Argentina – away from the city

Argentina – away from the city

 

Argentina – away from the city

 

After eight years sailing the seven seas, there are only a few coastal regions of the world I haven’t visited, although escaping into the interiors of countries has eluded me. But not in Argentina!

The stage show Evita has a lot to answer for…

There are a few places in the world that have always fascinated me. The Egypt of the Pharaohs, the China of the Dynasties – and Argentina. I must admit that the stage show Evita has a lot to answer for in that respect. From her humble beginnings as an illegitimate child in Los Toldos, to her rise as the First Lady of Argentina, the story of María Eva Duarte de Perón fascinated me. So it was no surprise that I made it my mission to get there!

Of course, I had to see the Casa Rosada, the pink palace in the centre of Buenos Aires from where Evita held court, and the cemetery at Recoleta where she was buried, in October 1976. This was 24 years after she died and her body was removed from its resting place, travelled around Argentina, to Milan, Madrid and finally back to Los Olivos where it was restored before going on public view beside that of her recently deceased husband. In Recoleta (pictured above) it was finally placed in her family’s mausoleum, where she lies five metres underground, in a crypt fortified like a nuclear bunker, so that no one should ever again be able to disturb the remains of Argentina’s most controversial First Lady.

Although Buenos Aires is home to many a fascinating story based around the Peronistas and the coup that deposed Evita’s husband, President Juan Peron, there is more than just the city.

 

San Antonio de Areco is an 18th century town just under two hours outside of Buenos Aires, a pretty town in the Pampas, on the Areco River. Famous for its links to the Gaucho and Criollo traditions, it still provides a valuable insight into their lives, with museums and artisans who still provide fine silverwork and saddlery for the horsemen and women. And if you’re there in November you can catch the at the “Día de la Tradición” when they ride through the town in all their finery, with their horses adorned by the local crafts.

I started my day in San Antonio de Areco at the home of Paula Mendez Carreras, a local chef who runs cookery courses. The space was light and open, and I was with a group of seven others some who liked to cook and some, like the guys, who never cooked. On our lesson plan for the day, we had empanadas, alfajores, and chipas.

Traditionally, alfajores, which are a huge part of Argentine culture dating back to the 19th century, are two crumbly biscuits filled with of dulce de leche but you also see them rolled in coconut or covered with chocolate or glazed sugar. The alfajor is the most common snack for schoolchildren and adults alike. There is no ‘right’ time to eat alfajores… any time is the right time to indulge!

Empanadas are a small version of a pasty really, but filled typically with a variety meat, cheese or vegetables. To be honest any combination would work, if you love it, the sky is the limit! Traditionally oven baked or fried, they can be prepared in advance and served as an appetizer, snack or as a meal in their own right.

And chipas… I ate these little cheese buns constantly, usually while sitting in one of their many sunny parks thinking of the rain in London, so it was great to learn how to make them. Especially as they were also gluten free which, unfortunately, is a must for me.

 

As the dough needed to prove for the empanadas we had a chance to wander, which is how I came upon the Draghi Museum, a unique, fascinating view into the family history of one of the world’s most prolific silversmiths.

Señor Juan José Draghi was on hand to show me around the museum, which features all types of silver inlaid Gaucho implements from belts to spurs, whips, knives, mates, bombillas, horse bridles and stirrup work. He also showed us the traditional processes, how the silver is worked and some of the original designs of pieces that were made for heads of state, such as a belt buckle design for President George W Bush while he was in office.

Then it was back to Paula to see how the dough was! Within the hour, we were sat around the table enjoying the delights of our lesson.

I could have spent longer in this beautiful historic setting, an ideal stepping stone to the Pampas and perhaps riding with the Gauchos, or for further travels across to the wine regions of Mendoza’s high altitude Luján de Cuyo and the Uco Valley. I’ll save that for my next visit here!

If you’d like to embark on your own Argentinian adventure, take a look at our Highlights of Argentina and Patagonia Deluxe holidays – or talk to us about tailor-made.

Whale tales

Whale tales

Whale tales

When we planned our family trip to Costa Rica, one key question was ‘where will we have the best chance of seeing whales?’ Tribes’ Alex Neaves recommended the Osa Peninsula, a spectacular region in the south west of the country, combining rainforest with coast – which turned out to be a great suggestion!

We chose to spend five nights towards the end of our holiday at Casa Corcovado Jungle Lodge on the Osa Peninsula. This lovely, welcoming place is perched on the hillside overlooking its own beach and is adjacent to the glorious Corcovado National Park. When I say ‘adjacent’ I mean it literally – the private path through the lodge’s beautiful grounds borders the park and you simply step off the path onto a trail in the park.

The lodge is reached by a boat trip past palm trees, beaches, hill-side houses and colourful landscapes on one side and nearly turquoise water on the other.

We kept our eyes peeled for whales, though in truth I didn’t really know what I was looking out for. Would the ocean be full of whales leaping out of the water, twisting and turning in front of us? Or would we only spot a tiny figure in the distance?

On that particular journey we saw nothing at all…

However, arriving at the lodge more than made up for the lack of cetaceans on the journey there. 

It’s a lovely place, set in gorgeous gardens and surrounded by jungle on three sides and the coast on the other. Howler monkeys whooped and grunted in the trees and a pair of long-married scarlet macaws flew low overhead before settling in a tree for a rather noisy quarrel.

That first evening at Casa Corcovado we began what became our daily tradition – the 4.30pm cocktail hour at the lodge’s Margarita Sunset Point.

This beautifully manicured piece of land has a jaw-dropping view down to the ocean and across to Cano Island and has its own little bar that is open for just an hour each evening, so that guests can enjoy a drink and nibbles as they watch the sun go down.

 

 

I sat, margarita and camera equally to hand, and marvelled at the natural show of colour and light we were being treated to.

Then the barman said ‘Look! Can you see the whale?’

We all gazed down to the water close to the shoreline and I felt frustrated as guest after guest said ‘Yes! There it is!’ while my eyes darted back and forwards across the water. Eventually I made out a dark shape for just a fraction of a second, then it was gone. I think that’s what everybody was exclaiming over… If this was to be my sole experience of seeing a whale it was hardly the jaw-dropping, spine-tingling experience I’d hoped for. But I had seen it. Well, briefly… I think. Then the sunset arrived with full, glorious force, and all thoughts of whales were temporarily forgotten.

 

 

The following day we took the Cano Island snorkelling trip. This is a 45-minute boat ride from the lodge, and we had been told that the guests who did this the day before had seen whales, and plenty of them.

35 minutes into the journey we suddenly veered off course, towards where two other boats were sitting still in the water.

“We took another detour when my son yelled ‘dolphins!”

Then it happened. About 30m away, a black, curved shape, slick with water, slid out of the water then back under the surface, looking like a giant, smooth-treaded tyre being rolled along.  A few seconds later came the tell-tale spurt of water – noisier and higher than I’d imagined, and the ‘tyre’ appeared again. This time with a smaller one alongside!

We were in the presence of a mother and baby humpback whale and it was beautiful. No dramatic breaches, no great thrashes, just gentle movements. Cue slightly red eyes and a few sniffs and gulps all round…

We took another detour when my son yelled ‘dolphins!’.  A large flock of seabirds was circling round in the distance. A group of dolphins were on the hunt, creating a ball of fish – those birds knew where to find a good meal! We were treated to the sight of dolphins leaping out of the water and the birds’ impressive diving ability as, wings tucked by their sides, they hit the water with a precision that would put Tom Daley to shame.

Snorkelling in the clear, warm waters off Cano Island was great fun, with a lovely assortment of colourful fish weaving their way amongst the coral. The lodge’s manager Stephen said that he was going to see if he could hear whale song beneath the water. He dove down about 4m then raised both his thumbs; he could hear it. Unfortunately diving while snorkelling is not a skill I’ve yet mastered. I wasn’t alone in this, but my 20-year-old son was one of those who took the plunge (literally!) and enjoyed the most magical experience, as beautifully eerie sounds echoed all around him. On the way back to Casa Corcovado Stephen pointed out jets of water in the distance as he spotted other whales, and we had another mother and baby encounter.

Two days later, my husband and I took a private boat trip with just guide Cynthia and the boat captain back towards the waters around Cano Island. We had no specific timetable, just two to three hours to hang about on the boat, following any whale sightings that might come up. It was possible that we wouldn’t see any, of course…

 

We stopped en-route to drop some cold drinks off to fishermen in exchange for some of their catch.

A magnificent frigate bird had chosen to make the air above their tiny boat his temporary home, continually circling us and them at a low altitude in search of a free meal.

That day turned out to be one of the most special experiences of our lives.

It was a beautifully still, calm day, bathed in sunshine, the water almost mirror-like at times.

We saw several mother humpbacks and their calves and then, drawn by tremendous splashes in the distance, we honed in on a large male.

For at least 15 minutes we sat, probably only about 20m from him, as he thrashed his huge tail repeatedly, then he rolled onto his side and started bashing enormous flippers from side to side, great plumes of water streaming from them, our boat juddering with each ‘smack’. The noise was incredible, a mighty, thunderous crash that you could hear long before you got close to him.

We were so near that we could make out the barnacles and sandy creatures on his tail. It was immensely powerful, stunningly beautiful and also a tiny bit intimidating.

 

Then, between us and this magnificent creature, appeared another mother and her baby. Our guide stiffened and said ‘sometimes the males can hurt the babies’ but, as if riding to the rescue, five dolphins shot in from the side, swimming around the mother and calf, leaping out of the water in a joyous fashion.

They were so near, I could have leant out of the boat and touched them. The mother whale got so close to us that when her back breached the water the only thing filling my camera lens was her skin. Then, as this incredible spectacle continued in front of us, I looked behind and to the side. Four more whales were there, some breaching, some sending out fountains of water… For the next 15 or 20 minutes, wherever we looked there were whales.

All four of us were silent on the way back to the lodge. There were really no words. We had shared an experience we would never forget. I had been moved to tears several times and even writing about it now makes me emotional.

 

Having started our time at Casa Corcovado barely able to spot a whale directly beneath our vantage point by the sunset bar, I ended it a veritable Captain Ahab; albeit definitely not with whale hunting in mind!  My eyes became accustomed to scanning far out to sea, filtering out waves crashing against rocks from the spray from a blowhole and picking out whales several miles away. My ‘margarita’ sunsets now had a new purpose – whale spotting! Each time I saw one, even if it was at a vast distance, it was a thrill. And the knowledge that for every one I spotted there were infinitely more out there, was just incredible.

We’d return to Costa Rica – and Casa Corcovado – like a shot. An amazing country with wonderful people and with unforgettable landscapes and wildlife. And who knows, maybe I’ll get my courage together and learn how to dive down while snorkelling. I really, really want to hear that whale song…

 

 

If you’d like your own Osa Peninsula adventure, Casa Corcovado Jungle Lodge is included in our 15-day Costa Rica Wildlife Holiday. Or we can tailor-make a holiday in Costa Rica just for you…

All images © Karen Coe

4 good reasons to visit Chile

4 good reasons to visit Chile

4 good reasons
to visit Chile

“The length of Chile equates to the distance between Moscow and Lisbon,” a guide told me, as we stood on Santa Lucia hill looking down at the capital, Santiago, ringed by mountains.

This was my first time in Chile and, though I had some notion of what I was coming for – stunning scenery, good food and wine – the reality was twenty times better than I expected.

I will write more detailed blogs about the country, but this is my initial overview offering my views as to why you should definitely make the journey to this wonderful, skinny country.

01 – Truly awe-inspiring scenery

In a country as long as Chile, you’d expect there to be some diverse and fabulous scenery. I expected some good desert scenery in the Atacama in the north, but this was far more varied than I ever thought possible, with weird and wonderful rock formations, sand dunes, salt lakes, oases, geyser fields … and with the volcanic Andean mountains giving the most perfect backdrop.
In the south, Patagonia is a raw place ranging from miles of windswept, often waterlogged lowlands where sheep are king, to the stunning icefields, glaciers and rock monoliths of Torres del Paine National Park. It is jaw-droppingly beautiful.
I spent less time in the central area, but here you have winelands and lakes, traditional islands and, of course, off the mainland there is also Easter Island. These are more gentle landscapes than those at the country’s extremities, but nonetheless wonderful.

Have a look for yourself.

02 – Diverse activities

In my 11 days in Chile I have hiked up a mountain to watch condors at eye level, and visited remote rocky outcrops to see ancient petroglyphs. I have been horse riding around a glacial lake, and watched in awe as hot water and steam shot out of innumerable geysers surrounded by snow-capped Andean mountains. I have watched the night sky lit up with more stars than I’ve ever seen before, and watched lenticular clouds encircle perfect volcanoes. I’ve met llamas, guanacos, vicunas, vizcachas (which look like rabbits), condors, flamingos, rheas (like small ostriches), caracaras (a raptor), black-necked swans and caiquen (upland geese always seen in couples) – sadly we just missed seeing a puma. I’ve toured a city where street art has become the main reason for visiting, and I’ve eaten great meals and tasted special wines.

03 – Excellent food and wine

Chile is obviously known for its wines and, after an evening’s wine tasting, I now know that I like quite a few of them! What I didn’t know, though, was that the food would be so good. I had some memorable meals here, with, perhaps surprisingly, my standout meal being a beetroot salad starter courtesy of Remote Patagonia hotel in Puerto Natales. It tasted as good as it looked, which was gorgeous.

04 – Great people

Shaking hands with the guide who had just taken us for a magical day in Torres del Paine, he said to me with a serious face, “Just think how brilliant it would have been with a good guide!” Then winked and walked away.
This is just one example of the reason I like Chileans; they have a great sense of humour and don’t take themselves too seriously. They are easy to spend time with, have an infectious love of their country, and they love wilderness (at least many of the people I met).

See anything you like? I hope so. We’d love to make your holiday extra special – you only have to ask!

Magic in the moonlight

Magic in the moonlight

Magic in the moonlight

Green sea turtle eggs, Tamarindo, Costa Rica – © Shutterstock – chrisontour84

Green turtle,Tortuguero in Costa Rica – © Shutterstock – rvb3ns

Lit by the full moon the beach had an eerie beauty, the waves glinting in the moonlight, the sand with a silvery tone.  “She’s coming,” someone whispered, and all heads turned to the shoreline. A dark figure emerged from the white foam and began making its way slowly up the gentle slope towards the flatter land at the base of the fringe of palm trees silhouetted behind us.

Sea water streaming off its back, the moonlight giving it the appearance of mercury, the silent figure continued past us, intent on its purpose. And I felt tears running down my face.

Sea turtle tracks on the beach at Tortuguero National Park in Costa Rica – © Shutterstock – JHVEPhoto

As a child I had been fascinated by a television programme that documented sea turtles swimming thousands of miles to return to the beach where they themselves had hatched, to lay their own eggs. The story was followed to its conclusion – the eggs eventually hatched and the beach was filled with thousands of tiny hatchlings all valiantly trying to make their way to the water, programmed by the same genetic ‘software’ that would one day bring those that survived to adulthood back here again. The tragedy that then ensued, as great crowds of seabirds swooped, picking them off one-by-one, reduced me to tears, as did the narration which informed me that even those that made it into the water had barely any chance of surviving the predators that awaited them.

And now I was standing on a beach in Costa Rica, watching the first part of that story unfold before me and I found it immensely moving. The beauty and dignity of the adult female green turtles, their shells well over a metre in length, was stunning. The silence of the night and the watching small crowd was punctuated by the rhythmic crashing of the waves and the moon lit up the trail left by the turtle, looking like tractor-tracks in the wet sand.

Our guide called us in a whisper over to a site about 20m away where sand was flying into the air.  “Don’t get too close or you’ll get hit”, she warned as we gathered to watch another turtle. This one had finished laying her eggs and was now busily disguising the nest, her large flippers scooping sand over the eggs and filling the large crater she had dug and positioned herself in to lay dozens and dozens of eggs.

I’d imagined that this would be a gentle process but it was anything but. That sand was flying with considerable force and you could hear it clattering when it hit driftwood or fallen coconuts.  It was a mesmerising site. This beautiful, endangered creature doing all she could to protect her eggs and give the offspring she would never see a chance of at least hatching out.

 

 

Green sea turtle covering her nest © Shutterstock – David Evison

The next two hours passed as if in a dream, punctuated by excited whispers as more turtles arrived and crawled out of the sea, some half-flung up onto the beach by bigger waves. Occasionally a red light would wave and we would head over to where another guide was indicating that they had found more action, either a turtle disguising its nest or one laying eggs.

Watching the eggs being laid was clearly deemed the hot ticket of the evening but I kept missing the key moment. Most turtles lay dozens of eggs – as many as a hundred in one clutch –  but the first ones we saw had either nearly finished or had only produced a small number of eggs and, in each case, I barely caught a glimpse.

We had left Evergreen Lodge in Tortuguero National Park at 8pm that evening. It was already dark and the short boat journey that took us to the shore of the lagoon was itself magical, the lights of the village we would visit the next day lit up, giving us glimpses of bars and restaurants and people socialising. Then the boat pulled up and we all disembarked onto sandy ground. The boat headed back to the lodge and our small group, the guide at the front, made our way for a few minutes through the dark forest, with small torches helping us avoid obstacles.

Dressing for the occasion

As instructed, we were all dressed in dark or neutral clothes. It’s important not to wear anything that could catch the turtles’ attention. When they are actually laying their eggs they are in a sort of trance, but before that they can be distracted and are likely to abandon their nest and head back out to sea. Our guide pointed out several large craters in the sand which indicated that exactly that had happened at some point.

Phones and cameras are banned on the trip and I was pleased to see that everybody seemed to have adhered to that. It would have been so tempting to whip out a phone and start filming or taking photographs, but that would have produced just the distraction the turtles didn’t need. Also, it was so much more real, so much more intimate, to simply be in the moment with these beautiful animals, rather than focusing on them through a viewfinder or a screen, distracted by thoughts of how many ‘likes’ the pictures would get on social media.

Torches are also forbidden once on the beach itself, so we were fortunate that the moon was full and the sky clear. The guides have torches with red beams. These are less visible and distracting to the turtles but are only shone on the back of the animals, never on their faces.

 

Green sea turtle eggs, Tamarindo, Costa Rica – © Shutterstock – chrisontour84

Time was now passing and the boat would be returning for us shortly. The guide was conscious that some of us hadn’t seen the magical egg-laying moment and she was as pleased as we were when another turtle was found, mid-stream, so to speak.

The eggs came out in quick little spurts, several at a time. We probably saw two or three dozen in a minute or two. They fall about 30cm onto other eggs from the same batch. All are soft-shelled at this point, so are undamaged by the fall.

It was amazing to see and I felt strangely protective of the life that would develop within those shiny, soft white globes, about the size of a golf ball. I wondered if any of the hatchlings would survive to make it into the water and, if they did, if any would return to this same beach in decades to come and lay their own eggs.

Gentle, vulnerable giants

The moonlight allowed us to really appreciate the size and beauty of the adult females. Green turtles reach sexual maturity between 20 and 50 years of age, so some of these ladies had been at sea for half a century, travelling thousands of miles from here, before making this journey. They will lay several batches of eggs this season.

Their heads are large, their flippers chunky and powerful. Yet you are also painfully aware of how vulnerable they are. They can’t pull their heads in and, in the days when they were hunted for meat, they were a horrendously easy target.

Turtle hunting stopped decades ago in Costa Rica and the turtles and their nesting sites are now protected – there are over 40 of them in the country. The Costa Ricans are immensely keen on protecting the environment and, as our guide put it bluntly, once it became evident that the turtles were worth more alive than dead, even those who once made their living from catching and killing these gentle giants accepted that it was a thing that belonged in the past.

Marine turtles are still vulnerable of course, whether it’s from being accidentally caught in fishing nets or from pollution such as plastic. And, once outside the protection of Costa Rica, these turtles are vulnerable to hunting. The turtles who nest on Tortuguero will head out to various feeding areas in the Caribbean, with many making their way to the waters off the coast of Nicaragua. Turtle hunting is now illegal in Nicaragua but illegal hunting takes place and more than 10,000 are killed each year.

“It cost $40 per person for this tour and it was worth every cent,” I heard an American guest murmur – a sentiment I concur with. The money goes towards turtle protection and conservation.

 

Green turtle, Tortuguero, Costa Rica – © Shutterstock – rvb3ns

The whole experience was a ‘bucket list’ item for many of us and it was every bit as fantastic as I had hoped.

Watching the eggs being laid was indeed great but, for me, the most beautiful and moving moment came when we watched one female, her eggs laid, her nest successfully disguised, make her way back to the water. As she trod her solitary path, her shell now dull in the moonlight thanks to its coating of sand, I thought of her journey back to this, the Costa Rican beach of her birth, brought here by that mysterious inbuilt ‘sat nav’, and of the journey that now lay ahead of her.  When she got to the edge of the water she stopped, letting the waves break over her. She must have stayed there for a couple of minutes and then a much bigger wave arrived, tossing her up into the water as if she weighed nothing. For a second it looked as if she was going to be washed back onto shore but then the water receded, taking her with it.

Our last glimpse was of a dark head before she slipped beneath the moonlit waves and began her long, lonely journey as her eggs lay sheltered beneath the sand.

 

Olive turtle at sunset, Ostional beach, Costa Rica © Shutterstock – Xenia_Photography

Responsible sea turtle viewing

To learn more about this fantastic experience, and how you can do so in a way that minimises the impact on the turtles, read Brad Nahill’s feature on our website.

Track the turtlees!

Since 2000 the Sea Turtle Conservancy has been satellite tagging some of the turtles who nest at Tortuguero, and you can follow their epic journeys on the Conservancy’s website.

Where else to see them

Costa Rica is a fantastic place to see the sea turtles.  Tortuguero is renowned as the place to go – it is the most important nesting site for green sea turtles in the Western hemisphere –  but there are plenty of other options such as the Papagayo GulfNicoya Peninsula and the gorgeous Osa Peninsula, which has lodges such as Casa Corcovado, ideally situated for turtle spotting. Many of our Costa Rica holidays include beach stays that could involve turtle tours – and we can always tailor-make one to your precise specifications to give you the best chance of seeing these wonderful creatures.

Brazil’s Praia del Forte, close to Salvador, is known for its turtle project, with the Tivoli Eco Resort an ideal base.

The Galapagos Islands are a great place to see turtles. You won’t see them nesting, as they do this at night when visitors aren’t allowed onto the islands, but you are likely to see them when snorkelling.

Moving away from Latin America, lodges on Pemba Island in Tanzania can provide access to turtle nesting on Misali Island. The bare-foot paradise of Fundu Lagoon is a fabulous base for this, while the luxurious Manta Resort even has an underwater bedroom. Imagine watching shoals of fish and other marine life – including sea turtles – swimming past your bedroom window!

Turtles tours are also offered in South Africa. The St Lucia Wetland Park on the KwaZulu Natal coast is a world Heritage Site and a wonderful spot for seeing leatherback and loggerhead turtles nesting. You can take turtle tours from lodges such as Thonga Beach and Kosi Forest Lodge.

From bush to bean to cup

From bush to bean to cup

From bush to bean to cup

If you’re a coffee lover, Costa Rica is the perfect place to go! From tiny bakeries to swish restaurants, you’re likely to be served an excellent brew, in a country where that little bean has been a key part of life and the country’s economy since the 18th century. And a tour of a coffee plantation is a great way to enhance your holiday.

“Fascinating – and very pretty…”

Costa Rica is one of the largest coffee producers in the world but a massive amount of the production is done by small-scale plantations – less than 12 acres – and if you get the chance to visit one, do.

It’s fascinating and, if it’s anything like the plantation at Finca Rosa Blanca, it’s also very pretty.

 

The organic plantation at Finca Rosa Blanca

At the end of an absolutely fantastic two-week family holiday in Costa Rica, we had 24 hours at Finca Rosa Blanca, a gorgeous and colourful hotel set in the hills above San Jose, before our flight home.

The warm temperature was a welcome break from the humidity of the rainforest we’d just come from, and the lush gardens were very alluring, drawing us out to wander around and marvel at the mass of butterflies and birds and the views across the valley to the city and the mountains beyond

An added bonus is that Fina Rosa Blanca is an organic coffee plantation – hotel guests can enjoy a ‘happy hour’ of sorts each afternoon when endless supplies of excellent coffee and homemade coffee cake or biscuits are available ‘on the house’. In addition to this irresistible invitation to indulge, the hotel offers coffee plantation tours and, as my sons made the most of the last swimming pool they’d see for some time and my husband turned his camera towards the hundreds of butterflies in the colourful gardens, I headed out with guide Ulises.

We crossed the narrow road from the hotel, through the plantation gates and into what resembled a Victorian garden, full of the sort of exotic plants 19th century horticulturists loved to bring home from their travels. Set on a hill, it’s lush and packed with trees and flowers. As Ulises explained, at Finca Rosa Blanca they ‘farm with the forest’. No pesticides or other chemicals are used, and there is no irrigation system.

Flowers, fruit and birds

The coffee bushes sit in rows in a truly idyllic location, shaded by 60 different species of trees, including mango and avocado, the fast-growing coral trees, lemon and mandarin, while ‘living fences’ created by vast ‘Swiss cheese’ (monstera deliciosa) plants, irises and fleshy beehive ginger all help to shield the precious coffee.

 

 

 

“Banana plants are the site’s irrigation system, being 65% water.”

The coffee bushes themselves have rich green leaves and, when I visited in late August, were full of bright green berries, which will be harvested between November and January, when they are a deep red colour. Ulises told me what when the plants are in flower – in March/April – the entire plantation has a glorious jasmine scent, coffee being part of the jasmine family, and is a sea of white flowers.

I also spotted plantain and banana plants and Ulises explained that as well as providing more shelter and produce for use in the hotel and for the staff, the banana plants have a primary, invaluable, role. They are the site’s irrigation system, being 65% water. He demonstrated by cutting a slice of bark off a banana plant, pulling away a chunk of the translucent pale green honeycomb-like substance that lay underneath. It was dripping with liquid – and a quick dip of my finger and a slightly hesistant taste showed me that it was indeed fresh water.

All these beautiful plants and trees – and the coffee bushes themselves – have multiple functions. Their leaves and flowers attract birds which feed on the insects and, by feeding on seeds, contribute to reforestation. The fallen leaves help keep moisture in the ground and act as a natural form of weed control.

The plantation is also home to some 130 different species of birds and, as we wandered through the verdant, shady rows, Ulises pointed out a richly coloured blue and green motmot, along with the Costa Rican national bird, the aptly-named clay-coloured thrush; its subdued plumage making it the odd one out in a country of brightly coloured avian citizens. We also spotted yellow-breasted, noisy kiskadees, wrens, hummingbirds and a woodpecker with a splash of red on his head.

 

Small-scale production, big-scale taste

At Finca Rosa Blanca the coffee bushes are allowed to grow slowly, developing more oils and flowers and better tasting beans. A six-foot plant is around nine years old and they have a 45-year lifespan but are pulled up after 25 years. Harvesting is done by hand, with the five full-time staff supplemented at harvest time by 20 extra workers. Each worker picks the red berries by hand, putting them into a basket known as a cajuela. A cajuela is a very specific size – it can hold around 12kg of coffee berries – and the workers are paid about $3 dollars per cajuela, and can earn around $30 a day.

Once picked, the berries are put through a peeling machine that squeezes them to remove the red outer skin (which is put to good use as fertiliser) then the peeled berries are soaked in water for 12 hours to remove the sweet, slimy mucilage, after which they are put on simple mesh drying racks and spend 12 days under the Costa Rican sun until completely dry.

The dried beans, still bearing a parchment-like thin skin, are put in sacks and stored unroasted, looking rather like peanuts. Roasting is done on demand ‘little by little’ to maintain freshness and quality. The beans are put into a sorting machine which separates the whole beans from the broken ones, then put in the roasting machine. This is gas powered and surprisingly small – about the size of an Aga.

Roasting is critical to the resulting coffee’s flavour and aroma, and I was surprised to learn that the difference between light roast and dark roast is just five minutes, with light roast taking 10 minutes, medium 12 and dark roast 15.

“Roasting is critical to the coffee’s flavour and aroma.”

In the small production facility, Ulises ground two different types of beans and put them into little bowls, inviting me to smell them. The lighter roast had a strong aroma of citrus, nuts and vanilla, while the dark roast was more pungent, with definite earthy scents of tobacco, leather, cocoa and walnut.  When not but not boiling water was poured into each bowl the scents reduced significantly, though strengthened again when the brew was stirred. I tasted each one, slurping from a spoon as instructed, and the difference between the two was quite marked – particularly the more bitter aftertaste of the dark roast beans.

After that it was time to wander back through the lovely plantation, and into the Finca Rosa Blanca restaurant, where I sat on the terrace in the warm breeze, watching butterflies and hummingbirds dancing amongst the flowers, and enjoying the freshest coffee I had ever tasted. And a piece of cake, of course.

The hotel is just 30 minutes from San Jose airport and I wholeheartedly recommend it for a wonderfully relaxing end to a memorable holiday in this beautiful country. And the coffee tour? It’s a must!

All images © Karen Coe

A day on an Amazon cruise

A day on an Amazon cruise

A day on an Amazon cruise

 

I had been to the Peruvian Amazon a few times, but until recently I’d only ever stayed in a lodge. I had expectations that taking a cruise on the Amazon would be a more luxurious and more relaxing experience, with more time sipping pisco sours in the bar and chilling out in the Jacuzzi, but with less time to actually see the wildlife that I go to the Amazon to see. I quickly discovered on my cruise aboard the Delfin that I needn’t have worried. While there was time to enjoy the luxuries of my cruise boat, the days were far more packed with experiences than I had expected.

Our expert local guide knew the trails incredibly well.

When I met my guide Ericson in Iquitos, he explained that the Delfin has a reputation for keeping its passengers busy. It certainly doesn’t skimp on the luxuries, but it keeps the day full of activities. Passengers can choose to do as much or as little as they want. I was determined to do as much as possible, and after boarding my cruise I signed up to everything I could. 24 hours later, I realised just how busy the days could be.

My cabin on board the Delfin was wonderful, far surpassing the quality of any of the Amazon lodges I had stayed in, but I didn’t have long after I boarded to enjoy the luxuries onboard. The boat set sail along the Maranon River even before our cruise briefing began in the bar, and by the time we had enjoyed a welcome pisco sour and learnt about the activities for the next few days, we were mooring up on the banks of the river and it was time to head out to see the wildlife.

After just an hour onboard, I was back onshore beginning the exploration of the dense primary rainforest and any concerns I had about the amount of wildlife I would see taking a cruise were quickly quashed. Our expert local guide knew the trails incredibly well, and our little group saw anacondas, sloths, tarantulas and even a rare and fearsome bushmaster snake.

By the time I returned to the boat for a quick shower and an excellent dinner, I was very happy with how the day had gone, but there was still time for more. I could not resist the opportunity to join a night boat ride, observing nocturnal birds, frogs and caimans in the guide’s light. By the time I finally got back to my cabin after a long day, I was ready for bed and had no trouble sleeping in my air-conditioned cabin.

 

The wildlife in the Amazon gets up early, and it was no different for those of use staying onboard the Delfin.

After watching the sunrise from the deck of the boat, it was time to set off on an early morning skiff ride through the creeks that feed into the Maranon River. Macaws and toucans flew overhead while pink river dolphins played in the water.

 

While we explored, the boat continued its journey upstream, and we caught up to it in our fast skiffs for a delicious breakfast before heading out again. By now the day had warmed up and the wildlife was quietening down, so we cooled off with a dip in the river, trying to forget about the piranhas and caimans that inhabit the dark waters of the Amazon. Back onboard, there was no point changing out of my wet swimwear, as I had signed up for a morning kayaking trip. Heading back upstream on the skiff, I hopped into my kayak and began the paddle back to the Delfin, pausing to watch the birdlife flitting between the trees that lined the river shore. I was back just in time to have a quick shower and change of clothes before a well-earned lunch.

I had been on the Delfin for just 24 hours and it had been non-stop. Pleased with the amount I had already seen and done, and confident about how much wildlife I was going to see in the remaining time onboard, it was time to finally unwind and have another pisco sour and a siesta.

If you’d like to experience Delfin’s Relais & Chauteux style in one of the most biologically diverse places on earth, contact us – we’d love to help you plan your own Peruvian Amazon adventure!