DID YOU CALL ME A SLOTH? MAYBE IT IS NOT THAT BAD!

Sloth is defined as “a disinclination to work or exert oneself,” and is included in the Catholic Church’s list of the “seven deadly sins”, along with pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, and wrath.  Sounds a bit like a description of my last vacation, how about yours?  Without the wrath. Well, maybe I felt a little wrath when a traveling companion dawdled around and made us miss happy hour sunset on the beach.

Costa Rica sunset

But sloth?  Really?  Is it that bad to feel disinclined to work or exert oneself?  Isn’t that exactly why we go on vacation?  Is being a sloth really that bad? I know I like being a bit lazy at times sitting on the beach just hanging out enjoying the view of Playa Hermosa.

Costa Rica Sloth hanging in a tree

I wanted to investigate this poor creature whose moniker is a synonym for laziness and see if it is really that bad to be a sloth.

Costa Rica is home to two-toed and three-toed sloths.  Hoffman’s two-toed is nocturnal and more difficult to spot.  The three-toed (Bradypus variegates) is the one you are most likely to see during your visit here, so I will focus on him.

The three-toed sloth is easily identified by its three long claws on each limb. Duh!! That’s where the common name comes from!  It has a stubby tail, grayish coat of wiry hair (like a pig’s), extra-long forelimbs, a bright yellow-gold patch between its shoulders, a brownish-black mask across its eyes, and an enigmatic, Mona Lisa smile. Cute but could creepy at the same time.

Sloth wiht a Mona Lisa smile


When I started to look at photos their fur appears to be, well, green?  It is because sloths have algae growing on them.  Like moss on a rock.  Yes, they move that slow—an average of about 5 feet per hour.  I guess I am not really a sloth, I do move faster than this when on the beach. The sloth hosts the algae and the algae reciprocate by providing the sloth with nutrients it ingests by licking its fur. And the grayish green color makes the sloth look just like a clump of dry leaves hanging from a branch—perfect for hiding in the jungle! Hence why they are hard to spot easily. The longer the sloth lives, the greener he gets!

Sloth green gray


The perfect host, the sloth is a slow-moving banquet for hordes of butterflies, beetles, grubs, and mites who likely feed on the algae along with sloth dung.  The sloth has a permanent guest always living on it, it is a certain type of moth who makes the sloth its only home on earth.  Since the moths do not seem to feed or reproduce in the sloth’s fur, it has been theorized that they simply enjoy a free ride in search of mates.  When the sloth mates, the moth’s mate—talk about a double date, but I won’t go there!  Once a week, when nature calls, the moths accompany the sloth to the ground and lay their eggs in the sloth droppings.

The sloth spends its days sunbathing high up in the forest canopy, practicing thermo-regulation much like cold-blooded reptiles do.  Its body temperature fluctuates from 91 degrees F during the day to 75 degrees F at night, more than that of any other mammal.  At night they sleep curled up in a ball to conserve heat since it has so little muscle mass that it cannot shiver to stay warm.  Close to the skin is a layer of short, very fine fur that insulates it against heat loss.  You’ve probably figured it out by now: yes, the sloth spends up to 20 hours a day sleeping!

Sloth relaxing in a tree in Costa Rica


Since digestion needs heat for bacterial activity and fermentation, their low body temperature gives them an incredibly low metabolic rate.  For these docile creatures, the sun’s warmth is indispensable to the acceleration of the digestive process.  Leaves may take up to a month going through the stages of digestion.  They should eat more spicy food!  That would speed things up.

Indeed, these creatures do everything suspended in the treetops—eat, sleep, mate, give birth.   They are ingeniously designed for life in an upside-down world.  Some of their internal organs—liver, stomach, spleen, pancreas—are in different positions than those of other mammals.  From the end of their webbed fingers and toes extend 3” claws that hook over branches and vines and lock so securely that even dead sloths have been found still hanging upside-down.  To avoid a good soaking by a tropical downpour, their hair parts on the belly and grows down around the back–the opposite direction of land-based animals—and the rain runs right off.Costa Rica Sloth

So, is a life of sloth really that bad?  Days spent sleeping and sun-bathing, moving at a snail’s pace, being the perfect host—it sounds like the recipe for a great vacation!

Now, if you could just go to the bathroom more than once a week…

Costa Rica’s National Tree—The Giant, Sprawling Guanacaste

Here in Costa Rica, we have our own version of “Jack and the Beanstalk.” Remember the fairy tale? Jack trades the family cow for magic beans. His angry mother tosses the beans to the ground, and during the night the magic beans sprout into a giant beanstalk. Well, in Costa Rica we have the Guanacaste Tree. It is also in the legume family, and grows to great heights, but not as high as Jack’s bean stalk!

Guanacaste Tree Costa Rica

The Guanacaste tree was named Costa Rica’s national tree in 1959, and it is said its shade is symbolic of the governmental protection of its people.

Costa Rica Flag

The Guanacaste tree’s scientific name is Enterolobium cyclocarpum and is a tree species from the Fabacease or legume family. It grows abundantly in the Pacific lowland of Costa Rica, particularly (and appropriately named) in the northwestern province of Guanacaste. It thrives in the dry tropical forest despite receiving no rain in the region from December to May.

It is an aesthetically pleasing tree. You will often see it growing as a single tree in a sunny pasture. In that setting, its massive, horizontal limbs emerge low on the trunk and extend to form a wide, spreading crown. If you travel Highway 1 heading to Liberia, you will pass under the cathedral-like arches of the majestic Guanacaste trees lining the road between Puntarenas and Las Juntas. In these more forested areas where there is increased competition for light, trees tend to become taller and branching occurs at a higher level than the solitary specimens in the middle of pastures.

Playa Hermosa Guanacaste Costa Rica
The Guanacaste tree is also known as the “Elephant Ear Tree,” and we are about the find out why. In December–many months after the flowers fall–the first green pods appear high in the crown of the tree. They are ruffled-edge disks with the seeds embedded inside in a radial pattern—resembling, well, an elephant’s ear. The pods reach full maturity in February and as they ripen they turn a dark, glossy brown during March and April. People who live near Guanacaste trees can easily tell when that happens due to the loud cacophony of parrots that feast on the fruit in the afternoons. When fully ripe, the pods fall to the ground below, now moist from the first rains of May. The fallen seedpods cannot germinate unless they are cracked open and the seeds are released, a service which is provided by the hooves of the cattle milling around in the shade. The seedpods serve as food for the cattle and other creatures. Of the remaining seeds, the germination rate is nearly 100%, and seedlings grow rapidly—if not devoured by the field mice. The saplings often reach over one meter in height during their first year. These aggressive reproductive characteristics might be beneficially exploited in reforestation projects. However, the Guanacaste tree roots are strong and expansive and damage nearby structures. So be careful not to plant one near your house or pool!

The Guanacaste tree can grow 120 feet tall with its trunk 6 to 7 feet wide in diameter and can live 70 years. Its bark is light gray, with reddish-brown vertical fissures. The leaves are small and feathery, somewhat resembling those of a North American locust. The tree sheds its leaves during the dry season, exchanging those leaves for spherical clusters of white flowers. Guanacaste flowers are very fragrant, and during intense flowering periods (February to March) their sweet, jasmine-like scent perfumes the air.

The word “Guanacaste” is of Nahuatl origin. It is a combination of 2 words meaning “tree” and “ear”, an allusion to the shape of the tree’s fruit or seedpods.

Dry Guanacaste tree seed pods

The seeds are brown and marked with a light brown or orange ring. In Costa Rica, they are used in jewelry making as they are quite beautiful. Green seeds can be boiled and eaten, something I have yet to try. Locals also use the leaves, sap, and bark in traditional folk medicines.

Guanacaste tree seeds made into jewelry

Guanacaste wood is highly prized and widely used in wood-working. The wood is reddish brown in color, lightweight and water-resistant and used to make doors, windows, furniture and even boats! However, you cannot just cut one down to use the wood. The Guanacaste tree is one of many protected species of trees in Costa Rica and permits are needed to cut down even an old dead Guanacaste tree

So, next time you are in Guanacaste take a break in the shade of the sprawling Guanacaste tree—Costa Rica’s giant legume!

TRES LECHES CAKE—IS IT COSTA RICAN?

In Costa Rica, there is one dessert menu item that is an international success: Tres Leches (“Three Milks”). It is a vanilla sponge cake soaked in three kinds of milk: evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk, and heavy cream and topped with whipped cream or meringue. Definitely not for the lactose intolerant

Costa Rica Dessert Tres Leches with berries on top

While Costa Rican food is always fresh and satisfying, it isn’t really a culinary tourist destination, and it is especially not known for its desserts. For the most part that is, well let’s just say, “I will pass on dessert”. Almost every local restaurant offers a pitiful few dessert options, like coconut flan (custard) or ice cream or fruit cocktail. But If Tres Leches is offered, BUY it!!

Is Costa Rica the sole proprietor of this milky delight? Not Really. Tres Leches is popping up all over the world–the Americas, the Caribbean, Canary Islands, and—surprisingly–Albania and Turkey.

Costa Rica didn’t invent the recipe. Tres Leches became popular in Latin America about a generation ago, although liquid soaked cakes have existed in many countries throughout the centuries. There are the sherry-soaked British trifle and Italy’s tiramisu—dripping with coffee and mascarpone—to name just a couple.

Tres Leches Costa Rica

Tres Leches is part of a “long and respectable tradition of [liquid soaked cakes] that extends back through colonial Mexican history to medieval Europe,” reports M. M. Pack who investigated the history of Tres Leches for The Austin Chronicle in 2004. According to Pack, Tres Leches gained momentum in the 1940s when the Nestle Company (the manufacturer of 2 of the canned milks) put a recipe on their cans and distributed it all over Central America. Tres Leches became the cake of choice for Mexican celebrations.

Costa Rica Tres Leches

A quick Google search reveals that everyone has a recipe for this confection, including Emeril Lagasse, Alton Brown, Bon Appetit, Food and Wine, Food Network, The Pioneer Woman, Martha Stewart, and–not to be outdone–Betty Crocker, to name just a few.

There are many ways to tweak and vary the cake’s flavor profile. You can find recipes for chocolate, coffee, eggnog, and cinnamon roll Tres Leches. There is even a shortcut recipe which uses store-bought pound cake and spray type whipped cream. You can even incorporate fresh fruits or pureed fruit into the mix and really make it a tropical treat.

Tres Leches

Haagen-Dazs and Blue Bell introduced a Tres Leches flavor ice cream a few years back. I think those should have been “Cuatro Leches” (Four Milks)??

So, next time you eat at a restaurant in Costa Rica, Ask the server before you order if they offer Tres Leches. If they do make sure to save room for an order of this rich, creamy, decadent dessert called Tres Leches. And if you are adventurous enough to make it on your own, here is a recipe so that you can have a whole cake to yourself. Add a little dark rum to the “milks”—you won’t regret it!

This recipe is copied from allrecipes.com where almost 1000 reviewers gave it 5 stars:

Cake:
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1 cup white sugar
5 eggs
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Soaking liquid:
2 cups whole milk
1 (14 ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
1 (12 fluid ounce) can evaporated milk
1 1/2 cups heavy whipping cream
1 cup white sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Directions:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Grease and flour one 9×13-inch baking pan. Sift flour and baking powder together and set aside. Cream butter or margarine and the 1 cup of the sugar together until fluffy. Add eggs and the ½ teaspoon of vanilla extract; beat well. Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture 2 tablespoons at a time; mix until well blended. Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake at 350 degrees F (175 degrees C) for 30 minutes. Pierce cake several times with a fork.
Combine the whole milk, condensed milk, and evaporated milk together. Pour over the top of the cooled cake.
Whip whipping cream, the remaining 1 cup of the sugar, and the remaining 1 teaspoon of vanilla together until thick. Spread over the top of cake. Be sure and keep cake refrigerated.

Enjoy! Send me a note if you tried to make Tres Leches, I would love to know how it turned out.

LIVING “IN THE ZONE” THE NICOYA PENINSULA BLUE ZONE

Is it possible to live longer by just moving to Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula? One of only five BLUE ZONE on the planet. It might be, if one learns the lessons for living longer from the people in this area who have lived the longest.

Costa Ricas Blue Zone

The Nicoya Peninsula, home to the Liberia International airport and where people live measurably longer lives, often exceeding 100 years. Researchers have identified a group of villages on the peninsula (an 80-mile long finger of land on the Pacific Coast) with a significantly higher rate of longevity than the rest of Costa Rica—and the world, for that matter. They are Santa Cruz, Hojancha, Carillo, Nandayure, and Nicoya.

Do you have to move to, say, Hojancha to live longer? Can you still enjoy a longer life expectancy living in a condo in Playas del Coco, or an ocean view home in Playa Hermosa, just a few miles north of the Blue Zone?

Here is what you can do to have some of the benefits of living in the Blue Zone. I should take my own advice:

Get plenty of sunshine. Regular sun exposure helps your body produce vitamin D for strong bones and healthy body function. Vitamin D deficiency is associated with a host of problems, such as osteoporosis and heart disease. Laying out on the beach all day is too much, and really here the sun is strong you may end up looking like a lobster, however. A healthy amount of sunshine is about 15 minutes on the legs and arms each day. That’s a very easy one to do.

Walk everywhere. Regular, low-intensity physical activity is a must for longevity. Walking, bicycling, gardening, cooking, keeping up the house, taking care of animals and looking after children, etc., has been a big part of the daily routine for these people during their entire life. Well that’s good I fit a lot of these, but I hope not to live to 100 HAHA!

Costa Rica Hiking

Do hard work. Centenarians here have done physical work all their lives. They find joy in everyday chores instead of viewing them as, well, chores or hiring someone else to do them. Guilt here that’s what I do, unfortunately. They say they ‘keep the same schedule as the chickens,’ rising early (5 a.m.) and “roosting” after the sun goes down, around 7 p.m.

Costa Rica Worker

Eat rice, beans and tortillas. Their diet is mostly plant-based with the occasional addition of a small portion of meat. Rice, beans, corn (in the form of handmade tortillas) and green vegetables are staples of their diet. It has been said that the combination of corn (maize) and beans may be the best nutritional combination for longevity the world has ever known. Also, rich, colorful fruits are readily available and high in vitamins and antioxidants. This one is Perfect for me I love all those foods and eat them all most of the time.

Eat the same thing every day. The Nicoyan diet is very repetitive: Gallo Pinto (rice and beans combined) with sour cream or an egg for breakfast; rice and beans with a bit of protein and vegetables for lunch; a tortilla with homemade cheese or a slice of avocado at coffee time. Every single day. Studies show you are less likely to overeat if your diet is repetitive. The reason is obvious: Why overeat at lunch when you just had the same thing in the morning and you will have the same thing tomorrow for lunch? Variety may be overrated but I need variety in my diet! I love all these things but certainly love other foods as well. Give me a big fat hamburger every once and a while, PLEASE!

Have a sense of purpose. These centenarians usually live with their children and grandchildren where support is mutual. They help clean and cook and take care of the animals and children, and in turn receive physical and financial support. They have a “plan de vida”—a purpose in life—that gives them a reason to live and gives them a positive outlook on life.

Have an offline social network. Social networks seem to play an important role in longevity. Nicoyan centenarians get frequent visits from neighbors and, in turn, visit others. They know how to listen, laugh, and appreciate what they have. Key Point is offline, so consider stop reading this and have a talk face to face with a real person. You may actually like it.

Drink the water! Nicoyan water percolates through limestone and is very high in calcium and magnesium, perhaps explaining the lower rates of heart disease as well as stronger bones and fewer hip fractures. I get asked this all the time, “ can you drink the water” with a big smile I always answer “ it’s better than the stuff in plastic bottles that cost an arm and a leg.”

Be spiritual. Persons living in Blue Zones have a strong belief in God. Nicoyans in particular believe that everything that happens is God’s will. Though this may seem simplistic to some, it relieves them of stress and anxiety. If the word “God” offends you while reading this, I can guarantee Costa Rica is not for you.

Unplug. Cell phones and cable TV have only existed in these communities in the last 25 years. Most of the centenarians do not text or use the internet. In many cases, they have lived the majority of their life without electricity and do not drive. The first 70-80 years of their lives have been slow-paced, pastoral and quiet. They have been less stressed throughout their lives than other Costa Rican, even their children and grandchildren. It follows that the current generation of Nicoyans may not live as long as their parents and grandparents.

So when you hear the term “Pura Vida” or Pure Life this is what it is all about

So, there is your guide to living in the zone—the Blue Zone that is!