cheng, is a young local Chinese-Tico who is about 26 years of age, and makes his living as a nutritionist.  He and a couple of his buddies split off from a larger Harley biker club to form the Sharks, which at this time only has about 5 members.  Attempting to woo my boyfriend to join his new group, Ying invited Cris to a couple of the Shark's biker meetings, one of which was at a bar where a local rock band played (see pic below).

There is an actual Harley Davidson outlet in the prosperous Escazu neighborhood of Costa Rica, and a local Harley Owners Groups (HOG) that sponsors year round rallies in the country.  Besides that, there are quite a few different Harley rider clubs to fit just about anyone's tastes.  Ying's club is all about being with friends and taking long road trips.

There is a very popular Costa Rican Harley rider club known as Los de Xibalba Motorcycle club, that describe themselves as "a group of tight friends who ride Harley Davidson’s together, party together and stick together no matter what happens."  They organize events, go on national and international rides, support other club’s events, and help promote motorcycle riding in Costa Rica.  Anyone can join these clubs, Tico or foreigner (if you actually live in the country).

Unfortunately, there are even sinister "gang" type biker clubs in Costa Rica, such as the The Bandidos Motorcycle Club, also known as the Bandido Nation.  It's an organized crime syndicate with a worldwide membership.  My boyfriend also mentioned another Costa Rican gang rider's club known as #1, whose initiations involves robbing or breaking the law in some way.

It was surprising to me to see thriving biker groups here in Costa Rica, the last time being at the Virgin of the SeaFestival just two weeks ago (pics below).  So far my boyfriend's budget hasn't allowed him to buy his Harley, which in a way, I'm somewhat thankful for.  Riding a Harley or other motorbike in Costa Rica seems a little scary to me.  Roads are often narrow, winding, and full of large potholes.  They are also usually just 2 lanes on even major highways, which makes for  a lot of congestion and accidents.  And let's not forget that it rains for months on end here during the rainy season.  Wet roads, of course, make riding even more dangerous.  And then there's all the bikini and wet t-shirt contests I'd have to endure.

Still, the idea of getting to know Costa Rica on a motorcycle with a group of friends does sound somewhat appealing to me.   There are so many amazing places to visit in Costa Rica - beaches, volcanoes, mountains, lakes, and more.  If you've thought about exploring Costa Rica on a Harley, you might want to check out B & C Costa Rica Adventures, which will even rent you a bike if you need one.
My boyfriend attending one of the Shark's Harley Biker meetings at a local bar

Trying on one of the Shark member's bike

Harley Davidson Biker Club at Virgin of the Sea Festival Puntarenas Costa Rica

More Harley Riders at Virgin of the Sea Festival