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Posts Tagged ‘Locals’

Ok, so I know this Christmas post is almost a month late, but what can I say?Living the life of a backpacker is extremely hectic with so many sights to see and people to meet…

One of the things I was looking most forward to while visiting New Zealand was the chance to reconnect with my old flatmates who I lived with here back in 2001.  When Becky and her husband Gavin offered to host us for the holidays while we were in Christchurch, Kelly and I happily accepted.  Our first night after getting settled and meeting Caitlen, their adorable daughter, Gavin cooked us up a fantastic meal while we reminisced about old times.  We felt at home already!

Christmas Eve we were invited to dinner with Gavin’s family who live literally just across the road.  Not surprisingly, families in New Zealand celebrate the holidays just as we do in the States…with a crapload of food. Ham, turkey and dressing, New Zealand crayfish, salads galore, chocolate mousse and some amazing raspberry sorbet were only some of the goodies we consumed that night.  

I got to play Santa while everyone opened gifts and we also engaged in one of my favorite Christmas traditions here in New Zealand…the Christmas cracker.  A Christmas cracker is a cardboard tube where someone grabs one end and you pull the other…it pops really loudly when it comes apart and there is a paper crown and other goodies inside.  I just like the paper crown because it reminds me of the old school  Burger King crowns we’d wear around as kids. What ever happened to those anyway?

Pullin' the Christmas Cracker

 

Paper Crowns!

One of the many dinner courses

Christmas morning, Becky’s family came over and after some glasses of bubbly and a yummy breakfast, we opened more gifts. Kelly and I got a CD of New Zealand bands and a huge tube of New Zealand candy bars from Becky and Gavin, both which would come in super handy on our drive around the south island. 

Caitlen with a Christmas cookie...what a cutie!

 That afternoon, we drove out to Becky’s parents house for Christmas dinner. The seasons are reversed here, so it was a bit strange to be sitting outside on blankets in their garden with eighty degree weather, sipping champagne and eating hors d’oeuvres. I’ll take this over a white Christmas any day! We did a white elephant gift exchange, which is always fun and I ended up with a pair of nail clippers and Kelly scored a cute New Zealand ornament. I don’t think that anyone was too impressed with the sweet Chris Christoperson CD that I brought as my gift.

Summer Christmas

 

Kelly and Lucy showing off their gifts

Me with my nail clippers and Becky with her classy New Zealand license plate frame

We had another incredible meal of roast lamb and other delicious sides and salads before indulging ourselves with a New Zealand specialty – chocolate pavlova. Pavlova is a meringue topped with cream and berries and is very light and sugary and is absolutely wonderful! We had a few more drinks in the garden before calling it a night.

Christmas dinner spread

Even though Kelly and I were sad to be away from our own families over Christmas, Becky, Gavin, Caitlin and their families couldn’t have been better people to spend our holiday with. They made us feel completely at home and we were so thankful that they let us crash their family gatherings. Christmas with ‘The Brinch’s’ will be one that we will never forget!

Becky and Gavin Brinch, our amazing holiday hosts

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After our short stint in Colonia, we hopped on a bus and headed over to the small beach town of Punta del Diablo. We originally were going to make a stop in Punta del Este; however, we heard it was a lot more touristy and a bit of a party spot. Our friend Marianne that we met in Mendoza had gone to Punta del Diablo a month or so before and suggested that the slow-paced and less visited beach would be more our style.  And boy was she right…

Punta Del Diablo

We took her recommendation on the hostel as well, El Diablo Tranquilo. The hostel itself was decent, but quite crowded. It was also run by all Americans from Chicago, who were all very nice, but obviously lacking in culture.  The hostel also ran a bar on the beach that had mediocre food but a great drink selection.  And the bar did draw a nice local crowd as well.

During the low season, the town only has about 300 inhabitants.  But they do get up to 20,000 visitors at a time from all over Uruguay and other countries.  We spent our days lounging around on the beautiful, almost deserted beach (save for a handful of surfers), strolling down the unpaved, sandy roads, consuming our fair share of alcohol, and hanging with our new friends at the hostel.  There are a ton of little cabanas lining the beach and had we had known, we would have rented one of them for the week and definitely suggest that option to anyone who travels here. You can get a pretty decent price if you have 3 people or more.

The main road

We also went horseback riding with a local named Fabian and two girls from Sweden. It was such a great day! Kim and I hadn’t been on a horse in over 17 years so we were a little nervous. Especially because my few experiences riding ended in me either falling off or my horse laying down in the mud with me still on it. Yeah. And of course, Fabian gave me the slightly unruly horse, Imilio, but was great once you show him you’re in control. Kim’s horse Borracha (“drunk girl” in Spanish), was awesome. They named her that because she weaves back and forth down the road and always stops to munch a bit on the way. It was hilarious. Fabian led us through the local national park and we stopped for some cookies and wine before doing some galloping down the beach. It really was a nice combo:)

Cowgirls!

Wine break

I also made friends with one of the only Uruguayan guys that worked at the hostel, Matias. He offered to make us an authentic Uruguayan meal at his place our last night in town. It reminded us a lot of our mother’s stew she used to make us. It consisted of steak, chorizo (a type of sausage), bacon, pasta, potatoes, carrots, yams, and onion in tomato sauce. It was so delicious and really nice to have some good comfort food for a change.

There wasn’t much to do in Punta del Diablo, but that was exactly what we were looking for. We could have actually stayed here another week or so. Kim and I really enjoyed it here. However, it was time to head back toward Buenos Aires so we could get over to Chile. We stayed one night in Uruguay’s capital, Montevideo and had lunch at an old port that is now filled with restaurants and small shops, and then went to a local market to have a look. It was crazy big and sold everything from produce to live chickens, ducks, and turkeys. One night was definitely sufficient for Montevideo. The next day we hopped our ferry and cruised back in to Argentina.

We didn’t have much time in Uruguay, but were definitely glad we included it in the trip. Here are some random thoughts and/or highlights about Uruguay.

-It’s much more expensive than Argentina. Boo.

-Chivito’s are awesome. It’s a type of sandwich that is served everywhere consisting of really thin steak, a fried egg, lettuce, tomato, and mayo. Lots of mayo. MMMM.

-The stray dogs are so cute. The same ones hang around the people they like and escort you all over town. A walk to the store, a stroll on the beach, heading home from the bar? “Heck yeah I’ll come!”

-The men are very attractive in this country. Yep.

-The people are extremely laid back and friendly.

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Kelly and I made some good friends in Monteverde, but were really looking forward to some quality beach time.  After a couple of relatively tame bus rides, we reached Manuel Antonio, a small beach town on the Pacific Coast and home to Manuel Antonio National Park, the most visited park in Costa Rica.

All of our new friends in Monteverde
All of our new friends in Monteverde

By the way, if you ever come to Costa Rica, don’t even think about staying more than 2 hours in Puntarenas.  It’s a dump.
 
We checked into our hostel, Vista Serena, which is run by two American guys, Alex and Conrad.  It’s set at the top of a ridge and has a huge deck with hammocks with a fantastic view of the ocean.  We spent all of our evenings sitting on the deck drinking Imperial and watching the sun sink into the horizon.  There is nothing to describe the sunsets here…all of them are extremely different and absolutely beautiful.

View from the deck at Vista Serena Hostel
View from the deck at Vista Serena Hostel

We planned to hit the beach on our first day, but we woke up to thunderstorms and pouring rain.  Kelly and I knew we were coming during the ‘wet’ season, but had only seen rain our first day in San Jose…we were wondering when the crappy weather was going to hit.  It ended up clearing up by the afternoon, so we walked down to the beach, checked out all of the shops and had a beer before heading back to Vista Serena to watch the sunset.
 
For dinner, we’ve been eating at a kick-ass restaraunt called Angel’s right down the street from the hostel.  We had an incredible dinner of fresh mahi-mahi, rice, au-grautin potatoes and salad for about $7 per person.  A plate of food like this in the U.S. would cost at least $20.

Mahi-Mahi dinner.  It rocked our world.
Mahi-Mahi dinner. It rocked our world.

On our second day, Kelly and I checked out Manual Antonio National Park, which was really beautiful.  It has several walking trails, a handful of picturesque beaches, and a ton of wildlife.  We layed on the beach for a couple of hours and saw a sloth, a family of white-faced monkeys, birds, and had a couple of iguanas hang out with us on the beach.  We grabbed a quick snack and a beer before heading home and made it back just in time before the rain started.  Alex whipped up a fantastic dinner for everyone at the hostel (fresh fish, grilled veggies, and plantains).  Kelly and I nursed our sunburns and called it an early night.

One of the beaches in the National Park
One of the beaches in the National Park
This is where we spent our Saturday.  It's a rough life.
This is where we spent our Saturday. It’s a rough life.
Happy Sisters!
Happy Sisters!
An Iguana that hung out with us for a bit
An Iguana that hung out with us for a bit
A sloth!  These things are so cool.  They move all slow and trippy-like.
A sloth! These things are so cool. They move like they are in slow motion.
A monkey!  We want one.
A monkey! We want one.

Today is our last full day in Manuel Antonio and the weather is perfect.  We plan to take it easy, lounge on the beach for a couple of hours, do some laundry, and get ready to head further south to Dominical in the morning. We really enjoyed our time here and recommend Vista Serena to any of you that ever plan to head this way.  Just be ready to drink and smoke every night, because that’s pretty much the way of life here. 

We hope all of our friends had a great time in the rain at Austin City Limits festival.  Kelly and I were bummed to have missed it this year, but while you were rockin’ out to King’s of Leon and Pearl Jam, this is what we spent our evenings enjoying: (Mary, these are for you)

Vista Serena - Night 3 (It was cloudy, but still pretty)

Vista Serena - Night 3 (It was cloudy, but still pretty)

Sunset at Vista Serena - Night 2
Sunset at Vista Serena – Night 2
Vista Serena - Night 1
Vista Serena – Night 1
Our last night's sunset

Our last night's sunset

Goodbye Vista Serena!

Goodbye Vista Serena!

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Ahhhh. Monteverde. After a great time in La Fortuna, Kim and I took the “Jeep Boat Jeep” to this quaint little  mountain town.  Instead of a 7-hour public bus ride (due to the fact that you have drive around Lake Arenal), we opted to pay the $18 to ride 15 minutes in a private van, hop on a small, ferry-style boat across the Lake Arenal for 30 minutes, and then take another hour van ride into the town center.  It was perfect.  The weather here is cool and refreshing, especially after leaving La Fortuna.   I even had to break out the fleece at night.

Cruisin' on the Ferry

Cruisin' on the Ferry

The drive to Monteverde

The drive to Monteverde

We originally had reservations at La Pension Santa Elena due to many recommendations from our guidebooks and notes posted up at our hostel in La Fortuna.  We arrived to find that for $16 pp/per night, we had a private, not so clean room, with shared bathroom, a crowded kitchen and some rather strange rules to follow.   As we got out of the van, we were approached by Tony, a local Tico, who owned a hostel just down the street.   Kim stayed with the bags and I went to check out El Hotel Tucan.  We immediately left PSE, and headed to Tony’s place.   A private room with private bath for $12.50/pp/night.   Awesome.   And after our stay at Gringo Pete’s, this was like staying at the Raddison.   Super clean, free internet and wifi in our room, and free breakfast!  Too bad that at 10pm when Tony leaves, he turns off the server and we no longer get internet in our room.

 The afternoon we arrived, we headed down the street to El Kiosko La Flor, a small soda (restaurant) near the church downtown.   It was like we were sitting in Flor’s kitchen as she cooked us a meal from scratch.   We both had casado (a typical dish with rice, beans, either salad or vegetables, chicken, bread and fried plantains all for under $4) as we chatted with a really cute Tico from Limon.   Afterwards, we spent the evening relaxing at the hostel and playing with one of Tony’s three daughters, Monserrath, aka Monse, and chatting with the family over beers and freshly prepared empanadas de

Kelly and Monse

Kelly and Monse

queso.  We also met a nice doctor from California walking by named Luis.   He sat and talked with us for a while and offered to take us to dinner to celebrate the first week of our trip (he was extremely jealous of what we are doing, of course).   We went to a nice little restaurant called The Treehouse Cafe and had fresh sea bass ceviche, arroz con pollo (chicken) and mariscos (mixed seafood and both had plenty for lunch the following day.   Thanks Luis!!!  

The next morning we woke up, had our delicious breakfast consisting of amazing coffee, fresh pineapple, watermelon, and toast.   At 10:30am, we were picked up for our zip lining tour with Extremo Canopy.   Apparently it has some of the longest and highest cables in Costa Rica. Our package included 12 cables ( 2 that are 1km long!), 1 downward rappel, 1 tarzan swing (AWESOME) and 1 superman zip line. They strap you in by your chest and feet and you literally fly over some of the most beautiful landscape I’ve ever seen.  Mountain ranges covered in all different shades of green, trees, the open sky…it was breathtaking.   Literally for Kim!   She kept having visions of the cables snapping! Luckily, I had no fear since as I’ve gotten older, I’ve somewhat developed a fear of heights.   Not anymore!!!  We had a blast! 

All geared up for the canopy!

All geared up for the canopy!

Kim coming in on the zipline

Kim coming in on the zipline

That night we just relaxed at the hostel, checked email, made skype calls and uploaded pictures.  I got to see Izzy for the second time.   Skype rocks.   By they way, we would like to be updating the blog more often, however, since we are up in the mountains out in the country, the connection is very slow and it takes like 3 hours to upload 50 pictures.   So, we apologize for that.   But hopefully this won’t always be the case.   We also made our reservations for a hike in the Santa Elena Biological Reserve for the following morning, had some cheese, bread, mango and wine for dinner and hung out with the 3 new comers from Switzerland, Germany and California.  

Then next morning, we had a delicious breakfast once again.   Gallo pinto this time!!  MMMMM!   We then took our shuttle up to Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve where we  hoped to see some cute little monkeys, but had no luck. We did however, enjoy two different hiking trails that took about 3.5 hours. It was so green!  Rainforests are amazing and full of life.  We saw a few small birds, a few really large birds and a neat little caterpillar. We expected to see a little more wildlife but were very happy with the experience (except for the few times we had to run from some crazy huge bugs buzzing near our ears!)

Trail in the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve

Trail in the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve

 Tonight we are going to have dinner with our new friends from New Zealand, Joe and Emma, here at the hostel.   They have been traveling for a few months and have another couple to go.   Fellow budgetors.  Nice.   We also just found out that there is some type of protest near Monteverde and there will be no buses coming or going tomorrow.    We are  “stuck” here for another day.   Darn!   We then plan to head south to Quepos/Manuel Antonio for some beach time.   Finally!    Chao for now!

Other observations of Costa Rica:

-Helmets do not exist.  People ride on motorcycles with their 3-year olds clinging to them with NO HELMETS.

-There are a lot of sweet mullets.

-The weather changes on a dime.

-Tico boys are HOT (don’t worry Morgan, Kim is not interested).

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And So It Begins

After a long day of flying (two layovers…UGH) Kelly and I arrived in San Jose, Costa Rica around 9 p.m.  My friend Leticia has family in Costa Rica, so her lovely cousin Yesenia offered to pick us up from the airport and host us in her home for our first two nights.  This was a great way for Kelly and me to ease into a new city and culture at the start of our trip. 

Yesenia and her son Andres live in Santo Tomas de Santo Domingo de Heredia, a small community outside of San Jose, surrounded by mountains and coffee plantations.  Our first day in Costa Rica, we got a coffee plantation `tour´ from Yesenia´s dad, ate a cheap lunch and played with Andres at InBioparque (a biological park),  had coffee and yummy pastries at a mountain cafe, and were basically spoiled rotten by Yesenia.  She served us a delicious breakfast of the typical Costa Rican tamale and made us ravioli and tomato sauce from scratch for dinner.  We hope all of the food is Costa Rica is this good! 

Kelly and Yesenia´s dad on the coffee plantation

Kelly and Yesenia´s dad on the coffee plantation

Our yummy lunch at InBioparque

Our yummy lunch at InBioparque

Kim, Andres, and Yesenia at InBioparque

Kim, Andres, and Yesenia at InBioparque

Us and Andres at the Cafe

Us and Andres at the Cafe

The view from Yesenia´s house

The view from Yesenia´s house

The next morning, Yesenia drove us to San Jose to catch a bus to La Fortuna.  Downtown San Jose is complete chaos.  After asking several locals for directions and receiving five different answers, a taxi driver graciously led us to the station.  Kelly and I would have been totally lost if it wasn´t for Yesenia.  We were so happy to have her as our guide. 

We then had a bus ride from hell to La Fortuna.  What should have taken 4 hours ended up taking 6 and a half because of some stalled cars in the road.  It was crowded, hot, and rainy and I swore we were going to plunge off the side of the mountain two or three times.  On top of that, an American that we befriended on the bus had his backpack stolen from the overhead compartment.     Fortunately, Kelly and I had a seat so we didn´t have to stand up the whole time and we did manage to make friends with 2 guys from DC and 2 Swiss girls. 

All of us ended up staying at the same hostel in La Fortuna, Gringo Pete´s, for less than $5 a night.  For a private room.  For both of us.  Awesome.  One of the DC guys made us a yummy chicken curry dinner (seriously, food has been handed to us since we´ve been here) and we spent the night drinking and playing games with everyone at the hostel.

Some things about Costa Rica that we´ve noticed so far:

-There are no numerical addresses here.  Their addresses are `the house at the end of the street, three houses from the bakery, next to the house with the green roof…´

-The coffee is delicious.

-It gets dark by 5:30 p.m. year round.

-There are bugs everywhere, but they are friendly.

-The traffic in San Jose is horrible and people drive CRAZY.

Today we are going to see the Arenal Volcano and take a swim in the hot springs.  We´ll bring everyone up to speed in a few more days!

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An Important Lesson

As I was sorting through all of my junk and boxing up old keepsakes during my move, I came across my big box of photos where I’ve stashed all of my pictures from the past ten years or so. Thumbing through the photos and reliving old memories, I came across some of my favorite snapshots from my many trips to New Orleans.  

The first time I went to New Orleans, I was not impressed.  Two girlfriends and I made the long drive to spend a weekend there during college and much to my disappointment, New Orleans wasn’t nearly as great as everyone made it out to be.  Bourbon Street was filthy and smelled like trash and pee.  The French Quarter had charm, but was not worth exploring in the sweltering heat and humidity.  To make matters worse, the food (one of the main attractions I was looking forward to) wasn’t anything to write home about.  I’ve eaten better Cajun and Creole food at Popeye’s Chicken than at the restaurants we wandered into.  Seriously, why the hell would I drive eight hours for this?   I had no intention of ever going back. 

Me, Mary, and Nicole in the Quarter

Me, Mary, and Nicole in the Quarter

Fast forward a few years.  My friend Nicole invited me to go to Jazz Fest, an annual music and heritage festival held every spring in New Orleans.  I was hesitant at first, but a bunch of my friends were going and I didn’t want to miss out on the fun.  Nicole’s Godparents, Carol and Lionel, lived in New Orleans and were going to put us up for free in their home and show us around town, so I decided to suck it up and go. 

We arrived at Carol and Lionel’s after a long day of driving and were greeted with a feast of boiled crabs, crawfish, grits and grillades.  This meal with Carol and Lionel was the beginning of a surprisingly fantastic weekend, one which jump-started an annual pilgrimage to a city that I didn’t think I’d ever visit again. 

ChowinDown

Enjoying a soft shell crab po'boy at the festival. Mmmm...

Each year now, a group of us pile into Nicole’s car and head to the Big Easy for Jazz Fest.  We typically spend a day enjoying music, people watching, and stuffing our faces at the festival (think soft-shell crab po-boys, fried green tomatoes, crawfish pasta, jambalaya, gumbo…and that’s barely scratching the surface of the cornucopia of food choices available).  Throughout the rest of the weekend, Carol and Lionel take us to see our favorite sights.   This includes a stroll around The French Quarter, coffee and beignets at Café DuMonde, relaxing on the porch at The Columns Hotel, cocktails at The Monteleone’s Carousel Bar , hurricanes at Port of Call, and a drunken piano sing along at Laffites Blacksmith Shop.  After all that alcohol, you don’t even notice the funky stench on the street. 

New Orleans is a blast – but it’s having Carol and Lionel as our tour guides that has truly made our time in New Orleans memorable and caused me to do a complete 180 on my view of this city. 

Up until Hurricane Katrina, Carol and Lionel had lived in New Orleans their whole lives.  They know all of the short cuts, where to park, which restaurant has the best turtle soup, which bar

Care for some crawfish?

Care for some crawfish?

serves the strongest cocktail, and which lounge has the best jazz and blues.  They love to point out all of the local landmarks, take us to the places where they used to hang out as teenagers, show us the schools they’ve taught in, the first home they shared together, and the old cemeteries where their loved ones are buried.   We’ve experienced  New Orleans hospitality by their childhood friends at backyard crawfish boils and devoured one-of-a-kind tamales at a family restaurant after the doors have closed to the public.  These are moments that I could have never experienced as a regular tourist here. 

Obviously, I’ve learned a valuable lesson from Carol and Lionel that I hope to utilize on my trip around the world – get to know the locals!  They can help you experience a city like you never would as an outsider, which will change your perception of a place completely.   Thank you, Carol and Lionel, for showing me how exciting a city can be

when it is seen through the eyes of someone who has loved, lived, and called it ‘home’. 

Carol and Lionel

Carol and Lionel

I’ll miss the trip to New Orleans this April, but I know that while my friends are chowing down on crawfish ettouffee and boogying at the festival, Kelly and I will be exploring a strange and exciting city too, hopefully with a new-found local friend showing us the way…

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