Sunday, January 10, 2016

Costa Rica: Day 3

The five of us -- Andi, Tory, Aden, Janie and I -- woke up with the sun (and the roosters!) around 6:00am Thursday morning. We putzed around our rental house at Nepenthe before breakfast was served in the main building of the bed + breakfast. On this day, the cook made ham and vegetable omelets for everyone with toast, fresh pineapple and papaya.

I truly appreciate how accommodating the staff at Nepenthe has been for our family. Every morning at breakfast, the property manager sets a place at the table for Aden with a booster seat high chair and a spoon. He feels like such a big boy using grown-up plates and utensils like everyone else. I also have to say how proud I am of Tory and Aden for trying new foods on our Costa Rican adventure. Not once have they whined about a meal, or refused to eat something. Traveling is about new experiences, and even the kids have embraced that fact. 

After a satisfying breakfast, we decided to tour a working farm in El Castillo called Rancho Margot. The ranch employs local farmworkers, cooks and craftsman along with volunteers from all over the world wishing to be fully immersed in sustainable living. Livestock and gardens are kept for the purpose of feeding guests on the farm, hydroelectric turbines produce the property's energy and leftover vegetable oil is used to make soap for washing. Amazingly, the property is fully self-sufficient. Many guests come to Rancho Margot to work for a few months at a time, and others come to train to become certified yoga instructors. Andi and I discussed whether we'd be able to stay on at a place like Rancho Margot. It'd be quite the experience, and an excellent way to be fully submersed in the language and culture.

A tour guide met us in Rancho Margot's main lobby at the beginning of our visit, then we spent the next two hours walking to various parts of the ranch to learn about their sustainable practices. I was in awe of the sheer beauty of this place; it felt like we'd stepped inside a tranquil oasis.

Our group was invited to stay at Rancho Margot's for their lunch buffet, but we decided to eat in town at one of El Castillo's local restaurants: Soda La Mesa de Mama. This little roadside cafe isn't much to look at from the outside, but the food was very good. Andi and I ordered typical Costa Rican plates which included rice, beans, salad, fresh cheese, fried plantain and beef, fish or chicken. It's way more food than any one of us can eat, so it works out well to share plates between the five of us. Janie also ordered a beef taco and it was plated with a cabbage slaw salad topped with ketchup and mayo. That was a little strange, but the kids enjoyed eating the crunchy taco at least.

Every restaurant in El Castillo seems to offer strawberries smoothies, and they've become Tory and Aden's favorite menu item. The kids slurp down smoothies while we wait for our food to be prepared, and it's a win/win for everyone.

Rough life, eh Aden?

After lunch, we drove back to Nepenthe for nap time. The kids practically collapsed into their beds as soon as we laid them down on this particular afternoon. They're happily exhausted from our daily adventures and Andi, Janie and I enjoyed some nice quiet time, too.

When Tory and Aden woke up around 4:00pm, we decided to visit the Butterfly Conservatory in El Castillo. Tory spotted signs for this exhibit right away, and we promised her we'd make a stop there during our time in the rain forest. Unfortunately, the time of day and current weather forecast wasn't the best for watching butterflies, or so we learned upon our arrival. Butterflies are most active when it's warm and sunny outdoors and since El Castillo had been socked in with rain the last few days, the butterflies weren't doing much of anything. We promised Tory we'd come back to see the butterflies again, and headed off to find something else to do in town.

Up the street, we stumbled upon an herbs + art studio called La Gavilana and decided to check it out. One of the shop owners named Hannah and her one-year-old son warmly greeted us at the entrance. It seemed like the perfect place to nab reprieve from the rain while enjoying a cup of coffee and good conversation.

Andi and I were instantly drawn to the unique charm of this place. As an artist, Hannah paints artwork available for sale in the studio while her significant other, Thomas, is big into fermenting and making hot sauces for sale. A third business partner bakes breads and cookies to sell in the shop. La Gavilana was quirky and fun, but what I found to be most inspiring was the mother-to-mother connection Hannah and I shared. Her 17-month old son, Noah, and Tory and Aden became fast friends. All the while, Hannah and I told stories about our personal parenting struggles and triumphs. In that moment I realized how similar this gig called parenting is, no matter what area of the world you happen to be raising a family.

Next stop was for ice cream since Andi promised Tory she'd eat some every day during our vacation. We drove to a well-known restaurant in town called Pizza John's, popular for their pizza (obviously) and homemade ice cream. Ice cream flavors on this day were banana, cookie, coconut and peanut so Andi ordered three of the four flavors for us to share. 

One tradition at Pizza John's is to graffiti the walls with your own personal stamp on the place. The two-story cement building was covered in Sharpie marker messages. Following suit, I wrote our name and the year on one of the windows, then Tory scribbled her name and drew a picture of herself on the wall. You would've thought Tory and Aden won the lottery; the way their eyes lit up with the fabulously dangerous idea of drawing on the wall was too much to believe. Let's hope they don't try the same thing back home!

Andi made dinner reservations at another sustainable farm in El Castillo called Essence Arenal. This boutique hostel has its own organic farm where they grow ingredients used for vegetarian meals served in their restaurant. Guests are welcomed into the open-concept kitchen for dinner, and invited to assist in preparing the meal with the head cook.

Dinner sounded like a fun experience for everyone, but the meal didn't start until 7:00pm and the more we thought about it, the more we knew it'd be too late in the evening for Aden. Andi was about to cancel our reservation when Janie offered to stay back at the house with the kids so Andi and I experience Essence Arenal by ourselves. Have I mentioned how wonderful it is to travel with Grandma Janie? She makes traveling with kids a breeze.  

Andi and I were some of the first guests to arrive at Essence Arenal for dinner. As others trickled in, we noticed almost every single group were families -- most with younger children, just like ours. We felt silly not bringing Tory and Aden along with us -- they would've loved the hands-on cooking demo! -- but then we remembered how stressful dinner was the evening prior and decided to enjoy the peace and quiet ... at least at our table.

On the menu for this evening was cheesy vegetable soup and empanadas. Essence's head cook invited Andi and I up first to show us how to make typical Costa Rican empanadas using black beans, cheese and potatoes. As she fried them, we returned to our table to eat the homemade vegetable soup already prepared for us.

A Swiss couple joined Andi and I at our table for dinner, and we enjoyed a pleasant conversation about our various travels and adventures across the world. Having traveled in Costa Rica several times before, Andi gave our new friends several tips about where to visit along the Pacific coastline.

Day 3 of our Costa Rican vacation was full of new experiences. We met fellow travelers from across the world and enjoyed great conversation with the locals. El Castillo in particular feels safe and welcoming, especially to families. We're loving our time in the rain forest!

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