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!

Curious Elephants and a Taste of Honey

Curious Elephants and a Taste of Honey

Curious Elephants and a Taste of Honey

Christine MacDougall

Africa Travel Consultant for Tribes Travel.

Last November, I was a very fortunate lady and travelled to Botswana. Like everyone who visits new and exciting destinations, there were favourite moments. The slight catch is that there were so many I can’t list them all, but I can give you a small insight.

“‘A very close encounter with a large bull elephant while on a foot safari”

CHRIS MACDOUGALL

  • A helicopter flight with the doors removed flying over the Linyanti Marsh.
  • A very close encounter with a large bull elephant while on a foot safari.
  • A long overdue sighting of not one but two honey badgers closely followed by an all-singing, all-dancing (literally) candle-lit bush dinner.

From the small plane I travelled in from Johannesburg to Maun, the land below constantly changed and only from the air did I grasp the enormity of what lay below me. I just loved the fact that a land so large has so few people in it.

I lost myself in Bots this time, mainly emotionally. Why you might ask? Well, I am not one for spending endless hours sat on my bum in a vehicle, I was itching to get out on foot. It’s not often I am stumped for words, and at times I was completely unable to string a sentence together. No human nonsense to be seen, at one in the wild, and I could be there, just me, nobody else around (except of course for my trusty tracker and guide). I loved the smells, the small things, the sounds of chattering birds – even the essence of carcass or poo has a sense of authenticity and truth. I felt alive. Botswana is stunningly beautiful, with heart stopping experiences to be had. There is an astonishingly high number of predators and prey, birdlife is superb, and the guiding outstanding. I was hooked by the guides’ enthusiastic and genuine love of nature.

“The ele was a long way off but was quickly making his way across the plain towards the river. It was clear he was coming our way.”

CHRIS MACDOUGALL

A 3.5km walk at a slow speed (due to the heat) delivered a hyena den complete with three sleeping females. We got incredibly close before they woke up. We detoured around a large herd of buffalo, saw countless raptors and lots of browsing giraffe. My walk was completed with I have to say a heart in the mouth experience: a close and personal meeting with an incredibly relaxed bull elephant. Dutch, a very experienced bush guide, and I spotted the ele almost at the same time. The ele was a long way off but was quickly making his way across the plain towards the river. It was clear he was coming our way. Dutch had to make a quick decision and after a very short discussion (something along the lines of ‘do exactly as I say when I say, do not move, don’t take photos as the clicking camera might spook him and DON’T run’) we positioned ourselves behind the only bit of cover there was on the parched landscape – a dead tree which had fallen over. The elephant knew exactly where we were and in the most incredible way, came right up to the tree, put his trunk over the bough and sniffed us. Had I stretched my arm out, I would have touched the end of his truck. But my hand was actually over my mouth in an attempt not to squeak. Meanwhile Dutch was making very gentle clicking sounds to alert our ele that we were there. He kicked a little bit of dust and then moved slowly and gently away towards the river. It was a very precious moment shared with the largest and most gentle land mammal in Africa. I was completely overcome with emotion.

Botswana is home to the largest number of elephants left on the African continent a phenomenal testament to conservation. It is impossible not to see these mighty and majestic creatures on a holiday in Botswana. My trip was not all about wildlife but knowing that these huge yet gentle animals are still here gave me great comfort.

My trip as rounded off with what I thought was just a drive back to camp at dusk. I had pestered Dutch a lot about seeing a honey badger, and suddenly, when we rounded a corner, there in the road was not one but two of them scurrying along the middle of the road. We were able to follow them for about 3 minutes.

Thinking nothing could top this fabulous visit, I spotted a few very subtle lights in the distance and was trying to work out what they were. As we got closer it dawned on me what was happening. The entire camp crew, guides, kitchen staff, waiters and managers had set up the perfect bush dinner with candles placed in sand-filled paper bags. Dutch switched the engine off and we were welcomed by the entire crew singing a few traditional African songs. The perfect end!

“I was completely overcome with emotion.”

CHRIS MACDOUGALL

Jambo Zanzibar!

Jambo Zanzibar!

Jambo Zanzibar!

Beach image © Shutterstock – Kjersti Joergensen

Market image  © Shutterstock – Magdalena Paluchowska

 

It’s been 27 years since I last set foot on the island of Zanzibar and it has changed a lot. I think there was one hotel when I was originally there, and now there are closer to 500! I started off in Stone Town and, with an amazing driver, headed around the island, staying at hotels of different styles and sizes over 10 nights.

Here are my top ten highlights, in no particular order.

Image: Swahili House, Zanzibar

© Shutterstock – pearl_diver

“The Stone Town tour – one of my top ten.”

Best Bed

Everybody needs a comfortable bed! After 15 hours of travel all I wanted was a shower and to sleep. Thankfully The Swahili House in Stone Town was very welcoming. The staff were great, and the bed the most comfortable I slept in for the ten nights.

Stone Town tour

Seeing the Slave Market and the position of the Anglican Cathedral gave me food for thought. Don’t miss this in Stone Town; it’s a chilling reminder of the slave trade. My guide Mohamed was excellent at explaining the history and the impact this slave market had. We also saw the Old Fort, The Palace Museum and the House of Wonders (which was unfortunately closed for refurbishment).

A little monkeying around

The island is home to Black Tail monkeys and Red Colobus monkeys. The Red Colobus monkeys are quite shy. As you drive through or around Jozani forest you get a chance to see them, but in the hotels it’s the Black Tails that cause mischief! Don’t put your drink down as they will try and steal your fruit, don’t leave your rooms open as they will play with the contents of your suitcase and run off with them, and don’t stand under a tree wearing a baseball cap  where they are playing as you may just lose it off your head… as I nearly did!

 

Red Colobus monkeys, Jozani Forest. © Shutterstock – Ralf Liebhold

A true beach paradise

There are some really beautiful beaches on Zanzibar. The west side of the island is less tidal than the east. On the east, the tide goes so far out you can walk to the pink coral reef and look in the rock pools at sea anemone, star fish and octopus waiting patiently for the tide to return. In the south of the island the waters can be a little rough. But in the north, Kendwa has a beautiful beach. The tide doesn’t go too far out so it’s perfect to go to take a swim. Gold Beach House & Spa sits right on this pristine beach, a perfect place to relax and recharge.

A Taste of Zanzibar

All the hotels use local produce to support the farmers and fisherman of the island. At Tulia Zanzibar, there is always a catch of the day on the menu, and the chef certainly does it justice. Beautifully prepared and served, I had barracuda for the first time. While at Fumba Beach Lodge, lobster was on the menu. It’s an additional cost to their half board menu, but be prepared… the biggest lobster I have ever seen arrived on my plate. It would have fed two… but I wouldn’t let it defeat me!

 

 

 

Image: Gold Beach House & Spa, Zanzibar

Image: Tulia Zanzibar

© Shutterstock – Magdalena Paluchowska

 

Image – Tulia Zanzibar

“For a relaxing massage the spa at Tulia Zanzibar came out tops.”

Shop like a local

The main market in Stone Town is Darajani market and close by there is the fabric market. In Darajani everything is for sale. Watch as the locals barter for chickens or fish and vegetables, all sat alongside household good and electronics. Just a five-minute walk away is the fabric market. Head here to buy the traditional Kangas worn by the woman of the island, at a fraction of the cost of those you will see in the resorts. The sounds, smells, colours and choice in these markets will astound you!

Spa time

All the hotels I visited had spas, some small, some large, so of course, in the name of research I had to try out some treatments. For a relaxing massage the spa at Tulia Zanzibar came out tops, for a deep tissue massage I had to award tops marks to Essque Zalu. They found knots on knots that I didn’t know I had. They also offer a unique Masai ritual that is about 2.5 hours long.

Be as active as you want

Or in my case, as inactive as you wish! This island makes you want to forget about TV and being hooked up to technology. There are plenty of places to stroll to. Most hotels offer the opportunity to visit the local villages that they help support through various initiatives, and some offer the opportunity to take a bicycle and head to the village. My favourite for this is The Residence, a stunning luxury hotel in the south of the island, which assigns bikes to every suite. And they have all sizes, for ladies, men and children.

 

© shutterstock – SAPhoto

Feeding the Bush Babies

I knew nothing of these strange tiny creatures with bushy tails, big eyes and big ears, until staying at Matemwe Beach Lodge and wondered what was jumping around in the bushes while I ate dinner. These are shy nocturnal animals but can be persuaded to come and say hello with the offering of a banana or two and at Matemwe Lodge there is the opportunity to see them up close in the evenings. They also like playing in the rafters of the rooms here in the evenings, so don’t be alarmed!

Get away from it all

Across the island there are some stunning properties. At the top of the list is Elewana Kilindi on the north western side of the island and The Residence at the southern end. Gold Zanzibar is beautiful and offers something for everyone, and Tulia Zanzibar is intimate and a fabulous location for couples. But is you want something traditional, that’s a more authentic Zanzibari experience, then Unguja Lodge is the place! Makuti roofs on large airy open bandas that open to the sea or the surrounding forest… No TVs, no local shows, limited wi-fi, this is the place to relax. There’s beach access, diving from an onsite dive shop, a small pool, restaurant and bar and local food. With only six guests when I was there, the menu was put away and the chef cooked to order.

 

Unguja Lodge

My only thought now is where to stay next time I go! This is a great destination for after a safari and highly recommended, but with its location in the Indian Ocean this is a standalone destination, with friendly islanders who just want to please. Until next time Zanzibar, asante sana!

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Let us whisk you away to Zanzibar!

Tribes and our sister company Tanzania Specialists have some amazing Zanzibari itineraries for you to choose from, including a classic, six-day Zanzibar beach holiday

Combining a beach holiday on Zanzibar with a safari adventure on the mainland makes for a fantastic vacation, with the beach element the perfect way to recharge your batteries after the excitement of safari. After all, if you’ve flown to Tanzania, why wouldn’t you make the most of it?!

Safari and beach itineraries include:

And, of coure, we can always tailor-made the perfect itinerary just for you, whether that’s a total chillax-fest on Zanzibar or something a little more active – with or without safari!

 

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

Taking the Cable Car to Kuelap

Taking the Cable Car to Kuelap

 

Taking the cable car to Kuelap

In 2017 Peru opened its first cable car. Climbing up a steep slope, bypassing a winding road, the cable car makes access to one of Peru most important archaeological sites much easier. No, this is not Machu Picchu – the cable car to reach the iconic Inca citadel is still in the planning stages and may never get off the ground. This is Kuelap, the largest city of the Chachapoyas culture in a remote part of northern Peru…

Kuelap – one of Peru’s most inaccessible historical sites.

Chachapoyas means ‘cloud warriors’ in the language of their Inca conquerors, and it is well-earned name. The Chachapoyas culture was around for a thousand years before the Incas arrived, and they built their settlements high up in the cloud-shrouded mountains. Instead of building their capital in the fertile river valleys, the Chachapoyas people built a city on a high ridgeline which dominates the surrounding landscape. At over 3,000 metres above sea level and encircled by walls which still stand up to 20 metres in places, the Chachapoyas people ruled from their stronghold for over a thousand years until the arrival of the Incas. Built a millennium before work began on Machu Picchu, Kuelap remains one of Peru’s most impressive historical sites.

Until the construction of the French-built cable car, it was also one of Peru’s most inaccessible historical sites. The only way to reach Kuelap had been a five-hour hike from the highway that follows the course of Utcubamba River, or a two-hour drive on a winding dirt road that clung precipitously to the edge of the mountain slopes. Now it takes just 20 minutes by cable car from the small town of Neuvo Tingo, just a short drive from the highway. The views along the way are impressive as the cable car climbs over 1,000 metres in altitude, dropping visitors off at a new visitors’ centre just 20 minutes’ walk from the walls of Kuelap.

With the cable car in operation, there has never been a better time to visit. At the moment, there are still relatively few visitors to this remote part of Northern Peru, but that is bound to change. The cable car station in Nuevo Tingo looks like it has been dropped in from space and is largely an empty shell. Spaces are marked out for gift shops and cafes which have yet to open, and there were just a couple of visitors waiting for the cable car when I arrived. However, there is the capacity to take many more visitors to Kuelap, and visitor numbers are increasing rapidly. The ruins of Kuelap hold a unique sense of ancient mystery, often swathed in clouds and overgrown with vegetation. It is worth visiting now while you can have the site virtually to yourself.

We feature Kuelap in our Lost Peru trip – or can include it in a tailor-made holiday itinerary for you.