The Good Life in Costa Rica

Looking for natural hot springs, refreshing rivers, and jungle wildlife, we arrived in San Jose after a several hours extra layover in Texas due to volcanic ash in the air around San José.  The ash was all carefully cleaned from the rental cars, our friend at the rental company smiled as he recounted the mornings’ work.

Driving in Costa Rica is not for the faint-hearted.  Not because of multi-laned, speeding mayhem but due to the narrow, winding roads where lanes come and go without warning and there always seems to be walkers of all ages unconcerned by the traffic passing within inches of them.  Our introduction to driving was with Friday night traffic as we made our way to Quesada for a couple of nights at the Termales del Bosque.  We awoke the next morning to breakfast on the patio before heading to the hot springs via a trail through the forest.  To our surprise, besides us, the visitors that day were only a handful of local families and couples. Less than 24 hours into our trip, and we’d already settled into the “good life.”

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Continuing our circular drive, we went northwest to La Fortuna.  We stayed at Arenal Oasis Eco Lodge & Wildlife Refuge, a paradise owned by the family of David’s friend.  The cabins provide a jungle retreat from the daily rain showers and the perfect place to hear the chorus of animal calls each afternoon.  On our walk to breakfast, we passed by a neverending line of leaf-cutter ants carrying their leaves to some unseen destination. 

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And the best part doesn’t happen until nighttime!  On their property, you can take a small group guided night walk to see frogs, snakes, iguanas, and centipedes. (Our guide, Gustavo, was the perfect blend of expertise and charm!)

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Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park

As teachers, we always like to visit schools on our adventures.  When we stopped by Escuela Nuevo Arenal, we spoke with the principal about the school and its importance to the community.  He even showed us the forested area behind the school where students are labeling all of the different types of plants.

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Afterward, a walk around the sleepy town then a delicious tostada in a “soda” where David took on the local kids in a game of fuzzball.

On our way to our most northern stop at Rio Celeste, Parque Nacional Volcán Tenorio, we debated whether to detour to Nicaragua.  (We decided to wait for another trip…..a Nicaragua blog for the future!)  Rio Celeste is one of those natural phenomena that seems like a dream even while you’re seeing it.  The sky-blue water is so mesmerizing that a folktale says that this is where God washed his brushes after painting the sky. The trek even during the dry season was fairly muddy and steep at times, but it was definitely worth the effort.  When we first reached the enchanted destination, there was a 4-inch fluorescent blue butterfly dancing above the water. Breathtaking!

A video we took on the hike to “teñideros” (the place where the water color changes).

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Typical “casado” lunch with rice and beans after the hike at Posada La Amistad.

Luckily, we had the perfect place to rest at the Sueño Celeste Bed and Breakfast.  The owners have created a relaxing retreat where you can feel the blend of their Belgian organization and hospitality with the “Pura Vida” lifestyle.  The individual lodges hold beautiful beds draped in mosquito nets and terrific open showers. There is a small pool and hot tub for relaxing after a tiring day and a homemade breakfast to start each day while watching the birds or asking the owners for recommendations about sightseeing options.

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A quick detour off of our driving circle took us to Jacó and Manuel Antonio National Park.  Because the number of people and the general feel of a tourist trap, this was our least favorite part of the trip although Holly did get to see her first sloth in the wild!

While this destination was not as rewarding as the others in Costa Rica, the accommodations were exquisite!  We had the boutique hotel, Forest Hills Suites, all to ourselves with the exception of one couple….and they were leaving for a night out when we arrived!

Costa Rica surely calls to all of those wanting to slow their pace and live in the moment.  After having a taste of the flora and fauna, you wonder about all of the natural treasures that you haven’t yet discovered there.  Then, you realize, you have the perfect excuse for a return visit!

High Stakes Winners in Macau

Having just visited Hong Kong, a one hour trip by TurboJet ferry across Victoria Harbor provided us an opportunity to visit the prior Portuguese colony of Macau.  I first recognized its colonial past while walking on its black and white sidewalks. The small square stones laid in patterns of waves, anchors and stars were identical to those in Lisbon that chewed up my suitcase wheels on the hills to an AirBnB.

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The Portuguese left other remnants such as street names and buildings that would be at home in southern Europe.  These treasures are found in the Historic Centre of Macau which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  

Walking its streets you feel a European vibe with the cobblestones, architecture, and, of course, an abundance of catholic churches.  However, the apartment buildings with aging, small balconies towering above yield a constant reminder of its Asian locale.  

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From our hotel, The Rio Hotel, a steep 20-minute climb up dangerous portions of roads without sidewalks led to the Guia Lighthouse.  This was the first modern lighthouse on the Chinese coast and today it is used as the GPS location for Macau.  At its side, The Cathedral of the Lady of the Snow displays some restored frescoes which are interesting but not spectacular.  As with many places we visited, we watched the Chinese tourists taking selfies with friends here. As meticulous as any Western teenagers, they try all of the possible backgrounds and snap as many photos as possible to get that one great selfie.  

One of the premier Portuguese influences we experienced was the food!  We lunched at Dom Galo our first day in the city.  The thick, book-sized menus included pictures of each selection.  Although difficult to decide, we were delighted with our choices shown in the photos below.

During another lunch, we savored traditional dim sum at 台灣老舖美食 which means Taiwan Delicious.   David tried the pork-filled dumplings (with a side plate of pig ears) while the dumplings for the pescatarian were filled with crab and, surprisingly,  soup. Although the food was outstanding, one of the best parts of the experience was sharing our 4 person table. The first young couple was not so sure about their tablemates.  The next graciously gave a very long explanation in Chinese when I asked “Soy sauce?” while pointing to one of the bottles on the table.

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For dinner one night, the cozy European setting of Vinha provided a relaxed and elegant atmosphere.  This is where we found the Portuguese meal that we want to recreate at home.  A layer of thin-cut fried potatoes is topped by a stir-fry of cod, onions, green peppers, and scrambled eggs. The blend produced the perfect balance of simplicity and flavor.

Macau is a gambling haven and Chinese tourists visit here for its multitude of casinos and the exclusive shopping.  In this aspect, Macau is like Las Vegas on steroids. There are mega casinos such as the Galaxy Macau and The Venetian Macau which dwarf those on the Vegas strip.  Inside, the casino areas are packed with gamblers betting at blackjack, poker, and slots as well as games unfamiliar to us.  Other entertainment includes incredible swimming facilities like the world’s largest rooftop wave pool, full-sized cinemas, and Vegas type shows in addition to a varied selection of restaurants. Based on the quantity of bags that we saw, the Chinese visitors here take in not only the gambling but the shopping as well. Versace, Dior, Armani, Tom Ford, and Channel were always busy with patrons as were hundreds of other designer stores.  

Macau delivers a remarkable perspective of how the sharing of cultures produces a distinctive atmosphere.  Although we didn’t place even a single bet, we feel like high stakes winners having collected memories of cobblestone pavers, Old World food, and bright casino lights.  

4 days in Hong Kong

We couldn’t have picked a more ideal location than Hong Kong to begin a blog about the alchemy of combining cultures since the East and the West united here long ago.  

We arrived on Easter morning, tired but ready to explore.  In the well located City View Hotel, there were guests enjoying Easter brunch with their families.  Around the city, families explored the Flower Market, the Bird Market and listened to karaoke in the streets.

While walking down Shanghai Street, a stand with Takoyaki octopus balls beckoned us.  This Japanese street food is filled with octopus, tempura scraps, pickled ginger and green onion and covered with sweet, tangy sauces squirted from bottles by ladies chatting with one another. See how they make them here:


Of course, the fun part of street food is eating with a stick while walking down a narrow sidewalk lit by a myriad of neon signs!

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To our surprise, the next day was also a public holiday to continue the long Easter weekend. With fewer people out, the city felt like our own. An early morning trek up Victoria Peak was capped by an hour walk around the loop trail atop.  Don’t believe the naysayers…you don’t want to miss this unique perspective of Hong Kong! 

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Hong Kong Park was filled with surprises.  For a park inside one of the world’s largest cities, it felt removed from the busyness.  The aviary has some beautiful and unique birds and it’s cleaner than our house thanks to a routine of hosing everything down multiple times per day. This was our introduction to all of the Chinese who work to maintain cleanliness whether in a park like this or raking leaves at a public square or temple.

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Traditional Chinese lunch at Tsui Wash Restaurant with fishball soup with fish cakes, shrimp and seaweed noodle dumplings, pork cartilage with chives soup and milk tea.

At the Mo-Man Temple we were warmly welcomed to visit.  One teenage boy offered a bamboo incense stick in smooth English. The incense inside the small temple created a mysterious ambiance although the smoke stung the eyes.  Of the temples we visited, this one felt the most alive with the nonstop praying and incense burning of the devout.

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A day trip by bus to the New Territories gave us a chance to see what Hong Kong holds outside of the city.  We took the metro to Tung Chung then Bus 23 to Ngong Ping. An early arrival assured us a chance to see the Po Lin Monastery before the Ngong Ping 360 brought cable cars full of tourists.  A sweet lady in robes took some photos of us by the temple. She even encouraged us to stand in front of the open door of the photo restricted area of the altar.  With a loud and stern voice, a female security guard quickly cut short our hopes for getting our photo with the three bronze statues of Buddha inside. The sweet lady in robes gave us a quick smile with laughing eyes before we turned our separate ways and walked away.

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We started to walk the Wisdom Trail beside the monastery but were discouraged by the poor maintenance and buzzing mosquitoes.  We opted for a Coke while trying to avoid being watered by the gardener wielding his hose. At 10 A.M. we were second in line to climb the 268 steps to see the Big Buddha.  

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Next, Bus 11 took us to the fishing village of Tai OWith houses built on stilts, market stalls with vendors (of course!), and chanting monks with incense, the village gives a taste of more rural life.  David’s favorite part…grilled octopus on a stick!

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Another early morning start to beat the crowds to the Ten Thousand Buddhas Temple. Although it officially opens at 9 A.M., you can walk the 400+ stairs lined with golden Buddhas before this time.  In fact, we entered the temple areas prior to opening time without any resistance. Our visit coincided with the Ching Ming Festival where families honor their loved ones by bringing gifts to their place of final rest.  Inside the columbarium, the walls are lined with boxes that resemble a bank’s wall of safe-deposit boxes.  When the outside door the small box is opened, a picture of the loved one is revealed while inside their ashes are preserved.  We were able to watch several families making offerings of incense and oranges in this touching remembrance.

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Lunch in Sha Tin at MeokBang Korean BBQ & Bar. Set price menu with salad, appetizer (spicy but not sure what it was!), grilled chicken with rice omelet with egg, and vermicelli rice noodles with seafood. Great lime and ginger drinks!

Four days in Hong Kong gave us a small taste of this amazing place.  Happily, the fusion of East and West results in an intact and unique Eastern culture with some Western spice sprinkled in.  We were thankful for their command of the English language (and English signage!) and we’re still unsure which way to look when crossing the street!