Archive for South America

Sea Kayaking Off Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula

Saturday, July 23rd, 2011

 Ready, Set, Paddle! -photo by Vigdis Vatshaug

 In the tropical adventure-land of Costa Rica, the great outdoors inexorably lures the intrepid visitor. Whether it’s bird-watching in a verdant rain forest, flying down a zip-line above the jungle canopy, wandering around the barren landscape of a grumbling volcano, riding the blue waves on a surfboard or hitting little white balls around a lush ocean-view golf course – the options for outdoor pleasure are never far away.

As expats living in Costa Rica, my husband Layne and I have sampled a lot of what this gorgeous country has to offer. Recently, however, we ventured into new territory (literally and figuratively) when we took off on a sea kayaking adventure at Bahia Rica, a sport fishing and kayaking lodge in the tiny town of Paquera at the south end of the Nicoya Peninsula. Run by an energetic young Norwegian couple, Vigdis Vatshaug and her husband Thomas Jones, Bahia Rica beckons dedicated sport fishermen with the exhilarating challenge of hooking a big Marlin or Roosterfish, while it lures the nature lover with the tranquility of palm trees, dreamy hammocks and isolated beaches. It seemed like the perfect spot to take visiting friends Sue and Christine, who hoped to put their extensive mountain lake paddling experience to the test plying their skills on more open waters. With a few emails to Vigdis, we made a plan to go to Bahia Rica as the first stop of our friends’ two-week trip. Read More→

Independence Day, Costa Rican Style

Tuesday, December 28th, 2010

By Kat Sunlove

Costa Rica shows her colors

Independence Day in Costa Rica calls for a big celebration. This year’s holiday marked the nation’s 189th year of independence from Spain, making it one of the world’s oldest democracies. On September 15, 1821, Guatemala called a Popular Assembly and declared independence for itself and four other Central American countries, forming the short-lived Federal Republic of Central America. By 1838 the Central American Federation had essentially ceased to function and Costa Rica formally withdrew and declared itself a separate sovereign state.

Back in 1824, the Costa Rican Congress had elected Juan Mora Fernandez as the new nation’s first Chief of State. A true visionary, he built schools and roads, promoted industry and commerce and was the man who foresaw the importance of coffee as an export crop for the nascent country. Under his progressive liberal guidance, land grants were offered free to anyone who would plant coffee. Through his farsighted leadership, Fernandez helped to create a nation of small coffee plantations, which led to a large middle class of property owners. Even today, many Tico families continue to own their own land with every square inch planted in beautiful dark green coffee plants. And although a group of large affluent coffee barons evolved during the 1800’s, they cooperated with peasant coffee farmers in processing the crops for export and, with their wealth, invested in the nation’s infrastructure, building a new road to transport coffee from high in the Central Valley to the Pacific port of Puntarenas. In fact, last spring my husband Layne and I lived on that historic road and took our morning walks along its rutted concrete surface.

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Road leading to Finca Luna Nueva Lodge By Kat Sunlove, M.A.

Few places on earth evoke the kind of romantic dreams and exotic imagery as the tropics. In Costa Rica, one of the more pristine examples of tropical lands, all those images come vividly to life – from white sand beaches to dense flora of the rain forest, from rumbling volcanoes to the incessant warbling of colorful birds.

But all is not perfect in these beautiful environs. The tropics also harbor more problematic visions as well, namely, insects. Bugs of every variety, shape, size and color find a comfortable home here in the warm and humid environment of Costa Rica. And while that same temperate climate helps plants grow, it also makes protecting agriculture from the ravages of insects a difficult task indeed. As visitors here for a three month sojourn, my husband and I saw first-hand how destructive just one species can be. One warm evening, sitting outside on our patio, we noticed what appeared to be a trail of small leaves moving unassisted along a dirt path in a narrow flowerbed. On closer inspection, we discovered a parade of leaf-cutter ants literally carrying away a Poinsettia, one piece of leaf at a time, the leaves often larger than the ant itself. Almost overnight the foliage was completely stripped from the plant!

Critters of all types, shapes, and sizes thrive in the rainforest

Little wonder that so many pesticides are employed here in the battle against such voracious creatures. Toxic products such as Mirex, a chlorinated hydrocarbon banned by the United States Environmental Protection Agency in 1976, are still widely used in Costa Rica to control creepy-crawlies like our hungry leaf-cutters. Growing produce organically in the tropics is undoubtedly a challenge but it is not impossible, as we found on a recent trip to Finca Luna Nueva Lodge (FLN), a verdant 200-acre certified organic biodynamic estate in the rain forest near the active Arenal Volcano. The dedicated folks at FLN have taken organic farming in the jungle to a whole new level, integrating the practices of biodynamics with organic techniques, combining detailed soil preparations, complex crop rotation and even celestial considerations into a magnificent working farm producing some of the most delicious and nutritious foods you will ever taste.

Our trip to FLN was planned as a vacation outing with friends visiting from the United States, a relaxing getaway that offered a resort atmosphere and gourmet food along with interesting tours to local attractions such as the Arenal Hanging Bridges hike over rain forest canopy. What we didn’t expect was that FLN’s free “farm tour,” would turn out to be so informative and inspiring.

When scheduling our outing, Joe, the smiling host in the reception booth, asked if we had any areas of particular interest and since Layne and I did some organic gardening at our home in Northern California and had seen the ravages of leaf-cutter ants first-hand here in Costa Rica, we said we wanted to learn how the farm maintains an organic approach in the face of such pests. That specialized interest rewarded us with a second tour guide; Harold, the Farm Director, joined us and offered a lecture and demonstration of the techniques they use to produce organic cash crops as well as some 90% of the foods they serve their guests, including salad greens, tomatoes, beets, carrots and yucca, among others, as well as lamb, chicken and pork from their free-range herds.

Front gage of Finca Luna Nueva Lodge As we started up the trail, our guide Roy pointed to some of the plants along the way, encouraging us to pluck a leaf, rub it and take a sniff of the aromatic herbs nestled here and there among the flora. At one point, he stopped and pointed up a tall tree to a dark blob on a branch. “There’s a three-toed sloth!” he exclaimed, “the laziest animal in the jungle!” Near a shed where compost is developed, some workers called to Roy saying there was a “chicken of the tree” resting nearby. We all walked over to see what this was but saw no bird. Then Roy directed our eyes to a large Iguana sunning itself on a log and laughingly told us it’s called a “chicken” partly for the taste of the meat.

But it was Harold’s talk that captured the complexities of biodynamics in growing the crops, as well as the reasons they work to foster the spiritual energies of the farm by planting or harvesting in sync with celestial and astrological rhythms. He also explained to us how they manage the inevitable pests organically by, for example, digging down into the multi-chambered nest of the leaf-cutters to find and kill the queen, but never using poisons or insecticides.

Harold - Finca Luna Nueva Lodge's farm directorAs we huddled under the compost shed out of a light drizzle, Harold described the steps involved in creating a biodynamic spray they use for soil preparation, which entails the use of gender-specific parts of certain animals in a prescribed timeline that is intended to serve as a catalyst for compost development. For instance, they fill the horn of a female cow with manure from a female cow and bury that in the soil for six months fermentation; combined with water, this concoction is sprayed on the soil prior to sowing the crop. Similarly, they use powdered quartz crystal that has also been buried and fermented in a cow’s horn to create a spray for use on the growing plant.Then there is the use of certain animal organs, such as a male deer’s bladder, filled with specific herbs to enrich the compost. The vegetable garden is constructed in the shape of a Mandala, an expanding circular form intended to utilize the space effectively as well as to call on the magical energies inherent in that design. Further along, we observed aspects of their crop rotation system in practice. After harvesting, they let the land revive itself naturally with free-growing native plants, then they introduce goats to eat down that foliage; chickens are then put in to fertilize and stir up the soil and finally, they allow hogs to root and loosen the earth in preparation for the next planting.

You might think that such labor-intensive methods would hinder a profitable farming system but in fact, Finca Luna Nueva cultivates two lucrative crops, certified organic turmeric and ginger, which they produce for New Chapter, Inc., an organic manufacturer of vitamins and herbal supplements.

Established in 1994, FLN offers educational conferences and workshops to those who want to learn about biodynamic systems, sustainable organic agriculture and conservation. The Lodge and outlying cottages were built in 2003 using fallen timber from the farm. Since then they have added a solar heated Jacuzzi, an ozonated swimming pool and a handicapped accessible rain forest trail. The whole place is a model of efficient and sustainable use of local resources.
Whether you desire a relaxing holiday in the rain forest, pampered by gourmet meals, massage and facials or if you want to learn about biodynamic farming methods, you won’t find a more perfect place than Finca Luna Nueva Lodge, an eco-retreat par excellence!

Fertile Opportunity: Orosi Valley in Costa Rica

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2009

A Traveler Special Feature by By Kat Sunlove and Layne Winklebleck

Costa Rica, a land of verdant rain forests and pristine beaches, enjoys a well-deserved reputation as a prime retirement option for the tired-of-the-rat-race crowd. But as its popularity has soared so has its real estate, especially in those areas most favored by retirees, primarily the Guanacaste province in the northwestern prong of the country. Because of its notably drier climate, many ex-pats began buying land and building homes there some years back, when property was quite affordable, even bargain by U.S. standards. Now, a decade or more into the migration, it is hard to find a well-built 3-bedroom, 2-bath house in the Guanacaste region for under $400K. These days you can buy a mansion in California for that kind of money!

But if you head the other direction out of the capital of San Jose, east and south across the busy central plateau, past historical Cartago and Paraiso, only an hour and a half from the airport, you will find the Orosi Valley, an emerald jewel of hillside coffee plantations, traditional pueblos graced with historical churches, rushing rivers and vistas of banana trees and friendly Ticos (as locals call themselves), largely undiscovered by visitors or investors. My husband Layne and I have spent some time exploring Costa Rica in our search for the perfect retirement locale. We’ve decided the Orosi Valley may just be it!

As you head downhill on the well-paved highway from Paraiso, the view suddenly opens onto a lush tropical basin with the wild Aguacaliente River rushing through it, surrounded by slopes of deep green coffee fields, punctuated with an occasional brightly painted cinderblock house halfway up the slope. Located only 25 miles southeast of the capital of San Jose, the village of Orosi and other small towns perched on the rise of the fertile mountainsides all around beckon recession-weary Americans with affordable and unspoiled land, incredible views, abundant willing local workers and all the services required for a comfortable retirement or just a frugal tropical holiday. With year-round temperatures in the 70’s, Orosi Valley makes an attractive alternative to the humidity and heat of the tourist-weary beach towns.

Here in the eastern end of the central highland, land is still priced to suit a budget and local construction resources are top-notch. On a recent visit to Costa Rica, my husband and I befriended a tall, transplanted Texan contractor-cum-realtor who can sell you a quarter acre of view land for $25K and build you a gorgeous, seriously engineered 1600 sq. ft. home for about $70K. Gregarious Stephen Riley and his charming wife Nancy own Paradise Peak Realty in Orosi and after 15 years, the pair knows the area like locals. In an all-day real estate outing with Steve and our buyer’s agent Jean-Pierre Pfleger, we visited properties from the river-frontage parcels near Steve’s own 50-acre garden paradise through Sanchiri with it’s magnificent mirador, or lookout point, along the length of Lake Cachi, where sacks of crawfish can be had during the season for a pittance and on through the town of Cachi, one of many small communities that border the lake. We finished our tour in downtown Orosi where we viewed several Tico houses, including an attractive handicapped accessible home on the main street, featuring a central patio bursting with fruit trees. The whole town of Orosi, in fact, seems unusually wheelchair-friendly for a Central American nation, offering periodic metal crossing points over the mandatory rain gutter running between street and sidewalk.

We wondered how the deteriorating economic climate had affected property and construction costs in Orosi so we recently contacted Steve with those questions. According to him, the Valley economy is booming with new migrants from the U.S. and elsewhere coming at the rate of about two a month. He said construction costs had dropped slightly but so far, Orosi continues to enjoy a strong real estate market. Surrounded by tourist attractions such as Lankaster Gardens, home to hundreds of the orchid varieties native to Costa Rica and Tapanti National Park where hikers trek to visit 300-foot high Salto Falls and watch the abundant wildlife, Orosi is positioned for strong growth in coming years. Layne and I hope to be among those contented ex-pats nibbling on Steve’s fantastic Strawberry Cake and homemade brew at the monthly party he hosts for locals and transplants alike!