Sunday, July 10, 2011

Pura vida: Los Santos (part 2)

Even though Costa Rica is a small country...often compared in size to the state of West Virginia...getting from place to place can be challenging, especially in the "green season" (ie. rainy) due to mountainous terrain, impassable rivers, and lack of paved roads. So when planning the trip I chose just a few spots to visit even though we were traveling for almost three weeks. (Aside: Friends and family expressed surprise at the length of our trip, though I happily would have stayed longer. And most of the European travelers we met were on longer trips, while the Americans were on shorter trips. Interesting, no?)

I knew I wanted to explore the Caribbean coast and the Osa Peninsula, so a stop in the mountains along the way between the two areas seemed to make sense...plus, we wanted to see the elusive resplendent quetzal! Although it is the national bird of Guatemala and the name of their currency, they are more easily seen in the cloudforests of Costa Rica. So after a week on the Carribean coast, Dan and I hopped on the bus in Puerto Viejo and headed back to San Jose...near Limon, the bus was stopped for a police check...that was a first for us. From San Jose, we took another bus for la Zona de los Santos, which encompasses a mountainous area of cloudforests, coffee farms, and small villages with sainted names.

Los Santos

We got off the bus at Santa Maria de Dota, where it was cold and rainy...just like home! There were no taxis at the bus station, and as we debated whether to walk through the rain to the taxi station near the church, a young man at the bus station called one for us. While we waited, he told us about Copey de Dota, the village we were headed to...saying it was cold there, and there were many fruit orchards. Already, the small town atmosphere felt quite different from the Caribbean coast. Eventually we were picked up, and the taxi driver seemed to know everyone in town. Since he didn't know the exact location of the hotel, he stopped several times along the way to ask people...he also received at least ten phone calls while driving...and I heard the words "pura vida" many times during the journey...as a greeting, as a farewell...it made me happy to hear this typical Costa Rican phrase so frequently. And eventually we made it to El Toucanet, a lodge nestled in the hills.

The next morning I awoke to a pooch keeping watch in front of the porch of our cabin!

Deck at El Toucanet

It was Socks, one of the two resident dogs at El Toucanet. He and Kit (the other pooch) lead us on a morning walk looking for quetzals with Gary, the owner. We walked on the road that runs along the river, and I just couldn't get over how many different shades of green are in the forest. Gary pointed out the aguacate tree that quetzals like to feed on, the tiny mini-avocados are their favorite food. Apparently the quetzal eats the entire fruit, then spits up the pit.

Looking for quetzals

Creek in Copey de Dota

View from the bridge

After walking for almost an hour, I was losing hope when he spotted two quetzals, and we were able to see both of them through the binoculars, and one of them in flight! There is no way we would have seen them without his guidance, and it still amazes me how a bird with such vivid iridescent green and red color with super-long tail feathers can be so well-camoflauged! This blurry photo is the evidence of our quetzal sighting (taken through Gary's binoculars)...it was one of the many moments during our trip when I wished I had a good camera, sigh!

Very blurry quetzal

After the quetzal sighting, we had breakfast on the patio, watching rufous hummingbirds and violet sabrewings at the feeder and flying about, doing their crazy dips and dives.

Breakfast

Then we checked out the grounds, found a blackberry patch (Dan picked a bunch for us the next afternoon), and saw a few small rhinoceros beetles on the path.

Dan exploring El Toucanet

After relaxing on the deck of our cabin, we followed the map Gary drew us and headed to the bus stop. While waiting for the bus, we saw a farmer harvesting apples from his orchard. He gave us apples to try and showed us around the orchard. People we met in this area were so welcoming and friendly! We took the bus to Santa Maria de Dota for a tour at Coopedota, a 50 year-old coffee cooperative with over 800 member farms. An oxcart passed by the cafe where we were meeting our guide. Oxcarts were the primary mode of transport for coffee and other crops before paved roads and the highway came along, and it is a national symbol of the country. Our guide Gabi knew the cattle herder...it's a small town, so everyone knows everyone else...and we went for a ride in the oxcart.

Oxcart

Oxcart

Dan got in first.

Dan in oxcart

I thought we would only go a few blocks, but we went all the way to the park, around it, stopped in front of the church, and down a few more streets. The cattle herder was in front leading them, and the man in back kept them in line with a stick. This was the first time pulling the oxcart for these two cattle, so we were the test subjects. I felt kind of silly being lead about town in an oxcart, but it was fun.

Riding the oxcart


Oxcart around town

After the ride, we went on a tour of the coffee processing center. We learned about the steps of separating the bean from the pulp, removing the husks, and saw where the beans are delivered, washed, dried, sorted, packaged...and probably some other steps that I've now forgotten. We also learned about the cooperative's efforts to be more sustainable and not adversely affect the surrounding rivers, flora and fauna, like diverting the water used to wash and sort coffee for irrigation at the local high school farm, converting the pulp into ethanol, and using the removed husks for fuel to dry the coffee beans. Very impressive!

Sacks of coffee bean husks

Coffee bean sorter

Sacks of coffee

Most of the coffee is exported, and their buyers include big coffee companies like Peet's and Starbucks. The cooperative also holds online auctions, selling coffee directly to buyers, so awesome. I wonder if any of the small local roasters in San Francisco buy from them. Coopedota produces coffee that is certified by the Rainforest Alliance as well as Dota Tarrazu, the world's first CO2 neutral coffee.

During the tour, we also saw the small experimental farm next to the coffee processing center where shade-grown coffee is grown and new varieties of coffees are tested. The trees have hollow limbs, and when they are pruned in the winter, the cut-off branches are left on the ground. The hollow branches decompose quickly, adding nutrients to the soil.

Shade grown coffee

And there is a hardware store next to the coffee processing center where members can buy supplies for their farm, so cool! I love all the efforts of the cooperative toward conserving the environment and also cutting out the middleman, so of course I bought several pounds of coffee afterwards! And we had lattes at the cafe. Dan got a latte with local honey from the cooperative. And we ate a giant cookie sammich with dulce de leche filling. Mmm...

Latte con miel

After we returned to El Toucanet, it started raining and didn't stop all night! So we hung out by the fireplace at the lodge, playing dominos and card games, then enjoyed a dinner of baked local trout. The next morning Kit was keeping watch in front of our cabin deck.

Kit keeps watch

After breakfast we took a walk up from El Toucanet, up up up! The views were gorgeous and we heard lots of birds, but they were too high up in the canopy or hidden in the forest to see. We saw tall groves of native bamboo, lots of butterflies, and a wasp's nest.

Carol & the Dota valley

Dan checks out the bamboo

Panoramic fog over mountains

Unfortunately we didn't see any emerald toucanets, the namesake of the lodge. But we did see the parrots that occasionally land in the tree outside our cabin. Squawk squawk!

We enjoyed the verdant forests, mountain views, and atmosphere of the small villages in Los Santos, but it was time to head south to Drake Bay!

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