THE DREADED ANNUAL TRIP TO RITEVE

So, today you have an appointment to do something painful, and because the dentist isn’t available to do a root canal, you are taking your car to Riteve for its annual inspection.

Costa Rica RITEVE

Riteve stands for Revision Tecnico Vehicular. Cars are required to undergo inspection once a year, and taxis twice a year. It can be a nerve-wracking and frustrating process—first of all, because you don’t know what they are going to find, and secondly, because they are giving you hurried instructions in Spanish, which you may or may not understand. Riteve has a website that you can switch to English by clicking on the little US flag in the upper right hand corner of the home page. The instructional videos, however, are not translated, but a lot can be figured out by watching them.

To make an appointment go to the website www.rtv.co.cr/en/ or call 905-788-0000. There are 13 inspection stations in the country plus 4 mobile stations, so you will likely choose the one nearest you. How do you know when to get the inspection done? Check the last digit of your license plate. So if it is 3, then you have to get your appointment sometime during the month of March, a 6 means June, and so on.

Riteve

You can take anyone you like with you to the inspection, keeping in mind that any small children should be in appropriate car seats. If you are new to the country and do not speak Spanish, you might want to pay a local that you trust to accompany you. Some take their mechanic.

When you arrive, park your vehicle and go in the office. They will ask to see identification (cedula or passport), driver’s license, and car title, and you will pay for the inspection. The current rates are posted there, but the price is running around $22 for a car.

From there you will pull your vehicle into one of 6 lines and enter the inspection stations. There you will move forward through about 6 inspections stations, each with it’s own objective. The first stop is a basic exterior and interior inspection where they will check your headlights, turn signals, brake lights, windshield wipers, horn, tire tread and seat belts.

Costa Rica Riteve

Further stops are over sensors and rollers in the floor and check alignment, emissions, brakes, suspension, and the underside of your vehicle. Technicians at each stop give instructions to turn the wheel, apply the brakes, turn on and off lights, and pull forward.


Sometimes they are a little bit hard to understand—especially the guy in the pit talking over a crackly microphone, which is why you might want to take a local with you. I do every year, I take my secretary with me then treat her to lunch. It is well worth it!! And I understand Spanish, not great but I get by.

After leaving the inspection line, you park and go into a small room where they will give you a printout of your inspection results. The column on far right indicates if a problem is minor, major, or dangerous. There is a box at the bottom left of the page that says if you passed or not. If you did, in the lower right hand corner is a sticker that you tear off and put on the inside of your windshield high up on the passenger’s side.

If you didn’t pass, you have 30 days to make the repair, make a new appointment, and return to the same station for re-inspection. The cost will be 50% of the original cost.

Nearly 50% of vehicles in Costa Rica fail Riteve inspections. Gas emissions and brake failures continue to be the main causes.
Two years ago I purchased a brand new car, I mean the damn thing was just months old when I had to do inspection. I FAILED!!! When I pushed to find out why the technician said I had too much oil in the engine. What does this have to do with Safety?? So, I took it to a local mechanic just down the road, he literally removed 2 cups of oil from the engine. 2 CUPS!! I went back to the Riteve station and had to go thru the whole process again. The ass, yes I called him an ass, saw me coming thru again and made some comment I did not understand. Luckily the 2 cups I had removed was enough to pass the test. I think this photo below is of the guy that failed me.

costa Rica Riteve

Riteve officials report that at least one driver daily tries to cheat. They have a useless hand brake, so they push the pedal while pulling the “brake” so the brake light shows. They gouge out tire tread to make it seem deeper. They have lights held in by tape. They disconnect a motor injector to alter the emissions. They borrow tires to pass the test and then remount their bald ones afterwards. In Costa Rica, everything that is makeshift is called a “MacGyver.” Jennifer Hidalgo, press officer at Riteve, says inspectors are trained to detect the alterations. “What people don’t understand is that their “macgyver” will not work anymore with us and will end up costing them more.”

There are mechanics that have set up shop near the Riteve inspections stations to help you with the quick fix and save you a second trip for re-inspection. Be sure to communicate thoroughly about what is needed and the cost.

Any inspection causes anxiety, and Riteve is no exception. Add to that the frustration that they failed you on something small that you could have fixed right there, like too dark a tint on the window. They don’t tell you anything as you are going along. They don’t encourage interaction, although some technicians are friendlier than others but most act like they want to be someplace else.

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HAVE YOU TRIED THESE COSTA RICAN FRUITS?

We all love the deliciously ripe, sweet mangoes, pineapples, papayas and bananas that we eat daily in Costa Rica. Have you noticed how much better fruit tastes here? It is because we are eating fruits picked at the peak of ripeness, not picked green for exportation.

But maybe there are a few fruits that you have seen in the markets or on menus that are unfamiliar to you. Should you try them? Mostly definitely! Let me introduce you to 4 of my favorite Costa Rican fruits: Cas, guanabana, guaba, and mamon chino.

Cas is a sour guava. It is a small, round fruit about the size of a golf ball and is yellow when ripe. To make a drink with it, wash the outside, remove the stem area, cut it in half and remove any little white worms but not the seeds. Blend with water and strain out the pulp. Add sugar to taste. Fresco de cas is a refreshingly tart drink rich in antioxidants and Vitamin C.

Cas a tangy Costa Rican fruit         Costa Rican Fruits, Cas

Guanabana (soursop) is by far one of the ugliest fruits you will ever see. It is the size of a football (or sometimes bigger), brownish-green in color with brown prickles all over. But don’t be put off by its exterior! Inside is the juiciest, sweetest white flesh. Don’t bother with utensils to process this fruit—tear it open and peel the skin off with your bare hands, and dig the shiny black seeds out with your fingers. It’s absolutely therapeutic—and very messy! You can eat it raw or blend it with water and sugar to make a drink. Dr. Axe says the guanabana has “super healing properties as a high-oxidant food,…may help reduce eye disease…and could potentially kill pancreatic cancer cells.”

Guanabana              Cus Guanabana

Guaba (not guava) is actually a legume and not a fruit, but it is the sweetest bean you will ever eat. It is a long green pod that grows on a tree that you can pry open with your hands. Inside you will discover a row of seeds (beans) nestled in a bed of white cotton—nature’s own cotton candy! Pull that white fluff out and savor it—but spit out the seeds. Because of its slight vanilla flavor, guaba is call the “ice cream bean.” The indigenous people say the guaba has anti-inflammatory, antiseptic and other healing properties. It is mostly just fun.GuabaGuaba opened up

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And finally, I introduce to you the mamon chino (rambutan). This hairy, bright red fruit is native to Southeast Asia and related to the lychee. Though it looks like a sea urchin, its spikes are not sharp at all. Just slice the shell with a knife—or pry it open with your fingers—and you will find a tasty little white grape inside. Pop it in your mouth and chew or suck on it until you are down to the seed, which you spit aside. They are very addictive! I don’t know if it is the punk-rock exterior or that sweet interior, but you cannot eat just one. Buy them by the kilo, eat the whole bag, and you will have met your Vitamin C requirement for a couple of days—plus a little copper, which is good for your hair, interestingly enough.

mamon chino

mamon chinos

 

So, the next time you are in the farmer’s market, don’t be afraid to try one of these unfamiliar Costa Rican fruits. Ask the person selling the produce how you peel, eat and process it in order to avoid the mishaps that come with experimentation. More often than not, they will give you a sample to try. Enjoy, and good health to you!

ALVARADO VS ALVARADO, COSTA RICA’S PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION

On February 4, Costa Rica held its presidential election. Thirteen candidates hoped to charm an electorate. Voter turnout was at about normal levels, although 34% of voters stayed home. Political analysts consider the election “atypical,” saying that Costa Ricans felt they could not fully back any of the candidates and, instead, simply chose the lesser of the evils. Previously powerful parties fell as rookie parties rose.

Costa Rica's Presidential Candidates in a debateWhen the voting was over and the ballots were counted, 2 candidates surnamed Alvarado had the most number of votes: Fabricio Alvarado, 43, of the National Restoration Party had 24.8%, and Carlos Alvarado,38, of the PAC (in Spanish – Citizens Action Party) had 21.6%. In third place was Antonio Alvarez Desanti of the Liberation Party, who conceded. Neither of the leading candidates garnered 40% of the votes, as mandated by law to win the election, so a runoff election will be held 2 months later on April 1, 2018.

This election was not about the economy, although some think it should have been. The central government’s debt has grown to almost 50% of the GDP. Many feel that if the problem of government spending is not tackled immediately, economic growth will fall and unemployment will climb from an already high percentage rate.

Instead, the presidential election turned out to be about cultural and religious issues. The front-runner, Fabricio Alvarado, is a former journalist, evangelical preacher and congressman whose campaign platform is “pro-life” and “pro-family.” He was a dark horse candidate up until January 9, 2018. On that date, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ordered Costa Rica to modify its laws to give same-sex couples the same rights that heterosexual couples enjoy, effectively legalizing same-sex marriage. A poll revealed that two-thirds of Costa Ricans oppose the Court’s ruling. The ruling and the popular opinion were “like a godsend” for evangelical candidate Fabricio Alvarado, accordingly to political analysts. Two days after the court decision he went from 3% to 17% support in the polls, replacing the right-wing populist candidate Juan Diego Castro.  Castro had led in the polls for many months after promising to withdraw Costa Rica from the Inter-American Human Rights System.

Enter PAC’s Carlos Alvarado. As the only candidate that welcomed the opinion of the Court, young progressive voters rallied to support him. PAC is the political party that backed current President Luis Guillermo Solis, although Costa Rican law required him to renounce the party once in office (neither can he express his voting preference). But scandals have rocked his administration and weakened the party’s incumbent lead.

The support of the two winning parties was very much drawn along socio-economic lines. Generally speaking, Fabricio Alvarado won in the outlying, more rural districts, while Carlos Alvarado led in the more urban and metropolitan districts. Put another way, the Liberation Party is more blue-collar, and the PAC white-collar.

“The Costa Rican elites have excluded a part of the population, and we now see that evangelical churches have been fruitful, working for more than 30 years with abandoned communities that have educational and labor instability or violent situations,” according to Laura Fuentes, an expert in the sociology of religion and researcher at the National University. “The churches are there all the time, working with their members, and are often connected to an international network that has economic resources. The churches don’t just visit their communities during a campaign. They live there.”

Fabricio Alvarado preaches “prosperity theology” which teaches that success (read: financial) comes with being a good Christian. To me, that is just wrong using religion as a means of political gain.

So, now the two dueling Alvarados have 2 months to tweak and strengthen their platforms. Some analysts fear the campaign ahead will polarize even further around religious matters and leave out pressing “earthly” topics such as the fiscal reform.

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THE FLIP SIDE OF “PURA VIDA’

As a visitor or resident of Costa Rica, you often hear a local (Tico) greet you with “Pura Vida”. They use it to say hello, goodbye, or to let you know everything is cool, OK. It is their way of letting you know they don’t stress the small stuff.

Costa Rica Pura Vida

It is said that the term actually came from a 1956 Mexican movie titled Pura Vida! The main character is an optimistic sort despite negative circumstances who repeats the words “pura vida” throughout the movie. The phrase caught on it Costa Rica because it perfectly expresses the Tico’s optimism and easy-goingness. They are a non-stressed, less litigious people.

You will enjoy that attitude the minute you land and all through your visit. Costa Ricans are endlessly patient with us as we struggle with their language or we need to stop at yet another souvenir store. They will never rush you from your table at a restaurant. You could literally walk up to a house, knock on the door, and ask for a cup of coffee and the lady of the house would be happy to serve you. It is a beautiful quality.

an image of Pura Vida

Until you want to get something done quickly or efficiently. Then it is at odds. In the U.S., the cornerstones of customer service are speed and efficiency. They are not in Costa Rica. They want to serve you, but efficiency, while it feels great to gringos, feels cold to Ticos. One time when I was in the States I renewed my driver’s license (at the local revenue office) and my passport (at the post office) in a ½ hour. It was a satisfying experience for all involved. Generally speaking, Ticos would not have enjoyed it.

What they like is for everyone to get along, and for the transaction to be friendly and personal, even if that means going about it really slowly. They are always in easy-going mode and expect you to be. Getting mad or demanding is a sure-fire way to slow things down—maybe not that time but certainly the next. And Ticos often will go the extra mile for you, but not if you demand it.

Image of the words Pura Vida

You can’t expect “easy-going” whenever you want it and efficiency when you demand it. Costa Ricans do not have a double standard and you shouldn’t either. This is not a made-to-order country where everyone is exactly what you want or need all the time.

At a bank I have been in a line with 25 other persons, and watched 4 of the 6 tellers going on lunch break, slowing the progression of the line to that of a glacier—about 4” every thousand years. You look around for support in your outrage, and you realized you are alone. You are the only one who cares. Unless, of course, there are other gringos in the line.

people standing in line

One time I went to immigration to pick up my residency which was supposed to be ready. After waiting a couple of hours in line, some pronunciation of my name was called. I was informed that they could not give me my residency unless I had my passport along in which a stamp would prove my entrance into the country a few months before. They had a record of my departure, but not of my arrival. I said, “You need proof of my return to Costa Rica?? Tah dah! Here I am! Right in front of you.” They said they had no record of HOW I returned to the country—air, land or sea. I pointed out that they had a record of my mate returning to the country by plane on the date in question. I asked them if they thought my mate had flown home, but I had taken the bus down through Mexico and Central America, swimming across the San Juan River between Nicaragua and Costa Rica, and then hitch-hiking the rest of the way home. The man just stared at me. And I was getting angry, which was close to stopping the process all together. More than that, I was using sarcasm, which is lost on almost all Ticos, rendering it completely ineffective. So a few days later I meekly stood before them with my passport and its telltale stamps, and I was handed my renewed residency.

Here’s the rules: 1. No sarcasm; 2. Never get angry or demanding; 3. Don’t be in a hurry–no one else is.

If you can remember those 3 rules most of the time, you will love living in Costa Rica most of the time. Pura Vida!

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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…

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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!

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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.

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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!

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MARIMBA–“WOOD THAT SINGS”

In perfect harmony with the relaxed tropical location, its smooth, subtle rhythm accompanies the palm trees swaying above it. Across town its toe-tapping beat keeps time with the pace of the village square. In San Jose’s concert hall, it performs a classical composition alongside its peers in a symphony orchestra. Which instrument boasts such versatility? It is the marimba–“wood that sings”!

Marimba being played in Costa Rica

The first time I saw one was in the back of a pickup truck with five guys holding on to it. I was thinking what the heck is that thing. I was driving to Sardinal, a traditional Costa Rica town just 7 miles from the beaches of Playa Hermosa, to play a round of golf at Vista Ridge Golf and Country Club.

So, I followed the truck for a bit as I was really curious as to what was that strange looking thing. When it arrived at the town square, I watched six guys remove it from the truck and move it towards the center of the park. Within minutes the most beautiful sound started coming from it as one gentleman was tapping away on it with long sticks that looked like it had cotton balls on it. With out really knowing what it was I had to do some research.

The marimba is a type of xylophone and a member of the family of percussion instruments. What determines the marimba’s characteristic sound? The materials used in construction, the size and shape of the keys or bars, the resonators, the choice of mallets, and the style of the musician.

Three men playing a Marimba in Costa Rica

The keyboard consists of graduated wooden slats called “bars” connected by a tight, thin cord and suspended above a wooden or metal frame. Rosewood, renowned for its resonant quality, is the wood of choice for the bars. While the number of bars varies from 32 to 78, the most popular marimbas have a 4 1/2- to 5-octave range including both diatonic and chromatic scales (corresponding to the white and black keys of a piano, respectively). To assign a specific note to a bar, a hollow is carved out of its underside. By gradually enlarging this concave cavity and adjusting the length of the bar, the desired note is attained. The deeper the hollow, the lower the note; the shorter the bar, the higher the note. This tuning process can be custom-tailored to the preferences of the musician/owner.

Suspended vertically below each bar is a tube called a resonator, which acts as an amplifier. In traditional marimbas they are made of cedar or cypress, chosen for its flexibility and natural resistance to insects. These wooden resonators have a little hole at the lower end called a “navel”, the perimeter of which is coated with wax and then covered by a tissue-thin membrane of dried pig intestine. This membrane vibrates when the note is struck and improves resonance.

The wood bars “sing” when struck by the mallets. To make a traditional rubber-tipped mallet, sap from a rubber tree is smeared on a flat surface as if it were thick paint and left to dry in the sun. The rubber is then cut into thin strips and wound around a core attached to the end of a wooden shaft. Mallet heads can also be made of yarn or cord. By adjusting the core and winding process, a large variety of timbres are possible. Generally, the softer mallet heads are used for the lower tones and the harder heads hit the high notes.

Marimba players–called “marimbistas” in Spanish–perform alone or in groups of two or three. Using multiple mallets, each musician strikes the notes that form the chords of the melody, harmony or bass. It is fascinating to watch the speeding mallets of the marimbistas–their movements are a blur, like the beating wings of a hummingbird.

A wide range of musical styles can be played on the marimba, from classical to popular. Many countries have their own favorite rhythms, such as Costa Rica’s “tambito”. On some occasions the marimba performs as a solo instrument; other times it is joined by other marimbas of varying sizes. More often than not, the marimba is accompanied by guitars, drums and other instruments. Commonly these marimba bands are family-based groups who keep the tradition alive from one generation to the next.

It is difficult to pinpoint the birthplace of the marimba. While many countries have native xylophone-type instruments, some believe the primitive marimba was born in South Africa where Zulu mythology tells of a goddess named “Marimba” who made an instrument by hanging gourds below wooden bars. It is believed African slaves recreated the design upon arrival in Latin America during the 16th and 17th centuries.

In Costa Rica, traditional marimba makers are sometimes called “marimberos.” Theirs is an empirical knowledge, since there are no schools here that teach the skill. In small shops next to their homes, artisans often work alone and at an unhurried pace, at times taking three months or more to build a single marimba.

Would you like to buy one? Due to the high price of rosewood and the labor-intensive craftsmanship, the cost of a marimba can be prohibitive, ranging from $1,800 to $15,000–as much as the cost of a piano. But don’t despair! A well-made and maintained marimba will not wear out, so a used one may be as good as a new one–and more affordable, too!

From the village square to the concert hall, the almost music box-like sound of the marimba always draws a crowd. Mellow and at the same time energetic, it is impossible to resist the music of the versatile marimba–“wood that sings.”

Group of Marimba musicians in Costa Rica

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COSTA RICA’S BLUE-PLATE SPECIAL, “Casado”

“I’m starving!” you say after a long morning playing at the beach in front of your condo in Playa del Coco. Maybe it is the sea air, or the hot sun, or all the fun activities available to you every day, but in Costa Rica you get HUNGRY. The gnawing kind. You crave a variety of freshly prepared food in great quantities, and you want it FAST. So head to a Soda for a Casado.

Example of a Costa Rica Casado
Good Food at a Cheap Price

You know you want to try a Casado.  You have heard of it, right? The Casado is Costa Rica’s “blue-plate special.” It can be ordered in almost any restaurant or “soda” (café)—even if it isn’t on the menu. It is always the biggest plate of food you can get for the least amount of money.

When you order a Casado, you will receive a generous portion of several different dishes. Your Casado meal will always include a generous serving of rice and beans—usually black beans—and a portion of either beef, pork, chicken or fish. Or you can substitute an egg. You choose your protein. And there will always be fried, ripe plantains (Maduros). Also, you will be served a green or pasta salad. The other side dishes vary from restaurant to restaurant; they may include avocado, french fries, fried cheese (those two words should always go together!), corn tortillas, or a picadillo. The word “picadillo” comes from the Spanish word picar, which means “to mince” or “chop”. So it is a dish of finely chopped vegetables cooked with a small amount of meat, of which there are many varieties–all of them delicious. Be sure and ask what the particular casado you are ordering contains; substitutions are usually available.

Perfect meal in Costa Rica

Why do they call it a Casado? The word casado means “married”, and since it is in the masculine form, it refers to a married man. If you ask a Tico where it gets its name, the answers will be as varied as the plate itself! Some say the dish “marries” several other dishes together. Others say it is what married men eat at home. This latter definition is probably closest to the truth. According to Costa Rican culinary expert Marjorie Ross Gonzales, the Casado was born in the early 1960’s when family heads migrated to the capital city, San Jose, to take advantage of emerging economic opportunities (read: jobs!). These men missed their wives’ cooking and began to urge the local restaurant owners to serve them dishes like the ones they had at home. The generous portions all served together on one plate were just like eating at home! So the dish became the one requested by the Casado—the married man, lonely for home and his wife’s cooking.

Costa Rica cuisine is a blend of Native American, Spanish, African and other ethnic groups. The casado is representative of all these: the rice from Spain, the beans from the indigenous population, and the plantains from Africa. Additionally, Italy is represented in the pasta portion.Costa Rica Traditional Meal

Is the Casado a healthy choice? Generally speaking, yes! Composed of protein, carbohydrates, and vegetables, it can be very nutritionally balanced. It is also rich in vitamins A, B, C, and E, as well as potassium (the plantains) and fiber (the beans). It can be low or high in fat depending on the cook that prepares it, so the casado may not be good for your diet if it is shiny with oil. And, as always, go easy on the salt!

When in Playas del Coco a good place to order a Casado is Soda Los Pelones, just two doors down from the Banco National the public bank. “Excellent food, friendly people” and a choice of many different entrees. And, as expected, it is a “Cheap Eats” category restaurant. Win, win, win. What to know where to eat in the Playa del Coco or Playa Hermosa area, just ask me. I live in Playa Hermosa and get around. It also helps I am a retired chef, so I think I know what I am talking about.

Great Tico Restaurant
My Favorite Soda in Playa Del Coco

So, next time your stomach screams, “I’m hungry”, find the nearest soda and ask for the Casado. You will be filled and satisfied by this mini-buffet of Costa Rican cuisine!

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